Dawkins vs democracy

Opinion piece originally appeared in Red Pepper on 22 May 2013.

Richard Dawkins, professional atheist and Twitter provocateur, has branched out beyond his recent foray into Muslim journalist-baiting to offer his recommendations for parliamentary reform. Following Labour ex-minister Frank Field’s call for the new Archbishop of Canterbury to give up the 25 seats the Church of England appoints to the House of Lords, and have the seats awarded instead to people from civil society, Dawkins burped out a series of tweets saying that these seats should be given to scientists and other ‘elites’.

‘Replace Lord Bishops by (elected) heads of Royal Society, British Academy, Roy Coll Physicians, Royal Academy etc,’ he tweeted, adding: ‘I want to be operated on by elite surgeons, flown by elite pilots, have my car fixed by elite mechanics. Why not elite electors of Lords?’

Each of these colleges of presumably godless elites would select their own representatives to the upper chamber, a suggestion that was met with a chorus of approving retweetage from the atheist brigadier’s amassed troops of skeptics, secularists and science fans.  Continue reading →

The TB drugs don’t work

This article was originally published on the Nature News blog on 17 October, 2012. 

The good news is that tuberculosis prevention efforts appear to have broken the back of the spread of the disease, according to the World Health Organisation’s latest annual report on the scourge, with new cases of TB falling by 2.2% between 2010 and 2011. The mortality rate has decreased 41% since 1990 and access to TB care has expanded considerably since the mid nineties, when tuberculosis was declared a global emergency by the UN body, with the WHO estimating that some 20 million lives have been saved since 1995. Continue reading →

Austerity for the people, welfare for the banks

I co-authored this article with Andrew Bowman, a research fellow with the University of Manchester’s Centre for Research on Socio-cultural Change (CRESC) and Financial Times blogger, originally published in Red Pepper in August 2012. 

While the eurozone teeters on the brink, construction work is underway in Frankfurt’s financial district on new headquarters for the European Central Bank (ECB). Due for completion in 2014, the 185 metre tall, futuristically designed skyscraper will have double the office space of the ECB’s current residence, the Eurotower. It embodies the expectations for the future of the single currency from the one institution that has no future without it.

As the drama of the financial crisis has unfolded over the past five years, press coverage and political debate has tended to focus predominantly on the actions of national political leaders. At many points, however, the back-stage central bank officials have been the most influential actors.

Nowhere is this truer than with the ECB. With EU decision-making processes incapable of reconciling national and pan-European interests, and in the absence of a fiscal policy for the eurozone, the ECB has filled the gap.  Continue reading →

North Carolina Sea Level Rises Despite State Senators

News article appeared in Scientific American in June, 2012.

Could nature be mocking North Carolina’s law-makers? Less than two weeks after the state’s senate passed a bill banning state agencies from reporting that sea-level rise is accelerating, research has shown that the coast between North Carolina and Massachusetts is experiencing the fastest sea-level rise in the world.

Asbury Sallenger, an oceanographer at the US Geological Survey in St Petersburg, Florida, and his colleagues analysed tide-gauge records from around North America. On 24 June, they reported in Nature Climate Change that since 1980, sea-level rise between Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, and Boston, Massachusetts, has accelerated to between 2 and 3.7 millimetres per year. That is three to four times the global average, and it means the coast could see 20–29 centimetres of sea-level rise on top of the metre predicted for the world as a whole by 2100 ( A. H. Sallenger Jr et al. Nature Clim. Changehttp://doi.org/hz4; 2012).

“Many people mistakenly think that the rate of sea-level rise is the same everywhere as glaciers and ice caps melt,” says Marcia McNutt, director of the US Geological Survey. But variations in currents and land movements can cause large regional differences. The hotspot is consistent with the slowing measured in Atlantic Ocean circulation, which may be tied to changes in water temperature, salinity and density.

Read the rest of the article on the Scientific American website.

Brussels task-force exploring restoration of Greek monarchy

This satire was originally intended to be an April Fool’s story for the EUobserver, but due to some editorial hiccups, it was never published. I’d planned on putting it up here straight away, but the best laid plans of mice and men, etc., etc. Anyway, it seems it might still be worth a laugh given what’s happening at the moment, despite some of the poll numbers being out of date.

