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Migration : a very personal view

October 1st, 2015 Posted by Uncategorized 1 comment

Migration – Then and Now: A Personal Response to Today’s Crisis

Earlier this year a relative of mine was going through the possessions of my late German grandfather. She found a curious document, folded and slightly faded. As she unfurled it, the faces of more than 50 men stared out at her. (more…)

In Response to Robin Lustig’s Piece: “My Father Was An Illegal Immigrant”

August 10th, 2015 Posted by Uncategorized 2 comments

It’s good to see so many people engaging in the debate – although some seem to have as much of a problem with the BBC as with the issue of Immigration!

The subject of immigration has been much on my mind too, not least as, somewhat akin to Robin, I too have a parent who came to Britain in search of refuge.

My father is an ethnic German. (more…)

UK’s EU Referendum: Fiction or Fantasy?

May 25th, 2015 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

Children – and even some ‘grown up children’ – could be forgiven for thinking that a scary monster may lurk in the big, hidden house at the end of the long, straight drive nestled in the Chiltern Hills. Or may be it’s a Big Giant – friendly or otherwise – who is coming to call this evening? (more…)

Clacton By-Election (#2)

October 11th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized 1 comment

Seismic Activity in British Politics: How Strong Will the Aftershocks Be Across Europe?

Screen Shot 2014-10-11 at 12.49.17

First UKIP MP, Douglas Carswell, with UKIP leader, Nigel Farage

A political drama was played out in a small theatre in an English seaside town in the early hours of Friday morning. No doubt Shakespeare, Goethe or even Molière might have been tempted to pen a work as UKIP – Britain’s eurosceptic party – won its first seat in the House of Commons and thereby made British political history.

(more…)

Clacton By-Election (#1)

October 9th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

The Unhappy Birthday Present

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Clacton by-election candidates from the Liberal Democrats, UK Independence Party, Labour, Conservatives and the Green Party (picture courtesy of BBC News website)

It’s been a blustery and sunny day in Clacton-on-Sea.

The small town, on the east coast of the UK, peers out from its promenade across a dirty grey sea towards dozens of wind turbines just off the coast, lined up as if ready to invade. And then it’s a straight, 150-mile (250-km) line southeast across the English Channel and the fields of Flanders – to Brussels.

This Thursday (9 October) a small and relatively deprived district of coastal Essex, with 69,000 people eligible to vote, is holding a parliamentary by-election. Advance copies of the local paper – the Gazette – are already predicting an historic day, one on which “British politics [will be changed] forever”.

(more…)

Scottish Referendum (#3)

September 19th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

Europe wakes up to Scottish Non/Nein/No/Ez/Nee/Nei/Nincs

I’m sitting in an arts venue just off Edinburgh’s Royal Mile beneath portraits of three key figures in Scottish political life:

– Johann Lamont is the leader of the Scottish Labour Party – a NO supporter;

– Ruth Davidson is her Conservative counterpart – also a NO supporter;

– and Nicola Sturgeon was the number two in the YES campaign – and is, at time of writing, Scotland’s Deputy First Minister.

(more…)

Scottish Referendum (#2)

September 18th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

Singing Through The Mist

Watched over by a statue of Adam Smith, the Scottish pioneer of modern economics, the square in front of St Giles Cathedral on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile rang out this afternoon to the strains of a would-be national anthem.
But it was not ‘The Flower of Scotland’ accompanied by the otherwise ubiquitous bagpipes that serenaded the international crowd: instead it was a full-throated version of ‘Els Segadors’ (‘The Reapers’), the anthem of the autonomous Spanish region of Catalonia.
Catalans are in Edinburgh in full force, firstly praising the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, for granting the Scots a vote on independence in the first place; and then giving their whole-hearted support to the YES campaign.
While Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond – last night in confident but inclusive mood – would probably want to re-pen some of the lyrics of ‘Els Segadors’ (“Catalonia triumphant shall again be rich and bountiful; drive away these people who are so conceited and so contemptuous”), he is surely welcoming the support.

But this sentiment of independence is giving cause for concern in Brussels.

Some believe that whichever side is declared the winner in the Scottish ballot in the early hours of tomorrow morning, a genie is now out of the bottle. The EU and some national governments fear the Scottish experience could lead to strong pushes for independence in places like the Spanish regions, Belgium and northern Italy. And some analysts believe a YES victory in Scotland could then lead to the rest of the UK exiting the EU once and for all (the so-called ‘Brexit’).
While the corridors of Brussels have for many months whiffed of the scent of frustration with the UK and its growing agitation against EU rules and regulations, many political leaders and officials agree that a ‘Brexit’ would not be good for the EU as a whole. The new President-designate of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has already made positive noises about the UK’s continuing membership of the EU – and ‘rewarded’ Britain with a more finance-orientated Commission portfolio than had first been mooted. And all this, despite a shaky Juncker-Cameron relationship.

