Making Brexit Our Own

People think this is the end for Britain. More than a week on from the surprise result of Britain’s referendum on its continued membership of the EU, those around me have barely calmed down. In all fairness, the black hole that now exists in Westminster, in place of leadership or a plan, certainly isn’t soothing any nerves. But more on this later.

We’ve had one week of sweary Facebook and Twitter tirades against the ‘idiots’ and ‘racists’ who have destroyed ‘our future and our children’s future’. Early polling analysis has only fueled this bitterness, with surveys showing a strong bias towards Brexit among those without degrees. Moreover, the results breakdown by district show provincial England and Wales dragging left-leaning (supposedly) Scotland and the younger, better educated cities out of the EU. Cue some absolutely breathtaking snobbery about ‘small minded people from small towns’.

uk-brexit-voting-results-map-e1466778229342

Source: 21stcenttech.com

The referendum reveals a divided Britain. The toxic rhetoric surrounding the result is dividing it further.

At some point, a large part of the country lost the sense it was valued and listened to. It would take a whole book to consider the nature and causes of this feeling properly. However, a few trends can be quickly seen, First, thirty years ago the solid jobs and industries that underpinned a strong working class were dismantled. But while devastating to the North and Wales, at least a strong welfare system and growing, meritocratic economy could ease the pain. A change of government in the nineties brought a few more sticking plasters: a minimum wage, ‘regeneration’ in poor areas, a shiny new school or hospital here and there. A personal credit frenzy even maintained the illusion that we all were getting more prosperous.

But the rot was setting in. EU expansion and a generous immigration policy brought a surge in immigration. I’m glad that as a nation we welcomed these hard workers and great people, but the ruling classes made a grave error in handling it. It seems reasonable now to acknowledge that rapid changes in the population of a local area can strain public services and unsettle established residents. But what the response to legitimate, if sometimes misdirected concerns about mass migration amounted to was the rich and powerful telling the poor and marginalised to stop being racist.

And that’s easy to say if isn’t your kid in a mobile classroom, or without a school place, because there aren’t enough to go round. It’s easy to say if higher housing demand just means a bigger rise in the value of your house, rather than paying exorbitant rents for an overcrowded flat because the social housing waiting list is six years long. It’s easy to say if it isn’t you who is unemployed because you can’t compete with the eastern European workers employers are willing to exploit.

Little wonder, then, that resentment at a wealthy elite was beginning to simmer. But once the economy crashed, services and infrastructure were undermined and the drastic undermining of social mobility became clear, this resentment became really widespread. A few genuine racists emerged in the form of the BNP, though fortunately the country gave them little support. Options to force change through the electoral system were limited, so despite the erosion of the two party system in favour of Scottish and Welsh Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and populist UKIP, a growing number of people just don’t bother voting any more.

Should we really have been surprised that the country grew tired of being bullied by this distant elite? This elite which tried to blackmail the country with threats of job losses and further housing shortages unless the country opted to remain in Europe. Incidentally, this is the same Europe our politicians had blamed for nearly every problem they couldn’t fix! Whatever the Remain campaign might have been trying to do, it ended up looking like a bunch of privileged figures trying to secure a status quo that enriched them and impoverished the disadvantaged.

The vote for Brexit was an expression of anger and a rejection of the status quo. Those demanding Parliament unpicks Brexit by stealth, or simply ignore the referendum result, are playing with fire. If the people cannot be heard on this simple, fundamental issue, how can they ever trust their politicians to govern on their behalf?

Many of those upset at Brexit worry about Britain’s impending isolation. They also fear our being outside the European Union and the protections it offers its citizens. I urge these people to adopt a more sophisticated and realistic response than seeking to override the country’s democratic decision. Let’s fight for a Brexit on our terms.

Free movement of people across Europe was a key issue in the referendum and it is clear Britain does not want it. We must accept that, despite threats from EU leaders that this will cost us access to the Single Market. But note that Britain is not negotiating with Europe from a position of weakness and inflexibility. I think our large economy and market is essential to the EU. If we were to agree to a common regulatory regime with the EU (thus protecting us from a right wing deregulation-crazed government) with a fast-track visa system for EU-resident professionals, we would be in a prime position to protect our financial and industrial sectors in a far-reaching trade deal.

