31 January, 2013

A summit!

It is nearly summit time in Europe which I know will please the hundreds of millions of Europeans whose future my be decided over lunch at next week's meeting of the European Council.

The event will hope to decide the long term European budget. Readers will remember that at the last such meeting in November, fully ten out of the 27 nations threatened a veto if things didn't go their way.

Now the Open Europe blog has spotted the first veto threat and it is from Mario Monti, unelected Prime Minister of Italy, who says he could veto the budget if it is not big enough. You may recall that last time he wanted Italy's contribution cut, so he wants more spending but wants to pay less for it.

This could be a difficult one and you can almost feel the tension....of tight waistbands being loosened a bit further.

The race to be second

The Italian elections are warming up, with just over three weeks to go. The electoral law says that from two weeks before it is illegal to publish an opinion poll.

If three weeks ago it looked clear cut, now, whilst the Left's Bersani remains the favourite, an outright victory looks far from certain. There are jokers in the pack, and it is hard to predict the outcome. In many ways it is a race to be second.

The first joker is of course Silvio Berlusconi. Eyebrows were raised when he agreed to be interviewed on La7, an independent channel connected neither with him nor with the State; the interview would be conducted by a man Silvio had fired, and who clearly bore a grudge against him. It was a barnstorming performance by Berlusconi, culminating in him hitting the interviewer over the head with a piece of cardboard. It was said to be worth 2% to the PdL. Today the Corriere della Sera reports that Berlusconi's hiring of Mario Balotelli for his AC Milan side could be worth another two points; this is, after all, Italy.

The second joker is Monti, who seems now to see himself as a politician. He is unhesitatingly rude to the other contestants and plots little alliances, making public advances to one party or another. He is stuck on around 15% and can hope at best to be finance minister in a weakened Bersani coalition. Bersani's supporters, who are against the austerity programme, will not want this.

The next joker is Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), the left-controlled bank which appears to have mixed an extraordinary level of incompetence with illegal subterfuge. This is heavily damaging for Bersani, whose support has come off a couple of percent since the scandal broke.

Beppe Grillo, who is having a field day on the MPS scandal, remains around 15-18%.

The most likely outcome is that Bersani's PD get a majority in the House of Deputies but fail to do so in the Senate. Unlike in Britain, the two houses are equally important. Either Monti or Berlusconi could hold the balance of power.

29 January, 2013

Time to go

Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands, who is 74, is abdicating in favour of her son, Willem-Alexander, who is 45.

She said 'I am not abdicating because this office is too much of a burden, but out of a conviction that the responsibility for our nation should now rest in the hands of a new generation'.

More Mali

First it was a couple of transport aircraft to help the French intervene in a former colony. Then it was a surveillance plane. Then talk of training. There were to be no 'boots on the ground'. Now it is said that Britain already has special forces operating in Mali and that there will be a small contingent of regular troops.

Are we sleepwalking into another Afghanistan?

In the meantime French forces report minimal resistance as they reach Timbuktu. This is not necessarily a good thing: it is likely to mean the resistance fighters have simply melted into the crowds and that they will pursue their ends in terrorist fashion.

You can see it all coming. Franco-British forces will say they can't pull out until the country is 'stabilised' or some such word. Their very presence will cause dissent, terrorism, instability.

Someone in the British Parliament needs to ask whether we have learned the lessons of Iraq and Afghanistan. We need to know who we are helping: what sort of people are they? What are their beliefs? Are we risking British soldiers' lives to install one set of brutal dictators over another? Did our intervention in Libya cause the threat from Mali? Did our recent intervention in Mali cause the In Amenas kidnapping where 38 people died?

And finally: is instability in Mali so very, very threatening to Britain? I heard some fool on the radio say that North Africa was too close to permit terrorist regimes. Mali's capital Bamako is about 4,500 km away, the same as Tehran.

Have we really any idea what we are up to?

