Just Confuse the Bastards!

Posted on November 15th, 2014 by MAO

The ongoing outrage over special tax arrangements for big multinational corporations rightly centers currently on Luxembourg and on the brand-new European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, under whose premiership all of those advantageous arrangements were agreed there. The accompanying open secret, however, is how Luxembourg is not alone in its guilt in this regard. Ireland was actually pressured to take (limited) measures to rein in its own concessions to tax-avoiding corporations even before the issue blew up recently with the Luxembourg leaks, and EU Commission scrutiny is also being increased on some similar Netherlands measures, particularly what that country may have done to attract Starbucks.

Add to that infamous list Belgium, as well. However, a new report from La Libre Belgique describes one rather unique – indeed, some would say typically Belgian – approach taken there.

InBev
As you can see, the affair involves AB InBev, now the world’s largest brewing company, headquartered in Leuven, just to the East of Brussels. They have plenty of clout to force through their own sweetheart deal with any country that would want to host them, you would think. Indeed in 2011 the Belgian fiscal authorities permitted them to set up a “nameplate company” to which, in the usual fashion, they could use various accounting tricks to steer responsibility for more than €50 million of profits actually earned elsewhere and so be very lightly taxed on them, in most cases not at all.

This organization was set up in Brussels rather than in Leuven, perhaps to provide a sheen of “arms-length” propriety. Imagine its surprise when, last year, it found itself under investigation for its fishy tax arrangements by the Belgian tax inspectorate, the Inspection spéciale des impôts (ISI)!

Clearly, the left hand of Belgium’s tax authorities often does not know what the right hand is doing! This article does not reveal the final resolution of this investigation; it might still be ongoing, although in any event it’s likely that those authorities will go for consistency and call off the inspectors – rather than seize the opportunity presented by this bureaucratic cock-up, that is, to claim back what are surely millions of sorely needed tax-receipts from a scandalous arrangement that some official was browbeaten into approving in the past.

Really, given the mounting public outrage over these sweetheart tax deals you would think the relevant Belgian officials would think again about whether they might just want to shut this one down. It would be very good publicity; AB InBev (originally a truly Belgian company, anyway) is firmly embedded in the country so that it would be costly to move. At least these officials have effectively raised the cost of such arrangements to tax-avoiding multinationals, in the form of the uncertainty that henceforth must be part of their calculus as to whether to deal with the Belgian state.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Bosses’ Ras-Le-Bol

Posted on November 7th, 2014 by MAO

Truly, it is the Autumn of Discontent in Europe. That’s why that phrase up in the headline might be a handy one to learn. It’s French of course: ras-le-bol, or “enough” as in “I/We’ve had enough!” People are unhappy with their governments and are taking to the streets. Just yesterday marchers representing Belgian unions flooded through downtown Brussels, while a minority topped off the day by setting fire to cars and skirmishing with the police. Such demonstrations are set to continue there today, while the Antwerp dockworkers and their local labor brethren are set to do the same there on November 24th.

Now that we’re talking about protesting crowds flooding the streets, the French surely cannot be far behind. Things are not going very well there economically either, and sure enough:

RasLeBol
Even if you don’t know French, you can make out the word décembre there: they’re going to hold their fire until December. But wait: the next words after that are le patronat, and that means “bosses,” not “workers.” (And indeed, that fat-cat in the suit there does not look very proletarian.)

But things are going bad for these guys, too, at least according to the vice-president of one large (French) employers’ organization (Medef), Geoffroy Roux:

One SME boss kills himself every two days, the treasuries are bone-dry, business bankruptcies are up and the government adds practically every day a little tax here, a measure increasing complexity there, so there is really a sense of “Enough!” [ras-le-bol!].

The plan is for things to truly go down on 1 December, when most of the various French employers’ associations are calling upon small business-owners to “hit the streets,” both in Paris and in Toulouse. But really: can it be true that French bosses will display their anger with the same sort of mass demonstrations (with occasional violence) that working-class organizations use?

That M. Roux I previously quoted declared in a TV interview that, yes, “some will perhaps hit the streets” on 1 December, but that there will also be meetings and témoignages, which literally translates as “testimonials.”

There’s another way these business organizations will mobilize to get what they want, too. M. Roux does not include it in his list, but the Le Monde writer (uncredited) does give it a mention: stepping up their institutional lobbying.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Luxembourg Leopard & His Spots

Posted on November 6th, 2014 by MAO

Here’s the latest EU scandal – yes, with the new Commission not even a week old! – and it might be a biggie. It broke this morning:

accordssecrets
Oooh, «accords secrets» – secret accords! They’re linked with that “343,” that’s the number of multinational companies to which the Luxembourg granted sweetheart tax deals to come and operate there. This has just emerged from a leak from the offices of Pricewaterhouse Coopers there, which itself earned handsomely in taking up the role of negotiating with the Luxembourg government on those companies’ behalf for these tax-breaks. According to the report cited in this piece in the Tribune de Genève,

While in Luxembourg the tax rate for companies is officially 29%, which is decent [honnête] in international terms, that often passes below 1% after negotiations with the tax authorities.

The important thing to remember here is that multinationals routinely distort their official accounts, through tricks that go under the general name of transfer pricing, to show as much income as they can as coming from a place like Luxembourg where it is subject to the least taxation. Of course, the income has really been overwhelmingly earned elsewhere, in other countries – and those countries thereby effectively have had legitimate tax revenues stolen from them, in often mind-boggling quantities.

The company names sampled in this brief piece are what you would expect: Apple, Amazon, Heinz, Pepsi, Ikea, Deutsche Bank, and also a handful of Swiss companies (as this Swiss newspaper notes): UBS, Credit Suisse, Lombard Odier private bankers (remind you at all of “odious”?), and others. Indeed, with respect to the American companies on this list, their management has to cheat governments out of taxes using techniques like these, in order to increase earnings – otherwise they can be sued by shareholders for breach of fiduciary duty! Behold the face of late twentieth-century/twenty-first century Capitalism!

What really makes this development juicy is of course the identity of the brand-new President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, who was Prime Minister of Luxembourg from 1995 to 2013 when presumably all or at least most of these sweetheart tax-deals were negotiated. Now, it’s true that it was pressure from the outgoing Commission that recently Ireland to close its notorious “double Irish” tax loophole (well, at least over the next four years) that enables multinationals to evade enormous amounts in taxes owed elsewhere. The legal justification wielded was that such generous tax terms in effect amounted to “state aid,” which is forbidden to EU member-states.

That same rationale can obviously be brought to bear now on these Luxembourgish arrangements. But will it? As @TeacherDude puts it:

TeacherDude
Juncker is going to have to change his spots, and quick. This development is precisely the last thing the EU needs after last May’s elections that saw so many new MEPs elected from extremist parties, reflecting a souring on the EU on the part of the European electorate. Already Marine Le Pen, whose Front National is prominent among those extremist parties, is calling on Juncker to resign from his very new Commission President position .

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

ISIL Child-Soldier Recruitment

Posted on November 5th, 2014 by MAO

Check out this happy playground picture: that smiling boy in the foreground, the other ones playing on a balance-beam behind.

Rekruttering
Of course, it is not that at all. This picture was taken in Raqqa, the Syrian desert town now functioning as headquarters for the outlaw organization known as the Islamic State. The Danish there reads “IS steps up recruiting of children in Syria,” and what we see here is no less than military training, which for the young lad up front in particular involves crawling through that child-sized tunnel whose circular exit we see there.

The recruitment and use of child-soldiers in Syria is a growing problem, actually not isolated to IS but to almost all warring parties there, including groups such as the Free Syrian Army supported by the West. (I write “almost” because it’s possible that the forces of the Syrian government do not have to resort to recruiting children; they merely have a well-documented record of torturing and executing them.) But the IS forces take this beyond what has seen before, according to a child-protection advisor to UNICEF, Laurent Chapuis, who was interviewed for this Politiken article. Says Chapuis:

ISIS’ recruiting of children is possibly the clearest current example of of a new pattern of aggressive recruitment through ISIS’ use of social media. Social media are used to promote the group’s ideology, agenda and political vision, including the mobilization and use of children.

One obvious question, though: how do we really know about what the IS is allegedly doing with children at its own Syrian headquarters? After all, the deadly conditions for Western reporters wherever this Islamic group holds sway has been lamented for the “blindness” it results in, which both Western governments and publics have to deal with when trying to figure out what is really going on there.

It turns out, however, that there do exist certain information sources. That picture at the head of the Politiken article, and in the tweet, itself comes from a recently-formed group called “Raqqa Is Being Slaughtered Silently” consisting of daring local residents there who gather photos and other information and then get that out to the wider world (yes, mainly via social media). This organization is headed by a certain Abu Ibrahim Raqqawi; here is his Twitter-feed (click on the image to go there):

Raqqawi
(“Raqqawi,” by the way, is Arabic for “from Raqqa,” just in case you had any doubts that this is an alias.)

