Watching the tide roll away

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A small part of a flock of greenshank on Ardivachar beach, taken at quarter past six last night and just after sunset against a tide now well on the retreat.

Our own bay has seen a lot of greenshank this winter, and far more than I can remember last – mostly, these are likely to be Scandinavian birds coming here for their winter holidays, although there is an increasing resident population overwintering here too rather than heading off to south-western Ireland and the Med. As I write this morning, yesterday’s (and this early morning’s) blue swamped by a uniform, and increasingly chilly, grey, there is a large three-figure flock, recently swelled from the thirty or so birds we had a few months at the dark end of 2017, towards the far side of the bay busying themselves on the edge of an incoming tide.

Yesterday, with our bay also sparkling in the welcome sunshine that covered most of the UK, the flock was engaged in a kind of brief murmuration of some 200+ birds, twisting and turning in the sun, rising higher in a figure of eight pattern and taking their cues from a continually changing succession of invisible leaders, white bellies flashing in the sunshine against a sky the softest of blues as they did so, before settling again to feed and preen at the edge of the tide, all spread out and each settling back down into their own spot with the rarest of squabbles among them. There was no raptor obviously present among them, but greenshank, as easily disturbed as their smaller red cousins, often do this although rarely flying up more than a few feet above the water: food is still scarce and conserving energy remains a vital element of individual survival.

Talking of mumurations, this is a good excuse to link to this picture and report from earlier this year, but which crossed my Twitter feed for the first time also at the weekend. It’s somewhat anthropomorphic to see birds forming the shape of an even bigger bird to see off a predator, and thus we should resist the temptation to see anything in Daniel Biber’s terrific picture other than a great shot of a moment in, and apparently out of, time as well as a tribute to the lengths and the sheer hard work that photographers put in to capture meaning in a shot – although the collectivist in me so wants to see resistance to anthropomorphism, on this occasion, crumble!

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Trade and workers’ rights

The end of the working week and my inbox brings me good news via the TUC’s International Department that the European Economic and Social Committee – an EU advisory institution bringing together representatives of workers, employers and civil society more broadly – has almost unanimously agreed an Opinion on the trade and sustainable development chapters of EU free trade agreements.

The EESC’s own-initiative Opinion, which plays an important part in the EU’s consultative decision-making process, makes a number of recommendations of interest to trade unions in the area of the EU’s future free trade agreements, including – amongst others – that:

– governments and companies should demonstrate respect for standards set out in the ILO’s Decent Work agenda, including – but not limited to – ratifying and upholding core ILO Conventions

– free trade agreements should establish an independent labour secretariat and collective complaints mechanism to oversee commitments to uphold ILO Conventions

– a dispute settlement procedure should be started without delay, with a mandate to substantively enforce compliance, where abuses are detected

– civil society monitoring mechanisms should be established in free trade agreements with a view to independent triggering of investigations where there are violations of the commitments to uphold ILO Conventions.

All well and good – and some of the reportage is focused on the failings of current free trade deals largely with the far east, as well as with TTIP/CETA (and other) proposals for free trade deals for which the EU has come under sustained criticism, and with some justification, in recent years.

Except that it is impossible currently to review the normal work of EU institutions from within the UK unless through the unique prism of Brexit. Once the UK has, er, regained its sovereignty, and is free to sign free trade deals with whomever it wants, then the ‘bespoke’* free trade deal it is seeking with the EU is likely to (should, in theory) feature precisely the sorts of commitments and obligations that the EESC is requesting the EU takes to future trade deals. Much depends on how the European Commission responds to the Opinion, but it is bound within the checks and balances under which the EU’s decision-making structure works to find it persuasive, aided not least by the near-unanimity with which the Opinion was agreed within the EESC. This is particularly important with Brexit in view not least in the context of the discussion which has been circulating around a UK/EU free trade deal based on a ‘Canada+++’ model (were, indeed, this to be on offer), and the impact this might have on employment and worker rights.

The Commission should make a quick, and positive, response ensuring that the Opinion does indeed form the EU’s approach to future free trade deals.

