First presidential debate: Romney good, but not good enough

On last night’s presidential debates: Mitt Romney clearly did a better job (“won”, if you’re keeping score) against a President Obama who seemed somewhat tired and defensive. Although mostly still in attack mode, Romney did talk some about his own plans (although still really vague on details), and seemed to make a credible appeal to the all-important independent voters.

However, in doing so, he also presented a glaring contrast to the role of the right-wing, thoroughly conservative ideologue that he was obliged to play during the Republican primaries in order to win the nomination. It’s as if he’s saying, “You know all that crazy stuff I said during the primaries? Eh, let’s just pretend that never happened, shall we?” It is guaranteed that Obama’s campaign staff will not be that obliging – I assume they’re busy right now making ads comparing Romney last night with Romney 6 months ago – and even more problematically for him, the Republican base will also have a hard time reconciling the new Romney with the candidate they nominated. They’re not going to vote for Obama, of course, but they might just decide to stay at home.

So bottom line, Romney did a good job, but probably not good enough to be the game changer he needs at this point. And his most fundamental problem is really a structural problem within the Republican party as a whole: The type of candidate who can win the nomination is miles away from one who can actually be elected; and a candidate like Romney who tries to cover both the ideological Republican base and the independent segment opens himself up to being attacked as an opportunistic flip-flopper.

My money is still heavily on Obama in this election. (Also, Jim Lehrer should have stayed in retirement. I mean, seriously, what happened to him?)

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“I own a lot of cars, so please love me, Michigan.”

So the Republican Party in the US are in the middle of their primaries, and in fact, Michigan and Arizona are having their votes today, the polls closing in a little over respectively one and two hours at the time of writing. I’ll have a more comprehensive post on the primaries out in time for Super Tuesday, but for now let’s just take a moment to reflect on the sort of utterly inane campaign strategy that could lead to this:

… and this:

If Romney wins in Michigan, it will not be because of, but in spite of those performances. My guess is that there must at one point have been a brainstorm meeting at the Romney HQ that went something like this:

Campaign Manager: “So… Michigan. Anyone?”

Everyone: “…”

Strategist 1: “We could give Mitt one of those silly cheese hats for his next speech?”

Strategist 2: “I think those are from Wisconsin.”

Strategist 1: “Oh.”

Everyone: “…”

Strategist 2: “What about cars? They make cars in Michigan. Or they used to.”

Campaign Manager: “Okay. Cars. We can work with that.”

Strategist 1: “Yeah, let’s have Mitt talk about all the cars he and his wife own. To show that he’s just one of the average guys, you know.”

Strategist 2: “And then we’ll do an ad about how they used to be really good at making cars, but now they basically suck. They’ll love that.”

Campaign Manager: “Brilliant! I think we’ve got this one wrapped up.”

I’m convinced that’s exactly how that meeting went.

In other and unrelated news, I’ll go out on a limb and predict a significant win for Rick Santorum in Michigan.

(PS. Comedy Central: I’m available as a script writer. Call me!)

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“It’s alive!”

There was a paragraph in a Financial Times blog post about the Greek debt deal that really caught my eye this morning:

The [International Swaps and Derivatives Association] is important because they are the industry group which decides whether so-called credit default swaps – essentially insurance policies investors buy to protect them against a bond default – should be triggered. This is the “credit event” that European officials, particularly at the ECB and the French finance ministry, have been hoping to avoid.

The scary thing about CDSs is that nobody really knows who owns them. So if the ISDA rules they must be paid out, lots of financial institutions my suddenly find themselves with significant losses. It’s that kind of uncertainty that spooks the financial markets.

Seriously, how absurd is that? I thought the whole point of a CDS was to provide insurance against a “credit event” (a wonderful euphemism for a default) so that the pain would be spread around a bit more. But now it turns out that no one apparently imagined that these CDSs would ever have to be paid out, and the very idea that it could happen is “spooking” “the markets” (the poor dears) – which of course created the damn things in the first place. So in other words, what was originally meant as an insurance instrument is actually making the whole situation even worse.

