Leave ISIL Out of This!

Posted on November 13th, 2017 by MAO

Remember back at the end of July when a young guy pulled out a knife in a supermarket in a residential suburb of Hamburg (Germany) and started stabbing people? He killed one person there and wounded five, then wounded another as he tried to flee the scene.

Naturally, as he jabbed he repeatedly cried out that old standard “Allahu Akbar” – Of course! Of course! – and it should neither be a surprise that he was a refugee in Germany, housed in a local Hamburg refugee center: he had been refused asylum, was supposed to be deported, but was enjoying a bureaucratic delay because he had never shown any “papers” specifying where he came from. (He’s Palestinian, although born in the UAE.)


Well, he has succeeded in avoiding deportation, but only in favor of a German jail. (Of course, he succeeded far more in souring the German electorate’s mood towards refugees generally.) Now he will go to trial, charged with one count of murder and six counts of attempted murder.

Back then after his arrest, he had a lot to say to the police. His aim had been to become a “martyr,” but only after first killing as many “Christians and young people” as possible. He had meant his act as a “contribution to a worldwide jihad,” and ISIL issued a statement shortly afterwards taking credit for his attack.

Nonetheless, he is not being charged with terrorism. Investigators could find no actual connection on his part with ISIL or any other terrorist group, no matter how much the perpetrator himself and ISIL tried to talk up such a connection after-the-fact. It seems clear that he was nothing more than a very confused young man, a lone-wolf “inspired” by ISIL but nothing more.

Hamburg law-enforcement, after proper investigation, are intelligent enough to realize that. Contrast that with, for example, the New York City Halloween truck-killer. (What? Forgot about him already?) Send him to Guantanamo (said President Trump)! ISIL also claimed credit for that attack and – no matter how tenuous the actual links between that killer and ISIL seemed to be – their credibility (ironically enough) was good enough for US authorities: He’s a terrorist! Or consider the 2015 San Bernardino shootings: they’re Muslim, ISIL takes the credit, so they’re terrorists – when acceding to that self-description in fact gives them more sinister credit than they deserve, not to mention potentially subjecting them to further criminal charges which may not actually be warranted.

In the Age of Trump the US is no sort of calm, reflective country, so that we should not expect anytime soon rational proceeding in such extreme public criminal matters of the sort the Hamburg authorities have displayed here. But that’s a shame.

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Secret Police Skeletons

Posted on November 9th, 2017 by MAO

By now it’s reached the cliché-stage to call the new presumptive Czech Republic prime minister, Andrej Babiš, the “Czech Donald Trump.” Sadly, people like to do so – among other, obvious, reasons – because the comparison is so true. The main aspect here is that Babiš is also rather rich, said to be the second-richest person in the country, so that a great part of his political appeal undoubtedly is voters’ confidence that someone who has been so successful in his personal financial life must be able to perform in the same way for the country.

Oh, and he also does not hold back when it comes to advancing those private financial interests using his public powers; we know that from his record as Treasury Minister in the outgoing government.

But now the leading Czech business newspapere, Hospodářské noviny, brings up another parallel people may have started to forget: Babiš’ unsavory pre-Revolution past.


“Agent Bureš”: That was said to be Babiš’ code-name in filed reports about his alleged collaboration with the StB, the Czechoslovak secret police back in the bad old Communist days, dating from when he was reported to have sat down as a 28-year-old in 1982 at a specific cafe in downtown Bratislava to sign a collaboration agreement. Now, Babiš’ own father was a high-ranking Czechoslovak Communist official, in fact a diplomat, meaning that young Babiš mostly lived and was educated abroad. Naturally, he then grabbed an excellent regime job as a young adult, working for the Slovak international trade company and even representing it for a while in Morocco.

So working secretly for the regime in some way was pretty much baked-in for Andrej Babiš. The real question is: How enthusiastically? More »

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Laughing on Spain’s Precipice

Posted on September 15th, 2017 by MAO

Here at EuroSavant we’re always trying to expand the breadth of European non-English-language sources we regularly consult: both through learning new languages (a slow process; also one sometimes even prone to reversal) and simply through finding fresh news-sources we hadn’t been aware of before.

How long ago was it that I added the Twitter-feed of El Mundo Today to my “following”-list? I can’t remember, but that media-outlet seemed legit at the time, what with its very name a derivative of El Mundo, one of Spain’s “newspapers of record,” and with the ambitious slogan La actualidad del mañana (“Tomorrow’s news”) making up its Twitter-bio.

They also seemed to have a knack for coming up with interesting scoops, or at least so I thought recently when I saw one of their tweets yesterday:


“A Catalan Terminator comes from the Future to appear in Parliament intending to dissuade Puigdemont.” That would be Carles Puigdemont, let’s call him “governor” of the want-away Spanish (let’s call it) province of Catalonia, and so point-man for the referendum on independence from Spain which officials of that province intend to hold on October 1, despite opposition from the central government. More »

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The Brutal Remedy for Mongolism

Posted on August 28th, 2017 by MAO

What interesting news the mainstream Italian newspaper La Repubblica recently had! “Down Syndrome: In Iceland they choose to avoid it”:


And avoid it they do: The tweet-text below the picture goes on to report how only 1 or 2 babies afflicted with that genetic irregularity are born in Iceland each year.

Let’s have a reminder that Down Syndrome is certainly nothing anyone would want to see in their new infant; from Wikipedia:

Those with Down syndrome nearly always have physical and intellectual disabilities. As adults, their mental abilities are typically similar to those of an 8- or 9-year-old. They also typically have poor immune function and generally reach developmental milestones at a later age. They have an increased risk of a number of other health problems, including congenital heart defect, epilepsy, leukemia, thyroid diseases, and mental disorders, among others.

Further, and to be blunt, people with Down Syndrome have a certain common look: “a small chin, slanted eyes . . . a small mouth,” etc. Not something you like to see; and it was this appearance that led the doctor who originally described the syndrome back in 1862, John Langdon Down, to initially call those suffering from it “mongoloid” as he felt they resembled the so-called Mongoloid race in Asia. (These days, use of that term is strongly discouraged; I only have it in this post’s headline because I needed something short and with brutal shock-value.)

Icelandic babies, then, are to a remarkable degree spared such anguish* – innocents spared a stunted (and likely shortened) life assigned purely due to the cruel vagaries of chance. Perhaps even more significantly, Icelandic parents as well are spared what are certainly the much greater – and longer – demands on them, both financially and emotionally, to support their child in living as happy a life as he or she can.

Fantastic! Then again, perhaps that this comes out of Iceland is the least surprising thing. Many are aware how people there share a unique common genome-set, due to the fact that almost all of them are descendants of a limited group of Viking explorers who first settled the North Atlantic island starting towards the end of the ninth century A.D. (OK, and maybe also of the Irish slaves they brought there.) This remarkable fact once led Wired magazine to call Iceland “the world’s greatest genetic laboratory,” due to the remarkable genetics research that has been carried there in recent years, taking advantage of that national genetic homogeneity. More »

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Look Both Ways Crossing Autobahn

Posted on August 28th, 2017 by MAO

“Grieving Momma-Duck Paralyzes Traffic on the A3 Autobahn” – it’s quite a story, a tragedy, really, reported by the Rheinische Post from news-agency dispatches.


As we humans know, you actually never try to walk across the Autobahn in Germany, not unless we’re talking about a pedestrian overpass. But this momma-duck didn’t know anything about that, and apparently led her brand-new brood of ducklings onto Autobahn 3, at the spot just to the west of Cologne where it crosses Autobahn 4 coming from the west.

That brood numbered a bit more than five ducklings. We know at least “five” because, unfortunately, that was how many smashed duckling bodies were left there on the pavement, before the momma-duck and the rest of the ducklings managed to get off the highway quick and into the surrounding foliage.

The problem was that the momma-duck then reappeared at the same spot around three hours later, presumably trying to find out what had happened to her missing progeny. She was harder to drive away this time; for whatever reason, there were firefighters on the scene, but she wouldn’t let herself be caught nor be shooed away from the Autobahn – where, we can assume, the on-coming high-speed traffic was staring to make things dangerous.

So the police shut the Autobahn down! For the duck! As they tried to chase her away, which is where she went after about half an hour. (I would have loved to hear the report on the traffic bulletin broadcast by both national and the local radio stations!)

Now, this happened during the day last Wednesday, so a business day but with perhaps traffic a little less thick than usual because for many it was the tail-end of summer vacation. But the traffic was undoubtedly still substantial – this is Autobahn 3, people, the Autobahn coming out of Cologne and paralleling the Rhine southward for a while before heading eastwards to Frankfurt am Main, and beyond.

I have never heard of the Dutch authorities ever shutting down a highway due to any bird. Then again, in a couple of places there highways do have “animal” overpasses, that is, bridges built over the highway from the woods on one side to the woods on the other, for wildlife to use. These are expensive, of course, and perhaps one could argue about their actual benefits to the public versus their costs; but then again, perhaps Germany could take up this idea and add a couple of these to its infrastructure budget nonetheless. Sorry, no sort of “public service announcements” are going to be able to educate the ducks!

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The AWOL Czech President

Posted on August 24th, 2017 by MAO

This week started off with a commemorative occasion of note, at least if you live in the Czech Republic or Slovakia. Monday, 21 August, marked the 49th anniversary of the 1968 Warsaw Pact invasion of Czechoslovakia to crush the broad-based Communist reform movement underway there known collectively as the Prague Spring.

