Posted tagged ‘European Union’

The strange, strange behaviour of the Brexit victors

October 18, 2016

I think I have a word of advice for those who were on the winning side in the recent Brexit referendum in the UK and who are now preparing for Britain’s departure from the European Union: stop behaving in such a truculent manner, you won. There is no need for you to keep attacking and insulting those who voted to remain, they (we) lost.

The speeches and comments from the winning side seem to me to be shot through with insecurity, with some deep worry perhaps that the great Brexit project might not go well. And so they lash out at those who voted to remain – and who on the whole are actually staying relatively silent, waiting for what will happen next. So some of the more exotic (meaning, divorced from reality) newspapers rant about ‘Remoaners’ and suchlike, sometimes à propos of absolutely nothing. And the Brexit politicians and their surrogates come up with ever more ludicrous statements, like one Stewart Jackson MP (who understandably is not a household name) who has suggested that all patriotic British people should boycott the Economist because of its ‘liberal smugness’ and ‘Remoaner whining’. Dear me. Or the Daily Mail and Daily Express newspapers peddling conspiracy theories and suggesting the voices of ‘Remainers’ should be silenced. Or the deservedly unknown Tory Councillor Christian Holliday (who should maybe take a break), who started a petition to make arguing for the EU an act of treason.

We might and should ignore the latter idiot completely – his ‘petition’ has been taken down, though not without having received some support first – but for the really curious response to it by the Prime Minister, Theresa May. When asked whether she supported the idea that support for EU membership should be treason, a spokesman replied (according to the BBC):

‘Different people will choose their words differently. The prime minister is very clear that the British people have made their decision.’

There was only one possible rational answer to the question, and that was ‘No.’ The fact that the Ms May apparently couldn’t being herself to answer clearly is itself astonishing, and potentially a cause for concern.

Supporters of Brexit are now filling the airwaves with conspiracy theories and loud complaints about all those who don’t agree with them, blaming them in a precautionary way for any economic turbulence that may yet emerge. The curious thing is that all the whining, notwithstanding these claims to the contrary, is now coming from the Brexit side. But why? Are they so insecure, so unable to see their mission with a sense of self-confidence? Do they think that they must cover their own inability to manage the Brexit agenda with a barrage of insults aimed at those who have the temerity to ask them about it; or indeed even those saying nothing at all?

It is clear that the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. It must do so on the best terms available for the economy and for society. That necessary objective should prompt close and constructive collaboration and inclusiveness; not these constant attacks and stupidities. Brexiteers, it’s time for you to realise that you won and to grow up.


Coming to terms with ‘Brexit’

June 28, 2016

Maybe most people didn’t see that one coming, but I had harboured a suspicion for several weeks that the UK electorate as a whole would vote to leave the European Union; and in that belief had urged people supporting that position to be clearer about what it would mean in practice, and what the consequences would be.

And now, several days have passed since the vote and nobody knows anything at all. We don’t know, even in outline, what kind of relationship with the EU those who campaigned for Brexit actually want, or what the UK’s negotiating position will be. We don’t know whether the UK can or will be in the EU’s single market. We don’t know what the actions of investors will be, or indeed of domestic consumers. We don’t know what will happen to the UK’s currency, the Pound.

I imagine that many of those who voted to leave will have done so in the expectation that immigration (from the EU and indeed everywhere else) will fall dramatically; and yet we must suspect it almost certainly will not, whatever new regulatory framework emerges.

And of course we don’t know what will happen to Scotland – will it now leave the UK, or will there be some accommodation that allows Scotland (and maybe London?) to keep special ties to the European Union within a United Kingdom that has left?

In the university sector, a large number of questions now arise, some of them of fundamental importance. Will they still be able to recruit faculty and students internationally, in the EU and beyond, as before? Will they still have access to the same research funding? What about Erasmus and other student exchanges? How will our friends and partners across the world now view us?

I began my academic career in 1980. Over the years since then I cannot recall any period of such uncertainty as the one we face now; made more difficult by the fact that almost none of our questions will be conclusively answered any time soon. We will be living in very interesting times.