27 January, 2013

I yield to no one

In our long running series on opinions which don't matter, the Independent today makes an early bid for the 2013 Bono Prize with a piece by actor and former drunk Bill Nighy on....world poverty. It is all caused by horrid capitalist companies who don't pay enough tax, you'll be fascinated to hear.

I yield to no one in my opinion of Mr Nighy's thespian skills, but marginal effective tax rates? Shut it, Bill, please.

26 January, 2013

Services to hypocrisy

I discussed the case of Tessa Jowell here, and looking back on it, find it ridiculous the woman hasn't got more airtime.

To recap, Jowell is the former social worker who was put in charge of the £2.5 billion Olympics budget. By the time she finished with it we had spent £11 billion.

Jowell's husband, David Mills, was an adviser to Silvio Berlusconi and was convicted in the first court and the appeal court of accepting a bribe from Berlusconi to bear false witness. He was sentenced to 4 1/2 years in prison. In the third, final court, the matter had passed the statute of limitations and he was let off.

Mills laundered his payment in one of the oldest and simplest forms of the art: he took out a mortgage on a property, receiving clean money, and repaid it with the dirty money. Since the property was owned jointly with his wife, Tessa Jowell, he had to get her approval to mortgage it and she had to sign the release form. They did this twice. Despite being a cabinet minister and something of a feminist, Jowell's stance was that girlies didn't trouble their silly little heads about this sort of thing and if her husband said it was the right thing to do that was good enough for her.

When he was convicted Jowell pretended outrage and declared she was separating from her husband. The couple continued to see each other regularly - they had two homes, in part funded by the taxpayer - and now they are back together again. Outrage only lasts so long, you see.

We read today that a grateful nation has made her Dame Tessa Jowell.

What a strange nation we are. Perhaps he'll get a peerage for services to Silvio.

25 January, 2013

Nice work....

Alexander 'Boris' Johnson, Mayor of London, has appointed a friend of his as 'cycling tsar' on £38,000 for a two day week.

Just as well there isn't a recession.

Burns' Night

As a public service announcement, this blog gives its advice for Burns' Night:

At all costs avoid effeminate or brightly coloured clothing, the food and the maudlin poetry, all of which can be damaging to your health. The whisky's all right.

Good luck.

23 January, 2013

The speech

Mr Cameron has made his much trailed speech. Actually it wasn't bad: it was polite but reasonably firm. He framed it such that the European Union had to change in its members' interest, and made it clear that the changes he wanted should be for all countries in the EU.

I have two issues with the content of the speech; the first concerns its scope. There are several changes he alluded to, such as the working time directive, which would be a sine qua non for his party to opt out of. I really don't think the French trade unions are going to allow their government to approve this, and the last thing the French need is a neighbouring country, also in the EU, where you are allowed to work harder than you are in France.  Indeed there is the possibility that several countries will just call Cameron's bluff, particularly since he has already conceded that he doesn't want to leave.

The second issue concerns what was not in the speech. He said he wanted to base Britain's membership around the Single Market. I think it ought to be based around a free market. Under the present arrangements what can be produced or sold in the European Union countries is heavily restricted and regulated. These restrictions apply to whether we are selling to Germany or to Zambia. The raft of regulations, tens of thousands of pages, are restricting British companies and costing British jobs. It is all well for the Chairman of Honda to say he thinks Britain should remain in the EU: developing a new model costs billions and they can afford a few extra millions in costs caused by European regulation. Small to medium sized firms cannot, they just suffer.

And Britain cannot negotiate its own trade treaties with other countries. Many possible treaties, such as with Canada, are being held up because the Belgians or the Romanians or someone want something specific; often they have their own industry to protect, so Britain is party to a host of treaties which do not really suit it, and not party to possible trade relations which would suit us but not, say, the French.

We need to change the Single Market into a Free Market, and what with everything else that needs changing the best thing to do would be to leave.

