Feb 232013

I know it shouldn’t any more – but what people say, the words they use and the underlying assumptions such words reveal still has the power to shock me.

Britain’s most senior Roman Catholic, for example, has this to say of the future nature of the priesthood:

“It is a free world and I realise that many priests have found it very difficult to cope with celibacy as they lived out their priesthood and felt the need of a companion, of a woman, to whom they could get married and raise a family of their own.”

I notice two things here – both of which serve to shock me.  Firstly, the reassuring reminder that it’s women these free spirits are looking for as companions.  Secondly, that it’s a free world Cardinal O’Brien is observing.

Amazing, isn’t it?  And there was I, thinking the real problem has been a not insignificant number of priests who – through the decades – have demonstrated how they’ve wanted anything but the onerous obligations of marriage and family, when engaging in the perverse delights of illicit flesh.

These words are almost as revealing as the following comments on the poor.  Again, we get a representative of the powers-that-be uncovering their most primitive prejudices:

Germany’s development minister has suggested food tainted with horsemeat should be distributed to the poor.

Dirk Niebel said he supported the proposal by a member of the governing CDU party, and concluded: “We can’t just throw away good food.”

A German church concurs:

[...] Prelate Bernhard Felmberg, the senior representative of the Evangelical Church in Germany (EKD), has backed the proposal.

“We as a Church find the throw-away mentality in our society concerning. How and whether to distribute the products in question would have to be examined,” the priest said.

“But to throw away food that could be consumed without risk is equally bad as false labelling and cannot be a solution.”

Quite.  No solution at all.

So how about, instead, we serve it up for as long as it lasts to all those politicians, church representatives and other moneyed members of society who believe, in their innermost sanctums, that the poor are truly deserving – but only of the crumbs from the high tables that clearly plague us?

This is verily beyond the palest of pales.  If the poor are deserving right now of receiving “tainted” beef, if – as the German development minister argues – “unfortunately there are people [in Germany] for whom it is financially tight, even for food [...]“, then these very same disadvantaged were also just as deserving before recent events took their sorry course.

That the powerful now argue the poor have suddenly become deserving of our charity, and at exactly the same time that metric tonnes of mislabelled horsemeat need to be summarily shifted, is a rank duplicity of the very worst sort.  One hardly needs to be an expert in stratospheric spin to understand that heavy business interests will be pulling in all sorts of favours from their meek and puppet-mastered politicians, as someone tries to salvage as much resource as possible from the disaster.  And what better way than make the poor pay for their poverty?

What better way than via taxpayer-funded graft?

We’re back, I fear, to those prejudiced Tories of yore – for they’re all the same, whatever political allegiances they pointedly profess – who are always trying to slap taxes on plebeian caravans, Cornish pasties and grannies.

We’re back, in fact, to those very plebeian sausage rolls.

Money buys everything.

It just doesn’t buy it for everyone.

Now does it?

Sep 062012

The Black Triangle campaign sent me a couple of links via Twitter this morning.  One in particular attracted my attention.  It described the concept of “emanation of the state”:

Emanation of the state is a term used in European law to describe any body which provides a public service under the control of government. The term was defined by the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in Foster, A and others v. British Gas plc.[1][2] The ECJ’s ruling defines the term as:

A body, whatever its legal form, which has been made responsible, pursuant to a measure adopted by the state, for providing a public service under the control of the state and has for that purpose special powers beyond that which result from the normal rules applicable in relations between individuals.

The term is most obviously used to describe public sector employers, such as the police, fire service, local government bodies or schools.

To date, then, I suppose “emanation of the state” has been used to tie differing public institutions into the umbrella of accountability – that is to say, our political leaders and democratically-elected representatives – which we vote for at general elections.  But what happens when we get a government which suggests that all our public services should be implemented via private-sector contracts?

This is what I suggested on the 30th of August:

It seems to me that, more and more, supposedly democratically-elected governments are getting the dirty work of less than transparent policy-making carried out on their behalf by private industry.  This is, in a sense, a strategy of de facto governance where democracy is absented from the process.  It works in the following way: in exchange for negative publicity which, in any case, legions of legal departments can generally vanish into relative thin air, private industries of transnational sizes are awarded humongous public-sector contracts.  And as this is a business-to-business relationship – thick-skinned government to hard-sold corporate – public opinion is pretty irrelevant to either party.  A perfect way of removing the need for approval from irritatingly well-informed and tech-savvy end-consumers, who were in any case beginning to make the business of corporate capitalism so very complicated and unpredictable.

Instead of selling to end-users who pick and choose, the most foresighted corporations are now choosing to focus their attentions on governments which – for various untransparent reasons – prefer to pick and stick.

The corporates get stability in long-term contracts despite the voter flak.  The governments get to blame the corporates if anything too unpleasant comes to light.