OK, the 50th anniversary next year will presumably be a much bigger deal. But for remembering officially the event in those peoples’ political history which, in its long-standing trauma, probably corresponds to the 9/11 attacks in the US, at the least, every year’s 21 August is surely worth some official attention. But not from the Czech Republic’s President, Miloš Zeman, at least not this year: there was nothing from the Presidential Palace, no attendance at any ceremony, no statement.

Naturally, then, the State Radio’s news channel, Radiožurnál, wanted to find out how come. Gaining no access to Zeman himself (perhaps somewhat understandably), they turned to his official spokesman, Jiří Ovčáček.


The interview was brief, three questions, amounting to “Did the President express anything in relation to the 49th anniversary of the Occupation, and does he intend to do so going forward?” What it yielded was no so much obfuscatory as, frankly, outrageous. The President had already expressed himself on that subject, Ovčáček maintained, and that at least 47 years ago when he made it clear he was against the invasion and paid for his opinion by losing his job. And then check this:

In other words, the President bravely expressed himself during that period when it was no cheap thing to do so, [whereas] today the sort of people who opine on this sad anniversary are those who during Normalization [the period following the ’68 invasion] were satisfied with digging in to the gravy-train [CZ: chrochtali u koryta].

Now, Zeman is getting old, perhaps he momentarily forgot that he is, after all, President of the country.

And then: “Isn’t he going to return to the subject at future anniversaries?” “The President puts forth his views on this almost every day, when he speaks of how the Czech Republic must remain a sovereign nation” and bla bla bla . . .

It’s as if Zeman has no further obligation to have anything to do with that Warsaw Pact “brotherly assistance” simply because of how he is alleged to have behaved in the years immediately afterwards. Let’s take a quick look at what that behavior actually was; for this, I go to his page in the Czech Wikipedia. I know, the particular nature of that source is such that you never can discount someone with a political point to prove distorting what you find there, but still, there’s some interesting material. More »

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“Those Lazy [Black] Immigrants!”

Posted on August 22nd, 2017 by MAO

Italian journalist Luca Bottura spotted these guys hanging out last Friday in a picture on his Twitter-feed, and just had to sound the alarm:


Basically: “Here’s your government money, these guys go shopping for Prada with their €35! Share this if you are as angry as I am!” And that one-word comment up top: “Shame!”

The key element here was the €35 part, this is the daily money the Italian government provides refugees to survive on while their individual asylum cases are being processed. Meanwhile: what a good life, eh? Sitting around with their new Prada clothes, smilin’, jivin’ – all on the Italian taxpayer’s dime!

Not really, though. Surely most of you recognized these guys, namely the movie star Samuel L. Jackson and the LA Lakers basketball legend Magic Johnson. Lately they’ve been on vacation together in Italy (Capri, Sorrento, that sort of thing) along with their families and other friends. This tweet from Magic Johnson’s own feed shows what was really going on:


How could Bottura get things so wrong? He didn’t; he’s a journalist and columnist for the Corriere della Sera newspaper (and other media outlets, including radio), but he’s mainly known as a satirist, and here he was trying something out, seeing how far he could push the widespread prejudice and resentment against refugees among the Italian population, to see who took the bait.

Indeed, his tweet was widely spread, also through Facebook, and attracted a good bit of racist comment. The biggest fish Bottura caught was Nina Morić, a Croatian model who lives in and is relatively well-known in Italy; once the truth about these gentlemen was out, Ms. Morić then claimed that her own unseemly reaction to Bottura’s tweet was her just playing around as well, to fool all the rubes.

That truth was out as of last Sunday, two days after he had set things going, and Bottura also shared some interesting statistics:

The meme was shared thousands of times. Forty percent grasped the provocation, thirty percent were angry about it, twenty percent found it to be racist and scolded me for not recognizing Samuel L. Jackson and Magic Johnson. Ten percent passed it on with no comment.

Yes, that “forty percent” part is confusing; I interpret that forty percent gave indications that they understood the surface meaning of the incident, i.e. that something “wrong” was being depicted, but did not comment on it further. But you see, I had to translate Bottura’s report at second-hand, from the Dutch that had been translated from the Italian, since a write-up in the Flemish newspaper De Morgen was my main source and how I found out about this in the first place. Otherwise, reports are only starting to creep onto the edges of the EN-language press, such as Mashable (with more detail on the source of that government money) and . . . er . . . the Quebec Times.

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Poisoned Mass Shell-Game

Posted on August 16th, 2017 by MAO

As I mentioned previously on my Twitter time-line, yesterday was a Catholic holiday: Ferragosto in Italy (end-of-summer, woe betide whoever has to work that day, etc.), but more generally the holiday which celebrates the Assumption of Mary into Heaven.

Turns out, in the Ardennes town of Malmédy in Belgium each August 15 is marked by a special ceremony in which a huge public omelet is cooked in one of the main squares, la Place de Rome, and then cut up and handed out for consumption by whoever is present at the time.


Hold on, though: if you have been keeping up with current European affairs (certainly on this weblog), there should be alarm-bells ringing. Fipronil! What about that? The egg-poisoning scandal that has by now spread from its origins in Netherlands/Belgium to infect most other EU member-states as well as other countries who are the EU’s agricultural customers.

But no, tradition demanded that, once again in mid-August, a huge cooking-pan be set up in Rome Square, ready to process thousands of eggs (as well as 25 kilos of grease, etc.), after volunteers had first had a cracking time that morning extracting their innards. Talk about defying Fate, about sheltering within the Mother of God’s protection!

At least there was one significant difference this time: the mega-omelet was made up of around 6,500 eggs, rather than the ~10,000 that have usually been used up in previous years. Was that a concession to fipronil worries? No, the article claims; rather, the weather meant that fewer people than usual could be bothered to make the trek to Malmédy for the occasion.

Admittedly, yesterday was indeed marked by a line of violent, mid-day thunderstorms that proceeded from France through the southern part of the Benelux and then hit the western part of Germany with particular force. And anyway, think about it: if they were taking the fipronil threat at all seriously, what sort of half-assed measure would it be to go ahead with cooking the omelet, but with only 65% of the usual amount of eggs?

No, egged on as they were by whatever crowd that converged on the square, the assembled chefs – clothed in the customary white jackets and toques blanches – went right ahead as soon as all ingredients were ready, and were serving it out along with a piece of French bread on plastic plates by 1:20 PM. All for free, garnished with plenty of commentary about how jolly and convivial everything was (as you can see/hear in the accompanying video if you click through, and if you can understand French). You also learn from that how all eggs were sourced from the most local producers possible, from the neighbors, practically – so they couldn’t possibly have anything to do with fipronil, could they?

We will see. Remember as well that so far EU and national authorities have maintained that, even if people eat affected eggs, it is unlikely that anyone would be exposed to enough fipronil to really get sick. But that’s what they would say, of course; further, it’s clear that any effects appear over time, not at once.

Anyway, it’s hard to think of a better mass experiment about the risks of exposure to fipronil, under present circumstances when European authorities are still struggling to gain control over the emergency, than what we saw yesterday in Malmédy. Now to just sit back and wait; Hail Mary, full of grace . . .

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Trump’s Military Flunky?

Posted on August 16th, 2017 by MAO

This week German Bundeskanzlerin Angela Merkel returned from her three-week vacation in the Italian mountains. Her absence meant she had to miss the famed “Diesel Summit” on 2 August with all of the country’s auto manufacturers, but at least campaigning towards nationwide election happening next 24 September was set to a low simmer while she was away.

She returned still enjoying a healthy lead in the polls over her nearest competitor, former EU Parliament President Martin Schulz. Schulz represents the Social Democratic Party, or SPD, the country’s next-biggest political party after Merkel’s CDU, but also the one that is in the current government with her, as they formed a “Grand Coalition” together after the last election in 2013. That’s always an uncomfortable arrangement – having to cooperate within a government even as your colleagues from the other main party are your main election-rivals – and I’m sure both sides are looking forward to seeing it end after this next election.

From Germany’s northern neighbor, the Danish newspaper Politiken has identified something a little strange in the German campaign:

“Merkel wants to increase NATO funding.” “What’s so strange about that?” you might ask. After all, it’s well-known that Germany’s defense budget has long stood below the 2% of GDP that is prescribed (by 2024) for all NATO member-states; currently the figure is around 1.26%. It’s a rich country, and the economy (including tax-receipts) is now doing very well; indeed, it is the leading country on the European continent, at least politically and financially. No excuse, it would seem, not to hit that funding target.

But here you might forget who has been loudly demanding that Germany raise its defense-spending*: Donald Trump. And, already, Donald Trump is someone you don’t want to be associated with in the eyes of the German electorate.

Well, when you’re behind in the polls you’ll go with anything halfway-plausible that you can think of, right? Sure enough, Schulz and other leading SPD officials are now attacking Merkel for her stated intention to raise the country’s military spending, should she be re-confirmed in office (for the third time in a row) in the election. This sort of thing even comes from Germany’s current Foreign Minister, Sigmar Gabriel (SPD):

For me, this means that Germany is subordinating itself to the American President. Up until recently I never believed that this was possible.

See what I mean about the awkwardness of Grand Coalitions? This is the person with whom Merkel still has to work closely – for another few weeks, at least – to formulate and carry out the country’s foreign policy.

Now admittedly, the military has always been a sore point in German politics, say, in the past seven decades or so. For example, it took the longest time even to overturn the law that once forbade German armed forces from being deployed outside the country. And we all know why that is, namely due to the rather unbridled use Germany made of its military some seventy-to-eighty years ago.

