Monday, May 26, 2008

Dodgy bits of the Lisbon treaty: the "expanded" role of national parliaments

All posts on Lisbon

Update: I spoke to someone from the Dept of Foreign affairs on the phone this evening who confirmed my understanding. They also said that they felt the FAQ answer was not misleading, that the answers on that page were supposed to be shorter with less detail. That the detail they chose to omit renders the entire thing pointless was not an issue for them.

I keep hearing about the expanded role that national parliaments will have if Lisbon is ratified. As far as I can tell it is at best a figment of the imagination of the "yes" campaigners.

This is from the Dept of Foreign Affairs Lisbon treaty website

The Reform Treaty will give the National Parliaments of EU Member States a direct input into European legislation. All proposals for EU legislation will be sent directly to National Parliaments. The Parliaments will have the right to offer “reasoned opinions.”

If a sufficient number of National Parliaments object to a particular proposal, it can either be amended or withdrawn. This “yellow card procedure” is designed to give National Parliaments an important role in ensuring that the Union does not exceed its authority by involving itself in matters which can best be dealt with at national, regional or local level.
This "yellow card procedure" is what is focused on by "yes" campaigners as the fabulous new power that parliaments will have. It seems great, it seems like if enough parliaments get together they can stop bad legislation coming from the EU. The problem is, the circumstances under which they can stop something.

National parliaments will not be able to stop legislation that they don't like or that they think would be damaging to the EU or undemocratic or just generally a bad idea. There role is "ensuring that the Union does not exceed its authority by involving itself in matters which can best be dealt with at national, regional or local level". It's spelled out more clearly on the Referendum Commission's website

The parliaments may send a “reasoned opinion” to the EU institutions on whether draft legislation complies with the principle of subsidiarity. There is also a Protocol on subsidiarity which requires that draft legislative proposals are justified on the basis of subsidiarity and proportionality.

If enough national parliaments vote to send a reasoned opinion the draft legislation must be reviewed.


The review does not mean that the proposal must be withdrawn. If the proposer (usually, the Commission) wished to continue with the proposal, it must set out a reasoned opinion on why it considers that the principle of subsidiarity has not been breached.

According to this, parliaments can only object when a law breaches the principles of either subsidiarity (some things are better handled by the individual countries) or proportionality (any EU laws must achieve the goal of the treaties with the minimum of side-effects or restrictions on the member states). If enough parliaments feel the proposal breaks these principles then the EU must either change the proposal or explain why it thinks it's right and the parliaments are wrong. Either way, the proposal continues on, unless more 50% of parliaments objected, in which case either the European parliament or the Council of Ministers can kill it (by a majority vote). The full details of this are laid out (fairly clearly) in Protocol on the application of the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality (full treaty available in all EU languages from this page).

So basically the "expanded" role of the national parliaments is that they get to point out when the EU is doing something it's not allowed to do. I'm not sure who policed this previously, maybe it required someone to take a case to one of the European courts but basically this is a nonsense power. If you were to listen to the "yes" campaign you'd believe the parliaments would be able bounce back any laws that they don't like. This is simply not true.

While I'm at it, Lisbon gives the EU power in lots of new areas, areas which are currently under the power of national parliaments. So no matter how you slice that, Lisbon is reducing parliaments' roles in all of these areas. Giving them the ability to act as a speed bump in the very limited circumstances I've described does not change that and certainly doesn't justify their role being described as "expanded".

For completeness I should also point out that parliaments have a new veto power. Various areas currently require unanimous agreement by member states but in the future these can be changed to qualified majority if all member states agree (interestingly the reverse, going from majority to unanimity is never possible). If this ever happens, parliaments can veto it. Of course this would require the rather unlikely situation where a prime-minister agrees to switch to majority but his national parliament vote against him. Again if you consider that, before Lisbon, it was impossible for any area to change from unanimity to majority, describing this veto as an "expanded" role is nonsensical - previously this power resided with the parliaments (or in some countries with the people) so again this is actually a reduction in the parliaments power. It's a bit like if you (parliament) and your partner (prime minister) have a joint bank account and then someone (EU) says "I'm taking your name off the account and putting my name on it but don't worry, you now have an expanded role - if I ever try to take your partner's name off the account, you're allowed stop me."

