Eastern Europe: slowing growth?

Something other than Georgia for a change. Via the 8th Circle, here’s a recent article in the Economist about a possible economic downturn in Eastern Europe:

The party is nearly over

After a good run, Eastern Europe faces an economic slowdown

IT HAS gone on splendidly for years, and the party isn’t quite finished yet. For a decade or more eastern Europe has benefited from exceptional (and mostly unforeseen) good fortune. Economic and political stability, including for ten countries membership of the European Union, has boosted investors’ confidence and cut borrowing costs. A big pool of cheap and diligent workers, along with the unleashing of entrepreneurial talents, has produced thriving new private businesses. In most countries, growth rates have been stellar (see chart).

Inevitably, it could not last. Wage costs are creeping up. Labour shortages are biting. Out-of-date infrastructure, such as Poland’s notorious roads, is clogging trade. In several countries inflation is rising. And world markets, both for raising capital and for exporting, are looking tougher.

Well… perhaps. Continue reading

Will the Irish tail wag the Lisbon dog?

It’s shaping up to be an important week in Ireland for the prospects of Treaty of Lisbon ratification.   As EU-watchers know, Ireland is the only country planning to ratify the treaty by popular referendum (although events in Poland could add a referendum there too).  While the treaty should in theory have little problem passing, there’s a history of hiccups going back to the initial rejection of the Maastricht treaty by the public before they were persuaded to reconsider.  But the backdrop is getting more ominous for this one.

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Bloggers for Bronislaw

It is simply intolerable that a EU member state’s government should try to dismiss an MEP elected by the people. I think everyone can agree on that, right? It’s for the public to decide who should represent them. It’s for the member states as a whole to decide on the overall organisation of the EU. It’s for the European Parliament to decide on its own rules of procedure.

Not if you’re Poland’s comedy prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczyinski, who wants everybody to sign a statement that they are not, have never been, and never will be a Communist. Never mind that Poland already did this in 1998. Never mind that this includes everyone who had a position of responsibility up to 1989. Never mind that the Polish president until a couple of years ago was a former commie, and the hens didn’t stop laying.

As Major Major in Catch 22 says, the thing is to catch them before they know what allegiance is and keep’em pledging. Bronislaw Geremek and Tadeusz Mazowiecki, veterans of Solidarity’s intellectual side and the first post-communist government both, have refused to sign the pledge on principle, and now the Kaczyinskis are trying to end their mandates.

I wasn’t aware that an MEP was responsible to his or her home government – in fact I’m pretty sure they aren’t, and I’m meant to be an EU specialist. Even Maggie Thatcher was unable to browbeat the British commissioner, or for that matter the MEPs. This is profoundly anti-democratic, and worse, anti-constitutional – it’s an exercise in rule by whim, and if the EU is anything, it’s a community committed to constitutionalism.

Depressingly, looking up Tim Garton-Ash’s 1990s essays, I find reams of stuff on “lustration”, aka sacking people you don’t like, which all seems to come to the conclusion that it was risky, but fortunately it’s all over and Poland is a normal country. News: it’s not anywhere near as normal as we hoped. Sadly, the opinion-current behind the current government is the same that was calling the ex-communists and most of the dissidents by the same horrible name in 1991 – “zydokommuna” or “Jewishcommunists”. Nice friends you got there.

I’d like to see a blog storm about this.

On the Polish Right

The scandals seem to keep coming. On the heels of news that an assistant to the former presidential candidate from the League of Polish Families (Liga Polskich Rodzin, LPR) party took part in a neo-Nazi festival in the summer of 2005, come reports that parliamentarians from the Self-Defense (Samoobrona, SO) party made sex a condition of employment for some women.
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Mr Potato Head

Sometime during the group phase of the last World Cup, a lefty German newspaper, the Berlin-based taz, compared Poland’s current president to a potato. I’m sure that there was more to it than that, but the original version has disappeared into pay-per-view is here, and my reading knowledge of Polish isn’t what it was a decade ago. If yours is better, there’s a Polish version is here, do let me know.

Anyway, the satire was part of a series called “Rogues Who Want to Change the World,” and Kaczynski was in there with other figures you’d expect from an alternative daily, including Chancellor Merkel and German President Köhler. Whether the comparison was apt in Kaczynski’s case will be left as an exercise for readers.

I would think that the occasional irritating comparison is part of the price of being president, and you’d probably think the same, but maybe that’s why Mr Kaczynski is president of Poland and we’re not. Plus the matter of being Polish. Because being president means that there’s a law that says insulting you is a crime. Up to two years in the Polski pen, and Warsaw prosecutors are, even as I write this, investigating whether to take out an EU arrest warrant for the Berlin-based satirists. The smart money is on no, but smart has not exactly been the controlling adjective in what has the makings of a good silly-season story. (Quite a number of European states have these “don’t insult the president/state/ruling house/whatever laws,” and they are usually defended with the assertion that they are never used. Well.)

