24 October 2008

European marine defence

Dear readers,

As you probably know, Europe has no defence forces, stricto sensu, and of course even less of a navy. Of course, the European Union website will tell you otherwise, and I am aware of the Common Foreign and Security Policy (CSFP). But such a policy is very deceptive in its name as well as its definition. First, it is not really as common as it says it is, and, second, it is more an intention of a policy than a real policy by itself. Let me explain.

The CFSP, or PESC in the French EU jargon, is primarily a voluntary coordination effort by member states who are not militarily neutral. It is also a prevention system and an anti-terrorism information exchange forum. But it is not a common army, and though multinational units do exist, they can not be engaged on an order from Brussels, even if it was backed by the EU Parliament. In other words, it is a nice beginning but not a real policy. There is also a generally agreed guideline on military purchase contracts, but I dare say that it does not prevent or discourage EU countries to buy military equipment without coordination with their neighbours nor does it prevent them from buying equipment outside of the Union, even if the price tag is higher.

The result we all know. While the EU has some powers in terms of economic and monetary policies, and while it certainly has a strong common environmental policy, it is looked upon with derision by other major powers. And with good reasons. There is no "big stick" to paraphrase Roosevelt, to back up the European soft words. OK, I'll give you one or two successful common missions in the Balkans and a half success in solving the Russo-Georgian war. But let's face it, the Eurocorps is a sad joke (no offence intended to its brave members, but I am sure they are as disappointed as myself about their forces), there is no EU navy or Air Force and countries like the Netherlands, Poland or the UK have absolutely no European solidarity when it comes to military spendings. They simply buy what the USA tell them to, regardless of the price or the actual need for such equipment.

Recently, I have to admit, some light seemed to show at the end of the dark tunnel of the CFSP. France led initiatives seem to be pushing in a better direction. First, under Jacques Chirac presidency, France and the UK decided to develop a new generation of aircraft carrier together. This was a major decision for both countries and the result was a common design platform for modular ships (three to be exact). Unfortunately, while the UK kept their end of the bargain and ordered their two units to host their future JSF aircrafts, France is still mulling over its decision to buy a replacement for the already shelved Clemenceau. Though it is for budget reasons, the decision of delaying the decision might in the end cost a lot more to France. This is one of the miracles of the National Accountancy system that France uses for its budget. It is a system which, unlike normal accountancy principles, counts only the current year for expenses and revenues, ignoring future expenses for the next year. It means that, technically, a measure can be taken which actually will cost more to the tax payer, but, in the short term, will weight less on the yearly budget. It's completely stupid, but, let's face it, French civil servants and politicians are not the brightest lot.

Anyway, to come back to the topic, there is one area where France is pushing in the right direction, and it is the navy. Just yesterday, France hosted an initiative aimed at gathering an EU rapid reaction force of naval units. France has allegedly the biggest navy of the EU (at least until the UK carriers are build) and would probably contribute the most to it, hence the location of the meeting. But interestingly enough, the real reason behind such an interest is the usual one: EU countries have a common enemy. It is not Russia, not Iran, not China or Syria. The common enemy disrupting vital marine supply lines is a bunch of African pirates, operating from the war torn area of Eyl, between Puntland and Somalia proper.

These strange mix of Punt mafia and Somali Islamists is motivated by greed and power and raids everything moving between the Somali barren coast and the Seychelles islands. They are disrupting a major oil and gas tanker route, as well as a container route from Asia to Europe and from the Middle-East to Europe (not counting several secondary routes to Africa). So French navy units and other EU ships have began policing the area, first as secondary operation zone for the NATO forces protecting the entrance of the Persian Gulf, and now as an operation by itself (FR). The operation had yesterday its first success, with the arrest of a dozen pirates on a boutre loaded with RPG launchers and assault riffles. They were duly delivered to Puntland coast guards who are also beginning to show their own teeth lately. We will see where all this leads. But I hope that we will see more of these operations in the future.

I also hope that European countries will eventually begin to purchase weapons, ships and vehicles together, even if I know that it is not for tomorrow...

23 October 2008


Dear readers,

Sorry for yesterday. I didn't post because I was in bed with a terrible back ache. As an apology, I would like to treat you today with a series of pictures: Manhattan.

I think this is a great set by famous Russian blogger Drugoi, on LiveJournal. It shows New-York in a very refreshing and different way. The eye of the beholder, they say...

20 October 2008

Rotterdam gets a new (Muslim) mayor

Dear readers,

Rotterdam got this week-end a new mayor. Ivo Opstelten, the former VVD (conservative) mayor was leaving, and the gemeenteraad (city council, in Dutch) chose for a man from its main party ranks, the PvdA (Labour). Usually, debates on this type of choice turn around the fact that there is no popular vote for mayors under the Dutch grondwet (constitution). But this time, it's a whole other sort of criticism that erupted. You see, the new mayor is Morrocan born and double nationality holder Ahmed Aboutaleb, Amsterdamer, Muslim and former State Secretary for Social Affairs.