Brexit and the academic imperative

June 14, 2016

As I may have mentioned before, I do not subscribe to the view that universities as institutions should campaign for or against the UK’s continuing membership of the European Union. That is ultimately a matter for the voters, and of course they will make their choice with reference to many different things, not many of which will have much to do with higher education. It is of course perfectly proper for universities to point out how they may benefit from European Union membership, but they should then leave it to the electorate to judge how important that is in the overall scheme of things.

But there is an element of this referendum campaign which is a proper subject-matter for the academy: the truth or otherwise of the arguments being presented by those advocating a leave or remain vote. And the picture is not a pretty one. As the campaign has progressed the arguments have become increasingly bizarre, with a Third World War vying for attention with the prospect of every single Turk turning up at Heathrow or Dover. The printed news media, or parts of it, has done what it seems to do best, which is to take this kind of stuff and put it in large print on the front pages.

The main result of this is that the electorate appears to be heading for the polling booths in a state of extraordinary ignorance. A poll conducted by Ipsos MORI has revealed that on most of the issues that the protagonists have placed at the top of the agenda (immigration, trade etc) the public believe ‘facts’ that are simply wrong. Correcting all this misinformation (or indeed disinformation) is an important task that academics should tackle. Whatever way we would like this vote to go, it should be undertaken with more than the usual understanding of the key issues. There is not much time left.

Universities and the UK’s EU referendum

October 27, 2015

There is little doubt, one supposes, where the balance of opinion lies in the British university sector regarding EU membership. When the UK votes, in 2017 or whenever, on whether to stay in or leave the European Union, academics and students will probably vote overwhelmingly in favour of staying in. I say ‘probably’ because we cannot of course know for sure, but those voices that are most audible right now are all in favour of membership. This includes the universities themselves and their leaders, as formally represented in Universities UK – which has launched a ‘Universities for Europe’ campaign. And Professor Janet Beer, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Liverpool and Vice-President of UUK, has joined the board of the ‘Britain Stronger in Europe’ campaign. In fact I know of no voice amongst the university sector’s leadership advocating a no vote, or even expressing any degree of uncertainty.

In case you were wondering whether all these EU supporters at the helm of higher education were representative of the wider community of staff and students, the answer is that they probably are. The Social Research Agency NatCen has published polling data showing that the young and educated overwhelmingly want to stay in the EU, in contrast with older and less educated people. Indeed on this blog a well respected academic from Dundee University last year argued a strong case for Britain’s continuing membership.

My purpose here is not to ask whether this great consensus of people is right; but rather what role, if any, universities should play in this debate, or indeed any other debate like it. Should universities be making the case, one way or another, for a particular position on an issue which the people are to be asked to vote?

There is no easy answer to this. When the Scottish independence referendum campaign was under way in 2014, the agreed position of Scotland’s universities was to highlight the issues that might affect higher education, but to avoid advocating a yes or a no vote. This avoided any division within the sector, and also allowed universities to do what they do best – analyse and explain. Universities were part of the national debate but were not partisan; and that may be a good position to occupy wherever a debate – with two civilised sides to the argument – is taking place in a society that is divided on the issue.

It is my hope that many academics will be heard in the national discussion about Britain’s future within or outside the EU. It is also perfectly good for academics to take sides publicly, on the assumption that they treat those who disagree with them with a degree of respect. But I do not believe that universities as institutions should be partisan, not least because if they are, the force of any substantive arguments they may wish to make will be weakened. Avoiding a recommendation to citizens to vote one way or another, while setting out the issues that should be considered, is the best position of institutional integrity.

