Tag Archives: EU

Freedom austerity

After the most recent EU summit in Brussels it seems the history has come full circle and democracy just died in the land where it was born. Greeks voted for anti-austerity government. Said government put to vote austerity measures that were suggested by the EU. After those were clearly rejected in a binding referendum, the Greek PM accepted terms harsher than the ones rejected just under a week before. And that there were no good solutions. And that Greek banks had no money and they really could use some. And that Angela is quite scary. But what about… what about the freedom?

Photo by Jorge Gonzalez –  https://www.flickr.com/photos/acampadapraga/5751397365

Have you ever asked yourself if you are free? As in: do you have freedom? Not freedom of speech or to leave or enter a country but a general, overarching and overwhelming freedom. If you live, as I do, in a Western democracy, you are probably inclined to say yes. I mean how could you say ‘no’? Every single month we hear about another country, be it Ukraine, Libya or Sudan whose citizens are fighting to defeat those in power. To gain their freedom.

In this way freedom is often defined by what’s missing. People lack freedom when they are not able to say what they think, to choose who makes laws of their country, or to leave the country they were born in. In this context the answer seems to be simple. We compare our situation to what is experienced by people in North Korea or Cuba, and we arrive at rather obvious conclusion – they are truly screwed, and we’re all right.
For a moment though let’s forget about all of those suffering in Syria, repressed in Russia or tortured in Iran. Let’s focus on a definition. How do you define freedom? Ability to do, say, think whatever you want, to behave in the way you want – I guess this would be the first thing that comes to mind. The Source of All Knowledge (read: Wikipedia) defines it as power or right to do as one wants. Can you though? Can you ‘do as you want’? I certainly can’t. In theory nothing stops me, I theoretically can do anything. Practically I am restricted by money, laws, cultural norms, social pressures, time obligations… (runs out of breath)… and innate abilities and probably some more obstacles that just did not happen to come to my mind this very minute.

All right then, we may not have total freedom, but why would we? It would probably not be too good for us anyway. So let’s be more specific; what is quite often understood as freedom is political liberty – democracy and the ability to choose who rules the country we live in, and, in this way to make our own laws. There is no denying that those of us lucky enough to be born in the West do live in democratic societies. Is democracy what we imagine it to be though? Is it really the rule of the demos – the people? Or is it a mirage; an illusiomn making us think that we are in charge, when the real power lies somewhere else?

With the eyes of my imagination I see Socrates circling the streets of Athens as he did 25 centuries ago. Walking around, starting conversation with strangers. As I write, he stops a random person, looks her or him in the eye and asks: ‘So, now my friend, tell me – are you free?’ Are you?

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The ship is sinking: immigration in the EU

The part of Europe which belongs to the European Union is often thought of, and described as a zone of great mobility. We, proud inhabitants of this geopolitical entity can freely travel, study, or work anywhere between Lisbon and Warsaw, Stockholm and Sofia (well, if you want to work, you should probably forget Lisbon, or Athens, or Madrid for that matter). One could almost think: never has there been such a freedom. Nothing further from the truth.

It seems to me we too often forget that the EU is a zone of persevering immobility as much as mobility. The new states accepted to the Union added more people to the pool of those whose movement cannot be restricted internally. Effectively, it means that wealthier states such as UK or Germany will have to accept yet another influx of people, and even trying to convince the potential migrants that in their Promised Land rains a lot, food is expensive, and it simply sucks may not help. As long as they’re paid three or more times more than back home, people will come. And here comes the part about immobility – these extra numbers of unrestrainable incomers from the new EU states have to be balanced out by further restrictions on migration from outside countries. For many of those who seek a better life (often for very serious reasons) it means choosing between all the risk involved in illegal human trafficking, including possible death, and life in poverty and misery in their own country. The results of such dilemmas are frequently reported in the media; as in the story about two immigrant ships sunk at the shores of the island of freedom – Italian Lampedusa. Now, if the restrictions imposed by European countries push those people towards risking all they have just to get here, I think we need to ask ourselves a question – who are those people? Are they a threat to a free and independent Europe? Are they the reason behind the economic downturn? A cause that will only worsen the dramatic situation of millions of Europeans?

It appears that, just as the ships at the shore of Lampedusa, Europe is sinking as well. Slowly and quietly, that’s true, and still with a good chances of being rescued. The engine is still on, and the stokers constantly throw buckets of water overboard. Nonetheless, sinking we are. The reasons for that are complex and many, and most probably far beyond my understanding. However, one of the often given reasons for such a state of things is the immigrant. Whether legally and not, they come to our land, take our jobs, our social benefits, and sooner or later they will ruin our country. The foreign, the unknown, the other is often blamed for all the evil, no matter how illogical and irrelevant that may be. That has happened for centuries – the Moor, the Jew, the barely legal immigrant from outside of EU, who, often speaking no English or having little or no qualification, takes jobs from decent and hardworking citizens.