So as a murky day dawned over the Scottish capital, all but obscuring the view of the city’s castle and putting a bit of a dampener on what had been almost a party atmosphere in recent hours as the YES and NO campaigns rose to their final flourishes, much was riding on how the people of Scotland answered that one, all-important question: “Should Scotland be an independent country?”
A bit of Scotch mist wasn’t going to stop them making their mark.

Journalists from around the world are in Scotland in huge numbers – surely into the thousands. Many were on the last train from Perth to Edinburgh last night after the final YES campaign rally, struggling with the pronunciation of some of the more typically Scottish place names along the route – but at the same time marvelling at a highly efficient wifi system on board the local train (rarely in evidence on similar trains in Scotland’s neighbour just 100 miles (160km) to the south, it must be said).
Many of the journalists are now working on their copy and reports in what would become the parliament of an independent Scotland – the current Scottish Parliament (designed, incidentally, by a Catalan architect). Above them rise the mighty hills of Holyrood Park and its main peak, Arthur’s Seat. I looked down from there this afternoon at the Scottish capital with its other six hills clamouring to emerge through the mist. Walkers, journalists and tourists were all in evidence, some even unfurling a Saltire Scottish flag to decorate the backdrop being used by the television news broadcasters in their iconic Edinburgh shots.
No doubt my fellow walkers were, like me, contemplating what sort of Scotland would finally emerge from the damp, enveloping haar, once the voting is over. Edinburgh Castle, the city’s proud sentinel, sits atop an extinct volcano – so no chance of an eruption there. But when it comes to Scotland’s political future as it emerges at dawn tomorrow, it may be a very different story.

All will be revealed in a matter of hours.

(More blogs to come. You can follow me on twitter: @BXLSeanK)

Correction: I apologise for my spelling error in Blog #1, in which I gave the ‘Scots’ an extra t to cross.

Scottish Referendum (#1)

September 18th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

On The Last Day of Campaigning…

 Brown boomed; Salmond soared

In the Scottish referendum campaign it’s been a day of high drama – in what have already been several weeks of high-tension political theatre. Many Scotts saw today as the culmination of weeks, months, years – in some cases even centuries – of campaigning for an independent Scotland.

The day began in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, with the former UK Prime Minister and notable Scot, Gordon Brown, appealing to his fellow countrymen and women to vote NO and remain part of a United Kingdom. It ended in the fair city of Perth with Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, making a rock-star entrance to the city’s concert hall and issuing the YES rallying cry of ‘let’s do this now’.

Both were performing to halls filled with one-hundred-percent supporters. The performances were of course far more for the attention of the rest of the country, beyond the walls of the respective venues. In both cases, social media lit up with effusive praise for the two ‘champions’: “the speech of his life” was not an uncommon phrase – from supporters on both sides.

As an EU watcher, I’ve listened to and read every report I can about what a YES vote might mean for Scotland and the EU. The truth seems to be that no one really knows. Speaking to Scots, political scientists and analysts, and fellow journalists in Edinburgh, views vary widely:

– Will there really be another border between England and Scotland?

– Will Scotland be forced in the end to adopt the Euro?

– How will Scotland fare without a bank of last resort?

– What will be the real impact on Britain’s position in the EU of losing 5 million people?

There are those who broadly take the Alex Salmond line that, in the end, the EU will come to some sort of accommodation with Scotland – afterall Scotland already follows the acquis communautaire (the EU’s ‘rule book’) and is an important part of the EU’s economy, not least where fishing stocks and oil are concerned. And then there are others who say Spain will stymy any attempt by Scotland to become the EU’s 29th member state, fearful as Spain is of further bolstering the spirit of independence in its regions, not least Catalonia. There are also those who believe further devolution for Scotland, in whatever guise, will lead some regions of EU member states – including in the UK – to examine more closely their own economies compared to their state’s national economy, and demand a better deal. Westminster is not the only political centre that’s twitchy about tomorrow’s (18th September) vote.

Sampling (a small quantity of) an AYE and a NAY beer at a media reception in Edinburgh last night, I heard the case of a Dutch colleague who is currently living in Scotland. As a tax-paying resident of the Alba nation, she is entitled to vote. She has only lived in Scotland for a few months and is not planning to make it her permanent home. So she is feeling heavily burdened with the responsibility of deciding the fate of a country where she will be but a transient resident. What is the right thing to do in such a situation? She is not yet sure. But she – like Messers Brown and Salmond – is only too aware that every last vote will count.