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The EU is exploring a possible restoration of the Greek monarchy, should an unclear general-election outcome produced a period of extended political instability, EUobserver has learnt.

A three-man working group in Brussels has been quietly tasked with taking soundings of Crown Prince Pavlos, the heir apparent of Constantine II, the last king of Greece, as to whether the 45-year-old yachtsman and investment banker would be willing to assume power under such circumstances. Continue reading →

EU bans GM-contaminated honey from general sale

News article originally published in the Guardian on Wednesday 7 September 2011

The European Union’s highest court on Tuesday ruled that honey which contains trace amounts of pollen from genetically modified (GM) corn must be labelled as GM produce and undergo full safety authorisation before it can be sold as food.

In what green groups are calling a “groundbreaking” ruling, the decision could force the EU to strengthen its already near-zero tolerance policy on genetically modified organisms (GMOs).

Bavarian beekeepers, some 500m from a test field for a modified maize crop developed by Monsanto – one of only two GM crops authorised as safe to be cultivated in Europe – claimed their honey had been “contaminated” by pollen from the plant.

The European court of justice found in their favour, a ruling that should offer grounds for the beekeepers to claim compensation in a German court. Continue reading →

The ninth art meets the fourth estate

Feature originally published in Red Pepper in the January 2011 edition.

Tracing the emergence of comic-book journalism

Traditional print journalism may be in crisis, with once‑mighty, agenda-setting oak trees of national and regional newspapers in fear of felling. But elsewhere, the bright green buds of a new form of journalism are sprouting. Comic-book journalism, or, as it is called in France, ‘BD reportage’ (from les bandes dessinées, the francophone term for the ‘ninth art’ – comics), is flourishing.

Take just a few recent developments among the many that herald the arrival of the form.

In 2009 Joe Sacco, the cartoonist author of the groundbreaking Palestine and Safe Area Gorazde, won a Pulitzer for his latest work, the 430-page Footnotes from Gaza, an Exposé, a genuine scoop, about two under-reported massacres that took place during the Suez crisis. Continue reading →

The state of democracy in Hungary: ‘The illness has advanced to a new stage’

News feature originally appeared in the EUobserver on 05.04.11, dateline Hejoszalonta, Hungary.

A gypsy girl of maybe eight, nine years old holds onto her little brother tightly. Looking out over the chicken-wire fence at the end of their mud garden in the Roma ghetto in the village of Hejoszalonta, they stare at the around 600 members of Hungary’s fascist party, Jobbik, and its paramilitary wing, the Magyar Garda, dressed in black or camouflage or just leather jackets, marching right past where they live with torches aloft and nationalist heavy metal music blasting.

An hour and a half north of Budapest, the village, home to just 850 people, 350 of them Roma, was the site last week of the murder of a 50-year-old woman. Jobbik immediately exploited the crime, declaring ahead of any arrest of suspects that the woman’s two Roma tenants were guilty and announced they were to come to the village and protect it from “gypsy terror”.

As the jack-booted marchers file past, Roma-rights activist Agnes Daroczi leads villagers in a chant from behind police lines that for all its moderation and reasonableness is shouted with no less ferocity: “Peace! Rule of Law! No fascists!’

Please visit a slide show of the rally and march. Continue reading →

BNP attends international far-right conference in Japan

News article originally appeared in the Guardian on Wednesday 11 August 2010.

The British National Party is taking part in a week-long conference in Japan organised by Nippon Issuikai, an extreme-right group that denies Japanese wartime atrocities.

Adam Walker, the BNP‘s staff manager, is in Tokyo along with 20 MEPs and members of the Alliance of European National Movements, the “europarty” that brings together far-right parties from across Europe.

Walker arrived in Tokyo today where he will spend the next week attending a congress on “The Future of Nationalist Movements” . Continue reading →

The EU’s ‘very odd’ atheist and freemason summits

In 2010, under pressure to balance the EU’s treaty-required regular consultations with religious leaders with those without faith, Brussels launched an annual summit between the three Roman Catholic presidents of the EU and representatives of atheist organisations. Oh, and freemasons too.

