Tuesday, 28 June 2016

How can we explain the Exit vote?


Explaining Brexit to a Taiwanese friend 

Dear Hsiu Ju,

My first thought, on hearing that the referendum resulted in a 52:48 vote for leaving the European Union, was a sort of stunned disbelief. How could we?  Why did Cameron chose to have a referendum now? Maybe he tricked himself into it.

It is ironic that the two campaigns did not meet each other’s arguments. There was little deployment of the emotional case for staying (apart from Gordon Brown, and John Major). There was little clarification of the elected and thus democratic nature of the two European councils and parliament, and their supremacy over the commission (except by Professor Michael Dougan). No-one pointed out that we could alread operate a points based system for non-EU immigrants, but chose to let them in for several over-riding reasons (humanitarian, or selfish). There was no answer by the 'leavers' to the financial case for ‘remain’, except to repeat lies about £350 million per week. The press and broadcast media may have let us down; been biased, or feeble. But such a conclusion smacks of paranoia, and in any case only pushes the question back one stage. There are undeniable problems with the Euro, the Concilium is cliquey, the Commission is too powerful and too independent, and the fiasco in the Middle East has placed a new strain on the open borders, but these point where hardly discussed.

So, there was an inadequate debate; just slogans. But can democracy be so easily fooled? Perhaps it would be wiser to assume that those who voted for exit had good reasons.  

A scrutiny of the results showed several clear trends. The young favoured 'Remain'; the old favoured 'Exit'. It also emerged that northerners, labourers, and the less educated do not want to be in the union, and it is easy to see why; they suffer by it. You ask me what people were thinking about when they voted ‘leave’. I have heard the following points of view, and put them in roughly the following order.
1. Some people think that too many east Europeans are coming to the UK, drawing Social Security, or taking jobs and lowering wages. (Of course, such immigration is in general welcomed by those who buy labour, but is bad for all those who sell labour, or need charity.)
2.  Some cry “Give us back our sovereignty”. I believe this attitude is partly based on a mistake. Democratically elected British representatives in the European Parliament and Council of Ministers approved most of the laws made by Europe, but did not have the guts to say so to a divided Britain. The media found it amusing to ridicule the 'foreigners'; and of course there are always SOME protesters to disparage any law. There may even be some European laws (or rulings), that a majority of British people object to, but we certainly do not know that, because such a question has never been put to a referendum. From my perspective, European laws are well made, and the process is wonderfully open to scrutiny. On the other hand the Union does seem destined to make some mistakes: the problems with the Euro, the Commission being too powerful and independent, the move simultaneously to widen and deepen the Union.
3. It was said that we pay £350 million a week to Europe, and many voters will have thought that was far too much. They were apparently unaware that we got most of it back, either as money or as benefit (farm subsidies, bridges built, etc.). There is a suspicion that the bureacracy of the Union wastes money, but this is largely in ignorance; the audit is thorough, and the civil service very much smaller than our own on a per caput basis. Britain is above average wealthy (in the context of Europe ), and so we contribute some money to be spent on poorer parts of Europe (as also other parts of the world). Some people probably objected to us funding donations to recipients chosen by Europe rather than Britain. Indeed, I have occasionally wondered why it has been assumed that the traditionally poorer countries of southern Europe need to be brought up to the same standard of living as the chilly countries of northern Europe, when they enjoy such a stunningly superior climate. "Free movement of peoples" would have evened things out.
4. The trend in Europe seemed to be for continued expansion. The idea of 78 million turkish muslims joining Europe may have alarmed a number of voters.

Our parliament is sovereign in the UK, and should debate what we should do. (With Proportional Representation that should have made a referendum unnecessary.) There is no law that says we have to ‘obey’ a referendum. (Only 39% of voters called for exit (0.76 x 0.52)). There are solid financial grounds for remaining in Europe, and cultural and political benefits from remaining in, and improving, the Union. On the other hand there are solid objections that must be met. The absence of a specific and detailed alternative to the European Union is scary, and the task of creating one is rather daunting; but those would be poor reasons for staying.
I hope that I have been fair.
Ian West, Middleton Cheney, Banbury.

