Fear, Trembling and Blunt Instruments

It seems that someone at Remain headquarters has decided that the only useful weapon available to those who want to avoid Brexit is the blunt instrument of fear. Yesterday George Osborne put forward the Treasury’s view that GDP will be ‘six percent lower’ in 2030 if Britain leaves the EU and families will be on average ‘4,300 pounds poorer’.

And this is how BBC News reported it at first, only in later bulletins adding ‘than would otherwise be the case,’ because, of course, the Treasury doesn’t mean ‘poorer than now‘,  or ‘total GDP smaller than now‘. Rather, they mean ‘poorer than we would otherwise be‘ and ‘smaller than it would otherwise be.‘ Without that qualification, Brexit sounds alarming indeed.

bluntinstrument

But even so, it’s a very contentious claim. Have we ever been able to trust Treasury, EU, IMF or Word Bank economic projections for 14 years ahead? Who’s to say what busts and booms, dotcom or subprime, will trip up the world economy between now and then. What about natural disasters, or global warming? It’s speculative crystal ball gazing. No one can look that far ahead with any confidence.

In any case, consider these calculations:

Average real UK GDP growth over the last 60 years has been 2.47%. Projecting the same rate forward we can expect the economy to be nearly 41% larger in 2030 than now. Even if the economy is six percent ‘smaller’ it will still be nearly 35% larger.

The UK’s average salary has risen by about 2.96% a year over the last sixty years. Projecting forward to 2030, we might expect the average salary to rise from around 26,500 to 39,900 GBP. Even if the average family (I take that to mean two adults on an average salary) is 4,300 GBP ‘poorer’ the same family will be richer by 22,500 GBP.

Overall, I find the economic arguments petty and confusing. Frankly, I think no one really knows what the impact of Brexit might be, short term, medium term or long term, local or global. I am swayed one way or the other by whoever is currently pontificating on the subject. But one thing is clear – everyone seems to have decided that it’s the only topic worth arguing about. So Remain paints a picture of catastrophe, and Leave talks up the economic freedom we will enjoy on Brexit. No one really knows, but no one talks about the other, more important, benefits of Remain.

I’m very definitely for Remain, and not because of any economic arguments one way or another. I’m an admirer of supranational European values and justice (admittedly a work in progress). I’m also for radical reform, for more obvious democracy, less corruption and less waste. I’m also for expansion eastwards to include Ukraine, Moldova and Turkey, perhaps even Russia (post-Putin!). Europe has kept the peace for 70 years and established an admirable and increasingly comfortable way of life for hundreds of millions of citizens. I’ve seen former Soviet bloc nations embrace and enjoy nearly everything that Europe stands for. And if Europe is to continue to play a significant role on the world stage in the decades to come, as China rises, it would be better if we were to stay together. It’s not just about Britain. Brexit will damage whatever survives of the EU.

Everything depends on how you put things, and journalists are sometimes slow to understand the implications of, and the assumptions behind apparently simple statements. There was another report on the BBC website that annoyed me yesterday – Three Day Working Week ‘optimal’ for Over 40s. It explains that researchers in Australia have found that part-time workers over 40 do better in intelligence tests than full-time workers over 40.

It was bad reporting because the writer doesn’t challenge the obvious question (which, I hope at least the original researchers have considered) – isn’t it the case that those who choose part-time work are more intelligent, have pursued more lucrative careers and therefore possess the economic resources that enable them to go part-time? It needn’t, surely, be the part-time work that is ‘causing’ their greater intelligence.

 

The Baptation of Scylla and Charybdis

Not an oratorio by Handel, but the christening of a friend’s sister’s twins, which I attended on Sunday in Mestre (the industrial horror you pass through just before you reach Venice).

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A word on ‘baptation’. It’s a rather splendid neologism coined by a dim-witted Bulgarian friend of mine who has only a slender grasp of the English language, but the more customary English words, baptism and christening, couldn’t in any case do justice to the sheer extravagance of yesterday’s event. It began as a nearly interminable church ceremony, conducted in Romanian according to the Romanian Orthodox rite, and continued as a marathon knees-up at a restaurant in Padua (an event of which the twins, though present, will remember nothing at all).

As for Scylla and Charybdis, that’s what they were called (though probably only by me)before their baptism. Now they’ve become Madalina and Cristian.