Interestingly, other pages on the Dept of Foreign affairs completely leave out the fact that parliaments can only object on grounds of subsidiarity and give the impression that they can object for any reason:

The Treaty gives a new role within the EU to national parliaments. All proposals for EU legislation will be forwarded to national parliaments for their consideration. National parliaments will have a period of 8 weeks in which to vet proposals and offer opinions on them. If enough national parliaments object to a proposal, it can either be amended or withdrawn. Any national parliament can block moves to increase the number of policy issues that can be decided by majority voting.
it's possible that I'm misunderstanding something but give that this contradicts other pages on the same website and also the Referendum Commission's description, this seems incorrect. I am waiting for a call back from the dept. with clarification. Update: they called me back, I'm correct, they don't think it's important.

So, there you go, war is peace, freedom is slavery, ignorance is strength and reduced is expanded. It's funny, if this role for parliaments didn't exist at all, I probably wouldn't care. What I care about is that the "yes" side are lying about it and selling it as something it really isn't.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Cinema trip: Doomsday

I went to see Doomsday on Thursday night. It wasn't as bad as the review led me to expect. I was supposed to go see Caramel but I missed the start time because Sichuan House was really busy and my excellent Kung Po chicken took ages to arrive.

Doomsday is mostly silly but good fun, Rhona Mitra looks nice and the depiction of Glasgow, 25 years after after law and order breaks down, almost makes this a documentary.

George Orwell: Politics and the English Language

Turns out my quotes are unreadable in Google Reader, presumably because they rely on the style-sheet. That sucks. I should bother the reader people about that.

A few years ago, I listened to a pretty good PARC forum, The Paradox of Political Language by Geoffrey Nunberg, University of California, Berkeley. In it he mentions Orwell's essay, "Politics and the English Language". I can't even remember if it played a big part or a small part in the talk but I decided I should read it.

Searching on Google now finds me lots of copies of the essay but for some reason, at the time, I didn't do that (or maybe it recently went out of copyright, I don't know). So off I went and bought "Orwell and Politics", a collection of his writings on politics.

It's got lots of interesting stuff in it and you pick up all manner of information about life in Britain before during and shortly after World War II. Stuff that you really wouldn't get in history class (if you took it!). There are lots references to odd political groups and the many Nazi-sympathizers that there were, seemingly quite a common thing before the war - those fascists were doing a fine job of keeping the wheels of industry and commerce turning and making sure the plebs didn't get above their station. There is also a lot of criticism of the blind support for Russia which was apparently quite common among intellectuals at the time.

It's got a copy of Animal Farm in it, including the original preface on "Freedom of the Press" which ironically did not make it to the press. In fact a repeated theme in the book is that while speech in Britain was quite free, with the major press owned by the rich, the political discourse of the time was completely distorted - a situation which has only really gotten worse with the further consolidation of the media and the increasing dependence on advertising for revenue.

Anyway, I have been slowly making my way through the book (I bought it in Dec 2006) and have now reached "Politics and the English Language". Of course I had read it already, back when I first bought the book but I decided I might as well read it again. Most of it feels completely unfamiliar to me. I recognised some stuff at the start but the rest is like I'm reading it for the first time. I don't know if I was distracted when I read before or if my memory really is that bad. Maybe it's just one of those things that you get more from each time, like The Naked Gun :). Anyway, the purpose of this post is to record what I thought were some great bits of that essay. They are as true today, as they were in Orwell's time, maybe moreso.

The word Fascism has now no meaning except in so far as it signifies "something not desirable." The words democracy, socialism, freedom, patriotic, realistic, justice have each of them several different meanings which cannot be reconciled with one another. In the case of a word like democracy, not only is there no agreed definition, but the attempt to make one is resisted from all sides. It is almost universally felt that when we call a country democratic we are praising it: consequently the defenders of every kind of regime claim that it is a democracy, and fear that they might have to stop using that word if it were tied down to any one meaning. Words of this kind are often used in a consciously dishonest way. That is, the person who uses them has his own private definition, but allows his hearer to think he means something quite different. Statements like Marshal Pétain was a true patriot, The Soviet press is the freest in the world, The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution, are almost always made with intent to deceive. Other words used in variable meanings, in most cases more or less dishonestly, are: class, totalitarian, science, progressive, reactionary, bourgeois, equality.