Lea Wind-Friis, the Politiken reporter who wrote the article, mentions trying to contact Mr. Raqqawi to gain information for it but failing, which is understandable. However, a writer for the respected American journal Foreign Policy did manage to speak with him earlier on, and his accounts of what is going on there form a substantial part of her article entitled Children of the Caliphate – in English, free, and published only last week, which recounts IS child recruitment and mobilization in detail – including teaching very young boys to behead people and to operate as suicide-bombers.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Academic (Journal) Revolution!

Posted on November 4th, 2014 by MAO

For those of you not of the higher education world, here’s a tip about one of the biggest scams plaguing it. For very many fields of study it’s the academic journals that make or break academic careers – publish or perish! – and those journals have in effect become monopoly providers. So they charge monopoly prices: universities pay incredible amounts yearly to leading publishers just for subscriptions. And as the cherry on the cake, those who write the scientific articles that are accepted for publication in these journals thereby give up all rights to them.

Doesn’t that sound like something that just shouldn’t exist in this glorious Internet Age, where “information just wants to be free”? I agree, but this piece from the Times Higher Education (formerly Supplement) shows that things are getting no better.

JournalSpending

[Researchers] found that the amount [for journal subscriptions] paid to Oxford University Press rose by 49.2 per cent between 2010 and 2014. The amount paid to Springer rose by 36.3 per cent and the amount to Wiley by 33.5 per cent. The smallest rise – 17.4 per cent – was in subscriptions to Elsevier journals. Overall expenditure increased by 23.9 per cent.

That’s interesting – but since when did EuroSavant turn into a higher education blog, rather than a European foreign press blog?

You’re quite right. But fear not: what I wanted to bring to your attention was a recent high-risk attempt by Netherlands universities to do something about that, reported by Martijn van Calmthout of the Volkskrant.

Elsevier
At issue is so-called “open access” (a phrase translated unchanged into Dutch), namely free access to such journal articles, whose publication would be financed by one-time university payments. Ironically, the first target is Elsevier, the (relative) best-behaver in the Times’ article, but also the only Dutch one. The consortium of Dutch universities, the VSNU, is pushing for open access as soon as possible and has proposed to Elsevier that its member-universities pay a year’s worth of subscription-fees to it one last time, but thereafter switch over to open access to the titles the company publishes.

Perhaps not surprisingly, Elsevier has rejected this offer; the company would prefer to keep getting the subscription-fees and charge extra for any open access. Talks have now broken off. These universities face the prospect, as of 1 JAN 2015, of having no more access to any new articles. (Old articles will still be available, though; furthermore, that is just on-line access that they will lose to new articles.)

The universities are not beaten yet, it would seem, as the State Secretary for Education in the Netherlands, Sander Dekker, has their back. He was publicly advocating back in early 2013 for the Netherlands to have een voortrekkersrol – that is, to be in the avant-garde – when it comes to open access. (Note that most Netherlands universities are publicly-funded; that scientific material scholars submit to journal publishers for them to make their monopoly profits on was likely heavily subsidized by the State.) The EU is also on the VSNU’s side – although, of course, the Commission has just changed regime, and scholarly journals are probably not top-priority for the new EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport, Hungary’s Tibor Navracsics.

Meanwhile, VSNU has taken up negotiations with Springer and Wiley. “These talks are proceeding more smoothly than those with Elsevier, insiders report.”

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Where’s the Fuel?

Posted on November 3rd, 2014 by MAO

Strange news from out of the Czech Republic, where it seems around 5.5 million liters (= 3,594 barrels) of oil from the state strategic reserve has just disappeared, according to Dagmar Klimovičová at Hospodářské noviny.

Nafty
It appears the Czech government subcontracted the task of managing its strategic reserve to Viktoriagruppe AG, a German company headquartered in Munich. That was its first mistake; allowing Viktoriagruppe to take part of that reserve outside of the Czech Republic was its second.

The Viktoriagruppe company . . . has not been able to explain reasonably since 23 September where 5.5 million liters of this material has gone to from its German storage facilities at Krailling [just outside of Munich]. Rather, it has been firing employees as it faces legal proceedings from Czech and German customs and financial authorities.

Viktoriagruppe also runs oil storage facilities for the Czech strategic reserve – for now – at three separate sites within the Czech Republic. Not surprisingly, that state petroleum reserve company (known as ČEPRO) is now busy having the oil Viktoriagruppe stores there – 15 million liters of it, or 94,347 barrels – transferred to other facilities under ČEPRO’s direct control; that, together with doing the same with the remaining oil stored in Germany, is now “our primary interest” according to under-fire ČEPRO head Pavel Švager.

That oil still in Germany, according to this piece, is “many times more” than the 15 million liters ČEPRO is seizing back from Viktoriagruppe’s Czech facilities; journalist Klimovičová understandably won’t give the precise figure since, even though no doubt such a figure exists somewhere in the books, the real one won’t be known until the comprehensive audit of just how much Viktoriagruppe is holding there in Krailling for the Czech Republic is complete.

This isn’t the first such run-in ČEPRO has had with Viktoriagruppe, writes Klimovičová: just last summer there was another discrepancy, of around 700 million liters, discovered during another audit of the latter’s German holdings of the Czech reserve. Viktoriagruppe officials tried to blame the shortfall on losses due to the transport and storage processes, but ended up paying a CZK 500,000 (€17,960) fine anyway.

The larger issue though, of course, is that of storing one’s national “family jewels” on foreign soil, and therefore outside of direct national control. Perhaps it’s something to be avoided, whenever possible, as the Czechs are finally finding out now.

At least we are not talking here about the analogous case of the national gold supply: it is true that many countries have theirs stored outside their borders, for various historical reasons, at places like New York (mainly at the New York Fed) and London. I don’t know whether that applies to the Czech national gold supply; who knows what happened to it between Nazi and Soviet occupations of the country last century, and in any case what was left of it presumably was split with Slovakia during the “Velvet Divorce” at the beginning of 1993. The good news here – while also bad news – is that that petroleum reserve is now steadily dropping in value anyway, what with the recent fall in oil prices worldwide.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Where’s the Ka-CHING?

Posted on November 1st, 2014 by MAO

You would hardly know it – I write this on a sunny Netherlands 1 November Saturday afternoon with outside temperatures at roughly 18°C, a new historical record for the date – but a new speed-skating season is about to start here, as reporter John Volkers of the Volkskrant notes:

speedskate
Still, check out Volkers’ particular take on the subject: that Tweet-text translates to “Gold does not translate to money [in Dutch: goud/geld; the similarity is etymological] for skaters.” And from the lede:

Barely eight months after overwhelming Olympic success, the conclusion is already dawning that gleaming gold has brought little to sport-skating.

I must have missed it – because, frankly, I didn’t care and didn’t want to give Putin the satisfaction – but the Dutch really tore up the speed-skating events last February in Sochi. Six individual medals, four team medals. Nonetheless: “Rich is what the skaters have NOT become from that success.”

Because, as we know, sports today are basically just another career choice, so that if you are really good at something then you go do it, and train hard to keep doing it, just to earn some substantial coin, right?

Now, it seems that speed-skating was a more reliable source of big money in the past, according to this piece. You see, much like professional bicyclists, skaters would join competitive teams that would gladly be sponsored by publicity-hungry commercial enterprises and/or entrepreneurs.

But that is no longer so much the case; old sponsors have withdrawn and insufficient new ones have come to take their place. More ad hoc paths to riches – and again, that’s apparently what it is all about – have to be found. Like that of Sochi Olympic champion (team pursuit) and current 1500m record-holder Koen Verweij who, although he continues to race for a sponsored team, also has picked up some lucrative TV gigs. But that is not so surprising, for as anyone who wants to click on the various links to photos of him I’m scattering around here can attest, he is unusually handsome – think a long-haired blond shark. Plus, he of course has the physique required of a champion speed-skater, featuring thighs that can be classified as “redwood.”

His less-photogenic victorious colleagues from Sochi, though – like that pair up there in the Twitter-picture, eh? – are having a rougher time of it financially. And to think they all could have simply studied hard and become accountants instead, and where would they be today – right?

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Supermarket for Human Rights

Posted on October 11th, 2014 by MAO

The German government has lately been on a charm offensive towards the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese Prime Minister, Li Keqiang, is today finishing a visit to Berlin which, as is pointed out in this piece in Die Welt by reporters Robin Alexander and Daniel-Dylan Böhmer, marks no less than the fourth time Chancellor Merkel has met with high-level Chinese officials this year.

