And still, the questions go unasked

A trial surrounding the murder of 9 people in a series of attacks and bombings by German Neo-Nazis was used as the basis for a group of tv movies looking at events from the point of view of the victims, the perpetrators and the investigators in each of three long episodes – an interesting experiment in documentary drama. A lot of talk show time was devoted to discussing the questions arising, most notably the lack of competent investigation by the authorities. Everyone accepts their efforts were bungled and inadequate.

In particular, the various neo-Nazi groups appear to have been very heavily infiltrated by informers working for police and security agencies, yet they were still unable to stem a wave of violence, or even to suggest that investigations were following false trails that would lead no-where, such as the misfounded suspicion of links to organised crime in Turkey.

The question hanging over the whole debate, which is never directly addressed, is whether the police and security agencies are culpable and actively support the various groups of violent racists and neo-Nazi’s. In most countries, this might seem an unreasonable exaggerated concern, but Germany is not most countries and nor is the history of its security agencies.

I live in the district of Charlottenburg in Berlin and at the end of our street is a very fine art gallery housing the Bergruen Collection of first class mainly twentieth century modernist masterpieces. The building however has a chequored background. For almost a century it housed the training school for Berlin and Prussian Police Officers and in the 1930′s became an ‘academy’ training high ranking members of the Gestapo. Its alumni included war criminals such a Klaus Barbie, the butcher of Lyons. They studied the practice of repression and the holocaust.

When the BundesNachrichtenDienst (BND), the German Intelligence Service was established in Munich following WW2, its core leadership were known as the Charlottenburgers, for their pedigree as people trained at the Gestapo academy. The intimate link with the Nazi past had not been broken.

As well as the BND at the national level, there are security services in each of the individual German states, such as Thuringen where those on trial for the chain of killings were based. The trial has reveal a long list of inadequacies in the way the informers were used, information collected and kept restricted with ineffective collaborations between the various organisations, state prosecutors and the police. It is difficult to believe that the catalogue of deficiences were merely the result of bungling time-servers and incompetents. The ghost in the debate about the investigations is the possibility that at some level deep inside the system, the police and security services were directly involved in perpetrating and covering up the crimes, a series of murders commited against members of the Turkish community in Germany.

Right now in Berlin a new Headquarters for the BND is being completed. Is a new building really what is required, or should the Germans be dismantling the existing organisations and attempting to creating a new and indisputably clean security service, if such a thing is a credible option?

The resurgence of far right organisations across Europe makes uneasy reading at every level, but even the possibility that the security services are sympathetic and in cahouts with these people opens up a new potential for a return to the worst depths of twentieth century.

Are these the kind of people the British should be expecting their police, security services and GCHQ to be in collaboration with inside an EU superstate? Its just another question that needs to be addressed when people make their decision to vote for Brexit, or to stay inside the EU, in the coming referendum.

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Brussels bombing

Bombing Brussels airport and one of its underground stations, is a cruel, brutal and uncivilised act.

Having recently published a novel partly set in Brussels, I’m familiar with both locations and their vulnerability is much the same as might be found in the public spaces of any modern city, what ever Donald Trump might think. The airport is a up-to-date technically flexible group of sheds serving tens of thousands of travellors a day, which works quite well and the underground rail system is functional and modern. From the maps showing where todays attacks took place, the explosions were located in the public areas of the airport open to everyone before travellors present themselves for security checks and passport control.

The airport and underground are hardly typical of Belgium. Brussels isn’t a very big city, either in terms of population, or its geographic presence and while it is the capital of Belgium, a small country, its main claim to prominence is hosting the European Union’s administrators and NATO’s Headquarters, with all the baggage that brings. In some ways, the city has rather little to do with the people who live there and in the surrounding regions, but does have an enormous throughput of visitors from all over the world who arrive on business, rather than as tourists. A lot of the people who work in the city are there because of the EU and NATO, either as management consultants and lobbyists, representatives of commercial and industrial interest groups, or part of the pool of folk who translate and draft on their behalf. This is not Washington, where government has grown and developed for 250 years, this is centre for fairly low key multilingual bureaucracies with highly qualified core of elite administrators who have to live with the reality that political power waxes and wanes according to the success and failure of national governments whose priorities are always set by the opionions of their local voters.