Knocking louder on Europe’s door

September 27, 2015

Guest post by Dr Anna Notaro, the University of Dundee

It is almost two years exactly since my guest post on this blog, Knocking on Europe’s door, a post I felt compelled to write out of outrage and frustration at the loss of over 300 migrants’ lives off the coast of the Sicilian island of Lampedusa. Sadly, Lampedusa has proven not to be an isolated tragedy. Only a few weeks ago the photograph of a dead Syrian boy on a Turkish beach suddenly captured the world media’s attention dispelling, or so one hopes, any ‘compassion fatigue’ that the European public opinion might have experienced so far. Germany has taken the lead, presenting itself as the Weltmeister in willingness to help, while also asking for that pan-European solidarity (in the form of a redistribution of refugees across the Union) it so clearly rejected in the Greek crisis. The country is struggling to cope as the first destination of choice for the world’s refugees and asylum seekers, to the point that plans of housing some of them in Buchenwald barracks are being considered. History, as philosopher Emil Cioran once wrote, is “irony on the move.”

While the watershed moment in public opinion caused by the powerful photograph of a dead child is welcome, I don’t think that the EU can function if it is run according to the shifting moods of the national electorates. This is exactly what has happened so far with regard to the immigration debate, which not only has conflated crucial legal distinctions between a migrant, a refugee and an asylum seeker, but also has predominantly reflected the populist views of the mob over those of the democratic crowd.

This is not the place to analyse in depth the root causes of what is only the latest migration/refugee crisis in humanity’s history – the ‘clash of civilizations’ theory is often evoked; I believe instead that literature provides us with the most useful insights into the shape of things to come. The Camp of the Saints (Le Camp des Saints), a 1973 French apocalyptic novel by Jean Raspail depicting a not too distant future when mass migration to the West leads to the destruction of Western civilisation, eerily foreshadows current discussions about ‘European (Christian) values,’ or its local variant of ‘British values.’ In December 1994 The Atlantic Monthly dedicated its cover story “Must It Be the Rest Against the West?” to the novel. The piece is still so relevant that it might have been written yesterday. Here is its sobering conclusion:

For the remainder of this century, we suspect, the debate will rage over what and how much should be done to improve the condition of humankind in the face of the mounting pressures described here and in other analyses. One thing seems to us fairly certain. However the debate unfolds, it is, alas, likely that a large part of it–on issues of population, migration, rich versus poor, race against race–will have advanced little beyond the considerations and themes that are at the heart of one of the most disturbing novels of the late twentieth century, Jean Raspail’s The Camp of the Saints.

For a more recent literary example in a similar dystopic vein I would suggest Michel Houellebecq’s  Soumission (2015), which features the election of an Islamist to the French presidency, against the backdrop of a general disintegration of Enlightenment values in French society.

So here is the challenge facing us: how best can we advance the debate from the disturbing xenophobic undertones which have characterised it so far?

First of all a close look at our own myths might reveal that at the origin of Western civilization there is a refugee story: wasn’t Aeneas, the founder of Rome, a homeless refugee from the war between Greeks and Trojans? From the world of myths to the more pragmatic one of politics, the answer lies in “more Europe and more union”, as the EU commission president recently put it (not only more but a much better union and Europe, I would argue), and in the role that cultural institutions like universities, Europe’s traditional seats of knowledge, must play.

It is very welcome that, perhaps belatedly, Universities UK new President, Dame Julia Goodfellow – first female President since UUK was established in 1918 – launched the Universities for Europe campaign last July. Also, the UK universities’ commitment ‘to a future in the European Union’ was strongly reaffirmed in her recent address to the Annual Member’s Conference, together with the repeated urge to remove international students from the Government’s net migration target. In her conclusions Dame Julia Goodfellow reminded the conference that ‘every day, universities are improving lives, helping the country grow, and changing the world.’ This is the time for universities to be true to such an ideal mission. They can contribute to changing the world and changing lives in many ways, one of which is by supporting projects like Article 26, whose aim is to promote access to higher education for people who have fled persecution and sought asylum in the UK. Universities can make a difference by introducing a whole series of measures to support refugee students, as the University of Glasgow has just done. In ‘The Syrian refugee crisis – What can universities do?’ Hans de Wit and Philip G Altbach identify several ways in which universities can provide a positive response to the crisis, not least because ‘in the current competition for talent, these refugees are not only seen as victims and a cost factor for the local economy, but in the long run also as welcome new talent for the knowledge economy.’