LiInBerlin
“Merkel, China’s Minister-President and the Supermarket”: the notable bit of this get-together thrown out for appreciation by the public is the joint visit to a local Berlin supermarket made by Chancellor Merkel and her guest Li just yesterday (Friday) afternoon. You can see a photo of both of them at the check-out at the head of the article: Li is pointing at Merkel’s hand as she gathers her purchases there, having paid cash. (Good move: paying with any sort of card would naturally leave readers wondering who it is who provides the stock of money standing behind it.) At first glance, the absence of any sort of Secret Service-like figures is notable, although they must be those suited gentlemen – without sunglasses or earpieces – with their backs to the camera just behind the cigarette rack. And where is Li’s interpreter? I don’t think he is very fluent in English, let alone German.

All in all, a jolly, down-home moment. Meanwhile, you can be sure that other members of the visiting Chinese delegation were hard at work with their German counterparts in near-by government buildings, working out what are said to be no less than forty business/economic agreements that are the true purpose of this summit, including contracts worth billions of euros. What is more, it is sure to be full cabinet members that fill out much of the rest of that Chinese delegation: Merkel has taken a liking to staging cabinet-meets-cabinet get-togethers with neighboring countries (indeed, I recall one such with the Dutch cabinet earlier this year – not in Berlin, but over in northwestern Germany, close to the Dutch border) and clearly decided on the same format for meeting the Asian economic superpower.

Er . . . Human Rights?

That’s fine, but with China you get more baggage into the bargain – particularly now that Hong Kong demonstrators are still flooding the streets there demanding a democracy worthy of the name. Of course, Germany does have a robust free press, so that Premier Li at some point found himself  directly confronted by the question why citizens in Hong Kong should not be able to truly pick their own political representatives. As reported here, he looked impatiently at his watch as the query was translated for him, only to reply that that was a matter of “internal Chinese politics” only.

There was another question in that same vein, about local employees at the Chinese bureau of the renowned German newspaper Die Zeit who were recently arrested. This one Li ignored entirely. Merkel herself had called these Die Zeit incidents “news that really makes you think” (durchaus bedenkliche Nachricht) on an earlier occasion; it’s not clear from the article whether this interrogation of Premier Li happened in her presence. Alexander & Böhmer’s piece does point out that, at the joint news conference, the German authorities resisted Chinese pressure to disallow any questions, such as those above, which might be too awkward for the honored guest to handle. Other countries that top Chinese officials visit, it is said here, often cannot bring themselves to do so.

In the end, German President Joachim Gauck – famous for his past as a prominent East German dissident – was brought in to play “bad cop” to Merkel’s “good cop” and reproach Li for China’s human rights record at a one-on-one meeting. At least that session was scheduled at the very beginning of the two-day conference, and it did last about an hour. But economic times are hard in Europe, including – for an unwelcome change – in Germany; the worry has to arise that German interest in doing business with China will soon trump any influence that country could wield on the human rights situation there, if it has not done so already.

I think we can safely predict that 2014 will not see any fifth meeting between Chancellor Merkel and high Chinese officials, though. For this  year marks 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall and the self-liberation of most of Eastern Europe from decades of Communist dictatorship. Meeting the Chinese against that backdrop would just be too awkward, no matter what new profits any such meeting could promise. Better to get the year’s remaining Chinese business done, cabinet-to-cabinet, by early October.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Dying Eyes on the Prize

Posted on October 7th, 2014 by MAO

It’s that time of year again, so that this week the world awaits the series of announcements about those famous Scandinavian awards that people in various fields of the arts and sciences are just dying to win: the Nobels.

Except wait: scientists, writers, economists, etc. are in fact not dying to win their respective Nobel prizes (as they are doing, for example, to be buried in a certain renowned or favorite cemetery) since it’s in the rules that they can only be awarded to living people! That stipulation, however, as we read in this piece from Belgium’s La Libre Belgique, is increasingly causing problems.

NobelExige
“The Nobel requires patience, perhaps too much.” Put plainly (and alliteratively), the perceived problem is that too many who deserve the prize are dying before they can be awarded it. It’s hardly a new concern: perhaps the most famous case was that of Leo Tolstoy, acclaimed as one of the world’s best novelists of all time, including during his own lifetime, who nonetheless never was recognized by the Nobel committee by the time he died in 1910.

Then again, that was the Literature Prize (first awarded, along with most of the others, in 1901), for which the relevant authorities have wielded through the years rather unfathomable selection criteria that, if anything, seem to have most to do with spreading that prize most broadly around the world – after Scandinavian writers are first covered most generously – rather than with more reasonable considerations such as general literary acclaim (example: Philip Roth). With the Nobel prizes for the sciences one might assume a more straightforward process. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Take 2 Rocket-Launchers, Call In AM

Posted on September 28th, 2014 by MAO

“Something a bit like the flu” – does that phrase sum up for you the recent geopolitical struggle over the Eastern Ukraine? No? It doesn’t cut it for Polskie Radio, the Polish State radio & TV broadcaster, either.

PrezCzech
Translation: “Czech President is for lifting sanctions on Russia. He appeared at a conference organized by a colleague of Putin.”

That first individual mentioned would be President Miloš Zeman, the second is Vladimir Yakunin, president of the Russian railways. We all know that you don’t get that sort of high-profile executive job at a State agency in Russia without Vladimir Putin’s personal approval; in fact, Yakunin is originally from Leningrad, like the Russian dictator, and is a close neighbor at a restricted zone of country dachas fronting an idyllic lake just to the North of the city.

He is also President of something called “World Public Forum – Dialogue of Civilizations,” which provided the occasion – on the Mediterranean island of Rhodes, no less – for President Zeman’s disparaging remarks about the Ukraine confrontation. Zeman knew very well who was behind the conference, this article reports, as they happen yearly and he has attended them regularly – just not before as Czech President. What’s more, he delivered his remarks there in Russian. (But he is old-school enough to come from that period in Czechoslovak history when you had to learn Russian to get ahead.)

The Poles have quite a different evaluation of the situation in Ukraine; you can be sure that they are not pleased with this official Czech line, nor with Miloš Zeman’s choice of associates.

Swing Your Partner – If He’s There

In related news from Polskie Radio, Ukraine President Poroshenko recently announced an initial slate of 60 reforms to his country’s laws and legal practices designed to make it ready to become an EU member-state by the year 2020. “Without reform,” he declared, “we have only one road – to Russia.”

That’s very fine – and, Lord knows, the way business and government is run in the Ukraine is badly in need of such reform – but joining a club also depends on the willingness of that club to accept one as a new member. Is Poroshenko quite sure that the EU will be ready to admit the Ukraine in 2020, or ever? Has the EU offered the Ukraine any concrete indications or guidance on the question? (The European body-politic it purports to represent would surely like to know! There does exist an entire EU Commission DG/body of bureaucrats, named “Enlargement,” that is supposed to be on top of such matters.)

Or, having learned nothing from its 27-year-long Turkish tease (applied for full EU membership in 1987; still has no chance in Hell of getting it), is the EU about to embark upon another awkward, ultimately fruitless accession lap-dance with a geopolitically crucial country?

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

MEPs Infiltrated by the KGB?

Posted on September 26th, 2014 by MAO

Boris Kálnoky, a Hungarian foreign correspondent for the German newspaper Die Welt, has quite a scoop today. So he’s been tweeting up a storm to make sure the world knows about it – also in English:

Kovacs
The Die Welt article in question is of course in German. (As usual, you can feed it through Google Translate for what good that will do.) So what’s this all about?

It’s all about some dogged investigation that has been undertaken, not by Mr. Kálnoky himself, but by another Hungarian journalist called Dezső András. At the center is Béla Kovács, a founder of the rabid anti-foreigner, anti-EU, right-wing Hungarian political party Jobbik and also a Member of the European Parliament. The accusation is that Kovács is a spy working for the Russians, that he has been that for quite some time.

Apparently there were suspicions that Kovács was a spy even in the period leading up to last May’s MEP elections; already there were calls then for the European Parliament to lift his immunity to prosecution as an MEP. But nothing yet was crystal-clear; so Mr. András did some more investigation. Now he has put his findings on-line (although in Hungarian; odds are very good this won’t be allowed to stay on the Net for long), and has even been able to confront Kovács with them.

The substance of those findings are a bit messy, occasionally seamy. What they amount to was that Kovács was a child given away for adoption while an infant, but whose father was likely Russian; that while living in Tokyo as a young man (his step-parents were minor staff there) he met and married a Russian lady who definitely was and continued to be a KGB agent (and who somehow managed to marry at least other two men while never divorcing Kovács); and that, when he started working back in Hungary to help found Jobbik starting in 2006, Kovács never lacked for money to accomplish whatever was needed. In explanation he claimed he had founded and run successful businesses in Japan and while studying in Moscow; no evidence of these exists.

