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2004-06-30

comment housekeeping 

I'll try to use Blogger's new internal comment service, which has email notifications. Please use the 'new comment' service from now on, the 'old comments' will probably disappear in a couple of weeks, unless there's a spam problem on Blogger comments (fingers crossed).

UPDATE: Oh well, there are downsides. Commenters either have to create a free Blogger account, or sign as 'Anonymous'. On the upside, html is supported, so you can still sign with a link to your page - it's only a bit annoying. Also, spam comments can be deleted, yippie.

What's good about Barroso? 

Let me be a good citizen and ape the list presented by chancellor Schüssel on TV. Sometimes Schüssel can be good, he is a very controlled talker.

1. Barroso is from a non-founding member country.
2. Barroso is from the periphery of the EU.
3. Barroso has been successful in foreign policy - viz the peace treaty in Angola.
4. Barroso is polyglott.
5. Domestically, Barroso has addressed necessary but painful reforms with steadfastness, such as addressing a budget deficit.

And here is what Schüssel really meant [I'm trying to copy Wonkette's Thursday feature]:

1. Austria is a non-founding member too. Don't despair that I didn't become king of the EU this time, fellow countrymen, it may be our turn next time around.
2. The future Austrian king of the EU will resurrect the Habsburg empire.
3. Look, Chirac and the Belgians preferred somebody dealing with Angola over me, only because of that FPÖ coalition.
4. What the heck, even Benita talks to 101 heads of state in their own language.
5. He's a vote loser just like me, I like him.

[More serious discussion at Fistful of Euros]

2004-06-29

Albanian surfaces 

I watched a half-hour TV program yesterday on Albania’s towns and Austrian development aid projects there. The objective of the program was obviously to make the Austrian projects look good and to give an optimistic outlook on Albania’s future, but still, it was well produced and quite interesting.

The report focussed on the capital of course. I haven’t been in Tirana since the beginning of 1997. Since then, hyperactive mayor Edi Rama has pulled through his now famous program of mural painting: all the previously decrepit building fronts along the main boulevards have been painted decoratively in a wild mix of primary colours; trees have been planted; and, most significant on the symbolic level, the river-bed of the small river Lana that flows through the city-centre has been cleaned up and lined with meticulously kept lawns. In the early nineties, these river-beds had disappeared beneath the anarchic illegal building activities of newcomers from the countryside, much to the dismay of the city’s established population. Rama said in the report he was a believer in the ‘broken window’-theory: every broken window that is not repaired triggers the breaking of several more windows, or, as he put it, hundred additional trees are better than hundred additional policemen. It was symbolic politics at its best. The shiny model of the future city in the national museum, complete with flashing lines of miniature light-bulbs and irregular-shaped glass cones representing a Manhattan-like skyline overdid it a bit.

Albanian intellectual Fatos Lubonja was given two minutes for his view on Tirana’s development. It was left uncommented in the documentary and not picked up again. He said he was an opponent of Rama’s policy, which amounted to boulevardisation rather than urbanisation. Those lovely facades so admired by international visitors were a smoke-screen in front of the unregulated and unchecked building activities of the mafia everywhere behind them, Lubonja said. He said the country was kept in a strangle-hold by the elite with its mafia structures, for whom a shopping-window like those few renovated boulevards in the capital was just ideal.

The report then travelled the rest of the situation. The co-ordinator of Austrian aid in Albania was proud that money was never given to ministries to distribute, but always directly to local NGOs. This, he claimed, means that every cent that is spent can be checked. Good luck to him. Shkodra was found lacking the colourful facades of the capital, and suffering from its opposition spirit, which includes the refusal to pay utility bills to the hostile government. The water power stations in the mountains provided truly spectacular images (note: want to go there once), decent technical improvement work of the bi-national engineering teams, and a female project leader on the Albanian side, a fact that surprised the Austrian film team (‘in such a patriarchal society’) more than viewers who know that in comparison, Austria is not the less patriarchal country of the two. In Durres the film team seemed unsettled by the chaotic drainage and electricity situation in a new illegal settlement – but another heroic NGO has taken up the fight for improvement. Vlora was vaguely about tourism, and a disco party on the beach - organised by the municipality ‘to motivate young Albanians to stay in the country’ - represented the happy end of the documentary.

All in all not bad for thirty minutes, the main surfaces duly covered. Talking repeatedly about surfaces is of course manipulative of me, it implies that there exists a layer of a deeper truth. Something like what was described by Mr Lubonja for example. What counts more, the dynamic surface or the questionable dealings beneath it (assuming, and it’s always only an assumption, that the critics are right)? I believe that both of them matter, in all sorts of countries, not just those undergoing radical change. I’d like to be aware of both sides of the story, and I’d like to be able to make my peace with the situation not only by hoping for the best, but also by assuming the possible worst.

2004-06-28

Unlimited working hours 

The new spokesman of the industrialists lobby has argued [DE] for increasing weekly working hours, without adjusting financial compensation. He sees this as a competitition policy in the face of globalisation, in line with a recent agreement of Siemens Germany with the unions [DE]: 2000 jobs will not be shifted to Hungary for the next two years, because the German workers have agreed to work longer hours for the same pay - good luck to them after the two years are over.

The minister of labor and the economy, Bartenstein, has expressed support [DE]for the proposal, although with financial compensation (hourly wages should stay the same).