I first broke the story in ahead of the first summit and have followed the issue since in a series of three articles so far.

Full text of the three articles follows these links to the original texts:

EU to hold atheist and freemason summit

EU atheist-freemason summit ‘very odd’, says Europe’s chief unbeliever

Atheists say EU privileging religious leaders over non-believers Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part IV: The end of the eurozone

Analysis originally published in the EUobserver 13.12.10

But if what needs to happen cannot happen, what does Lord Skidelsky, a 71-year-old economic historian who has been witness to the full fifty years of European integration, think will?

“I don’t think immediately, but the most likely outcome is that some countries will have to devalue, which means leaving the eurozone. Germany’s domestic policy doesn’t allow any other option.”

“What I don’t know is whether the initial thrust for this will come from a Germany where people are fed up with bail-outs or from the peripheral states where people are fed up with continuous austerity.” Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part III: Back to the future with the Werner Plan

Analysis originally published in the EUobserver 13.12.10.

So how do we get out of this mess?

It’s relatively simple, really. All that has to happen is a rebalancing of competitiveness between the core and the periphery.

“Of course much of the responsibility lies with Germany, doesn’t it?” continues Lord Skidelsky. “The euro was constructed in a way that benefited an export-led economy like Germany, but not everyone else. They have repressed wages to create room for exports, which then chokes off growth paths for other eurozone countries, who can’t readily increase their exports to Germany.”

The short version is that Germany must be forced to sharply boost its wages and inject stimulus: “Domestic demand in Germany should be expanded,” he concludes. Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part II: The China of Europe

 

Analysis originally appeared in the EUobserver 10.12.10.

But how did we get into this mess in the first place?

In the 1990s during the run-up to the single currency and throughout the 2000s, all European countries battened down wage demands and loosened the regulations on companies (or, to use the jargon you often hear on the news without really knowing what it means: ‘They liberalised their labour markets’), but it was Germany that won the mad dash to the bottom. The steroids that Berlin had access to that no one else did to the same extent were the aforementioned discipline of labour enabled by the cheap-as-chalk ex-GDR and the rest of the east.

This drastically heightened Germany’s competitive advantage as labour costs per unit – how much it takes to make a given widget – in the periphery of the eurozone outstripped those in the core. This also freed up more spondoolees for German capital to upgrade its products, making sexy German machines that much sexier. Continue reading →

Working the night-shift in the German austerity sweatshop – Part I: Dr Merkel’s fiscal enema

Analysis originally appeared in the EUobserver 09.12.10.

There was a cheeky cartoon that made the Facebook and Twitter rounds a few days ago, posted by one of the Financial Times’ Alphaville bloggers. It went ‘viral,’ as the social-media consultants think the kids say. Bearing the title “Introducing Greater Germany,” it featured a map of Europe with all the German bits coloured blue.

The entire eurozone was blue.

If you passed over the map with your mouse, a caption popped up: “The area formerly known as the eurozone.”

Perhaps the author was taking a light jab at the good doctor of Berlin’s diagnosis and her decidedly uncomfortable austerity enemas prescribed to the entire euro area, or suggesting that through the EU’s bundesbank-inspired economic strictures, Germany, finally, in its third try at it, had managed to rule most of Europe. Continue reading →

The junta of experts tells us: ‘Vote how you like, but policies cannot change’

Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver, 17.06.11.

Europe seems to have slipped almost imperceptibly in the space of only a few months into an electoral interzone, a crack in the pavement of democracy.

The formal trappings of clean elections – in which political parties with competing manifestoes contest a ballot free of voter intimidation – are all still there, but someone else has decided in advance what the result will be.

It’s not the voters that are intimidated any more: it’s the parties that are.

The count of EU member states now tallies to four – Ireland, Portugal, Finland and Greece – where this post-political phenomenon has materialised, but committed democrats across the Union should wonder which country is next.  Continue reading →

Hurling democracy into the volcano to appease the market gods

Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver, 16.08.11.

