Tag Archives: eu

The EU and the Big Hate

Yeah, the EU and Britain. This small island, which thinks it is off the coast of North America is vehemently anti-European, and will do almost everything in its power to leave the grand idea of Europe. The Conservatives, two thirds of the current ruling coalition love to fight themselves into a tizzy about the EU idea. While the other political parties are smart enough to keep shtum about their differences over Europe (and other bits of infighting), the Conservatives have not learned from the 1990’s that while the EU is unpopular in the UK, it really does not matter with regards to my daily life.

So this week, Cameron, yet again, went to an EU summit looking like a spoilt child swinging his mummy’s handbag all over the shop. Embarrassing, even though I really agree with what the PM actually had to say. But he does come across really badly whenever it comes to the EU. And the French, who are really just snivelling self serving imbeciles always come across as slick. Damn those cunning French!

Believe it or not, after all that, I am fairly Pro-European. ‘Fairly’ is the good term to use. To be honest, it does not makes a difference to me whether Brussels, London or Washington is making laws, my taxes are not dropping anytime soon. As a floating voter (and we are dangerous bastards) it is the money in my pocket, not the hue of a flag that swings my vote, if I bother to vote at all. And while I have an opinion on Europe, it will not make my mind up when I go to the polls in 2015. In 2010, I am glad we got a coalition, and despite the cock and bull in the press, I think most of the people who voted then believe it was the right choice for that election. Going into a recession meant that no political party came out with any good ideas to get the UK moving. And it is still the case two years later…

Back to the EU. So, I like it? Yes, but…that is it, the ‘but’ bit. I do appreciate and take advantage of the free trade, travel and movement of people part of the EU. In fact, it is one of the best ideals implemented in modern politics over the past two generations. A lot of Brits (except retirees to Spain) really have not taken advantage of this. Lazy language skills can be blamed for this. But I have. In terms of my personal life, cultural activities and business projects, I take advantage of the EU’s free movement of goods, services and people like crazy. You may have noticed all those visits to Poland over the past couple of years, tak?

That part of me would not have been possible if the EU did not exist. It opened my life in so many ways, probably not envisioned by the grandees who thought up the project in the first place. For that, I am eternally grateful, and if Britain was to withdraw from Europe, it would peeve me off. While my personal life would remain intact (although become more tricky), my working side would become an absolute nightmare, well, I will be blunt, impossible.

And I love my films, get it! (Don’t ask about the rewrite…)

But yes, there are things I do not like about the EU. It is undemocratic, there are a lot of institutions and conventions that the UK never voted to join but were shoehorned into and the corruption levels make duck houses seem like…well, mere duck houses…

The EU will probably never face a proper reformation of its financial order as long as the nations resort to petty squabbling. It is sad, because the big EU contributors are probably more aligned then it seems when it comes to reigning in corruption and budgets. But David Cameron’s wibbly wobbly attitude does not help . The last shameful embarrassment in the EU last year looked like a small man playing to some Middle Englanders rather than a Prime Minister actually leading.

From my own opinion I think it is good for Britain to be a net contributor to the EU. The fact that we have peaceful borders and benign neighbours who are unlikely to attack Britain in the near future is something that cannot be measured by the financial contribution we make (in addition to the extremely successful NATO). So, I would rather see a stable Greece sorting out its tax collection system rather than see a Greece mired in strikes and uncertainty.

In the end, Britain is not going to leave the EU anytime soon. And good. But I do worry about the long term political relationship that the UK is building for itself. I do not want to leave the EU, I want to see a strong, democratic institution that does allow for good business and trade and that keeps the peace on the continent. Both from a personal and professional point of view, I have taken advantage of Europe, and it is something that personally benefits me. I believe if more people in the UK had the attachment via people to the continent that I have, the tide of euroscepticism would be a lot less.

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De ja vous Poland – Back in Wroclaw 1

(Yes. I am convinced that ice cream is a good thing at -5C. And for those with rudimentary Polish, Lody does have two meanings in that language.)

I have just returned from an excellent trip to Wroclaw. I was there last weekend, and despite the cold weather, it was good to be back in one of my favourite places in all of Poland. Home to cute bronze gnomes, cute trams and cute hotel receptionists, this is far more than just a cute little city. It is to be the European Capital of Culture in 2016, and it has a long history of over one thousand years. Oh, you want me to tell it…okay.