Godwin’s law, of course, has long since been violated, by Poland’s foreign minister no less. The president skipped a meeting with German and French leaders just before they went to the G-8 summit, though he quickly denied any connection with the satire. Said he had stomach trouble. Not due to tubers, surely. And the new prime minister, not coincidentally the president’s twin brother, saw no need to change course. “We haven’t insulted anybody.”

On the other hand, amidst all the foolishness, President Kaczynski did manage a cruel blow. He said, according to the weekly Zeit, “even in the history of this peculiar newspaper” the potato portrait was an unprecedented insult of a foreign head of state and a criminal act. If in thirty-plus years of lefty alternativeness, the taz has never done anything more tasteless than call a jumped-up szlachta a lumpen-potato, they have seriously missed out on one of the perks of being lefty and alternative. I think Kaczynski’s been clever here and cast aspersions on their capabilitieis as caricaturists and satirists. But for all I know, these aspersions will harm their business and professional reputations. Maybe the taz should consider a counter-suit?

Oh We Are The Champions

Yes we are really, aren’t we. Especially if we are called Arcelor, or Danone, or Endesa, or Eni, or Enel, or Banca Antonveneta or Pekao. And what these champions have in common, and it is this which sets them so much apart from their footballing equivalents, is not the ability to win anything, but rather their capacity to lose, especially in a take-over battle from a foreign pretender. And just for this very reason it is, it seems, ok for you to include the referee in your line-up. Indeed such is the sporting prowess of these ‘champions’ that it is deemed that what they are most in need of is not the cold harsh wind of competition, but rather protection, and indeed protectionism, anything rather than face outright competition from would-be global rivals. A rare breed of champions these.

I think before I go further, I would like to draw attention to one idea which holds us all together here at Afoe:

Purity of race does not exist. Europe is a continent of energetic mongrels. – H.A.L. Fisher
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Polish Plumbers Arrive In Denmark

The EU Observer has a piece on a row which has blown up in Denmark over some ‘new arrivals’ from Poland. The issue is itself interesting since there has been a good deal of talk in recent weeks about flexibility in the Danish labour market and the idea of ‘flexicurity’:

Danish trade unions have accused the Polish embassy in Copenhagen of encouraging Polish construction workers to ignore the collective agreements that regulate the Danish labour market….

They argue that the Danish labour model is being undermined but their opponents believe that the Danish trade union model itself undermines the EU principle of freedom of movement.

The Polish embassy website had informed Polish workers interested in coming to Denmark that they should comply with regional and national agreements on salaries and working conditions, but also points out they are not under legal obligation to do so.

This would mean that Polish workers could technically work for under the agreed minimum wage – making them more attractive than Danish workers.

Reverse-Plumbing Poland?

Well, its the weekend, and even if domestic commitments keep me away from the beach, perhaps a lighter note is in order. The press have gotten hold of the Polish ‘anti-plummer’:

He is blond, strapping and sexy. He holds the tools of his trade in a suggestive pose. But the news for the French people is that if they want to see the Polish plumber they will have to travel to Poland….

The Polish tourist agency in Paris has now tried to put the myth to bed through a tongue-in-cheek advert on its website aimed at encouraging the French to visit Poland. “Welcome to Poland”, the homepage says beside a picture of the Polish hunk, clad in green overalls and a white T-shirt.

Of course, as was to be expected, and to add insult to injury Polish plumbers are turning out to be highly popular in the UK, providing a much needed filling for a long standing gap in the local labour market. Have you tried getting hold of a plumber lately?

Incidentally, those domestic commitments involve painting and decorating. The people doing the more substantial works, well there was one from Argentina, two from Ecuador, one from Columbia, but no-one from Poland. Somehow reading the ‘Welcome to Poland’ blurb I felt cheated.

Poland to withdraw from Iraq

AP is running a report that Poland’s president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, will withdraw Polish troops from Iraq.

President Aleksander Kwasniewski, a key Washington ally, said Thursday he may withdraw troops early from Iraq and that Poland was “misled” about the threat of Saddam Hussein’s weapons of mass destruction.

His remarks to a small group of European reporters were his first hint of criticism about war in Iraq, where Poland currently has 2,400 troops and with the United States and Britain commands one of three sectors of the U.S.-led occupation.

“Naturally, one may protest the reasons for the war action in Iraq. I personally think that today, Iraq without Saddam Hussein is a truly better Iraq than with Saddam Hussein,” Kwasniewski told the European reporters.

“But naturally I also feel uncomfortable due to the fact that we were misled with the information on weapons of mass destruction,” he said, according to a transcript released by the presidential press office.

Earlier in the day, Kwasniewski said Poland may start withdrawing its troops from Iraq early next year, months earlier than the previously stated date of mid-2005. He cited progress toward stabilizing Iraq.

That’s two allies in two weeks for George W. Bush – and in the run-up to the election too. So much for support from “New Europe.” Spain and Poland are the only non-Anglo nations sending any meaningful number of actual troops.