Monday, 6 June 2016

The Evolving European Union (3)


Did the UK spoil the European Project?
I think the fact that the European Union is under strain, and its fabric creaking alarmingly is, at least in part, the fault of Great Britain.
A club was set up with the clearly formed, but partly hidden, objective of making cooperation pay (in monetary terms) to such an extent that the key states in Europe would voluntarily integrate their economies and war would become unthinkable.
For some reason** we (the UK) opted to stay out but, after a decade, began to envy the economic advantages of membership; and after a further decade we joined the club, in 1973. But we did so with reservations, with our fingers crossed, so-to-speak. A sizable section of the UK thought it possible to have the economic advantages without the integration. Meanwhile the core (and founding) members of the club continued with their original and by now perfectly explicit intention of integration.
Since the UK joined the European Union, there has been steady progress in two somewhat conflicting directions — widening, and deepening. I believe Britain was as keen as any country to enlarge the Union with the inclusion of the Mediterranean countries, and the countries of Eastern Europe freed from the Soviet Union following the removal of the Berlin wall in 1990. Enlargement would increase the size of the 'Single Market', and at the same time secure the democratization of these once-Soviet countries. Meanwhile the deepeners proceeded with their project by abolishing passport controls (1995) over the 26 countries of the Schengen Area, and introducing a single common currency for the 19 countries of the Euro Group (1999/1/1). The UK opted out of both those deepening steps. But even for the 2 EU countries that have opted out of the Schengen area (UK and Eire) there is no way we can exclude the entry of EU passport holders.
Now, in June 2016, we have some vociferous voices in Britain wishing that we had not opened our border so generously to mass immigration of Eastern Europeans. It is ironic, is it not? We thought we could have their labour and their markets without having to share our social services and welfare-state. (And I suppose we could, had we sufficiently anticipated.) Likewise, there are skeptics who claim there is a logical fallacy in having countries like Germany and Greece sharing a common currency; dour, mercantilist, credit-countries and sunny debtor-countries. German and French banks were happy to receive regular interest payments from Greece and Portugal, but were not prepared to shoulder their bad debts. Is it not ironic, and reprehensible, that this failure to pay was not foreseen by the lenders? I, and others, think it is perfectly possible for rich and poor countries to share a currency, with iron discipline (see Ecuador and the USA); but Martin West and other argue convincingly that it is indeed impossible to manage a currency that suits both Greece and Germany equally.
 What happens if we vote to leave? Do we lick our wounds, see how many countries choose to leave with us, then establish an alternative union more to our liking?
What happens if we stay? Do we start attending more creatively to the debates that shape the Union, rectify knows weaknesses, and learn to live with our neighbours?
I can face either possibility, but I would grieve if our exit led to the collapse of the whole European project, grieve for the immense and high-minded effort that has gone into creating a unique Union of cooperating states, over these last 65 years.
(** Perhaps a smug conceit that we had little to learn and, with our Commonwealth, little to gain,)