Political violence of the bombing variety is a particularly unsuccessful and fruitless strategy. There have been bombs going off in places I’ve visited for as long as I can remember, the OAS in Paris in the 1960′s, then Paris again in 1995 when a railway station there was bombed half an hour after I’d been there. As a student, the IRA were regularly murdering people in London and Ireland, there were fascists killing people in Italy with the Bologna station bombing, the Bader Meinhoff Group assassinated their way across Germany, then more recent atrocities in Madrid, London, Paris again, Istanbul repeatedly and now Brussels. Bombings are a futile business and all manner of ‘anti-terrorist’ provisions seem to have little or no effect on the eventual political outcomes, but do waste a lot of time and resources and wreck a lot of people’s lives.

There seem to be a never ending series of conflicts in the Middle East, whether Iran, or Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Syria, Isreal and the Palestinians, Turkey and the Kurds, as one depressing wave of military ineffectiveness follows another and inflicts wounds on generation after generation to further the conficts, yet no concerted effort is ever made to solve the problems. Its a mess. The shabby compromises of European and successive US administrations have achieved nothing over the course of the past forty years.

Perhaps that is what needs to change and the leaders of the Middle East should start being honest about seeking a real settlement to the violence on behalf of the people they claim to represent and lead, rather than bleating platitudes about defeating terrorism.

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Car bomb

The day got off to a start with a bang this morning, as just around the corner at eight o’clock, an explosion destroyed a car and killed the driver as he was driving past the Deutsche Opera on Bismarckstrasse. The Passat was thrown off the road and crashed into a Porsche that was parked on the side of the street. The local media (BZ) say he was known to police with links to the drug and violence milieux.
The traffic tailed back as far as the LuisenPlatz, where Kurt Weill had lived with Lotte Leyna, as he was writing the inimitable music for ‘The Threepenny Opera’. Brecht lived a couple of miles away in the Spichernstr at that time.
There was something incongruous about the exploding car that I couldn’t at first pin down.
Then it came to me.
Mack the Knife would never have been seen driving a Volkswagen Passat. It just isn’t that kind of a marque.

ps The Bismarckstrasse is still closed to traffic and its mid-afternoon.
I do hope the foyer performance at the Opera goes ahead at 18.00.
Saimir Pirgu (tenor) is singing arias from Verdi, Donizetti, Puccini,
Cilea, Richard Strauss, Gounod und Massenet and he’ll also be presenting
his new album of recordings.
Sounds good, and its free.

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German regional elections.

Germany has elections every year, as some of the Federal States go to the polls. These elections determine the regional government and the MinisterPresident in each region becomes a member of the upper house of the German Parliament, the BundesRat, so they are far from insignificant. Elections were held yesterday in three regions, Baden-Wurttemburg (Stuttgart etc), Rheinland-Pfalz (Mainz etc) and Sachsen Anhalt (Magdeburg etc).

The most impressive victor is Malu Dreyer, an SPD politican in Rheinland-Pfalz, who acquits herself well as party leader in the region despite having to combat multiple sclerosis. She managed to buck the ant-SPD trend that is a fairly clear consequence of their ‘no win’ role as junior partner in Merkel’s coalition government and saw off a challenge from the CDU’s Julia Klöckner, who had played the anti-immigrant card by criticising Merkel’s government policy. This kind of background to the elections and the pattern of results overall is disturbing, particular the votes going to the so-called ‘Alternative fuer Deutschland’ (AfD) which was hijacked last summer by hangers on of the far right, jettisoned its founders and shed its image as an orthodox right wing anti-Euro grouping. In Sachsen-Anhalt, the AfD have picked up a quarter of the votes and the neo-Nazi NPD a further three percent, with electoral support in particular from male (29%), working class workers (37%) and the unemployed (38%) – an underwhelming result for anyone who wants to imagine Germany has sucessfully integrated the former East into mainstream Federal culture in the last 25 years.

