Friday, 28 August 2009

Road Trip Up North

I'm off to the North of England for the next week, doing a road trip with two American friends to further our knowledge of this crazy place we live in. I've wanted to do this road trip forever, as the North was the big gap in my visitation of Britain. I've been to most places in Southeast England, Wales and Scotland - but never to the North.

We're starting in Manchester, taking a train up there tonight. We'll spend all day tomorrow in Mancs before renting the car on Sunday and spending the day in Liverpool. We'll then drive to Leeds where we'll spend Sunday night, before heading out to do Yorkshire on Monday, taking in Harrogate and York (the old one). Tuesday we're going to do some Yorkshire castles and then head up to the North York Moors. We'll then drive up to Northumbria and spend Tuesday night in Durham, and then on Wednesday we'll head up to the ruins of Hadrian's Wall, the ancient dividing line between Roman Britain and the great Celtic beyond (later the border between England and Scotland). We'll finish out the day in Newcastle before taking a train back to London that night.

It should be interesting, I'm looking forward to seeing both the gritty industrial Northwest as well as the bucolic moors and dales of the Northeast. I'm also looking forward to hearing all the crazy accents they have up there - we'll be hearing Scouse in Liverpool, Manc in Manchester, Tyke in Yorkshire, Teesside in Middleborough, Pitmatic in Durham and Geordie in Newcastle. It's incredible that such a small area could have so many different accents - we're travelling less than 300 miles! Just goes to show how incredibly different the UK is from the US in terms of accents.

If anyone will be in any of these cities while I am let me know!

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Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Libya and the Devolution Discord

Over the past few days Brits have been approaching me in hushed, frightened voices to ask the question that seems to be occupying everyone’s minds here right now – “Are they really going to boycott us?”

It would seem everyone is terrified of ending up like France, which was on the receiving end of a notorious boycott campaign (not to mention the renaming of “freedom fries” and “freedom toast”) when they refused to participate in the Iraq war in 2003. But beyond the fact that the 2003 France boycott was actually not economically significant in the slightest, I can assure you that the level of anger in the US about the premature release of the Lockerbie bomber isn’t anywhere near the height of vitriol against France in the run-up to Iraq. Still, the anger is real, and the incident has really gone a long way to illustrate the very deep gulf that exists between Americans and Brits on issues of criminal justice and punishment.

People here in the UK have tended to have mixed opinions about the decision to release the only person convicted of the 1988 Lockerbie airplane bombing, with most people I know defending the decision to release of Abdelbaset Ali Mohmed Al Megrahi on compassionate grounds - because he is suffering from terminal cancer and has three months to live. My Scottish friends in particular have been insisting that Scottish law has a long tradition of compassion, and that it shows how civilized they are as a society that they would let him go. But you’d be hard pressed to find one person in the US who agrees with this analysis. They are, quite frankly, enraged. Most Americans probably don’t understand why he’s even still alive at all (Texas would have killed him 6 times over by now). Even Chuck Schumer, one of the most liberal members of the US senate, was railing against the decision on Meet the Press on Sunday, calling it a "disgrace".

I must confess maybe it’s the American in me, but I also find myself perplexed by this decision by Scottish Justice Minister Kenny MacAskill. Megrahi was given a life sentence, not a ‘life sentence unless you get sick’. Even if MacAskill felt that it would be cruel to make the convicted terrorist die in prison, surely there was a hospice or hospital in Scotland he could have been taken to. Why on earth did he have to be taken to Libya?

As with most big decisions, you know there’s got to be some more complicated factors at work here. I have no doubt that MacAskill probably genuinely believes it would have been cruel to allow Megrahi to die in prison, but the fact is this probably has more to do with two larger issues – Scottish nationalism and Britain’s diplomatic relations with Libya.

Devolution D'oh!

Yesterday the BBC24 presenters were speaking with a Time Magazine reporter in Washington about the threats of boycotts against the UK, and one of them asked her in seeming expasperation something like, ‘Surely the Americans realise that this is the Scottish government taking this decision, not the UK.’ The Time reporter seemed a bit bemused (or maybe actually confused) by the question. Brace yourselves for a shock, but most Americans aren’t too versed in the latest news on Scottish devolution – which, after all, is a recent development.

So for my American readers – a bit of backstory. Scotland is obviously part of the United Kingdom, but through a kind of curious accident of history it has always been a separate entity from England and Wales, with its own separate civic institutions – most notably its legal system. The Act of Union in 1707 shut down the separate Scottish parliament and merged it with that of England, but Scotland’s separate institutions persisted. In the early 20th century there were calls for Scotland to be granted home rule along with Ireland, but in the end it didn’t get its own parliament again until 1997, when Labour leader Tony Blair campaigned with a promise to give Scotland a semi-autonomous status through a system known as devolution. Wales and Northern Ireland were eventually also given their own parliaments through devolution, though they have considerably less independence than Scotland. Devolution has led to the bizarre situation today where every ‘country’ of the UK has local parliaments except England (effectively giving every Scottish, Welsh and Irish UK citizen double the representation of any English citizen).

So who is this Kenny MacAskill, and why is Gordon Brown claiming the British government has no control over what he does? MacAskill is a member of the Scottish National Party, which advocates for the complete secession of Scotland from the UK. The SNP was elected into a majority in the Scottish Parliament (known as ‘Holyrood’) in 2007 – an election result largely seen as a rebuke to New Labour. Therefor all the Scottish ministers are now SNP members - beyond the control of the Labour government in London. The comparable US analogy would be if Texas were to be granted semi-autonomous powers and was not subject to the final authority of Washington. The ‘Texas Independence Party’ could then be elected there and make decisions (in some areas) that Washington would have no control over. In Scotland, law is one of those areas.

(it should be noted that the centre-left Scottish National Party should not be confused with the far-right British National Party, which bans membership for nonwhites and won two seats in the European Parliament in the British Euroelection in June).

In theory, areas of foreign policy and diplomatic relations shouldn’t be at all under the authority of the Scottish government. But in this particular case the area of law had a huge impact on foreign relations, something Labour perhaps didn’t anticipate when they set this up in 1997. Washington sees this as a UK decision, and Gordon Brown’s silence on the issue has been seen as, if not callous, downright incompetent. Yet in actuality, because of devolution, there was nothing Brown could have done about it.