Add to this list "terrorism" which now means "what they do to us" but definitely not "what we do to them".

I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes:

    I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

    Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations -- race, battle, bread -- dissolve into the vague phrases "success or failure in competitive activities." This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing -- no one capable of using phrases like "objective considerations of contemporary phenomena" -- would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness.

I think it was the octopus in the following paragraph that made me want to write this post.

By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash -- as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot -- it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking.

I have highlighted the most important sentence in the next paragraph.

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism., question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenseless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

Orwell is blowing the whistle on the powerful hiding their crimes behind inoffensive euphemisms. 50 years on and such euphemisms are still being coined, accepted and regurgitated by the media. Instead of parroting them until they enter common parlance, an honest, responsible media would confront those who use them and make such phrases unutterable. Every time someone is allowed to say "extraordinary rendition" instead of "kidnap and torture" or "collateral damage" instead of "innocent civilian deaths", they have been let away with a deliberate lie. I wonder would war be less acceptable to voters and less comfortable for warmongers if they could not avoid "calling up mental pictures" of their crimes?

Has the gap between "real aims" and "declared aims" ever been as big as today? I like this image anyway.

When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

This is also as true today as ever.

Political language -- and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists -- is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

The Cure.

Orwell gives several pieces of advice on how to write well (I have cut and pasted paragraphs from various sections of his essay). The first one here really strikes a chord with me after all my recent letters-page activity.

People who write in this manner usually have a general emotional meaning -- they dislike one thing and want to express solidarity with another -- but they are not interested in the detail of what they are saying. A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? And he will probably ask himself two more: 1. Could I put it more shortly? 2. Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?

Orwell is not unwilling to criticise use of the "not un-" construction, a construction I myself am not unguilty of using from time to time.

One can cure oneself of the not un- formation by memorizing this sentence: A not unblack dog was chasing a not unsmall rabbit across a not ungreen field.

His final list of rules.

I think the following rules will cover most cases:

(i) Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

(ii) Never us a long word where a short one will do.

(iii) If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

(iv) Never use the passive where you can use the active.

(v) Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.

(vi) Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These rules sound elementary, and so they are, but they demand a deep change of attitude in anyone who has grown used to writing in the style now fashionable. One could keep all of them and still write bad English, but one could not write the kind of stuff that I quoted in those five specimens at the beginning of this article. 

The result

It is a little depressing to examine Orwell's list of "worn-out and useless" phrases that he would like to send to the dustbin.

One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one's own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase -- some jackboot, Achilles' heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse -- into the dustbin, where it belongs.

I have no idea how popular or novel they were at the time but sadly for Orwell, it would be hard to find an edition of a newspaper today that didn't feature one or more of "Achilles' heel", "hotbed", "melting pot" and "acid test". I think "jackboot" is only missing because there's nobody to use it against, which leaves "veritable inferno" as the only one to have been extinguished (pardon the pun). It's not that I myself dislike these phrases, I grew up with them and they seem perfectly natural to me but I presume they were relatively new in Orwell's time. They were badly- and over-used enough for Orwell to list them in the conclusion of his essay and almost all of them not only survived but flourished.

Finally, I must admit that I have not (and will not) go back over my previous postings and letters to the editor to see how well I measure up by Orwell's standards. I know I put considerable effort into shortening and to-the-pointening some of the letters to increase their chances of publication, although it didn't always work. Hopefully though, by writing this post, his wisdom won't just slide out of my head again like... an Achille's heel sliding out of a jackboot, into a veritable inferno.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Proof by taxation

A little story

One day your boss says, "Great job, we want to give you a bonus, were you planning a holiday this year?". You say "well actually, I wanted to go here", you show him a website, "but I can't afford it". "How much is it?". "1000 euro", you say. "Great, we'll pay for that". "Thanks boss!". Happy days.

Later you realise that if they just give you 1000e you'll have to pay tax on that. The tax rate is 40% so that's a 400e tax bill, you still can't afford the holiday.

