Integration of the western Balkans – Sofia 2018

Just back from Sofia, where I was attending a symposium for the 20th Anniversary of the SEER Journal, which I founded along with my good friend and colleague, Peter Scherrer, and which I still help to edit alongside Bela Galgoczi, Senior Researcher at the European Trade Union Institute (and who has capably edited the Journal for three-quarters of its life). If Peter and I were the parents then Sofia was the maternity hospital, so Sofia as a location for the 20th Anniversary symposium was well-chosen – and those invited, including some who contributed articles to the very first number, as well as the SEER’s welfare guardians (its Editorial Board, and researchers and leaders of trade unions from the western Balkans) – meant that the birthday celebrations were attended by many friends and supporters.

Back in 1998, we reckoned we could pull together enough interesting material to fill one volume, so to be still going 19 years later, 70 regular issues and nearly 800 articles on from our first number, plus several special issues and two paperbacks, including in the language of the ‘western Balkans’ as well as in German and in French, represents a pretty good achievement for which we are very grateful to our sponsors: in the first place the Hans-Bockler-Stiftung, and latterly the ETUI, as well as Nomos Verlag, our publishers. Pleasingly, we have also now completed a full 76cms of SEER – the internal width of one of my bookshelves. Vol. 21 will start bookshelf no. 2.

Our keynote was given by Christophe Solioz, whose formal symposium paper ‘Europe from the post-Wall era to post-crisis future’ can be found in .pdf form on his website and which we’ll be carrying in edited form in a future issue. Other colleagues, including KNSB President, Plamen Dimitrov, and Luben Tomev, the Director of ITUSR, KNSB’s research institute, also brought welcome comradely greetings.

For me, apart from looking back over our history, I also focused a few remarks on the impact of Brexit on EU integration, especially as regards the potential loss of budget finance within the EU’s post-Brexit multi-annual financial framework for projects like integration of the western Balkans post-Brexit (e.g. here); as well as on the shadowy figures behind Brexit and the increasing organisation of extremist nationalists amidst not only the current ‘rogue’ regimes in Hungary and Poland, as well as in Austria where they form part of the government, with key ministries, but also given the tensions within Bosnia and Herzegovina concerning the increasing militarisation of Republika Srpska and the explicit support being given by the government of Croatia – a member of the EU, let’s not forget – to nationalists in the Croat-dominant cantons in the south. It is no surprise that extremist nationalists – some having been ejected from Hungary – see the western Balkans as fertile territory (here and also here).

Here’s Cde. Scherrer and myself at the symposium:

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(Thanks to Bruno S. Sergi for the photo.)

The book that Peter is presenting me with, by the way, is Paul Strand’s Tir A’Mhurain: a typically thoughtful gift being not only about South Uist – The Land of the Bent Grass (or marram) – but also a book which has a complex and quite astonishing political history, according to the introduction by Fraser MacDonald (linking to his Twitter since his blog is, unfortunately, quite literally unreadable) in The Guardian to this, 50th anniversary, collection of photos documenting life in South Uist at the time of the installation of the MoD rocket range. Indeed, many islanders were fearful that the range would bring immense changes to their lives and so a documentation of exactly what that was, both in photographs and in text, is extraordinarily useful. I was aware of the book – a regular visitor to bookshops in Scotland, I could not possibly be unaware of it – but I had no knowledge of its fascinating origins. Following up, it is interesting to note that prints of some of Strand’s photos – authorised in their production by Strand himself, and thus as rare as hen’s teeth – have quite recently been bought by Scotland’s National Portrait Gallery.

We timed the symposium to coincide with the summit for trade union leaders from the region organised by the Bulgarian trade unions KNSB and ‘Podkrepa’, and in conjunction with the ETUC and Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, with the intention of drawing up a statement to go to Thursday’s EU-Balkans summit, also being held in Sofia under the Bulgarian Presidency of the EU for which integration of the region with the EU has been a priority. You can read the trade union summit declaration here at the ETUC website (in English) or here at the KNSB website, if your Bulgarian is good enough (along with the following two entries for 9 May further down the page). Like a lot of these things, the words of the statement need to be turned into a practical, workable agenda for action – noting that wage convergence is an achievable target, in the context of the region’s productivity reserve, as well as a principle – but these things are not easy to co-ordinate and produce, and it is good to see the many trade unions of the region come together in support of a common goal.

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Hands clasped in friendship and in solidarity outside the headquarters of KNSB, in one of the perhaps lesser-photographed examples of this style of architecture still prevalent around Sofia (though its history is actually a lot more modern, dating from 2004, I think).