Back Room Deal?

Of course, that’s just one way of looking at it. But there is a much more nefarious theory making the rounds in the US – that the release was part of a secret deal to secure lucrative business contracts with Libya. Only time will tell if that allegation is true, but at the very least it is certain that the detention of Megrahi was a festering sore in relations between Libya and the UK.

The fact is, the majority of people and governments in the Middle East and North Africa believe Megrahi is innocent. Megrahi himself has all along insisted on his own innocence, and his conviction for the terrorist act was both controversial and razor thin. His co-accused was found not guilty, and the evidence against Megrahi was anything but airtight. He was in the middle of a long process appealing the decision when he was released last week. You’d be hard pressed to find any Libyan who thinks he’s actually guilty, and most have viewed him as a political prisoner. It is feasible to believe that there are those in the Libyan political and business community who were refusing to do serious business with the UK until the Megrahi question was settled, particularly as he is so popular in his home country.

Many British people share this view. In fact a number of the Lockerbie victims’ families believe Megrahi is innocent, saying theyblieve that the US and UK governments railroaded through a false conviction in 2002 out of embarrassment at not being able to figure out who was really responsible. Many in Scotland are defending MacAskill’s decision on the basis of their belief that Megrahi is “probably innocent” and therefore doesn’t deserve to die in prison.

Of course if he is indeed innocent, the appeals process is the appropriate venue to prove that case. MacAskill’s decision not only leaves open the question of who actually perpetrated the Lockerbie bombing, it also appears to circumvent the proper exercise of justice.

It’s a mess all around, and now there is even speculation that the controversy could bring down the SNP government. An emergency session of the Scottish Parliament was called yesterday, bringing MSPs back from their summer recess early, so that members could demand that MacAskill explain his actions. He and his fellow party members were defiant, couching the decision in 'Scottish values' and appearing to hope that by presenting this as an ‘us versus them’ question of Celts versus the Anglo-Saxon English and Americans, they can stave off a revolt that would bring down their government. But considering their majority technically rests on just one seat, this strategy may not work. One thing’s for sure, it’s going to be an interesting week in Edinburgh.

Monday, 24 August 2009

Can the British be taught to love Europe?

Dominic Brett with the Commission’s London representation office alerted me today to a Eurobarometre study released in July that I hadn’t noticed – surveying the British public’s knowledge of and attitude toward the EU. As Brett notes in today’s E! Sharpweb special, they survey results go a long way in disproving the Eurosceptics’ long-standing denial that it is ignorance which makes the British public dislikes the EU rather than an actual reasoned and thought-out objection. It’s always nice when the raw numbers back up what can be clearly observed anecdotally.

The results, in which 83% of Britons surveyed said they knew “little or nothing” about the EU, were actually interpreted quite optimistically by Brett. He argues in his column today that even if the EU as a concept attracts such animosity in Britain, most of what it actually does meets public approval. He says getting the British public to be more positive toward the EU would just be a simple task of educating people on what it does. Considering that I recently learned that the British education system doesn’t teach pupils anything about the EU system which governs them, perhaps primary school would be the place to start such an outreach.

Friday, 21 August 2009

Don't be so Shocked, Europe - US Healthfight similiar to EU Debate

You could call it a rude awakening. Over the past few weeks Europeans have reacted with shock and incredulity as they’ve watched the “debate” over US healthcare reform unfold across the pond. How could it be, they’ve asked me in tones of sheer exasperation, that even in the face of a healthcare crisis Americans could be so credulous as to believe the outlandish lies being spread about Obama’s healthcare reform effort. Death panels? Enemy lists? Nazi euthanasia? How, they’ve asked, could anyone be so stupid?

I haven’t had a good answer to give them, except that this is the cold hard reality of the place American politics has found itself in today. As I’ve written about before, many Europeans were lulled into a premature sense of relief when Barack Obama was elected in November. But while the head may have changed, the body remains the same – this is the same American public that elected George W. Bush twice. The combination of powerful vested interests in Washington, a strong right-wing media that dominates civic discourse, and a population that is, let’s face it, rather uninformed, mean that Barack Obama has his work cut out for him if he wants to effect real change. Getting elected was just the first step.

The mobs that have turned up to congressional town halls to shout down any discussion of healthcare reform, waving placards of Obama with a Hitler moustache and screaming about his “Nazi policies”, aren’t actually concerned about healthcare. This is about something much bigger, a general right-wing paranoia and militarism that tends to arise every time a progressive Democratic president is elected. It happened in the 1960’s culminating in a wave of political assassinations, it happened in the 1990’s culminating in the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma city by right-wing fanatic Timothy McVeigh, and it’s happening again now. Progressive Democratic presidents scare the bejesus out of the right-wing fringe inspiring hysteria and violence (although why this didn’t happen with Carter I don’t know, any ideas?).

What’s different this time around is that powerful Washington forces have decided to tap into this right-wing rage and use it to their own political advantage. Fox News has seen an opportunity to define themselves in the Obama era by stoking the flames of hysteria and paranoia, increasing their viewership handily over the past several months. The healthcare and energy lobbies have been able to tap into this paranoid rage by convincing people that attempts to reform their industries are actually part of a grand fascist scheme to enforce a dictatorship.

The most absurd example of this came yesterday when protesters congregated in Texas to rail against Obama’s “Nazi” climate change bill, which would finally sign the US up to international agreements to fight climate change. At first glance it might seem bizarre that ordinary citizens are turning up to yell and scream about a piece of legislation that doesn’t have much to do with them but rather affects the oil and gas industries, right? Well if you look at the bottom of their placards many read that they are concerned “Energy Citizens”, and if you look into the origin of this group you can see it’s actually sponsored by the oil and gas industry, whose trade organisation was recently revealed in a leaked memo to be suggesting that oil company employees be mobilized for these “grass roots protests” in order to “put a human face” on the resistance to the bill.

The same has been true of the healthcare protest and the “tea-bagging” protests, both organised by powerful Washington lobby groups working with the aid of Fox news, which gets people revved up telling them the healthcare reform bill will kill their grandma.