Pacific islanders never actually threw virgins into volcanoes to appease angry gods; it was only ever a TV trope of bad American sketch comedy and Saturday-morning cartoons. But you remember how it worked? However many damsels were chucked in to the fiery pit, the lava would keep flowing, yet the only lesson those silly actors in their semi-racist Tiki-Lounge outfits and drinks in bamboo glasses with paper umbrellas learnt was that not enough ladies had been lobbed in.

Despite the certainly apocryphal nature of such behaviour in the South Pacific, European leaders seem intent on embracing the model. Indeed, I am half convinced that the European Commission has some super-secret-squirrel committee of experts locked in a room somewhere studying Joe vs the Volcano and re-runs of Gilligan’s Island to learn exactly how it’s done.

But it’s not vestal maidens (or, in the case of Joe vs the Volcano, Tom Hanks) that Berlusconi, Sarkozy and company are pitching into the magma; it’s public services, it’s decent wages; it’s democracy. And if one, two, three rounds of austerity are not enough, well, we need a fourth and a fifth! They just keep pitching more austerity packages into the rumbling crater. Continue reading →

Portugal: The EU’s managed democracy

Article originally published in Red Pepper in April 2011.

The European Union has crossed a line. It has intervened in the party-political process of one of its member states for the first time, and, exacerbating the transgression, in the midst of a bitter general election.

Portuguese citizens will still formally be allowed to vote how they like on 5 June, but while doing so, they will have very little if any choice over public spending, taxes, labour laws or the regulation of business.

Essentially all the policy decisions that governments can make, apart from those regarding defence and home affairs, have been amputated from the political process.

Ahead of the vote in Portugal, precipitated by loss of the parliament’s confidence in the governing minority centre-left Socialists and their resignation on 23 March, the wealthy countries in Europe, with the connivance of the European Commission and the European Central Bank playing the role of enforcer, have ordered the main political parties mid-campaign to put aside partisan politics for the sake of European financial stability and sign on to a crushing multi-year programme of austerity and structural adjustment.  Continue reading →

Getting off our knees?

Article originally published in Red Pepper in November, 2010.

‘Austerity strikes roil Europe’ – Christian Science Monitor; ‘Anti-austerity protests sweep across Europe’ – Associated Press; ‘European cities hit by anti-austerity protests’ – BBC.

From the nigh-on identical, panicked headlines that raced around the world on 29 September, the day of the pan-European day of action organised by the European Trades Union Congress, you would have thought that the entire continent was aflame with civil unrest, furious at the measures introduced by our governments – a sacrifice of the public sector, labour rights, social benefits, hurled into the volcano to slake the anger of the markets.

Perhaps there was a glint of something to it. Only weeks later, France would be paralysed by strikes and refinery blockades that left the country days away from running entirely out of petrol. Those clichéd, magic four integers, 1968, tumbled trembling once more from the lips of commentators and politicos. Greece, on the surface, appears to be tearing itself apart. One report in September from that most sober of news wires, Reuters, quoted a German economist from the Munich-based Ifo Institute for Economic Research, warning how ‘political fatigue with austerity policies typically sets in in the second year and could yet push Greece to default or the brink of civil war’.  Continue reading →

Maybe the Roma need their own Love Parade to get the EU to notice them

Opinion piece originally published in the EUobserver on 4 August, 2010.

Perhaps we could be accused of an excess of cynicism, but us hacks in the Brussels press corps regularly roll our eyes at the European Commission’s opportunistic penchant for putting out nigh-on-identical statements of condolence whenever there is a tragedy of any major or even minor description or anniversary of some ancient (but historically uncontroversial) wickedness: Kristallnacht, an earthquake in China, the Love Parade stampede, the death of Michael Jackson.

But the cynicism was warranted on Monday, when the EU condolence-o-matic seemed to be malfunctioning for some reason. There was no solemn communique of sympathy, no moment of silence, not even a bland message carefully crafted by PR flunkies recommitting to “Never again” do this or that on the evening of 2-3 of August, the night of Roma Extermination Remembrance, the international date for commemoration of the Gypsy and Sinti victims of the Pharrajimos or Samudaripen, the two Romani words used to describe the Holocaust.