I’ve argued before that what we need is a bold vision of integration from the EU, not more warm words, progress reports and initiatives. Not least in the face of the problems that the western Balkans faces outlined above, the need for concrete proposals, investment and a clear prospect of integration continues to be clear – as does the path of continued destabilisation where these things continue to be lacking. Thursday’s summit needs to deliver on an agenda targeted towards solid progress on accession, a prime requirement for which is that the EU lifts its head from its own problems – of the divisions of the sort which marked drafting discussions over the summit declaration – towards a contemplation of the problems to which inaction will surely lead.

These are troubling times but the SEER Journal will, in its next period, strive to carry on providing a platform for discussion on the western Balkans’s path to the EU. In the meantime – happy birthday, zhiveli and, of course: solidarnost!

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Book Review: Adults in the Room

It is impossible for the reader not to approach the closing chapters of Yanis Varoufakis‘s memoir of his six months as Greece’s Finance Minister with anything other than increasing sadness: sadness at the sapping of the revolutionary zeal of the minority Syriza government, worn down and demoralised by the weight of pressure and expectations which its election had created, and internally divided as a result of dealing with petty party politics as well as a shameful lack of mutual trust and discipline; and sadness at the evident disappointment with which Varoufakis, an indefatigable character who bounces back from one ‘no’ to the next, convinced of the unarguability of his econometric analysis and understanding of the data it reveals, begins to relate the events and the breakdowns in human relations and in Syriza’s collective narrative which culminated in his departure from the (party) political stage.

As I reviewed previously, this is a compelling narrative containing a lucid amount of detail of Varoufakis’s attempts to represent Syriza on the international stage and in pursuit of a good agreement with Greece’s creditors re-negotiating the debt and ending self-defeating austerity, drawn both from his diary and from recordings made of key moments and meetings. Never actually a member of Syriza – an ‘outsider’ to the party’s ‘insiders’ – he may have been guilty of a certain amount of naivety, and certainly a political naivety, which contributed to his downfall but his grasp of detail (a certain amount of financial economics is required of the reader) and his ability to build an apparently cohesive and diverse international support network, containing some rather surprising members (some of whom may, of course, have had agendas of their own), commands respect for the deliverability of his ideas, at least in terms of their potential.

As a person, it is difficult not to warm to him and, as someone who has also carried in his pocket a letter of resignation into important meetings on more than one occasion (never yet deployed, by the way), I also felt an affinity. His desire to represent the voters who elected him – he polled higher than any other figure in the 2015 Greek election, perhaps as a function of the size of his Greater Athens constituency and also his high profile within Greece – is clear but there are, as a result, some doubts over his ability to compromise. Varoufakis would of course not be the first politician to founder on the EU’s ability to say ‘non’ (or, better said here, ‘nein’). In these circumstances, however, a lack of agreement is not only unsurprising (and which also, at the same time, raises questions about the ability of the creditors themselves to compromise on something other than their ‘programme’) but the counter-view – that Greece was also suffering as a result of this continuing impasse – clearly has merit. Inevitably (this is his own memoir), his view of the process may not necessarily be a fully-rounded one (the true history of this clearly requires an examination of the views of other participants in the process) but it is, nevertheless, one that is firmly dug in.

For Europe itself, Varoufakis’s book raises a recognition of how the democratic deficit which is present in the powerful Eurogroup, the informal body which exists to co-ordinate financial policies within the Eurozone yet which has no presence within the EU’s treaties, and where a large part of the events related in Adults in the Room plays out as a result of its de facto role as the Commission’s representative on the troika, can be ended. Such informality gives dominant characters like Wolfgang Schäuble, the ‘architect of austerity‘, a platform but without democratic accountability or legitimacy. It was at the Eurogroup where the EU’s policy of containing the potential damage to the Eurozone played out, and where a solution for Greece was purposively denied so as not to provoke similar demands from deeply indebted others across southern Europe, thus protecting the position of the Euro. The remoteness of that from the concerns of ordinary voters surely has to be addressed not so much in the sense that ECFIN – the formal Finance Council including all Finance Ministers, not just those in the Eurozone, and which has a foundation in the treaties – is any the closer to such concerns but in the sense that the Eurogroup not only contains an element of power without responsibility arising from its informality but also that it introduces confusion around the locus of authoritative decision-making and inevitably creates a layer of insulation around its leading authority figures. It is difficult to escape the view as a result that greater political union must also accompany economic and monetary union.

The problems raised by the Eurogroup are heightened by the power of group dynamics and peer pressure: repeatedly, Varoufakis confronts his peers and persuades them of the merits of his approach and of the logical inconsistencies of their own models only for them, back in plenary session, to fold under the heat lamps of more powerful figures and the realities of geo-political relationships. ‘Twas ever thus – but the absence of democratic legitimacy on the stages on which most of the book is set, and which have driven Varoufakis’s career subsequently (he is currently setting up his own Europe-wide political movement, including in Greece), do need to be addressed and, if Adults in the Room provides an account which convinces reformers of what needs to be done in this direction, then it will have served us, the people of Europe, as well as Varoufakis sought to fulfil his mandate on the part of the people of Greece.