It’s all rather good raw material for someone like John Le Carré to get to work on, and of course Kovács has denied everything. (Who knows? Maybe he really was not aware of some of the deeper secrets of his past, of his ancestry.) But it also has several severe implications arising from the facts that 1) Kovács was instrumental in setting up Jobbik, and 2) He is now trying to become a big cheese at the European Parliament by pushing the “Alliance of European National Movements” of which he is Chairman, which is a would-be faction of right-wing parties (recently abandoned by Marine Le Pen’s FN as too radical!) but which is as yet too small to be formally recognized as such by the European Parliament and thus to receive subsidies from the EU budget.

The clear question: Is Kovács just a Kremlin tool, being used first to up-end Hungarian and now European politics? As Mr. Kálnoky puts it: “Does Russia now use the European Right for its purposes, as it once did the Left?”

The Hungarian authorities are by now interested themselves in looking further into the matter of Kovács’s history and motivations. But he still holds MEP immunity.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Next in the Intimidation Line

Posted on September 26th, 2014 by MAO

New bad news for the Ukraine:

Hunguk
“Hungary stops gas deliveries to Ukraine.” Would that have something to do with the visit by Gazprom chief Alexei Miller to Budapest on Monday of this week to speak with Hungarian PM Viktor Orbán?

Not if you ask the Hungarians. From the lede:

According to the government in Budapest and the State company responsible for the pipelines, FGSZ, the step was taken due to the rise in domestic demand for gas. Satisfying Hungarian demand has priority.

Yeah, right. Like the rest of us Europeans, Hungary has been enjoying the usual global warming-induced prolonged summer September weather, with temperatures dipping below 15ºC (59ºF) only at night. Demand for gas there – for heating – is due to rise maybe end November, beginning December, and not particularly now.

The real story here can be clearly seen from a couple weeks ago, when Gazprom similarly forced Poland to stop the “reverse supplies” of natural gas it was providing to the Ukraine by threatening to cut off the Poles’ supply they were diverting from. It’s just that the latter were willing to be rather more straightforward about what was happening than the Hungarians. Indeed, this Telegraaf piece speaks of a €10 billion Russian loan Orbán’s government is hoping to gain. How is such a thing even possible after the EU has collectively imposed repeated waves of sanctions – including of the financial kind – on Russia?

I’d like to derive two remarks from this data-point, which we can call “Major” and “Minor”:

  • Major: Putin really likes throwing Russia’s geopolitical weight around using the threat of energy cut-offs. I believe I read somewhere that the dissertation he wrote for whatever higher academic degree it was that he earned back in his KGB schooldays had precisely to do with that subject.The prevailing wisdom seems to be that, while the Ukraine has of course already been shoved out into the cold (literally) for the coming winter when it comes to Russian natural gas, Putin would not dare to do that to the rest of the EU because of the revenue loss that would entail. Then again, he seemed indifferent enough to the food-price inflation the Russian people have had to suffer resulting from his embargo on EU agricultural imports. Make no mistake: this coming winter is when the EU will be confronted in the bleakest and most direct way possible with the problem of how to do without Russian energy supplies.
  • Minor: Notice here as well the common thread of the involvement of Gazprom, which is supposed to be a private company. Well, at least it is a private company to the likes of FIFA, which allows it to pay the mega-price to be one of the commercial sponsors of the Champions League. (It is also the shirt-sponsor of the famous German football club Schalke 04.) Inevitably, those watching Champions League games at home have to put up with repeated commercials extolling Gazprom as a reliable energy-provider; if you watch closely, you’ll even notice how the characteristic Champions League graphic used when heading into and out of commercial breaks, in which spotlights come on in turn around a circular stadium, precisely recalls the pattern of gas-jets lighting up on a stove! How many of those looking on for the football actually realize that Gazprom will be glad to let them freeze next winter, if only Putin gives the order?
Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Alibaba Not Skidproof

Posted on September 22nd, 2014 by MAO

One of the many harmless on-line diversions for those of a linguistic bent is “Chinglish”: those comic failures by the Chinese when it comes to properly translating English phrases. The subject is a sure-fire winner for newspaper Travel Section editors looking to fill some space. Here’s one example of a treatment by England’s Daily Mail, featuring photos of signs found in China printed with things like “Don’t Forget To Carry Your Thing” (a reminder not to leave one’s personal possessions on the train), “Advert Skidproof” (difficult: must be a warning about slippery conditions) and “When old man’s child go up hand ladder temporary need the family to accompany” (i.e. children must be accompanied on the escalator).

Amusing, but all this just comes from provincial officials too cheap to afford a proper translator, right? Maybe not.

Wegwerf
That’s a tweet referring to an article in the German paper Handelsblatt by reporter Anis Micijevic about how the German-language version of the Alibaba website is supposedly rife with whatever you might like to call the German counterpart to “Chinglish.”

This is where things aren’t quite as funny. As the article’s lede puts it:

With its record-IPO the Chinese on-line business Alibaba ensured worldwide attention. Still, the German version of the site was apparently chased through Google Translate. Much silly nonsense ensued.

The piece headlines with an eBay-style entry for Neues populäres Wegwerfbaby (minimum required order: 10,000 pieces) – that means “new popular disposable baby,” even as it apparently is trying to sell baby-wipes. Elsewhere you can encounter an offer of “body parts” for your shower, and other absurdities. Indeed, Micijevic claims that “[m]ost of the German product-descriptions are linguistically wrong and raise more questions than they answer.”

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

But Will He Give Russia Any Stick?

Posted on September 20th, 2014 by MAO

I managed to catch a short but significant piece in today’s on-line Telegraaf which that Dutch tabloid paper did not even tweet (I did check): Russia still welcome at G20 Summit. That’s the one scheduled for Brisbane, Australia in November, and the Australian Minister of Finance was captured on-the-record as declaring that the Russian delegation – presumably headed by Vladimir Putin himself: this is after all a summit – is certainly still invited, despite the rather extensive bout of recent unpleasantness involving Russia about which I don’t have to go into detail here.

This raises the obvious question: Who decides these things? Note that I lay aside here the issue of whether a government’s Finance Minister should have any say on foreign policy matters of this kind. Rather, let’s focus on Australia: just because they are hosting that summit, does that mean they decide who can and cannot attend? Isn’t there rather a G20 secretariat somewhere through which a country can be banned by the other members if it misbehaves too egregiously? After all, Russia is certainly not welcome any longer to join G7 summits to make them into G8.

But now a confession: What really caught my eye about this piece was the name of that Australian Minister of Finance: Joe Hockey! Isn’t that great? I have a great affinity for short, punchy, Anglo-Saxon names in the first place; previously Jack Straw (a Labour politician, former Cabinet member including as Foreign Secretary) was my favorite, but now Mr. Hockey certainly has that particular competition iced!

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Can Leopard Shed French Spots?

Posted on September 15th, 2014 by MAO

As I mentioned previously, the main tone I could detect within the European press in reaction to the announcement last week of the specific personnel and assignments of the new Juncker Commission team (to take office – barring any problems with confirmation before the Parliament – on NOV 1) was along these lines:

Seriously
And with that I thought that the topic was exhausted. Not quite, though: one of the Brussels correspondents of the leading Dutch business daily Het Financiële Dagblad, Ulko Jonker, points out a particular aspect of that “fox guarding henhouses” syndrome that I had not realized, and that is too full of import to be left unmentioned. (Link is behind a paywall with a limited number of articles free per month for non-subscribers.)

Right then, Jonker’s list of EU Commissioner oddities includes:

  • The British commissioner in charge of bringing London to heel with Brussels’ financial regulations;
  • “[T]he Greek who has to carry out migration policy” (Actually, this was very smart: Greece is one of the main EU member-states charged with holding the line against illegal immigrants – principally along its short border with Turkey – so why not put the Greek Commissioner in charge?);
  • “[T]he Hungarian who can explain about citizens’ rights” (Aha, I did note this puzzling paradox in my previous post, it seems at least some elements of the Fourth Estate are taking note of Hungary’s creeping authoritarianism.);
  • “[T]he German illiterate who is responsible for the digital economy” (Harsh, but again this is essentially what I remarked on in that previous post.); and
  • “[T]he Cypriot who will do ‘crisis management'” (That would be Christos Stylianides, of Humanitarian Aid; I don’t get why he would not be up to the job.)

Jonker’s explanation for all this is up top in his lede: “The biggest difference between him and his predecessor José Manuel Barroso is that Jean-Claude Juncker has a sense of humor.”

Frenchman’s Collision Course with France

It’s not always so funny though, because surely the biggest paradox among the new Commissioners is France’s Pierre Moscovici, put in charge of “Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs” – otherwise known as the “budget czar” since Moscovici’s DG is in charge of monitoring member-state budgets to ensure they adhere to the 3%-of-GDP-or-less standard – and to start proceedings for fining the EU government in question when its budget does not. And yes, it is France that looks set to be the greatest offender along these lines, with a projected 4.4% deficit for this year. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Why Can’t They Eat Cake?