This is an excellent example of how the last couple of decades of deregulation and globalisation have allowed the financial sector to burrow so far down in its own twisted logic that it couldn’t find its way out anymore, even if you gave it a map and a torchlight.

Or to think of it another way: The financial sector seems to have created a construction that, while appearing brilliant at first, has eventually revealed itself to be a monster that is beyond their control and will turn on not just its creators, but everyone else as well. Doesn’t that remind us of something? Something very… classic?


(Although to be fair, Frankenstein’s monster did have some redeeming traits. I’m not sure you can say the same thing about CDSs.)

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“I was in a bookstore/café that could neither sell books nor make coffee”

UPDATE: I’ve been made aware by a reader that it’s doubtful whether the anecdote mentioned here is true. See the comments for details.

Megan Greene from Roubini Global Economics shares a Kafka-esque anecdote from Athens which illustrates what the real problem is in Greece:

A friend and I met up at a new bookstore and café in the centre of town, which has only been open for a month. The establishment is in the center of an area filled with bars, and the owner decided the neighborhood could use a place for people to convene and talk without having to drink alcohol and listen to loud music. After we sat down, we asked the waitress for a coffee. She thanked us for our order and immediately turned and walked out the front door. My friend explained that the owner of the bookstore/café couldn’t get a license to provide coffee. She had tried to just buy a coffee machine and give the coffee away for free, thinking that lingering patrons would boost book sales.  However, giving away coffee was illegal as well. Instead, the owner had to strike a deal with a bar across the street, whereby they make the coffee and the waitress spends all day shuttling between the bar and the bookstore/café. My friend also explained to me that books could not be purchased at the bookstore, as it was after 18h and it is illegal to sell books in Greece beyond that hour. I was in a bookstore/café that could neither sell books nor make coffee.

In the light of such challenges, it is not very hard to understand why Greece has been suffering from low growth for the last many decades. The reason is not the populist charge that the Greeks are lazy or unwilling to change, because as the recent Give Greece a Chance campaign is trying to remind us, they are neither.

Nor is it – as the Eurosceptics like to assert – the fault of the Euro itself, although the lax oversight and enforcement of the Stability and Growth Pact certainly allowed an unsustainable situation to go on for longer than it should have.

No, the fundamental problem is the Greek political system, which in order to protect a large number of minor special interests has created an economy that on the whole is extremely inefficient: Cafés that aren’t allowed to sell coffee. Taxi drivers who have to spend thousands of euros to buy a taxi license on the black market. Nationally-owned companies that operate at a loss, but can’t be privatised because unions are stonewalling negotiations. And of course, there’s such things as corruption, tax evasion, and an extremely ineffcient central government and administration. All of these and other problems combine to give Greece a rank of #100 on the World Bank’s 2011 Ease of Doing Business Index, by far the lowest rank in the EU and below countries like Yemen and Vietnam, and of #90 on the World Economic Forum’s Global Competitiveness Index. Under such conditions, rather than criticise, we shold frankly applaud the Greeks for doing as relatively well as they are.

So what can be done about it? It’s obvious that the economy has to open up and become more flexible and competitive. At the same time, the government has to fight corruption and reduce the dependence of the political system on special interests in order to restore its legitimacy. Easy enough to say – but extremely hard to carry out in practice. However, it’s something that only the Greek people themselves can do, and if it turns out that they can’t, it’s very hard to see what the rest of us in the EU could do to help them.

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De nominibus piscium

On Tuesday night (21.2), the Danish television channel DR1 news programme TV Avisen ran a story about ‘new EU regulations for fishmongers’ as their ‘feel-good segment’ in the end of the broadcast. The basic gist of the story was that due to new EU regulations, all fish sold in retail now have to be identified by their scientific, i.e. Latin name, as well as the more common name in the local language.