Founded by the Czechs (1000 AD is the founding of the diocese), before being taken over by the Germanic Luxembourg Dynasty in 1335. Wroclaw kept on growing under the rule of the (Austrian) Habsburg’s in 1526. Unfortunately this was at a time when the whole Reformation shindigs was happening and it was not until Frederick V of Rhine decided to challenge this. However, the leader of Palatine of the Rhine Defeated by the Austrians, the city lay in a kind of limbo. Ruled by Catholics, but strongly Protestant, the Dresden Accord was signed which spared Wroclaw and Silesia from the worse of the Christian turmoil spreading through Europe during the 17th Century.

But the invasions were not to end there. The genius King of Prussia, Frederick II (or The Great)decided that he wanted a piece of Silesia and Wroclaw was the prize he scalped from the Austrians. Until Napoleon, the city was rather pleasant and thrived. And then the French arrived before going back to Prussia.

Then you had the last one hundred years. During World War I, Wroclaw, or Breslau as it was known was a patriotic German city. And after Germany’s defeat, it recovered well. And then World War II arrived. To be blunt, this was a nasty time in the city’s history. The first concentration camps were built here, and the city’s population of Jews and Polish (around 7% at the start of the 20th Century) was decimated. It also was one of the fiercest theaters of the Eastern Front that left the city in ruins.

After WWII it became a part of Poland, and what was left of the indigenous population was shipped off to what was fast becoming East and West Germany. In their place, many Polish refugees from what is today Belarus and Ukraine arrived and made the city their home.

Count the number of times the city changed hands. Nine times (not including the Russian invasion at the end of WWII). There is probably no other city, nay region in the whole of Europe that has been so hotly contested in the past 1000 years. As a result, the city was a melting pot or trade and people until the brutality of the Second World War put a stop to that. Today it is a thriving Polish City and thanks to the EU it is fast becoming a bit of a hot spot for visitors from around the continent with a steady supply of tourists flying in on budget airlines for weekends or more of fun. And those cheap flights to Stansted and Luton. Yeah, that’s why I was there…again…

(The Rynek or Market Place of Wroclaw. Yes, it is cute! And for some reason, the Polish Christmas lasts until the end of January…makes the British penchant for shopping look tame…)

I must admit after the rush at Christmas, it was fantastic to be on the road again, even if it was for a few days. After all the hustle, hassle and bustle of the past year, it felt good to take some time out, to be happy, not have to please anyone. Just me enjoying myself in one of Poland’s most picturesque towns…

(Rebuilding work around Wroclaw’s main railway station. Not so picturesque. Yet.)

Well, Euro 2012 is coming, and this is going to be one of those destination points as the Group stages will be played here. If you care about football. I do not.

In reality, I just love the city. So much so, that I will be here again…next month…what is it about Poland that keeps dragging me back here? Maybe I should broaden my horizons. Ahem…

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Europe vs UK

So I have seen the news yesterday and today that Britain (or our glorious Prime Minister), for the first time wielded the UK’s veto during a European negotiation. Some have cast Britain and the PM as a pariah amongst the nation’s largest trading partner, and some have decided to break out the warm beer and wave the Union Jack that we have stuck two fingers to the dirty continentals.

Now before I go in, let me state that I am a great believer in the EU, but I think that the whole institution is rotten to the core and really needs to be gutted out. Great ideals, horrible implementation of the practicalities. While some fantastic ideals such as free markets, the free movements of people, free trade, the interlinking of culture and exchange of culture has all been huge positives of the EU. A bloated bureaucracy, an ineffective Parliament and a wasteful sense of spending. The fact that the EU has not signed off its own books in over a decade, it does beggar belief that the EU is now going to sign off the books of its member states. And seemingly, without a whiff of democracy – a dangerous maneuver. I think a strong, Confederate Europe, with democracy and free trade at its heart would do wonders for the continent. Instead, an institution, encumbered by the baggage of World War II and the corruption of the 21st Century, holds many people with disgust in the UK, and increasingly, across the rest of the continent. It is more a meeting of the elites rather than a project for peace.

But David Cameron is no diplomat, and he played right into the hand of the Franco-German axis that has for so long dominated the Union. It is quite clear that removing Britain from the negotiating table made a lot of European leaders happy. And that it left Britain open to blame if there was a failure in the Euro. He could have played his hand far smarter.

What Uncle Dave, our glorious PM did, was play to his own political party. He wanted to avoid a showdown with his domestic politics. So while he returns to backslapping, and good show Dave, the guy took the easy route out.