I see the economic rationale, but still I'm against this. I don't want to end up in a situation where it is legal to demand that employees work 50 or 60 hours per week, with or without extra pay. A father myself, I can see how this would squeeze out people who want to honor their private obligations from many jobs. The economic pressure in favour of a life-style as a single that rejects all private commitments and responsibilities is strong enough. I would like to see continental Europe as a region that takes a concious social choice against moving further in that direction. The Dutch did this with the Polder Model in the nineties. Why exactly has that become so obsolete, by the way, apart from the change of government? The Economist rode an attack in 2002, and many sources agree that voters just got bored and turned to populism. But hey, they come back sometimes, so let's not give up hope that easily.

Courage 

Karin Miklautsch [DE] is the new Austrian minister of justice, nominated by FPÖ. She is a young civil servant from Carinthia and has held a position in the second tier of the regional administration, dealing with water rights. Under the slogan of promoting women, FPÖ has nominated in the past two female ministers who then fared badly, Elisabeth Sickl and Monika Forstinger. No surprise then that also in this case, Miklautsch's nomination has been met with sneers and contempt by the opposition and the media.

I beg to differ. Miklautsch has said herself that she will need some time to familiarise herself with the tasks of her new job, and that doing it well will be a challenge for her. She is described as an ambitious character, whose pet political topic has been gender mainstreaming. On her surprising nomination, she commented: 'As a woman, when one gets an opportunity, one must take it.' I can see her point in this. In conservative fields of society, such as the justice system, it's unlikely that the best qualified person for a job will be not a man. In this case, as we're looking for a female candidate associated with FPÖ, the choice of women who could do the job will have been quite limited. The result of such a search was bound to be somebody like Miklautsch, so there is no reason for surprise. She may be apt for the job or she may be not, time will tell. Schwarzenegger is turning out to be an acceptable governor of California. If every point of weakness of a female or minority nominee is pounded upon by the public mainstream, we're not going to see much progress towards a more balanced distribution of high-level jobs.

Literary Blogging 

Alban Nikolai Herbst, 'Wer spricht? Kleine Theorie des Literarischen Bloggens (7)' [DE] (via comments to the discussion of this year's Klagenfurt literature prize [DE] at Isenbergs Beobachtungen)

2004-06-24

Squaring the football 

Voters have the right to base their decisions on shallow reasoning. Football fans have the right to support teams on shallow prejudices. But can I explain my football preferences rationally?

Germany was eliminated from the European championships yesterday. There are few supporters of German football teams in Austria. Here is a quick overview of selected Austrian blog coverage: Godany is happy the Germans are out [DE]; TH says if you want to see hatred, watch a German football match in an Austrian pub [DE]; Marie Ringler reports on the cheers of an FPÖ politician for a German goal [DE] during a meeting of the city council; Peter Pilz wonders why he is thrilled when Germany loses [DE].

OK, confession time: I was also pleased with yesterday's result, and yes, I did watch the game on TV (the Netherlands match was running on another channel, but I saw only a few minutes of it.*). As a lame conciliatory note to start with, in the second half the Germans certainly deserved to score one or two goals, they had a lot of bad luck then.

A comparison: I hoped Italy would make it (they have also been eliminated narrowly). The Italy game was highly dramatic and therefore entertaining, quite independent of the sportive aspects, of which I understand not all that much. I like the drama such a game can be, with all the stories and history around it. And usually my sympathies are with the side that is just about to lose - in this case Italy.

A German match watched from my observation point is also a dense yarn. There was a time when Germany had an awesome team. They would always win unless their opponents were lucky, or if Maradona was involved. This image of a near-invincible Germany, so in contrast with the loss-bound Austrians - who one could still take half-serious back then, we're talking 80's -, was hard to digest. So much cultural proximity, so little equality on the world stage. If only, for once, the Germans would lose. (Perceptions in the rest of the world must have been different, something like 'Oh, that economic powerhouse pulling ahead of the rest of the pack even in football')

Eventually German teams started to lose in the second half of the 90's, and there was an initial wave of relief around the globe. Since then the German team has been struggling with a lack of world-class talent, I believe. Rock bottom were the European championships in 2000. Since then, the German team has recovered a bit, but they still lack really impressive players, and so I guess I feel they do not deserve a big success at championships. Their second place at the last World Cup looked like an outlier - and that hypothesis was confirmed yesterday, justice re-established for now.

Which means that, now I'm aware of this overwhelmingly rational explation, I should follow the progress of the German team at the next World Cup with empathy, to see how the new generation of young talented players is shaping up. I really should.

*I also tried to watch the news on the sickening nomination of a government party soldier as president of the control authority [DE] that should check the government, but at least at the 10pm news state TV was completely silent about this. Hello Berlusconi.

2004-06-23

Standing apart 

Since WWII, Austria has been neutral. The formula was designed for a Cold War world and enabled the country to regain its independence after the war. The population got used to it, was proud of thinking of Austria as a mediator on the world stage (particularly under chancellor Kreisky in the 70s), and there is still overwhelming popular support for maintaining the neutrality status.

Obviously, cold war is over, Austria is surrounded by EU member states. This changes the meaning of neutrality, and the last 15 years have seen tortured discussions on a possible re-interpretation of the concept. May I torture too, please?

Neutrality is no longer necessary, it has become a social choice. It means that Austria abstains from playing an active role in armed conflicts. In the modern scenery, this is convenient - no danger of Austrian soldiers being killed in Iraq, Afghanistan, or Kosovo, at least as long as open hostilities are not over (Austrian soldiers do take part in peace-keeping missions). In some of these conflicts - e.g. Kosovo - the Austrian governement as well as popular opinion clearly was in favour of an international military campaign, but due to neutrality, Austria itself abstained. Is this a morally awkward position, as it unloads the burden of the personal risk of soldiers on other countries?

