Friday, 31 May 2019

Pakistan, Waziristan.- the descent continues



Hope Vs Reason

Najam Sethi in The Friday Times


The economy is in tatters, inflation and joblessness are stalking the landscape. Both western and eastern borders are insecure – a civil war is threatening to spill over one border while an invigorated predator is sizing up its prey on the other. Terrorism/insurgency in Balochistan is barely manageable even as another threatens to shatter the newfound peace of FATA. Hounded to the wall, the mainstream opposition is inching towards mass agitation. Yet the PTI government of the day – hanging by an arrogant and unaccountable puppeteer’s thread — is bent upon imprisoning popularly elected leaders of Sindh, Punjab and FATA, blackmailing the NAB Chairman to do its bidding, prosecuting an honourable judge who dares question the writ of the puppeteer, extinguishing a rising star from lighting the path of the opposition and gagging the media from speaking the truth. Under the circumstances, can we shut our minds to reason and hope that all will be well? Or will defiance trump logic and set things right?
The Afghan Taliban are not likely to concede core American demands. In time, the Americans will blame Pakistan for not doing more to bail them out. President Trump has already teamed up with PM Modi to contain, if not confront, Pakistan’s lifeline ally China. Before long, both will turn the screws on Pakistan, the former via the US Treasury’s manipulation of the IMF and FATF and the latter by priming its “offensive-defense” proxy war doctrine. This will transpire when the ruling Puppeteer–PTI clique stands totally alienated and isolated from most sections of state and society.
The confrontation in FATA between the “patriotic” army and “treasonous” populace may get worse. Both sides have wantonly crossed red lines. In the heat of the moment, the protestors tried to overrun a security check post. The army shot and killed several of them. Next time, the protesting crowds will be bigger. If a new insurgency is born, it will doubtless be aided and abetted on a bigger scale by hostile neighbours.
The NAB chairman was spoiling to be hoist on his own petard. But the PTI exploited his weakness to advance its anti-opposition agenda. Now, if he throws in the towel and the government is successful in empowering its hand-picked Deputy Chairman, then there will be more confrontation, more repression, more political instability, more economic chaos. It is remarkable, isn’t it, that the media managers of the government, in cahoots with a civilian intel agency, should have successfully staged such a coup? No wonder, the government is adamant in denying a proper investigation into L’Affaire Chairman!
The decision to target a Supreme Court judge and teach a suitable lesson to other wayward judges was expected. The good judge had dared to tick off the Intel Agencies and seemed inclined to read out the “democracy” sections of the constitution to them. Horror of horrors, he was also lined up in due course to rule as the chief justice of Pakistan for many years. Confronted by leaked reports of a Presidential Reference to the Supreme Judicial Council to defame him, he has demanded to know the veracity of the reports. The Additional Attorney General in Karachi has resigned in protest. If other judges don’t resist such machinations, the peoples’ struggle for an independent judiciary will be lost. Certainly, there is at least one other judge who may be on the hit-list for ruffling the untouchable feathers of certain VIP housing societies across the country.
Next in line is the Election Commission of Pakistan. Having advisedly taken a soft look at the shenanigans of the Prime Minister, it is now being pressured to take a hard stance against Mariam Nawaz Sharif. If it does the government’s bidding, it will join the queue of discredited state institutions that are paving the way for societal anarchy and states of siege.
The worrying future is already upon Pakistan. The US is gearing up India and others to confront and contain China in the Asia-Pacific and Asia-West region. China’s Road and Belt project, in general, and CPEC, in particular, will be targeted. It is also engaged, along with Saudi Arabia, UAE and others in trying to force regime change in Iran as a prelude to redrawing the map of the Middle-East. This makes Pakistan’s third southern border vulnerable. It also threatens to open deep sectarian divisions within the country.
Wiser counsel would surely advise a contrary path. A national all-parties government headed by a stolid prime minister who can disarm domestic critics, build trust with prickly neighbours, manage the economy dispassionately and herald certainty and stability would do Pakistan much good. Such a dispensation would heal the wounds between provinces, between state institutions, between political parties, between classes and ethnicities, between Pakistan and its neighbours while pulling the economy out of its current trough. A nation united and at peace with itself is bound to be a nation united and at peace with the rest of the world. More than anything else that is the need of the hour.
Will hope be rekindled at the altar of realism? Or will despair be our lot when reason is sacrificed?

Compromise dies in the age of outrage

Hardening political positions are the sclerosis that may lead to a heart attack for democracies writes Tim Harford in THE FT


I don’t often find myself agreeing with Esther McVey, but I wondered this week whether the candidate for leader of the UK Conservative party might accidentally have spoken the truth: “People saying we need a Brexit policy to bring people together are misreading the situation. That is clearly not possible.” 

The British do indeed seem in no mood to compromise. The results of elections to the European Parliament produced a thunderous endorsement of parties that proudly reject an attempt to find common ground on Brexit. The Conservatives and Labour, each caught in an awkward straddle, were slaughtered. Labour offered the slogan “let’s bring our country together”. Ha! Voters preferred the Liberal Democrats (“Bollocks to Brexit”) and the Brexit party (“they’re absolutely terrified of us”). 

Sometimes an extreme position is the correct one. When King Solomon proposed cutting the baby in half, it wasn’t because he was looking for the middle ground. Yet a capacity to find compromises is a good thing to have. Positions may differ, but whether we live in the same home or on the opposite side of the planet, we benefit when we can find a way to get along. 

If this new distaste for compromise is a problem, it is not the UK’s alone. Positions seem to be hardening everywhere, the sclerotic arteries that may lead to a heart attack for western democracies. Perhaps this is driven by personalities. For a man whose name adorns a book titled The Art of The Deal, Donald Trump is curiously uninterested in negotiating lasting agreements with anyone. Or maybe it is a function of an information ecosystem in which outrage sells. 

Perhaps the problems themselves are more intractable. Some issues do not lend themselves to compromise. Brexit is one. Splitting the difference between Remainers and hard Brexiters is less like cutting a cake and more like splattering its ingredients everywhere. Egg on my face, flour on yours, and nobody even partially satisfied. 

Abortion is another. There is a principled case to be made for a woman’s absolute right to control her body. There is also a principled case to be made for the absolute right to life of a foetus. But like the unstoppable cannonball and the immovable post, both rights cannot be absolute simultaneously. 

In contrast, other complex and emotive problems may still allow for compromise. On climate change, we can shrug and do nothing, or we can turn our economic system upside down, but there is plenty of middle ground between those options. In a trade negotiation, a mutually advantageous outcome is almost always there to be discovered. 

Roger Fisher and William Ury’s classic negotiation handbook Getting to Yes advises: focus on the problem rather than the personalities; explore underlying interests rather than explicit positions; and consider options that may open up scope for mutual benefit. 

We may find a much better way to split the cake if we discover that you scrape the icing into the bin, while I would happily eat it with a spoon. It is sometimes astonishing how far a principled negotiation can go towards giving both sides what they want. 

It is clear that we British have failed to follow this advice. Our debate is driven by a bitter focus on personalities, from Theresa May to Nigel Farage to Jeremy Corbyn to the generic “Remoaner elite”. Each side knows what the other wants but has shown very little interest in why they want it. Without sincerely exploring the underlying aims and values of warring tribes there is no chance of finding an outcome everyone can accept. 

