Monday, 28 January 2013

The EU Hokey Cokey

It's all kicked off about the European Union now hasn't it? What on earth is it? What is it for? What exactly is its purpose? How does it benefit Britain, or any other member state in any way? What has it ever done for us? What does it mean for us to be a part of it or outside it? What can the Europhiles see that the Eurosceptics can't? What are the Eurosceptics on about with their demands for an in/out referendum? What do the mango people (aam aadmi - common people) feel about the European Union? 

Now I'm no political commentator or economic analyst; a lot of my opinion will qualify as a layman's approach, which in truth, it is. There's very little right-wing or left-wing about how I see the European Union - I just use common sense, which sadly isn't all that common. 

I simply don't get the point of the EU. Why we need an 'arrangement' with a select group of countries to the exclusion of all others is beyond me.

To begin with, we can't leave Europe. Not unless the British Isles sail away in some kind of accelerated continental drift and move into the middle of the Atlantic. We're a European country in the same way that Afghanistan and Japan are Asian countries. We're not going anywhere - not for several hundred million years at least. I thought I'd settle that first.

While the ~phobes and the ~philes argue it out in the papers, on TV, on blogs and Twitter, here's what I have to say:

They say Europe as a single entity ended the prospect of warring nations in Europe. Nope. It was the United Nations, NATO, thousands of American troops stationed in what used to be West Germany and billions of US dollars that ensured the little European nations behaved themselves. That and sheer exhaustion from two bloody world wars.

They say the EU provides 57 per cent of our trade. Well duh! - they're our immediate neighbours. It's plain geography. Countries in the European mainland have always been our main trade partners. This has nothing to do with being in or out of the EU. Countries of the EU don't buy from us because we're in an exclusive club with them. Only a deluded fool would think France will buy ships from us instead of South Korea because we're in the EU and they're not. Besides, we're one of the top markets for German cars and French wine. I call this the let's-join-a-trade-cartel-argument, which goes against the very idea of free trade. Oxymoronic much? 

They say the EU ensures we have lead-free petrol, cleaner air, clean beaches and rivers, restrictions on landfill dumping, a recycling strategy, a ban on growth hormones and other harmful food additives, wildlife and environmental protection, social welfare, smoke-free workplaces, minimum wage legislation & holiday entitlement, prevention and break-up of monopolies, patent & copyright protection, consumer protection & rights, harmonised food labelling, better product safety and improved animal welfare. Utter nonsense! All of it. You would think that Britain is a barbaric outback, completely unable to formulate any policies which have the same effect. What people seem to forget that most of the above, by some measure were brought about in Britain by Britain. Many of the international standards find their origin in BSI. We're capable of keeping our beaches clean and can label our food by ourselves, thank you very much. In any case, there are international protocols we're bound to (Kyoto, et al). There is no need for an extra bureaucratic machine duplicating everything.

They say staying in the EU means no paperwork or customs for exports throughout the single market, the removal of commission on currency exchange, the freedom to travel, live & work anywhere in Europe, and ease of investment in all member states. Don't even get me started on the alleged 'reduced paperwork' for ANYTHING to do with business, private or public. Don't. The United States of Europe is not the same as the United States of America. A trucker from Arizona can easily relocate to Minnesota, provided he can find a job. Would it be as easy for a Italian to move to the Netherlands if he doesn't speak Dutch? I don't think so. Again, there is no need for an extra bureaucratic machine to do this, we can agree to be an open market and leave it there. A fine example would be the arrangement between India and Nepal.

They say the EU provides for counter-terrorism intelligence, policing to combat human trafficking, arms & drug smuggling, civil and military co-operation, continent-wide arrest warrants & crime prevention, support for human rights. Yeah, sure. Do the United Nations, INTERPOL and UNHCR, to which pretty much the WHOLE world is signed up to, mean nothing?

They say EU-wide powers to fire journalists and impose fines would improve reportage and press freedom in certain countries. Possibly true for, say Romania, but what about the countries that already have a free press and the associated laws to maintain journalistic standards? What of privacy and libel? A Berlusconi-esque British politician would be untouchable. Makes you shiver, doesn't it?

They say companies would avoid investing in Britain if we weren't in the EU. Crap. Companies go where the taxes are the lowest. Ever stop to wonder why many of the world's largest companies are headquartered in the non-EU Switzerland? Low taxes.