I love ritual, at least as long as I’m aware of its dangers. It’s an essential component of many persuasive experiences, but it has the power to drag you in to any political, religious or military ideology. It can provide you with a (sometimes spurious) sense of belonging, whether that’s religious or only cultural. But it can numb the intellect, too, and it speaks most eloquently to the vulnerable. It wraps you up in nonsense, which may be consoling, even if also proscriptive.

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Despite all this, ritual is the only component of religion that appeals to me, and I’ll go along with it, and be moved by it, even if the words are utterly nonsensical. Better, in this case, that the words be beyond reach, as they were yesterday, in Romanian. Ritual is a kind of performance art, and as long as you keep your distance from the dogma that comes with it, you can enjoy it more or less safely. The music, the lustre, these can be gorgeous. After all, we need something out of the ordinary to mark the big moments of birth, marriage and death.

Yesterday’s Christening was the second highly emotive, but incomprehensible event I’ve attended at a Romanian Orthodox church, the first, sadly at the other end of the spectrum, was the funeral of a young colleague who drowned accidentally in the Black Sea.

If you’re going to do something ritualistic, you might as well do it in spades. At the Mestre church we endured a two-hour service, complete with all the bells and whistles – incense, candles, flowers, music, chant. The twins were stripped and rubbed all over with olive oil steeped in aromatic herbs, then fully immersed in a zinc font of warm water. They were swaddled, brandished and laid on the altar steps (only the boy, though, was taken on a quick tour of that special place behind the iconostasis). There was further anointing, wrapping, unwrapping, and the service ended with a kind of processional dance around the font and, incongruously, suddenly the singing of Happy Birthday in Romanian. The priest also lectured us all, but with a special focus on the dozen or so godparents, on the ways in which Satan might interfere with the godly life, and listed a large number of ‘European’ sins to abjure, many of which I commit gladly and regularly. It was a relief to have understood little of it.

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At the Moldovan restaurant in Padua, the party lasted from four in the afternoon until midnight. There were two servings of dinner to around sixty guests, with wine, cognac, speeches, dancing, cake, cash gifts from godparents to the children, braided bread and other presents being given in return. All through it, the twins slept peacefully, or just occasionally howled. The music, including the singing of a man who sang at Ilie and Svetlana’s wedding in Moldova, was completely deafening.

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A Church of England christening would probably be over in half an hour or so, and afterwards you’d be lucky to get a cup of tea, a cucumber sandwich or a glass of sherry. The English make light of family joy and tragedy, preferring competitive sports and other hobbies. We keep our emotions tucked away somewhere out of sight until they can conveniently be forgotten. In any case, if it’s not done extravagantly, or emotionally, ritual is just an embarrassment Think of the watery rituals of the English Church and of the insipid Justin Welby.

Actually, there’s a lot to be said for the Moldovan way.

So, welcome to this world, Madalina and Cristian! Be good, but don’t listen to that priest.

 

 

Flying the EU Flag

I’m delighted to see the European Union flag flying (or, more accurately, hanging limply) in the foyer of our office building in Prague. Part of a Czech Ministry has taken up residence just a few metres away from my desk. I look forward to the happy buzz of busy bureaucrats.

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A few weeks ago a Romanian friend asked me, with an unfeigned air of perplexity, if I thought it likely that the United Kingdom would leave the EU. I said I thought it very possible, perhaps even 40% likely, though I, myself, would be sorry if it were to happen.

For Romanians, and for many citizens of the new member states, most of them formerly members of the Warsaw Pact or the Soviet Union, joining the EU felt like a homecoming, the reassertion, in many cases, of values they had once lived by or aspired to live by. ‘Joining Europe’ has brought economic benefits, as investment and subsidies have flowed eastwards, and as new markets have opened, but it’s the emotional sense of belonging to Europe, of a belief in common values, that fixes these nations in the Union.

Though the average citizen might find it hard to articulate the meaning of ‘Europe’ if stopped in the street and asked, it’s more or less obvious to the newcomers what Europe stands for – very often things they didn’t have, such as freedom of speech, human rights, democracy, an independent judiciary, a free press, property rights, the rule of law (including equality under the law), open and efficient Government, qualified capitalism, equality of opportunity. And more, no doubt.

By contrast, the argument in the UK is presented as a technical one, not an emotional one. Will we be better off or worse off, in or out of the EU? Perhaps because the values and standards I’ve listed are second nature to the British, any politician who recited them would be ridiculed as talking sentimental piffle. We take these values for granted, as if they’ve always belonged to us, were even invented by us. We’ve lived by and fought for these values over centuries.