The US debate also seems the antithesis of Fisher and Ury’s advice. Too many politically active people seek the humiliation of the other tribe. Dismissing compromise as craven appeasement seems to be a winning tactic, particularly in the primary elections that set the tone of US politics. 

Compromise, however, is often possible even in unpromising situations. On abortion, for example, it emerges with a focus not on absolute rights but on practicalities. Many people can get behind policies to minimise unwanted pregnancies, and to make abortions safe and regulated rather than dangerous and illicit. It is a middle ground that many countries manage to find. 

One can see politics as a competitive sport or a search for solutions. There’s truth in both views. However, a democratic election is far closer to a competition than to a principled negotiation. Do we not wish to see the opposite team soundly thrashed? Do we not boo their villainous antics and laugh at their mishaps? Who wants to play out a nil-nil draw? 

I would not want to venerate compromise as the supreme good in politics. Sometimes it really is true that you and I, dear reader, are absolutely right and they are absolutely wrong. (It may even be true that we are absolutely wrong and they are absolutely right.) Either way, the merits of the case must be weighed against the merits of trying to respect everyone. It feels good to win, but this isn’t a fairytale: the losers won’t stamp their feet and vanish through the floor. They — or we — aren’t going anywhere.

Tuesday, 28 May 2019

A sweet tale: the son who reinvented sugar to help diabetic dad

The natural substitute helps diabetics, combats obesity and tackles climate change writes Senay Boztas in The Guardian



 
Javier Larragoiti (centre) and his Xilinat team in the lab in Mexico City. Photograph: Courtesy Xilinat


Javier Larragoiti was 18 when his father was diagnosed with diabetes. The teenager had just started a degree in chemical engineering in Mexico City. So he dedicated his studies to a side project: creating an acceptable alternative to help his father and millions of Mexicans like him avoid sugar.

“It’s only when you know someone with this sickness that you realise how common it is and how sugar intake plays a huge role,” he says. “My dad tried to use stevia and sucralose, just hated the taste, and kept cheating on his diet.”

The young chemist started dabbling with xylitol, a sweet-tasting alcohol commonly extracted from birch wood and used in products such as chewing gum.

“It has so many good properties for human health, and the same flavour as sugar, but the problem was that producing it was so expensive,” he says. “So I decided to start working on a cheaper process to make it accessible to everyone.”Quick guide
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Ten years later, Larragoiti has patented a fermentation-based process to turn wasted corn cobs from Mexico’s 27.5m-tonne annual crop into xylitol. It is thereby solving a second problem: what to do with all that agricultural waste that otherwise might be burned, adding greenhouse gases to the overladen atmosphere.

His business, Xilinat (pronounced Hill-Ee-Natt), buys waste from 13 local farmers, producing 1 tonne of the product a year. This month his invention was awarded a prestigious $310,000 Chivas Venture prize award, which will enable him to industrialise production and scale up production tenfold.

Obesity is one of the fastest-growing global health problems. One in seven people are obese and about 10% have type 2 diabetes. Since 1980 the rate of obesity has doubled in more than 70 countries.

Larragoiti says that sugary diets are a real problem in Coca-Cola-lovingMexico, which has the world’s second-highest rate of obesity and has successfully taxed sugary drinks to try to combat a main source of the issue.

Paradoxically, another corn byproduct – fructose – is part of the problem, used to make corn syrup that has been linked to increasing obesity in the US.

“It’s kind of ironic,” Larragoiti says. “High fructose corn syrup is just a bomb of carbs and concentrated sugar that makes a high peak of insulin. It’s many times sweeter than regular glucose. Companies use and pay less and that’s the issue.”

Reusing agricultural waste is rapidly emerging as a promising sector for social entrepreneurs keen to tackle global heating and make useful things at the same time.

“One corn stalk has 70% to 80% waste by weight when you get down to it,” says Stefan Mühlbauer, the chief executive of the Sustainable Projects Group Inc. His company has a pilot plant in Alsace, France, and is building another in Indiana, US, to turn corn waste into a peat moss substitute and a super-absorbent foam for filters or soil. “Farmers are excited as it gives them something that extends their harvest season and they see another source of revenue,” he adds.

In Mexico, agricultural waste is often burned, releasing greenhouse gasesand creating one of the country’s highest sources of dioxin emissions. “Burning the residue is cheap and quick and may suppress pests and diseases,” says Dr Wolter Elbersen, a crop production expert at Wageningen University & Research. “The disadvantages such as air pollution, loss of organic matter and nutrients are less appreciated apparently. Removing the material for feed or compost, or added value products such as paper pulp or fuels is often not cost-effective, or no labour is available to do all the work in a short window of time.”

But thinking in a different way about “waste products” is essential if we are going to conserve scarce resources and feed a growing population, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. “We need to think about the principles in the past, where we had to do much with little, and at the same time apply the technology we have at hand nowadays to succeed in the challenge of feeding the world,” says Clementine Schouteden, who leads the global initiative on the circular economy for food at the campaigning organisation.

“There’s definitely a sense of urgency in making sure that we farm in a way that is regenerative, preventing waste but also [creating value from] the waste that is currently not edible, with a food industry making the right options for consumers and for the planet.”

Xilinat’s idea has huge potential, according to Sonal Shah, the founding executive director of the Beeck Center for Social Impact + Innovation at Georgetown University, and a Chivas Venture judge. “It’s not just that he’s building a sugar substitute that tastes like sugar but that it’s going to become scalable so every company that uses sugar in its food has the opportunity to rethink what kind of substitute they use,” she said.

Ebersen added, though, that “you do, however, need a solution for using the leftovers after the xylose has been extracted and the demand for xylitol is small [currently] compared with the amount of residue”.

Meanwhile, what about Javier’s father? “My dad is super-happy,” Larragoiti says. “He uses my product every day and he’s willing not to cheat on his diet any more!”

Sunday, 26 May 2019

How an Economy shapes Political Consciousness - A Pakistan story

Nadeem Paracha in The Dawn


In March 1991, a few days after the US forces invaded Iraq for the first time, 90 per cent of Americans who were polled approved of President George H. Bush’s ‘job performance’. Bush’s approval ratings skyrocketed and political commentators predicted that the Republican Party would be able to retain the presidency in the 1992 election.

Republican presidents Ronald Reagan and then Bush had held the White House since 1981. And in 1991, it seemed Bush, too, would be able to win a second term just as his predecessor Reagan had.

However, by the end of 1991, Bush’s approval ratings began to plummet, surprising many political pundits. This is when the strategy team of Bush’s opponent Bill Clinton (Democratic Party) came up with the slogan, “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Clinton was able to break the winning streak of the Republican Party by attacking the Bush administration’s economic performance, knowing fully well that the struggling economy had begun to impact many Republican voters as well.

According to the famous German philosopher and political theorist Karl Marx, a person’s “political consciousness” is almost always shaped by his economic circumstances.

Let me demonstrate this through the example of an acquaintance of mine, Tahir, or rather, through the story of his dad, Baqir. I’ve known Tahir since school. His family became extremely conservative in the 1980s, but it wasn’t always so.