Friday, 27 May 2016

David Chapman and Meaningness


Meaningness and Eternalism

For years David Chapman has been grappling with, and  developing online, his views on the age-old problems of morality and the 'meaning of existence'; problems that have dogged mankind for thousands of years, and which, until the last few hundred years, were solved by religion (in its widest sense). In the last few centuries the proportion of the human population that feel bound to reject religion has been growing, leaving more and more people nagged by the worrying possibility that our lives are pointless.  Chapman talks about purpose, ethics, and selfhood, but in a manner that he believes is neither religious nor philosophical, for he thinks of himself as anti-religious, and anti-philosophical.
His rejection of religion has centred on the concept of 'eternalism'.  Eternalism, according to Wikipedia, is a philosophical approach to the ontological nature of time, which takes the view that all points in time are equally real, as opposed to the 'presentist' idea that only the present is real and the 'growing block universe' theory of time in which the past and present are real while the future is not. Chapman clearly has in mind faith-systems like Christianity, Islam, communism; systems that provide believers with answers to the otherwise insoluble problems of ethics, metaphysics, and politics. He sees (I suppose) a common feature in that the answers provided are unchallengeable precisely because they are not contingent on time and place; they provide answers for all time; so he calls them 'eternalist'. Chapman rejects 'eternalism', and its false promises. I see the common feature of these religious (and perhaps also political) systems to lie in the way they are propagated, held, and justified. I call them 'faith-based', as I see that the propositions are supported not by observation, experience, or logic, but by hearsay, authority, and wishful-thinking. And I reject them on those grounds. (Communism does not fit neatly here, and needs another paragraph.)
But I agree that they are 'eternalist', so far as that goes. And agree that they are attractive to their devotees in their comprehensiveness, and in providing a feeling of certainty; a feeling that is seductive, but illusory. Chapman goes on to explore the way we love to feel we understand things even when we do not. Few people can tell us exactly how a tin-opener works, or a bicycle, or the tides; though most of us are happy with out sketchy level of understanding. I confess to having a great love of certainty (even siding with Einstein in the Born-Einstein debate about 'God playing dice'). And confess to finding it unexpectedly hard to explain tides if we go at it at all thoroughly. However, I avoid the mistake of thinking that I can explain tides, because I have several times tried, and know the difficulty (E.g. why two tides per day. Why two equal tides, if the density of water and earth are different.) On the other hand, I was not too rattled to find I did not know (until I thought about it) which leg of the tin-opener had the cog, which the cutting wheel. It is after all sufficient to know 'how to use it'.
This is interesting, but I suggest it is not relevant to his central problem, which is to find a way of answering the recurring question of  'the meaning of existence' that is not simply an unsupported, eternalist statement of faith.
In order to search for and find this elusive quality, David Chapman felt he had to name it and, as no name currently existed, he invented the word 'Meaningness'. (It is possible that the word 'meaningfulness' might have sufficed, but was already in use and could not be 'patented'.) Perhaps we could look at it this way: we spend 2 hours of our life watching a film and, depending on the film, we feel benefited, or we feel we have wasted our time. We are, in this, discussing the 'meaningness' of the film; not the 'meaning' of the film, which is a quite different question. Or we could ask, as perhaps David Chapman does, 'what is the meaning of our life?' How much or how little does it have of the quality of 'meaningness'? 
But in the very act of asking that question he is, I believe, creating his problem, for to ask the question seems to imply that there is an answer; that there is a 'purpose'; that there is someone (or some thing) that can harbour an intention, and has the ability to arrange things thus, or differently. Those are implication we have already rejected. (Vide supra.) If you deny all possible answers, then you should not ask the question.
It seems to me that David Chapman has not yet achieved his goal, for much of his online Meaningness hypertext consists of 'place-holders' labelled "work in progress". But I think he is working on the right lines. His work is almost a Baconian Novum Organum of Meaningness, for he treads his way round the topic, testing each vision in his mind for its meaningness. He is building up a list of reactions to situations using his own 'feeling' of meaningness.
To my way of thinking this quest is indeed philosophical, and I suspect Chapman only declared himself anti-philosophical so that he did not have to read up all the myriad words that preceding philosophers have written on the subject. I believe the 'answer' will be a sort of objective subjectivity, for I see the possibility of a 'natural history of the human mind', where the subject matter lies inside the brain of the investigator, but the objectivity arises from the existence of similar brains. I believe morals are generated by the individual mind, but tested and verified by society, as I have blogged elsewhere.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

The Evolving European Union (2)

European Legislation

Laws, remember, are made in the European Union jointly by the European Parliament and Council (concilium  or Council of Ministers), on both of which Britain is represented in an appropriate manner.

Someone has said that 60% of laws that apply to us in Britain were made in the European Union; are in effect European Laws. Well, the number might be 58% according to FullFact.org; but never mind the exact proportion, it still makes my friend Peter feel bossed around by strangers, deprived of his sovereignty.

However, it does not have that effect on me. I surf my way to eur-lex.europa.eu and in less than a minute I find I have access to the entire legislative process of the EU cataloged by year back to the beginning; brilliantly transparent, brilliantly lucid. I find that the products of the EU legislature are of 3 types:
[1]   Regulations; which apply in a binding way across all members states of the Union.
[2]   Directives; which only become binding in any particular country if that country adopts and enacts their own law to that effect.
[3]   Decisions; which relate to individual cases, as between two competing slaughterhouses in Cyprus.