Monte dei Paschi

The suntan, the aged Latin Lover looks, the expensive haircut, these are all enough to show the experienced Italian watcher that Giuseppe Mussari is something we don't need. While in charge of Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS), the oldest bank in the world, he was, what can I say?,  implicated in some 'secret derivatives contracts' which left a hole in the bank's balance sheet which could not be filled even by the strange socialist foundation which runs the bank. Politics are everywhere here.

New management was imposed on MPS, and when the new man, Alessandro Profumo, came in he found dozens of posts being held by political nominees.

This being Italy, Mussari smoothed himself into the post of head of the Italian Bankers Association, which goes to show someone has a sense of humour. As a member of the ruling caste, he is entitled to a job at the taxpayer's or the consumer's expense. And from this he has suddenly resigned, fuelling rumours we are about to learn something more.

The shares of MPS have been suspended on the stock exchange.

Someone needs to get right to the bottom of this and talk about it openly. The public has little trust in the political élite and things will be worse if they have no trust in the banks.

This time it is a socialist story and not good news for Bersani in the middle of an election campaign.

22 January, 2013

50 years of something

Today is the 50th anniversary of the Elysée Treaty between France and Germany, signed all those years ago by de Gaulle and Adenauer. There is a joint meeting of the French and German parliaments and quite a few dewy eyed romantics have sobbed about the wonders of the thing. It is of course part of the EU-myth that you have to have treaties and regulations in order not to have war.

In fact when the Elysée Treaty was signed France and Germany had already not been at war for 17 years without any of this new best friend guff. And I remember in a campsite in France some years after the Treaty, watching a French mother rush out and drag her children away because they were talking to German children.

When the Treaty was signed Adenauer and de Gaulle agreed to disagree on how Europe should develop and those disagreements persist to this day. They did agree not to have any hostilities, as did America and Japan, Peru and Sweden, Cape Verde and Canada and indeed as France and Germany did in 1918.

Not such a big deal, really. I should have thought it an ideal time for Mr Cameron to make his Europe speech, but that is for tomorrow.

20 January, 2013


Strange etymology: a small cake of chopped meat, called steak haché in France, polpetta in Italy, is deemed to come from Hamburg and then some idiot assumes this means it has got ham in it and called it a beefburger.

These things tend to be mushy and tasteless and with little food value. If I were buying one I should be delighted to hear that it contained horsemeat, which is very good for you and has a decent flavour.

It's just that I should want it mentioned on the packet.

Why won't the British eat horse or rabbit, which are healthy and plentiful? they are popular everywhere else in Europe.

Whilst mildly concerned about the armies of health inspectors not having spotted this before (what are they all doing? How could we make a saving here?) I am more concerned about the hypocrisy. The complainers seem to be trying to pretend they were buying 'beefburgers' expecting decent nutritious food.

I was in Tesco's cafe today and the waitress asked me if I wanted anything on my burger. I thought I don't usually gamble but I'll have £20 each way

The USA and the rest

The inauguration of Barack Obama for his second term in office takes place today in the White House. It has been described as a 'private' ceremony to which the press have been invited. Perhaps they think the hacks won't report it.

We don't know what will be in Obama's speech but we do know roughly what is going on. As regards Britain the President intensely dislikes us and it was only the fact that his principal opponent was such a manifest fool that prevented this blog from coming out for Romney.

Other than tinkering with the deficit (Americans tend to believe that they only need a boom run to sort everything out and repay $16 trillion) I believe Obama's main policy over the next four years will be to redirect America's focus from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Indeed he has already started to sow the seeds of this: 'We are a Pacific nation', he said in a recent speech, and there is no doubt he meant that with a capital P.

The implications of this are enormous. America will abandon its roots and go to the part of the world where things are happening. Things are happening economically in the Far East, and America needs to sell both its exports and its debts to the emerging rich. And things are happening politically: as China grows it becomes an ever greater threat to the region and America's role as policeman will be switched from the Russian-European border to the swathe of countries between India and Hong Kong.