Neutrality is not morally awkward for pacifists. But the dominant support for Austrian neutrality does not come from pacifism. And in principle, Austria professes to an armed neutrality (this is the only version known by international law), which includes a commitment to maintain armed forces for self-defense. This makes neutrality at least slightly odd even for radical pacifists.

Neutrality is not morally awkward if considered a historic duty of the countries whose populations participated in the nazi atrocities during WWII. This is an argument I used to support. But, as the German debate that was started several years ago by chancellor Schröder shows, there is a certain distance in time, combined with a certain maturity of the political system, that makes the imperatives of international solidarity look increasingly stronger in comparison to the obligations of historical remorse.

Neutrality that prevents the deployment of offensive military forces in campaigns supported by the neutral country can be morally acceptable if the country compensates by other support, e.g. financial and humanitarian support for reconstruction. This would have to be on a scale far higher than support given by countries who send soldiers. The Kosovo conflict may be a case in point, where Austria's contribution to reconstruction has been substantial. But in general, a formal commitment to provide outstanding support for reconstruction efforts is not an element of the Austrain neutrality doctrine. [On the international level, this kind of division of labor already exists, a striking example was certainly the first Iraq war, where America contributed the military and the rest of the world contributed the finances. As the second Iraq war has shown, the downside of this is that it is the military arm that makes the decisions. Yet even Britain, which chose to contribute military to the current conflict, has been rather unsuccessful in exercising control over the actions of the US military hegemony.]

In sum, I think that Austria's neutrality can still be defended, and should be accompanied by an exceedingly modest amount of military spending. It should be made clear however, not least to the Austrian electorate, that Austrian neutrality is no free lunch proposition - the money and risk saved on the military should be spent on reconstruction and, when major crises are absent, on greatly increased development aid.

2004-06-22

Strache vs Vana, that is true brutality 

From the bottom drawer of Austrian politics. Heinz-Christian Strache has found a new campaign topic: 'Vienna flooded by streetwalking asylum seekers!' (somewhat reluctant link [DE]).
Vienna was currently overwhelmed by a flood of African prostitutes, most of whom are asylum seekers and can obtain, in addition to their daily allowance of 20 euro, another approximately 3,000 euro of income from the horizontal business. This was the warning of Vienna FPÖ-chairman Heinz-Christian Strache in a press conference. The core of the scandal was that this occurred completely legally, on a directive of the federal police directoriate and with the blessing of the municipality. Although federal law clearly pronounced that asylum seekers are not allowed gainful employment, there was apparently a legal interpretation loophole, exploiting which the federal police directoriate of Vienna interpreted the will of the lawmaker incorrectly, whether intentionally or unintentionally. On the other hand the Viennese prostitution law made a provision that only fundamental reasons for exclusions there(sic!), which means by reciprocal reasoning that asylum seekers can indeed engage in prostitution. Provocatively formulated, this means that the state, or the municipality of Vienna act as pimps in this matter. This was abused by the organised crime of the African asylum-seekers present here to take control of prostitution along with the drugs market, in the case of prostitution completely legally and with the knowledge and and tolerance of the public institutions!
The reader notes that absent from Strache's accusations are any numbers that would give an idea of the size of the alleged problem, so it is left to our imagination to figure out how many of the Viennese prostitutes are either African or asylum seekers. Strache has calculated their income though. If asylum seekers are indeed allowed by law to engage in prostitution - while being banned from any other kind of legal gainful employment - then this would be, quite frankly, bizarre. Although, what the link to specifically African asylum seekers should be must remain completely mysterious to any reader who tries to identify an honest argument here. But since when do populists provide evidence for their claims.

Let's see what Monika Vana of the local Green party made of this in her counter-press release [DE].
A racist all-around-attack and organised chase against sex workers without any proofs, and in best and unsuccessful 'Hump-Dump'-Kabas-manner [Kabas being Strache's helpless predecessor], that is what the accusations raised by FP-chairman Strache need to be called. ... It is dishonouring to put sex workers from Africa globally in the proximity of crime. The Greens have been demanding for years that asylum seekers should get an opportunity to take up work. Because the most effective measure for enabling asylum seekers to lead a meaningful existence is to be active and to have the feeling of being needed. The way Strache imagines it, for one thing not to open the labor market, for another to take away from women any possibility to engage in a legal activity, is nonsense for asylum-policy. ...
In the best case, I find Vana's wording rather unfortunate, in the worst case her message, beyond the Strache-bashing, is quite amazing. First she talks about African sex workers who should be treated fairly. Then, in the next sentence, she demands work permits for asylum seekers. Is this the same issue? The next sentence is talking about meaningful work and being needed. By being a sex worker?? And then Strache is chided for not wanting to allow legal work by asylum seekers while at the same time(?) not allowing legal activity - but what legal activity is Vana now talking about? The only way that sentence makes sense is if she is referring to asylum seeker prostitution as distinct from other types of work for which a work permit would be needed. So, in a situation where general work permits are not granted, Vana is then seriously in favour of a setup where female asylum seekers have a single legal option to earn money, and that is to be prostitutes? Stranger and stranger.

2004-06-21

Lay down your arms? 

So here we are back again, with an agreement on the EU constitution but not on a new president of the commission (fellow blogger British Politics hates EU summits), another FPÖ minister gone and more to follow [DE], a new chairwoman of the mighty Green party in the Vienna municipality [DE] (disclaimer: I know her from student days), but nevertheless football ruling the airwaves.