So now – back to Edinburgh for voting day. The turnout is expected to be unprecedented (the sort that dictators invent). And so it’s hard to know if the pollsters, working in such unchartered waters, have been accurate. The latest puts the two sides just 2 points apart; with Alex Salmond almost relishing the chance this evening to describe his camp as the ‘underdogs’, a term he perhaps hopes acts as a strong voting fillip.

May be it’s my recent Edinburgh taxi drivers – ever a political barometer for over-hasty journalists – who best capture the mood. One said he preferred to keep his counsel and leave the febrile atmosphere to tourists and the media; the other said his support for the NO side had led three lesbian passengers to accuse him of being a traitor.

The gamut of emotions and opinions is well and truly being run.

Tomorrow feels like just the conclusion of the first act of this action-packed drama.

Voting begins at 7am (18 Sept 2014).

(Updates to follow)

Scottish Referendum: last day of campaigning….

September 18th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

Scottish Referendum – Blog 17 Sept 2014

Brown boomed; Salmond soared.

In the Scottish referendum campaign it’s been a day of high drama – in what have already been several weeks of high-tension political theatre. Many Scotts saw today as the culmination of weeks, months, years – in some cases even centuries – of campaigning for an independent Scotland.

The day began in Scotland’s largest city, Glasgow, with the former UK Prime Minister and notable Scot, Gordon Brown, appealing to his fellow countrymen and women to vote NO and remain part of a United Kingdom. It ended in the fair city of Perth with Scotland’s First Minister, Alex Salmond, making a rock-star entrance to the city’s concert hall and issuing the YES rallying cry of ‘let’s do this now’.

Both were performing to halls filled with one-hundred-percent supporters. The performances were of course far more for the attention of the rest of the country, beyond the walls of the respective venues. In both cases, social media lit up with effusive praise for the two ‘champions’: “the speech of his life” was not an uncommon phrase – from supporters on both sides.

As an EU watcher, I’ve listened to and read every report I can about what a YES vote might mean for Scotland and the EU.   The truth seems to be that no one really knows. Speaking to Scots, political scientists and analysts, and fellow journalists in Edinburgh, views vary widely:

– Will there really be another border between England and Scotland?

– Will Scotland be forced in the end to adopt the Euro?

– How will Scotland fare without a bank of last resort?

– What will be the real impact on Britain’s position in the EU of losing 5 million people?

There are those who broadly take the Alex Salmond line that, in the end, the EU will come to some sort of accommodation with Scotland – afterall Scotland already follows the acquis communautaire (the EU’s ‘rule book’) and is an important part of the EU’s economy, not least where fishing stocks and oil are concerned. And then there are others who say Spain will stymy any attempt by Scotland to become the EU’s 29th member state, fearful as Spain is of further bolstering the spirit of independence in its regions, not least Catalonia. There are also those who believe further devolution for Scotland, in whatever guise, will lead some regions of EU member states – including in the UK – to examine more closely their own economies compared to their state’s national economy, and demand a better deal. Westminster is not the only political centre that’s twitchy about tomorrow’s (18th September) vote.

Sampling (a small quantity of) an AYE and a NAY beer at a media reception in Edinburgh last night, I heard the case of a Dutch colleague who is currently living in Scotland. As a tax-paying resident of the Alba nation, she is entitled to vote. She has only lived in Scotland for a few months and is not planning to make it her permanent home. So she is feeling heavily burdened with the responsibility of deciding the fate of a country where she will be but a transient resident.   What is the right thing to do in such a situation? She is not yet sure. But she – like Messers Brown and Salmond – is only too aware that every last vote will count.

So now – back to Edinburgh for voting day. The turnout is expected to be unprecedented (the sort that dictators invent). And so it’s hard to know if the pollsters, working in such unchartered waters, have been accurate. The latest puts the two sides just 2 points apart; with Alex Salmond almost relishing the chance this evening to describe his camp as the ‘underdogs’, a term he perhaps hopes acts as a strong voting fillip.

May be it’s my recent Edinburgh taxi drivers – ever a political barometer for over-hasty journalists – who best capture the mood. One said he preferred to keep his counsel and leave the febrile atmosphere to tourists and the media; the other said his support for the NO side had led three lesbian passengers to accuse him of being a traitor.

The gamut of emotions and opinions is well and truly being run.

Tomorrow feels like just the conclusion of the first act of this action-packed drama.

Voting begins at 7am (18 Sept 2014).