Still, it’s striking how Trump represents the Kiss of Death in Germany, even when it comes to policies for which you would think there would be general agreement. Here’s an idea: The German auto industry’s lobbying arm should try its best, at whatever cost, to get Trump to start singing the praises of electrically powered cars!

A final note: All of this could become academic. For the precise German election day is Sunday, 24 September, or the day after a widely accepted Internet meme claims the world will come to an end.

*Actually, in most of his statements Trump has made it sound like NATO members are required to pay 2% of their GDP to the US Treasury in exchange for defensive cover from the US military. It actually doesn’t work like that.

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Making Her Name in the West

Posted on August 8th, 2017 by MAO

A surprising summer TV ratings hit, in many countries, was the Women’s Football European Championship Tournament, just concluded this past Sunday and held at various stadiums in the Netherlands starting on 16 July.

As with all such tournaments, things only start to get really serious when it comes to the knock-out rounds, here the quarter-finals which were held on the weekend of 29-30 July. I tuned in then to the Germany-vs.-Denmark game, and was taken by surprise at the beginning when the stadium band played the Danish national anthem and – as is standard – the TV camera panned the line of starting Denmark players. One of them was definitely not like the others: not fair-skinned and blonde or standard brunette, but quite dark-skinned and dark-haired indeed. That was number 9, Nadia Nadim (also nothing near the typical Danish first or last name), who it turned out played as one of the forward strikers within Denmark’s 4-4-2 system.

Nadim actually scored, with a header, the goal that brought Denmark back to 1-1 against the Germans (cancelling out their goalkeeper’s terrible mistake that had allowed in a long-range strike for the Germans’ one goal), in a game the Danes would go on to win 2-1, a spectacular upset against the German women’s team that had won the last six such tournaments. She also scored Denmark’s first goal – an unstoppable penalty-kick – in the final against the Netherlands that the Danish team ultimately lost 2-4. And throughout the tournament (at least the games I watched) she was a dynamo of energy up there at the front of the Danish line.

But the equally interesting thing here is the back-story. Where is this lady from? This piece from The Local.dk explains things well enough, in English: She was born in Herat, Afghanistan, to a father who was an officer in the Afghan Army and was executed by the Taliban in 2000, whereupon she fled with her mother and siblings to Europe, to Denmark. (I believe hearing during a game broadcast that the original plan was actually to carry on to go live in England.)

Now 29 years old, she is starting striker for the Denmark women’s national team, as well as for the Portland Thorns in the (American) National Women’s Soccer League. But that’s not all: she ultimately will become a doctor, as she is also studying in Denmark towards her medical degree. (For those not in the know, that requires abilities in math and science.) PLUS, as this piece from the website of a Danish sports TV channel puts it, she speaks seven languages (Danish, English, German, French, Farsi, Urdu and Hindi) and can be interviewed in at least the first three listed. (Nadia quote from that sports-site piece: “I’m quite bright. You would hardly believe it – surprise!”)

Inevitably, then, she embodies themes that go far beyond the mere persona of Nadia Nadim herself, in several directions. There is the elevation of international women’s football in the general public interest that this particular tournament has helped achieve, with the related and important aspect that now, for once, girls interested in playing football finally have heroes there performing on TV to which they can relate, of their same gender. Except that these particular feats, of course, were pretty much achieved collectively by all the women players participating in that Euros tournament.

For Nadim, in addition, there is the refugee aspect, the fact that she certainly does not “look” very Danish – and indeed only became a citizen when she was 12-13 years old. I daresay, however, that you’d be hard-pressed to find anyone calling for her to be thrown out of the country, even among Denmark’s most rabid anti-foreigner rabble (all tattoos, piercings and Viking-horns). Denmark has certainly had a problem within the context of the Europe-wide refugee crisis that exploded in mid-2015, and it’s fair to say the country has mainly tried to keep its doors closed; it’s anti-foreigner party, the Danish People’s Party, has had strong influence on each government since the turn of the century. In Germany, similar anti-foreigner sentiment has to some degree been tamped down through nation-wide delight at the success of the men’s football team, which features stars of Turkish, Tunisian, Ghanaian lineage and the like. Might the same thing happen in Denmark via Nadia Nadim?

Yet I feel there is an even greater point to be made here, by looking back to where she originally came from. My thoughts were turned in this direction when I recently came across this piece from De Volkskrant:


“In some parts of Afghanistan women aren’t even referred to by name.” First paragraph of the article:

Women in Afghanistan are often indicated as “mother,” “daughter,” “wife” or “grandma.” In some parts of the land the name is not even denoted on birth-certificates, and on the marriage license only the name of the groom and the father of the bride are to be read. It even happens that the name of a woman who has died is not put on her gravestone, but she is rather referred to as “wife of.” Certainly within conservative circles, it is just not done to use a woman’s name within the family environment.

That is what Nadia Nadim escaped when she fled with her family. Does anyone think she would have played football (there is no Afghan national women’s football team), learned seven languages, become a doctor had she stayed in Afghanistan? We all know that the chances are overwhelming that she would have been kept illiterate and barefoot, restricted her whole life long to the usual roles of child-bearer and household servant. For we know that one of the things the Taliban are quite serious about is that girls are not to be educated – just ask Nobel Peace Prize laureate Malala. (Admittedly, Malala herself is Pakistani, but the point still applies. By the way, that sort of outside-imposed upholding of women’s rights still does not justify the continued presence in that country of foreign military forces, nor the trillions of dollars or many thousands of lives – native and foreign – that have been wasted there since 2001.)

It was only by escaping to the West that Nadim could develop and display her quite impressive personal potential – and only in these comparatively rich (could one say: “comparatively civilized”?) countries where the society that took her in could also benefit from her many gifts. Why are these other countries so poor? Admittedly, it is a complicated question, which certainly involves somewhat of a history of colonial exploitation. But Nadia Nadim shows that an important reason they are still poor is their unwillingness to allow women to contribute to society in all the ways that they can; and this has to be specified as a very grave problem centered around a certain religion, namely Islam.

P.S.: For those interested in hearing her speak English, here is an interview she did in Oregon as a Portland Thorns player. (When I have time, I’ll see if I can embed that here in this post – thanks for making it so difficult, WordPress.)

Also: It seems she mostly tweets in English, for whatever reason. Sure, that reason may be “because that’s not really her account” (it’s not verified), but take a look, it has pictures you imagine only she and her team-mates had access to, and the like.

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Poisoned Egg on their Faces

Posted on August 7th, 2017 by MAO

Have you heard? There’s a new European food-poisoning scandal raging – “European,” well, affecting at least those countries that buy their eggs from Netherlands producers, so at least the Netherlands itself*, Belgium and probably at least Luxembourg and Germany as well.

The keyword this time is fipronil, an insecticide that is not supposed to be allowed anywhere near poultry, but of course was. More specifically, a particular Dutch company out of Barneveld, the center of the Dutch poultry industry, by the name of Chickfriend (that’s no joke, see this report on the guilty parties from the NRC newspaper) indirectly bought 3,000 liters of an insecticide containing fipronil from Romania, then sold it on to its chicken-raising customers as a means of fighting that notorious chicken-pest, the blood-louse. It’s likely Chickfriend knew what it was doing; the invoices for the sales to the chicken-farmers give a name that hides the true poisonous nature of what is being sold. And now authorities are scrambling to track all the places this poison went, so that the eggs/chickens affected can be pulled from sale and/or destroyed.

But what caught my eye was the Belgians’ reaction:


The responsible agency throughout all of Belgium for product-safety is known as the FAVV, and the headline-news is that the FAVV was aware of the fipronil appearing in eggs from the Netherlands way back in June, even though public alarm over poisoned eggs first broke out only last week.

Why was that? Why no alarm back then? Now, of course the responsible federal Belgian minister Denis Ducarme (Minister of Agriculture, but only since last 26 July – Welcome to your new job, Minister Ducarme!**) has demanded a “detailed report,” which will be passed on to the Federal Parliament, where there will be hearings, etc. But the Het Laatste Nieuws article gives some preliminary indications. The concentration of fipronil that the FAVV initially detected in the Dutch eggs was under some EU-determined threshold for actually being supposed to worry about it, you see. But you still wonder, because the very next sentence seems to say that the FAVV was in no position to determine even that: “Then they requested that tests be done by a Dutch laboratory, since our country [Belgium, of course] has insufficient expertise to do that itself.”

Apparently Minister Ducarme finally went this morning to the FAVV offices to read them the riot act, and later he released an official list of “57 Suspected Firms,” i.e. which are suspected of being involved with the fipronil and whose products are therefore likely to be withdrawn from sale.

Further, no reports have emerged of anyone dying, or even becoming sick, from having ingested an egg poisoned with this fipronil. Surely that is just a matter of time. Meanwhile, the Dutch poultry industry has taken a big hit, several firms have already gone bankrupt (not just Chickfriend, which is of course under legal investigation) and the public health authorities in several EU lands have a mess to clean up when it comes to tracking down all the poisoned eggs.

*Point of detail: “[The] Netherlands” is a name in the singular, whether in English or Dutch (Nederland), just as “[The] United States” is, at least in English.
**Frankly, you’d hope Minister Ducarme had some unpleasant words for his predecessor as Minister of Agriculture, Willy Borsus, who was kicked upstairs to become Minister-President of Wallonia, a sub-state taking up around 40% of the entire country.