My friend Peter is therefore concerned only about the Regulations, of which some 1500 were passed by the EU in 2014 and again in 2015. Let us take at random Regulation (EU) 2015/2284 of the ‘European Parliament and Council’ of 25 Nov 2015 repealing Council Directive 76/621/EEC relating to the fixing of the maximum level of erucic acid in oils and fats. Does Peter object to that being repealed, purely (we are told) for tidiness and clarity?  I think not. Or Regulation (EU) 2015/2421 amending Regulation 861/2007 establishing a European Small Claims Procedure. No problem, surely? The Laws passed by Europe seem timely, well drafted, fair; in short competently done. If they were not passed in Brussels they would have to be passed anyway in London.

What might make anyone a trifle uneasy is the thought of that team of 23,000 civil servants beavering away in their clever, methodical, way. Why not 25,000? Or 30,000? Parkinson’s Law applies in Britain; so I suppose it might apply also in Europe. We should look next at the Court of Auditors, to see if they are doing their job.


If there is any serious criticism of the European Union --  we should fix it.

Friday, 15 April 2016

The Evolving European Union (1)

The Evolving European Union

The European Union (EU) has evolved greatly since its inception (in 1951) as the European Coal and Steel Community, an inspiration of French foreign minister Robert Schumann with the explicit aim of using economic self-interest to drive the political union of war-ravaged France and Germany. Five countries immediately expressed interest in joining France: Germany, Italy and the 3 Benelux countries. The founding treaty of Paris created a supra-national ‘High Authority’ which eventually became the Commission, but almost immediately tension began to develop, as the component national governments (particularly France) resented their loss of sovereignty, and used the inter-national ‘Council of Ministers’ to control the power of the supra-national ‘Commission’. The present-day (2016) European Union is defined in the 2007 Treaty on European Union. But the institution continues to develop informally under the stresses of the times, such as the lingering debt crisis that has followed the collapse of numerous banks in 2008, and the immigration that has resulted from instability in the middle-east.

The Treaty on European Union (2007) establishes and names the 7 institutions in the following order.

[1]  The European Parliament (EP) is the directly elected parliamentary institution of the European Union (EU). Together with the Council of the European Union (the Council) and the European Commission, it exercises the legislative function of the EU. The Parliament is composed of 751 members, who represent the largest trans-national democratic electorate in the world (375 million eligible voters in 2009). It has been directly elected every five years by universal suffrage since 1979.

The European Parliament is the supreme institution in the EU; it therefore supervises the executive body of the EU (the European Commission) which is thus accountable to Parliament. In particular, Parliament (since 2014) elects the President of the Commission, and approves (or rejects) the appointment of the Commission as a whole. It can force the Commission to resign as a body by adopting a motion of censure.

[2]  The European Council is the institution of the European Union (EU) that comprises the heads of state or government of the member states, along with President of the European Council and the President of the European Commission. The High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy also takes part in its meetings. Established as an informal summit in 1975, the European Council was formalised as an institution in 2007 by the Treaty of Lisbon, which came into force in 2009.

[3]  The Council of the European Union (often still called the 'Council of Ministers' as contrasted with 'Council of Heads', or sometimes just called the Council).  It is part of the essentially bicameral EU legislature (the other legislative body being the European Parliament), but resembles more the USA Senate than the British House of Lords. It represents the executive governments of the EU's member states. It is based in Brussels. Its origen dates from the early fifties, when its role was to curb the Commission (inter-national curbing Supra-national).

[4]   The European Commission (EC) is the oldest of the institutions, founded in 1951 as the supra-national authority of the Coal and Steel Community. The Commission is the executive body of the EU responsible for proposing legislation, implementing decisions, upholding the EU treaties and managing the day-to-day business of the EU. Commissioners swear an oath at the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg, pledging to respect the treaties and to be completely independent in carrying out their duties during their mandate.

The Commission operates as a 'cabinet government', with 28 members of the Commission (informally known as "commissioners"). There is one member per member state, though commissioners are bound by oath to represent the interests of the EU as a whole rather than their home state. One of the 28 is the Commission President (currently Jean-Claude Juncker) proposed by the European Council but elected by the European Parliament. The Council then appoints the other 27 members of the Commission in agreement with the nominated President, and the 28 members as a single body are then subject to a vote of approval by the European Parliament. The current Commission (the 'Juncker Commission') took office in late 2014 and will run till 2019 (unless censured). The President of the Commission together with the President of the European Council and the High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, represents the EU abroad.