I ignore all this tasty blogging stuff and force myself to talk about a topic I don't particularly enjoy, namely Austrian defense policy. A multi-party reform commission has recently completed its report to the government on options for reforming the Austrian military. The army is suffering a bit of a legitimacy crisis after having been completely surrounded by EU member states, in addition to the threats of Switzerland and Liechtenstein. What a pity. I still remember the liaison officer visiting our high-school in 1989 (he became a general soon after) who tried to convince us that all this Perestrojka and Glasnost bullshit was a ruse by the communists who wanted to corrupt the West's readiness to fight, in preparation for what could only be a Soviet master-plan for an invasion. Teenage anarchist that I was, one of the political issues dearest to my heart at that time was the abolishment of the army. It was an important issue, after all I was facing the alternative of a) the draft, or b) a humiliating ceremony in front of a commission that interviewed conscientious objectors and based its decisions on recruitment requirements of the military. I managed to sit the commission out - as a student at university, I could delay my service until the much-hated commission was abolished. In return, civilian service was lengthened from 8 to 12 months, which I spent applying my IT knowledge to a noble cause. Ah, history.

Based on the recommendations of the reform commission, the conservative defense minister said yesterday [DE] that the draft may be abolished by 2007, depending on requirements for border control forces. You must know that in the last years most drafted young men have been receiving a training in racism by being stationed at the borders with a mission to catch illegal immigrants. But as the new EU members ratify the Schengen treaties, this will become obsolete. The consequence, a professional army, has long been opposed by the social-democrats, who have historical memories of the use of the army against them in the civil war of 1934(!), but it seems that the idea has now become acceptable to them. Troup strength will be reduced by half, to 50,000.

Remains the question what these troups will do, who they can defend the country against. The minister conceded that tank forces are not really the mandate of the day, and they will be reduced in relation to 'highly movable, well-armoured vehicles'. As the claim that Austria needs a defensive military force has become untenable, it seems that the remnants of the Austrian military will be transformed into a force for rapid deployment across the globe - for peace-keeping or for offensive missions, you choose which. To be fair, military spending levels in Austria lag behind those of most European countries, so the Austrian offensive capability is likely to remain very limited. But my concern from those good old teenage days still lingers: is the Austrian political system to be trusted as a power controlling a military force? Back then my answer was no, based on the role of Austria in WWII. My second answer was that given Austria's history and its current status as a country with an underdeveloped military, there could be a vision where Austria turned into an example of demilitarisation and pacifism in the middle of Europe. I still like that second answer, but I have to admit that I have become sceptical about the benefits of 'special roles' that Austria assumes. It should never be allowed to step outside the European frames of reference - if there is to be a special Austrian military policy, at least it needs to be co-ordinated with the European one.

2004-06-18

Betting on the president 

Place your bet here on the next president of the EU commission.

Antonio Vitorino is chosen by 84% of the site's visitors at this point, but they are not many.

My own preference among the offered candidates might actually be Chris Patten, for the entirely inappropriate reason that I liked his tears at the handover of Hongkong; and I have no clue at all who has a chance to make it. Shows how transparent that process is.

2004-06-17

Moldavia - UPDATE: It's Moldova, stupid 

Sauseschritt has been in Moldavia, which she says has been forgotten by Europe.

I checked whether it has also been forgotten by the English-language web, here are numbers of Google search results for some European countries in the 3-4 million population bracket:

Ireland   35,700,000
Norway    17,200,000
Croatia    9,620,000
Lithuania  7,490,000
Albania    3,530,000
Moldavia     231,000 - UPDATE: Moldova 5,640,000 (see below)


UPDATE: As Randy McDonald kindly points out in a comment, this post is rubbish (this qualification is my own, people writing comments here are usually more polite), because the English word for that country is Moldova. Since Randy's comment was written, the number of Google hits for Moldova has increased from 5,620,000 to 5,640,000. Which means that Albania certainly deserves my further attention - and I know more about it too. Note to German-language bloggers: see how much you can learn by blogging in what you always thought to be English? ;-)

UPDATE II: Never mind that my numbers were wrong, I'm happy to see that Sauseschritt may have been motivated by them to provide more interesting coverage of Moldova (yes, Moldova). She also provides a link to Moldovan news site Moldova Azi that has for example a commentary on whether unification with Romania is a realistic option.

2004-06-16

Styles of talking about politics 

Are there at least these four styles of talking about politics?

Politicians style. Optimism is infectious, so never express any doubts or reflection. Voters like winners. Never say "Although conclusive evidence is lacking, I believe that...". Instead say "It is a scandal that some people deny that..."

Dissatisfied voter style. As you are never perfectly represented, there is always reason to be unsatisfied, and there is never a reason to hold back with criticism. In consequence, most of what you say about politics is expressed in the negative.

Scientific style. View politics as a discourse or power system or structure or network that you analyse, assuming the position of an outside observer, or that of an engaged observer. Anyway, you are always on top of the issues rather than arguing from within them.

Argumentative style. Comment on the issues relentlessly, let it be known what you think. Try to make an argument. Absorb the arguments made already and contribute something new, at least as far as you know. If you are a blogger, allow yourself to be personal, if you are a journalist, don't.

I believe the blogger will have the best time of them all.

FPÖ consistent 

..in its wise policy of self-annihilation. After the EU election, in which the party got diminished to 6%, it has reacted without hesitation and replaced the hapless senior Carinthian Wolfgang Haupt with the harmless Haider-sister Ursula Haubner [DE] as chairwoman of the party. Which voter exactly is that going to appeal to? But who am I to complain.

2004-06-15

What does the result of the EU election mean? 

In the aggregate results for the parliament, little has changed, the conservative (37%) and social-democratic (27%) fractions have stayed almost exactly where they were, the liberals (9%) have gained one percent, and the greens (6%) and communists (6%) have lost in the same order of magnitude. So is the EU politically conservative, and should it adopt conservative policies across the spectrum of issues? I believe that would be an absurd conclusion in political reality, although one could argue for it on an abstract level. But in practice, the national votes are what was and is perceived by voters, and on that level there is large diversity, under the headline that most governments lost votes, never mind whether they are left or right.