Right now, there are a large number of EU citizens resident here who worried about their rights. It would not take much political pressure to see through the passage of legislation guaranteeing right of residents for those living here.

And let’s be mindful of the benefits of the situation we now find ourselves in. Outside the EU, and free from the scary TTIP trade deal, restrictive directives enforcing privatisation and marketisation of public services need no longer be followed. In time and under the right government, Britain will be able to correct market failures such as in the railways with much fewer constrictions.

Depending on our exact post-Brexit relationship with the EU, we may also be able to play our part in correcting a flawed international trade system in which rich countries use pacts and deals to freeze poor countries out of domestic markets. Britain may well have a freer hand to aid the development of poorer countries through fairer trade deals.

It might not be exactly what we wanted, but now Brexit is the future, let’s make it fairer.

 

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Give Greece A Chance

One week ago, Greece’s left-wing Syriza swept away the ‘pro-austerity’ establishment, riding a surge in popularity to office. Greece, Europe and the wider world are still trying to comprehend the implications of Syriza’s transition from a fringe party to a (radical) party of government. It fell just one seat short of an overall majority (parliamentary majorities have long since become a thing of the past). The new prime mininister, Alexis Tsipras (pictured) built a coalition not with the hardline Communist Party, which refuses to co-operate with any capitalist government; not with the so-called ‘centre left’ establishment of PASOK or its more successful splinter party, The River; but with the Independent Greeks. They can be best described as a party of the populist right, not dissimilar from UKIP. The new coalition could hardly be described as a natural marriage, but it seems that Syriza gets a free reign in domestic policy in exchange for handing the defence ministry to their junior partners. Appointing a redneck to run the military is not the most reassuring of moves.

Within days of taking office, Syriza has reversed savaged cuts in the minimum wage, reinstated numerous sacked public sector workers, cancelled IMF-imposed privatisations, abolished fees for prescriptions and hospital visits and restored pensions. It has also made powerful symbolic gestures, sweeping away the ministerial cars and barricades that separated the Greek people from their government. Syriza feels that if a government needs protection from the public, it is doing something badly wrong.

And as if talk of nationalisation (such as of banks and hospitals); a 75% marginal income tax band; corporate tax hikes and an emergency expansion of the welfare system were not enough, Syriza is demanding reflief on Greece’s national debt, now an eye-watering 175% of GDP. (See Syriza’s 40-point manifesto here)

The markets are having a fit.

The European Union is having a fit.

The Greek public are, for once, hopeful about the future.

Angela Merkel and the cabal of neo-liberal governments who have provided, through the ‘troika’- European Union, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund, bailouts totaling hundreds of billions of euros, have categorically ruled out any renegotiation of the terms of the loans. They are, rightly, fearful than any let up in the harsh terms imposed on Greece would lead to demands from other victims debt-burdened countries. On the other hand, Greece is aware that Europe’s big threat to Greece- that the country could be forced out of the Eurozone- would be almost impossible to implement and would destabilise Europe’s (and by extension the world’s) banking system. Similarly, if the troika cancels the latest installment of loans to Greece, and the country is forced to default, the troika is hurt as much as Greece. The situation is akin to a Cold-war style pose of mutually assured destruction.

Any disruption to the convention of debt-stricken countries being asset stripped by international bankers and the costs being passed on to the weakest through the wholesale dismantling of public services and welfare systems is going to be fiercely resisted. On the other hand, Greece simply cannot pay its debts. There will be a renegotiation of sorts. Greece’s first bailout was agreed amid talk of setting interest rates to ‘punish the Greeks’. The obscenity of such talk is clear to see now, when every basis point added to the interest rate of Greek debt is a thousand homeless pensioners. It was not long before the interest rate was reduced to 3.5%.

It is a pity that the troika cannot see that intelligently designed debt relief would get the weaker EU economies back on their feet so much faster and cost lenders much less in the long run.When the internal politics of the European bloc are concerned, concepts like ‘logic’ and ‘reality’ become much harder to pin down. The EU would not survive if two countries with directly opposing interests could not both emerge from negotiations brandishing a compromise that they describe as a resounding victory for their side. This is has been called  ‘Eurofudge’ , and its made the EU into what it is today.