Is this in the bill? No. Is it rational to say Obama is a racist Nazi because he’s trying to reform the nation’s healthcare system? No. But these myths persist, with the majority of Americans now saying they’re concerned about Obama’s healthcare reform effort. It now looks like the administration is going to take the public option off the table or break up the legislation, which would effectively mean the myth-spreading tactics have worked. Meaningful healthcare reform could be dead.

Don’t Get too Smug, Europe

But before Europeans shake their heads and roll their eyes at the seemingly hopeless ignorance of the American public, might I remind them that they are not immune to these impulses either. In trying to explain to Europeans the raw emotion surrounding this debate, I’ve been struggling to think of an issue here that brings out the same level of irrationality. It wasn’t long before my mind settled on the EU. When it comes to ridiculous irrational myths, European knowledge of the EU - particularly in the UK - could give these American healthcare protesters a run for their money.

Take the debate over the Lisbon reform treaty. The accusations levelled against it in the UK and Irish media have been absurd almost to the point of self-parody. According to the British media the treaty is a “massive power grab” that will turn the EU into a “totalitarian super-state”. Sound familiar? In reality, the treaty simply makes tweaks to the EU’s governing structure, changes that have been made necessary by the recent EU enlargement. The main purpose of the treaty is to make the EU more efficient and cost-effective, not to give it more power. Its goal, much like the healthcare reform bill, is to help people – not to hurt them. But that doesn't stop the totalitariansism comparisons. Just take a look at this over-the-top video from YouTube.

Euromyths are rampant in the UK. Some examples of completely baseless euromyths spread by the British media: English fish and chips shops would be forced to use Latin names for the fish (The Sun, 5 September 2001), double-decker buses would be banned (The Times, 9 April 1998), British rhubarb must be straight and barmaids would have to cover up their cleavage. (Update April 2010: Here's a recent patently absurd - and easily disprovable - example from the Daily Mail about the EU supposedly changing the name of the British Channel to the "Anglo-French Pond". That story was picked up by numerous other media outlets including the BBC's 'Have I got News for You'.) All of these are widely believed in Britain yet are completely untrue. Many euromyths can be traced directly to deliberate attempts by lobbysists to influence policy in Brussels. And they’re frequently presented in the same kind of screaming-headline, hysterical tone that is now being employed in the US healthcare debate.

And of course, a recurring complaint about both the Helathcare reform bill and the Lisbon reform treaty is that they're too long and complicated for ordinary people to understand. And because they're so long, they must be trying to pull something over on everyone! Because naturally, incredibly complex piece of legislation should be easily understandable by your local trash collector.

In the UK, the right-leaning media makes completely baseless and false accusations about the EU and about the Lisbon Treaty, saying it will do things that are not at all in the document such as ban abortion across the EU, mandate an EU army, establish an EU constitution or subjugate member state courts. The public comes to accept these myths as fact. Then when it comes time for a vote, as occurred with the Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty last June, the public bases their vote on the misinformation they’ve received about the EU and the treaty. Democracy at its finest.

Can you imagine if healthcare reform were being put to a referendum in the US? It would never have any hope of passing. In fact the only way that this legislation may actually come to pass now is if the US congress does the right thing and bypasses the will of the people, making the responsible informed decision that a vast swathe of the American public cannot make themselves because they are so misinformed. This is how representative democracy is supposed to work – citizens elect representatives and entrust them with the responsibility of becoming versed in issues that ordinary citizens are not equipped to make decisions on themselves. This is why it is irresponsible to put a complex legal document like the Lisbon Treaty or healthcare reform to a public referendum. It is the worst perversion of Democracy – mob rule.

People tend to be pretty gullible, and powerful interests will always be able to manipulate them. Now that the internet has brought us what sociologists have termed the "post-fact society", this misinformation is very easy to spread - be it in America or Europe.

No Appetite for Revolution

Now to be fair, the level of hyperbole used in mainstream media around the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t reached the alarming heights of the US healthcare debate. And the Lisbon Treaty hasn’t inspired gun-totting mobs to show up at politician’s doorsteps last time I checked. Comparisions to Nazis are rarely used on the continent, as the memory of what the Nazis really were is still too raw to throw around the comparisons as lightly as Americans do. But the difficulties encountered in both efforts for reform show how difficult it can be to change societal systems at the dawn of the new millennium, as we prepare to enter the 7th decade of peacetime in the Western world. As successful as most European healthcare programs are, I can guarantee that there would be widespread panic if any governments tried to completely overhaul them in order to fix remaining problems (as has been evidenced in the recent rush to defend the NHS from Tory politicians on US TV).

The fact is all of these big social programs, on either side of the Atlantic, were instituted in the years following World War II at a time when the public was still traumatized enough to have the appetite for real massive change. Really, you’d have to go back to the 60’s to find the last examples of real overhauls of government systems in the Western World (although I’d love to hear examples you can name to the contrary). These days people just don’t have the appetite for change. They’re living in an era of unprecedented peace in the Western world, and even if there are major problems with system X, it’s working just fine for now thank you very much. Whether it be the EU project or healthcare reform, people in 2009 are just not mentally prepared for big change. Having lived their entire lives in peace, they just don’t have the appetite for risk. And powerful interests have grown up around the existing institutions that will resist change in order to safeguard their own interests.

Yet in both situations, the seeming comfort of the status quo is an illusion. Neither current situation is tenable in the long-term. In the US, while one out of every five Americans under 65 is uninsured, the majority do have insurance and, since they don’t know any better because they’ve never seen a European healthcare system, they think their coverage is the best in the world (Americans usually by default assume their anything is the best in the world). But the system of employer-funded healthcare is untenable. The US now spends around 15% of its GDP on healthcare, second only to East Timor among United Nations member states. Left unchanged, that number could rise to something like 30% in just a few decades. The current system is literally strangling small business. But all most Americans with insurance see is that they go to the doctor, he treats them, they get better. There is no crisis, they assume.