What do you do when you have conservative, anti-federalist majorities in some countries, but social-democratic, federalist majorities in others? Obviously it would be dangerous, on such a result, to ignore anti-federalist sentiment and to proceed with an agenda of economic harmonisation and deeper political integration against the majority will of some member countries. This would strengthen secessionist tendencies - and a single country where secession becomes a serious possibility would be a disaster for the EU. In that light, a small majority for the conservatives may be better for the EU in the long term than if there was a small social-democratic majority, quite regardless of which side one favours personally.

It seems rather unlikely that political trends across an area as large and diverse as the EU25 will become more uniform in the future. Therefore I believe that a working EU must be 'diversity-proof' - it should leave room for member countries with different political majorities regarding EU-issues. This implies that the idea of an EU that must 'deepen' substantially before it contemplates further extension (Balkans, Turkey, and beyond) is misguided if one imagines by a 'deep' EU an area in political and economic harmony with itself. That will never come about.

On the other hand, there is no reason why some members should not integrate further in the sense of a core EU, if they have stable and strong majorities that support such a project. Could the anti-federalists be provoked by such a process, if they are free to stay outside?

If the strongest integrationists, like France, Germany, and the Benelux countries, could come to terms with such a diversity-analysis of the EU election results, then this would pave the way for a less crisis-ridden EU. The EU would be able to digest the upcoming big extension steps like Turkey, and it would profit from the resulting economic and political benefits without suffering from the disruption of an illusionary European homogeneity.

2004-06-14

Torture Memo 

The Washington Post makes the extended Torture Memo available, in a scanned PDF version with an aura that breathes Kafka's Strafkolonie. Ghastly.

They also have an excellent commentary about the current state of the political discussion.

Meanwhile top right-wing law blogger Eugene Volokh explains why he does not enjoy discussing the torture scandal, and Crooked Timber says what needs to be said about the reaction of the blogosphere to the memo.

Initial data crunching 

One could make such a great TV program out of these EU-elections! I'm thinking of something similar to the TV coverage of US presidential elections, with results from the 25 member countries coming in in hourly intervals, all sorts of animations showing how the new factions in parliament are building up.. oh well, maybe next time. Still, it's a data feast, if only one had the time to digest it properly... Here are my initial bits and pieces.

1) Austria: SPÖ 33.45% - ÖVP 32.66% - HPM 14.04% - Greens 12.75% - FPÖ 6.33%

2) German-speaking Greens: Vienna 22%, Berlin 23%, Munich 23%, Frankfurt 25%. The time of Green mayors in major German-speaking cities may come within the next 15 years.

3) FPÖ: They are now back to the results they had got for decades as a somehow liberal party (with an ex-Nazi fringe). All the gains Haider made with his campaign of populism and xenophobia since the mid 80's have evaporated. You have to imagine that four years ago the FPÖ had 27% at the national elections to understand the relief felt throughout most of Austria today.

4) HPM: Last Friday I compared the Austrian branch of Europe Transparent unfavourably to their Dutch cousins. The Austrians polled twice as high, gaining votes from all other parties in a resolutely populist style. Populism works.

5) Austrian Greens: I claimed that whenever Greens turn economically mature, they advance from 5% to 10%. They came in at 12.75% on a campaign that keeps both the left-wingers and the liberals on board. With the FPÖ possibly disintegrating further, the Austrian Greens may find themselves in a goverment coalition rather sooner than later. I still think that they cannot escape some tough decisions on how to define themselves in economic policy.

6) Party-changing Baltics: Not only opposition parties, but in the case of Lithuania also a completely new party are the winners in the Baltic states. When I was in Lithuania, I was told that below the surface the main players in the political system are staying more or less the same over the years, even as party names and top-candidates keep coming and going.

7) Populists: Some did well, but still less so than expected (UK Independence Party, Polish Samoobrona), others scored surprisingly high. From a newspaper commentary [DE] in Die Presse:
One stays at home ... or smacks the own government (at least one knows them, and there will be no consequences anyway), or one votes for the protest figure currently in fashion. Five years ago it was Jörg Haider, today it is Hans-Peter Martin. A consistent program or perspective exists neither at the right populists, nor at the left populists. Both remain historic meteors from beer garden's mercy. Their influence in Europe is in no relation to the waves which they manage to stir up in the media time and again.
8) EU commission presidency: Chancellor Schüssel's conservative ÖVP did not manage to come first, but it won 2% compared to the last EU elections. The Austrian conservative media conclude that he has now good chances to become the successor of Romano Prodi at the head of the commission. I'm sceptical, due to his bad international reputation from the time he first went into coalition with the FPÖ.

2004-06-11

Els de Groen 

Paul van Buitenen, the Dutch former EU civil-servant who exposed the corruption under the rule of the Santer-commission and triggered its fall, won two seats (7% of the vote) in the new EU parliament with his list Europa Transparent [NL].

Even more interestingly, the second seat goes to Els de Groen, a fiction writer who has authored several novels about the recent crises in Balkan countries from the perspective of a 'writer in engagement'.

No, the Austrian candidates of the European Transparency Initiative [DE], Hans-Peter Martin and Karin Resetarits, are not equivalent. (Or, frightening thought, are they, at Austrian standards?)

Islands, Fears, and Negativity 

According to opinion polls, the UK Independence Party that advocates a negotiated exit of the United Kingdom from the EU is expected to have done well in the elections for the EU-parliament, with the EU-sceptical Tories also scoring high. I have always remained perplexed by British EU-scepticism, but of course there is a plausible story that it must have to do with the British national mentality of living on a big island and its associated illusions of self-sufficiency.