Posted on September 13th, 2014 by MAO

You might be aware of the sensational book recently published (SEP 4) in France, written by Valérie Trierweiler. She is the former “First Lady” – except that she and French President François Hollande weren’t married, he has never been married – who was rather unceremoniously booted out last January after Hollande took a fancy to a younger, blonde actress and started departing the Elysée Palace on the sly – and on a scooter – for their assignations. Trierweiler has now shown how she had plenty of dirt to dish on her presidential ex-lover, and the French political scene is still recoiling in shock from her revelations.

But it has been one of those in particular that has struck a special chord among the public. In her words (my translation, as usual):

He [Hollande] has presented himself as the man who doesn’t like the rich. In reality, the president doesn’t like the poor. He may be a man of the Left, but in private he refers to the “toothless ones” [les sans-dents], very proud of his sense of humor.

Lord knows what particular train of thought led Hollande to come up with this particular expression. But perhaps it has a certain historical element: there was a similar term during the French Revolution for the uneducated masses – the rabble, if you like – who made up the vast majority of both the revolutionary mobs and of the French national armies which would go on to conquer most of Europe. That was sans-culottes, or those without culottes which were the sort of silken “knee-breeches” worn in that period by middle-class men and above.

Naturally, Hollande never intended this particular pet phrase of his to get out to the public. But now it has anyway, all thanks to the woman he spurned, and you can bet he is mortified about it. All the more since the phrase has in turn been taken up by that widespread – and growing – segment of the population that has grown tired of both this president and his policies. As we see here:

SansDents
“The Toothless: That’s Now!” it reads at the bottom there. And you’ll notice that the attractive lady at the forefront also seems to be wearing a red revolutionary’s cap from those heady days back at the end of the 18th century when the French aristocracy was being systematically beheaded. You have to hope that that seeming void inside her mouth – although necessary to make the point – was only Photoshopped. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Thoughts on Team Juncker

Posted on September 12th, 2014 by MAO

It happens only once every five years, so I’m willing to describe as a pleasure yesterday’s eye-squinting, fast-research exercise in tweeting out the announced composition of the new EU Commission under President Jean-Claude Juncker. A couple of conclusions did come to my mind as a result – conclusions which I think you might find as outside the mainstream.

But first the one proviso that should always be kept in mind on this subject. The US and EU government are of course very different in their structure and their powers, but perhaps it would be useful nonetheless to remind ourselves of the nearest analog in Washington DC to the Commission. It is of course the President’s Cabinet, a collection of administrators appointed (and confirmed) to head executive-branch departments in widely different fields of expertise (Foreign Policy; Agriculture; etc.).

Naturally, it is strongly assumed that those Cabinet secretaries will operate solely with the national interest in mind, and not any interests of the particular state or region that they come from. That is the going assumption for EU Commissioners, as well – yet, incongruously, there a system persists whereby each EU member-state gets one of its own on the Commission! The US counterpart to that – just to show how ridiculous the practice is – would be an insistence that each of the 50 states (and Washington DC, Puerto Rico, etc.) have a representative taking up some function in the President’s cabinet.

It’s supposed to be about expertise and administrative ability, not about where one comes from. Truth be told, it is unlikely that the number of jobs there are to do can really be stretched to equal the number of all member-states: there has to be some degree of duplication and/or “make-work” assignments to artificially inflate the quantity of posts available. (For example, Andrus Ansip, Digital Single Market; Günther Oettinger, Digital Economy). I understand the Brussels powers-that-be are well aware of this consideration, and that they made an effort in connection with the Lisbon Treaty to address it to some degree by introducing a cut-back regime in which it was NOT true that every member-state would be guaranteed a Commissioner. However, I also recall that squelching that was one price Ireland demanded for finally voting the “correct” way in its umpteenth referendum on Lisbon.

1) Right, with that out of the way . . . consider the following, typical of the general tenor of tweets in reaction to yesterday’s announcements:

henhouses
It’s snarky, it’s maybe a bit superficial – but it’s also a clever point. And I would simply like to add to it the name of Tibor Navracsics, the former Hungarian Foreign Minister who has been assigned the portfolio for “Education, Culture, Youth & Citizenship.”

How Hungary gets a Commissioner at all is something beyond my understanding; more to the point, how it is getting €22 billion euros in economic assistance from the EU is really beyond my understanding. For make no mistake, with its almost-total government control over the press and now its assault on NGOS, Hungary currently resembles no other polity so much as Vladimir Putin’s Russia, and is heading even beyond that to a final destination which is that of Alexandr Lukashenko’s Belarus. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Giving Charity the Boot

Posted on September 10th, 2014 by MAO

This looked interesting when I ran across it. Schoenen-ophaalacties: OK, the Dutch means “shoe-gathering actions,” but whazzat all about? Whatever it is, now seems to be the time of year for it.

Schoenophaal
The first paragraph after the lead reads:

By now everyone knows about the shoe-actions. [Oh yeah?] You bring an old pair of shoes into the store and get a voucher for a new pair in exchange. The old shoes go from there to a good cause, so it is said.

Interesting! But incomplete: Is this only a Flanders phenomenon? (The “VRT” in “VRT deredactie.be” after all stands for the Flemish radio and TV network.) Surely the voucher one gains in exchange does not cover the entire cost of a pair of new shoes, right?

And then a question on the lips of those who are already familiar with this phenomenon: Is this on the up-and-up? That is, do those old shoes really get passed on to “a good cause,” to people who need them?

As you might expect, in these cynical times: Not always. A reporter from the VRT radio program De Inspecteur (yes, it means what you think, as in “Clouseau”) went investigating. Some of the shoe companies do indeed go on to work with “fair trade” organizations such as Oxfam which pass on the shoes for free to those in need. But quite a few of these shoe companies in effect sell them onward and pocket the profits.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Alternatives to the Google Colossus

Posted on September 9th, 2014 by MAO

It’s not just the Ukraine that is currently at the EU’s center of attention as officials return to Brussels from their summer breaks (and heads of state cross their paths returning home from there after an unprecedented August European Council summit). There is also a burning pan-European question on the business side, and that is what to do about Google. The issue is front page news on today’s NYT website, which gives a good overview of a surprising widespread “European backlash” against the company (together with a charming picture of the Google StreetView camera in a boat, doing its thing while sailing through one of Amsterdam’s canals).

Perhaps the key figure in that NYT report is that Google’s market-share for search is “close to 90 percent in Europe, excluding Russia” while even in its native USA it is only about 67%. This search omnipresence is the wellspring out of which Google’s on-line dominance originally flowed, and perhaps it’s fair to say that, in view of that 90% figure, Europeans to a great extent brought these problems upon themselves. I mean, it’s been so convenient, it’s right there in the browser – often aided by deals it has struck (e.g. with Firefox) to be default search-engine – and the results are fast and usually useful. Sadly, this 90% figure continues to apply even after last year’s Snowden revelations showed how Google – wittingly or unwittingly – makes up an important part of the ICT infrastructure enabling the US Government to spy on its own citizens and on the rest of the world to an incredible level of intimate detail.

It’s clear that some search-engine diversity is now called for if European authorities are ever going to be able to face down the Internet behemoth convincingly, and Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung is willing to be our guide to the alternate search-engine wilderness.
DuckDuck
The lead to Julia Löffelholz’s article behind the tweet reads

Google and Co. earn billions – with the data of their users as well. Smaller search-engines are trying to establish themselves on the market by doing the exact opposite: They spend their takings or promise anonymous search.

Which are these smaller search-engines?

  • DuckDuckGo: First, consider the duck: the duck you see there at the bottom of the tweet, with the spiffy bow-tie. That’s the mascot of the alternate search-engine DuckDuckGo that, numbers-wise at least, seems to be making the greatest headway into the search space. It was established back in September 2008, and now handles 5 million search-requests per day (Google: 3.5 billion). It’s motto is “The search engine that doesn’t track you,” and it apparently has a feature enabling you to filter out commercial search-results, i.e. those trying to sell you something. Now, it is also based in the US and so within the NSA’s ambit, which might quite reasonably worry some – but as founder Gabriel Weinburg points out in this piece, it stores no user information, so there is no information for the American authorities to subpoena. FWIW it is certainly the favorite search-engine here at EuroSavant; occasions when I have been dissatisfied with the search-results it has returned have been few and far-between. And it doesn’t track me.
  • Ixquick: This alternate search-engine is based in the Netherlands, and handles an even-smaller load of search requests per day. Ixquick does offer the unique feature of enabling its users to go on to visit a page they has found via its search-engine anonymously, i.e. to the visited page it will look as if Ixquick itself is visiting it rather than the actual users. Like DuckDuckGo, Ixquick makes money by running ads along with its search-results – ads which, logically, cannot be too specifically connected to one’s actual interests because nothing is ever known about the user other than the search he is running at the time.
  • Qwant: This one is based in France. The unique thing about Qwant is the way it sorts its results in various columns, labeled “Web,” “News” and “Social.” It can be quite a valuable way to break down in an orderly fashion the search-results it returns; you should go there to try this out at least once.

