The voice of young liberal democrats

Time to re-open the debate on Europe by londonliberal
December 13, 2008, 3:45 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

Europe has historically been a bit of a red-herring for UK voters. Despite being an oddly heated issue with plenty of impassioned arguments made on both sides, it never actually mattered to most people before 9/11 and the Credit Crunch, probably the two defining moments of this the first decade of the 21st Century. Back then the pound was strong, the economy booming, the biggest challenge facing our troops was keeping the peace in Northern Ireland and the biggest threat to the environment was the hole in the Ozone layer. However, as long as we could be a member of the Single Market and the single biggest trading bloc in the world, without having to give away any more of our sovereignty, Europe was only an issue for idealogues and academics.

Now things are different though. Our troops are struggling desperately in Afghanistan and Iraq; we have just entered potentially our worst recession in 30 years if not more; the pound, at its lowest point in years, is almost at parity with the Euro; and the developing world has become both a battleground for the Great Powers again as well as a breeding ground for terrorists. On top of all that, the threat of global warming has become an increasingly urgent concern that most political leaders are only just waking up to. Regardless of the wide-ranging political opinions on any one of these issues, all must admit that times have changed significantly and in turn so must our priorities as both voters and political activists.

However, whilst we have already a clear picture of where we stand on development, NATO expansion, the Special Relationship, taxation, the environment and economic policy, in light of these changing times, Europe has continued to take a back seat. Even when the press try to make it an issue again, bringing up the Lisbon Treaty and the prospects of joining the Euro, the government nips it in the bud, out of sheer terror of taking a position on which public opinion is ambiguous at best. Yet, the significance of our relationship with Europe is greater than ever before. Will joining the Euro save our economy or kill it? Is a more joined up European foreign policy the key to easing the pressure on our armed forces and better protecting our country or is that too high a price to pay for burden sharing? Is the European Carbon Emissions Trading Scheme the first step to a viable solution to global warming or is it a waste of time or simply not far-reaching enough?

I’d like to re-open the debate on Europe and see where it runs. I want to avoid repeating the mistakes of old though, with Europhiles and Euro-sceptics alike dogmatically drawing their lines in the sand, resulting in nothing more than an intellectualised name-calling contest. So, let’s start with a few key assumptions that hopefully we can all agree on and go from there:

1) Retaining our sovereignty is essential to securing the national interest, but there is only so much we can achieve alone which is why we were happy to pool some of our sovereignty to join the single market and NATO in the first place;

2) Co-operation with Europe is itself desirable. The only sticking point is the mechanism of co-operation i.e. should EU agreements be binding and how much of a role should supra-national bodies such as the European Commission and the European Parliament play in facilitating co-operation;

3) Britain’s relationship with Europe should not affect its ‘special relationship’ with the United States.


How the European Constitution Imperilled European Security by londonliberal
October 23, 2008, 2:51 pm
Filed under: defence, Foreign Affairs

I wrote this post for Eurodefense UK –

Few reforms are needed more urgently in Europe today than the forging of a coherent and, as far as possible, single EU foreign policy and yet few reforms are less likely to see the light of day in the current political climate. The blame for this must lie squarely at the feet of the European Council, ultimately responsible for trying to insert the proposals for an enhanced decision making process and an EU foreign minister, amongst others, into a confusing constitution that never had much chance of being approved by an angry electorate.

When the citizens of the EU were asked to rank the most serious problems facing the continent earlier this year by the German Marshall Fund, they naturally put terrorism and the credit crisis at the top of the agenda. However, a large majority also expressed grave concerns about the resurrection of the Russian bear and its use of its energy supplies as a weapon, not to mention its tanks and warships, whilst almost as many said they wanted closer relations with America and that NATO was still essential to their security.

It’s safe to say the ‘masses’ were on the money in their assessment of the most immediate threats to European security. Indeed, their concerns, along with illegal immigration, cyber-crime and climate change, have featured heavily in the French President, Nicolas Sarkozy’s drive to establish a new security strategy for Europe. Central to formulating a single European response to these challenges, therefore, has been the push to update the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CFSP) and the European Security and Defence Policy (ESDP).