The talks that Greece’s new government has opened now will result in an epic Eurofudge. I think another extension of the repayment period on its loans and a reduction in the interest rate to, say 2% would be the minimum concession needed. That’s what Greece will get, provided its creditors can leave talks saying that it will still repay every penny of the bailout loan.

Syriza is not waiting for a debt deal to begin rebuilding Greece. In a week, Syriza has achieved a lot more than a left government would be proud to accomplish in a year. However, only the financial certainty that a deal will allow will give Greece the space it needs to grow.

Socialist Government Dissolved Following Calls For Socialism

The whole world is begging us to put an end to these absurd austerity policies which are burying the Eurozone deeper and deeper in recession and which will soon end up with deflation. We must have the intellectual and political courage to acknowledge that austerity policies are making deficits worse instead of narrowing them.

Former French economy minister, Arnaud Montebourg

French President Francois Hollande has accepted his Prime Minister’s invitation to dissolve the Parti Socialiste government. The French government, led by arch-centrist Manuel Valls, was thrown into crisis after its Economy minister gave an explosive interview to Le Monde in which he attacked the leadership’s commitment to the Eurozone-wide austerity policy. Thus far, the government’s attempt to reduce its budget deficit to the Eurozone target level of 3% of GDP has only succeeded in suppressing economic growth and propelling the unemployment rate to 11%. In these harsh conditions, it is little wonder that the far-right National Front and the Left Front (signature policy: 100% top rate of Income Tax) are going from strength to strength whilst the President’s approval ratings have sunk to a jaw-dropping low of 17%.

Within a matter of hours, the Education and Culture ministers expressed their support for Montebourg, prompting Valls to offer the government’s resignation- a move aimed at settling the crisis before it forced a dissolution of the entire parliament. Hollande has said he will use the opportunity to exclude all left-wingers from the new cabinet  appoint a government “consistent with the direction set for the country”.

This marks the completion of Hollande’s selling out.

Back in the 2012 presidential election campaign, Hollande promised the French people an alternative to the austerity and the dictatorship of financiers that the previous government had tolerated. France was asked to elect a man with clear radical leanings. The Socialist candidate promised progressive taxation, increased education spending, and professed his dislike of “the rich”. Hollande even said:

My real adversary will never be a candidate, even though it governs. It is the world of finance.

It took just a few months in government for the new President to betray his people and surrender to demands for premature spending cuts and tax rises. As the economy reeled from these blows, the President’s political self-confidence visibly evaporated. He revised his ideology, stating that he was now a ‘social liberal’ (the French equivalent of a neoliberal or New Democrat). He backed a €30,000,000,000 tax cut for corporations whilst raising the tax burden on ordinary workers. Of course, Hollande follows in a fine Parti Socialiste tradition in promising radical change in opposition and then moving sharply rightwards in power (ahem- Mitterrand!) Unfortunately, this time such backtracking has failed to revive the French economy, with the consequence that the President is now distrusted by the Left and the Establishment that he has embraced.

It is difficult not to feel sorry for the French President. His premiership has been marred by adverse economic conditions that he inherited and can only partly control. His poor decisions following his ascent to the Presidency were made with good intentions, even if they are the wrong way to achieve economic growth. It is also true that he has invested so much political capital in enacting the Eurozone’s fiscal pact that he cannot retreat on the policy now.

Yet it is also clear that France must adopt a fiscal stimulus package- consisting primarily of tax cuts aimed at increasing consumer spending- as the Socialist left have been calling for. If France’s national interest is at odds with Hollande’s remaining in authority, it is obvious which must give. It is also a false choice, given that Hollande will be forced out of office if he cannot halt France’s economic stagnation. There appears to be no realistic scenario in which the President’s political career survives beyond the 2017 election.