Then there are the further alternate search-engines discussed in this piece that try to harness search to further the interests of some good cause. There’s Ecosia, “the search engine that devotes 80% of its income to a tree planting program in Brazil” (and economizes further by cutting back on its use of hyphens); or Benefind, that enables you to contribute to a charity of your choice from your search-requests (note: Benefind is in German); or Goodsearch, which basically does the same thing but is based in the US and is in English.

All admirable initiatives, surely. But here a crucial question must be posed: These are surely supposed to be Internet tools in the first place – can they be charitable vehicles at the same time without that somehow impinging on their effectiveness as tools? I doubt that; and surely, in line with the issues raised today in that NYT article, the focus needs to be on developing a search-engine whose effectiveness at least can rival that of Google, while not carrying with it the objectionable baggage the latter has accumulated over the years.

Again, the best candidate (i.e. as endorsed by user-numbers within the alternative search-engine world) would seem to be DuckDuckGo. Do try to find a time to have a quack at it.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Revealed: Ukraine’s Weapons-Sellers!

Posted on September 8th, 2014 by MAO

This might be considered as the most important “secret” result of that NATO summit at the end of last week that was held at some golf resort in Wales, and the EU Beobachter (“EU Observer”) has picked it up.
5staaten

Yes, in the wake of that summit five states intend to start selling weapons to the Ukraine, and they are: the USA, Poland, France, Italy and Norway. The notable absence on this list is Germany, whose weapons, notably its small arms, are particularly good in comparison to most others, but whose Chancellor, Mrs. Merkel, made it clear at that summit that it was not ready to take that step. Understandable: the German government only in the past few weeks decided that it would break precedent and send arms to the Kurds fighting the Islamic State in Iraq, and that decision caused quite a bit of consternation on the German political scene. Merkel was not ready for the same again – not that that was the only reason for German reticence.

What’s really notable about these arms-sellers is just how hush-hush the whole subject is. None of these countries has been willing to announce these upcoming weapons-sales; indeed, all have officially denied they are ready to do so. So who knows? Against that we have – for what it is worth – an announcement yesterday by a close advisor to Ukraine President Poroshenko that these five countries would indeed be supplying his country militarily. That announcement notably appeared on the advisor’s Facebook page.

If we examine that roster, the sales from the US and from Poland are understandable: American weapons manufacturers are seemingly ready to sell anywhere, anytime, while Poland is the state leading the alarm over Ukraine developments. For France and Italy it is a bit harder to understand why they would want to be involved (indeed, the Italians have continually been suspect as too Russia-friendly) – until you realize, as this article states explicitly, that they mainly see this as an opportunity for their native arms industries to make some money. It’s only Norway whose involvement is totally mysterious: its economy doesn’t need the money, and to this point it has not seemed particularly alarmed about what is happening off to the East. Indeed, as a good Scandinavian land, it is supposed to have certain ethical pretensions of not selling war material into an active war-zone. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Wikimisery

Posted on June 10th, 2014 by MAO

Did you know that Wikipedia is in trouble? I wasn’t aware; for example, there has not been an appeal for money appearing there at the top of the Wikipedia page for some time now. And it still seems to get plenty of respect from PR agencies. From today:

WikiPR
Still, it is not the financial front where Wikipedia is encountering problems. Just what is the matter – the “biggest crisis” since its founding – is explained well in a recent piece in Germany’s Die Welt on the occasion of the arrival of a new chief for the Wikimedia Foundation, one Lila Tretikov, a computer scientist who, as her name suggests, comes originally out of Russia. She is said to be particularly motivated to right things at Wikipedia because of the way the nuclear disaster at Chernobyl (which occurred when she was just 8) killed so many more people than it should have because of the way information was withheld from those who needed to know it.

Nonetheless, as that Welt article points out in its title, she herself represents what is troubling Wikipedia. As you probably know, the whole institution is set up as a volunteer effort – and the problem is precisely that the number of volunteers (or “authors”) has fallen by a third since 2007. What is more, that author cohort has tended to reduce to a typical, predictable group – namely white, Western, male, and usually expert in technical subjects. (But sometimes in others as well: the article makes its point by noting that the Wikipedia coverage of female pornstars seems to be particularly . . . uh . . . deep and well-organized.) Ms. Tretikov admits to never having written or even edited a Wikipedia article herself – so it is in that sense that she is part of the problem, since it is more participation, particularly on the part of knowledgeable women, that the project so desperately needs.

Unfortunately, that is not the only problem Wikipedia is currently experiencing, as we see here:

Wikiporno
Yes: “Porno!” The linked article is from the German business newspaper Handelsblatt and in fact these troubles only involve the German Wikipedia – for now, at least. There’s a webplatform in Germany for teachers called newsforteachers.de (yes, they use the English); the people there went hunting for pornographic links from Wikipedia and, by George, they found them. Under rubrics like “Piercing”; “Penetration”; and of course much worse than that. Really, if you read the Handelsblatt piece carefully, it does seem that they mainly found this stuff, not in the German Wikipedia itself, but on a related site called Wikimedia Commons. No matter: the president of the German teachers’ professional organization, the Deutscher Lehrverband (DL), is now advising teachers and parents that Wikipedia is to be considered “unsatisfactory” for schoolwork.

Indeed, DL President Josef Kraus is demanding an immediate removal of all pornographic content from Wikipedia and all related sites – which really makes you think that, even to this point, President Kraus has formed for himself but an incomplete picture of what the Internet is all about and how it works. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Adidas and Sports Corruption

Posted on June 9th, 2014 by MAO

Even as the every-fourth-year World Cup football spectacular is set to kick off
in Brazil later this week, there has been a wave of increasing concern about the event’s scheduled host for 2022, the Persian Gulf emirate of Qatar. This has largely been prompted by the eminent British newspaper The Sunday Times, which has somehow gotten its hands on a treasure-trove of internal e-mails and documents relating to what appears to be the concerted effort spearheaded by the Qatari businessman (and former FIFA vice-president) Mohamed Bin Hammam to buy Qatar the 2022 World Cup outright via the judicious parcelling-out of up to $5 million.

Taking a page from the work of Edward Snowden and Glen Greenwald with the NSA documents, The Sunday Times is drawing out its revelations over a period of weeks, rather than dumping all of what it has learned on the public at once. Nonetheless, even what is has revealed so far has prompted some notable reactions. One of the latest was that of one of FIFA’s main World Cup sponsors, SONY, expressing its concern over the Qatar revelations. Then SONY was recently followed in that by the famous German sportswear firm Adidas. (That last link is to a Sunday Times piece – remarkable since usually they are inaccessible behind a paywall.)

But Adidas itself knows quite a bit about corruption in sports – as is apparent from the German business newspaper Handelsblatt with an article it republished from Die Zeit a little less than two weeks ago:

Adidas
That tweet reads “Adidas: The inventor of modern sports corruption,” with a question mark. But it is not really a question; in the article itself that title appears without any question-mark, and writer Oliver Fritsch’s purpose within the seven pages over which the piece is divided is to show how that is the case. As he writes:

“For decades the company has influenced sports-politics decisions such as marketing contracts, tournament expenses and personnel. The company’s methods are controversial. And that just not as of yesterday.”

You can tell that Adidas is a big player at least in the German sporting goods market from the fact that it is the official supplier to both the German National Football Association (and therefore to the national team, which first goes into action in Brazil against Portugal next Monday) and to German football power-house Bayern München. And you can similarly tell that Horst Dassler, son of the company’s founder Adi Dassler, was some kind of evil genius from the fact that he gets his very own chapter in the exposé-book recently written by Thomas Kistner, Fifa Mafia (unfortunately available only in German). More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

No-Fly List Escapee

Posted on June 5th, 2014 by MAO

Consider that face down in the lower-right.

RIbrahim
Could someone like that ever hurt a fly? Clearly a Muslim female; actually, she’s Prof. Rahinah Ibrahim, 48 years old, an Engineering Ph.D. and no less than Dean of Faculty at her university in Malaysia. As this article from Die Zeit puts it, “[s]he travels to congresses in Rabat, Eindhoven, Beijing, Bangkok, Milan and Kassel. It is only within the USA that she has not been able to fly for years.”

That’s because she has been on the US No-Fly List for years, and that for no good reason. She is supposed to be finally off of it, but there are still lingering doubts about that (see below). This extended Die Zeit piece is all about how she – maybe, probably – managed to be one of the few who finally got themselves off of it. And as Die Zeit writer Wolf Wiedmann-Schmidt puts it:

It is an example of the extent to which the USA after September 11, 2001 got carried away in its War on Terror – and how a security apparatus based on secrecy attempts to hide its mistakes, with their serious consequences, from the Public.