Tariq’s father had migrated to Pakistan from India in 1947. He was 16 at the time. In Karachi, Tahir’s paternal grandfather was a small trader who set up a shop in Karachi in 1949. Tahir’s father often visited the shop after school.

Tahir once told me that their “class status suddenly jumped from lower-middle to upper-middle” in the early 1950s, when his grandfather managed to export merchandise to the US forces stationed in Korea.

Between 1950 and 1953, the Pakistani economy witnessed a boom of sorts due to such exports to the US during armed conflict between the US military and China-backed North Korean armies.

Tahir’s father, Baqir, took over the family business in the mid-1950s and began to expand it. Tahir told me that his father led a “highly Westernised life” and befriended many industrialists, bureaucrats and politicians. Baqir fully supported Ayub Khan’s 1958 coup because he believed that political instability had begun to negatively impact his family’s economic fortunes.

And Baqir did greatly benefit from the Ayub regime’s ‘pro-business’ policies. In 1960, he married a bureaucrat’s daughter. It was a love marriage. Apart from expanding his export business, Baqir spread his economic interests by buying two cinemas in Karachi and one in Lahore. He also bought a restaurant and opened two bars in Karachi’s Saddar and Tariq Road areas.

He also built a new palatial family home in Karachi.

According to political economist Akbar Zaidi, the country’s annual growth rate during the Ayub regime (1958-69) was an impressive 6.7 per cent in GDP. But Zaidi also mentions that Ayub’s policies in this context also created economic disparities which were exploited by opposition parties, such as Z.A. Bhutto’s PPP.

Baqir was a card-carrying member of Ayub’s centrist and modernist Conventional Muslim League. In December 1971, the PPP came to power on a ‘socialist’ platform. There was an increase in Pakistan’s import bills due to the 1973 world oil price shock, a serious post-1973 global recession during 1974-77, failure of cotton crops in 1974-75, pest attacks on crops and massive floods in 1973, 1974 and 1976-77. Pakistan experienced the worst inflation during 1972-77, when prices increased by 15 per cent.

As his business nosedived, Baqir sold his cinemas and bars in 1973, and in 1975 he wrapped up his export business and moved the family to London where he opened two Pakistani restaurants. However, he returned to Karachi after the fall of the Bhutto regime in 1977. By 1980, he was able to resurrect his business in Karachi when the Gen Zia dictatorship initiated denationalisation, deregulation and privatisation policies.

Pakistan achieved a national savings/GDP ratio of 16 per cent in 1986-87 amidst massive inflows of worker remittances from the Middle East. Unprecedented financial aid from the US and Saudi Arabia (for the anti-Soviet insurgency in Afghanistan) also helped.

Baqir was successful in regenerating his export business and also became an importer after Zia lifted curbs on imports. This was the period of Zia’s ‘Islamisation’ and Baqir followed suit by shunning his ‘Westernised ways’. He became a ‘born-again Muslim’. His palatial house in Karachi also went through a transformation. Expensive paintings gave way to equally expensive calligraphy of sacred verses and water- colour paintings of Islam’s sacred sites.

He built a mosque in the area where the house stood and also one in his vast office.


He remained a Zia supporter even after the latter’s demise in 1988. He voted for Nawaz Sharif’s (then ‘Ziaist’ and pro-business) PML-N until his business once again began to go south due to international sanctions imposed on Pakistan after the country tested two nuclear devices in 1998.

In the early 2000s, Baqir handed over the reigns of the family business to Tahir. Tahir supported the Musharraf dictatorship for a while but, despite the 8.5 per cent growth rate achieved by the regime till 2005, Tahir could not revive the family business.

Out of frustration, he sold it off and joined a multinational organisation as an employee. The frustration was also vented out through supporting the anti-Musharraf movement in 2007. The economy had begun to spiral down and this also meant Tahir’s wish to revive the family business was thwarted.

He got married and moved to Qatar and then Saudi Arabia. This is when I reconnected with him through Facebook. He supported Imran Khan in 2013 and, just before the 2018 elections, he was posting statuses about the upcoming ‘Islamic welfare state’ and Riyasat-i-Madina on Facebook.

However, only recently, as the country’s economy is once again threatening to spiral down, his Facebook posts have become critical of Khan’s regime. So I inboxed him: “Tahir, it seems there is no place for you to restart the family business in Riyasat-i-Madina.”

He didn’t reply.

How did BJP decimate the opposition? A Business Analysis


Friday, 24 May 2019

It can be Hard to tell Luck from Judgment

Randomness often explains the difference between triumph and failure writes Tim Harford in The FT 


It hasn’t been a great couple of years for Neil Woodford — and it has been just as miserable for the people who have entrusted money to his investment funds. Mr Woodford was probably the most celebrated stockpicker in the UK, but recently his funds have been languishing. Piling on the woes, Morningstar, a rating agency, downgraded his flagship fund this week. What has happened to the darling of the investment community? 

Mr Woodford isn’t the only star to fade. Fund manager Anthony Bolton is an obvious parallel. He enjoyed almost three decades of superb performance, retired, then returned to blemish his record with a few miserable years investing in China. 

The story of triumph followed by disappointment is not limited to investment. Think of Arsène Wenger, for a few years the most brilliant manager in football, and then an eternal runner-up. Or all the bands who have struggled with “difficult second-album syndrome”. 

There is even a legend that athletes who appear on the cover of Sports Illustrated are doomed to suffer the “SI jinx”. The rise to the top is followed by the fall from grace. 

There are three broad explanations for these tragic career arcs. Our instinct is to blame the individual. We assume that Mr Woodford lost his touch and that Mr Wenger stopped learning. That is possible. Successful people can become overconfident, or isolated from feedback, or lazy. 

But an alternative possibility is that the world changed. Mr Wenger’s emphasis on diet, data and the global transfer market was once unusual, but when his rivals noticed and began to follow suit, his edge disappeared. In the investment world — and indeed, the business world more broadly — good ideas don’t work forever because the competition catches on. 

The third explanation is the least satisfying: that luck was at play. This seems implausible at first glance. Could luck alone have brought Mr Wenger three Premier League titles? Or that Mr Bolton was simply lucky for 28 years? Do we really live in such an impossibly random universe? 

Perhaps we do. Michael Blastland’s recent book, The Hidden Half, argues that much of the variation we see in the world around us is essentially mysterious. Mr Blastland’s opening example is the marmorkrebs, a kind of crayfish that reproduces parthenogenetically — that is, marmorkrebs lay eggs without mating and those eggs develop into clones of their mothers. 

Place two clones into two identical fish tanks and feed them identical food. These genetically identical creatures raised in apparently identical environments produce genetically identical offspring who nevertheless vary dramatically in their size, form, lifespan, fecundity, and behaviour. Sometimes things turn out very differently for no reason that we can discern. We might as well call that reason “luck” as anything else. 

This is not to say that skill doesn’t matter — merely that in a competition in which all the leaders are highly skilled, randomness may explain the difference between triumph and failure. Good luck plus skill beats bad luck plus skill any time. 

It is easy to underestimate how much chance is at play all around us. The psychologist Daniel Kahneman has recently been studying what he calls “noise”: the variability of judgments for no obvious reason. 

A wine expert blind-tasting two glasses from the same bottle will often rate them differently. Pathologists disagree with each other in their judgments of the same biopsy. More disconcertingly, they also disagree with their own prior judgments of the case. 