The feeling I get while following recent migration debate is that western countries should protect their legacy, the prosperity achieved through centuries of hard work and steady development. Britain is presented as an entity whose wellbeing is independent of historical and geographical factors, and its status is solely an outcome of the labour of its citizens. One should not forget that current global political situation is (still) very much an outcome of the colonial relations which Europe had with pretty much all the rest of the world in the past. The gap between European and African, South American, or Asian countries is not a result of some sort of mismanagement of resources in case of the postcolonial countries. It is rather an outcome of centuries of exploitation, which depleted natural resources of many countries, at the same time often destructing their social and political structures (for a more detailed account of the links between the colonialism and present difficulties faced by South American countries I strongly recommend reading Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America. Prosperity of many countries was, to a large extent, fuelled by said exploitation, and being sorry about it won’t change much in the matter.

Now, should the borders be open everywhere and for everyone then? Obviously, something like that cannot be done overnight, and I don’t think that opening borders just like that would be a great idea. However, I believe that the events on the shores of Lampedusa should trigger a more aware and open debate about the problem of migration and the distribution of wealth across the world. The debate which, hopefully, would lead to some sort of solution that would allow more people on board of our figuratively speaking sinking ship without the need to hitch rides on the ships that sink quite literally. How would that solution look like? That I do not know. I am an anthropologist, and unexperienced one at that, so I don’t have answers. I just have questions.

(In)Dependence Day – what if Scotland says yes.

‘Scotland’s Future’ – SNP’s blueprint for independence was only published few days ago and the media are already filled with different interpretations, summaries and comments on. Most of the experts’ opinions I read so far seem to agree that the document is very speculative – e.g there’s no certainty that the EU will instantly allow Scotland to join its rank, not to mention agreeing to let Scotland continue to benefit from UK’s rebate. Likewise, it’s possible that the EU will insist that the independent Scotland accepts the Euro or that UK (in the person of George Osborne) won’t agree to sustain monetary union. However, as analyses of these issues have already been made, I wanted to take a different view on Scottish plans. One of the most important and recurring arguments for the independence is that Scottish nation will finally be able to speak for itself, will be officially and directly represented internationally, and will benefit from policies tailored to its needs and problems.

However, no one has presented a real and practical outline of HOW exactly it is supposed to happen .The document presents Scotland’s future in dichotomous and simplified (if not openly naïve) terms – as if the UK was only possible reason for dependence. It seems that being part of the UK generates a number of costs and problems for Scotland and brings no profits. It is somehow forgotten that no country exists in a vacuum. To make every single political decision Scotland, as every other state, will have to take into account such forces as global economy, EU policies, and pressures from big international companies. By becoming independent, Scotland will give up its place (as part of the UK) amongst the key players and decision makers in international affairs. It will no longer have access to the G8 or UN Security Council, and while its GPD per capita will be in world’s top 8, the economy as a whole will be around 40th place. I am afraid Scotland will soon find out what is the difference between being the 3rd (current position of the UK) and 16th economy of the EU. While the voice of the UK cannot be ignored and even special demands, e.g. rebates, are fulfilled, Scotland will have to accept its spot as one amongst many others. I think the words of Spanish PM Mr Rajoy portray best how difficult it will be for Scotland to establish a beneficial relationship with the rest of the EU: “The only thing that I would like is that Scots are realistic about the consequences of secession. It is clear to me that a region which asks for independence from a state within the European Union, will be left outside the EU. It is good thing that the citizens, the Scottish people know this, along with other Europeans”. (The Telegraph http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/politics/10479461/Spanish-PM-Independent-Scotland-would-be-out-of-the-EU.html)”.

The strangest of all is the decision to sustain monetary union with the rest of the UK. The results of economies of different strengths and sizes having the same currency can be very well observed in Greece or Spain. By retaining sterling Scotland will deprive itself of the natural defence mechanism against economic downturn. Since UK economy will be around 5 times bigger than Scottish, the price of its currency will mostly be dependent on the decisions made in London. Unlike most other countries, in times of economic downturn Scotland will not be able to count on prices of its currency to go down what would boost export and lower the entry costs for international investors.

Finally, the authors of ‘Scotland’s Future’ often repeat that Scottish finances will be as strong as UK’s even without offshore tax receipts. However, as you can see in the Estimates of Scotland financial position for 2016/17, the entire revenue generated by the oil industry will be spent the same year. Moreover, offshore tax receipts will constitute between 10.5 and 12% of Scotland’s budget, resulting in a huge dependency on oil prices.

My aim here is not to depreciate Scotland’s efforts. But the country’s best interest will depend on the ability of its citizens to make a fully informed and conscious decision regarding the independence. I am afraid the SNP chose to present solely the advantages of being a separate country, leaving any downsides or doubts out of the ‘Scotland’s Future’ manifest. The part of the blueprint regarding international policy is devoted to Britain’s and Scotland’s relationship to the EU – Scotland, just as the rest of the UK, is said to recognise the flaws of the EU but believes it is in its best interest to work on changing the union instead of leaving it altogether. I really wish the same approach could be applied to its relationship with the UK.