We will clearly never know whether Varoufakis’s original plan on taking office would have worked had the conditions for its implementation been reached earlier than June 2015 (although there is a certain amount of evidence that direct action might have forced compromise on at least the EU side of the troika). But, for a negotiator, there is plenty in here to suggest that the broad lessons of what was in essence a failed negotiation: of using popular revolutionary zeal to drive real change in relationships with a powerful negotiatory partner, having a genuine strategy in support, and otherwise not to let time and bureaucracy first create and then embed the spectre of inertia, continue to be both time-honoured and genuine. Ultimately, constructive disobedience, without a strategy which is independent of the actions of a negotiating partner which is prepared to take its time over delivering the conditions on which that strategy is predicated, is no strategy at all. Even if it does, ultimately, leave one free to resume life as an outsider.

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.

Bosnia after the ICTY

I write as the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia is getting underway with its decision on the charges of genocide against Ratko Mladić (and just now sentenced to life imprisonment). The decision can be followed in many places, among them the live blog being run by Balkan Insight, whose coverage of the issues raised in and by the war has been sharp and whose pre-verdict summary of Mladić’s actions is well worth a read for background. (As, indeed, is its work in uncovering the interest in the countries of the region of the fascist right.)

Whatever his level of guilt in terms of the charges, Mladić has used the trial as a platform from which to justify his actions as ‘defender of the Serbs’, a narrative shaped by nationalist sentiment and long-rooted victim culture. In particular, his defence has been based on the ‘Islamic Declaration‘ of Alija Izetbegović, President of Bosnia before and during the war (and also a nationalist, imprisoned as such for activities during the 1980s), essentially as a plan to subject Serbs living in Bosnia to Muslim domination. This argument was, by the way, given short shrift in Allan Little and Laura Silber’s ‘Death of Yugoslavia’, where it is described as a ‘work of scholarship, not politics, intended to promote philosophical discourse among Muslims’ (p. 208, 1996 edition). We might also see its re-publication as part of the balance of fear between the different nationalisms during the descent into war, as well as self-assertion against plans to dismember and cantonise Bosnia, determined a few months later at Karađorđevo by Milošević and Tuđman but around which nationalist fires were already being stoked.

Mladić is responsible for his actions and needs to face justice (his pathetic attempts thus far this morning to disrupt the verdict are symbolic of fear and a refusal to own up to his actions – products, too, in their own way of nationalism).

But what of Bosnia and Herzegovina subsequently? The ICTY is due to pack up its work (this month), after 24 years, and hand over responsibility for the remaining cases, and appeals, to the Mechanism for International Criminal Tribunals, the UN body to handle the tribunals both for Rwanda and former Yugoslavia at the completion of their mandates had finished. As has been pointed out, the ICTY has never been able to overcome domestic hostility to trying war criminals who are held, as Mladić is, as heroes; and neither has it been able to reach out victims to allow them to forget the past – disclaimer: I am Associate Editor of the journal linked here). Meanwhile, Bosnia and Herzegovina knows no peace: political leaders in Republika Srpska regularly hold out the prospects of an independence referendum; a lack of trust and dislocation disrupts the work of the country’s institutions, denying progress; and lack of economic growth leads to unemployment and poverty, an environment which breeds brooding and blaming.

It may be that a post-apartheid style Truth and Reconciliation Commission may have helped heal the tragic wounds of war, cleansing and dislocation of communities in Bosnia and Herzegovina. At this distance, clearly we’ll never know, although the internationally-driven legitimising of separate entities under the Dayton Accords would not have helped; equally, the extent of community division may have prevented such a Commission from functioning effectively. The ways in which the war has been progressed since 1996, in a time of so-called peace and in a thousand examples of hatred, are not encouraging that such a thing would have been successful. More than twenty years after the war – compare relations between Germany and France in 1965; or compare the reactions of Germans cleansed from territories lost as a result of the re-drawing of the borders of post-war Poland – Bosnia remains divided and the time for such a Commission is long gone. Nevertheless, the nationalisms with which it should have been tasked and with which it might have dealt remain extant, brooding and disruptive. They still need to be tackled, as does the unemployment, poverty and (social) exclusion which allow them to rumble and fester. The ways in which nationalisms drive deep-rooted hatreds and division between peoples means that, as with the price of peace, the only defence against nationalisms continues to be eternal vigilance.