We rarely appreciate just how much inconsistency there is in the judgments we and others make, argues Prof Kahneman. It can hardly be a surprise, then, if past performance is no guarantee of future success. 

We should remember, too, that people often achieve outsized success by taking risks or being contrarian. When John Kay examined the forecasting record of economists in the 1990s, he noted that Patrick Minford, an idiosyncratic forecaster, would often produce the best forecast one year and the worst forecast the next. If the consensus is wrong, being an outlier gives you a high chance both of dramatic success and spectacular failure. 

We perceive all this randomness through a particular filter, too. Few people make the cover of Sports Illustrated after a run of mediocre luck. They appear after things have been going well, and if the good luck fails to hold then it seems like the SI jinx. More likely it is “regression to the mean”, or in simple terms, a return to business as usual. 

We begin paying attention only when someone is producing a remarkable performance. Genius followed by mediocrity is a story arc we all notice. Mediocrity followed by genius just looks like genius — assuming the mediocre performer gets a second chance. Not all do. 

So I wish Mr Woodford well. Perhaps he has lost his touch, perhaps the world has changed, or perhaps he has simply been unlucky. It would be nice to know which, but in such matters the world does not always satisfy our curiosity.

Wednesday, 22 May 2019

UN report compares Tory welfare policies to creation of workhouses

Robert Booth in The Guardian

A leading United Nations poverty expert has compared Conservative welfare policies to the creation of 19th-century workhouses and warned that unless austerity is ended, the UK’s poorest people face lives that are “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short”.

In his final report on the impact of austerity on human rights in the UK, Philip Alston, the UN rapporteur on extreme poverty, accused ministers of being in a state of denial about the impact of policies, including the rollout of universal credit, since 2010. He accused them of the “systematic immiseration of a significant part of the British population” and warned that worse could be yet to come for the most vulnerable, who face “a major adverse impact” if Brexit proceeds. He said leaving the EU was “a tragic distraction from the social and economic policies shaping a Britain that it’s hard to believe any political parties really want”. 

The New York-based lawyer’s findings, published on Wednesday, follows a two-week fact-finding mission in November after which he angered ministers by calling child poverty in Britain “not just a disgrace but a social calamity and an economic disaster”. Now he has accused them of refusing to debate the issues he raised and instead deploying “window dressing to minimise political fallout” by insisting the country is enjoying record lows in absolute poverty, children in workless households and low unemployment.

The “endlessly repeated” mantra about rising employment overlooks that “close to 40% of children are predicted to be living in poverty two years from now, 16% of people over 65 live in relative poverty and millions of those who are in work are dependent upon various forms of charity to cope”, he said.

Amber Rudd, the work and pensions secretary, said in November she was “disappointed to say the least by the extraordinary political nature” of Alston’s language after his tour of places including Newcastle, Glasgow, Belfast, Cardiff, Jaywick and London. Alston replied in his 21-page final report that there was an “almost complete disconnect” between what ministers and the public saw. The impact of austerity was obvious to anyone who opened their eyes, he said.

In his most barbed swipe at Rudd and her predecessors in charge of welfare, he said: “It might seem to some observers that the department of work and pensions has been tasked with designing a digital and sanitised version of the 19th-century workhouse, made infamous by Charles Dickens.”

He said he had met people who had sold sex for money and joined gangs to avoid destitution.

The government hit back calling Alston’s report “barely believable”.

“The UN’s own data shows the UK is one of the happiest places in the world to live, and other countries have come here to find out more about how we support people to improve their lives,” a spokesperson for the Department for Work and Pensions said.

“Therefore this is a barely believable documentation of Britain, based on a tiny period of time spent here. It paints a completely inaccurate picture of our approach to tackling poverty.”

Alston will present his report to the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva next month and will argue that successive Conservative-led governments persisted with austerity and welfare cuts amid high levels of employment and a growing economy despite evidence that large-scale poverty was persisting. In doing so, “much of the glue that has held British society together since the second world war has been deliberately removed and replaced with a harsh and uncaring ethos ... British compassion has been replaced by a punitive, mean-spirited and often callous approach apparently designed to impose a rigid order on the lives of those least capable of coping.”

The report slams the government’s austerity programme, with criticisms of “shocking” rises in the use of food banks and rough sleeping, falling life expectancy for some, the “decimation” of legal aid, the denial of benefits to the severely disabled, falling teachers’ salaries in real terms and the impoverishment of single mothers and people with mental illness.

Alston said austerity had “deliberately gutted” local authorities, shrinking library, youth, police and park services to the extent that it was not surprising there were “unheard-of levels of loneliness and isolation”.

There was some praise for ministers for increases in work allowances under the universal credit welfare system and supporting the national minimum wage, but Alston said these measures had had not stopped the “dramatic decline in the fortunes of the least well-off”.

He recommended ministers reverse local government funding cuts, scrap the benefits cap, eliminate the five-week delay in receiving initial universal credit benefits and rethink the privatisation of services including rural transport.

“Thomas Hobbes observed long ago, such an approach condemns the least well-off to lives that are ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’,” he said. “As the British social contract slowly evaporates, Hobbes’ prediction risks becoming the new reality.”

The Congress Party needs to die

Yogendra Yadav in The Indian Express

My remark on a TV show, that the “Congress must die”, has triggered a debate, perhaps somewhat prematurely, on the role of the country’s principal Opposition party in the times to come. Some of the early reactions have been virulent. Perhaps the timing of the remark made it look like an attempt to kick someone when he is down. And the metaphor of death invited strong emotional reaction.

Let me, therefore, spell out the rationale in the hope that it would generate a more serious and constructive debate. Let me begin by clarifying what this remark was not. One, it was not a knee-jerk emotional outburst in reaction to an exit poll. I had expressed a similar opinion earlier too. The broad judgment is not dependent on the exit polls, unless, of course, the Congress manages to defeat the BJP in the states where it is a direct Congress-BJP contest. Two, I harbour no animus or khundak against Congress leaders. I have said publicly that Rahul Gandhi is more sincere than most political leaders that I have met and far more intelligent than everyone thinks.


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Three, this is not a forecast. I know big political parties don’t die easily, and not just because they lose two elections. I don’t have Pragya Thakur’s powers to give shrapa (curse), so you may call it my wish. Finally, this wish is not born out of a congenital anti-Congressism. I have always maintained that Ram Manohar Lohia’s anti-Congressism was a short-term political tactic and must not be turned into an ideology. Unlike most Lohiaites, I have come to admire the role of Nehru and the Congress party in nation-building in the first two decades after Independence.

To my mind, the core issue is assessing the Congress’ potential in acting as a bulwark against the onslaught on the foundations of our republic. There are two assumptions here. One, the rise of the Narendra Modi-led BJP presents a threat to the core constitutional values of democracy and diversity. Two, as the principal national Opposition party, the Congress carries the first charge of protecting the republic against this onslaught.

Once we agree on these, and I think most of my critics would share these assumptions, then we can enter into a meaningful debate and disagreement on the following questions: Has the Congress done justice to this historical responsibility in the last five years? Or, can it be trusted to perform this responsibility in the foreseeable future? My answer is a clear no. The Congress is not just not up to this task, it is a hurdle for those who wish to do so.