The same can be said of Europeans and their thoughts about the place in the world of their individual member state. The fact is that in a post Cold War world, with the rising power of India and China and the fact that the US no longer has a strategic long-term interest in safeguarding European defence, no individual European member state can hope to be a significant player on the world stage in the 21st century on its own. Yet your average British person hasn’t come to grips with this fact. As far as they can see, they appear to have a big influence on the world culturally (they often mistake American cultural imperialism’s use of English as somehow attributable to themselves), they are nuclear armed, they have a seat on the UN security council and they are in the G8. But the fact is in 50 years they are unlikely to have any of these things (except perhaps an aging fleet of dangerous and dilapidated Trident submarines) if they were to go it on their own. It’s a situation where the prospect of the UK separating from the EU could easily appear to be fine to the average British person, but where people with a real knowledge of world events and future projections know that is not a viable option.

In the meantime the media, big business and right-leaning politicians are all too willing to exploit the average person’s ignorance and lack of foresight in order to serve their own interests, convincing them that reform efforts that are meant to help the average person are actually an effort to impose a dictatorial superstate. It’s the situation we find ourselves in at the dawn of the 21st century on either side of the Atlantic.

We are, it would seem, a risk-averse species by nature. And a gullible one to boot.

Thursday, 20 August 2009

Homegrown piracy

As video was played over European airwaves this weekend of the Russian defense minister proudly reporting to President Medvedev that the navy had gloriously rescued the Russian freighter that had gone missing in the English Channel, there were many in Europe who weren’t feeling as visibly reassured as the Russian president appeared to be. Though Russia has tried to portray the rescue of the apparently hijacked ship as an unparalleled success, the reality is quite different. This hijacking– thought to be the first incident of piracy in European waters since the 17th century – could herald a dangerous new era for European shipping.

Details about what exactly happened in this mysterious ship disappearance have been slow in coming. The 4,000-ton ship, named the Arctic Sea, first left Finland with a load of timber bound for Algeria in late July. However after passing through the Baltic and North Seas, it disappeared from radio contact in the English Channel. There was wild speculation for a few days about what could have happened to it. Because the Russian shipping industry is permeated by organised crime, people immediately thought it had something to do with drug or weapons smuggling, or perhaps political intrigue. Wilder theories speculated there could be nuclear equipment on the boat.

Over the weekend the Russians revealed they had tracked down the ship near the islands of Cape Verde off the coast of West Africa. The 15 Russian crew members were rescued and eight hijackers - from Russia, Estonia and Latvia - were arrested. They said the rescue effort had been a joint Russian, Swedish, Finnish and Maltese (the ship was flying under a Maltese flag) operation, and that no media had been informed about what was going on for the hostages’ safety. According to the Russians, the crew reported that they were boarded by a group of men in an inflatable boat while they were in Swedish waters. The men claimed to be police looking for drugs, but then forcibly hijacked the ship and forced it to go to West Africa. The ship’s insurance company says they were contacted with a $1.5 million ransom demand, threatening to blow the ship up if they didn’t receive it.

Saturday, 15 August 2009

UK Enraged by US Healthcare Portrayal

The US healthcare debate came to the UK in a very explosive way yesterday, when video of a British politician slagging off the NHS spread across the internets like wildfire. It was the twitterati who first started spreading the word, creating tags like #welovetheNHS to defend the NHS from this particular Tory politician, who happens to be a member of the European Parliament. My previous blog post on this subject has made the rounds pretty heavily on that tag actually.

The US media tour by Conservative MEP Dan Hannan has created a huge headache for Conservative leader David Cameron, who was scrambling yesterday to assert his love for the NHS and describe Dan Hannan as a fringe politician with "extreme views". The message is clear: the British National Health Service is a cherished institution in the UK, and politicians left or right criticise it at their peril. Whether this sort of "love it or leave it" mentality is helpful is debatable, but one thing is clear - any Briton can tell you that Dan Hannan's portrayal of the NHS doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to reality.

His description of the NHS, seen in this video above from Fox News, is so outrageously made-up that the Labour party - long trailing in the polls and virtually guaranteed to lose the next election - has pounced on it to show that the Conservative party can't be trusted with the NHS because they intend to make drastic cuts (Blair used the same argument in '97). The political headache for Cameron grew to such a fever pitch yesterday that some analysts were predicting that Cameron might sack Hannan from the partyand hence he would be out of the European Parliament). I know plenty in Brussels who would be relieved at this prospect, as Hannan has a long history of causing trouble in Strasbourg. But we'll see if the pressure remains through the weekend.

Of course as I pointed out in my previous healthcare blog post, the fact that the US media is focusing on the NHS at all doesn't make any sense. The healthcare plan being proposed by Obama and the US congress is not a single-payer system as exists in the UK Canada or France, but rather a hybrid multi-payer system as exists in Germany. Germany has a universal multi-payer system with two main types of health insurance: the public fund and private funds. Everyone is mandated to have healthcare, which is provided by the public fund to people below a set income level for a low rate. So, the wealthy can pay for exceptional private health coverage if they want to, or they can pay a small amount for the state insurance (many opt to do this). The end result is that everyone is covered and Germany spends 10% of GDP on health care, compared to 16% in the US. Obviously Germany would be the better example for the US media to use, yet the country, to my knowledge, has never been once by the US mainstream media.

This whole US "debate" (if you can call it that) has just been downright painful to watch, and has reminded me just how lucky I am to live in Europe. What's really unfortunate is that the hysteria and lies in the US are drowning out any actual debate on this bill - which will create one of two results. A bill will be passed without that perhaps lacks restraining measures that would have been helpful to it, or no bill will be passed which will represent the triumph of the mob, the victory of misinformation over reason. It's really a very sad thing to watch.

As for the British, perhaps watching the way this whole thing is unfolding in the US will make them feel a little more European. After all, this is one of those crucial ways in which the UK is much closer to the continent than to America. And the British should be grateful for it.

Friday, 14 August 2009

Songs, Sailing and Slaughter in Denmark

“Don’t worry, we will try it again.” The headmaster’s frustrated yet encouraging words were met with smirks and giggles by the journalists around the piano struggling to keep a straight face as we half-heartedly sang ‘Let it Be’. One had to admire his tenacity in trying to convert this group of hardened (and tone-deaf) international journalists to his lifestyle of self-enlightenment through group singing of ‘60’s hippie anthems, all sung out of a small blue-binded book that resembled a church hymnal.