(Updates to follow)

Berlin Post

May 24th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

A Tough Five Years

When German voters go to the polls tomorrow (Sunday 25 May) in the European elections, in some parts of the country they’ll be offered up to 25 parties to choose from.
The range is from the established CDU (ruling Conservatives) and SPD (Germany’s socialist party); to the Marxist-Leninist Party of Germany; then Die Partei (the Party), founded around a satirical magazine; and various Christian parties, including Christian Mitte (the Christian Middle Way), which calls for a Germany “according to God’s Holy Law”.

There is no doubt that the last five years have been the toughest in the EU’s history: debt, unemployment, austerity, the ever-louder calls for reform. Many citizens seem at best disappointed with the European project – and at worst embittered. And this has led, in turn, to opposition – to differing degrees – to immigration.

There is also a relatively silent majority that is broadly satisfied with the EU.
This group is prepared – for the common good – to accept certain, some-times questionable rules and regulations and a pooling of sovereignty. Large numbers in this group are perhaps resigned to the status quo – but they still feel somewhat disillusioned with it.

European To The Core…?

So: enter the protest groups – the “anti’s”.
These fall broadly into two camps: the “let’s get-the-hell-out-of-here” groups (Britain’s UKIP for example); and the “let’s get to Brussels as quickly as possible and reform, reform, reform” groups.

Germany is of course at the very heart of the EU – historically, geographically, economically, psychologically even.
And as André, a Berlin physiotherapist, told me, “it’s heresy in this country to criticise the EU project. You’re immediately cast as a right-wing nutcase!”

Enter stage (Right) the ‘Alternative für Deutschland’, AfD (Alternative (party) for Germany). It was formed just over a year ago by a group of (mostly) academics, hence the nickname ‘the Professors Party’. And its number one candidate in tomorrow’s election is indeed Bernd Lucke, a professor of Economics at Hamburg University.
Within months of being founded, the party stood in last September’s general election in Germany – and missed out by a whisker on getting MPs into the Bundestag.
The German political establishment was stunned – and a little stung too.

History – And Planet ‘Blue’

And at its final national rally last night in Berlin, the Party pulled off what looked like another coup, gaining permission to stage the event on the famous Pariser Platz, the grandly renovated square dominated by the monumental Brandenburg Gate – just a few voting slips’ lengths away from the Bundestag, the very heart of German politics.
To do this it had got the permission of the Berlin police, Berlin City Council – and air traffic control (see below).

As I emerged from the underground station, the top of the Brandenburg Gate hove into view. In a split second it brings to mind a rush of thoughts of the world-changing historic events witnessed by this capital over the last hundred years. And with personal family links to Berlin going back more than a century too, I never fail to reflect on Berlin’s last tumultuous century.

But I’m then brought up short: I’m greeted by a man from – well, a blue planet!
He’s a cross between a blue Spider man (my 7-year-old godson would approve) and a Telly Tubby (I’ve no idea who would approve). AfD Party workers dressed from head-to-toe (faces covered too) in a blue suit (so much more than a ‘onesie’) and carrying blue balloons have become a common sight at AfD rallies.
The body-suits and balloons are all part of the professors’ efforts to appeal to a section of German society beyond the walls of academe.
The party was founded on the basis of strong criticism of the measures employed by the EU to tackle the bloc’s debt and banking crisis. Political commentators are broadly agreed that the young party is a Right-wing, populist party – but the AfD claims all it wants is a ‘grown up debate’ about how the EU works.

As the party faithful wait for their leader to appear on stage, there is a brief drama further along the Square. A group of Green Party supporters have approached and begin to serenade the crowd with a home-spun ditty, with the catchy refrain “Aufwiedersehen AfD”. But the ladies and gentlemen from the Blue Planet are ready for them: they hastily hand out whistles to AfD supporters.
The ‘musical’ cacophony is complete.
The police then move in and usher the Greens further back – but the strains of their song can still be heard faintly in the background (and no doubt by the guests in the lobby of Berlin’s most prestigious hotel, just across the road).

One party worker, who refused to give me even his first name, was willing to tell me that while out campaigning he’d been called a Nazi, had been jostled and that his wife had been insulted. “I try to ask them why they are against an open debate about the EU,” he tells me, “but they have nothing to say. They are just prepared to follow it all – like sheep. I’m no sheep.”

