Friday, 20 October 2017

Back to Brexit

If nothing else is certain, it seems now that both sides in the Brexit negotiations recognise that December is the crunch month. The decisions made by both sides at the end of the year will determine whether we leave with a deal or without one; without one, we then have fifteen months in which to prepare for a life with no transitional trade period with the EU, but richer by £13bn a year. That saving can pay for, amongst many other things, at least twenty new Fisheries Patrol Vessels and their crews.

Like others I have a certain faith in brinkmanship, having seen it in action many times. As public negotiations seem deadlocked and intractable, and as midnight approaches, the quiet private talks that have been going on in the background suddenly produce a deal to which both sides can sign up. So I shall avoid any didacticism until things go past the point of no-return. 

One point about what must be a paragraph-heading in the negotiations - a quid pro quo deal that involves the City, and the UK's exclusive economic marine zone. It has been suggested that in return for continuing to allow the City some advantage - passporting rights or somesuch - that we continue to permit EU fishing boats to harvest fish from UK waters. If we go out with no deal, and prevent EU vessels from fishing in our waters, they will have to pay (under WTO rules) a 30% tariff on any British-caught fish imported, as well as the idle-costs of many thousands of EU fishing boats and their crews who currently depend on UK waters for the greater part of their livelihood. The two issues may not be equal in financial terms, but excluding the EU from UK waters would hit the EU very hard where it hurts - popular perception.  

On the menu for last night's EU dinner was aiglefin fumé - smoked Haddock with a Parmesan mousse on a bed of butternut gnocchi. They'd better make the most of it; without a deal, from 2019 they'll be eating remarkably little Haddock. 

Tuesday, 17 October 2017

Austrian election - Post 3

Emmanuel Macron's reign as the EU's wunderkind did not last long. He's been usurped by a man not only younger than he is, but one dating a girl his own age, rather than being married to his grandmother. And it may well be this small nation that influences EU policy more effectively than Macron.

British papers have picked up on the possibility that Kurz may take Austria into the Vizegrad group, thus forming an internal EU opposition group that runs from the Baltic almost to the Adriatic. They have also mentioned that the last Turkish seige of Vienna in 1683 left the country with a permanent identity as Europe's final barrier against Islam. To a point, Lord Copper. None I've read have mentioned that it was actually the Polish Jan Sobieski who routed the Turkish forces at the gates of Vienna and it was not Austria alone but a Christian alliance that finally turned Islam from Europe's heart.  

Today, Vienna is as well populated with Turkish kebab shops, per capita, as is London. Only here they're 'Kebap' shops, the pitta bread is round and the chilli sauce is bland and mild to suit Austrian palates. Most of Austria's Muslims are either Turks or from the Balkans; westernised, easy to assimilate, invisible after two or three generations. Not so Muslim migrants from Africa, Pakistan or Iraq. Austria's game plan is to assimilate the old migrants and block any more from settling; Saudi funding of mosques and imams is banned here, Salafist teaching forbidden and any segregated Islamist schools, even nurseries, subject to intense State surveillance and monitoring. And now the Burqa is banned. 

It would seem obvious even to the meanest intelligence that Austria, like Poland, Hungary and Slovakia, will refuse to take part in Juncker's mad plan to distribute tens of thousands of African Muslim migrants across Europe from Italy. Austrian tanks and barbed wire at the Brenner pass are symbolic; the little border road we use to go to Tarvisio for fresh market vegetables and a pizza lunch is manned by just a pair of bored guards. This does not, however mean that Austria will formally join the Vizegrad group; the country is proud of being a bit different, and is the EU's only neutral nation one of four neutral EU nations (and therefore not a NATO member). Austria sees itself as more Switzerland than Hungary, and will want to play a role with a foot in both Vizegrad and the Franco-German EU, holding a powerful but variable casting vote. 