Personally, I would love to see universities, so acutely aware of the benefits of philanthropy at times of financial constraints, becoming themselves generous intellectual benefactors. Solidarity (fraternité) might have its costs, but the costs will be enormously higher in the long run for us all by the lack of it. In a globalised world our personal stories and those of our nations are interconnected, just like our destinies.

To ‘Brexit’ or not to ‘Brexit’

December 11, 2014

Guest post is by Dr Anna Notaro, Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art and Design, University of Dundee

Britain’s conflicting relationship with the European Union is nothing new; however over the past few months the prospect of ‘Brexit’ – shorthand for British exit from the EU – has become an increasingly realistic possibility. Cataclysmic change might be a longue durée historical process, and yet sometimes the unthinkable turns into the inevitable at such a fast pace that one is left with a sense of incredulity mixed with self-reproach and impotence. However, it is exactly at times like this that the case must be put with the greatest decisiveness: Britain’s place is in the EU.

One has to acknowledge of course that the EU has been a source of frustration even for those most favourably disposed towards it – and I’m not alluding to a certain unhealthy interest in the shape of cucumbers, or a more justifiable interference with our household appliances. The EU has long been perceived as a detached and bureaucratic entity whose inner workings are based on treaties (see the Maastricht Treaty of 1992) signed when the internet had not yet changed the world. For national governments to divert internal political disquiet towards EU inefficiencies was an open goal not to be missed. This is clearly the case with immigration at times of economic difficulties. In terms of popular support, the political drive to leave the EU is largely based on stirring up public concerns about immigrants abusing social benefits, ‘swamping the country’ and driving down wages. Over the past year we have witnessed an escalation of UK government’s rhetoric, from the disgraceful ‘returns’ pilot scheme for illegal immigrants, to threats of curbing freedom of movement within the EU.

On the face of it one might have expected a formidable reaction on the part of UK universities, one which would have explained to the general public the reasons why the European project and immigration are in the nation’s best interests. Unfortunately universities, somewhat weakened by the efforts to justify their own existence in a context of fierce (inter)national competition, have responded by taking the balance sheet approach alone. They have correctly pointed out that the immigration crackdown could badly affect the international student vibrant market. The President of Universities UK and members of the Universities UK board have written an open letter published in The Times – a 194 word reminder that ‘universities are national assets which contribute £73 billion to the economy’. Similar economic arguments have been further expanded in the Universities UK blog. Most recently a study by UCL migration economists Dustmann and Frattini (ironically non-British themselves), which concluded that between 2001 and 2011 EU migrants made a net positive contribution of £20bn was negatively reported in the media.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the universities’ reaction has been typical of the way the EU is seen from London (the perspective is slightly different from Scotland), where few understand the driving force behind ‘Europe’ and most think only in terms of free trade and practical, commercial results. No letter to The Times (such a quintessentially British, ‘olden days’ manner to address a 21st century problem) can fix this; what is required is a reminder of the ideal value of transnational knowledge, such as the excellent work carried out at CERN, the recent landing of a European spacecraft on a comet, and the framework that allows thousands of students on the Erasmus programme to acquire memories and experiences which last a lifetime. Universities cannot expect to capture the public’s imagination by listing crude figures alone; the economic evidence is not sufficient, they should be tapping into the more spiritual, idealistic aspects which lie behind any human endeavour. They should articulate a collective vision which puts a premium on collaboration and solidarity. The risks of pulling out of Europe are far greater than establishing a ‘relationship with Brussels on the same level as Botswana’s’; rather Brexit would be a sad example of cognitive dissonance for a country proudly keen to remember the sacrifice of the fallen in the two world wars.