Let us look at what the Congress did, or rather didn’t, in the last five years. The Modi regime’s economic performance was below average. Did the Congress organise any nation-wide mass movement to articulate and mobilise the farmers’ distress, or the rising unemployment among the youth, or the small traders’ anger against the way the GST was being implemented, not to speak of the disaster of demonetisation? These five years were marked by a spate of lynching of Muslims and rising atrocities against Dalits. Did the Congress even articulate it coherently in a way that would make sense to non-Muslims and non-Dalits as well?

Or take this election, after the Congress got a dream launch-pad with victory in three assembly elections. Did the Congress do something in these three states that could be presented as an alternative to the Modi regime? Did the Congress have a message for the voters of this country? No doubt, it finally came out with a decent manifesto, but that is hardly a political message for the last person. Nor did it have a credible messenger. Pitted against Modi’s communicative onslaught, Rahul Gandhi carried little appeal. The Congress did not appear to have a strategy to handle the post-Pulwama “nationalist” blitz by the BJP. And it certainly had no roadmap for building a Mahagathbandhan: Just compare how the BJP brought back the Shiv Sena and the AGP with how the Congress dealt with alliances in UP, Bihar and Delhi.

I don’t overlook the odds the Congress was up against: The Modi government’s brazen misuse of state power, its mind-boggling money power and the near complete control over mainstream media. But did the Congress do what could be done under these constraints? Besides, the only reason why mainstream parties exist and flourish is their viability and reach. The Congress cannot say everyone must come to it because this is the only party that can take on the BJP and then give reasons why it couldn’t. 
Let’s focus on the future. The prospects of a second Modi regime bring with it two deeper challenges to our republic. On the one hand, we are walking towards electoral authoritarianism where the electoral mandate will replace any constitutional constraints. On the other hand, there is a slide towards non-theocratic majoritarianism, where minorities are reduced to the status of second-rate citizens. Do we expect the Congress to be the principal force to combat these two dangers? To my mind, the Congress does not seem to possess the vision, the strategy or the ground strength to take on this historic responsibility. If so, the Congress is not the instrument needed to save the republic.

Worse, the Congress is an obstacle to those who want to build an alternative. A large mainstream party acts like a magnet that catches a lot of energy around it. So, even when the Congress is unable to defeat the BJP, it ends up diverting and diffusing a lot of the energy that gets drawn to it. It won’t do the job and won’t let anyone else do it. Alternative politics cannot take off until it calls the bluff of “Vote for Congress or else…”, unless it begins to carry on its work as if the Congress did not exist. This is how the metaphor of death should be understood.

Of course, parties don’t wither away or die an instant death. There are two ways in which the Congress can “die”. There is death by attrition, where a big party keeps getting marginalised and gradually loses traction with the voters. This process takes many elections, perhaps many decades. This is exactly what the BJP would wish for the Congress. But there is also death by submergence, where the remaining energy of the party gets subsumed in a new, larger coalition. There is still a lot of energy in the country to take on the challenge to our republic. The ideal “death” for the Congress would be for this energy, inside and outside the Congress, to merge into a new alternative.

The dark metaphor of death is an invitation to think about a new birth. Or a rebirth?

Saturday, 18 May 2019

Pakistan, IMF and the Small Print










Najam Sethi in The Friday Times



Finally, after flip-flopping for nine months, the PTI government has signed on the dotted line with the IMF. It has also revived the PMLN’s tax amnesty scheme that it once lambasted as “a national security threat”. In the bargain, it has ditched the finance minister, Asad Umar, and the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, Tariq Bajwa. Both gentlemen seemed to be overly concerned about protecting Pakistan’s interests, while their boss, Prime Minister Imran Khan, was ready to throw in the towel. Peeved, Mr Umar is threatening to reveal details of his disenchantment with the IMF.

To be honest, though, there’s no point in haggling when you don’t have a leg to stand on. Without the IMF’s financial assistance, we will default on our external payments and be declared bankrupt. Without an extra injection of funds from the Tax Amnesty Scheme, we will have to cut back on defense or development expenditures, which we can ill-afford.

The “deal” with the IMF is subject to certain tough conditions. First, we must get the green light from FATF. As we speak, Pakistani officials are negotiating compliance before the Asia Pacific Group of FATF chaired by India. A lot of homework has been done. But this will be an on-going review process. If there are terrorist attacks in India whose footprints can be traced to Pakistan, the FATF file on Pakistan will be opened again.

Second, the IMF wants Pakistan to roll over its debts to China, Saudi Arabia and the UAE so that the burden of debt payments can be staggered over time. So Prime Minister Khan will have to pick up the begging bowl and grovel in faraway capitals all over again.

Third, the provinces will have to be pressured to accept a cut in their constitutional share of federal revenues so that IMF targets of the primary deficit can be met. While PTI governments in three provinces may be expected to roll over and play dead, Sindh will scream. But NAB can be leveraged to silence it.

Fourth, the IMF wants to “facilitate trade”. This will mean an end to export subsidies and restraint on increasing import duties. In other words, trading volumes will be determined exclusively by the exchange rate.

Fifth, the exchange rate will float freely so that the SBP doesn’t deplete its reserves by selling forex in the market in order to prop up the rupee. In other words, there will be continuing devaluation and rising inflation.

Sixth, the IMF wants to encourage spending on development and poverty alleviation. With given debt payments, that will lead to pressure on defense expenditures. Can we expect the brass to receive this with equanimity?


Last, but most important, it is an established fact that Washington leverages the IMF, World Back, Asian Development Bank and other international financial institutions through the US Treasury to achieve its foreign policy goals. Should Pakistan fail to deliver on US objectives in Afghanistan and India – a difficult task – we may expect these institutions to get tougher on future installments of funds.

The PTI Tax Amnesty Scheme is not dissimilar to the PMLN scheme that fetched less than Rs 100 Billion. But with the economy headed into a deeper trough, even that amount seems far-fetched. Some wisdom has therefore prevailed in allowing tax payable to be determined in the next six weeks but payment made over the course of the next twelve months, albeit with some surcharge.

But, like the PMLN scheme, the PTI scheme suffers from one major defect. It excludes “holders of public office” in the last twenty years. Why twenty years? Why not the last five or last thirty? What is the objective criterion for this cut-off date? Then there’s the definition of public office. It is all encompassing, spanning full three pages of an Ordinance. It includes everyone from the President of Pakistan at the top to Tehsil Nazims at the bottom, including paid private sector executives, advisors, consultants, etc., of statutory organisations or institutions or organisations in the control of the government of Pakistan. In other words, it excludes tens of thousands of officials and “public” representatives who are amongst the most corrupt in the country. This is the cream of the elite that has captured the state. This is the elite against whom we all love to rail. But what is good for the goose is not good for the gander. It seems that the bowels of the state of Pakistan are not to be cleansed after all.

The Tax Amnesty Scheme was nine months in the making. If the PMLN scheme had been extended when the PTI government took over, there would have been a lot of money in the coffers today. In the event, it took half a day to be promulgated via a Presidential Ordinance after proroguing the National Assembly so that it couldn’t be debated.

The small print in the IMF Agreement and Tax Amnesty Scheme testifies to the incompetence of the PTI regime in the face of rising national security challenges to the state of Pakistan. The forecast is grim.