I was part of a group of journalists being led on a tour of Denmark taking a look at environment-related projects they have there. As a base we stayed at a “folk high school” in central Jutland overlooking a beautiful lake, normally populated by young adults on a quest to find themselves (a quest that is half government-funded I might add). The headmaster’s efforts to teach us the ways of being in harmony with the earth were quite adorable, if in the end unsuccessful. We may have been environment reporters, but we’re still cynical journalists after all!

Yet as cynical as we were, you didn’t have to be a hippie to be impressed by Denmark’s pioneering green efforts. The tour was linked in to the hugely important UN climate change summit that will be held in Copenhagen in December. The meeting was pushed three years ago by Denmark with the intention of giving nations a firm deadline by which to be ready for a worldwide agreement on how to combat climate change. Denmark has been a natural leader in this fight, having been one of the earliest movers in environmental legislation. It was the first country to establish an environment ministry in 1973. Since a dispute with OPEC in the ‘70’s it has weaned itself almost completely off oil, now getting its electricity from a mixture of renewable energy and coal. It set up its first wind turbines in the 70’s and today wind power provides 20% of Denmark’s power generation (renewables in total provide 28%), The country is well positioned to meet the EU’s requirement of 30% energy consumption from renewables by 2020, and it is planning to go even further.

Seasick Journos

We were on our way to visit one of these wind turbine farms far out in the North Sea on Tuesday when some of us realized we were in for more than we had bargained for. We were taken out for the 8 hour sea voyage in a small wooden boat which, though beautiful, took us for a wild ride as we bounced up and down on the tempestuous sea. It was quite an experience, and as the wooden boat creaked and moaned its way out from the Danish port of Estbjerg in Southwest Jutland, I could really get a sense of what ye olde long sea voyages must have been like (i.e., not pleasant!).

As we neared the windfarm site of Horns Rev, feared by sailors for centuries because of its wild winds and shallow waters, the boat began to literally leap up and down from the sea, and we all had to hold on to keep from being knocked over. A number of the journalists started losing their lunch over the side of the boat. Luckily I had taken a motion sickness tablet in the morning so I was ok.

When we finally reached the garden of turbines jutting majestically up from the sea, it was undeniably impressive. These things are massive, rising 115 metres into the air. The blades alone are 45 metres in length. Much of the objection to setting up wind turbines has been that they make a lot of noise, and yet I can attest that even though these blades are the size of a football pitch, I couldn’t hear anything even when the ship was right next to them (granted, the waves were pretty loud). Just one of these turbines supplies energy to 2,200 households. In total the whole Horns Rev site provides 350,000 households with power.

But the project hasn’t been an unblemished success. When they first installed the turbines there was a problem with the gears. Essentially they weren’t strong enough to handle the massive amount of wind in this area of the ocean. So all of the turbines had to be retrofitted with new motors, costing wind turbine company Vestas a massive amount to fix them.

We met with the CEO of Vestas on Wednesday, and I asked him about their recent decision to pull out of the UK which has resulted in demonstrations and a plant takeover on the Isle of Wight. He said straight up that the UK is not an attractive market for investment in onshore wind power right now, and now that the US has opened up as a renewables market with the Obama administration’s climate bill, they are focusing their energy there. That may be making the UK government quite nervous, as environment minister Ed Milliband just announced a big target for wind energy in the UK. Does this target reflect economic reality when the private sector seems to be wary of wind in the UK? I’m working on an article on this topic for the September ENDS Europe report.

Clean Houses and Dirty Waste

I actually had the opportunity on this junket to do two things I had also done on the Holland junket in June – visit a waste incineration plant and an energy-generating house.

It was interesting to compare and contrast the Dutch and Danish versions of these two things. The waste incineration plant was pretty similar, both in terms of its capacity to generate electricity and district heating and in its set-up. But the energy house was different in some significant ways. Whereas the Dutch version had been specifically designed to look like an average home and to be affordable in scale, the Danish house we looked at was designed as a luxury home.

I have to admit, the one in Denmark was a gorgeous house. It had an enormous amount of windows, meant to reduce the need to use lights during the day but that were also able to stop the sun from heating up the interior by being recessed. It also had a wind/temperature reading device at the top that would adjust the settings in the house to be the most energy-efficient. It would use its calculation of the speed and direction of the wind and temperature to automatically open and shut windows in the house and close/open shades. The entire thing was controlled by this futuristic control panel in the kitchen that gave out readings for the energy use of the whole home.

However the cost, at 5 million Danish crowns, would be prohibitive for any middle-class family in Denmark. Looking at it I got the impression I was seeing the house of the future, but perhaps not the practical energy-efficient house of today. It definitely looked nicer than the Dutch house, with almost unnoticeable solar panels built right into the roof as opposed to the obvious ones on the roof of the Dutch house (and also no wind turbine, which was good because the turbine on the roof of the Dutch house didn’t look very nice). But realistically, could anyone really afford to live in the Danish luxury house?

Both Denmark and the Netherlands are one of the few countries to offer feed-in tariffs for households with solar panels or wind turbines, letting customers actually output the excess energy they generate into the power grid. They then build up a credit with the power company and they can work off that credit when they need to take in energy from the grid at night whhile the sun isn’t out (a battery for just one house would be prohibitively expensive even for the luxury home). One interesting difference though was that in the Dutch house, if you didn’t use all the excess energy you had generated at day during the night, the power company would pay you for the leftover energy. In the Danish feed-in tariff system, that payment is not available.

Next week I’m going to pop up to Camden in London to take a look at such an energy house in the UK, where there is no feed-in tariff regime available at all. With the UK rather notoriously lacking in sunlight, I wonder how this Camden house can possibly be cost-effective.

Green Slaughterhouses

One of our final stops yesterday was at the main Danish Crown abattoir outside Arhus. It’s the second largest slaughterhouse in Europe, in a country which leads the continent in pork exports. It kills an astonishing 87,000 pigs a week (17,500 every weekday) and we saw the whole process from start to finish. The facility is brand new, and almost everything in it is automatic. Each pig is stunned, killed, bled, gutted, chopped up and ready in less than a minute.