But the biggest effect of this shift will be in Europe. since 1916 the Europeans have expected America to fight their battles. Since the financial boom of the 1960s Europe has had the luxury of enjoying security without paying for it and America, rightly I think, believes this wealthy continent has been swinging the lead (normally America would have singled out Britain as the exception but, as I said above, Obama doesn't like us). This first became apparent, oddly enough, in Libya. The British and French thought that something should be done and Obama said simply 'that's your patch'. The American Mediterranean Fleet slung a few missiles, and then only when it became apparent that we were woefully under equipped, but left us alone. The Germans decided not to take part at all. Now, in Mali, Mrs Merkel has contributed a couple of transport planes, nothing more. Germany still doesn't like the idea of military commitment. Someone told me once that German soldiers are not allowed to fight at night, I don't know if that's still true.

Now there is a credible argument that the presence of well funded terrorists in North Africa is not something we need worry about. But Europe does need a defence plan and it can't just rely on Britain and France having decent standing armies. Money is short and defence is expensive. The reason Europe needs to do something quickly is Russia. As the American defence umbrella is withdrawn, Europe has allowed itself to be increasingly dependent on Russian gas. President Putin, who has been known to turn off the taps when someone disagrees with him, will search for and find Europe's weakness.

Without America, Germany, as the leading economic power in Europe, will have to become a significant military power. This will require a lot of soul searching and some constitutional changes but it is about time the Germans, and several others, pulled their weight. The war ended nearly 70 years ago and pacifism is luxury which, without America, Europe can no longer afford.

17 January, 2013


Dozens of people have been kidnapped at an Algerian gas installation and two Britons are feared dead. The attack is in retaliation for the French invasion of Mali, with which Britain has conspired.

At the same time a vote was passed in parliament to increase our involvement to training of the Malian army. MPs passed this without even a debate. Why? Because it is an EU project.

I warned before that lives would be put at risk because of our needless involvement in this adventure and now two people are dead.

15 January, 2013


Further to my previous post, the BBC have in fact mentioned the MET's revised forecast here. As you can see if you can face reading it, they use the period 1971-2000 for their trends. This is in my view a bit sneaky: the world was warming in the 80s and 90s so any period containing these years will show some warming compared to the average.

The problem for the Eco-loonies is that if, as the MET suggests, there is a 20 year period of no warming, while greenhouse gas levels were rising, it challenges not just the basic warming contention but also the idea that man is to blame. 

What we are going to be seeing, from the BBC and the rest of the Climate Change gang, is the message 'Just because the world isn't getting warmer doesn't mean there isn't global warming'.

I wonder how long the public are going to tolerate this.

14 January, 2013

Climate Change: the end?

At the time of writing my post Definition Change I was unaware of a major development in the long-running saga of what is happening to the climate. The British Meteorological Office put out a note of its new findings. The note was not explicit and carried in some other data on Christmas Eve, but was spotted by a climate change blogger Tallbloke.

It said that they were not expecting any warming up until 2017. If their new findings are confirmed, coupled with previous data it means that there will have been no warming trend for two decades, which surely must kill off the global warming story for good.

As far as I know this has not been reported by the BBC (apologies if I am wrong) who had of course swallowed the nonsense hook line and sinker. We are also waiting for a reaction from Prince Charles.

The trillion dollar coin

The reason I never thought that America would fall off the Fiscal Cliff was that the consequences would have been so awful that, surely, reasonable people would have been able to compromise in the national interest. They were, but only just. A rather shabby looking patch up has been struck which will postpone disaster.

The present risk of catastrophe is that America is about to reach its Congress-approved debt ceiling and unless it is extended money will dry up. Of course, they can't agree. To my great regret the wheeze of the trillion dollar coin has been rejected. This was that there is no ceiling on the US mint printing commemorative coins. They would have minted a trillion dollar coin and deposited it with the Federal Reserve who could have used it as security.

Perhaps someone noticed that actually the last thing America needs right now is another trillion dollars of debt.

Don't bank on it, though.

Qui Mali pense

Evil be to him who thinks about Mali.