It’s All About The Head: Straw Boaters And Erudite Grammar

Then the party top brass starts to arrive.
Hans-Olaf Henkel, the Party’s number two candidate, is a 74-year-old former president of the BDI (German Federation of Industry). He sports a boater and to all the world is ready for a day out at Henley Regatta. “Our supporters are intelligent and not from the fringes of society,” he tells waiting journalists. “The main-stream media have conspired to paint us as right-wing extremists: we are not.”
Beatrix von Storch, the Party’s number four candidate, is a no-nonsense lawyer. She too is surrounded by the tv crews.

Finally Professor Lucke is on the Square, hotly pursued by journalists and cameras. He tells them, one by one, that the Euro is no good for Europe. “We need an orderly dismantling of the Eurozone,” he says. The AfD believes Germany doesn’t need the Euro; and that other countries are actually being harmed by it. He quotes Greece and the tough austerity measures imposed on Athens by the ‘troika’ of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the IMF.
He says either national currencies should be re-introduced or there should be smaller currency unions. He fails to answer my question, shouted from the crowd, about how much that would cost Europe.
The AfD also wants a stronger EU Parliament, on the grounds that it is the only directly-elected EU institution. And the Party completely rejects any idea of Turkey ever joining the European Union.

Professor Lucke then takes to the stage.
Backdrop: the Brandenburg Gate, of course.
He begins a speech that wouldn’t be out of place in a university lecture theatre or a pulpit. And the pulse rate of many a pedant of German grammar would have been racing, as the professor’s multiple subordinate clauses, sophisticated subjunctives and elegant inflections gush out into the now rainy evening.

Trade Talks And Condoms

There is talk of the AfD aiming to take at least 10 of Germany’s 96 MEP seats in the next parliament in Brussels. That’s probably wishful thinking – but the crowd is enthusiastic of course.
He returns to the theme of the ‘disastrous’ Euro project and tells the crowd that helping Greece to leave the Euro would be “an act of kindness”. He says the Euro will eventually split Europe in two – creating an underclass of impoverished nations.
More globally the professor is concerned that the EU is on course for a United States of Europe, which he totally rejects. He also condemns the current negotiations on a trade agreement between the EU and the USA (known as TTIP – the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership). He says this would lead to a massive loss of sovereignty.
He says member states must have the final say over which bits of legislation should be the competency of the EU; and that they must have the right to repatriate such areas of competency, if the need arises. (He’s a little short on detail as to how this would work, but is in favour of regular referenda, promoting the example of Switzerland.)
He doesn’t specifically say whether there should be a referendum on his next example.
He poses the question: “Is it really the role of the European Commission to determine that a condom can only be labelled a condom if it has been shown to be strong enough to hold up to 5 litres of liquid?”
Shades of ‘bendy bananas’ here – but the crowd bursts into fits of laughter, with many men shifting from left foot to right and back again.

At this point you could be forgiven for thinking that there are indeed some similarities here with the UK Independence Party. And although the two parties are reported to have had talks; and although some members of the crowd tell me they are fans of Mr Farage and his ideas – there is a fundamental difference here. Professor Lucke is standing in front of a banner that reads “Look out Brussels – here we come!” (my own loose translation).
The Party’s stated aim is to carry out radical reform from within – and not to withdraw Germany, wholesale, from the EU project.
So no wonder then that Bernd Lucke has ruled out any post-election alliance with the ‘out-of-Europe’ UKIP and its European group, claiming the AfD is in fact closer to the politics of the British Conservative party.
But there’s a problem there: David Cameron’s Conservatives at the European Parliament are currently in bed with various other national groups who are highly critical of – anti, even – Germany. And Professor Lucke has rejected forming alliances with them.

But in the European Parliament, if you are not part of a political grouping, you cannot be considered for the (very powerful) roles of committee chair (‘rapporteur’ in EU jargon); and therefore you have no influence.
That would presumably torpedo the AfD’s plans to ‘radically reform from within’.
In the coming days or weeks we shall see what impact political reality has on political ideals.

And then there are complaints about the atmosphere in which the German campaign has been conducted. Professor Lucke berates those groups who have defaced AfD political placards and attacked party workers.

By now the rain is getting heavier and Professor Lucke speeds up, his voice entering a final crescendo – the crowd whistles and cheers wildly.
To strains of Ode To Joy (Europe’s unofficial anthem – and not a particular Farage favourite), hundreds of blue balloons are released into the grey Berlin evening sky.

It’s hard to work out exactly what the thrill is of watching several hundred balloons – filled with hot air presumably – being released (with the permission of Berlin Air Traffic Control of course).
Then one party supporter explains the symbolism: “Some of those balloons [courtesy of their hot air perhaps] will soon be in Brussels; and we’ll not be far behind them!”

 

Tags: #EUElections2014 #AfD #Germany #UKIP #Conservatives