The Germans, the French and the rest do not care about the Conservative Party (think of them as a nice version of today’s Republican Party in the US or a less cuddly version of the current incarnation of India’s Congress Party) to which David Cameron belongs to. Few people in the UK care about it too. But the EU do care about an electorate of 60 million people. Dave could have played his hand far more deftly. He could have said that he would be happy to have a new treaty, and then put it to referendum if it did not protect Britain’s Interests (read that as the banker’s interests, but that is another story). He would have also solved his domestic political problem in one fell swoop.

That would have really knocked heads in the EU together, as everyone knows how Eurosceptic this country is. The EU leaders would have tailored a deal to ensure that David Cameron would not call a referendum. It would have also brought Britain far deeper into the negotiations, and some real progress would have been made.

Instead, David swung his handbag, and lost. Poorly.

The ego of a few pigs at the top trough have left the world’s largest (and arguably its most successful) trading bloc split. 26 nations against its 2nd/3rd biggest member (depending on where you stop counting). Dave may have won this round, but it is not in Britain’s or Europe’s interests to be divided by the English Channel.

From what I have read about the proposals in the press, it seems there is no real plan to Save the Euro. No fundamental addressing of Europe’s real problem. Bloated, spendthrift governments that ran out of money and a population boom/immigration supply to support this. Europe is stagnant, trying to hold onto its past glories instead of using its heritage and history to be creative and dynamic in the 21st Century. It is a problem that all countries in the EU face (including Britain) and it will not be addressed by a few pen strokes in closed rooms, but a fundamental shift in the attitudes of Europe’s people. What is happening in Greece now, is going to repeat itself across Europe, as populations fall, tax incomes drop and populations age. This is an old continent, that despite its history, of looking beyond its borders is becoming increasingly inward looking and incestuous. There is a brave new world out there, and fundamentally, the EU is far better than a bunch of competing nations. But Europe is lazy. Too much resting on its old money. If Europe want s to thrive in this century, its governments and citizens have got to be prepared to work harder, and smarter…

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Waving a Flag or Isolated

Well, big news in the UK is Britain’s Veto in the EU discussions. It will be interesting to see where this one goes…

Keep waving that flag Dave!

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Britain vs Europe – Which System is Better?

Ah, the European Union. From British shores, it is that big conglomerate thing with a funny blue flag that takes hard earning tax payers cash and doles it out to lazy continental scum to drink coffee and smoke cigarettes all day. I kid you not, that would be as accurate a description of the EU from a relatively sober member of the British public.


(European Parliament in Strasbourg – most Brits would spit at the institution, if we could be bothered to)

My view? Well, I will get to that in a minute.

For better or for worse, Britain is a part of the EU. But we are not a part of some of its major systems. Britain famously has kept Sterling and almost as significantly, we are not a part of the Schengen system of borderless travel. Now for me, I have never really cared either way, as my travels in the rest of Europe have been relatively minimal over the past decade. But recently and currently, I am heading off to Europe a hell of a lot. I have already gone four times this year to Europe and will be heading there another two times before 2012 swings in. That is an incredible change in my own travel patterns and has made m think and question Britain’s take toward the EU, how it compares and the good and the bad between the two. For whatever Britain’s membership of the EU, in effect the relationship between the two is similar to Hong Kong’s relationship with China – One Country, Two Systems.

Let us tackle the question of the Euro. At the moment, with the debt crisis engulfing the Eurozone, it is very unfashionable to talk about Britain exchanging Sterling for the Euro. But it is my belief that eventually, Britain will adopt the Euro in some way or another. It maybe another generation to go, but at some point, Britain will relinquish total control over its currency and join the Euro. Why? Money talks, and in the end, that is the only reason why Britain today is a part of the EU – cash. The bulk of our trade is with Europe and that counts for everything, The EU, despite its cumbersome nature has allowed British firms to take advantage of the huge internal market that exists. It is the fundamental reason for Britain being tied to Europe, and it will reach its logical conclusion with the adoption of the Euro. But that will take time.

Do I think the Euro is a good thing? In practice, yes, I do. From the viewpoint of a simple traveller, it is a pain to handle different currencies over such a small geographical area. It would also make comparing the cost of goods and services a lot easier. It would remove the commission costs and fudged exchange rates that I have to pay every time I go abroad, which this year could rack up to around £30 – not an insignificant amount. I would love to see Britain join the Euro for these practical reasons. I have no notions of our currency or a loss of sovereignty. As currency is no longer linked to gold, they are in the end, just pieces of paper for governments to manipulate.

And it was a real pain on my road trip this year, passing through four countries and having to deal with four different currencies. If they all had the Euro, my life would have been a doddle!

