Now that the dust has settled on Ireland’s bond crisis and the feelgood sentiment of Christmas and New Year have lulled us all into think the worst was over, those nasty money markets fire another shot across the bow of the good ship Complacency. It is more or less a done deal that Portugal is next in line for a euro bailout, but the surprise comes that Belgium could well be far closer to the brink than we have all thought. Belgium? One of the original Benelux countries? (The clue’s in the name). Boring Belgium, merely known for huge portions and a Flemish right-wing which is as close to being Nazi as makes no odds? Yes, that Belgium. It hasn’t had a government for the past ten months and an emergency budget passed to try to get to grips with the country’s debts is thought to be too wishy-washy by half. So now King Albert II has ‘urged’ the politicians to come up with a rather tougher budget to see the country through to better times. Quite why he thinks they will does as he bids and reach some agreement, given that both sides – the Flemish and the Walloons – are so at daggers drawn that they can’t even agree on forming a government is a mystery. But even the fact that the king – who as far as I know has no constitutional role to speak of – has decided to get involved should reassure as that this is no minor crisis.
The Germans, as brave and steady as the next man until they decide they have had enough and will look after number one with a ruthlessness which always takes one’s breath away (and that, by the way, is not mean as criticism – I rather admire how they have so far remained on the sinking ship), will feel the crisis getting ever closer. And they will not like it, although they might feel easier about bailing out fellow Northern Europeans than they did about rescuing the Greeks. I read or heard (or possibly dreamed) that China is considering buying up euro debt and could thus be part of the lifeline, but at this point, I can’t be arsed trying to source that particular titbit of news. It would, however, make sense: China can produce as much as it likes, but until Africa is ready to buy its goods – which will not be for many more years – it needs a healthy Eurozone and a healthy America to soak up those goods. No buyers could cause an slump in production at home and the result of that would be even more domestic unrest.
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Croatia is on the brink of probably becoming the EU’s newest member, although most polls show markedly lukewarm sentiment among the Croatian in the street towards membership. The government’s in favour (of course), and its polls are rather more positive. But all the independent polls have support in the mid-30s, which is not exactly a ringing form of endorsement. One reason given is that after Bulgaria and Romania were allowed to join on quite favourable terms and have now done nothing to fulfil their promises of cracking down on corruption, the terms of Croatian membership are likely to be tougher. All the accounts I have read spell out harshly that the same criminals who ran Bulgaria before it became an EU member are still running the country. And if similar sums of EU money being syphoned off by the Mafia in Italy are going missing in Romania and Bulgaria, the poor German taxpayer has one more thing to worry about.
The basis logical flaw in the argument for being a member of the EU is that we can’t all be ‘exceptional’. To be an ‘exception’ (i.e. to be economically better off than your neighbours) you must, by definition, be in the minority. But if everyone and his dogs joins up, what’s the point?
What is bothering many in Croatia is that ‘stringent’ EU rules mean that farmers must either drastically improve their operation at great cost or go out of business. In practice, that means the big farmers – for which read those ‘farmers’ who are, in fact, part of some multinational conglomerate, will have the resources to re-tool according to EU rules, but your small to medium-size farmer will not. And so your small to medium-sized farmer is destined to go out of business. And in view of that fate, your small to medium-sized farmer is asking him or herself: why should be join the EU and go out of business if we could not join the EU and stay in business?
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The real trouble, of course – to use a cliché, the elephant in the room – is that Western European countries, which formed the EU until a dozen or so years ago, have, by and large, a history of democratic institutions. On the other hand too many of the new ‘member states’ haven’t. And it is a moot point as to what would happen if things really got out of hand and there was widespread unrest in the streets. We Brits reckon our cops can behave ‘brutally’ but, in truth, they are models of discretion compared to how the police in other countries behave. Then there is the ticklish question of what the EU establishment would do were an outright authoritarian regime to be established in one of its member states? I’ll be blunt: I’m thinking of Hungary where the rather nasty Fidesz Party has just enacted a series of media laws which are more reminiscent of the regime run by the Communists less than 22 years ago. Just how happy is the, avowedly libertal elite, in Brussels with this development, which is even more embarrassing given that Hungary has just taken over the rolling six-month presidency of the EU? If it behaves in the way it has been reacting to all the EU money going missing into the deep, deep pockets of crims Europe-wide, it will simply employ the ostrich strategy, stick its head in the ground and pretend it isn’t happening. The government under Viktor Orban, who founded the Fidesz Party, says it also plans to rewrite the constitution. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but judgment should be withheld until one can read what the new constitution spells out. And it doesn’t look particularly encouraging.
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Incidentally, it is more than just amusing when governments get precious about their prime ministers. It is also rather odd, although quite what this oddness can signify is not easy to tell. After I had written the above part of my entry, I was idly looking through other pieces which have appeared in the Economist recently and came across a recent spat that newspaper had with Hir-TV, Hungary’s state TV. The Economist had printed a picture of Viktor Orban and, in order to make it look neater in its page layout, it had cropped the left and right sides of the picture. I include both (taken from the Economist website to demonstrate what was done.) Hir-TV rang the Economist and accused it of ‘manipulating’ the picture, although, according to the Economist, it would not specify how it believed the picture had been manipulated. After that phone call, it broadcast its claim without pointing out the the newspaper had denied it had done what Hir-TV claimed. This is all very odd. Most politicians are robust and can take gentle ribbing, but here there was not even anything as gentle as that: there was nothing. So what was going on? Here are the pictures: below left is the original supplied by AFP, and right is the same picture cropped by the Economist.