They say that a single European currency would protect all countries from a currency crisis. In a perfect world maybe, but where's the accountability and fiscal responsibility? Greece benefited from low bond yields on its debt because people felt Greek debt would be secured by rest of Europe. Look what happened when the whole world was lulled into a false sense of security. A single currency and monetary policy leaves no scope for devaluation by individual nations. Since the introduction of the Euro, labour costs have risen all over Europe. The main result of this has been uncompetitive exports, which shifted industry to the developing world. Faced with uncompetitive export prices, a country would normally devalue to restore balance. You can't do that with the Euro now, can you? Result? Record current account deficits, falling exports, low growth and a decimated manufacturing sector. It's way cheaper to buy from India or China.

They say the ECB can do a better job of maintaining equitable interest rates across the region. How is that even sensible? Europe-wide interest rates set by the ECB can never be suitable for areas that grow faster or slower than the average. For example, if the ECB raises interest rates because of fears of inflation in one country, it would savage another country descending into recession at the same time. This is what accelerated the meltdown in Portugal, Greece and Italy. 

They say the Common Agricultural Policy supports European farmers. The CAP subsidised European farmers to produce goods with little regard for international market forces and demand. This excess supply was often dumped on world markets creating falling prices and incomes for world farmers. As the EU bleeds their taxpayers for subsidies for farmers, we're witnessing large scale suffering in developing countries who are unable to sell their produce internationally in competition with state subsidised farmers. The carnage of suicides among farmers in India and African farmers going under are just some of the examples of the fallout.

They say the EU provides structural funding to areas hit by industrial decline. Really? Well guess who pays more than they get back? I could think of far better ways to spend £50+ million a DAY. Remember - log, your own eye, first. This argument is far from over.

"Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive."  |  C.S. Lewis

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Mission Afghanistan

Last October, I wrote about Pritpal Singh, a.k.a. The Dutch Sikh, and his travels to Afghanistan, in an effort to explore his roots and the land of his birth. The documentary, mentioned in my blog is now ready. It was aired on Sangat Television on January 20th, 2013. The production of this documentary was funded by the Guru Nanak Darbar, Southall.

If the images Pritpal brought back from Afghanistan and the teaser trailer of the documentary titled Mission Afghanistan were anything to go by, I knew this was going to be emotional. I've watched it several times now, initially in a rush to take it all in, and then subsequently with more care - looking for places I would recognise, listening to the sounds, looking at the faces and feeling the atmosphere of the country I once called home. Pritpal delivered. In spades. 

Not that it made easy watching. It wasn't long before the nostalgia was sated and the grim realities on the ground began to hit home. Afghanistan is a mess. Mission Afghanistan paints a bleak picture of bullet-ridden buildings, particularly the gurudwaras and temples, widows and children surviving on charitable donations, fear and desolation in the eyes of a community on the verge of extinction in a process that can only be described as ethnic cleansing, the lack of education of any kind, unimaginable poverty, people living in houses with an acrylic sheet for a roof while there's knee-deep snow outside, the shattered Shorbazaar area where my mother grew up, the furtive and secretive cremations held by Hindus & Sikhs, the overt discrimination and racism, and entire townships where no Hindus and Sikhs remain.

Despite all this, as one resident explains, they are not seeking charity. "What," she says, "will happen when the money people send runs out? We need sustainable solutions. We need education for our children. We need to feel safe."

As I write this, in my centrally heated home, on a laptop that cost more than what some families in Afghanistan live on for a year, aggravated by the disruption to my life caused by 3 inches of snow, fuming over semantics on Twitter, I can't help thinking how shallow we can be. No misery in the UK comes even close to what they're experiencing. And it's set to get worse: the proposed withdrawal of NATO forces in 2014 fills me with dread.

Like most readers of this blog, I don't have Sangat TV, but fortunately the entire documentary is available online. Click the image below to view the film.

Monday, 7 January 2013

You want to see a miracle, son? BE the miracle.

God: It's a wonderful thing; no matter how filthy something gets, you can always clean it right up.

Bruce: There were so many! I just gave 'em all what they wanted.

God: Yeah. But since when does anyone have a clue about what they want?

Bruce: So, what do I do?

God: Parting your soup is not a miracle, Bruce. It's a magic trick. A single mom who's working two jobs, and still finds time to take her son to soccer practice, that's a miracle. A teenager who says no to drugs and yes to an education, that's a miracle. People want me to do everything for them, when what they don't realise is, they have the power. You want to see a miracle, son? BE the miracle. *Turns to leave*

Bruce: Wait! Are you leaving?

God: Yeah, I figure you can handle things now.

Bruce: But what if I need you? What if I have questions?

God: That's your problem, Bruce. That's everybody's problem. You keep looking up.

Bruce Almighty | Universal Pictures | Morgan Freeman | Jim Carrey