Compare this with Austria, a small, landlocked country lying at the old watershed between East and West. There is a term from cold war times, "the island of the blessed", which everybody understood to be ironic because, well, for one thing it's no island unless you are suffering from pretty serious delusions. But many Austrians would like their country to be more of an island, to be protected against all the alien chaos that keeps swapping over the borders... I think they are afraid. It would be arrogant to say that these fears are unfounded. For people who are in weak economic positions in society, external influences can sometimes wreck their lives - for example if a job is lost.

Yet there is also genuine, heartfelt negativity, which is dispensed with pleasure on outsiders and their affairs, and I think there is some of this both in British insularism and in Austrian xenophobia. To explain this negativity, one would have to resort to wacky psychologising or historical blame-games, which I'll leave for another time. Anyway, politics has little chance to cure such negativity, so rather it should try to overcome its resistance. The challenge then is to always act along this fine distinction: mentality and fears that you respect, and negativity that you rightly despise.

2004-06-09

On why I'll vote for the Austrian Greens for the EU-parliament 

I believe that economic policy impacts the lives of individuals more than most other issues that are regulated by lawmakers. I would like to know more economics so that I could make confident judgements about economic policies, but from as much as I understand, it seems that even being an economist would not provide a reliable set of guidelines. However, in retrospect one can see quite clearly how some economic decisions have created big problems. Excessive national debt due to government overspending in the 70's and 80's is severely limiting political manoeuvring space. Overregulation in the economy is slowing down adaptation to a changing global environment, and thereby limiting growth, and thereby causing ever increasing unemployment. Ubiquitous welfare and state interventionism is creating a mindset of passive dependence on the state, and suppressing entrepreneurialism. The recipe to address these shortcomings in many cases would be more liberal economic policies.

Unfortunately, when the state cuts back on welfare systems or reduces its involvement in economic affairs, this is perceived as a threat by large parts of the population, rather than as a step towards an opportunity. The people look at the messengers of such liberalisation, and they see wealthy upper-class types, "capitalists", who indeed stand to gain more than the rest of the population from liberalisation. To make matters worse, when right-wing parties propose measures for the compensation of the poorer part of the population who may lose a certain subsidy, they often mix the support measures with elements of a cultural conservatism that is rejected by large parts of the low-income groups, who have grown up with social-democracy.

Unfortunately, Austrian social-democracy has not yet embraced sustainable economic policies (recent cases in point: pension reform, globalisation), but is maximising votes on a program of exploiting its cultural hegemony combined with populist interventionist economics.

I see the Greens as the political force that is best placed in Austria to advance sustainable policies across the range of political issues. It has a culturally liberal (sometimes avantgardist and therefore unpopular) background, and has struggled for the last ten years to develop a more grown-up approach to economic policy. Most European Green parties have not arrived at a reasonable approach to economic policy yet, but the German Greens have come pretty far under the pressure of responsibility in government, and I keep hoping that the Austrian Greens will follow their example (whenever Greens turn economically mature, their election results jump from 5% to 10% it seems). In a country like Austria, the crucial task for the Greens is to pick up socially liberal voters and to offer to them an economic policy that is liberal because of sustainability objectives rather than because of narrow capitalist group-interest.

Yet, in every election campaign I hear things from the Greens that make me cringe in discomfort, such as the inflationary but utterly ill-defined use of the word neoliberalism, alluded intentions to create a centralised economy and welfare system across the EU (IMO the EU needs to respect and thrive on its growing diversity), irresponsible ad-hoc foreign policy positions courtesy of Mr Voggenhuber etc. And I'm never sure how much of the potential I see in the Greens is fact and how much is just my own utopian projection. Voter's headache.

Footnote: Oh, and about ecology. At least in Austria, there's hardly any difference on this between the parties any longer.

2004-06-08

Devil talking 

Draft Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, Article II-45.1
Every citizen of the Union has the right to move and reside freely within the territory of the Member States.
What if the movement and residence were not quite so free, but you actually had to pay for them? What if each region had the right to set a residence tax, to be paid by everybody except the natives? If Austrian xenophobes had their say, they could set the residence tax very high. Immigration would stop, non-native residents would flee to cheaper regions, the economy would come crushing down. Once the citizenry would be cured from its folly, it might lower the residence tax rate. Eventually, if the society remains xenophobic, it would find an equilibrium with some relatively wealthy immigrants and a relatively high-price economy. Other regions might be interested in relatively much immigration to grow their economies and to keep prices down, and they would provide the necessary measures like housing programs to make this level of immigration work. Assuming pessimistically that all richer European countries are xenophobic about poorer immigrants, they would all have a high residence tax (harmonised maybe?), which would make it harder for workers from poor areas to migrate to the rich core for work. But it would be legal, and the most ambitious and hard-working among immigrants would still make a go for it. And the economic cost of xenophobia would be transparent to every voter in the rich core.

Just thinking about EU extension around the mediterranean shores in our time.

2004-06-07

Weekend events 

High quality writing from the A-list:

On D-Day, Bjørn Stærk

On Reagan, Andrew Sullivan

Campaign for EU-elections winding up 

..and here, after yesterday's TV confrontation of the top candidates from the four 'parties already represented in the current EU-parliament' (phrase by which national broadcaster ORF excluded the HPM-list that runs third or fourth in the polls), is the case for voting for each of them (and here's my election prediction from 28 April):

Vote SPÖ! Social-democracy for the whole world! Think about unemployment - it's because the EU is for the multinationals, not for the people. We put the people first, not the economy. The EU budget should be frozen at 1% of national GDPs, but it is the responsibility of the EU to resolve the problem of unemployment and unfair competition from people who work for less money than you do. And did we mention unemployment?