I’d never seen a slaughterhouse before, and wondered how I would react to it. It’s kind of a gross thing to watch, but as a meat-eater I felt I’m obligated to watch the process. It actually wasn’t all that surprising, in fact it was cleaner and more efficient than I was expecting. The actual moment of death was fascinating to watch, a man shoves a blade into each pigs throat one after the other in rapid succession as they come through hanging on a conveyor belt, limp and unconscious. It’s an almost constant in-out-in-out with the blade. Gruesomely efficient. Seeing it didn’t really change my opinion about eating meet. I’m dating a vegetarian right now and my flatmate is one as well, so I get a lot of pressure to convert.

After the slaughterhouse we went next door to see the biogas plant that uses the fat and unused organs from the pigs to produce biodiesel for use in cars. The EU has set a discretionary target for using biodiesel, although this is a bit up in the air now given the controversy over ethanol disrupting food supply. Biodiesel from animal fat is really the “good” kind of such fuel, as it’s made from animal parts that would just have been thrown out anyway rather than from food that could have been eaten.

Uncover the Bridge!

I spent Wednesday evening in Arhus, which is really a lovely town. It was amazing to see its transformation from a rather gritty port to a lovely preserved Scandinavian town. The river running through it had long ago been covered over and made into a road, with the water running under it in pipes (something unfortunately done in many European cities during industrialisation). But earlier this decade they decided to uncover it, making an actual river with a lovely pedestrian walkway running along it. We were given a tour by an architect instrumental in the design, who is now also involved in the redevelopment of the port into a knowledge-based business centre. Seeing the results, I wondered if the same thing could be accomplished in Brussels, where the Senne river was covered up a century ago. It would certainly go a long way in making Brussels a nicer place to be, something it badly needs.

Overall it was impressive to see all the green progress Denmark has made, and it was interesting to hear the observations and comparisons by the other journalists from around the world. Just like on the Holland trip we had a significant contingent from Brazil, who were particularly interested in the biodiesel. And once again I was the only American in the group.

Sitting in the main hall at the folk high school, I had a rather funny experience that showed how much my self-identification has changed over the past three years. At one point the headmaster was telling a story about an epiphany he had in Africa on a safari, and he was about to say something unflattering about some Americans with him there (Americans are often used as a foil in European anecdotes!) when he stopped and checked – “Oh, do we have any Americans here tonight?” There was a period of silence, and then I suddenly realized everyone was looking at me. “Oh right, I’m kind of American, I guess” I said sheepishly. I had literally forgotten for a minute there! Perhaps I only remember I’m American when people are telling flattering stories, not when someone’s about to launch into a diatribe. But usually, European stories about Americans fall into the second category!

All in all a fun trip. Now I’ve got two whole weeks in London without travel. Time to relax!

Sunday, 9 August 2009

Jetting Around Jutland

I'm in Denmark this week, on a press tour organsied by the Danish government showing journalists different environmental sites around the country. I'm in Copenhagen tonight, came a bit early to spend the weekend here and visit some friends. I was last here two years ago, so it's good to be back. It's a beautiful city.

Tomorrow we're heading out to Jutland, the mainland part of Demark (that "juts" out into the North Sea. It should be pretty interesting. On Tuesday we'll be taking a boat out to an offshore windfarm out in the North Sea off the Western coast. We're also staying in a "folk high school" which is a form of live-in adult education popular in Northern Europe.

I suppose I'll be blogging about the trip when I'm back in London on Friday, until then here's a map of where I'll be going. Being an environmental journalist kind of rocks!

View Larger Map

Wednesday, 5 August 2009

Germany, and Reason, Ignored in US Healthcare Hysteria

I’m sometimes accused by commenters on this blog of wishing to make Europe into the US, and while it is true that I often yearn for European politics to be a bit more self-assertive, ambitious or efficient, make no mistake - I would never wish for European politics to devolve into the kind of mob hysteria US political discourse has sadly become.

The current debate going on in America over Obama’s attempt to overhaul the broken US healthcare system has been particularly hard to watch in this regard, and makes me feel pretty fortunte that I live in Europe. The way this healthcare debate is unfolding in the US is not only shockingly unreasonable, it’s getting downright scary. And unfortunately, what’s been occurring around the heathcare debate isn’t an isolated incident - it’s reflective of the dangerous road the American right wing is heading down.

The worst part is that the illogical hysteria surrounding the debate is drowning out any kind of reasonable argument. The scare stories being floated in the US media about single-payer systems in the UK and France would be missing the point even if they were true – what’s being proposed by Obama isn’t a single-payer system but rather a multi-payer combination of public and private plans, much like exists in Germany. But astonishingly, Germany hasn’t been mentioned at all in the US debate, even though it currently has a system very similar to the one being proposed, while the British and French systems don’t even resemble the Obama plan.

A ‘Plot to Kill Old People’

The health insurance lobby in the US has launched a full-on campaign to sink Obama’s efforts at health care reform. The plan that is working its way through congress is to add a public option to the list of private insurance options available to the American public. Currently the US has a completely private system for those under 65, the only non-universal healthcare system in the developed world, in which nearly one in five Americans under 65 don’t have any healthcare at all.

Not having healthcare can bankrupt a person if they get sick or have an accident, and it happens often. In fact, medical debt is the principle cause of bankruptcy in the United States.

Healthcare in the US has developed in an uncoordinated fashion over the past half century after the US government was unable to come to an agreement over a national health plan (Medicare, in which the government insures all people over 65 through a single-payer system, was a compromise enacted in 1965).

People under 65 have traditionally been insured through their employer. This means if you lose your job, you lose your health insurance (so if you get hit by a bus two months after losing your job, you’re facing a $30,000 hospital bill and no income!). But as healthcare costs have risen many small businesses have been unable to offer their employees health insurance any longer, leading to a dramatic rise in the number of uninsured. Even people who are insured face ever-rising deductable costs every time they visit a doctor, and their insurance companies can deny them coverage at any time by claiming that they had a “pre-existing condition” before they enrolled in the plan.

So to put it mildly, the system is a mess. Yet what Obama and congress are proposing isn’t a complete overhaul - it’s more of a reform. The private insurance companies would continue to exist, and everyone who’s already insured could keep their existing plan if they so wish. But a new player would be introduced into the market, a government-funded public insurance plan that people can opt into. Additionally, everyone would be required to have insurance, and regulation of the insurance industry would be tightened to prevent insurance companies from denying people coverage because of pre-existing conditions or charging exorbitant deductable charges.