Sunday, 12 May 2019

Apolitical Intellectuals


One day
the apolitical
intellectuals
of my country
will be interrogated
by the simplest
of our people.
They will be asked
what they did
when their nation died out
slowly,
like a sweet fire
small and alone.

No one will ask them
about their dress,
their long siestas
after lunch,
no one will want to know
about their sterile combats
with "the idea
of the nothing"
no one will care about
their higher financial learning.

They won't be questioned
on Greek mythology,
or regarding their self-disgust
when someone within them
begins to die
the coward's death.

They'll be asked nothing
about their absurd
justifications,
born in the shadow
of the total lie.

On that day
the simple men will come.

Those who had no place
in the books and poems
of the apolitical intellectuals,
but daily delivered
their bread and milk,
their tortillas and eggs,
those who drove their cars,
who cared for their dogs and gardens
and worked for them,
and they'll ask:

"What did you do when the poor
suffered, when tenderness
and life
burned out of them?"

Apolitical intellectuals
of my sweet country,
you will not be able to answer.

A vulture of silence
will eat your gut.

Your own misery
will pick at your soul.

And you will be mute in your shame.

--Otto Rene Castillo

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Pakistan and the IMF program

Najam Sethi

The 248-page document presents the September 2008 revision of the US Army Field Manual (FM) 3-05.130, Army Special Operations Forces Unconventional Warfare, establishing keystone doctrine for Army special operations forces (ARSOF) operations in unconventional warfare (UW). The purpose of the manual is to be useful to understanding the nature of UW and its role in the nation's application of power.
Unconventional Warfare, as of this manual is being defined as Operations conducted by, with, or through irregular forces in support of a resistance movement, an insurgency, or conventional military operations., reflecting two important criteria: UW must be conducted by, with, or through surrogates; and such surrogates must be irregular forces.
The nine chapters cover topics such as Special Forces, Psychological as well as Civil Affairs Operations, while also covering general doctrine, policies and planning considerations in respect to Army special operations forces.
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Why we must not let Europe break apart

The European project is in big trouble – but it’s worth defending. By Timothy Garton Ash  in The Guardian



It’s time to sound the alarm. Seven decades after the end of the second world war on European soil, the Europe we have built since then is under attack. As the cathedral of Notre Dame burned, Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National was polling neck and neck with Emmanuel Macron’s movement for what he calls a “European renaissance”. In Spain, a far-right party called Vox, promoting the kind of reactionary nationalist ideas against which Spain’s post-Franco democracy was supposedly immunised, has won the favour of one in 10 voters in a national election. Nationalist populists rule Italy, where a great-grandson of Benito Mussolini is running for the European parliament on the list of the so-called Brothers of Italy. A rightwing populist party called The Finns, formerly the True Finns (to distinguish them from “false” Finns of different colour or religion), garnered almost as many votes as Finland’s Social Democrats in last month’s general election. In Britain, the European elections on 23 May can be seen as another referendum on Brexit, but the underlying struggle is the same as that of our fellow Europeans. Nigel Farage is a Le Pen in Wellington boots, a True Finn in a Barbour jacket.

Meanwhile, to mark the 30th anniversary of the velvet revolutions of 1989, Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party has denounced a charter of LGBT+ rights as an attack on children. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland successfully deploys a völkisch rhetoric we thought vanquished for good, although now it scapegoats Muslims instead of Jews. Remember Bertolt Brecht’s warning: “The womb is fertile still/ from which that crawled.” Viktor Orbán, the young revolutionary hero of 1989 turned bulldog-jowled neo-authoritarian, has effectively demolished liberal democracy in Hungary, using antisemitic attacks on the billionaire George Soros and generous subsidies from the EU. He has also enjoyed political protection from Manfred Weber, the Bavarian politician whom the European People’s party, Europe’s powerful centre-right grouping, suggests should be the next president of the European commission. Orbán has summed the situation up like this: “Thirty years ago, we thought Europe was our future. Today, we believe we are Europe’s future.”

Italy’s Matteo Salvini agrees, so much so that he is hosting an election rally of Europe’s rightwing populist parties, an international of nationalists, in Milan later this month. To be sure, the spectacle of a once-great country reducing itself to a global laughing stock, in a tragic farce called Brexit, has silenced all talk of Hungexit, Polexit or Italexit. But what Orbán and co intend is actually more dangerous. Farage merely wants to leave the EU; they propose to dismantle it from within, returning to an ill-defined but obviously much looser “Europe of nations”.

Wherever one looks, old and new rifts appear, between northern and southern Europe, catalysed by the Eurozone crisis, between west and east, reviving the old stereotypes of intra-European orientalism (civilised west, barbaric east), between Catalonia and the rest of Spain, between two halves of each European society, and even between France and Germany.

For anyone who takes a longer view, these mounting signs of European disintegration should not be a surprise. Isn’t this a pattern familiar from European history? In the 17th century, the horrendously destructive thirty years war was concluded by the peace of Westphalia. At the turn of the 18th to the 19th, the continent was torn apart by two decades of Napoleonic wars, then stitched together in another pattern by the Congress of Vienna. The first world war was followed by the Versailles peace. Each time, the new post-war European order lasts a while – sometimes shorter, sometimes longer – but gradually frays at the edges, with tectonic tensions building up under the surface, until it finally breaks apart in a new time of troubles. No European settlement, order, empire, commonwealth, res publica, Reich, concert, entente, axis, alliance, coalition or union lasts for ever.

Set against that historical measuring rod, our Europe has done pretty well: it is 74 years old this week, if we date its birth to the end of the second world war in Europe. It owes this longevity to the miraculously non-violent collapse in 1989-91 of a nuclear-armed Russian empire that had occupied half the continent. Only in former Yugoslavia, and more recently in Ukraine, have we witnessed what more normally follows the fall of empires: bloody strife. Otherwise, what happened after the end of the cold war was a peaceful enlargement and deepening of the existing, post-1945 west European order. Yet maybe now the muse of history is shouting, like some grim boatman from the shore, “come in Number 45, your time is up!”

 
Santiago Abascal, the leader of Vox, a far-right party in Spain. Photograph: Pablo Blázquez Domínguez/Getty

In one respect, however, this time is different. For centuries, Europe kept tearing itself apart, then putting itself together again, but all the while exploiting, colonising and bossing around other parts of the world. With the European civil war that raged on and off from 1914 to 1945, once described by Winston Churchill as a second thirty years war, Europe deposed itself from its global throne. In act five of Europe’s self-destruction, the US and the Soviet Union strode on to the stage like Fortinbras at the end of Hamlet. Yet, Europe was at least still the central stage of world politics throughout the cold war that followed. Europeans made history once again for a brief shining moment in 1989, but then Hegel’s Weltgeist, the “world spirit”, moved rapidly on from Berlin to Beijing.

Today, Europe struggles to remain a subject rather than becoming merely an object of world politics – with Beijing hungry to shape a Chinese century, a revanchist Russia, Donald Trump’s unilateralist US, and climate change threatening to overwhelm us all. Both Russia and China merrily divide and rule across our continent, using economic power to pick off weaker European states and disinformation to set nation against nation. In the 19th century, European powers engaged in what was called the scramble for Africa; in the 21st, outside powers engage in a scramble for Europe.