Because you see, Monday is just not the right day to do so. But maybe next year one of the EU presidents will, so long as the date does not also awkwardly coincide with a wave of expulsions and new laws targetting the Roma as it so inopportunely does this year. Continue reading →

Nobel-Peace-thingie laureate and Israel’s BFF Baron Trimble of Lisnagarvey to monitor Gaza flotilla inquiry

In covering the announcement of plans by the Israeli cabinet to approve the establishment of an “independent public committee” to enquire into the events surrounding the attack on the Gaza aid convoy (I hate the word flotilla, however hash-tag-friendly the unusual word is), a gaggle of media outlets have led with the salient fact that one of the two international  observers of the enquiry, former leader of the Ulster Unionists, David Trimble, has a Nobel-Peace thingie.

Antipodean quotidien The Australian, part of arch Palestinian partisan Rupert Mudoch’s stable of pamphlets, actually sticks mention of the gong in its headline: ‘Nobel Peace Prize winner David Trimble to monitor Israel’s Gaza flotilla inquiry’.

Sounds lovely, doesn’t it? Who could be more hard-assed on the Israelis than a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, and one from Northern Ireland to boot? One of the passengers on the MV Rachel Corrie, the Johnny-come-lately Irish flotilla boat, was even a Nobel winner as well. I’m sure he was mortified to hear about the IDF’s capture of another initiate of the Nobel fellowship. Continue reading →

‘Do we really need another layer of democracy in the world?’ Snarf, snarf, guffaw.

One of the things one has to accustom oneself to in the capital of Europe is the thinly concealed contempt for democracy that so many characters have in this town. There is a lot of huffing and puffing and about democracy in Brussels, but the saccharine rhetoric is like one of those prize-winners at an icing competition – mouthwatering to look at but underneath it’s just a cardboard box instead of a real cake.

But I’m not even talking about the hypocrisy of rhetoric versus action, say, as in the EU’s recent approach to the coup in Honduras, as evident as this may be. No, I mean just the scorn toward responsible government found in the vernacular of the Bruxellois coterie of diplomats, lobbyists, think-tankies and fonctionnaires that is as unremarkable and quotidian as the mangling of English found in a commission press release. For all the gilded phraseology and bouquet of prizes that are handed out, guffaws at the amateurishness of the European Parliament, the idiocy of referendum-voting electorates and democracy in general are so common as to be almost unnoticeable. Continue reading →

Battling the ‘Multilateral Zombie’ – EU climate strategy after Copenhagen

Analysis piece originally published on AnalysNorden, the policy discussion site of the Nordic Council, following the failure of the 2009 Copenhagen UN climate talks.

The rough hip-check Europe received in the Danish capital in December, sidelining the bloc during the eleventh-hour huddle between major powers that produced the Copenhagen Accord, has produced a wave of despondency and cynicism amongst Brussels pols, green lobbyists, and analysts – and carbon traders across the continent to boot.

They’re all having a crack at how poorly the EU played its hand during climate negotiations.

With its climate boy-scout badge afixed to its sleeve, Brussels headed off to Camp Copenhagen expecting to see its self-proclaimed leadership reflected in winning something along the lines of a broad commitment from other powers to at least a 20-percent cut in carbon emissions below 1990 levels by 2020. Continue reading →

The rise of European Bobo politics

Feature originally published in Red Pepper in August 2009.

The success of Europe Ecologie in France and moderate advances elsewhere in the June European elections have emboldened the green right but disaster in Ireland, where the party was wiped out – and to a lesser extent in the Czech Republic – shows what happens when they abandon their principles for a shot at the big league. 

Since the France’s Europe Ecologie triumph in the European elections, the European media have been talking of a Green wave across the continent, with leading member Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s gurning visage nigh on inescapable.

But the effervescent Cohn-Bendit has every right to be in an especially jolly mood – the result was indeed truly spectacular. It saw them soaring from the 7.45 per cent of the French vote in the 2004 EU elections and their embarrassing 1.57 per cent in the 2007 presidential elections.  Continue reading →