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Protect the Planet!

Posted on August 2nd, 2017 by MAO

One of Donald Trump’s personal traits – only occasionally noted – is that he is a mysophobe: that is, he is afraid of catching germs from other people, and thus doesn’t like to shake hands, probably keeps tubs of hand-cleaner all around the Oval Office, etc. I don’t know whether that is a good or bad thing, or even something particularly strange; what I do know, having had it just pointed out to me by the Dutch national news service, the NOS, is that for the right person this trait could turn out to be lucrative.


“NASA is looking for someone (male/female) to protect the Earth against other-worldly life” that tweet reads. Note well: We’re not talking here about the macro level (so no need to pass along word to Ironman, say, if you happen to be acquainted, that an alien-invader fighter is wanted), but rather the micro level. Yes, even though the official notice (which you can read in English here) lists “Planetary Protection Officer” as the job-title.

Stated simply, bringing back microbes from, say, Mars to the Earth could cause all sorts of serious problems. (Ask any immunologist for help if your own imagination is not up to the task of figuring out what this is all about.) But it goes the other way, too: It won’t do to bring any sort of harmful Earth-based microbes to places we explore (like, uh, Mars, or our Moon), for at least two reasons:

  1. Since 1967 there has been the Outer Space Treaty forbidding that (as well as the contamination of Earth by foreign microbes already mentioned, of course); and
  2. At a lower level of concern, it just wouldn’t do to unknowingly bring along some Earth microbe to another planetary body, then “discover” it there, believe it to be something new and remarkable because of the context in which you think you have “discovered” it, and then ultimately be embarrassed when the truth is discovered.

This all sounds very reasonable and necessary – but also difficult to master! How can one know for sure that no such microbes are being transferred, in either direction? It must require a lot of training, a lot of smarts. But if you are up to that, it’s well-rewarded: That job announcement lists a salary of between $124,406 [sic] to $187,000 per year, on a three-year contract (renewable).

Fortunately as well, even as the NOS picked up this job announcement from the USAJOBS.gov site, it also took the trouble to unearth an OCT 2015 article from the New York Times about NASA’s current Planetary Protection Officer, Dr. Catharine A. Conley.

Those of you interested in looking into this opportunity further can simply head on to there. (Note: There is no indication that whoever NASA hires would necessarily be replacing Dr. Conley.) Careful, though: As the NOS piece points out, this is a NASA appointment and therefore for US citizens only. (No doubt you would also have to gain a pretty high security clearance as well.) Then again, as it goes on to observe, the European Space Agency has a similar position, although there are no apparent openings there at present.

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Turkey’s Coup: The Real Story

Posted on August 1st, 2017 by MAO

Just over two weeks ago Turkey “celebrated” that nerve-wracking failed attempt at a coup d’état of last July. It was an anniversary one imagines someone within Turkey could hardly have ignored even had they tried, but almost the same was true in much of the rest of Europe in view of the various Turkish government ministers sent out (most of them unsuccessfully) to harangue the assembled diaspora faithful in various foreign cities that day.

Still, today marks another important attempted-coup milestone in that the first major trial of alleged coup-plotters begins in the Turkish capital Ankara, to take place in fact in a new court-building specifically built for the purpose. A total of 486 defendants are to be put on trial at the same time (although 27 of those are being tried in absentia). The BBC earlier today had live audio of the scene as those defendants were first led handcuffed into the courtroom: apparently, 438 “accusers” (e.g. family-members of those killed resisting the coup) were also present to greet them, and the yelling and jeering at the prisoners filing in was clearly audible.

Not something that would be permitted by the judge in any Western courtroom, to be sure . . . but then, these proceedings are unlikely to have as their aim the true pursuit of justice. Along the same lines, it’s clear the massive clearing-out of opponents of any stripe that President Erdogan conducted in the coup-attempt’s wake has gone far beyond any attempt merely to find and punish those parties directly involved.

Inquiring minds still might want to know, despite no one there on the scene seeming too terribly interested: Who truly was responsible for trying to overthrow Erdogan’s government? Die Welt steps up to have a crack at the question.


“These are the facts”: Turkey is distinguished these days by its fierce enemies, not only the separatist Kurd organization PKK, but also ISIL and the Gülenist movement headed by a Muslim cleric safely in exile in Pennsylvania, USA. Nonetheless, the main responsibility for the coup cannot really be ascribed to either of those two first-named actors, using dog-chasing-car logic: If they were actually able to take over the Turkish state, what could they really do with it? – although there are accusations against some of the accused of affiliation or at least sympathy with the PKK. No, the Gülenist thread must be most fruitful for pursuing criminal intent to overthrow (and kill) Erdogan, and this is what reporter Boris Kálnoky pursues here. After all, it wasn’t that many years ago (say, up to 2012) that Fethullah Gülen was actually a close friend and political ally to Erdogan, so that his own followers had plenty of time to insinuate themselves on a widespread basis into the main Turkish state institutions.

Truly, then, it may well have been the Gülenists behind 15 July 2016. Kálnoky remains unconvinced, however. Oh, he gives plenty of juicy Gülen-related details here, mostly revolving around a Gülenist imam by the name of Adil Öksüz – who, unfortunately for the Turkish authorities, is one of those who got away and so is being tried in Ankara now in absentia. It was he who allegedly carried out the key go-between role between Gülen in the US and those who would go on to carry out the coup. For one thing, Gülen himself has conceded in a press-interview that he did meet with Öksüz in the US. On the other side, Öksüz is said by other witnesses to have met secretly with 30 military officers in Ankara on 6 July to give them the green light and go over the details of the coup plan.

But is everything proved beyond a reasonable doubt? Kálnoky says “No”:

The Gülen-thesis of the accusation founders on certain confessions that might have been extracted by force, as well as on hard-to-verify declarations from in some cases “secret” witnesses.

And anyway, that is all pretty much beside the point; Kálnoky rightly reminds us at the end that what we really have developing in front of our eyes in this specially-built Ankara courtroom is but a “classic show-trial” (i.e. in the old Communist sense) meant to arrive at predetermined political conclusions. It will be a long time, if ever, before any fair-minded investigator will have the sort of untrammeled access to witnesses and materials in Turkey to try to figure out the actual truth. In the meantime, perhaps we can rely on the proxy of the US Government’s attitude towards last year’s July coup-attempt: it has steadfastly refused to conclude that any evidence against Gülen adds up to the point that his forced extradition to Turkey is called for.

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Grave Trouble in Poland

Posted on July 19th, 2017 by MAO

You might have heard recently about big demonstrations going on in Poland, starting this past weekend and continuing. You would have particularly gotten such word if you pay any attention to my own EuroSavant twitter-feed, whose above-average level of Polish developments has lately been caused by an abnormal flood of such news within the feed I myself use to source most of the foreign-language stories that I pass on there.

It’s serious there, it’s true. It’s even chaotic. The government has been dominated since the last election by the PiS party, a nativist, right-wing organization that seemingly has designs to take over the government permanently, using techniques copied from Hungary along with some the party has thought up all on its own. The latest trick is passing a law basically enabling the government to hire and fire judges at will – including Supreme Court justices. (The plot has further thickened within the last twenty-four hours as Polish President Andrzej Duda – also of the PiS – decided he would not sign the new law to control the judges.)

The hidden power behind PiS is Jarosław Kaczyński, nominally nothing more than a delegate to Poland’s lower-house legislature, the Sejm, who usually likes to keep a low profile. Not recently, though:

There he is, up at the podium addressing his fellow members of the Sejm, and this is what he is saying:

I know you are afraid of the truth, but don’t try to wipe away your treacherous murders using my brother’s name. You destroyed him, you murdered him, you are all rogues!

Murder? His brother? Well, that would be his twin brother, Lech Kaczyński, who back when he was serving as Poland’s President in April, 2010 – i.e. more than seven years ago! – was killed along with almost a hundred other high-ranking Poles in the tragic Polish Air Force plane-crash near Smolensk, Russia.

Evidently, then, Jarosław Kaczyński has convinced himself that that tragedy was no mere accident but an assassination; apparently, he also thinks the political opposition, represented within the Sejm, was also somehow responsible. Or at least he wants to make it look like he is convinced of such sensationalist allegations, perhaps to rile the political waters and increase the chance of getting the measures he wants passed in the confusion.

There is a YouTube video of Kaczyński delivering those brief but very inflammatory remarks. Yes, it’s all in Polish, it’s also short, but you can see the outrage on the other side of the chamber in reaction to what he comes up and says. Meanwhile, the guy sitting up front who is supposed to be responsible for the maintenance of order within that legislative body – I have to assume he is the Sejm’s so-called “Marshal,” Marek Kuchciński – keeps ringing his little bell, trying to get people to calm down, until that bell literally breaks (you see that in the video – cheap Eastern European iron-work!) and he has to turn to a back-up.

That particular tweet given above comes to us via Gazeta Wyborcza, and that is significant in itself. The PiS has already managed to enable the government to hire-and-fire personnel for the main state-owned national TV and radio networks, but when it comes to newspapers there still remain a number of independent voices. Gazeta Wyborcza is among the most independent of them, as befits a truly historic newspaper whose genesis lies back in functioning as a hastily put-together news-sheet back in 1989 meant to let the people know who were the Solidarity-approved candidates in Poland’s first post-WWII (partially) free election of early June.