You head up to your boss's office and explain the problem. He's still in a great mood and says, "Don't worry, we'll pay your tax bill too". "Wow but there's another bit of a problem, I'll have to pay tax on that extra 400 too. 40% of 400e is 160e, I still can't afford it". You boss is looking less happy now and gets out a piece of paper. "Right, we'll pay all your tax, no matter what" and starts writing down some figures 1000 400 160 64 25.60 10.24 4.096 1.6384 0.65536 you hear him mumbling as he starts adding them all up. Suddenly Joan, his secretary, who's been quiet all this time blurts out "1666e and 66c". You both stare at her in amazement then after a lot more mumbling the boss says "my total is 1666e and .23c but I suppose if I added a few more lines to the sum it'd probably be 1666.66. How did you get it Joan?"

"Well, tax is 40% so he gets to keep 60% of anything you pay him. So the final amount in his pocket is the what you give him times 0.6 . So you're looking for a number that when you multiply it by 0.6 gives you 1000. So 1000 ÷ .6 is the number you're looking for because when you multiply that by 0.6 the two .6s cancel out and only the 1000 is left and 1000 ÷ 0.6 is 1666.666666666...", says Joan.

So what we have proved is that 1000 + 1000 x 0.4 + 1000 x 0.4^2 + 1000 x 0.4^3 + ... = 1000 ÷ 0.6 . There was nothing special about our choice of 40%, so replacing 0.4 with r (and 0.6 by 1-r) and dividing out the 1000 on both sides gives 1 + r + r^2 + r^3 + ... = 1 ÷ (1 - r) Of course there are other ways to prove this but, I like my proof by taxation because it feels like it explains why they are equal.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Israeli Refuseniks

Here's a very interesting article on Israeli soldiers, pilots etc who have refused to serve in the occupied territories. There are many quotes and they are fascinating. There are pilots who have refused to commit any more "crimes" or "state terrorism" by carrying out air-strikes on populated areas. There are prestigious elite commandos and ordinary soldiers who have spoken out against the use of the Israeli army for immoral purposes.

Some rambling thoughts.

It is bizarre that there is a country which is exercising such brutality on one hand but on the other is civilised enough that it is possible for these soldiers to do what they are doing. They are, of course, punished for their disobedience but the punishments are not extreme. And although their tales are depressing, it is somewhat hopeful that these people exist and their numbers are growing.

It seems to me that it is a lot harder to stand up like this, against your peers, your commanders and maybe even your subordinates than it would be to just continue following orders. Especially if you have been doing something for several years before you conclude that it is wrong. People rationalise their own actions in all kinds of ways and seem to want to continue doing the same thing even though they know on some level it is wrong because to change now is to admit that you were wrong all along.

That said, the pilots said they had noticed a change in the character of their missions in the last few years, "We believed in the purity of our arms and that we did all we could to protect unnecessary loss of life. Somewhere in the last few years it became harder and harder to believe that is the case." . I suppose it is easier to change allegiance when the object of your allegiance changes first.

BBC's coverage of Palestine

Media lens has a very interesting article on the pro-Israel bias in the BBC's coverage of the conflict. Most interesting was the quote from the BBC's correspondent Jeremy Bowen,

"There were no interviews yesterday with grieving families because as the death of the Reuters cameraman showed, it was very dangerous to move around. They may well surface in the next few days. Very little video came out of Gaza yesterday. In a piece I did the night before last I interviewed the father of an 11 year old boy, Riad al Uwasi from al Burej camp, who was killed last week. When he was killed it was impossible to get to al Burej, which is where the Reuters cameraman died. When things were calmer, it became possible, until the next incursion."
and Jonathon Cook's comment
"It is a terrible irony that, precisely because Israel has created an environment in the occupied territories in which it can unleash so much violence so unpredictably, journalists are increasingly fearful of venturing there to tell the human stories of the Palestinian casualties behind the simple numbers. It is, of course, equally ironic that, because life inside Israel is relatively safe, journalists can easily humanise the stories of the far smaller number of Israeli casualties. Unfortunately, Bowen and most other journalists fail to appreciate this irony or to act in useful ways to counter its effects on their reporting."

I keep trying to think about how and when I will explain this kind of thing to my offspring.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Copying an audio CD in Linux

Note for myself, the most straighforward way seems to be

mkdir $cdname
cd $cdname
# probably want--rspeed=something here too, I didn't do that and it went quite slowly
cdrdao read-cd -v 1 toc
#swap cds
cdrdao write -v 1 toc
It's surpisingly slow to read the CD. While trying to find a solution to the speed problem, I stumbled upon some more detailed instructions (which doesn't solve the speed problem but has some more examples).