And that was a bit too much for the second Rotterdam's party: Leefbar Rotterdam, an ultra-conservative and anti-immigrant group, heir to the late maverick character, Pim Fortuyn. It was clearly his shadow that was hovering above the town hall this week-end, if you believe his angry supporters. Right wing Marco Pastors and Ron Sorensen both were angrily reacting to the nomination (and very likely confirmation by Queen Beatrix) of the new mayor. To say that they have difficulty to swallow such a choice is an understatement. In terms carefully chosen to avoid any accusation of racism, they both denounced the nomination.

For both of them, the convenient excuse is that Aboutaleb would probably never have been chosen as mayor, should the choice be made by popular vote. And they do have a point there. The choice of mayors in the Dutch system never was very democratic (despite recent attempts) and is more a soup of tit for tat agreements between the ruling coalition parties. Aboutaleb choice is that too (he hadn't got the Ministry he was looking for during the current government negotiations). But it is clearly also a lot more. Beyond the obvious symbol and the controversial message sent to the (massive) immigrant population in the Netherlands that they are welcome indeed, there is also the choice for a very strong, popular and skilled character.

Aboutaleb might be the Muslim son of a Moroccan imam, he is also very articulate and well educated, a long time journalist and civil servant, later becoming a politician. He is certainly not new to politics, having fenced on the seats of the Twede Kamer (the Dutch Lower House) against PvVer (extreme right wing) Gert Wilders or VVDer "Iron" Rita Verdonk. He was also already famous for having publicly and strongly declared that young immigrants (regardless of their culture of origin) should accept Dutch culture, ways and mentality or "pack and go home". A declaration, made after the gruesome assassination of right wing film maker Theo van Gogh by a Moroccan terrorist, that hadn't win him much slack with most Muslim fundamentalists but had won him the respect of most Dutch people.

I don't know Aboutaleb personally, but I certainly know his reputation and his ideas. While I might not agree with him on everything (he remains a socialist and a Muslim, after all), I certainly appreciate the choice of a skillful and courageous politician as new mayor. It is clearly also a very good choice for a city which has alledgedly a majority of its population coming from abroad (me included). So, Ahmed Aboutaleb, welcome to Rotterdam and go for it!

16 October 2008

Tax and economy

Dear readers,

Thanks to Kathy Gill, from US Politics, I ran into this excellent series of charts by Karmanaut. While these charts and the discussion on the blog specifically refer to both current US candidates tax plans (and are therefore doubly irrelevant for this blog), I think they are extremely interesting from an other point of view.

These graphs show that the understanding and perception of any economic policy are extremely difficult for the general public and biased by journalists often poor understanding of both mathematics and economics. Mathematics and particularly statistics are not a trivial thing. They are a tool to describe our reality and ultimately, in this case, to base politics. However, statistics can be presented in very different ways because they weight a specific indicator in function of various factors. If you weight the population factor, you end up with a graph about uneven population distributions, which is politically loaded. If you weight the contribution factor (to taxes or the economy), you also get a politically loaded graph.

This comes from the very weird way our perception works: if we see a phenomenon as affecting one group more than any other, we tend to unconsciously perceive it as being unfair. It takes an effort of the mind to realize that such inequality might very well be a good thing for the whole society (and therefore for all its constituent groups in the end). It might even be fair, ethical, good policy. There is no way to know, unless you understand the background behind the graph itself.

15 October 2008

Day against poverty

Dear readers,

Which better day to use to relaunch this blog than the Blog Action Day? So this is a post about poverty in the world.

I am not going to annoy you with whining comments about how the North exploits the South or this kind of typical bullshit. I am going to talk about poverty in front of our own doors. The people we pass in the street but don't really see anymore. Our fellow citizens who are not lucky enough to afford the good things you and me can afford. I assume that you and me do not fall in this category, because, let's face it, if you read this, that means you have access to a computer. And I do.

Poverty in Western countries with social welfare (which includes pretty much all of Europe) should in theory not exist. I don't mean the poverty of just having difficulty to make month ends, no. I mean the abject poverty of the truly homeless, the often sick men and women (sometimes children) in our streets. Our welfare states are supposed to cover for the most dire situations and to offer some kind of "umbrella solution" to the unlucky ones.

And yet, many are falling through the holes in the system, still unable to grasp even the safety net carefully disposed by our modern administrations. But I believe that this is precisely the problem. Administration is not the proper way of dealing with issues which are essentially human and psychological. These people, our brothers and sisters, are often wounded, always ashamed and sometimes psychologically unable to help themselves in the most basic situations. Yes, the safety net exists and should be, if not enough, at least a temporary solution. But many are actually unable to even go to the proper office, to fill in the right paper to read the appropriate form. Some are illiterate, others simply don't know that there are solutions for problems which terrify them. They don't open their post any more, because the envelope might contain another blow to their already fragile state. So they are often hit unaware when they are kicked out of their apartment and end up in the street.

Governments are notoriously bad at dealing with this, because the answer is all too often a human one, not more forms and bureaucracy. Nearly always, the solution could be less costly for society if it was not a standard one but a humanized one. Because extreme poverty means extreme situation, exception to the rule, not generalizations.

Have a good day!

PS: just so you know that I am not talking in the air, I would like to remind the readers that I myself worked for an organization that is dealing with people from the street to offer them support, work and training.