As such, Gazeta today has also tweeted (and Instagrammed) this:

We the female citizens, we the male citizens. Appeal to the Poles: In the face of the threat arising from a series of anti-democratic and non-constitutional decisions of the PiS government, we stand in defense of the basic freedoms belonging to every person and resident of the Polish Republic.

This goes on for a couple more paragraphs; the full (Polish) text is available here. Clearly this is a call to arms from among everyone in Poland to resist what the present government is trying to do.

The statement is then signed up-top (like John Hancock) by Władisław Frasyniuk, a hero back in Solidarity times and one who holds the particular distinction of having been arrested not only by the Communist authorities back then, but also (recently) by the current PiS government. That’s impressive enough, but then look at all the other signatures:

  • Three former Polish (post-1989) presidents, including Lech Wałęsa and Bronisław Komorowski, the latter of which happened to have been the president before the current one (Andrzej Duda);
  • At least one former prime minister I can recognize, in Włodzimierz Cimoszewicz;
  • Leszek Belcerowicz, the famed economist and Central Bank governor responsible for the economic “shock treatment” policy of the early 1990s which laid the basis for the country’s impressive economic growth since then.

Then there are many other names that I don’t recognize, but they are likely to be as impressive within Polish society as well.

In short, these are historic, fraught, vital times for the preservation of Polish democracy. I’ll be keeping an eye on happenings from this, my EuroSavant perch and passing on the most important developments.

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Haqqed!

Posted on May 24th, 2017 by MAO

That’s what happened yesterday to the Qatar News Agency (QNA), the official Qatari press agency, run by the Ministry of Information, as revealed in a number of reports, among which one from the Belgian French-language public channel RTBF:


Pirated by “an unknown entity” – who could it have been? Iran? North Korea? (The latter have been acting up quite a bit lately!) In any case, it was quite an impressive job, in that the QNA was hacked pretty much across the board: Twitter, Google Plus, Facebook, Instagram, etc.

An achievement like that at least offers one the opportunity to have a little fun. As a somewhat fuller EN-language report on the incident revealed, the hack also reached the QNA TV channel, resulting in the “chyron” of text at the bottom of the nightly newscast reproducing various non-kosher messages, such as that Hamas is “the legitimate representative of the Palestinian people” and that there are tensions between the US and the Qatari governments. One should be able to think of even more humorous applications: how about a tweet from the QNA reading “Pardon, delivery-man wondering where to take that case of Johnny Walker Sheikh al-Thani ordered ?” . . . and the like.

The reality, of course, is that such hacks lead to nothing but trouble. Those chyron-statements may raise a chuckle, but they definitely caused red faces among Qatari diplomats. And someone was definitely trying to stir up trouble by messing with the QNA Twitter-feed – but that seems to be exclusively in Arabic.


Translation: The foreign minister confirms a conspiracy by Saudi, Egypt, UAE, Bahrain and Kuwait to smear the reputation of Qatar.

For those with long-enough memories, this episode will recall that time back in 2011 when hackers took over the FoxNews Twitter account and posted six tweets claiming President Obama had been assassinated. That definitely caused some turmoil, for a short while, on the financial markets. Must do better, QNA!

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Wanted: Anglican SocMedia Expert

Posted on May 23rd, 2017 by MAO

I found out something that rather took me aback when preparing the following tweet:


Most of us are aware that, for some time now, there has been a Twitter account associated with the papacy, namely @Pontifex, just as there is an account for the American President (@POTUS – and in fact @FLOTUS for the First Lady as well).

Turns out, though, that there is no such account for the Archbishop of Canterbury! (For those of you not in the know, he’s precisely the “pope” of the Church of England – that is, the highest official of all, other than God Himself, subordinate to no other mere mortal ever since Henry VIII took the Anglican Church out of Catholicism back in the 16th century.)

Now, it’s true that there is an account for the current Archbishop of Canterbury, namely @justinwelby. And as you can imagine, he’s been tweeting up a storm today in response to the suicide-bomber attack last night at the Manchester pop-concert.

But again, that’s only for The Most Reverend Archbishop Welby himself, not for the office. The way things work in the Anglican Church, apparently, being top-archbishop is not for life – the last one, Rowan Williams, was in office for ten years and then retired, for example. So eventually The Most (Current) Reverend will presumably also leave office, taking his Twitter with him, and how can we be sure that the next Most Reverend will bring along his own account? Make it a prerequisite for the job? Somehow that just doesn’t seem appropriate.
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What’s FR for “Abbott & Costello”?

Posted on May 22nd, 2017 by MAO

As you may be aware – especially if you are French – the legislative elections are coming up there, once again in two rounds, on Sunday, June 11 and then just one week later, on June 18. There might be a slight problem coming up, namely in the Normandy constituency/département known as L’Eure.


One the one hand we have the mayor of Évreux, a city within that district – or le maire of Évreux in French, addressed as Monsieur Le Maire. On the other we have his opponent – no, not another mayor within that département but rather no less than President Macron’s brand-new Economy Minister, Bruno Le Maire. Naturally, he is politely addressed as Monsieur Le Maire.

So you see the problem, right? Particularly if the two gentleman happen to arrange a pre-election debate:

The next question goes to M. Le Maire . . .
Sorry – which one?
Wait: Who’s on first?
M. Le Maire
But which one?

And so on . . .
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“Not Only the Players”

Posted on May 1st, 2017 by MAO

The football season in the various European lands is coming to a close, usually meaning that tension mounts over which team will end up at the top of those various leagues,* while at the same time the main cup-competitions proceed to their final stages. Then, since this is an odd year, we can look forward to a peaceful summer devoid of the big football competitions between national teams (and of any Olympics).

Not so fast, though: Had you forgotten about the Confederations Cup? That involves national teams, although not as many, since it’s a somewhat more abbreviated tournament that FIFA puts on only for the champion national teams of the six world regional football confederations, together with the current World Cup champion and the host nation.

And there’s the problem: That host nation is traditionally the same one scheduled to host the World Cup itself the very next year; you could say that the Confederations Cup, in a minor way, serves as a sort of dress-rehearsal to make sure the country can handle the big show coming around after another 12 months’s time. For 2017/2018, then, we are talking about the Russian Federation. And that is a problem.


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If Erdogan Loses

Posted on April 12th, 2017 by MAO

. . . if he loses next Sunday’s Sultan Referendum on expanding his Presidential powers, what then? Have you thought about it? No particular reason that you should have, but journalist Karen van Eyken of the Belgian (Flemish) paper Het Laatste Nieuws has done so, and lays out an analysis in an excellent piece, in which she posits three scenarios.

None of them includes Erdogan just peaceably accepting such a result and moving on, by the way, but you already knew that, right?


1) Here’s the closest we get to that: He accepts, and he’s soon gone.

It does seem so unlikely. As Van Eyken notes:

… that is perhaps too optimistic an estimate because in the past months an over-eager Erdogan has struck his opponents dumb by throwing into jail politicians from other parties and so-called Gülen-supporters.

Indeed, in its essence what this referendum is about is handing over dictatorial powers, but he has been no less dictatorial before the fact in trying to bum-rush the entire country (together with expat Turkish voters in Europe – until the governments there intervened) to a Yes vote. It’s really a miracle how, as I write this five days before the election, indications are that the Yes vote is only slightly ahead.

But OK, if the vote is No: Scenario 1 is that that would be such a setback that it would catapult him out of politics altogether. Note that this is not just Van Eyken herself here, she does cite to this effect a couple of Turkey experts in the academy and the press. These claim that there are enough opponents even within his own AKP Party who are ready to push him out should the referendum fail.

2) Erdogan calls for a re-try: Especially if the No vote passes with a thin margin, the Turkish president is likely to give his country an early opportunity to get things right the second time. (Note the similarity here to the EU’s own practices when it comes to referenda. But this whole sorry tale shows yet again why referenda are such a flawed political instrument, something I have repeatedly brought up within this weblog.)

Remember, this would be little more than what Erdogan already did in 2015, when in the June general election his AKP party lost its majority in parliament; Erdogan arranged for early elections again in November. (He also went to war with the country’s Kurds, to assure he would get victory at that second try. And now he’s suffering from that unnecessary step, especially in Syria.) Remember as well that, as a result of that November victory, the AKP party with its renewed parliamentary majority can easily arrange that second-chance referendum.

3) Turkey descends into general violence: This is intriguing, and does seem quite possible. Is Turkey even a democracy now? Don’t we have Erdogan already far exceeding the given powers of his presidential office, de facto, to be allowed to act like the sultan he aspires to be de jure? Then what can happen when the figurehead of what is actually a top-heavy state faces such a setback is that everyone comes out of the woodwork ready for violence: the Kurds, ISIL, but also dissidents within the AKP. For the country is still on a knife-edge after the trauma of last July’s attempted coup d’état.

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Star-Crossed Hungarian Beer

Posted on March 22nd, 2017 by MAO

You surely know that one cannot simply draw or display a swastika (or, indeed, a handful of other Nazi-associated symbols) these days within Germany or Austria – the police will soon want to discuss the criminal offense you have just perpetrated. Others of Germany’s neighbors have enacted similar legislation. In fact, in legislation during the early nineties Hungary added to that list of forbidden Nazi-symbols the Arrow Cross, a similar-looking symbol which represented the fascist Arrow Cross Party (Nyilaskeresztes Párt) which took over Hungary late in World War II, with the help of the Germans, and was responsible for the greater part of victims sent from Hungary to the Nazi annihilation camps.