Vote ÖVP! Freedom, Peace, Prosperity! This is what the EU is about, and we represent the European mainstream! We are proud of our nationalist focus regardless. We are the best Austrians in the EU. All the other parties are leftist (yes, that includes the far-right FPÖ), because they all oppose the EU's economic liberalism! We are the government, but this election is not about our performance. Our performance is good.

Vote FPÖ! You can choose us for our top-candidate if you are a romantic environmentalist and animal-rights activist, or you can choose us for our other top-candidate if you are a germanophile nationalist of the extreme right. Or you can choose us because we, like you, are against almost everything, and almost everybody is against us.

Vote Greens! I am Johannes Voggenhuber, and I have drafted the EU constitution. That is why the Greens are the only real Europeans on this ballot. All these national politicians haven't grasped yet that they are obsolete. Or are you for neoliberalism, like the finance minister who has vampire teeth and sucks your tax-blood?

Vote HPM! Yes, that stands for Hans-Peter Martin MEP! I have my own party now! My sole objective is to be against those greedy, overambitious MEPs! The EU parliament is ridden by Stalinism and totalitarianism - give me your vote for a fair democratic culture beyond the exaggerations.

Vote Linke! No, we are not the Communist Party. No, the Communist Party does not cover more than most of our campaign budget. Utopia never wins anything at the national elections? Vote for it in Brussels, vote for the only party that makes a real difference!

Hm, I notice that I have been more seriously thoughtful about this in the past. Maybe I'll save my declaration of endorsement for another post then, when the bile has settled down a bit..

2004-06-04

Should Eurostat adjust Europe's economic outputs by Purchasing Power Parity? 

Yesterday Eurostat published its first 'GDP per capita nowcast' for the EU-25. It runs under the headline "GDP per capita in new Member States ranges from 42% of EU25 average in Latvia to 83% in Cyprus".

For the non-economist that I am, there are a few points in this that look puzzling.

The first mistake one can make is to think of these data points as a measure of average population wealth, or average income. Such a mistaken interpretation is somehow suggested by Eurostat's adjustment of its data to purchasing power parity (PPP). PPP-adjustment scales the raw figures to reflect the different cost of a representative basket of goods and services in each country. But of course, GDP is not wealth or income, but rather something close to the total turnover in a national economy. And so the PPP-adjustment is not done to show how much the average consumer can buy, but only to get a measure of the size of each country's economy in terms of its own price levels. The advantage of this is that it irons out short-term swings in currency exchange rates, which can lead to huge swings in unadjusted GDP/head ratios in multi-year time series. Here are some good illustrations of this difference. So far so good.

Next, all honest sources admit that the econometrics that leads to PPP-adjusted data is complicated, leads to time delays, and can never be as precise as reporting raw GDP/head figures. But, as Walter Stanners explains,
Be all that as it may, Keynes’ observation applies. It is better to be approximately right than to be precisely wrong, and it is abundantly clear that cross-country comparisons using precise market currency conversion rates are too volatile ever to be right.
But my concern is a different one. We are supposed to use PPP-adjusted data for comparing different countries. So, for example, to compare the economy of Ireland to the one of Austria and to the one of Lithuania. The Eurostat figures have Ireland at 131 units, Austria at 121 units, and Lithuania at 46 units. However, while Austrian GDP/head in 2003 was 27849 euro, Lithuanian GDP/head was 4684 euro (source). What people do with comparisons is to relate the compared items to each other in various ways. And therefore, inspite of all the warnings, when people like myself read these figures reported in the daily press (which loves such stories), they have thoughts like: the average Irish company/individual has X times more spending power than its Austrian equivalent, so when it comes to Austria it can buy X times more than at home. Eurostat wants me to think in PPP for the first half of the sentence, and in unadjusted GDP for the second half. But companies invest, people travel or migrate - and it's exactly at those times that they think about cross-national economic differences. PPP-adjustement is misleading here, especially where economic differences between compared countries get larger and PPP diverges further from GDP/head. The Lithuanian thinking about economic opportunities in Austria would have a ratio of 5.9 in mind, and not the PPP-adjusted 2.6 suggested by Eurostat.

So PPP-adjustment is complicated, imprecise, slow, and misleading for most of the audience of such reports. Is this not a case for, at least, reporting unadjusted GDP/head along with it?

2004-06-03

Sloterdijk's bubbles in Der Falter 

Der Falter has an interview with philosopher Peter Sloterdijk [DE]. Sloterdijk makes three independent, highly interesting arguments there:

1. He criticises the Hardt and Negri 'Empire'-theory, comparing it unfavourably to Dostojewskij's notion of the 'crystal palace':
The big advantage of the crystal palace metaphor is signalled already by the name. Here one is dealing with a building which creates an enormous difference between inside and outside. On the other hand, the concept 'empire' suggests that everything is already covered by the system. On closer inspection on realises that Negri is professing to a mysticism of being opposed, which needs the Whole as opponent - in the way in which Christ once needed the world as backdrop for his flight from the world. I read this as a requiem for left radicalism.
2. Sloterdijk claims that all politics in continental Europe is and will remain social-democratic. The positions of the welfare state are just too deeply entrenched everywhere in continental Europe, and the idea of welfare as a tool to keep the masses in the mood for ever increasing consumption is not challengeable.