Hollande is free to lock out the left from his new cabinet, knowing that the same group will not dare to vote against a right-dominated ‘Socialist’ executive in parliament for fear of provoking an election in which the party will be routed. However, clinging even more firmly to invalid monetarist economics will not get to the root of the political problem.

 

Farage: Pay Me More When I’m an MP

For a supposedly ‘anti-Establishment’ figure, UKIP leader Nigel Farage says and does a lot of things that exemplify Establishment life and opinion. He attended an elite private school; attained substantial wealth as a stockbroker; and was (until very recently) a proponent of a flat rate of income tax- a move that would see upper class high-earners like him save thousands of pounds at the expense of Minimum Wage earners. The latest proposal this self-styled ‘man of the people’ has bestowed on the world is that British MPs should be given a 50% pay rise if Britain withdraws from the EU.

At the same time, Mr Farage said that he would announce later this month which Kent constituency he will run for Parliament in next year’s General Election.

So at least he would be in Westminster just in time to receive his proposed £100,000 salary.

To be fair, there is some basis to Farage’s argument, even if it is transparently self-interested. He pointed out that headteachers and GPs often earn around the £100,000 mark, so MPs pay should match, given that they perform similarly important public services. On this matter, Farage is in rare agreement with the late firebrand trade unionist, Bob Crow, who said in an interview that working class youths would only aspire to a Parliamentary career if it paid as well as other ‘successful’ careers. I have some sympathy with this view, but it raises the problem of an even more privileged clique of MPs becoming further removed from the economic realities that face the 98.5% of their constituents who earn less than them.

As for Farage’s claim that MPs should be paid more upon Britain’s withdrawal from the EU because then Parliament would “actually [run] this country”: it’s nonsense. The workload and powers of MPs would hardly increase in practice. This is because all EU laws and directives have to be ratified, and corresponding legislation passed, by national parliaments anyway. Moreover, a Select Committee exists for the specific purpose of scrutinising EU law (meaning Parliament already scrutinises all EU law). Admittedly, that Committee is packed with ‘anti-Europe’ figures who provide minimal scrutiny, but the function nevertheless exists.

In short, MPs would do the same work: the only change they would notice is that the legislation they worked on all originated from domestic sources.

Farage’s future constituents in Kent wouldn’t want to give MPs a 50% pay rise for doing exactly the same work.

Please, Don’t Make an Enemy of Germany

Germany, the US and the UK are supposed to be friends. Since the defeat of the Nazis in 1945, the West German (and latterly the unified German) government enjoyed strong economic and military links with its former enemies. This was key to the reconstruction of a war-torn Europe, and has lent an unparalleled stability to Europe.

So last year’s revelations that the NSA-GCHQ plot to heavily monitor telecommunications extended beyond the so-called ‘security’ agencies’ own territories into those of unsuspecting European governments, came as a shock. Outrageously, the personal communications of European leaders were intercepted. It annoyed a lot of our friends Particularly Germany, which spoke of setting up a Continental communications alliance to evade Anglo-American survailance.

Relations with Germany were thus strained. But that, it now appears, is not the whole story.

The CIA has breached the historic ‘no spying’ agreement that all NATO members sign. The pact obliges signatories to refrain from all espionage measures against other NATO governments, including their intelligence agencies. But, according to the Guardian newspaper:

The BND [German intelligence agency] staffer, a technical support worker employed in a unit dealing mainly with the protection of German soldiers abroad, is alleged to have established contact with the American secret service by contacting the US embassy. Rather than report the contact to their allied German counterparts, the CIA is reported to have paid the agent €25,000 (£20,000) for 218 documents classified as confidential or top secret .

It’s bad form to spy on your friends. It’s stupid to provoke an influential country for the sake of a petty intelligence advantage. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a legitimate reason for the CIA to break rules for relatively insignificant (as far as America’s interests are concerned, at least) information.

Germany is perfectly justified in pursuing a strong response to the news, but the matter is controversial: the government has announced that it will adopt counter-espionage measures, and has of course arrested the BND double agent. But the former move has attracted criticism on two counts. Firstly, creating an intelligence arms race between two powers who remain on the same side seems like a waste of time and resources. This is absolutely true. It also is bound to intensify existing tensions, possibly making enemies of the two nations for no good reason.