Gregor Martin Papucsek, Budapest correspondent for the Czech business-news site E15.cz, in his recent piece “Totalitarian Beer,” notes the curious exception to this ban, and it’s the one I show here: the red five-pointed star. That is still OK, even as we all know that it stands for Soviet Communism in general, and perhaps the Red Army in particular. God knows the Hungarians suffered for decades under the Soviet yoke, starting from 1944 when that Red Army first invaded from the East the territory of Nazi Germany’s firm ally, and thus were not inclined to moderate the destruction they caused, nor the reparations they exacted – nor the damage and casualties they inflicted during the ultra-violent 1956 Hungarian Uprising.

Wait, though: Others use the Red Star, too, including the giant Dutch brewer Heineken. They were apparently quick enough to seize the commercial opportunities opening up in Eastern Europe during those early nineties to grab a large foothold in Hungary, and in fact Heineken is still a major player in that market, selling a handful of local brands as well as importing beers from the outside. Papucsek’s piece even speaks of what has been known colloquially as the lex Heineken (Latin: Heineken Law), leaving the Red Star alone for the Dutch firm’s convenience.

Not any more, though, not as of a law the Hungarian parliament passed on Monday which added the Red Star to the prohibited list. So what happened?

According to Papucsek, Heineken overplayed their hand – in Romania. Romania?! Yes, but specifically in Székely-land, part of what is known in English as Transylvania, what amounts to mostly Hungarian ethnic land which just happens to belong to Romania (via various accidents of history we cannot go into here). For yet another beer liked to use the Red Star in its insignia, and that was the Transylvanian brand Igazi Csíki Sör (name translates to “True Beer from Csík,” which is one of the counties there). Last year Heineken filed suit in a Romanian court to forbid that brewer from using the Red Star in its insignia.

Given the strange way things work in this part of the world, when the Transylvanians need legal/political help they are more inclined to turn to Budapest – i.e. their fellow Hungarians – than to Bucharest. What’s more – and as we see here – Budapest politicians are generally inclined to respond.

How will Heineken react? Will Heineken react? I rather doubt it.

UPDATE: A piece from the leading Dutch business newspaper, Het Financiële Dagblad (behind paywall) reports towards late June that the European Commission, having looked into this matter of the Red Star, sees no reason to stop Hungary from banning it if the government there so desires. For the Hungarians suffered SO much under the Communists, you understand! (They did, but this is not at all about that; read the main blogpost.)

As for Heineken, they are still counting on contacts at the top political level to help resolve this situation in such a way that they can continue to use the graphic which, as they point out, has been their logo from the very beginning.

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“Most Intelligent American President”

Posted on January 8th, 2017 by MAO

Oh good, there are quality President Trump-jokes cropping up already.

britske_listy
You can click through, but it will be in Czech. Glad to translate:

The aircraft was about to crash. Four passengers remained on-deck, but there were only three parachutes. The first passenger said: “My name is Steph Curry, I’m the best basketball-player in the NBA. Millions of fans need me, I can’t allow myself to die.” He took the first parachute and jumped.

The second passenger, Donald Trump, said: “I am the newly elected American president and I am the most intelligent president in American history, my country doesn’t want me to die.” He took the second parachute and jumped out of the plane.

The third passenger, Pope Francis, said to the fourth passenger, a ten-year-old schoolboy: “My son, I am old and don’t have many more years before me, you have many more years to look forward to, so I will sacrifice my life and give you the third parachute.”

The boy answered: “It’s all right, Your Holiness, there is also a parachute here for you. The most intelligent American president took my schoolbag.”

This comes courtesy of the Britské listy, a sort of reverse-EuroSavant in that it’s apparent purpose is to report to Czechs interesting articles from the British press. Naturally, then, this joke originates somewhere from there, but Britské listy does not give any reference to exactly where. In effect, I have translated it back to its original English.

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Olympics: The Taxman Calls

Posted on August 20th, 2016 by MAO

Congratulations! You’re a 2016 Rio Olympics medal-winner! Quite the difference from being, say, merely a lottery-winner, gained from sheer dumb luck – admittedly in the face of odds heavily stacked in favor of the House – rather than years and years of training to get to the top of your chosen branch of athletics.

In actuality, though, there’s often no difference at all between the two. It simply depends on your country’s particular tax-regime You’ve just very publicly received a nice chunk of money, after all, whether via dumb luck or no. A government – often more than one – is likely interested in demanding a piece of it.

OLMedaille
As you see, the Belgian paper La Libre Belgique recently devoted a bit of space and one of its writers (no by-line) to this issue of the tax-status of the money its athletes gain win they win Olympic medals. First of all, such prizes are paid by the national federation of the athlete, so they differ by country. For Belgium the pay-outs are as follows: (for individual events) €50,000 for gold, €30,000 for silver and €20,000 for bronze; for team events, it’s €12,500/€7,500/€5,000. Further individual event competitors who place fourth get €10,000, fifth get €5,000.

You might think the government most interested would be that of Brazil, but no: another piece in the Dutch business newspaper Het Financiele Dagblad (behind a paywall) reveals that Brazil has waived any taxes on the amounts Olympic winners receive. (Is this a general rule among countries hosting the Games? You might think so; there is no information here either way.)

At least this means that taxation on these winnings will be determined solely by an athlete’s country of nationality. Here the anti-Double Taxation treaty Belgium concluded with Brazil back in 1972 prescribes that such finanical gains for Belgians operating in Brazil will be taxed according to the Brazilian authorities, and not again by the Belgian government. But, to repeat, the Brazilian authorities have waived any tax. So Belgian athletes are in luck.

The La Libre Belgique piece also claims there is no anti-Double Taxation Treaty between the Netherlands and Brazil – surprisingly. So Dutch athletes do have their winnings taxed, as income. And the HFD piece (behind paywall) also states that the prize-money amounts are less there: only €19,125 for an individual gold, €12,750 for silver, €9.350 for team gold. Of course, presumably there is support from the Dutch athletic federations (probably underwritten to some extent by the government) for training and being able to live without a day-job during that training, but that is surely the case in Belgium as well.

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Nice Hero, In His Own Words

Posted on July 23rd, 2016 by MAO

We’ve had Nice, then at the beginning of this week Würzburg, now München – it’s getting hard to keep track of all the public massacres these days!

Still, there remains one ray of light amidst all this gloom. And that is the hero of the Nice attack – only just over a week ago – a guy named Franck. (Just so you know: That’s a somewhat common French first name, the guy obviously wants to withold his last name to better control his privacy.) He’s the brave gentleman who was on his scooter on the Promenade des Anglais and promptly pursued the terrorist’s truck on its deadly path, and who is in fact credited with helping to slow it down so that police ultimately had an easier time shooting the driver.

Amazingly, Franck survived the episode, I believe he wasn’t even injured. The same cannot be said, however, for that scooter he was riding. As I already mentioned on Twitter, there’s now a French-based crowdfunding appeal going on, via the “Leetchi” website, to raise the funds at least to buy him a new scooter.

cagnotte

FranckEven as I write this, they’ve already raised just over €11,000 there so far. The sort of scooter they have in mind buying for him (“PIAGGIO mp3 300 LT sport ABS/ASR Black matt sport”) is listed right there. Interestingly, that same Crowdfunding page has a full picture of Franck at the top (and which I have put here): a fit, distinguished-looking gentleman with dark hair but a white beard (so aged, say, between 45 and 55). More interestingly still, that same page has Franck’s account of the incident, albeit a shortened version. But there is also a link to the full version in an “exclusive” interview piece in the local paper there, Nice-Matin.

I’m going to translate that account (from Nice-Matin) for you here starting from when the truck appears on the scene. I know, usually I’m supposed to add some clever theme or comment in blogposts like these, but not here, the point is self-evident. Accuse me of being lazy if you like, on this summer Saturday morning, but it’s quite a wild tale. More »

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Vierdaagse: Terrorist Target?

Posted on July 18th, 2016 by MAO

It’s that time of year again, time for the Vierdaagse or the Nijmegen Four-Day Marches event. Self-titled “The Walk of the World,” you have to at least give it credit as the world’s largest multi-day walking event. What’s more, this year marks the 100th time that it has been held. Starting tomorrow (19 July), around 49,000 actual participants are expected to kick off their long-range hikes from Nijmegen, covering at least 30km per day, up to even 55km per day for some. They will be accompanied (but generally only in the city of Nijmegen, of course) by some 1.5 million visitors and 4,500 artists.

But we live in uncertain times, times that are not very nice – or maybe they are precisely too “Nice” (capital “N”) after all.

vierdaagse
“100% for sure, attack on the Vierdaagse,” reads in part that rather crudely scrawled message, contained on letters that were anonymously sent, some three weeks ago, to the local police HQ as well as the local newspaper, De Gelderlander. Indeed, the walking masses that characterize this famed festival would seem to be ideal targets for the terroristically inclined – just look at the pictures that flash by at the head of the festival’s homepage – not to mention the crowds of sick, lame & lazy, non-airborne crazy folks who stay behind to take in the various open-air concerts and other public events held in the city. Further, the Netherlands certainly has its share of faulty integrated, alienated Muslim youth who are candidates to answer ISIL’s call to mayhem, although the last outrage of that sort occurring there that comes to mind predates the rise of ISIL considerably, namely the assasination in November, 2004 on the street in broad daylight of the anti-Islam gadfly Theo van Gogh.