This brought the election close to being described in the press as a single issue campaign over Merkel’s refugee policy, however the rise of the right has been accompanied by hundreds of attacks on foreigners and refugees’ homes across Germany and we seem to be witnessing the re-emergence of a body of xenophobic intolerance of a kind not seen since the Nazi era of the nineteen thirties, though such parties are already part of the established political scene in France, Austria and Holland, while xenophobia, the anti-democratic right wing politics of resentment and intolerance are government policy in Hungary, Poland, Slovakia and the Czech Republic.

This is all worse news than it appears at first sight. There is a real challenge to the notion of pluralism, to parliamentary democracy and tolerance, indeed the tradition of politics that began with the English Revolition in the seventeenth century, then broadened via US Independence and the French Revolution to create a globally accepted framework of government based on elected parliaments, the separation of chuch and state, independent judiciaries and human rights.

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Shameful, shoddy and cynical – The EU Turkey

The deal between Turkey and the EU, horsetrading over the lives of refugees from the Middle East, is perhaps the most glaring example yet of the European Union’s inept and ill considered political forays into issues that are outside their responsibility and beyond their competence to handle.

Humanitarian support for people displaced by the brutal war in Syria and the wider Middle East conflicts should properly be co-ordinated and given effective support via the United Nations and the whole of the international community, not a dubious group of diplomatically inept figures like Donald Tusk, Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz, or well-meaning interventions by the likes of Germany’s Foreign Minister Frank Walter Steinmeier. The EU has fostered a psychology of political incompetence based on the overwhelming desire for compromise and concensus. When opinions are poles apart, ‘concensus’ is a nonsense and compromise self deception. Sadly the time has come when that tawdry banality must be recognised in practice.

Two members of the EU, France and the UK are permanent members of the UN Security Council. Germany prides itself on its interest in the UN. Why aren’t they using the machinery of the UN to respond to these crisis’. If the UN is no longer sufficiently influential, then they should perhaps be putting their energies into improving its effectiveness. For decades we were told that the UN was inadequate as a result of the Cold War and the east-west divide. A quarter of a century has passed since the end of the Cold War and the UN seems to achieve less than ever before. Steinmeier is one of Germany’s better quality politicians – perhaps his efforts should be aimed toward making the UN work, rather than trying to solve the world’s ills via the back door.

The vulgarity of statements from politicians in the Czech Republic and Slovakia, the repellent rhetoric of anti-Moslem and xenophobia in the EU’s eastern provinces should be countered by UN reactions to their lack of support for basic humanitarian help, which people all over the world have a right to expect.

As for the notion that Turkey should become a trusted partner of the EU, well this is embarrassing. The current Turkish regime are active combatants in the Middle East conflicts and are pursuing a civil war against the Kurds on the streets of their own towns and cities, not to mention their abuses of human rights, imprisoning journalists, curtailing press and media freedom. For decades, Turkey has exploited their NATO membership, from time to time threatening to withdraw, as a pretense for a succession of shoddy regimes to be respected however tawdry their politics.

Even the leader of the ‘puritan’ wing of the German ‘Linke Partei’, Sahra (pronounced Sarah) Wagenknecht declared yesterday that the EU is a failed project and that Merkel has left herself open to blackmail. Support for the EU is burned into the DNA of politicians of every persuasion in Germany and for a leading figure to raise doubts about the EU is a huge step away from the established norm.

The British have a choice in the forthcoming referendum whether to leave this disastrous international mishmash of EU pretension, or to lock themselves into a potentially tragic theatre of political incompetence for generations to come. If the EU is about to tear itself apart, there is a good case to suggest it might be wise to be the first to leave.