For all its faults in its current form, the ‘European project’ stems from a desire for reconciliation between European nations, shaped and defended by people from very different backgrounds who had experienced the horrors of nationalism. What we are confronted with in Europe today is no military war of course, but a resurgence of nationalist sentiments and emotions (see Marine Le Pen’s defence of the nation state in this recent interview, or UKIP’s ‘Little England’ pronouncements. This is a battle of ideas and it is incumbent upon universities to expose past delusions as well as the pitfalls of new ideological siren songs.

European ideals – a PS

May 29, 2013

If you thought I was a little pessimistic about the European Union in my last post, have a look at the comments reportedly made by EU Commissioner Günther Oettinger to a group of Belgian businesspeople. He declared the European Union was ‘ripe for reform’, and that it failed to recognise the dangers it faced. He described some member states (including Italy) as more or less ‘ungovernable’, and others (including France) as being unable or unwilling to take the steps needed to correct their economies.

I am still a supporter of the EU. I don’t want the UK (or Scotland) to leave. But I do believe it needs fundamental reform.

Bending the European ideal

May 28, 2013

Wherever two or three Eurosceptics meet to argue it out with supporters of the European Union, you may expect that at some point the conversation will turn to the curvature of bananas. The Eurosceptics will claim that EU law requires bananas not to be too bendy, while the EU supporters will insist that this is a myth put about to discredit the Union. Actually, it isn’t altogether a myth, to the extent that Commission Regulation 2257/94/EC, which came into force in 1995, provides that some bananas (so-called ‘extra class’ bananas) may not have anything more than ‘slight defects of shape’ and may not have ‘abnormal curvature’. EU supporters sometimes claim that this was repealed in 2008, but actually Regulation 1221 of 2008 does not make any reference to the above provisions.

The nature of EU regulations was more recently the subject of more unflattering commentary when the Commission proposed and then abandoned the idea of banning restaurants from using refillable jugs of olive oil.

As the future of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union is debated with more and more urgency, and as discussions about the mission of the EU also also become more common in other member states, the question is increasingly asked whether the EU ideal has become submerged in avalanches of unnecessary bureaucratic interference. This is probably at the heart of the debate in the UK, and Britain’s continuing membership may depend on the extent to which a reform of the modus operandi of the Union can credibly be offered.

In fact, the volume of EU measures with legal effect is significant. During the first four months of 2013, a total of 4,422 legal acts and decisions were issued. These range from decisions in important cases, to measures such as a regulation on safety control in cosmetics, to a restriction on the use of vitamins and food supplements.

One of the reasons why it has become difficult to convince European citizens that they should increasingly take their sense of identity from the EU is because the EU does not display great skill in producing a vision. The relatively simple mission of the original European Economic Community – bind together former enemies and create a common trading area for them – has been lost in the complexity and bureaucracy that the EU has become.

The EU is perhaps still supported by a majority of its citizens – though it is hard to say this for sure – but it is manifestly unloved by them. On top of that, it is criticised by the left for pursuing an uncritical protection of free markets, and by the right for undermining those free markets. The time has come for the European Union to take stock of its strategy and methods, and to connect if it can with those whose lives it regulates, which it may find easier to do if it can be visionary without being too ambitious. And it should stop worrying about things like how restaurants serve olive oil. It really does not need to regulate everything. Less is more.


May 8, 2011

As the article in yesterday’s Irish Times by Professor Morgan Kelly of University College Dublin demonstrates, there is now growing scepticism as to whether the EU/IMF ‘bailout’ of Ireland is sustainable, and whether the debt levels taken on by the Irish taxpayer can possibly ever be discharged. Just as we are facing up to this, we learn that the Greek bailout has run into trouble, and that talks are under way on the possible restructuring of Greece’s debts. In this setting it may or may not be the case  – depending on whether you believe the claims and/or the denials – that Greece is contemplating leaving the Euro. A further ingredient in this unstable cocktail is the impact of all of this on the Euro’s exchange rate, which right now is at wholly unrealistic levels.

If public confidence in Ireland and elsewhere in the European response to the debt crises is to be maintained or restored, the terms of the bailouts need to be re-assessed. This is all the more important because the curtain on the really big shows has not yet been raised; I am not just referring to Spain, but also to Italy, where there are major (and so far largely undiscussed) financial issues. The suggestion that the Greeks, the Irish and the Portuguese are being sacrificed in order to save the larger Mediterranean countries could yet produce explosive results.