This is, after all, a blogpost, so I’ll get right to the essential point: Prof. Ibrahim was guilty of nothing, she was the victim of a Homeland Security bureaucrat checking the wrong box. The momentous result of that was not only a Christmastime visit from FBI officials while she was still studying at Stanford; being placed on the No-Fly List while she was still studying there so that she was briefly placed in detention while trying to fly back home out of San Francisco International Airport; once back in Malaysia, finding herself unable to return to the US to continue her studies; but also a nine-year campaign (costing $4 million in legal expenses) to clear her name and get her off that list.

It’s all scandalous, that someone could be treated this way – she was allowed to look at her rejected visa application at the US embassy in Kuala Lumpur, only to see it stamped “TERRORIST” – but probably Weidmann-Schmidt’s most painful bit of text is where he describes how:

The [American] government did everything it could to block Rahinah Ibrahim’s process, with claims about state secrets and national security. For years it seemed as if they would succeed.

But they did not. She did get her trial, and after five years, last 15 April a federal judge ruled in Rahinah Ibrahim v. Department of Homeland Security that “Dr. Ibrahim is no threat to the national security of the USA” and that she should be removed from the No-Fly List.

That trial, by the way, was held in secret. Naturally, Prof. Ibrahim was not invited to testify at it personally – she could not enter the US! Rather, when it came time, her deposition (and cross-examination) was taken by video camera from a studio in London. What is more remarkable, though, is how obscure it still remains as an historical phenomenon: searching Google News for “Rahinah Ibrahim” right now yields only a reference to this Die Zeit piece about which I am writing and two others, in English, one from something called the Courthouse News Service, and the other from Al-Jazeera.

Weidmann-Schmidt’s piece does mention that Prof. Ibrahim does not like to speak with the press and was not particularly cooperative with Die Zeit’s inquiries. While perhaps understandable, that is surely not the way to help this case redound to the greater good – only by letting the outrage spread, one feels, will anything ever be done about this. For now, and for the question of why she felt it was worth nine years and $4 million to fight this, we have this from her video testimony:

I don’t want my children to hate America because of what has happened to me, without getting to know the America I have respected.

Well, I had to translate that last passage from the German – meaning that when it comes to that last verb in particular, it is ambiguous whether Prof. Ibrahim meant “the America I have respected [still]” or “the America I respected [but no more].” I’ll let you make your own guess as to her meaning.

(Oh, and Prof. Ibrahim still has not been granted a visa to return to the US. The reason is classified.)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

No Need to Dig Deep

Posted on June 4th, 2014 by MAO

Got a body to dispose of? Maybe even your own – eventually? Then has Antwerp got a deal for you!

Antwerp_grave
Tweedehands graven – yes, that does mean “secondhand graves”! Belgium’s second city is selling off 5,000 grave-plots from its cemeteries – plots for which, of course, those representing their present inhabitants have failed to keep up with the payments. (That’s how it works in Belgium, and the Netherlands as well: you’ve got to have descendents willing to keep paying the charges, for time immemorial! Or at least until the Second Coming.) One can be yours for as little as €1,000 (the initial payment, N.B.), and the 5,000 that are being put up for sale are strictly “of cultural-historical value,” i.e. they are ornamented with some sort of noteworthy sculpture and/or other art-forms. (Not that any of that has anything to do with you or whoever the future inhabitant is going to be!)

Antwerp city officials have even put together a catalogue, it says in this piece from the Dutch news-site Z24. But for me that is not even the most grotesque element of this story; that is rather the advertising campaign the city has also undertaken to move (so to speak) these plots, of which they have sold only 120 so far. Eeeeeeeuuuuuw . . . they have put together a PDF brochure in which Norbert (aged 67) and Dirk (aged 56) hold forth on the joys of arranging for their last resting place among the cultural-historical bargains now on offer. (You can download the PDF here, but of course it is in Dutch.)

antwerpen-graf-te-koop-470x340That’s also Norbert there in the picture, together with the ad campaign’s slogan: “I’ve found my grave here! You too?” Isn’t that just bizarre? It’s the same kind of faux-enthusiastic, “Hey kids, come join us!” approach which, I can tell you, is more commonly seen in the Netherlands in other ad campaigns trying to get people to sort their plastic from their glass garbage.

Neither Norbert nor Dirk gets around to this particular detail, but let me fill you in on another amazing feature!! (“But WAIT! That’s not all!”) of this offer, and I’ll quote from the Z24 piece:

What is remarkable is that buyers of a grave don’t have to remove the earlier deceased [i.e. the previous occupants – yes, it’s plural!] per se. They can therefore simply “join the queue” [aanschuiven] with the others in the grave.

Turns out, the WSJ also covers this (in English) here, with some added detail.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

How Easily They Forget

Posted on June 3rd, 2014 by MAO

As you surely will have picked up, President Obama has made a trip over to Poland. He has already arrived in Warsaw, been greeted appropriately by Polish President Bronisław Komorowski and held the customary news conference at the presidential palace. He even tried out some Polish to the greeing public on arrival at the airport: dzień dobry or “good day!” – only two words, yes, but harder than you may think.

He comes to Poland at an opportune time given the on-going crisis in Ukraine and Poland’s resulting deep sense of insecurity. The ostensible point of the visit, however, and why it was originally scheduled, is tomorrow, June 4, which is the 25th anniversary of the first post-World War II (partially) free elections in Poland that ushered in a non-Communist government, and that truly constituted the first major crack in the structure of Soviet dominance over Eastern Europe that almost completely collapsed by the end of that year.

All Polish newspapers and twitter-feeds are now awash with Obama news. Yet over in a comparatively obscure corner there is also this, from Polska The Times.

Duda
“Duda” is Piotr Duda, current chairman of NSZZ Solidariność – yes, that same “Solidarity” of the 1980s, led then by Lech Wałęsa, that roused the entire nation against the Communist government and even survived a period underground after the imposition of martial law in December, 1981, before emerging again as an important power-broker later that decade.

Duda has written an open letter to the remaining members of Solidarity, which these days is little more than a fairly unimportant political organization. That is in fact the point: no representative from Solidarity has been invited to join Presidents Komorowski and Obama tomorrow at the ceremonies marking the 25th anniversary of the elections.

[Duda] judged that the omission of [Solidarity] at the ceremonies was entirely a political decision of the current government, in retaliation for its struggle for workers’ and citizens’ rights. “There’s no freedom without solidarity,” he wrote.

The chairman issued a reminder that, just as the greatest triumph of Polish workers was the uprising of the union in 1980, Solidarity’s greatest victory was the elections of 4 June 1989.

There is no mention in this article, but I assume that Lech Wałęsa himself will surely be in attendance tomorrow. While a great subversive leader in subservise times, he turned out to be somewhat of an indifferent Polish president once Poland was truly free (free thanks to his efforts, of course). There have even been rumors of a code-name for him within the old Polish state security “service” (SB), as if he collaborated with the Communist authorities in any meaningful way – obviously a ridiculous idea, given the historical record.

But Wałęsa long ago outgrew his identification with Solidarity – just as in the Czech Republic Václav Havel went on to become President and outgrow his association with the Civic Forum organization which largely guided the “Velvet Revolution” at the end of 1989. For that matter, there’s much less remaining of Civic Forum today than of Solidarity – the latter has fully passed into history, and there’s no one really around (even if still alive, which Havel himself is not) who could even be invited to any ceremonies – such as the 25 anniversaries the Czech Republic will be celebrating come November.

The point, however, is whether there would even be a desire to do so, whether possible or not. There will not be for Civic Forum, I am sure; and there apparently is not for Solidarity. The latter really does show an appalling willingness to ignore history on the part of current Polish authorities. It’s a disturbing obliviousness that finds its further reflection in the national press, in which Duda struggles to find a voice even as one of the two national journalistic pillars – Gazeta Wyborcza, or “election newspaper” – had its origin precisely in those breakthrough, free-ish national polls of 25 years ago.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Father’s Lament for Conchita

Posted on May 24th, 2014 by MAO

You remember Conchita Wurst? She/he won the Eurovision Song Competition for Austria, held in Copenhagen two weeks ago.

Someone didn’t like that.

Conchita
“A girl with a beard. That is paganism unleashed.” This comes from Father Tadeusz Rydzyk, a Roman Catholic priest most known in Poland for the Radio Maryja station he founded and runs (yes, “Maryja” as in “The Virgin Maryja”), the voice of ultra-conservative Polish Catholicism: no divorce, no abortion, everything like that. (Still, you can listen to Radio Maryja on tunein if you like, it has 19,000 followers there! Be forwarned: It’s basically exclusively spoken-word in Polish.)