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EU – in need of new management?

Late winter 2016 and the EU seems to have entered a phase where a national government would get calls for the Prime Minister to resign and an early election to be arranged. There’s nothing very special about this in a democracy. Spring elections are quite common. The governments get pushed out, a few career politicians lose their place at the table and a new administration takes over. People are replaced, policies take a new course and the business of government goes on, hopefully with a renewed sense of coherence, or at least something the British cutely refer to as a ‘mandate’ from the electorate for them to pursue their policies.

Of course, the EU lacks a framework for this to happen, one of the oh so many oversights of the ‘ever closer union’ factions who have cobbled together a plethora of half baked compromises since the notion of a European Constitution was junked by one country’s electorate after another via referenda. Only a cynic would suggest that ever closer union has meant the French and Germans backing one another whenever they have problems to be exonerated and anyone else, such as Greece, being vilified for the gall of trying to run their own country. The British found that out in the days pre-Euro days when they were forced to bring in the IMF after France and Germany refused to suport the pound within the then European Currency Mechanism. That gave rise to the notion of a ’2 speed Europe’ comprising a select band of core members who would dictate terms to the other the member states.

So the current descent into squabbly manoevres and contradictory statements will probably run on until some-how, or another, some-one, or perhaps some-one else can manage to bring political order out of confusion, but not quite chaos via backroom deals and squalid compromises in the usual Brussels fashion, before presenting them as a pristine set of principled proposals to be welcomed by the chief sychophant at the European Parliament. The usual suspects. Tusk, Schulz and Juncker hardly seem likely to deliver, nor do any of the politicians look set to win the high ground, given that one of the major players, Mrs. Merkel is the source of much that is now in contention and support for her way of thinking through problems is out of fashion among the ultra-nationalists and neo-fascists raising their heads in many countries.

Sadly, the backdrop to the current inconsistencies is the tragic situation of refugees displaced by the Middle East conflicts who are seeking a safe haven in Europe and discovering that the ‘nasty’ parties seem to be gaining a stronger foothold in countries from France and Holland to Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Angela Merkel deserves enormous praise for standing up in support of displaced peoples’ human rights and the support from thousands of volunteers in Germany and the local administrators of Germany’s towns, cities and regions is impressive. The disdainful response articulated by the EU’s east european governments is a disgrace.

A resolution to the impasse over refugees might be expected once Merkel offers countries like Hungary a cash handout, however the underlying inconsistences are not going to disappear. Sadly the growth of intolerant, self-serving and narrow minded politics in a dozen countries does more to reveal the cracks in the EU’s credibility.

If the neo-fascists really are in a position to become a significant player in EU affairs, then the UK would be well out of it and when the referendum comes, that is something voters should bear in mind.

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Cameron, Tusk and the EU

The puzzling thing about Donald Tusk’s European Commission letter to UK Prime Minister David Cameron is why anyone should take it seriously.

To imply that a co-ordinated series of parliamentary votes in a series of national parliaments could become a functioning mechanism to put a brake on EU proposals is as improbable as it is speculative, a notion in the realm of fantasy.
For currencies other than the Euro to be given ‘official’ recognition within the EU framework is little short of meaningless when the German and French central banks are proposing a common treasury within the Eurozone.
As to the remarks about welfare payments and migration within the EU, they are the kind of thing that might be discussed at any time – hardly the stuff of in/out referendum debate.

Yet, imagine the prospect of minor parties coordinating EU ‘red card debates’ on issue after issue and theme after theme in the national parliaments of twenty eight countries.
These ‘rabbit out of the hat’ Tusk proposals seem riddled with unintended consequences in the unlikely circumstances that any of them might actually be adopted. For Cameron and the pro-EU referendum campaigners, they could turn out to be a poisoned chalice.

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BREXIT – narrow nationalism in the EU.