For the moment all the talk is about banks, debts, currency and budgets. Bubbling under, but not yet explicit, there could be a much trickier discussion about the nature, purpose and ethos of the European Union. The financial issues need to be addressed and the impact on the countries affected so far needs to be re-assessed in order to avoid much more fundamental problems for the whole European project. That project must be shown to be about something more than just protecting the balance sheets of German banks. There is much at stake.

Taxing corporates

May 3, 2011

Ever since the roof fell on the Irish economy and the EU/IMF bailout was agreed or imposed, there  has been much talk of Irish corporation tax. It appears in particular that many of Ireland’s European partners have either assumed or demanded that Ireland’s corporation tax rate of 12.5 per cent (for trading income) must be increased so that it is in line with or closer to the rate levied in the larger EU countries. It has even been reported that French President Nicolas Sarkozy went into a ‘fit of rage’ when it became clear that Ireland would not willingly adjust its tax rate.

In the meantime the Irish political establishment and Irish business groups have emphasised the vital importance of low Irish corporation tax, and the damage that would be inflicted on the Irish economy if this were adjusted or if it were to be included in plans for EU-wide tax harmonisation. But there are some dissenting voices: for example, this article in the Irish Left Review argues that raising the rate from 12.5 per cent to, say, 17.5 per cent would have the effect of increasing tax revenues while also sorting out some political issues.

So what are we to make of all this? Is this a question of fiscal policy, or international relations, or investment policy, or social equity, or industrial innovation, or what? Is it as vital to Ireland’s interests as is routinely claimed? Is it (or should it be) any of our European partners’ business?

As these questions perhaps demonstrate, there are many different issues wrapped up in all of this. The two key ones however relate, firstly, to the needs of Ireland (and any other country contemplating their tax framework) at this stage of its development, and secondly to the nature and potential of European cooperation or integration.

Regarding the first, Ireland’s corporation tax framework is, contrary to some commentators’ assumptions, not new. It may have been rationalised more recently, but the low corporate tax model goes back to the 1950s, and it has been the foundation of Ireland’s inward investment strategy for a very long time. As a small peripheral country on the edge of Europe Ireland needs to have in place special incentives to make investment a good proposition. As Ireland moved away from low cost manufacturing, and in particular therefore as the country needed to persuade companies to locate higher cost activities there (as in R&D), a low corporation tax alone was not necessarily enough, but it did not cease to be important. I can speak from my own personal experience, as during the past 10 years I was able on several occasions to join the state agencies in persuading potential industrial investors to choose Ireland. Typically these would also be considering other locations that were as attractive or more so, and almost every time low corporation tax was one of the deciding factors, and sometimes was the only one. Those who argue for higher corporation tax often suggest that few multinationals would leave because of a higher rate, and they are probably right; but the key point is that far fewer would invest in future than would otherwise be possible. Those amongst our European partners who argue for a ‘level playing field’ forget the advantages that they have over Ireland; with a harmonised tax rate, it would not be a level playing field. They also assume that corporates now being (unfairly in their view) attracted to Ireland might otherwise go to, say, France. That also is far from clear. They would probably go to Asia.

It may be worth adding, while I am on the subject and as I have moved to Aberdeen, that in my view all the above arguments apply strongly to Scotland.

As for the issue of European cooperation, there is an urgent need for a greater degree of discussion about what kind of EU project is now capable of attracting more widespread popular support among the member states. The existing project has stalled, and this can be seen in referendum votes, national elections and other processes. The EU leadership needs to engage with the wider European population much more actively on this. In such a debate it can also be determined what harmonisation initiatives and proposals are workable.   Fits of rage by individual leaders are not a useful part of that process.

I am a strong supporter of the European Union. But it has work to do in re-energising the whole idea. Corporation tax harmonisation should not be a priority right now.