Secondly, Merkel’s government should decide what it wants to gain: revenge on the United States, or the cessation of the spying that has caused the original problem. In any dispute, it is horrifyingly easy to descend into a tit-for-tat game which usually creates a lot of ill feeling and leaves the original issue unsolved, even forgotten. Those who exercise restraint and pause to think logically about the issue at hand are much more likely to reach a constructive solution. This applies to foreign relations just as much as it does to day-to-day life.

For a start, the German government could politely but firmly insist on an apology from the United States and a firm undertaking that they will not repeat this betrayal. I know, it’s a little feeble. However, the US would be shown in a very bad light if it didn’t agree to such a reasonable request.

If German public opinion demands something a little stronger, then there are better means of applying pressure to the US government. For example, some politicians have suggested that Germany suspends or torpedoes the TTIP, the Euro-American ‘free trade’ deal: after all, it would be foolish to pursue greater economic co-operation with a country that you can’t trust. (Admittedly, I’d be quite happy to see the TTIP blocked anyway.) The Obama administration would be hugely embarrassed to see one of its flagship economic policies ruined because the CIA was ‘nosey’ about the German military.

Let’s hope that the German government stays on the moral high ground, and doesn’t act rashly to further damage its relationship with the US.

TTIP: The EU-US Pact That Threatens Democracy

Politicians know that one of the best ways to avoid public scrutiny is to make things sound as boring as possible. That’s why the economic pact being negotiated (in secret) by the European Commission and the US government has been given the mundane title of the ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership’ (TTIP).

The stated aim of the TTIP is to create an open market spanning a bloc stretching from Anchorage to Athens, encompassing more than half of the world’s economy.  Goods and services would be freely exchanged between 29 of the world’s richest nations, perhaps providing some respite from the relentless industrial competition from the likes of China.

So far, so reasonable.

However, the negotiations have been conducted in secret, leaving the general public learning about their economic futures through a series of leaks. The European and American governments would not have told the people that they can’t agree on common food safety standards (after all, consumer regulations would have to be standardised). Funnily enough, the EU is reluctant to dilute its regulations to American levels, which were virtually written by Monsanto lobbyists.  We would also have not been told about the inclusion of the dull sounding Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) in the agreement.

ISDS means the establishment of a ‘supercourt’, which can impose crippling fines on governments which do anything to limit the profits of a corporation of industry. Even the risk of being sued will prevent governments imposing inconvenient regulations, even environmental protections. Nationalisation will become virtually impossible, as will protecting strategic industries from foreign ownership. I  wish that I was exaggerating, but sadly I’m not. It is widely accepted, for example, that NHS semi-privatisation would be not only permanently entrenched by TTIP, but American healthcare giants would be able to take over most privatised services.

As if this weren’t bad enough, the principle of ‘mutual recognition’ would be imposed. Business would effectively be allowed to choose which country’s regulatory regime it abides by. Surely, nobody is seriously suggesting that this won’t lead to ‘lowest common denominator’ regulation! We’ve been warned that US banks would opt for lax European controls, for example.

The will of the people’s democratically elected leaders would become secondary to multinationals. The corporatocracy is here.

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

Image courtesy of Greenpeace

The structure of TTIP is being hammered out in secretive negotiations between the American government and the European Commission, an unelected body. However, the resulting treaty will have to be ratified by the US Congress, the European Parliament and the national parliaments of every EU member state. Although there will be a democratic process for approving TTIP, it will be presented as a fait accompli. All or nothing, Given the make-up of the new European Parliament, the right-wing majority is likely to approve it. If there are only one or two dissenting national parliaments, they will come under intense pressure to surrender to the TTIP. The EU has a habit of ‘asking’ member states the same question again and again until the right answer is given.

The TTIP must be either revised beyond recognition or rejected, if elected governments are to retain sovereignty over corporations. With determined campaigning, either of these aims can be achieved. For example, it is difficult to see France- which is so economically protectionist that it recently blocked a foreign takeover of the Danone yoghurt company citing “national security”- really surrendering control of its business affairs. American industry will reject out of hand the toughening of law to meet more exacting European requirements.