A perfect exchange of complementary interests.

Black Triangle, however, goes much further than that – as a reading of this page would indicate:

Don’t worry! They’re both as culpable in these crimes as each other and they’re both in our sites equally!

The atrocities committed by one do not mitigate for the atrocities perpetrated by the other!

An article published yesterday in the Guardian, meanwhile, picks up on the flak-catcher idea I essayed a week ago – but, as per Black Triangle’s own thesis, goes further than my own cautious instincts in a first instance allowed me to.

And the only conclusion we can come to – if we care to properly understand the concepts to hand – is that European law would seem to be much clearer on the matter than any of our politicians to date: where governments employ private-sector figures such as transnational companies and institutions, those very same governments – the ones we voted for – continue to be directly responsible for the acts of their “emanations”.

That is to say, both responsible for and – where it is the case – to blame.

I suppose it’s the same principle as when you buy a consumer durable – which then becomes faulty – from a shop in the High Street.  No longer do we need to recur to a distant anonymous manufacturer – it is to the faces and people who sold us the object in the first place we have every right to take our complaint.

This, of course, is at it should be.  But I wonder how many of the Lansleys, Hunts, Camerons and Osbornes of the world are aware we can blame them as directly for the downsides of their tendering and outsourcing policies as we ever could in the supposedly bad old days when everyone was a public-sector employee?

Or do they actually know it all too well – and are currently trying to pull the Tory wool over a very naive public’s eyes?

Is that what’s really going on here?

Apr 262012

I am mightily confused by what I’ve just seen missed.  I installed the European Union’s Facebook chat app as per my previous post, and waited for something to happen.  I did this at 13.30 BST, because I’d understood from previous information that the chat was timed for 14.30 CET.  Nothing happened at 13.30 BST – so I waited till the following hour came round at 14.30 BST.  This time the chat was working (Facebook access required), and as I scrolled down the already 300 comments, most of which obviously hadn’t been answered, I readied my observations and questions to be launched into the maelstrom of what seemed like generally unhappy people.

This is what I would have said, had the chat lasted the scheduled hour and I’d had a chance to make my eurovoice heard:

  1. in the negotiation of ACTA, process has been obscure, flawed and anti-democratic since the start;
  2. discussion is OK, listening  is better, consultation is very good – but best of all is involvement from the outset;
  3. the real question for me is not whether we can sort out what was originally an offline problem of counterfeiting and piracy – and which will continue to exist even if the Internet is effectively shut down – but, rather, whether the Internet in the future is to be a public municipal space of the voters or an evermore commercially-oriented private space of public use;

If ACTA and its unhappy sons and daughters are to gain any kind of democratic approval, they need to show they are aware of the implications of all the above and are able to rectify properly the manifest failures committed to date, before – and not after, at some specious “next time round” – the European Parliament consents to passing the treaty.

Which is to say process must be clear; real public involvement must exist from the beginning; and the virtual commons we are proposing must start from the idea of a municipality of empowered and communicating citizens – a public space, that is, instead of a base tool to help a particular kind of capitalism (a model which, incidentally, has demonstrably failed us) gain further footholds in modern commerce.

This, meanwhile, is what Mr Schulz had to say on the subject of that selfsame process and ACTA’s transparency.  To this question …

Good afternoon Mr. President. How can I trust politicians when I have to learn about the ACTA agreement thru WIKILEAKS ?

… he answered thus:

[...] Trust me, the whole debate in the EP was completely open during the whole process. And the necessary steps to make it public and transparent was made by the European Parliament. Wiki leaks may also have played a role.

Was the debate really as open as it should’ve been?  Really?

Are we really trying to say this wasn’t set up as a rubber-stamping operation, where individual sovereign parliaments were picked off one by one in order to create an overwhelming momentum?  A momentum, what’s more, which was finally, and perhaps surprisingly, stopped in its tracks by over two million citizens’ signatures conveying a massive message of democratic resistance to secret treaty-making anywhere and everywhere.

This, after all, is ultimately all about people’s access to 21st century utilities – the basic tools we need to live in modern life.

My last observation then?  Follow Bill Gates’s advice: sort out the real world first before you multiply it up into the virtual.

ACTA doesn’t do that at all.

Democracy requires that it must.

And we, as voters and participants in that democracy, need people like Mr Schulz to say far more interesting things about the importance of democratic engagement and the virtual commons than he has managed to let out of the bag today.

Apr 232012

Here’s a fascinating press release and invite which has just dropped into my inbox.  Needless to say, I shall be attending.

It’s from the press office of Martin Schulz, President of the European Parliament.

Live chat on Facebook on ACTA on Thursday 26 April at 14:30 CET

The President of the European Parliament Martin Schulz will participate in a Web Chat about the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) on Thursday 26 April from 14:30- 15:30 CET. The chat will take place on the Facebook page of the European Parliament (see link below).