When I left the UK to settle in Germany after the fall of communism, it was on the assumption that a European approach to all kinds of practical and administrative questions would mean that working and running a business would gradually become more or less similar which-ever part of the EU you happened to be considering, that some kind of European identity would arise to smooth the differences between different member states. I had naively assumed that harmonisation of taxes, for example, would be a priority, so that a single set of forms could be used by employers and employees, accountants and business managers where-ever they might by in the EU, with taxes levied according to a single set of tariffs.

What could have been simpler than setting a standard rate of VAT as part of the European Single Market?

What could have been simpler than applying the then existing EU accounting unit, the ECU, to business accounts as well as EU contracts and budgets.

What could have been simpler than ensuring companies and individuals pay the same range of taxes and gain from a comprehensive pan-European framework of incentives and subsidies, rather than dozens of contrasting schemes and thousands of loopholes?

What could have been simpler than creating mechanisms to ensure that the same job was given the same pay throughout Europe, to avoid distortions in the labour market where citizens of one country could be employed on lower rates simply on the basis of nationality. Oh, how the trades unions blew their opportunity to play a constructive role in European affairs.

That kind of ‘harmonisation’, which might have been expected to have emerged after decades of EU policymaking, simply hasn’t happened. What we have instead are provisions and rhetoric, spurious concepts and declarations of rights and principles which only increase the potential for corruption and abuse.

If anything the national approach to running Europe has become more entrenched than ever and the notion of a ‘european identity’ simply doesn’t exist for individuals at an administrative and bureaucratic level. Despite the large number of European programmes, like the Agriculture and Fisheries Policy, like Technical Research, like the regional programme, their pan-European character is consistently undermined by local provisions that negate the criteria on which they are defined.

What greater contrast could there be than the VAT turnover threshold for the self-employed and small businesses, which is €100,000 in the UK, but only €17,500 a year in Germany, a factor of 6:1. What great contract could there be between the special exemptions from energy taxes for high energy using industries in Germany, like steel, or glass-making and the imposition of those taxes in the UK?

Harmonisation, where it has been pursued by the EU has often been a conceptual exercise of definitions and abtractions, rather than applicable tools and provisions for business and services.

Is one of the reasons for this lack of progress that decision-making has been centralised within the various organs of the ‘Council of Ministers’, where clusters of politicians horsetrade for deals they consider to be in their narrow national interests, without any particular regard for the wider impact of their decisions, or the general development of a network of functioning provisions and relationships.

After four decades of British membership, the chances of rectifying these imbalances must be nil and whatever the benefits of living outside the UK, it may well be better to be a foreigner living and working abroad, like any citizen of the USA, Russia, or China, who fetches up in Europe, than being caught in the trap of pseudo-European status. It may be better for British companies in Europe and European companies in the UK, if deals are made within the framework of the World Trade Organisation, rather than the twists and turns of Brussels. It may simply be better to make a clear cut break with the assumption that the European Union signifies any credible framework of identity whatsoever.

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Steel and the EU

Adherence to the mythologies of market forces might convince in a business school classroom, or to derivatives traders and suburban politicians familiar with farmers’ markets, but to anyone involved in a $250billion turnover industry like the nexus of iron ore, coal, bulk transport and steel-making, the lack of a coherent political-economic strategy with the global framework of industrial production and consumption is a twenty first century tragedy.

Miners are shutting up shop. Shipping companies are being bankrupted. Massive long term investment in steel plants are effectively worthless. Hundreds of thousands of people can foresee their careers ending in tatters and the well-being of their families and the communities where they live challenged to little, or no purpose.

This is as much a problem in China, India, Russia and Brazil, as it is for the towns and cities in Western Europe whose industries are being decimated.