For us, these ideas are endemic, so there’s no sense that we’ve gained very much by joining a club that promotes them and protects them. We’re up to the task of protecting our way of life without the help of others. So the idea of ‘Europe’ exerts no strong magnetic attraction, certainly insufficient to prevent the United Kingdom drifting off into the Atlantic. In fact, we seem only to resent the EU’s administration of these ideas, and especially if we disagree on their detailed interpretation.

The real shame is that the EU has failed to blow its own trumpet. It’s been useless at promoting itself and the hugely successful, hugely precious values that underpin it. My own view is that ‘European’ politicians lack the stature and celebrity of our national representatives. I would like to see a short European Parliament peopled by the heavyweight politicians we already know. That way we might feel part of it.

Sadly, the current debate in the United Kingdom is dominated by those who want Out, and no one argues passionately for the In case on matters of principle, preferring merely to rubbish the case for Out. We need some positive rather than negative arguments.

I see the EU’s circle of stars here and there as I travel about Europe, even in countries outside the EU where money is being spent to raise the standards of education, transport, and other institutions. For example, in  Moldova, the EU’s investment is a benign political influence, and as the EU’s values spread, so the world will become a better and a safer place.

It’s great to see limp EU flags hanging in the foyers of Government offices, but seeing them only reminds me of how much more work the EU must do to convince the British and many others that the whole project is worthwhile.

In Praise of Immigration

I can’t understand all the fuss about immigration. Most of my best friends and family are immigrants. I’m an immigrant myself. Putting aside the subtle distinctions that some immigrants and anti-immigrants make between expats, migrant workers, refugees and asylum seekers, let’s just think of immigrants as those who settle in another country indefinitely, whatever their purpose, whether in search of opportunity or sanctuary.

immigrants

Let me itemise a few of those who populate my business, social and family life.

I am a British immigrant to the Czech Republic, where I’ve built a business in IT, software and consulting – LLP Group. I’ve been made welcome, despite my lazy failure to learn the local language. Serious cultural mismatches have been few, and the most serious have had to do with the proper making of tea.

My business partner, Barbara, is an immigrant, the daughter of Hungarian immigrants to the United States. I couldn’t have built the business without her. Her husband is an immigrant from Serbia.

My friend and colleague Darina is an immigrant from Slovakia to the Czech Republic (though it’s true these were constituent parts of the same country when she made that fateful journey). I couldn’t have built the business without her, either.

My partner is an immigrant from Moldova, now a British citizen, working in Prague.

My friend Jo, who has built a PR and Marketing business in Prague (JWA) is a British immigrant, and her partner Jan, an immigrant to Britain in the late 1960s, has returned to Prague as one of the few lawyers qualified to practice in both countries.

My friends in Prague are immigrant French, Georgian, Romanian, Slovak, and so on. And I have some local friends too.

My brother is an immigrant to Switzerland where he married a Swiss French musician. He was made to yodel at his wedding, but otherwise has faced no particular indignities.

My partner’s sister Doina is a recent immigrant to the United Kingdom. She qualified as a pharmacist in the summer, sent herself on a crash course in English in Plymouth, walked into a dozen pharmacies in London and landed herself a job inside a week.

Immigrants are hard working, determined, ambitious, tolerant, appreciative. The overwhelming majority enrich the life of the countries they live in, culturally and materially. They are rarely bent on destruction or social benefits, or the slaughtering of animals in the gutter, forced marriage or female circumcision. They have fled or sought new opportunities to avoid such things.

I write this today because I met the best taxi driver in Prague yesterday. He drove me from my office to the airport. Mr Linh (his card doesn’t give his first name) is Vietnamese, and has been driving a taxi and working with tourists in Prague for four or five years. He spoke English perfectly, and (as far as I can tell!) speaks Czech well too. He underbid his rivals on Liftago (the taxi App I always use), bidding 18 CZK instead of 28 CZK per km. He was just around the corner, and with a keen sense of market opportunity he grabbed the chance for a longer than average journey.  His car was clean and he drove with care. No hints of ash or unwashed clothes.

And when he dropped me at the airport he offered me a gift from a basket of Christmas presents he’d wrapped for his customers. I had to take his word for the fact that none was explosive but after thirty years of business travel I am a good judge of taxi drivers. I have never before been given a gift by a taxi drive, assuming you can discount those cards that point you in the direction of striptease.

Mr Linh – +420 702 348 888 – the best taxi driver in Prague.

