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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Travelling hopefully… PS

Do not – repeat: do not – challenge the gods of fate, Calvin…

On my trip to London referred to in my post below, my Caledonian Sleeper – already detoured around the Fife coast route which meant that it was stopped in Perth station for a good additional half an hour (although, paradoxically, this was actually to allow the timetable to catch up) – was then held in Oxenholme for some considerable time (I was, mostly, asleep but it was for a couple of hours). Flooding had apparently got into some boxes of electronics and this prevented the signals from functioning. Sleeper staff eventually appeared to advise us that we were running considerably late and that we could be in London quicker by changing at Preston and then Crewe (a usual stop on the Sleeper but no longer intended for this one) as its late-running nature meant that it had been diverted on to the slow track and was therefore liable not to be in London til nearer 11 o’clock – arriving thus some three hours late.

I did as advised (I wasn’t in a rush, but slow-running trains, in my experience, only run slower): but, dear reader, passengers on late-running Caledonian Sleeper trains are entitled to a refund (of 100% of my ticket price), as we were informed by helpful staff, when journeys are disrupted (including as a result of weather events). (The link is heavily promoted on the front page of the website, something which I have always found rather odd.) Given my thoughts in my earlier post about refunds on public transport journeys: what to do now? Essential fact disclosure: Caledonian Sleeper has, since 2015, been run under a separate contract by controversial public services international conglomerate, Serco. Research shows Serco’s industrial relations – including on the Sleeper itself – to be poor; and its activities in running asylum centres have also put it under the spotlight. This might indeed, and in spite of my earlier thoughts, be the time for a little financial correction, intended as a reminder to Serco that it needs to sharpen up its act.

Furthermore… the things you hear on trains (no. 46 in an occasional series): the Virgin train I caught at Preston was unable to serve hot drinks from the onboard shop ‘as a result of the volume of passengers’. Including a 20 or so minute wait on a northern rail station before 7.30 AM it had, I thought, up to that point, been a hot cup of coffee sort of morning. Clearly Richard Branson needs to invest in a bigger kettle, or otherwise stump up the money for another 50p for the leccy meter. The jolly Scouse guard on the (Virgin) train I then caught at Crewe apologised, on arriving into London a few minutes late, stating that the train had had to pick up extra passengers. I think they meant me. Thanks for that.

Return journey fine, though 🙂

Travelling hopefully…

Monday this week found me heading back to the mainland, ahead of a trip to London on Wednesday (I like to be on time). This was not my usual trip, since high winds had prevented the Lord of the Isles from its usual dock at Mallaig on Sunday, diverting instead at the last minute to Oban, and this was the planned arrangement for Monday, too, since the winds were at least as high again. Going into Oban was a new route for me – I know Oban well (it has a good distillery with a generous tour) – but I had never before travelled into Oban from Lochboisdale and, seasoned ferry traveller that I am, and fortified early on against the swell by one of CalMac’s black pudding and fried egg rolls (and a granola fruits of the forest yoghurt, in the interests of a balanced diet of course), I was looking forward to the trip.

In particular, I was looking forward to catching a glimpse of Tobermory’s famous painted houses lining its waterfront: the route into Oban flows through the slim Sound of Mull separating Mull from the Morvern peninsula and I was anticipating being able to take a few good shots, especially with the weather clearing rapidly to blue as we entered the Sound, from a cloudy grey and misty Uist, and with increasingly good quality light. In reality, the Sound is a lot wider than it looks on the map and Tobermory’s harbour turns out to be well shielded from the channel by a rocky outcrop: distracted also by a church on the Morvern side* located typically remotely, i.e. with no obvious access, I didn’t see the waterfront until the very last moment and then only in retrospect, and for literally a few seconds through a slim channel to the south-east before the houses disappeared from view (serves me right for looking forward only to a glimpse!). Still, here’s my best shot:

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Oban is somewhat handier for Perth than Mallaig, being almost 50 miles closer and a journey more or less due east along the A85 (although I was travelling (initially) by the lower branch of the West Highland rail line down to Glasgow and thus my journey took me along two sides of a triangle. The joys of public transport…) Nevertheless, the question of financial ‘compensation’ arose given that CalMac provide some sort of refund where travel arrangements are disrupted, albeit for technical breakdowns. I did lose the return portion of an advance, non-refundable Citylink ticket from Mallaig to Perth which I booked last time I left Perth’s fair city but, aside of that, I don’t think I’d be bothering even were I eligible.

Firstly, the notion of ‘compensation’ for public transport ‘failures’ is a peculiarly Tory (specifically Majorite) policy which sits very oddly with the ethos of the delivery of a public service (and which also ends up starving public services of the financial resources for improvement, thus increasing the likelihood of future failures). People on public transport try very hard to deliver me from A to B and I’m usually very grateful for their efforts and their hard work. The ‘right’ to financial compensation is also a highly individualistic response to what is ultimately – and which needs to remain – a collective problem, and that ain’t no solution at all.

Secondly, I might accept the notion of compensation – in general – where it entails some actual inconvenience – but delivering me closer to my actual destination (and, ultimately, some 20 or so minutes quicker than my original route would have done) is stretching the definition of ‘inconvenience’ (pace the lost bus ticket). Furthermore, I think I’m also pretty grateful for those who decide that the challenges of docking a sizable ferry boat safely in Mallaig is potentially more traumatic than it’s worth when the wind is gusting to over 40mph (the approach to Mallaig harbour along the rocky shoreline ordinarily leaves me wondering whether actually jumping over the side and wading ashore, surely getting no more than my knees wet, is a seriously viable option – it looks no more than about 70 yards from ship to shore).

And, thirdly, seasoned traveller that I am, I’ve always taken the view that the journey to arrive at a destination is worthwhile in itself – that travelling is not a means to an end but an opportunity for enjoyment in and of itself. This was a new route and, therefore, an opportunity to experience something new. Travel stoically, and with a good book, is a good motto – and Madeleine Bunting’s esoteric, thought-provoking search for a definition of home, not least in a time of nationalisms, is a terrific companion, not least on this journey (if here undertaken somewhat in reverse).

So, no, I don’t think I’d be claiming ‘compensation’, thank you very much.

So, then – Perth (one more time). And just a day too late to join Sunday’s counter-demo against the SDL, which I would absolutely have done had I been here at the right time. Fascist b&stards. Not in my Perth.

Much later edit: It was St. Columba’s Chapel, on the Drimnin Estate, originally erected in 1838 and restored just over five years ago.

Flyin’ High

I’ve been travelling a bit recently (firstly to Poland and am just now back from a few days in Brussels – some photos may follow), so have been catching quite a few flights. Of course, I was paying close attention to the safety briefings on board – for fans of these things, the @flybe one features a few subtle changes to the wording, which it seems has caused a degree of apparent consternation – but I can never quite get this clip out of my head as I do. From the brilliant minds and inspired pens of Rob Grant and Doug Naylor, and from Red Dwarf’s epic Stasis Leak Series 2 episode (the first bit, obviously, but this clip has also includes the equally marvellous ‘What is it?’ sketch):