May in Florence

Poor* Theresa May. Upstaged in her long-trailed traipse to Florence to talk substantially to the UK media and her own immediate Cabinet colleagues (no-one from the EU actually being there) about her ‘vision’ for the future, firstly by her own Foreign Secretary [firewall] and secondly, and far more importantly, in Rome the day before by Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, this was a speech whose prospective import was, as it turned out, far greater than the actual substance.

Apart from the rolling political theme of May’s evident lack of domestic authority amongst her Cabinet and her lack of judgment wrapped up in her (absent) treatment of Johnson’s own, reverse Churchillian, two-fingered salute to her, I doubt that history will be too kind on the Florence speech. Critical assessments abound already, not the least David Allen Green’s erudite Twitter feed, InFact’s own observation of May as flip-flop queen and Michel Barnier’s own measured, polite but oh-so-critical response pointing, essentially, to the all-too-evident reality gap.

Barnier is absolutely correct in observing that May’s speech needs to be turned – and urgently – into substantive negotiating points which the respective teams can tackle in the next, and subsequent, weeks. The obvious point to make is that, six months into a (maximum) two-year negotiating period for exit (which encompasses the time to secure the necessary approvals, including from the European Parliament), this is no time to be (re-)setting out a vision for the future. If the UK needs a two-year extension to the negotiating period, this is symbolic only of its own lack of preparation prior to triggering the Article 50 withdrawal process, and the absolutely shambolic domestic political process which has succeeded it. Furthermore, May’s observation that ‘throughout its membership, the United Kingdom has never totally felt at home being in the European Union’, and that the EU ‘never felt to us like an integral part of our national story’ was both rude and ignorant. What – never at home despite all the opt-outs which the EU granted the UK, on adopting the Euro, on Schengen and on the European Social Charter? Never at home despite the single market being the singular idea of Lord Cockroft, Thatcher’s own EU Commissioner? Never at home despite the maths of the referendum vote failing to provide any sort of endorsement for such a view? Personally speaking, I’ve never felt less at home in the UK in the period since the referendum – based, substantially, on the petty nationalism that has come to mark our national political discourse, bank checks on immigration status being but the most recent example. If we’d made more effort to integrate, to understand the EU’s political processes and, more so, to involve ourselves in them, such an observation might have been better founded. But, we did not and, therefore, it is not. We never even tried.

More to the critical point, we still have no strategy for Brexit, no graspable endgame. it’s not so much that the UK government isn’t levelling with people on the trade-offs that will be required to make any sort of a purse out of the sow’s ear of Brexit, it’s that – as the TUC’s statement in response correctly observes – we have no realistic negotiating strategy at all. Quite simply, we don’t know what we’re doing.

I wanted, however, to make one critical observation of my own. For a speech whose title was ‘shared history; shared challenges; shared future’, May spent an awful lot of time talking about ‘me’. The section on citizens’ rights – so critical to the lives of so many people here in the UK and in the rest of Europe, and so important to the EU’s negotiating agenda – was just 255 words long but featured the pronoun ‘I’ no fewer than nine times, and the pronoun ‘we’ no more than five (and some of those being part of May’s attempt at rhetoric). (Aside of no fewer than three references to ‘I want’, which would have got me short shrift as a child!) In the rest of the speech, May referred to herself in the first person singular no fewer than forty times. An odd thing, don’t you think, in the context of a speech whose text was ‘shared’? And in the context of seeking a deal in the best interests of the UK, not to speak of favours, with the skilled, expert, well-prepared negotiators sat on the other side of the table? Unless, of course, May was indeed using the occasion to rehearse her speech to the Tory Party Conference next month, and to support her ever-declining level of authority in her own Party. But, then again, that is really what Brexit is about, isn’t it: the Tory Party’s own attempt to settle its own internal politics regarding the UK’s relationship with the EU. Our own domestic politics – and despite the outcome of the election – has become simply subservient to the selfish interests of the Tory party whose packing of House of Commons committees is simply the most obvious symbol of the failure that our democracy has become.

* Sympathy somewhat limited, obviously.

Knowing which way the wind is blowing

There was some interesting news on electric cars this week with Volvo announcing that all its new cars will be at least partially battery-powered from 2019; and France announcing, one day later, that it will ban the sale of cars with an internal combustion engine by 2040. There’s a plethora of links in these two articles – on a side note, blogs seem to have become media articles these days while media articles seem to have become blogs – which are well worth exploring, too.

On top of this, the Queen’s Speech promised legislation to ‘ensure the United Kingdom remains a world leader in new industries, including electric cars‘, with the accompanying notes referring to an Automated and Electric Vehicles Bill whose purpose would be – among others – to improve the national charging infrastructure. With the government being supported by the DUP, whose own green credentials leave something to be desired and whose programme features a strong element of climate change scepticism, this is an interesting inclusion in a Queen’s Speech which doesn’t otherwise feature a lot else of substance, Brexit apart.