TV Avisen had chosen a ‘human interest’/tongue-in-cheek angle on the story, including an interview with a slightly dyslexic fishmonger who allegedly now “had to learn Latin”, and a selection of customers who were made to try to guess which particular species of fish were called what in Latin. All very cutesy, but on the other hand, the story was decidedly lacking in actual information about the regulations in question.

However, as we know, reality is frequently a little more complicated than how the media conclude it is when they try to understand EU regulations. And of course, the most egregious misunderstandings get the infamous label of ‘Euromyths’. So let’s try to find out what’s actually going on here, and whether we do indeed have a classic Euromyth on our hands. Thanks to a very helpful journalist who wrote a similar story at the newspaper Berlingske (albeit with a significantly more serious and informed angle than TV Avisen) I’ve found out that there are four different pieces of legislation involved here:

  • Council Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 of 17 December 1999 on the common organisation of the markets in fishery and aquaculture products
  • Commission Regulation (EC) No 2065/2001 of 22 October 2001 laying down detailed rules for the application of Council Regulation (EC) No 104/2000 as regards informing consumers about fishery and aquaculture products
  • Council Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009 of 20 November 2009 establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the common fisheries policy, amending Regulations (EC) No 847/96, etc.
  • Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) No 404/2011 of 8 April 2011 laying down detailed rules for the implementation of Council Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009 establishing a Community control system for ensuring compliance with the rules of the Common Fisheries Policy

This may seem a little overwhelming, but there’s really no need to panic; the majority of these laws deal with controls of fisheries and the like, so we just need to focus on a couple of articles. Let’s look at them one at a time, beginning with the earliest one, Council Regulation (EC) 104/2001, and then work our way forwards. Article 4 of 104/2000 says that:

Article 4
1. Without prejudice to the provisions of Directive 79/112/EEC(12), the products referred to in Article 1(a), (b) and (c) may not be offered for retail sale to the final consumer, irrespective of the marketing method, unless appropriate marking or labelling indicates:
(a) the commercial designation of the species;
(b) the production method (caught at sea or in inland waters or farmed);
(c) the catch area.
These requirements shall not however apply to small quantities of products disposed of directly to consumers by either fishermen or aquaculture producers.
2. For the purposes of paragraph 1(a), the Member States shall draw up and publish a list of the commercial designations accepted in their territory, for at least all the species listed in Annexes I to IV to this Regulation, not later than 1 January 2002. The list shall indicate the scientific name for each species, its name in the official language or languages of the Member State and, where applicable, any other name or names accepted or permitted locally or regionally.

This article basically says that most types of fish (there are a few exceptions) offered for sale to consumers must be labelled with the common name (“commercial designation”), the production method, and the area where the fish was caught. Also, you can’t just call the fish anything you like – it has to be an accepted designation that is officially linked to a particular species.

This first regulation was soon followed by Commission Regulation (EC) 2065/2001, also known in later legislation as the ‘Control Regulation’, which specified in greater detail how the general rules of 104/2000 should be applied. The two relevant articles in this one read:

Article 3
For the purposes of applying Article 4(1)(a) of Regulation (EC) No 104/2000, the commercial designation of a species shall be as established in each Member State in accordance with Article 4(2) of that Regulation. Operators may also indicate the scientific name of the species concerned upon sale to the final consumer.

Article 8
The information required concerning the commercial designation, the production method and the catch area shall be available at each stage of marketing of the species concerned. This information together with the scientific name of the species concerned shall be provided by means of the labelling or packaging of the product, or by means of a commercial document accompanying the goods, including the invoice.

Here we see that the required information that was mentioned in the previous Regulation as well as the scientific name of the species must accompany the product “…at each stage of marketing…”, i.e. at each stage in the link from original producer to the retailer. However, as we see in Art. 3, retailers may but do not yet have to provide the scientific name to consumers.