Right now, a billet of steel on world markets costs about $160/tonne, which is less than the price of the iron-ore and coal, or gas needed to produce it once transport costs have been factored in. The actual production costs from ore preparation and sintering or pelletising, iron making via a blast furnace, or direct reduction and conversion in a steel furnace are all additional and any notion of a return on capital for investors is mere illusion in current conditions. Fresh investment is equally improbable and that is a terrible signpost for the industry’s future.

Casting a few thousand industrial jobs aside may seem inconsequential for Economic Ministers who can predict new jobs in the sales and marketing of mobile devices, music making and programming ‘apps’. And if the accountants and auditors have already agreed that assets have a negligible worth, then closing companies is financially painless, except for the unlucky few who will realise a loss, a process most
serious investors know how to manage. The steel industry occupies massive tracts of valuable land, which is always an attraction for vulture investors.

Yet, steel plants represent a huge infrastructure commitment and once lost, recreating them on any scale is a daunting and expensive commitment. Steel was the first major industry to digitise, using computers to control production processes when the IT industry meant punched cards, mainframes and tape. That dramatic increase in automation brought huge gains in productivity. Equally, steel probably recycles a larger proportion of material than any industry, apart from glass, and most European plants are no longer based on iron making blastfurnaces, but use electric arcs to melt a mixture of scrap with fresh steel. Even where iron making takes place, integrated steelworks recycle large volumes of scrap generated by their own rolling mills, so in a highly developed region like Europe, steel remains a significant economic factor.

In countries like the UK and Germany, the public perception of the steel industry is linked with the decline in ‘smokestack industries’ and huge job losses, but it is misleading to characterise steel as an industry in decline. However, world steel production has doubled since the year 2000, mainly due to enormous new production capacity in China, but to little purpose. A massive oversupply of metal with prices see-sawing in a dilettantish mockery of market processes has created havoc for coal and ore miners, the bulk shipping industry, iron and steel producers globally and their customers – the stockholders and end users who need and use steel. It is no help to anyone if someone purchasing thousands of tonnes of a product cannot judge whether the market price likely to double or halve between the time of ordering and delivery, or re-sale to end users.

Whether it is wise for Europe to depend on imports of new metal, partly based on exported scrap is an open question.The Ukrainian city of Donetsk is just one major centre of iron-making where conflict threatens destruction. It must be an open question what the future might hold for Turkey’s burgeoning steel industry.

The argument could be made that with seven of the world’s top ten iron ore production centres, Australia should help global development and stop merely exporting iron-ore and build a huge iron and steel production centre, exporting finished, or semi-finished metal in bulk carriers rather than millions of tonnes of rock and coal. With only about 4millions tonnes of steel produced annually, Australia seems to be missing a huge opportunity to supply the global market with a valuable product, rather than simply supplying the regional market.

For British steel, the outlook is less encouraging. Not only have works on Teesside, Scunthorpe, South Wales and elsewhere faced further cuts and closures as the industry’s owners seek to offload their plant to new investors, but the EU’s 2013 Plan for Steel, the first EU strategic overview since the swathing cuts of the Danignon Plan in the 1970′s, anticipates a 30% reduction in European steel production amounting to a cut of 80million tonnes per annum, with a bit of cash for R&D and apprenticeships. This is hardly liekly to build confidence.

The plan is being led by the Italian EU Commissioner Antonio Tajani who is a supporter of Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia, (conveniently renamed as ‘Popolo della Libertà’). For anyone wondering how to vote on the BREXIT referendum, that might be as good a reason as any for you decide which way to vote.

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Britain and the EU – Coal and Steel

This year a referendum is being planned to ask whether the UK should continue its membership of the European Union.

This post is the first of a series to add to the debate:

The European Union can trace its origins to the post-war, European Coal and Steel Community, which was intended as a tool to regulate the European market and provide a framework for industrial development.

Since joining the EU, Britain’s coal industry and most of its steel making capacity have been destroyed.

There is a tendency to focus on the number of jobs lost, but little is made of the enormous waste of investment in plant, machinery and industrial infrastructure this has involved.

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