Volvo will, of course, still be producing existing models with internal combustion engines after 2019; and it will continue to produce a range of hybrids (cars with some level of electric/battery input alongside an internal combustion engine, which can be as minimal as simply managing fuel efficiency); while a policy announcement that takes full effect in 23 years time is, perhaps, little more than virtue signalling given shortening policy timescales. We were all, after all, an awful lot younger in 1994.

Nevertheless, the direction that the wind is taking is clear and it is, on the whole, a good one in terms of reducing carbon emissions. It is worth pointing out that international agreements on carbon reduction have provided an important impetus to the development of the electric vehicles market, not least in the light of the role in total carbon emissions played by aircraft travel and the more readily available technology that battery-powered cars provide in terms of achieving the necessary reductions targets.

Much remains to be done, however: globally, sales of electric cars total no more than 2m, about 30% in China and Japan and a further 25% in the US. Within Europe, the Netherlands and Norway look to me be leading the way. In the light of this, it it no wonder that progress is slow, and incremental. It does need a bit of a kick and the toes being dipped in the water by Volvo and the French government simply aren’t sufficient. Better instead, to do more in the way of encouraging manufacturers to bring end prices down.

Drivers of electric cars are likely to continue to be worried about the availability of charging stations – especially, for longer journeys, the availability of rapid chargers which allow the current generation of electric cars to be fully charged in about 45 mins (30 mins to about 80%). The focus of the UK government’s initiative on electric vehicles – that petrol re-fuelling stations would be compelled to offer electric charging points – is thus an interesting one. The Bill will indeed require the installation of charge points for electric vehicles at motorway service areas and large fuel retailers, and on the basis of a common set of technical and operational standards.

Precisely what will be required, and where, and the cost regime that is envisaged along with any subsidies on offer, remains to be seen. If electric cars do take off, then petrol stations would need to change their business model anyway and, while it is easy to see a conversion of some facilities to coffee shops (and hopefully something more welcoming than just the coffee areas to the side of existing facilities that is currently substantially the provision), it is a lot harder to see the profit in selling two or three cups of coffee and possibly a cake or two while people wait for their cars to charge against a £30 fuel sale (by the end, a full tank on our BMW was costing £70). We might see this as the government providing a bit of a nudge to service station providers ahead of the deluge that will otherwise befall them, but the better option, if the government wants to get involved, would be to facilitate the provision of charging points away from petrol stations but put them in car parks, park and ride facilities. The smart move, if we’re talking about town centre regeneration, would be to put a mass of charging points in, or very close to, town centres, too. There’s absolutely a role there for councils and it would be good to see the government working closely with local councils instead rather than nudging petrol stations to do what the market will force them to do anyway.

The other major issue of course here is, as with anything else, Brexit. Renault-Nissan has a 20%+ market share of 2m electric car market (and hence the Macron government’s lead on this); and the UK claims to be the largest market for electric vehicles in the EU (though the Netherlands looks larger), while one in five electric cars sold in the EU in 2016 were made in the UK. Nissan does, of course, have a plant in Sunderland – our new Leaf was made there, and on the basis of an internal competition within Nissan to be a site featuring production lines for the higher-output models. The leading role of Nissan-Renault in the global electric car market – on the back of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement announced this week – will clearly be a major feature in the Brexit negotiations. Precisely what Carlos Ghosn (who has now moved on from Nissan) got out of Theresa May when they met last October – a discussion that we know encompassed electric cars (Q112-Q115) – continues to be a highly-relevant point for discussion. It is to be hoped that the new Chair of the Commons Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, when elected this coming week, will see it as a priority not only to pick up the threads of its inquiry into the electric car market but also to recall its earlier desire to get to the bottom of that infamous letter.

[18 July edit: a letter has also been sent in highly similar circumstances to Toyota. The Committee – with Labour MP Rachel Reeves in the chair – has an urgent task in keeping the activities of the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy under review as Brexit talks get underway.]

[18 July update 2: it’s actually the Treasury Committee which is taking charge here and, by the look of it, it is on the case.]

Brexit and EU citizens: A practical note

The UK government’s announcement yesterday of its plans for EU citizens in the UK post-Brexit contained one or two nasty surprises, not least among them that EU citizens will be forced to hold some sort of documentation proving the right to stay and work in the UK after 2018 – a prima facie case of discrimination vis-a-vis UK citizens who do not – and should not – have to carry any such documentation.