The border
  Austria also desires an EU that suits it. A good example is electricity market deregulation. Only in Vienna and environs does one have a choice of power provider. Here 25% Länder-owned power company Kelag has the monopoly - in the face of EU requirements forcing competition - and the same applies in other Länder. As far as Austria is concerned, competition will only be implemented when it is advantageous to do so, not because Brussels says so.* Austria in particular believes state aid is a good thing, that maintaining jobs and the economy is more important than EU edicts. So firms employing over 15 or so people here rarely go suddenly bankrupt; once they've run up a million or so in debt and the banks won't extend, the local council and the province step in, arrange new contracts, commission orders, pump in money on easy terms, guarantee loans and put together asset deals, all utterly unlawful under EU rules but all utterly widespread here. 

Kurz regards these things as internal, matters that should be determined by individual nations and not dictated from Brussels. He is, in this, closer to Jeremy Corbyn than to Theresa May. The rail operator, OeBB, is wholly state owned and services are superb and fares low. There is a popular consensus that approves the economic role of the State and also accepts that it not need be too efficient, as inefficiency means more jobs. Even estate agents are protected here with statutory house-sale fees of 3%, half-each to be paid by buyer and seller. The consequence of this last is that Austria's estate agents are the laziest and poorest quality in Europe. 

There is an expression that one hears time after time in Austria - 'One hand washes the other'. It applies to everything from petty corruption to nepotism, crooked government deals and bribery. I really can't see that changing. Austria is 17th in Transparency International's corruption index, a way away from Switzerland at 5th place.   

Above all this election means that the EU has lost all pretence at being a homogeneous entity. Brussels must now, rather than uniting ever more closely, become even more expert at playing realpolitik with nations determined upon their own national identity, opposed to any further loss of power, and now with enough clout to make life very difficult in Brussels. Poor Herr Juncker. One can hardly begrudge him the cognac bottle for his breakfast this morning.  



*This has the knock-on that Kelag can dictate consumer hardware; instead of a UK style consumer unit costing £60 - £70 one is obliged here to install a locally-designed 'Kärnten verteiler' made by a local company and costing around €1,000. It is the size of a small fridge, made of steel, and weighs 60kg empty. It is called, without any irony, the 'Eco' by makers Schrack.

Monday, 16 October 2017

Austrian election - Post 2

A couple of weeks ago the Burqa ban came into effect in Austria, banning all clothing that covered the face. The first (and so far only) fine issued by the police under the law was to a performer wearing a shark costume whilst promoting the McShark computer chain. Austria's estimated 150 (yes, 150) Burqa wearers stayed indoors. Of course there's no Burqa problem now, say Austrian friends, but look at France, where the Burqa is used as an outward expression of Islamism to say 'FU' to the Fifth Republic. They don't want that to happen here. 


The election has been a single issue business, all about migration. On everything else there's an easy consensus between the parties; Austria is a protectionist, social-democratic republic with a socialist economy and conservative values. This has enabled the conservative OeVP and the socialist SPOe to govern in coalition for most of the years since the war. But it was Germany's stupidity in opening Europe's borders last year that provoked the backlash; until the young Sebastian Kurz took the initiative in co-ordinating the closure of the Serbian migrant route with steel fences, the tsunami of economic migrants all came through Austria, many staying. 

The Austrian Federal government went over the heads of the Länder in dispersing migrants as thinly as possible across the country. They didn't want to create ghettoes in Vienna. Here in my gemeinde we were allocated 74, though fewer than half that number are actually billeted here. The owner of a closed and tired small hotel, last refurbed in the '70s, volunteered his asset to the Vienna government with alacrity. He houses and feeds the migrants twice a day on boiled pasta and rakes in more money than he's made in the past decade. The Afghans shrug off the -20 winter cold and the snow, the Africans shiver in misery under their bedclothes. CAFOD have donated some bicycles (migrants can't drive in Austria) and volunteers now coach ex-Iraqi tank drivers, Afghan helo pilots and Sudanese taxi operators as they wobble uncertainly around the car park like children. 

Muslim migrants in particular have found an immovable cultural barrier. Not only do the valleys tintabulate to the sound of church bells three times a day, not only can you not travel more than 100m without meeting a crucifix or a Marian roadside shrine, only pork and beef can be bought in the shop, and there are no halal foods, but the locals insist on greeting them in public with a cheery smile and "Grüß Gott!". They know damn well that the God being asked to bless them is the Holy Trinity of the Christian Diety and not the sterile Allah of their own death cult. You can see them wince almost imperceptibly at the greeting. They do not respond. 