The European Green movement is unequivocal in its opposition to TTIP. Many of the populist movements in Europe share that position. Then there are many movements like Labour which are divided. These parties could perhaps be persuaded that TTIP must be ratified by a referendum, given that is in essence a transfer of sovereignty and thus a constitutional reform.  It is only right that the people themselves have the final say on how their lives and their economy is governed.

UKIP Just Isn’t Racist

When the Tea Party emerged in the US, it posed a threat to the political establishment. Not because it stood a ‘whelk’s chance in a supernova’ of winning control the White House, despite the partiality of much of the American public to underfunded public services and rabid social conservatism, but because it could damage the authority and standing of the existing parties. When leading figures in the Tea Party openly talked of breaking away from the GOP because it was not right-wing enough (how strange that claim sounds to European ears!), they could have ‘crashed’ the American political system. Had they followed through on their threat, the Republicans would have been reduced to permanent opposition, with the Democrats in permanent government by default, because of the split right-wing vote. This would have actually hurt the Democrats, as they’d have lacked a popular mandate.

In the UK, there have been parallels drawn between UKIP and the Tea Party. Both are populist, libertarian-based movements which emerged from virtually nowhere to representing perhaps a fifth of the electorate. But there are differences: UKIP is a de facto splinter group from the Conservatives, so it will test its electoral mettle as an autonomous political party. Consequently, UKIP is drawing support from all over the political spectrum in a way that the Tea Party never could.

The result is that the three main political parties have reacted with a combination of aggression and moral superiority towards UKIP. The latter is badly, badly misjudged. Take the latest case; the outcry about the so-called ‘racist posters’.

About one in ten of those 26 million unemployed Europeans are in fact British. The other 23.4 million are not going to move to the UK- at least, only a small proportion of them are, given that we’ve got a shortage of jobs. Without a doubt, the poster is misleading and reactionary.

But is it racist?

No.

There has been large scale migration to the UK in the past from eastern Europe, and it has had many benefits. Yet these are benefits which have gone to the privileged. On the whole, it is the working class which has borne the brunt of unnecessary competition with migrants for jobs and services. For people like Gillian Duffy, the grandmother who was so disgracefully accused of ‘bigotry’ by then Prime Minister Gordon Brown for worrying that her grandchildren were struggling to find school places, immigration has had real costs. UKIP is profiting from the somewhat justified feeling in the working class that nobody else is fighting their corner.

The Conservative government of 1979-97 destroyed the systems (trade unions, regulations, public services, the welfare state) that protected the living standards of all of us, but particularly the working class. The New Labour government which followed failed to restore them, then applied loose immigration controls. The resulting combination was the perfect recipe for a race to the bottom on wages, escalating housing costs and strained public services. Of course it’s to the benefit of genuine bigots to blame the migrants themselves for this. Nevertheless, nobody could blame the migrants if there had been adequate checks and balances to prevent a scenario in which groups of eight, nine, ten migrants would pay astronomical rents for shared two-bedroom flats to slum landlords out of their illegally sub-minimum wage pay packets.

The typical Guardianista might attack UKIP supporters as being racist. That only aids UKIP in their cynical attempt to capitalise on the frustration of the disadvantaged. Until the established political parties have a more meaningful response to these fears about immigration and the European Union, other than simply branding them as ‘racist’, UKIP will flourish. We need to tackle UKIP head-on.

That doesn’t mean we have to capitulate to their toxic migrant-bashing, far from it. There has to be a tangible, straightforward policy solution that protects everyone’s standard of living. The ‘old’ White British working class and the ‘new’ minority ethnic working class both deserve a hand-up, and it is up to our politicians to show that the advancement of one of these groups does not come at the expense of the other.

‘Immigration’ is blamed for our high unemployment, creaking public services and lack of housing. What about creating more schools, hospitals, homes and jobs until there are enough to go round? Some complain that their communities are changing beyond recognition. What about slowing and controlling further immigration, giving our multi-racial society enough time to integrate recent migrants. We’re worried that the influx of low-cost labour from eastern Europe is depressing wages in unskilled jobs. What about developing trade unions and statutory pay requirements to ensure that wages rise?