Aside of the understandable outrage here, and here, that May should consider such discrimination to be ‘fair’, and that many EU citizens have already gone through a lengthy process of securing permanent residence documents only for these now to be useless, as well as that this is not a situation of fact, simply an opening ‘offer’ in the Article 50 negotiations process, one of the interesting issues around this reference is the practical logistics around documenting 3m people in the time available. Those who have gone to the trouble of securing permanent residence rights, via the infamous 85-page form, are promised a ‘streamlined’ and ‘user-friendly’ application process but there are clearly doubts about the ability of the appropriate government departments to be able to deliver on that, not least stemming from the bureaucratic delays that as few as 150,000 people experienced in applying for PR to government departments that were simply overwhelmed. Let alone 3m (+).

There is little detail on the document as to what the government means by ‘streamlined’, although there are vague (and inevitable) references to it being ‘digital’ and the days of the 85-page form seem to be numbered.

However, there are doubts about the ability of the UK to deliver on this score, too. Eurostat, the EU’s statistical office, publishes a continually-updated scorecard on the digital single market – which, of course, we are leaving – called the ‘DESI composite‘ (this is the Digital Economy and Society Index, not this one). Overall, across the five components of the index, the UK is above average – it’s actually in seventh place among the EU-28. However, one of the constituent components is ‘digital public services’, which measures a country’s ability to deliver e-Government services, including the provision of pre-filled forms and online service completion. Here, it might not be a surprise to learn, the UK is doing rather less well – not only is it below the average for the EU-28, it’s actually fallen as far as 18th place.

(As an aside, I can recall a previous government vowing that the UK would have the best superfast broadband in the EU by 2015: we don’t – on the DESI composite’s ‘Connectivity’ sub-index, we are sixth, rising above only Finland among the other nations above us on the overall list – which are Netherlands, Luxembourg, Belgium, Denmark and Sweden. We were sixth in 2015, too.)

So, there are some quite deep-rooted capacity issues which need to be resolved. We can well imagine that these ought to have been resolved before the UK government could even make such an offer – since it is not doing so from a position of strength – and certainly by the time any agreement may be implemented. Perhaps the UK government might look to other EU governments for advice on how to deliver the sort of ‘streamlined’ digital public service that would be required to document 3m EU nationals in the way this proposal envisages – perhaps from other countries which are higher up the DESI list than the UK. Perhaps we might ask Poland, for example.

Islands (Scotland) Bill published

Just catching up with the news that the Scottish Government published its Islands Bill last Friday. This was probably a good day to bury bad news, given that much of the political establishment was focused elsewhere at the time, although there is no suggestion that the Islands Bill is is bad news. But the timing of its publication was awful.

The Bill is expressly the governmental response to the Our Islands Our Future campaign launched by the island councils elected by Shetland, Orkneys and Western Isles voters to establish a clearer constitutional recognition of the needs and status of island areas. The Bill – which builds on top of a consultation exercise undertaken in the last quarter of 2015 – will need to be carefully scrutinised as regards the extent to which it matches up to the aims of Our Islands Our Future as well as in terms of what it envisages actually happening in practice. At the headline level, it seeks to do the following:

– a duty on Scottish Ministers to publish a ‘National Islands Plan’ with a view to improving outcomes for island communities, alongside an annually-published Progress Report

– a duty on Scottish Ministers expressly to have regard to island communities in exercising their functions, including via an island communities impact assessment as a means of ‘island-proofing’ initiatives such that islanders are not disadvantaged as a result of their location

– protection for the Na h-Eileanan an Iar Scottish parliamentary constitutency akin to that already provided to the Shetlands and Orkneys constituencies such that the boundaries cannot be changed without primary legislation

– greater flexibility around councillor representation within island communities

– provision for all island authorities to have more control in the development of the seas around their communities via a marine licensing scheme for development activities.

Island communities continue to face major problems as regards – among many others – de-population, and the associated, but qualitatively different, problem of dealing with the needs, not least health, of an ageing society; the provision of affordable and suitable housing; and digital connectivity. Some of these issues are being taken forward, at least to some degree, such as the Scottish Government’s Digital Scotland initative, although improvements can always be made to any governmental programme both as regards provision and as regards pace.

The Islands Bill is not inherently a development-based one, but a policy and access one. Consequently, the solution to many of the development problems facing the islands – of jobs, incomes and sustainability – need to be tackled in other forums and by other initiatives, although I would have liked to see express recognition of the need to engage and work with community landlords – such as Storas Uibhist on South Uist, Benbecula and Eriskay, which has just celebrated ten years of community ownership of these islands – included formally in the Bill. Whether the Islands Bill turns out to make a difference to islanders’ lives in practice of course remains to be seen, but a legislative start has been made on creating greater voice and access for the islands to policy, and in red-circling that for the future. To the extent that this represents at least a signal of a reversal of the recent policy trend towards greater centralisation in the Scottish Government, the Bill is welcome. Practice needs to follow.