Ahead of the chat, EP President Schulz said:

“I want the debate on ACTA to be open and transparent. Citizens’ opinions and concerns have to be listened to when taking decisions on issues affecting their daily lives.

Decisions taken behind closed doors do not contribute to regaining people’s trust in the EU. The European Parliament takes seriously citizens’ participation in the debate. The almost 2.5 million signatures in the petition we received on ACTA is a very welcome sign of involvement and interest.”

As the note to Editors points out, without the European Parliament’s consent ACTA cannot be passed, so engaging with it as productively as we can manage to would seem to be the least we can do.

I’m not sure if this chat is by invite only – or whether as invitees we can invite others.  I did try to do the latter just now but the system didn’t seem to want to let me.

Anyhow, here’s the link to the Facebook app mentioned above which is needed in order for one to be able to participate in European Parliament chats.


If you are able to join the chat, please do let me know beforehand on twitter.com/eiohel or facebook.com/miljenko.  Or, alternatively, simply send me an email on mil@pobox.com.  I’d be interested in comparing notes and information prior to attempting to ask any questions.

Finally, the EU has a dedicated site on ACTA and the issues surrounding it.  Again, worth your time as it underlines some of what the press release states, as well as signposting what’s at stake with what we can only argue is a long awaited clarity:

The Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) has proved to be controversial ever since it was first proposed. The agreement is aimed at more effectively enforcing intellectual property rights on an international level. Many developed countries worry that their economies suffer great damage due to counterfeiting and piracy. However, opponents are concerned that it will favour large companies’ interests at the expense of citizens’ rights.

Its fate now lies in the hands of the European Parliament as without its consent ACTA will not be able to enter into force in the European Union. The European Commission announced on  22 February 2012 that it will refer ACTA to the European Court of Justice for a ruling on the agreement. Parliament will wait for the Court’s ruling before drawing any conclusions. However, in the meantime it will continue its own scrutiny of the agreement. Here you will find everything you need to know about ACTA and how the Parliament will come to a decision. It will contain the latest updates, details on how and when to follow committee meetings covering ACTA on the Parliamentary website, as well as useful links to relevant documents.


Apr 142012

Here’s something which really does deserve your attention.  It’s an opinion survey for the European Commission on the subject of the approaching “Internet of Things” (IoT).  If you thought mixing the real and virtual worlds was already getting messy, you’ve seen absolutely nothing yet.  I reproduce their preamble below (the bold is mine):

The Internet of today offers access to content and information through connectivity to web pages and to multiple terminals (e.g., mobiles, TV). The next evolution will make it possible to access information related to our physical environment, through a generalised connectivity of everyday objects. A car may be able to report the status of its various subsystems using communicating embedded sensors for remote diagnosis and maintenance; home information about the status of the doors, shutters, and content of the fridge may be delivered to distant smart phones; personal devices may deliver to a central location the latest status of healthcare information of remotely cared patients; environmental data may be collected and processed globally for real time decision making.

Access to information relating to our surrounding environment is made possible through communicating objects able to interact with that environment and react to events. This makes possible new classes of applications such as smart homes with automated systems to monitor many aspects of daily living, smart grids and intelligent energy management, smart mobility with better control of traffic, or smart logistics with the integrated control of all processes in the entire distribution chain. There are endless examples of this evolution of networked devices, also known as the Internet of Things (IoT).

The Internet of Things holds the promise of significant progress in addressing global and societal challenges and to improve daily life. It is also a highly promising economic sector for sustainability, growth, innovation and employment. But it is likely to have a profound impact on society, in areas like privacy, security, ethics, and liability. The policy challenge is to assess the right trade-off between the potential economic and societal benefits and the control that we want to retain over an environment where machines will gather, exchange, process and store information automatically. The effects on our private and public space require that people and their governments debate the appropriate governance and management of the Internet of Things in the future. To this end the European Commission envisions a recommendation addressing the main issues, of which a number are outlined in the questions below.

The purpose of this consultation is to solicit the views of a wide range of stakeholders and the public at large.

This is going to be a key moment in how our future worlds – both real and online – develop.  The lines are not simply going to get blurred – they will actually disappear.  The drive to make more money out of such technologies really does require a firm cross-party alliance of those who believe privacy is still worth defending as a concept and societal good.  As Paul Bernal concludes in his interesting analysis on how our political parties are internally conflicted on the matter:

I’d like to think that all this is possible – that we can harness the ‘good’ side of each of the parties, and not let ourselves be railroaded into something that, ultimately, I don’t think that many people, whatever their political persuasion, either want or believe that we really need. The politics of privacy are complex – one of the things that I have found particularly refreshing since I started working in the field is that is can unite people with otherwise very different political perspectives. Let’s hope that we can unite in this way successfully this time.