Of course, Europe means many different things. It is a continent with ill-defined borders, a shared culture and history, a contested set of values, a complex web of institutions and, not least, hundreds of millions of people, all with their own individual Europes. Nationalists like Le Pen and Orbán insist they just want a different kind of Europe. Tell me your Europe and I will tell you who you are. But the central institution of the post-1945 project of Europeans working closely together is the European Union, and its future is now in question.

None of this radicalisation and disintegration is inevitable, but to avert it, we have to understand how we got here, and why this Europe, with all its faults, is still worth defending.

It is 1942. In a tram rattling through Nazi-occupied Warsaw sits an emaciated, half-starved 10-year-old boy. His name is Bronek. He is wearing four sweaters, yet still he shivers despite the August heat. Everyone looks at him curiously. Everyone, he is sure, sees that he is a Jewish kid who has slipped out of the ghetto through a hole in the wall. Luckily, no one denounces him, and one Polish passenger warns him to watch out for a German sitting in the section marked “Nur für Deutsche”. And so Bronek survives, while his father is murdered in a Nazi extermination camp and his brother sent to Bergen-Belsen.

Sixty years on, I was walking with Bronek down one of the long corridors of the parliament of a now-independent Poland. Suddenly he stopped in his tracks, turned to me, stroked his beard and said with quiet passion: “You know, for me, Europe is something like a Platonic essence.”

In the life of Prof Bronisław Geremek, you have the essential story of how, and why, Europe came to be what it is today. Having escaped the horrors of the ghetto (“the world burned before my eyes”), along with his mother, he was brought up by a Polish Catholic stepfather, served as an altar boy and was taught by an inspiring priest in the Sodality of the Blessed Virgin Mary. So he had also, in his bones, Europe’s deep and defining Christian heritage. Then, at the age of 18, he joined the communist party, believing it would build a better world. Eighteen years later, stripped of his last illusions by the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, he resigned from that same party in protest and returned to his professional life as a medieval historian. But politics somehow would not let him go.

I first encountered him during a historic occupation strike in the Lenin Shipyard in Gdańsk in August 1980, when the leader of the striking workers, Lech Wałęsa, asked Geremek to become an adviser to the protest movement that would soon be christened Solidarity. Over the subsequent decade I would visit him, whenever I got the chance, in his small apartment in Warsaw’s Old Town, which had been razed to the ground by the Nazis, then rebuilt stone upon stone by the Poles. As he puffed away at his professorial pipe, he shared with me his pellucid analysis of the decline of the Soviet empire, even as he and his comrades in Solidarity helped turn that decline into fall. For in 1989, he was the intellectual architect of the round table talks that were the key to Poland’s negotiated transition from communism to democracy, and Poland was the icebreaker for the rest of central Europe.

Ten years on, he was the foreign minister who signed the treaty by which Poland became a member of Nato. When I visited him in the foreign ministry, I spotted on his mantelpiece a bottle of a Czech vodka called Stalin’s Tears. “You must have it!” he exclaimed. “A Polish foreign minister cannot keep Stalin in his office!” And so that bottle of Stalin’s Tears stands on my mantelpiece in Oxford as I write. In memory of Bronek, I will never drink it.

 
Lech Wałęsa speaks to workers during a strike at the Gdańsk shipyard in 1980. Photograph: Erazm Ciołek/Forum/Reuters

Having been instrumental in steering his beloved country into the European Union, he subsequently became a member of the European parliament, that same parliament to which we are electing new representatives this month. Tragically, but in a way symbolically, he died in a car accident on the way to Brussels.

Geremek’s story is unique, but the basic form of his Europeanism is typical of three generations of Europe-builders who made our continent what it is today. When you look at how the argument for European integration was advanced in various countries, from the 1940s to the 1990s, each national story seems at first glance very different. But dig a bit deeper and you find the same underlying thought: “We have been in a bad place, we want to be in a better one, and that better place is called Europe.” Many and diverse were the nightmares from which these countries were trying to awake. For Germany, it was the shame and disgrace of the criminal regime that murdered Bronek’s father. For France, it was the humiliation of defeat and occupation; for Britain, relative political and economic decline; for Spain, a fascist dictatorship; for Poland, a communist one. Europe had no shortage of nightmares. But in all these countries, the shape of the pro-European argument was the same. It was an elongated, exuberant pencilled tick: a steep descent, a turn and then an upward line ascending to a better future. A future called Europe.

Personal memories of bad times were a driving force for three distinctive generations. Many of the founding fathers of what is now the European Union were what one might call 14ers, still vividly recalling the horrors of the first world war. (The 14ers included the British prime minister Harold Macmillan, who would talk with a breaking voice of the “lost generation” of his contemporaries). Then came the 39ers like Geremek, indelibly shaped by traumas of war, gulag, occupation and Holocaust. Finally, there was a third cohort, the 68ers, revolting against the war-scarred generation of their parents, yet many of them also having experience of dictatorship in southern and eastern Europe.

The trouble starts when you have arrived in the promised land. Now, for the first time, we have a generation of Europeans – let’s call them the 89ers – who have known nothing but a Europe of closely connected liberal democracies. Call it a European empire or commonwealth, if you will. To be sure, “Europe whole and free” remains an ideal, not a reality, for millions who live here, especially those who are poor, belong to a discriminated minority or seek refuge from across the Mediterranean. But we are closer to that ideal than ever before.

It would be a parody of middle-aged condescension to say “these young people don’t know how lucky they are!”. After all, younger voters are often more pro-European than older ones. But it would not be wrong to say that many 89ers who have grown up in this relatively whole and free continent do not see Europe as a great cause, the way 39ers and 68ers did. Why be passionate about something that already exists? Unless they have grown up in the former Yugoslavia or Ukraine, they are unlikely to have much direct personal experience of just how quickly things can all unravel, back to European barbarism. By contrast, many of them do know from bitter experience how life got worse after the financial crisis of 2008.

On the walls of Al-Andalus, a tapas bar in Oxford, depictions of flamenco dancers and bullfights embrace cliche without shame. Here, when I first met him in 2015, Julio – dark-haired, lean and intense – worked as a waiter. But serving tourists in a tapas bar in England was not what he expected to be doing with his life. He had just finished a master’s degree in European studies at Computense University in Madrid. It was the Eurozone crisis – which at its height made one in every two young Spaniards unemployed – that reduced him to this. Looking back, Julio describes his feelings when he had to make this move abroad: “Sadness, impotence, solitude.”

Across the continent there are many thousands of Julios. For them, the tick line has been inverted: it started by going steadily up, but then turned sharply downwards after 2008. Ten years ago, you and your country were in a better place. Now you are in a worse one, and that is because Europe has not delivered on its promises.

Here is the cunning of history: the seeds of triumph are sown in the moment of greatest disaster, in 1939, but the seeds of crisis are sown in the moment of triumph, in 1989. With the benefit of hindsight, we can see that many of the problems haunting Europe today have their origins in the apparently triumphant transition after the fall of the Berlin Wall. A few far-sighted people warned at the time. The French political philosopher Pierre Hassner wrote in 1991 that, even as we celebrated the triumph of freedom, we should remember that “humankind does not live by liberty and universality alone, that the aspirations that led to nationalism and socialism, the yearning for community and identity, and the yearning for solidarity and equality, will reappear as they always do”. And so they have.