Brexit faultlines still apparent in UK politics

Like many others, I pulled an all-nighter on Friday morning to watch the election results come in – the first I’ve done for a while, the most recent plebiscites having left me running screaming from the living room well before 1am. The exit poll was, this time, remarkably accurate – and there were a number of positives to take from the election itself, including a well-run, positive Labour campaign on the back of a good manifesto that didn’t quite get the result it deserved; as well as the fruits of a successful registration/get the vote out drive among young people that has, at least anecdotally, brought up the electoral participation of the young to the point where it was actually above the average. Long may that contine (and, indeed, be extended).

And, of course, the loss of a Conservative majority in the Commons is a bonus. Firstly, the Tories really ought to have remembered the old adage that the great British public tend not to like exercise of any type, including of their franchise, and that they therefore tend to punish the parties who do make them turn out; and secondly we should note that a minority government may well lose the benefits of the Salisbury Convention, under which the Lords is duty bound not to over-rule the manifesto commitment of a successful party.

The departure of Theresa May’s two senior advisers today, two bauernopfer [Edit: now on p. 4 of the link @ 14:28) taking the rap for their boss’s disastrous personal and campaigning style, simply papers over the cracks in what is clearly a lame duck government – and may also hasten the timing of May’s own, inevitable, departure. One can only hope, though she who we may well dub ‘Teflon Theresa’, with the arrogance to deliver the same speech yesterday from Downing Street as if she had not lost – in her own terms – the election that she surely intended to deliver had she won it, may well yet turn out to be a survivor.

Meanwhile, the joining of the DUP’s ten, er, ‘socially conservative’ MPs in the business of government has, rightfully, raised plenty of comment, not least in the context of the contribution of Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, to the number of MPs the Tories did win. Scotland now has 13 Tory MPs – something of a modern record, leaving the Tories up here as no longer the stuff of legend.

What the comment has missed so far – unless someone can point me differently* – is that the DUP is also famous for a bit more than just its hateful stance on gay rights (or its misconceived renewable heating incentive, its intransigence over which brought down Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive earlier this year). Not only does it have a strong stance in favour of Brexit, but that it allowed itself to be used – I’m paraphasing somewhat – to channel more money into the pro-Brexit campaign last year. The source of the DUP’s funding on this was eventually, through solid journalistic endeavour, revealed as the Constitutional Research Council, an organisation that is so secretive about its research that it has – still, as at today’s date – no website on which to publish the results of the research it supports.

Any agreement between the Tories and the DUP clearly needs, as a minimum, to be publicly available, and in full, in terms of exactly what the DUP will do – and for what – as a price for keeping the Tories in power, especially if Davidson is correct in her view that there is no suggestion ‘the Conservative government would be dependent on the support of the DUP‘, whatever the nature of the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement which underpins and rationalises the deal.

In the meantime, however, we can no longer wonder whether the results of the election imply a softer approach to Brexit, or any voluntary granting of civil rights to EU citizens in UK limbo, or even a second referendum. There is no doubt that Brexit is not under any theat: Theresa May and her new-found BFFs in the DUP will go ahead with just as hard a Brexit as if the election had not happened. There will be no softening of approach not only from the perspective of negotiating stance but because those driving the government firmly believe in the rightness of what they are doing.

We can usually point to several instances in public life that, had x not happened, y would be impossible. But it is clearly true that, had the Scottish Tories not won these 13 seats, the DUP’s ten MPs would make little difference to the Tories’ parliamentary maths. I’m not a nationalist voter, for reasons not least that the SNP in practice is not as progressive as it makes out in its literature, but it does strike (even) me that the loss of 13 SNP MPs to the Tories is a retrograde step, not a positive one. And I’m not just referring to the loss of good parliamentarians like Angus Robertson and, indeed, Alex Salmond. We will need to wait for psephologists and researchers of other types to tell us how quite so many people who voted SNP just two years ago are now prepared to vote Tory – aside of cheap ‘Tartan Tory’-type comments. It’s likely that quite a few will be independence supporters who also want to be out of the EU and who now see support for the Tories as the more worthwhile means of ensuring Brexit in the current context. Clearly, the sorts of people who swallowed Theresa May’s line about the need to strengthen her hand in the negotiations. I don’t necessarily agree that the election has killed indyref2 – but we might, however, legitimately wonder about the type of independent Scotland such voters would want to see delivered in an iScotland.

The 2017 election will no doubt turn out to have more twists before its history can be written – but the faultlines in our domestic politics that Brexit has written continue to have deep resonances. And, by the way, it’s well worth keeping in mind here that the chair of the Constitutional Research Council is a former vice-chair of the Scottish Conservative Party. I wonder if we’ll ever find out if the CRC commissioned any research prior to this election into the electoral success of the Tories in Scotland, and the DUP in Northern Ireland…

* A kind reader points out that a journalist in the Indy, and others, are researching the issue, post-election. There’s not a lot new in the report in the Indy – and I’m guessing that the Saudi trail is a red herring – but I’m glad to note that someone is on the case.