As they are, the policies have failed to unify the EU in its dealings with the rest of the world, rendering the Union inefficient on the occasions when member states do take a common approach, such as in the Balkans, and wide open to manipulation by foreign powers when they don’t, such as the United States during the Iraq war and Russia now. The reforms envisaged by the constitution went some way to addressing these problems: a single foreign minister to represent the EU abroad; a legal personality to allow the EU to conclude international agreements; EU-wide investment in research and development; an EU equivalent of NATO’s clause 5 committing all states to collective “aid and assistance by all the means in their power”; the agreement of all member states to make available troops assigned to other multi-national task-forces to European battle-groups too; as well as a refined decision making process with opt-outs for any member state opposed to any EU decision to deploy troops.

So why then, if European electorates agreed on the supra-national nature of the threats and challenges facing their countries and their governments agreed on a set of measures to tackle them, were the proposed reforms thrown out by the Irish this year when they voted in a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, seen by many as simply a watered down version of the constitution? The answer is simple. The EU’s attempts to package these paramount changes within a vast and unreadable document that few wanted made it impossible to pass them. Indeed a poll taken of voters immediately after the Irish referendum revealed that the majority of those who voted ‘no’ did so because they did not understand what they were voting on.

However, Europe’s electorates lost faith in their elites long before then. The reasons behind the French and Dutch ‘no’ votes on the constitution proper in 2005 were far less kind than the Irish and revealed a deep-seated resentment of European elites and indeed their own. And for what? A flag and an anthem that we already have and that nobody cares about. Since then, any attempt to do the sensible thing and try and pass the reforms necessary to create a single coherent foreign policy has been viewed with suspicion and contempt. Indeed if the Lisbon Treaty hadn’t been voted down by the Irish it probably would have fallen at a later hurdle. Of course, the peddling of half-truths and even outright lies by the Europhobic press in countries most likely to need a referendum on such treaties like Ireland and the UK hardly helps.

What hope remains for a single European foreign policy then? Ironically, it would seem that the security of the continent now lies in the hands of national leaders regaining their people’s trust and convincing of the merit and the need for a unified approach. The election of a President in the United States with a respect for the transatlantic alliance and an understanding of the importance of a multi-lateral approach to the world’s most serious problems would go a long way too.

Why Ethics Alone Can’t Save The World by londonliberal
December 10, 2007, 10:14 am
Filed under: Economy, Liberal Democrats, Uncategorized

Green is the new black. Any government that wants to get re-elected and any political party that wants to usurp them is putting the environment at the core of their rhetoric and political campaigns lest they find themselves in a perpetual political wilderness. This is of course as far as it goes. The government commits itself to drastically reducing carbon emissions at Kyoto only to see them rise; David Cameron, leader of the Conservatives, rides his bike to work only to have his car follow him; whilst the Lib Dems, despite consistently saying the right things on the subject, are unlikely to find themselves challenged to put them into practice any time soon.

Why is this the case though? The electorate can spot hypocrisy when they see it and they don’t settle for rhetoric without action when it comes to issues like the economy and terrorism. Hence successive governments introduce whatever measures are necessary to address them whether this means taking on powerful trade unions or moving to jail people without charge for six weeks. Quite simply, the answer is that as high as the environment may poll on any survey of voter priorities, few people are prepared to make the sacrifices entailed by a committment to save the environment. Few people are willing to sort their rubbish into recyclables and non-recyclables or to forgo their plastic bags and bottled water. Even fewer are willing to sacrifice their cheap flights abroad. This of course is no revelation. It is taken as a given that the only way to force the government to put its money where its mouth is is to launch a grassroots movement and turn Britain Green from the bottom upwards.

So, activists, concerned citizens and even a few well meaning politicians set about winning people’s hearts and minds and exploiting the sensitive ethical dillemnas that are intrinsically, although by no means exclusively, linked to the problems of climate change. These include the perils of buying cheap goods highlighted not just for the damage their importation does to the environment but also for the manner in which they are manufactured. Thus, clothes from Primark are condemned for the carbon footprint they leave after being shipped from abroad whilst perpetuating child labour in the Far East. Plastic bags are reviled not just because they take centuries to decompose but also because of the pictures of small animals dying in their droves after ingesting them.

People who show little regard or knowledge of these problems are often held in such contempt -especially by many members of the party to which I belong, the Liberal Democrats- that their actions appear both incomprehensible and unjustifiable. They find it unfathomable that anyone could hold any higher priority than the safety of the planet; that anyone would even think twice about paying more for their clothes and their food if it meant minimising their carbon footprint and putting the sponsors of child labour out of busniness at the same time.