It is the case that the UK has ratified all eight of the core ILO Conventions mentioned chiefly by the EESC – although it is occasionally up in the dock even on these, including on freedom of association; and, most recently, in the context of its record on tripartite consultation (p. 430). However, the UK isn’t, so far, a serial abuser. Nevertheless, the warm words coming out of No. 10 on protecting workers’ rights after Brexit – and being countermanded by mavericks like Johnson, Gove and Whittingdale – with the debate here being most recently summarised by Owen Tudor at the TUC, may well melt away in the heat of the fires of desperation once Brexit realities start to bite. Brexit changes everything and, apart from no-one sensible trusting a Tory with their rights anyway, the future is – as the folks at the European Research Group have cottoned on – entirely up for grabs. In this context, the paper promises of No. 10 are worth precisely nothing, in contrast to which the EESC Opinion offers valuable protections. Even without the reference to core ILO standards – and, as I say, the UK is not guilt-free on these either, despite having ratified all of them – the sorts of review and monitoring mechanisms set out in the Opinion, including civil society (q.v. trade union) involvement, are likely to prove anathema to the ERG, Legatum et al. for whom it will, of course, be more ‘red tape’ bureaucracy and another reason why the UK needs to reach its own deals. They are, indeed, another set of rules by which the UK will have to abide – and not just in the interim if it wants trade with the EU to continue on as frictionless a basis as possible.

As such, these provide not only a valuable contribution to making sure that free trade has ethical, sustainable and people-based dimensions, but are also one more thing which must also be taken into account in defining the precise nature of the UK’s future trade, and people-based, relationship with the EU.

I’m sure that the EESC didn’t have Brexit uppermost in its mind when it was going through the process of developing its Opinion. But it’s good to know that, with the Workers’ Group supported by representatives both of the TUC and the ETUC, it may well be taking care of our own, both in the UK and the rest of the EU, on the crucial issue of trade links as the UK continues its stumbling, shambolic, shameful approach to becoming a third country with respect to the rest of the EU’s member states.

* Has there ever been a more ugly word than bespoke? At once both pleading, smug and conveying a full sense of superior entitlement in just seven ordinary characters…

Book Review: Talking to My Daughter About the Economy

As someone the titles of whose blog posts feature their fair share of musical references, I was delighted to see the recent publication in English of Yanis Varoufakis’s book which seems to reveal Varoufakis as a Billy Bragg fan (and/or of Vladimir Mayakovsky, of course). Given the subject matter being dealt with both in Varoufakis’s book and on Bragg’s best LP, and Varoufakis being at the University of Essex in the 1980s researching his Economics PhD, the links between a Greek economist and my generation’s finest songwriter is not as fanciful a reference as it might appear on the surface.

Not on my current reading list, I picked Varoufakis’s book up from a well-known airport bookshop outlet as part of a BOGOHP offer, teaming it with his more weighty memoir of his tumultuous term as Greece’s Finance Minister, Adults In the Room, having forgotten to pack any other reading material for my trip.

I make it that Varoufakis’s daughter would have been nine or ten years old when the book was first written (in 2013, predating that term by two years); at that age, I was lapping up the adventures of Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog and I’m really not sure I was then capable of much greater intellectual rigour, bright enough as I then appeared to be among the rest of my classmates. Perhaps nine year olds are a little more precocious these days – or perhaps the daughters of politicians and economists are, which does have a comment or two to make in itself about social mobility. While his daughter (who lives on an entirely different continent) is certainly his muse here, I suspect that this was really Varoufakis’s attempt to ensure he remained grounded at a time of increasing political activity; and, after all, being able to explain complex things in a simple way is an important academic discipline which all of us frustrated academics need to apply from time to time.

Mostly, he succeeds, although writing a ‘brief history of capitalism’ (the book’s rather racy sub-title, which I imagine Varoufakis had little hand in) can sometimes lead to over-simplifications and an unfortunate loss of nuance. It’s also rather less such a ‘brief history’ and more an attempt to provide a clear background to the Greek debt crisis, building on a variety of disciplines – history, myths and legends, economics and philosophy, and modern film narratives (The Matrix is refreshingly well explained and applied in a context fourteen or so years later) – to explain how Greece and, more specifically, its bankers had reached the point of bankruptcy and what that meant in the development of capitalist/market society relations. Using the language of myths and legends to explain the workings of dry capitalism is indeed a form of talking to the taxman about poetry as Varoufakis, clearly a romantic, would have appreciated. And, as was clear in the case of Varoufakis’s time in office, with about as much effect and impact in practice as might be expected from as scant a meeting of minds.

An economist by training, Varoufakis certainly has polymath tendencies and his approach is, as a result, original. Whether this diversity, coupled with his own temperament, made him the best negotiator for Greece at that point is a different story, although Varoufakis’s short time in office, before the pressure to replace him told with Alexis Tsipras, suggests not although this is best reviewed in the context of his later memoir. Which, by the way, is a compelling narrative, to judge by its opening chapters.