However the insurance industry fears that having the US government as a competitor will eventually drive them out of business. So they’ve mobilised their media outreach, finding people in countries with single-payer universal healthcare systems like the UK, France and Canada, and trotting them out to do interviews with US media outlets about their horrible experiences. These strange, wild-eyed European defectors tell stories of being denied treatment and having to go to the US in order to have desperately needed operations to save their lives.

Or, they tell tale of public hospitals with dead people lying on the floor all over the place. I wish I was making this up. To hear the stories that have been spread in the US media, the NHS in England is effectively a government euthanasia program that kills people once they reach old age Republicsn Congressman Louis Gohmert has said under the reform seniors "be put on lists and force them to die early.”

This group that’s spreading word that the healthcare reform bill will kill old people have even been given a nickname, the “deathers” – a reference to the mob of people claiming that Obama wasn’t really born in the US – the “birthers”.

Of course, all of these tales have been proven to be absolute lies by reputable organisations, yet these people keep appearing on US cable news.

Harnessing the Mob

Now the healthcare lobby and the Republicans have gone a step further, actually organising mobs of angry 'birthers', 'deathers', 'teabaggers' and other assorted crazies to show up at open town hall meetings that Democrats typically host during the August recess. These mobs have been instructed to scream down the representatives as they try to speak. It’s absolutely insane, and getting quite scary. Take a look at this clip from the Rachel Maddow show.

Right-wing lobby groups are organising these mobs, telling them where the town halls are, and instructing them to block all discussions. They refuse to allow anyone to speak. If actual townspeople at these town halls try to ask a question, the mob shouts them down with chants of "just say no". Congressman Boehner, the Republican House minority leader, has praised these mobs and encouraged them to continue.

The Republican party is now aggressively harnessing the energy of the “teabaggers” –a group of mostly lower middle class Americans who are angry at Barack Obama’s election and were organized into protests by GOP groups earlier this year under the mistaken belief that Barack Obama’s budget was making their taxes go up (Obama is actually lowering their taxes or keeping them the same). It’s also harnessing the energy of the “birther” movement, a group of angry white Americans so incensed that Barack Obama was elected that they have developed a conspiracy theory that he wasn’t actually born in the US and is therefore ineligible to be president.

Republican congressmen and talk show hosts have given credence to the conspiracy by saying Obama has never released his Hawaii birth certificate – even though he has and it’s been on his website since the campaign.

So it’s a two-pronged attack by the right: organising mobs of crazy people to disrupt town halls where Democrats are attempting to explain heath care reform to their constituents, and getting fake healthcare scare stories into the media

Better European Comparisons

But beyond the fact that these random Canadians, Brits and Frenchmen being trotted out are just flat-out lying and are actually being put out there by the health insurance industry, the reality that everyone in America seems to be missing is that even if these stories were true, they are completely irrelevent to the current US healthcare debate. Canada, France and the UK all have single-payer systems – where you walk into the doctor’s office and never see a bill. That system is not on the table in the current debate in the US. What is being proposed is a combined public/private universal health insurance program much like exists in other European countries, most notably Germany.

Germany’s system would be the more obvious comparison, yet it has not been mentioned at all by the US media, which continues to focus on single-payer systems that have no relevance to the current debate.

Germany has a universal multi-payer system with two main types of health insurance: the public fund and private funds. Everyone is mandated to have healthcare, which is provided by the public fund to people below a set income level for a low rate. So, the wealthy can pay for exceptional private health coverage if they want to, or they can pay a small amount for the state insurance (many opt to do this). The end result is that everyone is covered and Germany spends 10% of GDP on health care, compared to 16% in the US.

Alternatively, the US media could use the example of Switzerland, although I’m not sure I would use that as a glowing model considering it has the highest health care expenditure in Europe. But they also have universal healthcare in a combination of public, subsidized private and totally private healthcare providers, where the insured person has full freedom of choice among the providers in his region.

Unfortunately, using comparative examples that make sense have not been part of the debate around this issue, which has instead focused on the hysterical screaming of the right. US policy, much like hotdogs, is always something that can be a little stomach-churning to watch being made. But lately the level of vitriol being launched by an increasingly desperate Republican party has been downright disturbing. Outright lies? Fake experts? Organised mobs? Is this America or a banana republic?

The most troubling part is that these tactics are working. Recent polls have shown that 42% of Americans now think Obama’s healthcare plan is a bad idea, and 69% of Americans are concerned their care would suffer if they were on a government-run plan.

They say citizens get the government they deserve. Perhaps it can be said that they also get the healthcare they deserve. If the American public can be so easily manipulated by the powerful forces of the right, even when it jeopardises their own health, I don’t know if there’s much hope for real reform in that country. It's very sad to watch. One thing is for sure – the behaviour exhibited over the past several weeks has not been a proud moment for American political discourse. These are dangerous tactics the American right is using, and they can easily spiral out of control. In the mean time, they are blocking meaningful discussion over how to reform a healthcare system whose dysfunction has reached crisis proportions.

Tuesday, 4 August 2009

Ireland and its Various Dark Ages

I’ve just returned from a little weekend jaunt to Dublin, where I met my dad and my brother who flew over from Switzerland. It was actually my first time visiting Ireland, and it was great to finally visit a country that I’ve long focused on, both recently with the drama of the Lisbon Treaty ratification and in the past as a teenager when I looked to my Irish roots for a sense of identity and pride – something quite common in the US.

Ireland is a popular destination for American tourists, largely because so many Americans claim Irish heritage. Despite the fact that I’ve travelled all over Europe, the first question my relatives and friends back home always ask is if I’ve been to Ireland. It seems to have taken on the aura of a ‘holy land’ for the Irish diaspora, and for Americans the country has come to be more of a concept than an actual geographic place. To be fair, many Americans use their Irish ancestry to excuse bad behaviour like drunkenness or fighting, but many also feel a deep connection with Celtic traditions and the historical struggle of the Irish people.

I myself was not immune to this wistful gazing toward the emerald isle. I’m essentially only a quarter Irish (and Keating is an Anglo-Norman Irish surname rather than a Celtic one), yet as a teenager I went through a phase where I was fascinated by my Irish heritage, getting really into Celtic new age music and Druidic history. I dreamed of one day going to Dublin, the veritable Jerusalem of the Irish diaspora.