The ‘answer to UKIP’ lies in offering the people of Britain, wherever they come from, a better society to aim for than one riddled with class and ethnic divisions. We need people to see through this ‘divide and rule’ and focus on those who are actually responsible for the economic and social inequality and insecurity that is afflicting us all. Yet the interests of big business and the ‘uber-rich’ are much harder to take on than those of immigrants.

Progress Towards a Democratic Internet

The European Parliament has voted through the Connected
Continent Regulation, widely known as the “net neutrality” law. Subject to approval by a summit of culture ministers, the law will come into effect this winter. The move is a landmark parting of the ways between Europe and the US on policy as to the future of our Internet. But we aren’t all technology nerds: few people are aware of the battle taking place over the soul of the “people’s network” in legislatures and regulators’ offices around the world. So what is net neutrality?

In short, net neutrality is the principle that ISPs should treat all traffic equally, whatever its source. That means that websites should not be able to pay your broadband supplier to give them preferential download speed. Landline and mobile broadband providers should not block access to content that rivals their own “bundled” content. For example, Vodafone should allow its network users to use Last.fm even if it has a deal to sell Spotify subscriptions to its users.
The case for net neutrality legislation is solid. Without it, the world will suffer with a two-tier Internet in which established web services squeeze out start-ups by snapping up most of the available bandwidth. If web users stray beyond the “higher web”, where the Digital Establishment offers users lightning fast speeds but little choice, they will find themselves in a decaying, traffic-free and grindingly slow lower web. The level playing field that allowed innovative new services like Wikipedia, YouTube and WordPress to develop will be gone: the Internet will become a game for the big guys only, with everyone else virtually locked out. The process is already beginning, with Google conducting a multimillion dollar deal with Verizon, one of America’s largest ISPs.

A two-tier Internet might not have emerged yet. It won’t have by next year. But in 5 years or so, the trend will be entrenched and impossible to reverse. The European Union bloc has sufficient clout to ensure genuine net neutrality within its borders. But what about the other 92% of the world’s population? The Internet will begin to look quite different as regulations vary.

Some ISPs have warned that the EU has cut off a vital new funding stream needed to cope with the exponential growth in bandwidth-heavy traffic. They complain that they will have to pass on higher costs to consumers. That’s not true: those additional costs will exist anyway. If YouTube had to buy the bandwidth needed for users to access its content, it couldn’t cover that cost with advertising. It would be forced to charge for its service. Internet use would become dependent on a hundred little subscriptions, outweighing any saving made in broadband costs.

So I thank the European Parliament from remaining true to the democratic principles upon which the Internet was founded.

Time For A New Deal On Halal Food

I have said before that the European Union, for all its faults, had the one benefit of imposing world class consumer protections across a trading bloc one-and-a-half times as populous the United States. In particular, food produced or bought in the EU has the toughest safety and ethical regulations applied anywhere in the world. It was this attitude which led to moves in the European Parliament to require labelling of all food with halal or kosher content. Muslim and Jewish consumers could have confidence that the food they buy complied with their religious beliefs, whilst others could make an informed choice about their food.

A perfectly moderate, reasonable policy, you might say. Nobody was imposing their choices on other people. Yet the legislation ran into huge opposition from the halal food industry, and was defeated. We are still not entitled to know how the animals we eat are killed. Why?

Even in a world where factory farming is fast becoming the norm, the suffering caused to animals by halal slaughter is eye-watering. Animals are left to bleed to death after their throats are cut open. They can remain conscious for minutes after cutting, experiencing agony worse than can be imagined. Muslims should be allowed to buy food prepared this way: that is their choice. Yet, I as a non-muslim, feel equally entitled to the choice to eat only humanely slaughtered meat. Unfortunately, I don’t have that choice.

Halal food is everywhere in the supply chain. Investigations show that school meals, prison food, takeaway food and ready meals from all major supermarkets often contain halal meat. That’s because halal meat doesn’t come at a premium to other meat, so is not traded separately. However, because the meat retailers don’t record the religious compliance of each batch of meat, they don’t even get the benefit of halal certification. Nobody’s happy, because they don’t know what they’re buying.