François Hollande has stepped up security in France, having been advised that his adventures in Mali will bring a terrorist reaction. It seems sensible, just as it seems the height of stupidity for Britain to get involved.

The French have a very different attitude to their former Empire from the British perspective. Whilst we were early to grant these countries independence and then left them on their own, the French have maintained their ties, sometimes to their benefit, sometimes not. Mali is very much on the French patch, whereas it is nothing to do with Great Britain.

Whether it was the boy Cameron, or his sabre rattling Foreign Secretary William Hague, our lending the French transport planes will have been noticed. Once again British lives will have been at at risk - this time civilian lives - for our policy of 'if there's a fight we want to be in on it'.

By the way, I thought we had a drastic shortage of military hardware. Since when have we had enough to lend it to other countries to pursue their own wars? 

Just when....

....you thought it safe to g back in the water. This year's 'flu came in two stages for many: a bad cold and just as you thought you were getting better a hacking cough. Due to a fake vaccine scandal supplies of the preventative were low, and the professionals said it wasn't much good anyway. I have been sitting in front of the screen almost unable to see what I have written, comforting myself that at least I haven't had the vomiting virus (or perhaps that is stage three).

Anyway, my blogging footprint has been light and I hope the year will get off to a delayed start now.

10 January, 2013

They're getting worried

Further to the previous post about our relationship with the EU, there has been a torrent of comments from people who clearly want us to stay in.

First, the Irish, who hold the rotating presidency, as opposed to the other three, van Rompuy, Barroso and Schultz who are, shall we say, static Presidents. The Irish Foreign Ministry says that everyone must abide by the same rules so we can't just pick and choose which bits of the EU treaties we like. Of course Ireland is going to be in deep do-do if there is a large nation on their doorstep not bound by all the regulations and red tape that they are.

Most interestingly the Americans have got in on the act, saying that they want Britain to be a 'leader' in a European bloc. There are two reasons they have come out with this. The first is that the State Department likes to see things in blocs: North America, South America, Asia and so on. Just as they are getting an answer to Henry Kissinger's question 'When I want to speak to Europe who do I call?' (the answer is any one of the four Presidents, rotating or otherwise) the only country which thinks remotely the way they do seems to be leaving. And this is the second reason: America is terrified of an inward-looking, regulation-bound socialist Europe with high taxes and no military and felt Britain was the main antidote to that.

There was nothing from the State Department as to whether America would like to be governed by an unelected bureaucracy based in a foreign country. I think we can guess the answer.

The more you hear them all insisting we stay, the more we can be certain it's time to go.

Speech of the Decade

Not an exaggeration, I think. In a couple of weeks' time David Cameron will set out his ideas for the UK's relationship with the EU. The speech will possibly be made in Holland, rather as Mrs Thatcher's major European policy speech was made in Bruges, Belgium.

The speech is important because in Parliament the euroseptics are scenting victory and will no longer be fobbed off with a poor effort at negotiation, as when Tony Blair gave away part of the Thatcher Rebate in return for a promise from the French (!) that they would reform agriculture.

And forty years after joining the EU, the British people are clear that they are ready for a change. Now we shall see what sort of change Mr Cameron is offering.

He starts off badly in that he says he wants to stay in the EU. This is bad for two reasons. Many, perhaps most, Conservative MPs want to leave the EU and secondly, as Cabinet Minister Michael Gove has pointed out, we're not going to have much success with the negotiations if we're not prepared to threaten to leave. Cameron wants to stay in the Single Market, although what good he thinks it is doing us he doesn't say.

Cameron's plan, it is said, is to start negotiations after he is re-elected in 2015. This means we have to trust him without knowing what he might achieve, or might be willing to achieve. Anyone who has experienced his somewhat shady integrity in the forming of the coalition will be unimpressed. He believes he can tempt voters away from UKIP with this vague promise of starting negotiations in a few years' time. I fear there will not be enough meat on this bone to make any difference to the sceptical voters either inside or outside the Conservative Party.