I am always instinctively wary of such people who look down on others and say things like: “I can’t understand why they would do this”. In a single sentence, they dismiss the circumstances of such an individual and emphasise how they would never do the same, subtly concluding that the only variable factor must be that they are just a better person. Add to this that many of those leading these ‘grassroots’ movements come from privileged backgrounds where the costs of food and clothing don’t need to be carefully considered, and indeed weighed up against each other, and the picture becomes clearer. Consider further the fact that those who currently benefit the most from cheap clothing, food and air travel would suffer the most from restrictions on these things whilst their richer counterparts would barely even feel a tickle let alone a pinch and the challenge of forging a coherent plan of action becomes greater still.

Celebrities are frequently the worst offenders when it comes to this, not to say that a political opinion should be disregarded just because it comes from Hollywood. That said, I can’t help but raise an eyebrow at pop stars who fly thousands of miles to hold concerts aimed at raising awareness of Global Warming. Others lecture the masses on the perils of climate change, stopping only to sip from their plastic bottles of water shipped directly to them from the far reaches of the earth. Similarly, even for those whose actions are consistent with their actions, no good deed goes unpunished. In the mid 1990s, according to UNICEF, a boycott of Nepalese carpets hand made by child labourers led their employers to go bust and fire all their workers. Consequently, over 5,000 Nepalese girls went from being child labourers to being child prostitutes.

Another obstacle to concerted action to tackle Climate Change in the UK is the overwhelming sense of futility felt across our small country, that without the co-operation of the biggest pollutors, namely the U.S and China, anything we do is rather inconsequential. This fatalism is not wholly unreasonable either. The biggest pollutors in the world are the most reluctant to do anything about it with the Bush administration only just beginning to concede that global warming may just be a problem after all. In addition, all things being equal even if the UK was to go carbon neutral overnight, any benefits to the environment would be quickly offset by China and India.

In sum, only a far-reaching, legally binding multi-lateral effort would prevent the efforts of the most dedicated activists from going to waste, protect the most vulnerable from the fallout and justify the most hefty sacrifices. So, I urge my fellow Lib Dems to forgive me when I say: don’t blame individuals, especially those who struggle enough with the everyday circumstances of life, for the failures of government. As for the government, although they have the power and indeed the duty to tackle climate change, they are not omnipotent and have re-election and international power politics to contend with. Furthermore, as pressing as climate change is, it is not as immediate a threat as an asteroid or a tsunami even if it is of far greater proportions. Rather, to paraphrase that great source of modern political wisdom, ‘The West Wing’, only two things can force a government’s hand: politics and money.

History shows that economics is indeed the key to energy efficiency, particularly in the United States. Currently one of the most woeful polluters in the world in spite of the growing acceptance that climate change is a man-made phenomenon which requires urgent solutions, in the eight years between 1973 and 1981, when Climate Change was not the serious consideration it has now become, energy consuption per unit of GNP actually declined by 18%. This was achieved thanks mainly to President Jimmy Carter’s reforms such as creating the first cabinet level Department of Energy which oversaw a centrally co-ordinated shift from oil to alternative energy; amendments to the Clean Air Act which forced auto-makers to improve the energy efficiency of cars across the country; extra layers of insulation built into new houses to cut gas bills and tax breaks for people using solar power to meet their energy needs. What prompted such sweeping reforms? A severe oil crisis and the prospect of an immediate economic catastrophe as a result.

Now, it is familiar tensions prompting another push towards energy efficiency in the United States whilst carbon emissions trading, an initiative pioneered by the European Union, is offering a cash incentive for companies to take action. These markets, like any markets however, require greater regulation to ensure their aims are actually achieved – a critical article in the Economist some time ago highlighted how lapses in regulation of markets such as the Chicago Climate Exchange have led to the undermining of its environmental credentials as loggers plundering the Amazon rainforest get rich off the scheme by using ethanol powered trucks. Nonetheless, the benefits are there to be reaped.

So, whilst well meaning people may say that ethics are the key to recycling, at the end of the day it’s money that makes the world go round. In time, money can make the world go green too.

Disgusting by georgeinwashington
December 4, 2007, 1:12 pm
Filed under: Economy | Tags: , ,

Northern Rock giving its staff a pay rise with public money. Whatever happened to that free market that banks keep banging on about?