And let’s hope that the European Commission gets it right this time – especially after their dismal behaviours around ACTA recently.

Dec 092011

Being pro-European is like being pro-life – who could possibly be against it?  The devil, of course, is in the detail of implementation.

That’s the bind we’re in.  And whether we know a lot about the subject from a technical point of view or not (I don’t), we all feel we have the right to express an opinion on the matter because that’s what being part of a democracy is all about.  Even if, in reality, we don’t know what we’re talking about.

Now perceptions is a different matter.  And there we can express ourselves.  Most of us here in England would I imagine perceive the European Union as an overgrown bureaucracy which serves itself instead of the people.  And so – as with pro-lifers – those who declare themselves pro-Europeans back everyone into a corner: you either agree with this version of Europe or you declaim yourself against any version of Europe.  In which case, logically speaking, you must be against the very ideal of the Continent itself.

I’m not much of a fan of the self-styled anti-Europeans but I do think they should take a definite leaf out of the pro-lifers’ book – and begin to describe themselves as real pro-Europeans where this implies a full recognition of the importance of diversity over homogeneity and plurality over corporatism.  It might lead to analogous distortions, I know.  On the other hand, nothing good ever really came out of being against something.

Nor ever will. 

There is, of course, one tiny little problem.  If those very same anti-Europeans, who I suggest might cleverly restyle themselves pro- instead of anti-, are actually in the pockets of the City’s wheelers and dealers (that is to say, they have given up the principles of parliamentary sovereignty for capitalist cronyism), who is there actually left on the political horizon able to put forward a different point of view from the two that currently do battle on our bankrupt stages of foolhardy reasoning?

Anyone care to take up the mantle of this true Europeanism I talk about?

Or have we all – at some unhappy stage or another – been finally bought off and ultimately silenced?

Jun 252011

Those demanding that we have a referendum on the European Union are playing the shock-and-awe card once again.  This from the Sun today:

All the PM has to do now is give us that referendum on Europe he promised and we can all tell Brussels where to get off.

They seriously forget the lessons of the 19th and 20th centuries, where Europe was a battlefield of envy and hubris.  They think, as many of us did in Iraq, that anything has to be better than the situation as it stands.  But you can’t dismantle successfully without having a plan for reconstruction in place before you start.  If we have learnt anything from recent history, this is surely the lesson which stands out the most.

And if those who propose dismantling without prevision believe – for whatever reason – that international commerce and private bureaucracies, all of a self-interested kind, can automagically bind together nation states in a way that they might argue state bureaucracies have not, they really should think again.  I suspect that there is as much waste in the private sector as in the public: the only real difference being that it doesn’t see the public light of day – not only because workforces are bound by confidentiality agreements not to reveal it but also because the principles of democracy are generally reserved only for the poor.

Just remember the trillions of pounds which the public sector has had to pump into the private financial services industry – and you’ll remember exactly what I mean.

Self-interest leads to war, sooner or later.

Which is why I fear a shock-and-awe request for an EU referendum of the type we have seen today will, some day, in some way, not far down the line, lead to the kind of conflicts we really thought Europe had managed to learn how to avoid.

If we don’t want real war on the battlefields, with all its tragic spilling of blood, we must acquire the ability to accept and tolerate its figurative equivalent in the debating chambers across the Continent – as well as understand why we need to pay for it to the extent that we are being asked.

Nov 242010

The Twitter Joke Trial indicates how powerful words still are in a society long – and heavily – influenced by the image.  Another story this morning confirms much the same:

A British member of the European parliament was thrown out of a debate on Wednesday, after quoting Nazi slogans in German in the chamber.

‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Fuehrer (One People, One Kingdom, One Fuehrer),’ said Godfrey Bloom from the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), which wants Britain’s exit from the EU.

To be honest, I think the phrase in question can also be translated as “One people, one nation, one leader” – which, for the emotionless Anglo-Saxons amongst us, may hardly seem – at that dispassionately neutral and entirely semantic level we may choose to inhabit – to make it worthy of any considerable discussion.  What’s more, those of us who find ourselves here in Britain choosing to be utterly unaware of historical precedent, suffering as we currently are at the hands of an awful two-headed Coalition government, might respond by saying: “Yes please, a bit of that would come in very handy right now!”  If only we could build the foundations of a cohesive society with a clear-sighted government that cared to understand the importance of truly being in this all together …

Intentionality cannot be excised, however, from the plain and simple meaning that words enshrine.  And the MEP in question clearly intended to reference the supporters of Nazi Germany and, by implication, their dreadful legacy.

Not good stuff to be happening at the heart of European integration.

But then words are like that: the baggage they contain is both highly personal and inexactly shared.  Which is what makes writing such a beautifully hit-and-miss affair.  And what makes politics such a dangerous and demagogic matter.