So I finally made it there, though by this point in my life Ireland no longer holds the same fascination for me. In fact coming from London I definitely arrived in Dublin with different expectations than I would have had coming from the US years ago. They say that many American tourists, arriving in Dublin expecting to find a gleaming Shangri-la, are struck by the issues of poverty the city still grapples with today. However living in the UK for the past three years I guess I’ve come to view Dublin as more of a regional city on the periphery of the British Isles, like Manchester or Birmingham – gritty, tough and far from London.

Actually Dublin reminded me of a smaller, grittier London. In fact it didn’t really feel like I had left the UK, not least because there is no passport check between the two countries. The Georgian and Victorian buildings, the loutish drinking culture, the use of British English and the endless array of British chain stores didn’t exactly seem foreign to me. Nor did the weather, as it was overcast and rainy most of the weekend!

Birth of a Nation: A Slow Start

In Dublin today you can really see the city existing between the three very different periods of its history: the intimidating Georgian splendour of its heyday as the second city of the British Empire, the drab and repressive first decades of the Irish republic, and the boom times of the IT and EU-fueled growth in the 1990’s.

Of course I imagine there are plenty of Irish people who would take issue with the above characterisation of recent Irish history, but listening to tour guides and locals it was impossible to ignore this distinct split. Almost every major landmark in Dublin was built by the English: Christchurch and St. Patrick’s cathedrals, Dublin Castle, the Bank of Ireland, the Four Courts, Custom house, St. Stephen’s Green, the list goes on (of course, there was a cruel tyranny these impressive monuments reflected). The guides will also proudly point to the shiny glass skyscrapers and monuments built in the years since the boom of the 1990’s: the redevelopment of the docklands, the financial centre, the new tramway, etc.

Yet as far as I could tell the only notable thing on the tourist map that was built by the Irish between the years of 1921 and 1990 is that ghastly spike in the middle of O’Connell street, which was put up after the IRA blew up a British-built mock Nelson’s Column in the 1970's. (the commenter below has alerted me to the fact that the spike was put up in 2003, so actually this wasn't built in the republic's first decades either!).

The more I read and talked to people, the more it seemed like now at the turn of the 21st century, those first decades of Irish Independence are starting to be seen as the proverbial ‘dark ages’. The country was hopelessly poor and saw its population fall throughout the period. Major literary figures, of whom the country has produced many, fled the country in reaction to the strict censorship laws imposed by the government, which was so closely aligned with the Catholic church it could almost have been considered a theocracy in all but name.

Incredibly, divorce was illegal in Ireland until 1995, and even then it only passed by a tiny margin. Homosexuality was a crime until 1993. Abortion is still illegal in the country, abut in the 1990’s rules were loosened to allow women to travel out of the country to get one.

How things have changed in 20 years. After Ireland joined the EU, it benefited from a huge wave of investment from Brussels. The government shrewdly used this money to position Ireland away from its history as an agrarian economy and toward a knowledge-based economy, instituting one of the lowest corporate tax rates in the world to entice US companies to set up shop there. The strategy paid off. Today Ireland has one of the highest GDPs per capita in the world, and in contrast to the decades after independence, it now has the highest population growth rate in Europe.

The evidence of this change can be seen in redeveloped pockets of Dublin, where a new, cosmopolitan vibe has taken hold. The boom times may have peaked off at the beginning of this decade, and Ireland may be suffering comparatively worse during the global recession, but it seems the attitude of the Irish, especially of Dubliners, has been irrevocably changed. These new Euro-Dubliners travel around the continent, sip cocktails in chic lounge bars by the river Liffey, and work in beautiful new office buildings in the redeveloped docklands by day. It doesn’t seem that anyone is in a big hurry to go back to the old days of an isolationist government under the foot of the Catholic Church (particularly after the church’s sex abuse revelations over the past two decades).

Nowhere is this more reflected than in a statistic I read in an Irish newspaper that 83% of the country favours enacting civil unions for same-sex partners (currently Italy and Ireland are the only two countries in Western Europe that don’t have a gay partnership framework).Last week the government published the civil unions law, and the gay community in Ireland right now is in the midst of a heated debate over whether to accept the proposed law (which stops far short of giving same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples) or to refuse to accept anything but full marriage. It reminds me a bit of the debate that raged in Ireland after the Anglo-Irish treaty was drafted in 1920 offering Ireland conditional independence, with a civil war eventually erupting between those Irish who supported the treaty giving the lower counties autonomy under the British monarch, or those who said the country should refuse to accept anything but full independence for the entire island. I guess the age-old battle between idealists and pragmatists never changes.


One thing I was really surprised by was how many tourists from continental Europe I saw in Dublin. I was expecting the vast majority of tourists to be American, with Brits, Canadians and Australians making up the rest. I figured without the mystique that Americans attach to it, rainy, quiet Ireland might not be the top destination for continentals. Yet throughout the weekend I was hearing Spanish, French Italian and German all over the place. I was especially hearing a lot of French – which I found really surprising. Even the bus tour we took of the Wicklow mountains on Saturday – which I thought would surely be all Americans – was mostly populated by continental Europeans. Colour me surprised!

Perhaps it just goes to show how much more European Ireland is these days. Despite the oft-used adage that “Dublin is closer to Boston than to Berlin” (geographically inaccurate but probably culturally true), there was plenty of evidence that Dublin, at least, is becoming Europeanised.

So where does this leave the Lisbon Treaty? Popular wisdom says that the Irish public will vote to approve the EU’s reform treaty, which it rejected last June, at the re-vote in October because the country’s financial situation has deteriorated so much since the first vote.

By this line of reasoning the Irish seem to only wanted to engage with Europe when it was going to give them money, and didn’t seem too keen to give something back once Ireland was doing well and the new entrants of Eastern Europe needed a helping hand. This is perhaps a rather cynical explanation, but given the morass the EU helped pull the country out of, it’s hard for me to understand the ‘no’ vote last year. Despite all its progress, are there still isolationist urges embedded in Ireland’s very DNA?

It seems to me that all evidence points to the fact that Ireland works best when it works in cooperation with others, not when it tries to go it alone. One need only look at the agenda for any tour of Dublin to see that.