The EU: better to jaw-jaw than war-war

An entertaining and bitingly satirical novel about the European Union has finally been translated into English. The book is The Capital by the Austrian writer Robert Menasse. 
Foreign Policy magazine has the best review:

The deification of negotiation and compromise is expressed in the union’s famously bureaucratic procedures, its love of norms and baroque protocol. As long as this way of doing politics was infused with the memory of the devastation that preceded the founding of the union, it had a raison d’être. Better the language of labyrinthine bureaucracy than hate speech; better to jaw-jaw than war-war.

The Capital catches the moment when the bureaucracy forgets the reason for its creation and becomes something that exists simply to perpetuate itself and thus can no longer justify its existence to the general public.

I ordered my copy in German and look forward to the evocation of memories of my 25 years living in Europe, from pre-Maastrich EFTA to monthly meetings with European Union officials in Luxembourg during the early 80s.

By the way, it is only fair that the EU finds itself in disarray. Consider the story about how the Treaty of Rome, which laid the groundwork for what was to become the EU, was signed on blank pieces of paper, and you will understand its malaise.

Taliban: We’re baaack!

The Taliban have long predicted that they would exhaust the patience of US and Nato forces. Now, with the US in direct face to face negotiations over a deal that allows their troops to leave and the Taliban to return to a position of power, do those predictions look set to become reality. Key issues such as women’s rights, the justice system, press freedom and the future of the Afghan constitution are being left in the dust.

“We are clear that we are the strongest entity on the battlefield and the political front, while the government have their fridges stacked full of dead soldiers and are not even involved in the current talks. And we foresee an Afghanistan that is ruled according to shariah law.” Haji Anwar, Taliban soldier.
“My fighters are not tired of war and we can see that even the Americans recognise us as the most important group in Afghanistan. We will take the whole country back, step by step, by war or peace.” Taliban commander codenamed Abdullah.

Afghanistan was once a country set to become an economic wonder. From 1956 to 1979, with aid primarily from the Soviet Union and the United States, roads, dams, power plants, and factories were constructed, irrigation projects carried out, and education broadened. In the 1950s and 1960s, some of the biggest strides were made toward a more liberal and westernized lifestyle. However, after the Soviet Union left the country in 1989 subsequent mujahideen and Taliban governments turned towards mostly illicit enterprises, such as growing opium poppies for heroin production and smuggling goods. It is estimated that Afghanistan produces more than nine-tenths of the world’s opiates. Many segments of the population, including the Taliban and supporters of the central government, profit from opium production. It seems all is lost.

Afghanistan 1978
Afghanistan Present

Recommended reading: Caravans, by James A. Michener. First published in 1963.

Written as memoir of an employee of the American embassy, it vividly captures the complicated Afghan life, in the post world-war II era. Today, when we think of Afghanistan, we invariably think of it as a victim caught in the struggle of world super-powers during the cold war, the struggle that finally led to militant movements and the way wars are fought on world scale. But, this book brings us back the memories of the time when the atom bomb had literally shocked the world.

United Kingdom: cash-for-passports scandal

Russian and Chinese millionaires can buy access to British passports by exploiting a flawed Home Office scheme fast-tracking the super-rich, an investigation has revealed. The scheme — which requires a minimum £2m investment in a UK company — has admitted more than 11,000 people since it was set up in 2008. Officially called the tier 1 investor visa, the scheme gives wealthy foreigners the right to live in the UK and the chance to apply later for full citizenship and a passport. Unlike other nations, the UK does not ask visa applicants to pay any of the £2m sum to the government or stipulate that the money should create British jobs or boost areas of deprivation. It does not stop investors taking the money back offshore after they have secured the right to live permanently in Britain.

Introspection in the European Union

Two articles caught my attention today and both deal with the EU’s realization that it must pull up its socks and get real if it wants to be a player in the international game of thrones. To quote:

The EU’s foreign policy is inadequate to the task of keeping Europe safe in today’s world of great power politics and uncertainty.

Over the last five years, trust between Brussels and member states dwindled, and policy came to reflect the lowest common denominator of popular opinion.

The coming five years herald acute pressure on Europe, particularly as Russia, China, and the US undermine multilateral institutions and treat trade, finance data, and security guarantees as instruments of power rather than global public goods.

European countries are increasingly vulnerable to external pressure that prevents them from exercising their sovereignty.

This vulnerability threatens the European Union’s security, economic health, and diplomatic freedom of action, allowing other powers to impose their preferences on it.

Most fundamentally, the EU needs to learn to think like a geopolitical power. 

The EU’s common foreign and security policy was established under the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. 26 years later it is still learning how adopt a geopolitical mindset. Maybe its time for a European Security Council, as proposed by Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. Even Africa has the African Union Peace and Security Council. Why should Europe lag behind?

Democracy: first Ukraine, then Russia?

Interview with Boris Akunin, whose pen name is Grigori Chkhartishvili, and is Russia’s best-known writer of detective and historical fiction. He is also a critic of Russian President Vladimir Putin. Akunin spoke out in 2014 against the annexation of Crimea, and has lived in self-imposed exile since. Here are some excerpts.

Leave Russia to its own destiny. It is a country which needs to grow up, to make some difficult choices by itself. What the West can do and, I think, should do is to help Ukraine, a new country, a young democracy, still unstable and very vulnerable. If democracy in Ukraine wins, it would be a huge boost to the democratic movement in Russia. For us Ukraine is a sort of alternative Russia—only without the burden of imperialist nostalgia and free to elect its leaders. But it is a poor and disorganized country. Russians look at this and tell themselves: democracy is no good. To put it very simply: if Ukrainians under democracy start to live better than Russians, Russia will turn in that direction too. So help us by helping them…. (Russia is) still is a hyper-centralized system where all important decisions are made at the center. Such a system is chemically incompatible with democracy.

I think that democracy has reached a certain level and cannot go further. Like a giraffe who grew up and reached the ceiling with its head. Now is the time to break into the next stage. New forms and new words have to be discovered. The main threat to Western democracy today, I think, is the inability of the intellectual elite to communicate adequately with the electorate. Mass media, public intellectuals, liberal politicians have become too arrogant, too stuck within their own milieu.