I seriously doubt Father Rydzyk was tuned in to Eurovision back on May 10. The result must have percolated to him slowly, probably further delayed by a wall of sheer incredulity. It’s still interesting to quote the good Father’s reaction here at length:

We must educate people, because look at what’s happening. Good Lord, we must educate people! Because look at what’s happening! This flood of paganism isn’t coming from this country. Really, look, is that normal, that a country-boy makes himself up like a woman, that boy there, I don’t know who he is supposed to be, with a beard, he performs and wins first place in Europe as a singer! Really, like he’s some Pavarotti!

Here Father Rydzyk had to pause: he was live-broadcasting these remarks to an audience in a church via a closed-circuit link, and everyone had started laughing. More »

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

“Now Recep – BeHAVE Yourself!”

Posted on May 23rd, 2014 by MAO

A heads-up for whoever is going to be in Cologne tomorrow, things could get interesting.

You might recall how we wrote on these pages about a month ago about German President Joachim Gauck’s visit to Turkey a month ago, and the waves he made there. Well, what goes around, comes around: the Turkish Premier Erdogan is due in Cologne on Saturday:

Erdogan_in_DE
“Cologne visit by Turkish PM: Merkel calls for restraint from Erdogan.” Now, this is no sort of state visit, neither Merkel nor Gauck will be anywhere near him, but rather the sort of sojourn Erdogan likes to make from time to time to go shore up his support among the many citizens of Turkish nationality living in Germany.

Unfortunately, the political situation back in the Motherland has been steadily deteriorating, hurried along by the deaths of 301 workers in the recent Soma mine disaster there and the public’s angry reaction to that. In a newspaper interview earlier in the week, Merkel said Erdogan was of course welcome to come give his speech, but “I insist that he does this on Saturday with a sense of responsibility and sensitivity.”

Sensitivity, however, has rarely proven to be PM Erdogan’s strong suit. Indeed, his people seem not to be approaching the event in a very constructive manner:

RP_ErdoganFall
“Turkey fears a trap for Erdogan in Cologne.” But why? Because the German authorities also approved no less than eight counter-demonstrations in the city on the same day. No wonder the Turks are suspicious: they would simply forbid any such counter-demonstrations, and no doubt were ready to do so during President Gauck’s visit there last month – if anyone had actually applied to hold any.

Cologne streets could turn into quite a scrum on Saturday, but the latter Rheinische Post article at least has published the following almost military-looking map to help you make your way. FYI, the stadium-event where Erdogan will actually be speaking is the one the furthest to the right that says Veranstaltung UETD.

Koln
(For those asking, the title to this post was inspired by the Beatles, who even back in the early 1960s could sing remarkably presciently about world affairs.)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

It’s Euroelection Time!

Posted on May 22nd, 2014 by MAO

Yes, voters in the Netherlands and the UK go to the polls today to elect their Members of the European Parliament (MEPs). Looks like it’s been mostly a rainy Thursday in much of the UK – not good for turnout! (More precisely: Only the fanatics can be counted on to make it to the polls, here meaning the anti-EU, Tea Party-like UK Independence Party.) The weather in the Netherlands, in contrast, has been pretty good.

Ireland and the Czech Republic join in tomorrow, while most of the rest of the 28 member-states get this done on Sunday, the 25th. And that’s when you can expect the results, i.e. after the 25th; it’s been reported that the Brussels authorities are at pains not to let the early-voters release their election results early, and so possibly influence the attitudes of later-voters.

Here at €S, as usual, we’ll cover these Euroelections as the spirit moves us – if you’re really interested, your best bet is probably the @EuroSavant Twitter-feed since this is not, of course, a Euroelection-dedicated site.

One that is, is a site called transform! from the European Network for Alternative Thinking and Political Dialogue.

Transorm
Actually, you’ll have the choice there of reading in English (from transform! europe proper), German (from the Rosa Luxemburg Foundation) or French (from a site called Regards.fr). Those of you with a nose for these things will have detected already that these sites will largely be reporting – again, from Sunday – on the MEP election results from a Left point-of-view, but it is clear that they have a structure in place to provide comprehensive and multi-lingual coverage. They also have a Twitter-feed: @transform_ntwrk.

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Le Pen Fever – It’s Catching!

Posted on May 21st, 2014 by MAO

So what’s your prescription, Doctor? But wait: this is an age-old politician speaking here, and a former French Legionnaire, but not any man of medicine:

LePen

Jean-Marie Le Pen, honorary president of the Front national (FN) and candidate in the European elections for the Southeast district, has some radical ideas for countering “the demographic explosion.” Radical, or infectious: “Monseigneur Ebola can take care of that in three months” is what he let loose with during a discussion on Tuesday, 20 May, before giving a speech [in Marseille].

Nasty! Hey, let’s just let some judiciously-applied epidemics take care of all those immigrants whom we don’t want in France! And the old goat is actually standing as a candidate in the upcoming French MEP election!

Still, I think that the key aspect of this Le Monde piece is that, during these Marseille campaign appearances, Le Pen was accompanied at the podium by his daughter, Marine Le Pen – who happens to head the FN these days, who is running for re-election to her own seat in the European Parliament and who – most importantly – did nothing to disavow her father’s statements!

Let’s face it: Jean-Marie himself is 86, and I’m told people run a higher risk of getting rather dotty at such an age. He’s been kicked upstairs to an “honorary” position at the FN, so that it’s clear he has no policy-making role there anymore. Now yes, the party did put him up as a candidate for an MEP seat, but nonetheless it’s easy to imagine how, with a little political finesse, the organization could dismiss and separate itself from these wild Ebola exclamations.

Maybe they will still do so; the incident happened yesterday, there’s probably still time. But certainly not if they wait until the French start voting on Sunday. In the meantime, the rest of us can only tip our hats in gratitude at the old codger for a timely reminder, just before the elections, of the essence of those various far-right parties from all over Europe who will be trying to get their candidates into the European Parliament in the coming days.

(Thanks to @ajboekestijn, on whose feed – rather than that of @lemondefr – I first caught notice of this.)

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)

Play Well Together

Posted on May 13th, 2014 by MAO

The deep societal divisions between the two different halves of Belgium have long ceased to be much of a secret. I mean here of course the Dutch-speaking Flemings on the one (North) side and the French-speaking Walloons on the other (South; complicated by the mostly French-speaking Brusselers as third party). This was initially a sore point due to the long dominance of a Walloon elite over the entire country – so that, canonically, French officers issued orders to Fleming soldiers during the First World War that they could not understand. But the fissure was aggravated after World War II when Flanders became the region that was not only more heavily populated but also much more prosperous – and thus contributing more to the common governmental coffers. It’s the “conservative” party (i.e. friendly to business) which nonetheles has set as its goal the eventual secession of Flanders from Belgium – the New Flemish Alliance party – which now dominates the political scene in the North.

With all that intercommunal tension, then, it’s good to see this:

VlamingenWalen
“Flemings and Walloons surprisingly positive about each other.” Good to hear! – although I do also wonder how it would feel to be called a “Walloon”: “You Walloon!”

Flemings and Walloons underestimate the sympathy and overestimate the anger towards each other. That is the result from a multi-university study.

(-snip-)

The negative feelings of the other were always overestimated, as it turned out. “So French-speakers think that the Flemings experience feelings of malice and frustration, while Flemings think that Walloons are frustrated and jealous.”

All very fine, except for one thing: This study was carried out in 2010 and 2011! Now, the leading researcher justifies that in the article by pointing out that that was the period when Belgium was stuck in a particularly grating political crisis. Just to spell it out: From 26 April 2010 to 6 December 2011, a period of 589 days that set the record among developed-world nations, the country was without a proper head-of-government because the kaleidoscope of Belgian political parties (ranged left-to-right by ideology, but also cross-indexed by language) could not agree on how to form a government and choose one.

So it’s true that was an especially exasperating period, and it is good to see that the separate sides of the country did not hate each other as much as everyone assumed. But that was then; this is now. Surveys like that of public attitudes can’t be expected to have much of a shelf-life, before they begin to smell from the rot of past-sell-date.

Why do we see this now, then? It must be for some sort of propaganda purpose. For what it’s worth, it’s in De Standaard, considered to be the paper-of-record (i.e. the “New York Times”) there in Flanders.

But don’t worry: that same head-researcher promises us a new study, timed for “the elections,” by which she certainly means May 25, when Belgians will head to the polls to elect not only their representatives to the European Parliament, but also to the lower house of their own federal parliament, the Chamber of Representatives. (And they will head to the polls: voting is compulsory in Belgium!)

Tell you what: Forget the surveys, show me a new Belgian prime minister being chosen reasonably promptly after the results of that federal election are known, and I will then agree with you that the Flemings and Walloons have learned to get along!

Digg This
Reddit This
Stumble Now!
Buzz This
Vote on DZone
Share on Facebook
Bookmark this on Delicious
Kick It on DotNetKicks.com
Shout it
Share on LinkedIn
Bookmark this on Technorati
Post on Twitter
Google Buzz (aka. Google Reader)