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A Frenchie travelling the world...

22 September 2006

European Parliament - Organisation

Dear readers,

Yesterday, the petition for a unique seat of the European Parliament reached the million threshold needed and was presented to the European Commission (according to the rules of the European Constitution rejected in the Dutch and French referendums). The petition seems genuinely simple and asks a good question: why pay millions of euros in taxes to keep the "circus" that obliges the European Parliament and its representatives to work both in Strasbourg (its official seat) and Brussels (where its commissions are gathering most of the time: European Parliament Organisation)? The question is relevant, as this is tax money in a region where taxes are already high enough in general. It is also interesting to note that it is extremely unlikely that this petition will be answered positively, as any change would require the unanimous aproval of all member States, approval that France won't ever give.

The MEPs behind this petition, though, are anything but genuinely concerned about taxpayers money. They are, in my opinion, simply manipulating European citizens in a very nasty way. This is the reason which made me always refuse to sign this petition. Not because I am French (I couldn't care less about the Strasbourg issue) but because I can see the political and personal interests behind the move. The Strasbourg seat is highly symbolic and as many other European institutions was intended to show that Europe has no specific center or capital city (arguably) but is equally supported and supportive for its members. These MEPs calculation is that putting the Parliament seat in Brussel will reinforce centralism, therefore making the EU impopular with more decentralized countries (Germany for instance) or already Europeanophobic ones (like the U.K.). Additionnally, it would annoy France politicians, usually pro-European.

But what if we look at facts? What is so wrong in the European Parliament seat in Strasbourg? Well, actually nothing. Strasbourg is conveniently central, as a nice airport (not too far from the center and not congested in any way) and good connections by train and highway with European countries. These train connections will even been improved soon with the high speed train between Paris and Strasbourg. Needless to say that living costs in Strasbourg are far lower than in Brussels. So please, where is the rationnal in dropping Strasbourg? Wouldn't it be far more cost effective, if tax money was really the issue, to actually drop the parliamentary commissions in Brussels? Isn't it true, in fact, that the only Parliament building in Brussels (dubbed by facetious Belgians "God's Caprice", alledgedly from a cheese name whose shape looks very much like the said building) costs far more than all EU institutional buildings in Strasbourg?

In my opinion, the good solution, tax money wise (and the only politically feasible), for the European Union, would be to scrap the Brussels parliamentary commissions, reinstate them in Strasbourg and stop this waste of money indeed. The current Brussels building could easily be reused by the European Commission which singularly lacks of a single proper building that it could be identified with. Soemthing very important too, symbolically. But a stronger Union is not what the current petition supporters really want, of course...

18 September 2006

The Pope and Islam

Dear readers,

I know, the title is fat and juicy as it should be, an easy trick... But well, it also represents something which has become a topic. Let's coldly review the facts, once again.

Indirectly, and in a way which conveniently left him a way out, the current Pope (Benedictus XVI, ex Cardinal Ratzinger, ex German citizen) has dropped a very Huntingtonian bomb in the world of religions. He quoted a medieval byzantines sentence (how appropriate !) to describe the relations between islam, politics and violence. Please note that the Byzantines were never fed up with the three, but this is another story.

The reaction in the islamic world was immediate and easy to foresee. Muslims flet insulted, most of them expressed their indignation by demonstrations and through the media, some of them used violence and in some extreme cases (Somalia, Iraq and Palestine) death and church arson was the result. The Pope said he was sorry and that he had been misinterpreted, that the sentence was not reflecting his views, taken out of its context. All quite true but the point is not there...

First, the Pope was quite right (and as an atheist I hate to admit it). Islam still has a poor relationship with politics and violence and it also has a bad relationship with rationals. Before all of you ban me for racism and a terrible political incorrectness, please let me explain a bit what I mean. Islam is a religion which has many aspects and many potential interpretations, indeed. Not all are violent, fortunately, and not all are interested at all in politics. There is of course Sunni, Shia, Druzes (who are not really Muslims in the true meaning, according to the others), Alaoui, as well as many sub-categories such as the different Sufi brotherhoods.

But more important than these purely internal doctrinal differences, there are others, which we could simplistically call "schools of thinking". They used to be real schools indeed, but religious ones, in the first centuries of Islam. They were the ones which actually fixed the main relation of Islam, the Quran and human intellect. This debate happened in all organised religions, but in Islam it took a very particular way, as the school which literally made the others disappear was the one which maintains that human intellect can not be applied to interprete the holy books in any way. Not even for a simple translation. This of course had dreadfull results on the political sphere. Especially when it came to violence. No society where the the main ideological current is accepting rational thinking as a basis sustainably accepts violence as a way of progressing.

Well, of course, all our societies had a phase when violence was accepted as a "noble" way of conquest, progress, conviction, etc. Our own, the Western society, with its Judeo-Christian roots, its belief in an organisation of the States based on nations and its interest in material progress also had its bad times, its dark ages. Not so long ago, in Europe or later in the Americas, people commonly accepted that violence was a good thing, at least temporarily, "to make the right triumph"... But a long time ago already, this way of thinking was getting in contradiction that politics as well as ideas was better served through peace, rational discussion and philosophy. This is in fact one of these basis that we nowodays accept (subconsciously) as fundamental for our civilisation. Even during the Middle Age, when the Catholic Church had just as violent views against "heretics", Jews, Muslims or simply non-believers, it was trying to justify these ideas through rational thinking (scholastics philosophy was essentially this). This was self-defeating, but they didn't realize it until it was too late and the XVIIIth century developped the idea of secularism.