I believe there is a core of truth in this observation. Listening to people's conversations in public places over the holiday weekend, it is amazing how frequently the conversation topic seems to be access to this or that welfare scheme, how this or that person manages to get so and so many extra euros from the state by making this or that claim. Economic ambition is geared towards access to welfare, even in the middle classes who don't seem to be in desparate need of money, and even for welfare schemes that provide insignificantly small monthly payouts. In this sense, the Austrian political system really seems to be soaked with social-democracy. However, the cultural mood seems to be quite different in the emerging economies of Europe - an interesting and potentially productive tension.

Sloterdijk also mentions the crisis of this continental system, which continues to drop more and more people at the bottom of the welfare scale into poverty, as they are no longer supported due to expiring unemployment benefits etc.

3. Sloterdijk believes that the European Union now fills its historically grown boundaries, and that further extension might be "fatal", because the new members alone will have large need for financial transfer in the coming years that they will not be willing to share, say, with Turkey.

This argument seems weak to me. Once Slovenia is in, why should Croatia stay out? Once Croatia is in, why should Bosnia and Herzegovina stay out? And so on. Every final border drawn at the 'periphery' would be unjust.

Fun 

Peter Pilz's webpage make-over has already attracted a fair number of links today, but it deserves them, so here is another one [DE]. Don't miss the baby-photos with captions [DE]. The guy is almost too hilarious to be a politician.

2004-06-02

Report on building a political Europe 

A commission of senior politicians headed by Dominique Strauss-Kahn has produced a report on building a political Europe, apparently on request by Romano Prodi. Warning! This .pdf is 112 pages long (sigh). I found this here, via the anti-federalist think-tank EURSOC who are of course alarmed about the whole thing.

There is a lot of dynamite in this report, even on quick inspection. Take for example:

Proposal 33: create the first European tax, which could take the form of a
supplementary company tax.


That European corporate tax is proposed to be 0.3% initially, and should offer a first step towards corporate tax harmonisation:

It would make it possible to limit tax competition between Member States, which chiefly centres on this tax.

However, the authors emphasise that they do not include corporate tax under the notion of "unfair tax schemes", which is the topic of Proposal 6:

But, paradoxically, the main source of competition is Europe itself: the European
countries have engaged in fierce competition to attract international investment to
their territory. They have entered into a process of bidding down tax and welfare
requirements, culminating in the development of unfair tax competition in the form of
tax havens for foreign investors.

Proposal 6: Introduce a legal ban on unfair tax schemes in Europe.


And on the limits of the European Union, page 109:

If the Union is to exist at that time(in 50 years time, GN), account must be taken of the area in which European (sic) exercises its historical responsibility — an area which extends over the entire territory which has been the cradle of our civilisation.
So the Union's vocation is to group together all territories which, from the northern ice to the southern sand, surround the Mediterranean shores — a Mediterranean which we should begin thinking of as our own sea.


And page 112:

Proposal 50: draw the territory of the Union in concentric groupings: a politically closely integrated core open to all; a grouping close to the existing European Union, preparing to enlarge; a wider group of affiliated countries who may one day join, based on economic, financial and social solidarity.

The summary of all 50 proposals is on pp.21-25.

My own tentative position is that I am for political union in such a sense, but also for fair economic competition among EU member countries.

2004-06-01

Albanian newspaper headlines 

For those of you who have lapsed lately in your daily reading of Albanian newspapers, here's a roundup of today's headline stories.

Koha Jone, the biggest tabloid daily, challenges prime-minister Fatos Nano to take real measures against corruption by his ministers, rather than just engaging in the naming and persecution of another few scapegoats, albeit at the relatively high level of General Secretaries as in a press-conference yesterday. Otherwise, Koha Jone predicts as it has for some time, Nano is heading for demise, even within his own socialist party.

Meanwhile daily Shekulli reports that one of Nano's men is implicated in the current project to create a waste processing plant in the vicinity of Tirana, which will not only process waste from Albania's major cities but also large quantities of imported garbage from Italy. The paper decries a conflict of interest among rumours about the incentives received from the Italians. For me this is also a strange story about comparative advantage.

Rilindja Demokratike, the paper of the right-wing opposition that is still widely despised for its involvement in the disasterous pyramid schemes of the nineties, is outraged over the "scandal of scandals" as it alleges that the prime-minister has lied when he published his declaration of private belongings last week (Albanian politicians make such declarations as part of the anti-corruption programs). Nano declared that his Mercedes was a present from the local DaimlerChrysler dealer, whereas according to the paper it was a present from a businessman whose name is published in the article. Nano also declared a 260sqm flat in the center of Tirana as a present he gave to his second wife. Nano declared he paid 35000 euro for the flat, from money that he received from the state for his unlawful imprisonment during the rule of right-wing parties in the nineties. The paper attacks on all fronts, claiming that the apartment is in reality three times bigger, worth fifteen times more, and that Nano declared previously that the money from his prison time went to his first wife as part of the divorce.

The socialist party newspaper Zeri i Popullit is reporting that opposition-leader Sali Berisha has declared his own income since eviction from power to be as low as 4000 euro per year, all of which is put in scare quotes by the paper. The waste processing plant is argued to prevent ecological disasters rather than provoking them.

And finally, the monthly political magazine Klan runs a commentary on Fatos Nano's generally bad relations with most media in the country. The paper points out that inspite of the acrimonious relationship, Nano often manages to instrumentalise the press for his purposes when he needs its support. The author rejects Nano's accusation that the Albanian press is behaving irresponsibly:
The irresponsibility in Albania is a proportional dimension, which is to be found distributed in equal measure in the political system, in the economy, in the security apparatus, in friendship, or also at the head of government. In a proportion that is neither inferior nor superior to that of the whole Albanian society.

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