The good news, though – “good news” at least before-the-fact, I suppose – contained in this piece from De Telegraaf is that the authorities in charge of the Vierdaagse are not impressed. (And really, looking at that childish scrawl, how could they be?) Nijmegen Police Chief Lute Nieuwerth: “This letter-writer falls in the category ‘foolishness’ and ‘not to be taken seriously.'” Meanwhile, both MarchLeader Johan Willemstein and Mayor Hubert Bruls have publicly stated that, yes, there will be close coordination with security forces, but so far there is nothing that would mandate that the safety measures already in place should be heightened.

That seems like simple common sense – even though no less than King Willem-Alexander himself will also attend. He won’t be walking, he’ll just be there at the festival’s climax, namely on Friday as marchers – those who survive to the end, that is; the weather is going to be relatively sunny and hot! – finish their last march and so may go collect their medals.

And really, let us briefly contrast here this mass sporting event with that other, somewhat more famous one due to begin two-and-a-half weeks later, the Rio Olympics: You won’t find nationalism, you won’t find expensive one-time-use infrastructure bankrupting the public coffers, you won’t find silly advertising on the part of venal multinational corporate sponsors, you won’t find doping here! Rather, the Vierdaagse is all about mass participation in healthy physical activity – and, yes, medals for all rather than medals only for the very best, or at least medals for all those who can fulfill stringent but not almost impossible sporting demands.

Can one dream that, once “sports” like bicycle racing, track and field, and others similar completely lose their credibility with the world public after the thousandth doping scandal, that they will eventually revert to this mass participation ethos? Can one at least dream that, by which I mean dream of a better world?

(Somewhat less than common sense: Another headline from De Gelderlander about the Vierdaagse reads Springsteen and the Stones Not Welcome at Vierdaagse Festivities. The piece is about how the police will be trying to ensure public safety, partly through exhaustive monitoring of CCTV cameras posted everywhere, and also thereby partly through ensuring that no excessive crowd is allowed to gather at any one place at any one time. That’s why they couldn’t have the Rolling Stones, say, giving a public concert in Nijmegen during the event, even if they did it for free, you see – too much of a tempting bombing target!

(Now, there will be rock bands playing there to entertain the festival crowds, so the unspoken corollary to this article’s message is that they must not be very good – indeed, that they cannot be allowed, from a public safety standpoint, to be very good – right? And even though the Vierdaagse is really a big event – at least within the Netherlands and the nearby NW European environs – I really don’t think those who put it on yearly need to worry about having to turn down Springsteen or the Rolling Stones.)

UPDATE: If for some reason you want to follow a live-feed of the Nijmegen Vierdaagse, starting tomorrow (19 July), you can do so here, courtesy of RTL.

I know: What sense is that?! Perhaps it will turn out to be a variation of that old saying attributed to ice hockey fans: “I only watch for the fights.” Or Formula 1/stockcar-racing fans: “I only watch for the crashes.” So: “I only watch for the possible terrorist explosions”? Nah.

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Klarafy Yourself!

Posted on July 13th, 2016 by MAO

For years now my favorite classical music station has been the one that is part of VRT, the network of public TV and radio channels broadcast throughout Flanders, i.e. the northern half of Belgium (and also on-line, of course). That classical station for ages was simply known as VRT3, until its brand was spiffed up a bit and switched to Klara in December of 2000. That’s “Klara” as in Klassieke Radio: “Classical Radio.” The station has a number of truly stupendous on-air presenters, but I won’t go into them here. Rather, I need to bring up what’s claimed on Wikipedia to be the station’s 2.27% share of its market.

That’s low, admittedly – or maybe not: it’s classical music after all. (Mainly, but also jazz, movie music, etc.; also (American) country music as of recently, starting Saturdays at 18.00 hours CET.) At least you can’t accuse them of not trying to do anything about this, as we can see from the truly ingenious innovation the station has now offered for weeks.

Klarafy
I’m talking about Klarafy, basically a web-app designed to woo people to classical music by taking their custom playlists (from Spotify) and calculating how their taste in music translates into classical compositions – complete with ready-to-click output links to those compositions to allow people immediately to hear for themselves!

Let me translate some of the text there on the Klarafy page to give you an idea of where they are coming from:

. . . classical music is a rich, inexhaustible treasure-chest of the most diverse sorts of music. Because we at Klara believe that there must sit some music in that treasure-chest that can enchant you, we developed Klarafy: a web-tool that lets you discover classical music in a completely new manner. Not academically or chronologically, but in the most personal way: on the basis of your current musical taste.

That Klarafy page itself is also pretty interesting to visit, even if you think you’re not in the market for this (which, let me be clear, is free). Especially the first three videos, which show a mix of people actually trying it out. Yes, it’s all in Dutch, but you hear them list their favorite pop music (and the artists’ names then show up on the screen in a list, for clarity), and of course follow along as they input their Spotify playlist and see what Klarafy comes up with.

All of them – including Nicole and Hugo, the middle-aged couple in the last of these three videos – seem delighted with what they find. But of course they are! Again, you see what it is Klarafy suggests, or at least the headline items. And the tool just doesn’t blindly spit out its suggestions, but also provides some reasoning to go along with that (although that’s the part that you’ll miss if your Dutch is not good) – like, “Oh, you like Barbara Streisand, a strong female vocalist, so you’ll also like the arias from Verdi’s La Traviata!”

So they click, and they hear classical music with which they presumably have not been familiar before. “Catchy!” they all then say, pretty much.

Try it yourself! – if you’re on Spotify, if you have a playlist there to submit or are willing to make one.

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Old Captive Nation, New Captive Media

Posted on July 12th, 2016 by MAO

Ah, how something like the following takes us geezers back to the old days!

Szydlo
“[Poland’s] Premier Szydło discusses new law about TK.” TK means Tribunał Konstytucyjny or “Constitutional Tribunal,” meaning Poland’s Supreme Court. That TK hasn’t been operating so well lately, really since the new right-wing PiS government took power last November. Among other things, it then pushed through laws intended to severely curtail the TK’s ability to exercise judicial review, that is, to vet the laws passed by the country’s bicameral legislature (Sejm/Senat) and reject those in conflict with the national constitution. Those controversial government measures against the TK included rejection of judges who had been appointed to join the TK prior to the regime-change, in favor of other judges more to the new government’s liking.

In exchange, the sitting TK has ruled against and therefore refused to accept those laws, and those new justices. For months now there has been this stalemate between the executive/legislative branches and the judicial branch – something along the same line but still much worse than the US Senate’s refusal to consider President Obama’s nominated replacement for deceased Supreme Court judge Antonin Scalia.

The new government also legislated to put the national TV and radio stations under much closer government control, which led to mass resignations of much of the media talent at those institutions. These two areas – that is, TK and media – are the main elements (but not the only ones) which has led to much alarm about the direction of Polish democracy, foremost on the part of the EU, but also within the US government. A recent Washington Post piece in connection with President Obama’s visit to Warsaw for the NATO summit there (Obama slammed Polish democracy) showed this high level of concern.

More entertainingly, it also lays out how tricky editing when it came to the report about Obama’s remarks that was actually broadcast on Polish State TV made sure that most national viewers were left with no inkling that the US President saw Poland as anything other than a model democratic state. Really, those who ran the same broadcast facilities with an iron fist during the bad-old Communist times – however many are still left – are surely nodding in approval.

That WaPo peace is of course in English; you can read all about the details if you like. The point is, it’s now 2016 and media has expanded into the social variety, yet the same whitewashing treatment can be seen with those new sorts of messages, such as the tweet seen above. “Prime Minister discusses law” – as if the whole matter simply revolved about finding and passing the right legislation to clear up the TK controversy and get the government back to functioning normally again.

For the details about this latest legislation the Warsaw Business Journal has a nice summary. Ultimately, though, all of that is irrelevant: this is a constitutional stand-off that cannot be resolved simply by passing more laws, for it is clear that the Constitutional Tribunal will simply yet again point out how it is inconsistent with Poland’s constitution and reject it – and the stalemate will go on.

The WBJ piece suggests that one function of this latest law was simply to try to impress on President Obama, in time for his visit, that steps were being taken to resolve this grave constitutional dispute – to fool President Obama, that is, since as we have seen this is no sort of effective contribution towards bringing about resolution. Of course, it’s unlikely that Obama follows the @Wiadomosci_PR (that is, “News_PR” when PR = Polish Radio) Twitter-feed: it is native Poles who do that, and so it is they who are being hoodwinked by such State propaganda, which, again, really must at least inspire nostalgia – of the unwelcome sort – among those old enough to remember government messages from the old RPL – Polish People’s Republic.

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What’s Spanish for “Chilcot”?

Posted on July 8th, 2016 by MAO

If you follow the news, you’ll be aware of the “Chilcot Report” (named after the British civil servant in charge of the seven-year investigation which led to it), released Wednesday (6 July 2016), which denounced then-English PM Tony Blair’s leading his country into participation in the 2003 invasion of Iraq and toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein.

That report naturally gave rise to its greatest impact and public commentary in Great Britain itself – just what that country needed while it was still reeling from the “Leave” Brexit referendum vote. However, we know quite well that it was not British troops alone who stormed across the Iraqi border back in March of 2003. Rather, they were largely American forces, by far – which raises the question of whether there could be an analogous independent inquiry into that invasion over in the US.

(It’s quite an idle question, however, in view of President Obama’s “just move on” attitude towards the deeds of his predecessor. Frankly, this writer would gladly give up the prospect of any American “Chilcot”-type inquiry – the original seems to do fine in broad lines for US circumstances – if we could instead get some disclosure and prosecutions of US torture during that period.)