It is said Mr Cameron will offer a referendum, perhaps in 2017, on whether to accept the terms he has negotiated or leave the EU. This is so late that the EU will have done its reorganisation before he gets to the negotiating table and he will have no bargaining chips to use.

The time to demand clarity on Cameron's proposals is now. Let's hope he can explain them.

07 January, 2013

Definition change

One area where 2013 will be little different to 2012 or indeed 2011 is that we'll be hearing a lot about Climate Change.

But wait: we used to call it Global Warming, didn't we? Why the definition change? We were all certain, were we not? (apart from a few nutters like this blog), that Global temperatures were going in only one direction: up. By this time most of Europe would be an arid desert. The new nomenclature would seem to cover everything whether it is getting hotter or colder, presumably unless it stubbornly stays the same (it never does).

To explain this we have to go back to the leaks of emails from the Climate Research Unit at the University of East Anglia, in November 2009. One of them said 'It is a travesty (I think he meant tragedy, but let it pass) that we cannot explain the recent cooling'. We can learn three things from this: that they are trying to put a particular vision across to the public and it is unfortunate when the facts fail to meet their predictions; second, that there had indeed been cooling; and third that they couldn't explain it. Or as Michael O'Leary, the head of Ryan Air said 'It's horse****. It's people who can't tell you what the weather will be like next ******* Tuesday, telling you what it will be like in a hundred years'.

In truth to go in for this stuff you need to believe three things: that there is indeed warming, that it is man made, and that we can do something about it. I am sceptical on all three. As regards the third, though, I note that the Kyoto Protocol came to an end on 31st December. It had agreed that by last week there would have been a 5% cut in carbon emissions compared to 1990 levels.

In fact there has been a 58% increase. And it's bloody cold here in Umbria.

Here we go

We went down to the heel of Italy - Puglia - for the first week of the year. Small cities with beautiful cathedrals, savage countryside, great fish; it's certainly worth a visit. It's bit run down, and I must admit we arrived in a car park to find so many helpful youths standing round that we reckoned if we left the car it wouldn't be there when we got back. But by and large it is peaceful and charming. The Puglians produce excellent wine and are superb bakers so it's not great for the waistline.

So 2013 for me starts today. I am in detox and a little grumpy.

We had a lousy 2012 and my only prediction is that the world will have a lousy 2013. America seems to have saved itself (just), Europe is plunging into recession, Japan looks as if it will never get out of recession.

The war in Syria will continue, with 60,000 deaths so far. There is and will be unrest in Egypt and the Arab Spring seems to have taken power from one set of tyrants and given it to another. More soldiers will die needlessly in Afghanistan. Argentina is in such economic difficulty that it may have to mount a doomed invasion of the Falklands to preserve public confidence in the failed presidency of Christina Kirchner-Fernandez. In Venezuela Hugo Chavez will die but the nonsense will continue.

I shall be monitoring the Italian elections, in which almost any result is currently possible, and the possible departure from France of Brigitte Bardot, if the government doesn't cure elephants from TB; and I shall be trying to decide which of the two stories is the more absurd.

My advice to readers is the same as last year: keep low and keep moving.

01 January, 2013

Death of a scientist

If I had to give the perfect example of a scientist, I would choose Rita Levi-Montalcini, who has died aged 103. She was discriminated against as a Jew and as a woman. During the fascist era, when Jews were not allowed to hold senior university posts, she studied in secret in an attic, working on nerve growth in chicken cells. In 1986, in her mid 70s, she was awarded the Nobel Prize.

She was still doing a couple of hours of research a day, until her death.

Happy New Year

My best wishes to everyone for the year to come.

If you are regretting that final drink - it was just that one, wasn't it? - ponder this. Today is the 40th anniversary of Britain joining what was then the European Economic Community, one of the worst decisions in British political history leading to the worst hangover as bad decisions often do.

Shed a small tear for Britain, and if you have the strength for anger, write to your MP.