In dispersing the migrants so widely the Federal government scored a home goal. In those provinces in which most gemeindes had never seen a black face before the dispersal, the SPOe and Green vote has collapsed and the OeVP and FPOe have benefited. The message is very clear; thus far and no further. The migrants here themselves want to leave the rather bleak and isolated Austrian rural areas for German cities, and the Austrian authorities are complicit in turning a blind eye to their leaving; the whole mess was, after all, Germany's fault. In return, Germany is keeping the Austrian border closed - to intercept both migrants and Balkans cigarettes. 

All this has put Sebastian Kurz in the Ballhausplatz. 

I was in the local pub yesterday evening with a couple of young German friends and the place was fairly packed with folk watching the election results. I'd worked out that the full tables in front of us were SPOe until young Katz nudged me to point out an FPOe 'Strache' scarf draped over a chair on the table behind. This is how rural Austria works. There's only one pub, so Labour and UKIP share, and get on politely enough, greeting eachother in the toilet and enquiring about children. They're likely to be related, after all, in an Austria in which extended families have largely stayed in place on the same land their ancestors inhabited centuries ago. And community and cultural identity are always more important than party politics.    

Sunday, 15 October 2017

Austrian election - Post 1

I'm going to spread my reaction to the Austrian election over two or three posts. It really is all far more complex and nuanced that UK commentators are indicating. You'll hear the term 'Nazis' bandied about a lot over the next week, so let's start with that. 

Ulrichsberg, a short drive away, is a small ruined roofless chapel perched on a small peak above the village; on its walls are the regimental plaques of long-gone army units - mostly of the Austrian army as it was absorbed into the German forces after Anschluss. In particular, this was the recruiting ground for the Gebirgsjäger, the mountain warfare troops with the little Edelweiss on their sleeve, the local regiment of which scuppered a much more powerful British force at Narvik and spent the rest of the war in Lapland fighting Russians. Each year the old veterans with their Iron Crosses, their close combat infantry badges and wound badges, all made legal to wear after the war as long as the Swastika was ground off, met for a flag and prayer service of a type familiar all over Europe.


It enjoyed a semi-official approval; each year the Austrian army would lay on vehicles to take the old soldiers up the steep mountain and would maintain the forest track; they would provide a scratch oompah band and a couple of senior officers in uniform, and the local gemeinde would sanction the attendance of the Fire Brigade and use of local resources. All was well until a journalist identified ex-members of the Waffen SS (the ones who fought, but hardly honourably, rather than the ones who operated the extermination camps). Of course there was a stink, the army was ordered to withdraw help, the gemeinde said 'nothing to do with us, guv' and for the past two years the old boys have met in a tent down in the village - unable to get up to their ruined chapel. It was an official move to suffocate the thing - though long known about and tolerated - because of bad publicity. A very Austrian reaction - they are great hiders of unpleasant things.

The point is that these old boys are people's fathers, grandfathers and great-grandfathers, loved and esteemed family members, who were conscripted into the Reich's forces and like soldiers everywhere who have fought, remembered this as the most intensely lived part of their lives. If they shared anything, it was a rather old fashioned belief in service, obedience, discipline, comradeship, self-sacrifice, domestic economy and a loyalty to their family, clan and province. Values still prevalent here in homes of all political persuasions.


In a simplistic Twitter world the shorthand for this sort of treffen is a 'Nazi Rally'. When an FPOe politician said recently that Austrians who served in the Reich forces should stop being ashamed of it, he of course raised a 'Nazi Spectre' storm from Der Spiegel to Guardian Towers. The reality is really far more nuanced than that. We'll hear a lot about Austrian Nazis over the next week.  
 
Values often skip a generation or two. So it seems sometimes with the Millennials, who can seem priggish, over-serious, politically unrealistic and far, far too didactic to we boozy, bloated, fortunate Gen-Xers. Ulrichsberg too was attractive to the old and the young, to the veterans and to their grandchildren and great grandchildren. It's about tradition and culture rather than fascist values, as far as I can see. I could be wrong, but I can see little evil in it. This lieder has had over a million views on You Tube - is it a fascist anthem or a folk song?