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I wish immigrants the world over a very Happy Christmas. And the rest of you, be glad of us!

In the Gift of the Gatsbys

Just outside the Government’s headquarters in Chisinau, capital city of Moldova, there’s a billboard advertising a ballet based on The Great Gatsby. No irony is intended, I think, but it struck me as spookily appropriate that Scott-Fitzgerald’s great American tragedy should find a home in Chisinau.

Gatsby

The Great Gatsby is set in the 1920s in New York and Long Island during the early years of Prohibition. Gatsby, an enormously wealthy businessman and war veteran, is young, urbane, generous, extravagant, philanthropic, and charming, the aloof centre of a mad whirl of cocktail parties, decadence and soulless excess, the man everyone wants to know or be. He’s the embodiment of the American Dream, a rich and powerful man who has come from nowhere to possess nearly everything. Of course, somewhere not far behind or beneath this tasteful façade lurks bootlegging, violence and organised crime, but the surface, at his vast Long Island mansion, is unruffled. He is a man to look up to, to be grateful to, and to respect.

At the outset of the novel Gatsby is in love with Daisy Buchanan, an apparently unattainable married woman, with whom, years earlier, he had had an affair. As the story develops their affair is rekindled, and when Daisy accidentally knocks down and kills her husband Tom’s mistress, Gatsby takes the blame and is then stalked and shot by the woman’s husband. One senses that, in the end, he’s almost grateful for annihilation. It puts an end to the ennui, as well as the heartache for a woman he can’t fully possess.

Cut to Moldova in 2015. so like 1920s New York. In Moldova, one of the new, liberated, capitalist democracies that have emerged from the ruins of the Soviet empire, everything is now possible , that is, as long as you possess sufficient courage, ambition, ruthlessness and intelligence, and as long as you’re not too morally squeamish. You can rise high in the ranks of government and society, however you might have made your fortune, and whomever you’ve exploited, as long as you’re disbursing the right favours at the right time and in the right places.

Take Ilan Shor, a young Moldovan businessman who’s recently admitted giving Vlad Filat, the country’s former Prime Minister a million dollars in bribes. He’s off the hook, I believe, in return for  the hooking of the bigger fish, and, as Mayor of Orhei, he’s become, in any case, invulnerable  (It is an inexplicable feature of many of Europe’s new democracies that politicians are immune from prosecution. )

He’s not as fascinating as Gatsby, but he’s probably equally as much ‘image’ as Gatsby, rather than reality. In Orhei Ilan Shor is loved by his constituents, not for his alleged criminal daring, but for the greatness of his heart and his unselfish concern for his constituents, above all for the largesse he’s bestowed on the region. It’s alleged that he won the election with 62% of the vote at least partly because of gifts of basic household commodities distributed to impoverished voters (see The Great Moldovan Bank Robbery). Never mind that the money and gifts he’s giving away might never have been rightly his own, his people still love him, as if he’s really a man of simple generosity, not of inordinate and immoral greed.

How splendid it would be if the tycoons and political leaders who dominate Moldovan society were to fall from grace. They needn’t fall as gracefully, as tragically and sympathetically as the balletic Gatsby in the image above. But I do not suggest they should be shot. Rather, they deserve a fair trail and several decades in jail if they’re finally convicted.

Breakfast in Heaven

Despite the entreaties of the breakfast cereal manufacturers, a plate of sweet mush is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for a good breakfast. My own demands are simple – a good strong cup of tea (the more proletarian the better) with milk and no sugar – preferably not Darjeeling. As proletarian teas go (‘builders’ tea, as it’s often called) you can’t beat Fortnum and Mason’s Breakfast Blend, though Marks & Spencer’s Gold Blend comes a close second  if there isn’t a branch of Fortnum and Mason to hand (we are not blessed with a branch in the Czech Republic). Typhoo or Lipton Yellow Label will do at a pinch. Drink Sir Winston at your peril.

Bacon and eggs, a dangerous pleasure in any case, is a figment of the English Tourist Board. Croissants are pretentious.

Tea will do, and sometimes an apple.

But to get the day off to the best possible start you need a harp.

Harps are rare, and are generally to be found only in the concert hall or in the breakfast rooms of good hotels.