Some years later, in 2009, the EU issued the very comprehensive (i.e. incredibly long) Council Regulation (EC) No 1224/2009, Art. 58 of which read in part:

Article 58 – Traceability
5.The minimum labelling and information requirements for all lots of fisheries and aquaculture products shall include:
(g) the information to consumers provided for in Article 8 of Regulation (EC) No 2065/2001: the commercial designation, the scientific name, the relevant geographical area and the production method;
(h) whether the fisheries products have been previously frozen or not.
6. Member States shall ensure that the information listed in points (g) and (h) of paragraph 5 is available to the consumer at retail sale stage.

This is where the interesting change happens, because whereas the scientific name was previously an optional piece of information at the retail stage, it is now part of the information that must be “…available to the consumer…”. What it does not say, though, is specifically how that information must be made available. However, Reg. 1224/2009 soon received its own Implementing Regulation (EU) No 404/2011, which cleared up that particular question:

Article 68 – Information to the consumer
1. Member States shall ensure that the information referred to in Article 58(6) of the Control Regulation concerning the commercial designation, the scientific name of the species, the catch area referred to in Article 5 of Regulation (EC) No 2065/2001 and the production method is indicated on the label or appropriate mark of the fisheries and aquaculture products offered for retail sale, including imported products.
2. By derogation from paragraph 1, the scientific name of the species may be provided to the consumers at retail level by means of commercial information such as bill boards or posters.

And here we (finally) arrive the ‘new rule’ behind this story. Most types of fish sold to consumers must now be appropriately labelled and marked with this package of information: Approved commercial and scientific name, catch area and production method. But as we can also see, as far as the scientific name is concerned, a bill board or poster is sufficient to provide this information.

Perhaps (even probably?) you’re wondering at this point why all these rules are even necessary. A fish is a fish, isn’t it? Well, not always – or to be more precise, it’s not always certain that we’re talking about the same types of fish.

These rules are essentially a part of what is called traceability – the principle that a food item should be documented and identifiable at every step in the production process, so that e.g. all parts of a particular lot can be recalled in case it turns out to be contaminated. At the consumer end of things, the point is that retailers can sometimes be a little creative with how they name their products – for instance, different types of fish are sometimes sold as cod (Gadus x.), even though they belong to entirely different orders. And there have even been cases where oilfish (Ruvettus pretiosus), the overconsumption of which can cause certain unpleasant health issues, have been marketed as cod as well. So even though most consumers probably don’t know that many scientific fish names off the top of their heads, at least this way they have the opportunity to be certain of which particular species of fish they’re buying to eat.

But let’s get down to the juicy question at the heart of this story: Do fishmonger actually have to learn Latin? Well, no. As we’ve already seen, the scientific name of a fish is a part of the traceability procedure, which means that the fishmongers already have that information, because it will have been transmitted to them by their wholesale distributors. Further, as we learned from Article 68(2) in Reg. 404/2011, they don’t even have to label the fish individually, but can provide the information “…by means of commercial information such as bill boards or posters.”

So – Euromyth or No Myth? At least as far as TV Avisen’s angle is concerned, I’ll call this one as a Euromyth. Yes, the regulation does exist, and it does say that retailers have to provide the scientific names of their products to consumers. But when they can do that by simply putting up a poster in their shop, claiming that they’ll have to learn Latin to do their job is just a little too far removed from reality. And it’s not even a new Euromyth, since there have been similar stories as far back as 2004 or earlier about fishmongers having to rename their fish in Latin. So better luck next time, TV Avisen.

(It’s really too bad it’s a myth, by the way, because Latin is an awesome language, and I’d wholeheartedly support any initiatives to increase its use, no matter how ridiculously impactical they might be.)

(Also, if you’ve made it this far, you should give yourself a reward, because this is pretty hard-core stuff, even by normal standards of EU law.)

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European 112 Day

A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned how one possible answer to “What has the EU ever done for us?” was “Flying cars” (and I still think it’s an awesome answer).