The events of 1989 opened the door to an unprecedented era of globalised, financialised capitalism. While this facilitated great material progress for a new middle class in Asia, in the west it generated levels of economic inequality not seen since the early 20th century. A divide also opened up between those with higher education and international experience, and those in the less fortunate other halves of European societies. The latter felt an inequality of attention and respect from the former. Barriers to freedom of movement between European countries were eliminated while little thought was given to what Europe would do if large numbers of people wanted to enter through the outer frontier of the Schengen zone. What followed was problems of large-scale emigration, for the poorer countries of eastern and southern Europe, and of immigration for the richer ones of northern Europe – be it the internal movement of more than 2 million east Europeans to Britain or the influx of more than 1 million refugees from outside the EU to Germany.

When the global financial crisis hit, it exposed all the inherent flaws of a halfway-house Eurozone. Hastened into life as a political response to German unification, the Eurozone that we have today, a common currency without a common treasury, hitching together such diverse economies as those of Greece and Germany, had been warned against in vain by numerous economists. Absent a decisive, far-sighted response from northern Europe, and especially from Germany, the impact on southern Europe was traumatic. Not only did the Eurozone crisis drive Julio to that dreary tapas bar and people in Greece to desperate hardship; it kick-started a new wave of radical and populist politics, on both left and right, and with mixtures of left and right that don’t easily fit into that old dichotomy.

Populists blame the sufferings of “the people” on remote, technocratic, liberal elites. Europe, or more accurately “Europe”, is particularly vulnerable to this attack. For most officials in Brussels are quite remote, quite technocratic and quite liberal. Although members of the European parliament are directly elected, that parliament can at times seem like a bubble within the Brussels bubble. Although their remuneration is peanuts compared to that of the bankers who nearly crashed the globalised capitalist system, EU leaders, parliamentarians and officials are very well paid. Watching them jump out of a chauffeur-driven BMW to deliver another smooth, visionary speech about the future of Europe, before jumping back into the BMW to be swept off to another nice lunch, it is not surprising that many less privileged Europeans say: “Well, they would praise Europe, wouldn’t they?”

Earlier this year, in a shabby office in Westminster, I was talking to someone who, like me, passionately wants a second referendum on Brexit, in which the majority votes to remain in the EU. What should be our campaign slogan? Among others, he suggested “Europe is great!” I winced. Why? Because this calls to mind the toe-curling British government national promotion campaign built around the motto “Britain is GREAT”. Countries that feel the need to proclaim in capital letters that they are great probably no longer are. But also because of all these problems that have accumulated across Europe during the 30 years of peace since 1989. Europe is great for us, the educated, privileged, mobile and gainfully employed, but do you really feel like saying “Europe is great!” with a straight face to the unemployed, unskilled worker in the post-industrial north of England, the southern European graduate who can’t find a job, or the Roma child or the refugee stuck in a camp?

We are only credible if we acknowledge that the European Union is now passing through an existential crisis, under attack from inside and out. It is paying the price both for past successes, which result in its achievements being taken for granted, and past mistakes, many of them having the shared characteristic of liberal over-reach.

The case for Europe today is very different from that of a half-century ago. In the 1970s, people in Britain, Spain or Poland looked at countries like France and West Germany, just coming to the end of the trente glorieuses – the three postwar decades of economic growth – in the then much smaller European Community, and said “we want what they’re having”. Today, the case starts with the defence of a Europe that already exists, but is now threatened with disintegration. If the construction were so strong that we could without hesitation say “Europe is great!”, it would not need our support so badly.

Since its inception, the European project has had a future-oriented, teleological rhetoric, all about what will come to pass one fine day, as we reach some ideal finalité européenne. These habits die hard. Driving through Hannover recently, I saw a Green party poster for the European elections that declared “Europe is not perfect – but it’s a damned good start”. Pause to think for a moment, and you realise how odd this is. After all, we don’t say “Britain is not perfect, but it’s a damned good start”. Nor do most 74-year-olds say “my life is not perfect, but it’s a good start”. The European Union today, like Germany or France or Britain, is a mature political entity, which does not need to derive its legitimacy from some utopian future. There is now a realistic, even conservative (with a small c) argument for maintaining what has already been built – which, of course, necessarily also means reforming it. If we merely preserved for the next 30 years today’s EU, at its current levels of freedom, prosperity, security and cooperation, that would already be an astonishing achievement.


 
The fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Photograph: Alamy

In a long historical perspective, this is the best Europe we have ever had. I challenge you to point to a better one, for the majority of the continent’s countries and individual people. Most Europeans live in liberal democracies that are committed to resolving their differences by all-night meetings in Brussels, not unilateral action, let alone armed force. This European Union is not a country, and will not become one any time soon, but it is much more than just an international organisation. The former Italian prime minister Giuliano Amato describes it as an unidentified flying object. It may be short on mystique, on emotional appeal, but it is not lacking that entirely. The heart can lift to see European flags fluttering beside national ones, and certainly to the strains of the European anthem, Beethoven’s setting of the Ode to Joy.

For everyone who is a citizen of an EU member state, this is a continent where you can wake up on a Friday morning, decide to take a budget airline flight to the other end of the continent, meet someone you like, settle down to study, work and live there, all the time enjoying the rights of a European citizen in one and the same legal, economic and political community. All this you appreciate most, like health, when you are about to lose it. Small wonder that marchers at the huge pro-European demonstration in London on 23 March this year wore T-shirts proclaiming “I am a citizen of Europe”.

So here’s the deepest challenge of this moment: do we really need to lose it all in order to find it again? Born in the depths of European barbarism more than 70 years ago, tipped towards crisis by a hubris born of that liberal triumph 30 years ago, does this project of a better Europe really need to descend all the way down to barbarism again before people mobilise to bring it back up? As personal memories like those that inspired the European passion of Bronisław Geremek fade away, the question is whether collective memory, cultivated by historians, journalists, novelists, statespeople and film-makers, can enable us to learn the lessons of the past without going through it all again ourselves.

Julio thinks we can learn. That is why, having resumed his academic career in Spain, he is now standing in the European elections for a radical, transnational pro-European party called Volt. “The generation that I represent,” he wrote to me in a recent email, “has observed the beginning of the disintegration of the EU, because of the triumph of the Brexit referendum. Imagine exit referendums across the EU in the next 10 or 20 years; the EU could easily be dismantled … So nothing will stand if we don’t defend what we have achieved after so many generations of sacrifice.”

You don’t have to subscribe to the electric radicalism of Volt’s pan-European federalist programme to appreciate the force of Julio’s appeal. I myself think more gradualist recipes for EU reform are more realistic. There are multiple variants of pro-Europeanism on offer from different parties in this month’s European elections, most of them acknowledging the need for reform. In Britain, five parties (not including Labour) are unambiguously in favour of the country staying in the EU. What is clear is that for once, and at last, these European elections really are about the future of Europe. Across 28 countries, new parties and old ghosts compete for the hearts of voters, with close to 100 million of them still undecided how they will vote. What is called for now, in every corner of our continent, is the defence of our common European home, not with arms but through the ballot box. Your continent needs you.