In any case, George W. Bush hasn’t gotten around to reading the Chilcot Report yet (was really never big on reading anyway). Now, there were also Australian troops in on the Iraq invasion, and the media there is now wondering whether that country now needs its own version of the investigation.

But what I want to write about here is Spain, where they are wondering the same thing, reports El País.

Trillo
That “Trillo” is Federico Trillo, pictured there, who was Spain’s Defense Minister in 2003, and who seems to have been the easy, available target for Spanish journalists once “Chilcot Report” became a thing. (In other words, the Spanish Prime Minister at the time, José María Aznar, showed himself more skillful at knowing just when to get out of Dodge and make himself un-findable. But also: see below.)

But here’s the key fact: Spain was not involved militarily in the invasion of Iraq! Those quotes you see in the tweet are Trillo’s assurances that Spain “sent no combatants to Iraq,” in fact “never fired a shot at anyone”!

Now, it’s true that Spain’s Aznar was quite prominent at the time in backing what were George W. Bush’s clear intention to invade and depose Saddam. In particular, just before the invasion was launched, in mid-March 2003, there occurred a high-profile summit meeting on the Azores Islands (Portuguese territory) featuring Bush, Blair – and, yes, Aznar.

But he drew the line at sending troops – or at least that is what his Defense Minister, Trillo, now maintains. Frankly, even if there had been a surreptitious Spanish troop contingent there, it surely would not have had much practical, military affect. It’s only function would have been to demonstrate allied solidarity with what was going on – that is, precisely to have been known about! (If you want to be mean: just like the Spanish troops who fought for Nazi Germany on the Russian Front, although they were actually real, and said to be volunteers.)

Pity poor Federico Trillo – harassed about Chilcot and things he did or did not do back in 2003 when, by all accounts, he’s (basically) innocent – INNOCENT, I tell you! You might ask: “Well, isn’t he out of public life by now, so that he could just demand that the journalists leave him alone?” Sadly, no – in fact, he’s precisely Spain’s current ambassador to the UK!

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EU/Switzerland Brexit Divorce Court

Posted on July 5th, 2016 by MAO

Here straight out of left field, unnoticed and unmentioned by all who are supposed to be in-the-know, is something with direct influence upon how the Brexit saga is going to unfold in the coming weeks and months. Yes: even though it is out of Switzerland. (And, once again, here the underlying article is in English, so you can click through and judge it for yourself, if you so desire.)

BrexitSwiss
You see, the anti-immigration bug also bit into the Swiss voting public, but a while back, namely in February 2014 with the “Federal Popular Initiative Against Mass Immigration.” It won – with but 50.3% of the vote, but that is enough as long as it also wins in a majority of the Swiss cantons – and thereby expressed the Swiss electorate’s desire for a system of quotas to be placed upon those outsiders seeking to come to live in Switzerland.

“Much like those who voted “Leave” in the recent UK Brexit referendum would like to do,” you might think. Still, such quotas have not yet been implemented by the Swiss government, which has until next February – that is, three years after the referendum itself – to do so.

What’s the problem? Well, it’s a similar one to the one facing the UK in the wake of the Brexit vote: Switzerland also has a close relationship with the EU – although not member-state status, of course, and in fact the Swiss Parliament last month voted to formally withdraw the application to join the EU that had been submitted back during happier times in 1992. (Note that it did this before the Brexit vote.)

Nonetheless, the Swiss continue to enjoy close economic relations with the EU (e.g. 56% of Swiss exports go to EU countries), whose trade and other provisions are expressed in a collection of treaties negotiated over time between the Swiss government and the EU as a whole (represented by the Commission). Unfortunately, these treaties made a condition of such close relations that the Swiss allow free movement of EU citizens to Switzerland. For example, as the article points out, “300,000 people cross the border each day to work there.”

So the “people” – or at least the referendum – want quotas limiting immigration to Switzerland, including by EU citizens, while the treaties with the EU do not allow any such thing. Indeed, last December Commission President Juncker rejected an attempt by Switzerland to assert that it was allowed to introduce immigration quotas under some sort of “extreme situation/Act of God” provision in the relevant bilateral treaty.

Meanwhile, the Swiss government has been tying itself up in knots trying to come up with some sort of quota-that-really-isn’t-a-quota that would satisfy both sides. Good luck with that! And this is a situation whose final resolution, in whatever form, will be painfully obvious to all no later than next February!

Given new developments with Brexit, and in particular the continuing delusions on the part of the many Leave advocates there (to include Boris Johnson, in his one post-Brexit Daily Telegraph column) that somehow it will be possible to limit freedom of movement into the UK while retaining all trading privileges with the EU, how enthusiastic do you think EU officials will be to cut the Swiss a break? Not very, one can imagine – also, because whatever is agreed (if anything) to solve this one EU/sovereign nation impasse could of course be applicable as a precedent to apply to the EU/UK situation.

In a (small) way, this development is a boon to the UK government: they don’t need to try so much any more to get the EU to negotiate before they invoke Article 50 (if they ever do) in order to try to get some foretaste of what an ultimate “divorce” settlement with the EU would look like. (And so far the EU has refused any sort of pre-invocation negotiations, in any case.) No, if they like they can just keep a close eye on Switzerland and wait until February of next year.

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EU Parliament Gold Digger

Posted on July 5th, 2016 by MAO

So now we have this latest Brexit casualty:

Farage

“[M]y political ambition has been achieved,” the accompanying Al-Arabiya article quotes Farage as saying. Elsewhere, he is quoted as now wanting to “take my life back” just as before the poll he had urged UK voters to “take your country back.”

Actually, Nigel, your political ambition has not been achieved – unless that amibition was limited to the “Leave” vote itself. But that is hard to imagine: You really want the UK out of the EU, right?

Well, as recent developments on both sides of the English Channel show, that hardly is yet a done deal. Indeed, Brexit may never happen at all, despite the winning “Leave” vote, for a variety of reasons – which might very well mean that there remains an essential watchdog role for Farage, keeping up the political pressure on whichever UK ruling establishment emerges to actually carry through what a majority of referendum voters seem to have prescribed.

Is he supposed to do that as a newly minted private citizen, having seized “his life back” – or rather as the famous and (unfortunately) influential head of a minor but seemingly influential UK political party? Really, Farage’s blatant abandonment of responsibility for a cause he purported to spearhead is even more egregious than that of Boris Johnson, who was without official position and gave up pursuit of that, rather than discard the influential political position he already held.

Even worse: Farage is not willing to extend “taking back his life” to the point of shucking off the requirement to spend some more time in his hated Brussels – he intends to retain his status as a Member of the European Parliament! What rank hypocrisy, from a man who prompted a political earthquake aimed at removing Britain entirely – including its full delegation of MEPs – from all EU institutions! As you will have heard, the one UK member of the EU Commission, Lord Hill, did the right thing and was quick to resign after the Referendum results became known. I’m not saying ALL British MEPs should resign – until if/when the UK does leave the EU, of course – but certainly all of those representing UKIP there, with Nigel Farage at their head!

But no, the MEP perqs and the pay are simply too lucrative for a greedy hypocrite like Nigel Farage to turn down! (The latter amounts to €84,000 per year.) What’s more – and although I am not sure about this for MEPs – compensation earned for working for the EU tends to be entirely tax-free.

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Is Boris’ Name Really Mud?

Posted on June 28th, 2016 by MAO

The Twitter-headline roughly translates to “Piss off, Boris!” and the lead to this piece reads:

Boris Johnson, the face of the Brexit Campaign, develops into the most-hated man on the Island – since it is only now dawning on many Britons what he has made crumble away for them.

Boris
Boris Johnson is certainly the flamboyant target for hate among those on the Continent – most of us, in fact – for whom Brexit is an unalloyed blunder. But this piece by Thomas Hüetlin tries to make the case that his popularity is plummeting among UK voters as well.

It’s well-known that one voter whom he has lost is the famed chef/restaurant entrepreneur Jamie Oliver, who in a widely-shared Instagram post (scroll down to read), begged his fellow countrymen not to make Johnson the new Prime Minister. What is more:

London, the city that he ruled for eight years as Mayor, he can now only enter under strong police-protection. His bicycle, with which he used to love to ride to Town Hall, he now has to keep in the garage. “If we see him, we’ll knock him from that silly bicycle,” worked-up citizens said last weekend.

All that very well may be. You can check here the latest odds offered by the UK betting establishments as to whether he is to be the next Prime Minister or not; taking a look right now (i.e. around 13.30 hours CET on this date), some show him ahead, while others show Home Secretary Theresa May ahead. Hüetlin’s piece also does a rather good job of skewring the outright untruths in Johnson’s column yesterday for the Daily Telegraph, but that’s rather easy prey.

Yes, that “£350 million/week to the NHS rather than to Europe” pledge has turned out to be a lie – but people associate that much more with Nigel Farage, who pushed it more publicly during the Leave campaign. And yes, it seems some Leave voters are now regretting their decision, but so far those have occupied only the realm of anecdote, not data.

We’ve seen the TV reports about how Boris Johnson is currently unpopular in the city whose Mayor he used to be, but there are no doubt plenty of Leave fans out there in the English hinterland, and in Wales, who still think pretty well of him. You can’t help but think that this Spiegel piece falls into the same old trap of assuming that London is but a microcosm of the rest of the country – a delusion into which many analysts clearly fell during the whole Referendum campaign, and one which arose out of the political divide existing in Britain which the Referendum result did so much to reveal.

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