I am in Chisinau, proud capital of Moldova, enjoying a pot of strong black tea and the gentle sound of a harp. Both are a welcome distraction from the wrinkled mushrooms I unwisely selected as a low-calorie option from the buffet (I shall have to eat them since I don’t like waste).

hotel harp

The harp is a difficult instrument. Well played it sounds gentle and calm, but if you look carefully there’s panic beneath the surface and some furious footwork going on below. Pedals are needed to lift or lower the strings a tone or two. And you must also be handy with a spanner so that you can constantly adjust the tuning of the strings, which slacken as you pluck them, and drift too easily out of tune.

The playing of this, presumably Moldovan, harpist is good, but the best I’ve ever heard was in the mid 1990s in Moscow when two harpists played together from the gallery of a breakfast room at another international-style hotel. From a distance they looked like twins, and I don’t doubt they were playing truant from the one of the great Moscow orchestras. They were the highlight of my day every day for two weeks, my time otherwise devoted to the enforcement of SunSystems in an ungrateful environment.

angleharp

Harps are also played by angels in heaven and I look forward, if my good deeds outweigh my sins,  to an eternity of gentle plucking as I consume bowls of breakfast, lunch and dinner manna (which I suspect will taste like Corn Flakes). In Hell they make do with children who are just starting to play the trumpet, or groups of Andean flute tooters, or Jazz. Reasons to be good.

The harp is holy, and pure, and if you’re blessed with it at breakfast you begin the day with energy, holiness, joy, generosity and optimism. If you’re not at a hotel and your budget doesn’t run to a domestic harpist then at the very least you can choose the harp option on your iPhone alarm. There is no better way of waking up unnaturally.

The Great Moldovan Bank Robbery

I’m in Moldova for a few days. It’s Saturday evening and it’s dark and wet, and the road from the capital, Chisinau, to the southern regional town of Cahul is shrouded in fog, and often more pothole than road. It’s not the best time of year to visit this small landlocked country on the eastern edge of Europe, but needs must. Even if it’s the poorest country in Europe it’s not the most unfriendly or unwelcoming. Far from it. The greatest danger to life and limb lies is the abundance of tuica, the local spirit.

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Moldova possesses few natural resources other than its rich agricultural land and a reputation for fine wines. Tourist attractions are sadly thin on the ground (two rock monasteries and a small waterfall), and its topography, though pleasant, is unspectacular. Road and rail networks are poor, so it’s not easy to get around the country.

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Though unassertive, the country has endured the misfortune of lying in the path of greater powers; it’s been a trampling ground for centuries. In more recent years it has become a pawn in the geopolitical games of East and West, its sizeable Russian-speaking minority tugging generally eastwards (with encouragement from the Kremlin), and its Romanian majority generally westwards (with encouragement from Brussels). A sizeable eastern chunk of the country, Transnistria, has already seceded and hosts a small number of Russian troops.

Although a country of fewer than three million it’s a patchwork of ethnicities, Romanian, Russian, Gagauz (Christian Turkic), Bulgarian and others, each with different natural loyalties, traditions and sometimes languages. Populations have been forcibly imposed and removed over the last century, at the whim of foreign dictators such as Stalin.

But not content with rape and pillage by others, Moldova also consumes itself. Economic progress has been considerable in the last ten years but has recently been derailed by one huge high-level bank robbery. It’s alleged that former Prime Minister, Vlad Filat, and businessman Ilan Shor, together with other bureaucrats and politicians, recently stole nearly one billion USD from the country’s banking sector through carefully misplaced loans. This amounts to 12.5 percent of the country’s GDP. So it’s no wonder the mood is depressed. And although these villains may yet get their comeuppance, their prosecution is probably politically motivated, instigated by the next set of gangsters.

If you talk to Moldovans of a certain age you will hear repeatedly that things were better in Soviet days, declining only after Gorbachev initiated his ‘disastrous’ reforms. For once, and for the moment, I am inclined to agree. There was corruption of a kind in the old days, and abuse of power, but on an altogether different scale.

It is hard to understand how anyone in power or otherwise, and especially those elected to further the good of a needy people, can steal so much from a population that can barely get by. Sadly, at the moment, this is a country where you simply do what you can get away with, where morality in public life is of no consequence at all.

Many Moldovans have left the country. As much as 25 per cent of the country’s GDP is made up of remittances from abroad. And yet, there is a ray of hope. Many of the young educated professional people I have spoken to here still believe that the gangster culture of the country will eventually give way to a more benign culture, and that democratic, responsible ideals will yet triumph. After all, most of the new democracies of Central and Eastern Europe emerged eventually from just such moral and economic chaos.