David Cameron said yesterday that there would be no restrictions on halal meat while he was Prime Minister. He is right to defend the religious rights of muslim consumers. Nevertheless, I don’t see why a requirement to label halal and kosher food should contradict that pledge. That’s the minimum that’s needed. Then we should have a national debate over a requirement that all animals are stunned before slaughter, regardless of religion. There are plenty of figures in the halal food industry who are certain that stunning animals before the cutting is entirely compatible with religious requirements. There must be no question of singling out a particular religious group, but consumers have a right to make their own, informed choices.

The World Review: Cuba Progresses Whilst Venezuala Retreats

Rio strikers declare victory

An 8-day strike by binmen in Rio de Janeiro drew to a close last weekend after union members accepted a 37% pay increase. The vast majority of the city’s 15,000 waste collectors were protesting against low pay (the standard wage was just £60 a week) and poor conditions in contrast to much of the city’s population, which is benefiting from regeneration ahead of the World Cup in the summer. The strike was particularly effective given the chronic littering problem the city suffers- even the Mayor was fined after being sighted throwing litter. The entire refuse collection service had ground to a halt, prompting fears of industrial action in the summer.

EU opens talks with Cuban government

The European Union is seeking to restore “normal” diplomatic relations with Cuba for the first time since 1996, in a bid to build on warmer relations between Cuba and the western world. However, EU officials say that bilateral relations with the dictatorship would be conditional on the latter making improvements in its approach to human rights. The foreign minister of Cuba said “On the basis of equality and mutual respect, Cuba is completely willing to discuss any topic, including human rights”. In reality, the negotiations are largely driven by the desire to ease trade between the sanction-hit island and the world’s largest trading bloc.

Venezuela’s police resort to tear gas

The movement that brought Hugo Chavez to power on a wave of popular support and overturned a US-backed coup in 2003, hemorrhaged international support last week as it came to resemble the authoritarians it claims to oppose. Police have resorted to increasingly harsh methods such as releasing tear gas to disperse “unauthorized” protests. Dissatisfaction with the government’s economic policies has prompted much of Venezuela’s middle class (working class people are conspicuous by their absence) to undertake widespread demonstrations ranging from the peaceful to the criminal. However, both President Nicholas Maduro and right-wing opposition leader Henrique Capriles have called for a “peaceful” national dialogue.

Privacy groups seek WhatApp buy-out block

The Electronic Privacy Information Center and the Center for Digital Democracy, two ‘dig lib’ (digital liberation) groups, have sought to veto Facebook’s acquisition of the WhatsApp messaging platform in a complaint to the US’ Federal Trade Commission. The appeal was made on the grounds that Facebook is likely to amend the data usage terms of WhatsApp, giving them access to information provided on previous understandings between users and WhatsApp- which would amount to “deceptive trading”. The FTC will make a decision on either blocking or imposing conditions on the buy-out, but experts say that it is unlikely to take any action.

Libyan PM threatens to bomb oil tanker

In a desperate bid to regain control of his country’s oil reserves, the prime minister of Libya has issued a threat on TV to destroy an oil tanker controlled by separatist militia from the country’s eastern region. The tanker, currently docked on the port of Es Sider, bears the flag of North Korea and has a capacity of several hundred thousand gallons. Libya considers the oil to be state property, and is prepared to spill it in the Mediterranean (with dire environmental consequences) rather than have it sold illegally to provide funds for their armed rivals. The United States has said that the Libyan government alone is entitled to sell the fossil fuel reserves.

Malaysia opposition leader jailed

Anwar Ibrahim, who lead Malaysia’s opposition movement to its strongest general election performance last year, has been sentenced to five years’ imprisonment for the alleged crime of “sodomy” with a male aide. Ibrahim has protested that the charges, which were previously dropped in 2008 due to lack of evidence, were part of a smear campaign in a country in which homosexuality remains socially unacceptable. Ibrahim’s supporters point out that any party leader who poses a serious threat to a government which has won every election since 1957 is likely to provoke an aggressive response.