Iran Halted Weapons Program “Years Ago” by georgeinwashington
December 4, 2007, 5:49 am
Filed under: Foreign Affairs, iran, nuclear weapons, Uncategorized | Tags: , ,

A rare news item that tells us that today the world is really a better place. Have a great day everyone.

Now one really has to wonder why Brown approved a strike on Iran in June of this year if this is all true.

Cameron Needs a Geography Lesson by georgeinwashington

Cameron’s mistake could not have been mere slip of the tongue, as, whilst speaking about the need to stop redrawing ‘lines on a map’ he placed parts of Moldova and Georgia within the Russian Federation. During his visit to Washington last week, David Cameron visited the Brookings Institution to give a speech on the Balkans. Brookings, an influential and highly respected think tank always draws many of the top experts to its events and the question and answer is guaranteed to be thorough. It was here where David revealed his shaky grip on some of the major problems facing Europe. Mr Haltzel of the Center for Transatlantic Relations of John’s Hopkins University asked Cameron’s opinion on Russia’s attempt to relate the situation in the balkans to Transnustria Abkhazia and South Ossetia. Cameron answered,

You’re absolutely right, there should be no parallel between what is happening in Kosovo — where, clearly, the Kosovo people are not going to accept being part of Serbia. There’s no parallel between that, which is a special situation, and anything that might be happening in parts of the Russian Federation. And we should reassure the Russians about that. There should be no linkage between those things.

Unfortunately, as someone flying to Washington to give a major speech on foreign policy should know, Transnistria is in Moldova and Abkhazia and South Ossetia are break away republics of Georgia.Later he was asked about the ideas floated about partitioning Kosovo above the Ibar. His reply again,

There are a large number of ethnic Serbians, if you like, living in Kosovo, but not in areas contiguous to Serbia, so an attempt to redraw the boundary doesn’tsolve that problem.

The Mitrovica region, which the questioner was referring to, and contains the largest proportion of Serbs, borders Serbia. This is of course a very difficult region to master, but if you do have to take the trouble to fly to Washington to talk about it, some swotting up in the plane would have been a good idea.The full text of the speech and question and answer session can be found here

We Need a New System not New People by georgeinwashington
November 25, 2007, 8:04 am
Filed under: Liberal Democrats | Tags: , , , , ,

Gordon Brown’s response to crisis week, “Sorry, I will change” is symptomatic of what is wrong with the government of Britain today and why I support the Liberal Democrats, the only party who actually seems to understand that Britain’s problems are deeper than people and personality.

Britain today is run by a bureaucratic government with all accountability concentrated in political figures who’s constant rotation serves only to distract the general public from the real problems at hand, and provides a veil of democratic accountability.

Take the current fiasco with the loss of personal data by HM Customs and Revenue. Even if the the discs were not lost by a junior employee as at first claimed, why is the Prime Minister now taking the blame. After all with issues facing today such as environmental catastrophe, a war in Iraq and a financial system in crisis, do we really expect the Prime Minister to be keeping a close eye on data security policy for customs?

We should instead recognise that the vast majority of the business of Government is not carried out by 22 Cabinet Ministers, but by half a million civil servants. But with these 22 being the only democratically accountable members of the government, we tend to focus all of our attentions on them. In the end the solution boils down to a question of what we want our elected our representatives to do, to manage government directly or to oversee government.

Presently we have a system of government that does neither, no Cabinet minister, splitting her time between constituency, parliament and the ministry can hope to have a full grip on what is going on in her department. At the same time, by acting as a representative of that department, and her fate being tied to it, cannot provide vigorous oversight.

Our only hope is to reorganize our government, a good first step should be to disassociate parliament, from the government. Why should we be satisfied with part time, inexperienced, political hacks as leaders. Why should the Prime Minister not be able to appoint outstanding people from outside of parliament or his party to the most important offices in the land? To give an example, Nicholas Sarkozy’s Foreign Minister is the founder of Medicines Sans Frontiers and a member of the opposition Socialist Party. Secondly why should people like the Foreign Secretary, also have to deal with their constituent’s planning permission applications? I am sure they have other things to do.

Having the heads of ministries have this responsibility be their only full time job, would make them more accountable, whilst removing them from parliament, would also free up parliament to provide better oversight.

If we carry on decapitating the political leadership every time a crisis occurs, we will make no progress in achieving what should be the goal of government, good government.