The term ‘Commission’ is used either in the narrow sense of the 28-member College of Commissioners (or College) but also to include the administrative body of about 23,000 European civil servants who are split into departments called directorates-general and services. The procedural languages of the Commission are English, French and German. The Members of the Commission (and their immediate secretariats) are based in Brussels.

[5]  The Court of Justice of the European Union (CJEU) is the institution of the European Union that encompasses the whole judiciary. Sited in Luxembourg, it now consists of three separate courts: the ‘Court of Justice’ (see below), the General Court and the Civil Service Tribunal. It originated in 1952 to clarify the law of the new institutions. It is not to be confused with the ‘European Court of Human Rights’ (the supranational court based in Strasbourg); nor with the 'European Court of Justice' (the CJEU's Court of Justice), the highest court of the CJEU.)

[6]   The European Central Bank (ECB) is the central bank for the euro and administers monetary policy of the Eurozone, which consists of 19 EU member states and is one of the largest currency areas in the world. It is one of the world's most important central banks, and is mandated to maintain price stability (and to define and implement the monetary policy for the Eurozone, and to conduct foreign exchange operations). The capital stock of the bank is owned by the central banks of all 28 EU member states. The Treaty of Amsterdam established the bank in 1998, and it is based in Frankfurt.

[7]  The Court of Auditors was established in 1975 in Luxembourg to audit the accounts of EU institutions. The Court is composed of one member from each EU member state, one of whom is chosen to be its president.


(The above is deeply indebted to Wikipedia. I propose to continue in a separate post to discuss the tensions, and weaknesses, in the current institutions.)

Monday, 11 April 2016

Cameron’s Pamphlet

Cameron’s Pamphlet
Never mind offshore accounts; publishing tax returns seems a good solution to that. But what about this ‘Pro-Europe’ pamphlet’? Could it be that the limping Cameron has just shot himself in the other foot? I can understand some cries of “foul”.

However, we could hardly object if the Cameron Pamphlet turned out to contain only useful, and factually correct, statements. It would have been so much more effective if both sides had AGREED a joint pamphlet. And this is my point.

“We need information, not leadership, or rhetoric.”

I am in favour of the European Project, but I am desperately ignorant, and find my neighbours scarcely better informed. I want to rebut the criticisms I hear in the pub, and which instinct tells are manufactured by a venal press for a ‘blimpish’, ‘Little England’ readership. There may still be time to print another pamphlet. So, tell us:

● There are 7 entities that comprise the European Union Project, namely Council of Ministers, Commission, Parliament, Consilium, Court of Auditors, Court of Justice and Central Bank. But what is our representation, and our voting rights on each? Are there any vetos? (The EU’s own website points out that the Council of the European Union (which we call the Council of Ministers, and which meets virtually all the time), should not be confused with the European Council (or ‘Consilium Europa’, which meets only 4 times a year), or  the Council of Europe (which is not an EU body at all). Their interrelationships are well shown in a diagram by Wikipedia.
● There are 5 Presidents, (not counting the Chair of the Council of Ministers which rotates between member countries so fast as to make learning his name pointless).
  All 28 countries are represented (nearly) equally on the Commission, but are they 'answerable' to their parliaments, and is the Commission sufficiently under 'democratic' control? 
  Are all debates in public, and are minutes published? (According to Yanis Varoufakis this may not be the case.)
  Are there any stories of daft directives (like bent bananas) that have a grain of truth in them or are they all concoctions? Who makes the ‘daft’ directives? How binding are they?  What happens to a member state that declines to enforce a daft directive.
  Is the bureaucracy more or less wasteful than the British Civil Service, on a per caput basis? No silly numbers, please. We could do with maximum and minimum numbers, and numbers that both the IN-CAMPAIGN and the OUT-CAMPAIGN can agree on.

Use and abuse of Statistics

     It is not just numbers that can be used to mislead; half truths can do it too. But we are more inclined to believe that numbers are ‘true’, and convey ‘truth’. My brainwave was to suggest (11th April) that propaganda pamphlets would gain enormously in credibility and usefulness if the text were agreed by both sides of the argument.
     Then on the BBC’s Today programme this morning (13th April, 08.10 hrs) I find Nick Robinson trying to separate facts from interpretations, and forcing his opposed speakers to agree on ‘facts’.  
     Bravo; though I doubt Nick Robinson had read my posting of Monday 11th.