Islam never went through this. People with these ideas in the Islamic world were systematically persecuted and eliminated by the Hanafi school, one of the most intransigeant in Islam. Nowodays, of course, things are changing, but much more through outside pressure, the media, globalisation, etc. than through the debate of ideas. This has still to be developped by Sunni or Shia Muslim intelligentsia.

The best proof of this is the reaction of (some in) Islam to this relatively minimal event. Accused of being a religion prone to violence and poorly rational, some Muslims just went straight in the trap and used violence and irationnal reactions to express their legitimate anger. I guess there is still a long way to go before Islam develops rationalist thinkers... and let them survive long enough to spread their teachings.

16 September 2006 - EU and the US practice of rendition

Dear readers,

Sorry for this long silence, due to hard work, mainly... I had a bitter smile today when reading this article from the Again, no summary, just the facts. The EU foreign ministers where (again) unable to say collectively that the US practice of "rendition", secret prisons and prisoner tortures are against the law. First, I don't understand what is so difficult about saying this. They all said it in their own country (but that doesn't count). But saying it officially at EU level would have been, somewhat, stronger. This is of course a very good thing, in a way. It means that the EU is indeed beginning, subconsciously, to become bigger than the sum of all its parts. It is also a bad thing, because it shows that member states governments are still afraid of the EU, as a counter power to their petty local powers. Politicians will never change, I guess, and cowardice is a caracteristic of the job.

The second thing in this article which made me smile was the "Parthian arrow" of the Finnish presidency. Custom is that no one admits who blocked the common decision. But the Finnish Foreign Minister, when he read the press line which was agreed, simply named the two countries which had vetoed any decision. Everyone was expecting Poland... Guess, everyone was wrong. The UK and the Czeck Republic were the only two countries blocking until the last moment. Of course, it would be very unwise for me, even reckless, to conclude that these two countries (well known allies of the US, even for the worse) were the actual guilty ones. Or would it ?

02 September 2006 - EU Foreign and Defense policy

Dear readers,

Here is another sound piece of reading, actually one of the best I had in the last 10 years about the EU Foreign policy and Defense policy: Written by no one else than the Europa World editor, Peter Sain ley Berry, it is a clear explanation of why EU common policies in the usual national sovereignty field are a failure, the test case being Lebanon.

Read the article and make yourself an opinion, of course. The main idea is that any common policy formulated and acted upon by a unique representant (Mister Solana, for instance, or the rotating President of the European Council) would be better than the current national policies altogether. Even a bad common policy would still be better for the EU as a whole (and its member states) than what we now have. Because if individually these national policies are all respectable, with their pros and cons, their superposition gives the wrong impression to our partners in the world, show weakness to our ennemies and in the end annulate each other by the simple show of division which follows.

01 September 2006

Slate - Donald Rumsfeld's ghastly speech. By Fred Kaplan

Dear readers,

I would like to share with you an excellent article by Fred Kaplan about the so-called "War on Terror":
Donald Rumsfeld's ghastly speech. By Fred Kaplan - Slate Magazine. The article is brilliant, well informed and easy to understand for even the least informed about international politics. I am not going to comment on the article itself but about two language issues related to it.

The first is the expression "War on Terror" itself. I am not a native English speaker and therefore my understanding of languange subtleties is somewhat limited. This said, in other languages, we tend to use stronger prepositions than the word "on" when it relates to war. "Against" is the usual equivalent in Latin (contre in French, for instance) or Germanic (tegen in Dutch) languages. "Versus" looks a bit too old fashioned or related, I believe, to the world of court rooms or sports. Again, dear readers, I would appreciate to get your comments on this feeling. I actually have the impression that the use of the expression "War on Terror" gives the idea that the U.S. government is actually making use of the war rather than waging this war against anyone. Like in the expression "living on the land"... Which is very unfortunate but quite ironical, isn't it ?

The second point is the journalist's use of Pew's survey. He quotes that in many lands, America is seen as a higher threat than Iran or North Korea. Point taken, but, in my humble opinion, this is unsufficient. What the American readers of Slate will miss by this comment is the split between Western or pro-Western countries and more Oriental ones, as well as the split inside these countries between more and less educated people. Most people in Western lands, despite Pew's results, don't see America as such as a threat. The question is not biased, of course, but it is formulated in a way which leaves no room for nuances. Most (educated) Western people have nothing against America, they simply don't accept the methods used by the current U.S. right wing Administration. There is a huge difference, I think. And one can safely assume that the comment apply for educated people in the Middle-East too, with lower ratios probably.

Last but not least, there is one good reason for all this people to fear America, and on this point I certainly agree. Iran and North Korea are relatively "weak" states in terms of projection means. America can project force anywhere in the world. So the threat is more a perception of the harm America or rather the American government can do in case it makes a mistake or follows a bad policy, rather than what its moral "evil" or "good" stand. Just my two cents of a thought, of course.