A regatta of despair

The EU’s publication yesterday of its new strategy for the accession of the countries of the western Balkans – Albania, Bosnia & Herzegovina, Kosovo, the Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia (the dispute over whose name looks finally to be moving towards a solution), Montenegro and Serbia – is a welcome attempt to seize the initiative after several years in which momentum has been lost, vacuums encouraged and alternative perspectives engaged with.

This is clearly long overdue: Commission President Claude Juncker’s statement in 2014 that the EU would not countenance any further enlargement til 2020, which caused particular consternation in the context of the debate on the Scottish independence referendum, and which was reiterated in 2017, might have provided a ‘break from enlargement’ for an EU apparently suffering from enlargement fatigue. Even so, it is not apparent that an EU with the pressures of dealing with Brexit, domestic political pressures in some member states and contemporary political difficulties stemming from the need to ensure a proper and effective separation of powers in others has, in the meantime, regained an appetite for enlargement to the south-east, however much ‘Europe’ might be seen as a natural home for the Balkans. For Balkans states themselves, neither is it apparent that the last three years or so have provided much in the way of clarity – indeed, probably the reverse.

All this is in spite of a strategy for enlargement to the south-east first being thought of as a credible prospect in 2000, with further flesh put on the bones in Thessaloniki in 2003. Apart from Slovenia, whose identity among the Balkans might well be questioned anyway, only Croatia has managed to accede to the Union in the intervening period. The years in the meantime have been, as myself and my colleague at the SEER Journal for Labour and Social Affairs in Eastern Europe, Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the ETUI, wrote about in 2015, ones of an abject failure of vision: in particular, a failure to recognise that enlargement is itself about the transfer of stability, peace and freedom into the immediate south-east neighbourhood, as well as the chance to achieve the transitional justice currently denied to so many and which remains key to prospects of a thaw of frozen human potential, and thereafter to a spring of growth and revitalisation.

The plethora of initatives which the EU’s new strategy launches are addressed to the minutiae of the problems within the Balkans which we all know of – chiefly, as Jasmin Mujanović attests: corruption, clientilism and entrenched illiberal elites – and may have some impact. After all, the EU is not without the capacity to launch detailed initiatives. What it does lack is the capacity for vision, or even a road map, and this is most manifest in this regard in at least two ways.

Firstly, the strategy – picked up extensively in the media reporting identifying the dates by which Balkans states might join the EU – is focused on encouraging ‘winners’. This is, at heart, a repêchage for the ‘regatta principle’ which has driven the EU’s Balkans enlargement policy over the years – that an individualised approach to separate member states encourages a competitive process between them, thus speeding up the slowest – taking its place at the heart of the ‘new’ strategy. But the regatta principle has patently been a failure either in terms of getting Balkans states into the EU, or in speeding up the process among the slowest: actually, it simply leaves the latter in the cold. No-one, it seems, is learning any lessons from Montenegro. Furthermore, the legacy of war in the 1990s has left border disputes unresolved in several cases; while, in others, the drive to create mono-ethnic states and entities has left atmospheres of simmering tension and mistrust, and a lack of a sense of resolution, which may lead to further conflict in the absence of a realistic prospect of a future within the European family.

Initiatives to address the main priority areas are still required but, in addition, the EU needs to abandon the regatta principle and replace it with a single round of enlargement – a ‘caravan’ in the words of Christophe Solioz – in which all countries negotiate access simultaneously. This would avoid some being left behind while allowing all to draw on collective strengths, creating a new regional dynamic and reinvigorating the enlargement process. By itself, this won’t stop senior political representatives giving support to, for example, irredentism within Bosnia and Herzegovina – but, for states located wholly within the EU’s processes, it would provide the mechanisms to deal with it appropriately.

Secondly, the EU needs to pay better attention to its own roots. The legacy of war, a violent recent past and the question of transitional justice were the reasons the founders of the EU proposed international solutions to the issues that had led to repeated war between France and Germany – chiefly, by putting the steel and coal assets of the Ruhr Valley above the control of nation states. That was – and remains – an extraordinarily successful initiative: and we need a little more of it for the Balkans. There is, perhaps, no direct equivalent of the Ruhr Valley within south-east Europe, but the lessons of the founding of the EU are clear: we need a repeat of such an international approach to resolving the issues of war, and continuing mistrust, suspicion and sense of lack of justice, which mar the region today. The EU itself is uniquely placed both to realise this and to implement an approach which implements it in practice: and the lack of the vision, to lever its own history to resolve new, analgous situations is, in this context, not only extraordinarily puzzling, but also immensely frustrating.

This may well demonstrate very effectively that our current generation of leaders are bureaucrats rather than people of vision, but we need a reinstatement of bold vision if we are to resolve the serious questions that we face in the Balkans.