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Dodgy bits of the Lisbon treaty: energy policy

All posts on Lisbon

This is in response to a comment on another blog. The Lisbon treaty isn't dodgy on energy policy per se, what's a bit dodgy is that this is not the first time someone is claiming that Lisbon is important for energy policy when, as far as I can tell, it changes nothing.

So here, side-by-side are everything the EU treaties say about energy, before and after Lisbon. Before is taken from a consolidated copy of the treaties after Nice published by and after is taken from a consolidated copy of the treaties after Lisbon published by the Institute of European Affairs (why I have to do the crappy work of putting this together is yet another reason to dislike the entire treaty process).

Article 3

1.   For the purposes set out in Article 2, the activities of the Community shall include, as provided in this Treaty and in accordance with the timetable set out therein:

(a) the prohibition, as between Member States, of customs duties and quantitative restrictions on the import and export of goods, and of all other measures having equivalent effect;


(u) measures in the spheres of energy, civil protection and tourism.
2. Shared competence between the Union and the Member States applies in the
following principal areas:
(a) internal market;
(i) energy;
No text
                                        Article 122
1. Without prejudice to any other procedures provided for in the Treaties, the Council,
   on a proposal from the Commission, may decide, in a spirit of solidarity between
   Member States, upon the measures appropriate to the economic situation, in
   particular if severe difficulties arise in the supply of certain products, notably in the
   area of energy.

Article 154

1.   To help achieve the objectives referred to in Articles 14 and 158 and to enable citizens of the Union, economic operators and regional and local communities to derive full benefit from the setting-up of an area without internal frontiers, the Community shall contribute to the establishment and development of trans-European networks in the areas of transport, telecommunications and energy infrastructures.

2.   Within the framework of a system of open and competitive markets, action by the Community shall aim at promoting the interconnection and interoperability of national networks as well as access to such networks. It shall take account in particular of the need to link island, landlocked and peripheral regions with the central regions of the Community.
                                     Article 170
1. To help achieve the objectives referred to in Articles 28 and 174 and to enable citizens
   of the Union, economic operators and regional and local communities to derive full
   benefit from the setting-up of an area without internal frontiers, the Union shall
   contribute to the establishment and development of trans-European networks in the
   areas of transport, telecommunications and energy infrastructures.
2. Within the framework of a system of open and competitive markets, action by the
   Union shall aim at promoting the interconnection and interoperability of national
   networks as well as access to such networks. It shall take account in particular of the
   need to link island, landlocked and peripheral regions with the central regions of the
No text
                                   TITLE XXI
                                         Article 194
1. In the context of the establishment and functioning of the internal market and with
   regard for the need to preserve and improve the environment, Union policy on energy
   shall aim, in a spirit of solidarity between Member States, to:
    (a) ensure the functioning of the energy market;
    (b) ensure security of energy supply in the Union; and
    (c) promote energy efficiency and energy saving and the development of new and
        renewable forms of energy; and
    (d) promote the interconnection of energy networks.
2. Without prejudice to the application of other provisions of the Treaties, the European
   Parliament and the Council, acting in accordance with the ordinary legislative
   procedure, shall establish the measures necessary to achieve the objectives in
   paragraph 1. Such measures shall be adopted after consultation of the Economic and
   Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions.
   Such measures shall not affect a Member State’s right to determine the conditions for
   exploiting its energy resources, its choice between different energy sources and the
   general structure of its energy supply, without prejudice to Article 192(2)(c).
3. By way of derogation from paragraph 2, the Council, acting in accordance with a
   special legislative procedure, shall unanimously and after consulting the European
   Parliament, establish the measures referred to therein when they are primarily of a
   fiscal nature.

The treaty adds new text - the first piece of new text is so vague as to be meaningless. The second piece of new text sets out the goals for the energy, which had not been set out before. As far as I can tell there are 0 new powers or abilities added in the field of energy. Despite not having the goals set out before the EU managed to agree a policy last year exactly along these lines, to combat climate change and provide energy security (see my letter for details and link). How did they manage to do that before ratifying Lison? I can only assume it's because we don't need Lisbon for the EU to do this.