Saturday, 14 October 2017

Eight things to do with a whiteboard ......

The further I get from all the corporate crap, only some of which I pretended to understand in the wind-down year before I took the early bath, the more I wonder why there are people who still take it all so seriously. The risible idiocies coming through my professional body have now surely degenerated into self-parody; surely to God, no-one believes this to be serious?

What next? "Using snazzy sounds and transitions in Powerpoint to give evidence at the Construction Court - how to impress!"

I recall I once shared a complex but very plain spreadsheet with a director who gazed at it unmoved. The following week I resubmitted it to his PA with all the cells coloured in and a 48pt header 'Risk Management Dashboard'. He loved it. After that I found that calling anything a 'dashboard' was an instant way of engaging his attention, until 'agile' came along - when everything had to be 'agile'. Well, I was bloody agile at that point. By about a thousand miles.

Friday, 13 October 2017

Shengen isn't working ... broken by smuggled cigarettes?

Friends of mine here in Austria have recently made a couple of trips back to the UK by road, distributing stuff between their two homes. Both times they've been stopped at the border and inspected by the German Finance Police (like the Inland Revenue but in uniform, with pistols). Not looking for Jihadists, Sudanese migrants, Serbian surplus weapons but for cigarettes and tobacco. 

Germany has announced that she will keep her borders closed. So will Denmark, France and Austria, not to mention Hungary and Slovenia. The pretence is terrorism; the reality, I think, almost certainly includes smuggled tobacco products.

Austria is a nation of heavy smokers, and the legal price of ciggies at about €4.50 a pack keeps it that way; bars are mostly smoking-friendly, with only a ban coming next year for food and fags in the same room. It does my heart good to walk into a thick comforting fug of eye-stinging tobacco smoke down the hill at my local gasthaus - keeping alive the memory of pre-2006 Britain. It's not that the Austrian government, under strong pressure from the EU, doesn't want to increase tax on fags; it can't. The proximity of the eastern EU border, with fags coming in from Ukraine at €1.50 a pack, means any tax increase on legal fags will actually lower revenue. Poland's the same, as is Hungary.  Only the UK and Ireland, far from eastern Europe, can increase tobacco duty indefinitely.

So as the Shengen area border posts are reappearing and traffic queues that were recently just a distant memory are now returning on national borders, the nations of Europe are striving to stem the haemorrhage of tax eastwards and halt the tsunami of Chinese and eastern European fags flooding in. 

The prospect makes me chuckle that it's Europe's smokers who may be the final straw that broke Shengen. Now that would be sweet revenge ...  

Thursday, 12 October 2017

The war with the New Left is a fight for Enlightenment values

Following my Atlantic Charter piece below, two slightly unlikely mainstream voices have joined pleas for us to respect these most basic values. Most coherent is Allister Heath in the Telegraph, who recognises the same threat;
Contemporary “liberals” – the dominant group in the civil service, academia, the cultural industries and among young, highly educated urbanites – have all too often become born-again authoritarians.....Forget about democracy, people power and autonomy: the New Left loves authority, elite rule and cultural warfare.
I've commented before on the declining commitment of the young to democracy - of great concern, because even our most fundamental democratic safeguards of universal suffrage and the secret ballot are under attack from the New Left, who favour authoritarian rule by 'experts' i.e. them, for our own good. Big State centralist authoritarianism is something I've fought against my entire life, and just when I thought we were winning we face a new cohort of slavemasters. If you can, please read Allister's piece - it really is worth it.

The second and most unlikely voice is that of Owen Jones in the Guardian - yes, he whom I characterised as whining "The wrong people are using democracy!" after the Brexit vote. In an entirely unexpected piece he writes
I have little truck with pro-independence movements unless a nation is oppressed, like those subjugated by Europe’s former great powers – and Catalonia is not. Supporting Catalonia’s right to divorce does not mean endorsing it. But when democracy comes under attack anywhere, it is our collective responsibility to show solidarity.
Well, well.  

Incidentally, anyone after Quentin Letts' new book 'Patronising Bastards' will find Blackwell selling direct on eBay for £11.99 - the cheapest I've found, unless you know different ...