But today, I’d like to mention another great thing which, unfortunately, is also a bit of a secret that only a quarter of all Europeans know about. I’m talking about the common European emergency service number 112, which is being promoted for awareness today on the annual ‘European 112 Day’ (because it’s 11/2, you see.)

A common emergency service number may sound like a horribly dry and technical issue to get enthusiastic about, but think it over for a moment. You’re travelling in a foreign country, and suddenly you need emergency assistance. Maybe you’ve been in a car accident, you or a relative have become seriously ill, or you’ve been the victim of a crime. It’s a stressful situation, and you need help right away. So you have your mobile phone, but which number do you dial? It’s not a situation where you want to waste precious minutes looking for a phone book (do those even exist any more?) or trying to find someone you can ask for help, maybe in a language that you don’t speak very well or at all.

Having a common number means that you can dial 112 everywhere in the European Union, and quite a few other countries outside it, and be connected to an emergency call centre, thereby reducing the response time and saving lives. In addition, such centres will usually have at least English-speaking operators, or sometimes even interpreters for multiple languages available. So there you have another answer to “What has the EU ever done for us?”: “Helping us not die horribly in foreign countries. (And you’re welcome.)”

Unfortunately, as mentioned, awareness of this service is extremely low – on average across the EU, only 26% know that they can use 112 everywhere in the Union, and in certain countries (I’m looking at you, Britain) we’re seeing numbers as ridiculously low as 3%. So spread the word – tell people about it, and maybe share a couple of videos on Facebook or Twitter:

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Twenty years of the Maastricht Treaty

In the middle of a crisis where political visions about the future of Europe seem to be in as short supply as money, we should take any opportunity to remind ourselves of the past events and visions that paved the way to where we are today. One of those important opportunities is the anniversary of the Maastricht Treaty, or the Treaty on European Union as it is formally known, which was signed on February 7, 1992, exactly twenty years ago today.

The importance of the Maastricht Treaty for European integration is difficult to overstate. In completing the process that had been launched with the Single European Act six years previously in 1986 and establishing the European Union as a distinct entity, the Treaty finally united the previously legally-but-not-really-separate organisations of the European Communities – most prominently the European Economic Community, the European Coal and Steel Community and the European Atomic Energy Community, but also the less well-known TREVI and European Political Cooperation frameworks – under one single institutional and legal umbrella. As was the intention, this opened a new chapter in the process of European integration, which had otherwise been more or less dormant for the past several decades, and set in motion the further developements that we have witnessed in the twenty years since.

At the same time, it established many of the features of the EU that most of us take for granted today, including the Economic and Monetary Union which would later become the euro, and the single market and its accompanying four freedoms (of persons, goods, capital and services), which is in many ways at the very heart of what the Union is all about.

Just, for instance, considering the freedom of movement of persons, the language of the Treaty represented a significant shift from previous practice – whereas earlier agreements had spoken primarily of the right of workers, the Maastricht Treaty spoke of the rights of citizens, and extended a general Union citizenship to all citizens of its member states. This shift from the functional definition (persons who are or seeking to be employed) to the universal one (all persons with citizenship in a member state), as interpreted through later case law from the Court of Justice, extended the free movement to a number of new categories of persons, such as for instance students or pensioners, who previously had enjoyed much more limited rights.

That’s just one example of the different ways in which the Maastricht Treaty served to establish a new legal framework and attitude towards European integration that re-invigorated the evolution of the European community and institutions, and started the new Union down the path that led past the Nice and Amsterdam Treaties, past the abortive Constitutional Treaty, and culminated (so far) in the most recent Lisbon Treaty. We have come a long way in twenty years, but we have much longer yet to go, and in going further towards the “ever closer union”, we should use the occasion of the anniversary to draw inspiration from the people and the events that got us as far as we have come today. Now let’s have some cake to celebrate.

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