Starmer on Brexit

Interested to hear Sir Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, on this morning’s Today programme on R4 (@2:12) and, later in the day, setting out Labour’s policy on Brexit in a speech at the Institute of Civil Engineers (no direct link currently available: but Julia Rampen’s report in the New Statesman is about as good a source as any to start with). This has, by the way, been an impressively bright, confident start to this pre-election pre-campaign by Labour in a number of different policy arenas, not just on Brexit, which will pay off in terms of the (eventual) vote.

In addition to Sir Keir’s four benefits of a positive relationship with the EU outside of membership – no tariffs; no new customs burdens; regulations presenting no difficulties; and having a common platform for workplace rights so one country cannot undercut another in a race to the bottom – he made essentially two points of substance: Labour would unilaterally guarantee the right of EU citizens in the UK to remain; and that the UK Parliament would be able to reject the deal in a vote once negotiations had been concluded. In the process, as he made clear in the ICE speech, Theresa’s May’s Great Repeal Bill would be scrapped and a replacement White Paper issued (which doesn’t give the ‘Henry VIII‘ powers to legislate by proclamation that May is seeking and which really ought to be confined to the dustbin of history).

On the first, this is absolutely the right thing to do – in simple human terms, it resolves some of the anxiousness, as set out by the the3million.org on their website and FB page, felt by EU citizens who have made their lives in the UK without needing to take out UK citizenship (but who were denied a vote in the referendum). Sir Keir has said similar previously. In getting the tone and the approach right as negotiations kick-off, he is absolutely correct. People are not bargaining chips. And, in providing an appropriate and precise degree of differentiation, to coin a topical phrase, from the starting point of the Tories, it’s a very welcome position to take.

On the second, it is absolutely right that parliament has not only a meaningful say over the outcome of the negotiations but gains the ability to reject it and ask the negotiators to improve on it. Within a parliamentary democracy, it is impossible to deny parliament such a role – though of course many seek to do so (including the Tories – and here comes that ‘d’ word again). I understand the arguments around negotiating strategy, but this is a position faced by many democratically accountable organisations – trade unions, for example, in negotiating pay deals – and it hardly presents a unique set of problems. (In essence, no responsible negotiator who is to be held democratically accountable will conclude a deal that he or she thinks their constituency might not later uphold and will take regular private soundings as negotiations progress.). Not one that is sufficient to withhold from parliament its primary role, anyway, or which support Theresa May’s rigid, take-it-or-leave it autocratic approach. (I’m tempted to argue here that a parliament – or indeed a Labour Party – which was composed more of trade unionists would understand that instinctively.)

Labour is caught here in a maelstrom in which coherent policy becomes hard to define. The UKIP vote is collapsing and, if polls are to be believed (and there evidently are a few reasons why – outside the French elections – recent opinion polling is not to be believed), seems to be heading to the Tories; while there is the reality that large parts of the core Labour vote outside London lives in areas that voted more strongly for Brexit. At the same time, the Party is caught by the failure – of course not unique to Labour – to develop a more positive narrative about the achievements of the EU which, in contrast to the easy headlines (the EU can be its own worst enemy sometimes), would have encouraged a more open, evidence-based debate about the EU and the UK’s international role in the run up to the referendum. There are strong analogies with the first Scottish independence referendum here, too – a failure to develop a positive, convincing narrative about the benefits of pooled resources within the context of the UK, and what needs to be done to improve the distribution, has left Labour and the Labour voice squeezed between the independence and the unionist votes: a polarised debate which leaves little room in the centre.

So Sir Keir – and the rest of Labour – is facing an uphill task in seeking to protect the Party’s position by not alienating core voters while developing a coherent response to the impractical realities of the policy issues, including on immigration and free movement, raised by Brexit (and which, by themselves, raise major issues of threat to the working class in terms of health, social security and employment). On freedom of movement, I would rather have seen a policy position developed out of the genuine concerns over investment and skills, the impact of neoliberalism and free market economics on people’s jobs and livelihoods, and on poverty and inequality, and the impact of robotics – the sort of issues confronting European capitalism that we hold in common with our EU neighbours and with whom we might have been able to work out a common position were it not for the ludicrous situation in which we find ourselves as a result of this ridiculous referendum. But that’s of course not where we are.

In that context, it is instead about reaching for the principles and values that will help us define a new future for our ourselves. Humanity, dignity, openness and co-operation and collaboration with others, as set out by Sir Keir today, look a good start to me. Ones to vote for, in fact.