At the moment however, the monetary governance of the EU is pathetic. Some countries were let into the Eurozone on political rather than economic grounds. To be honest, the political posturing of the EU has to be replaced by cold hard economic sense before the currency could be seen as fit to join.

And then the other big visible part of Europe. Schengen. Here is an example of what borderless travel actually looks like:


(Right foot in Slovakia, Left foot in Hungary)

And Schengen is easy! International boundaries have become no more than lines in the tarmac. The only way you know you have changed countries is a sign saying Poland Welcomes Careful Drivers, and a bleep on your mobile phone when the network changes. It is a joy to whistle past boundaries that once upon a time were the result of deep political and ideological differences. Nowadays they are marker points of linguistic flurries. Joy!

But should the UK join Schengen.

I am in two minds about this. While the Euro, I think is a good thing and with reform could become a source of strength for the UK, Schengen I am more ambiguous. I think I am 60% in favour of Schengen. Like I have said, life is easy, it is a doddle to whisk from country to country and you really do feel that there is one EU rather than lots of itty-bitty countries. It is nice, and it is one of the (successful and) defining characteristics of European Integration and the peace that has held since the end of WWII and later on since the fall of Communism in Europe. But, Schengen has certain things about it that I do not like.

First the need for an ID Card system. One thing about the UK is the complete lack of paperwork needed. I do not have to carry my licence/insurance with me when I drive. It is assumed that I would not be on the road without them, and if I am stopped by the police, they have to do the leg-work to find out if I am legal or not. The presumption of innocent until proven guilty is what rules the UK’s governance. Thankfully, we do not have an ID Card system, despite Lord Blair’s resolve in trying to foist one onto us. Do not worry, we, are under surveillance, as it was the UK that invented the Police Force. Collectively we are just as scrutinised as any of our European cousins, but on an individual basis, life is remarkably free. In Schengen, I have to have some photo ID on me, which means as I do not have an ID Card, I have to always carry my passport. Even to pop out to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. And this is considered normal.

In the UK, no. My wallet contains cash, not my identification. It means that I am less likely to loose my ID, and so I am less likely to get screwed over.

So, as much as I love Schengen, I do not like the idea of ID Cards that come with it. I think there is a greater good that results from having free borders, but not from being obliged into burdening the individual with more paperwork.

So is the EU a good thing? For me, overall, I think it is a good thing. There are a lot of rights and freedoms that more recent British governments would have eroded had it not been for the EU. I think the freedom of movement for people, goods and capital is essential and should be broadened. It has made life for me very easy with regards to regular travel across Europe, something that the EU had in mind when it was first formed all those years ago. Along with NATO, it has helped to keep the peace in Europe for longer than any other system of governance. But the EU is cumbersome, and if it was not for difficult Britain, it would probably be far too uniform. I think it is a good thing there is no one size fits all Europe, but an EU that blends and flows according to the whims of its citizens. Personally, I think the whole institution should follow a Confederational model (rather than a Federal plan), but that kind of organisation would take aeons to achieve. But the good outweighs the bad, and as I jet off again this week to Poland for another trip to that (now) fairly cold country, I think to myself, thank goodness for the EU. It makes my life a lot more simple!

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Euro Road Trip 2 – The Great Day Drive from Budapest to Czestochowa

I arrived in Budapest after 16 hours in the saddle. Ouch! It was a long trip, but it was fun. But I also had to get back to Western Poland. That meant another long drive back.

But it was not going to be the same route. For starters, that was all highway, and it is incredibly dull. Second, I was driving throughout the day. I wanted something far more interesting to view on my way. And so the route was chose, north of Budapest towards Slovakia. And then through the breadth of this country until getting back into Poland before heading to Czestochowa for the night. The plan was for a ten hour drive, and yes, it did take that long!

Of course, it was done at a leisurely pace, and we left late. After all, the morning was spent wandering around Budapest’s wonderful City Park (it was a Sunday after all) and so the road trip was late in its commencement. But off we went, leaving our glorious apartment block in a not too bad district of Pest.

The drive to the border was quick and easy. As it is all Schengen that basically meant sailing straight through. International boundaries just became lines in the tarmac as one road surface changed into another. And then came Slovakia – country number 35 on my list of ‘places visited’.


(The Town of Krupina – Slovakia)

Driving through Slovakia on Sunday, I noticed that it was one hell of a quiet country! These people really observed their sabbath. Nothing was open, there was no one on the roads and it was almost like an empty film set. I was expecting zombies to jump out from round the corner, because the big question was where’s the people?

Apart from empty, Slovakia is beautiful. Partly as the country is so empty, so there is lot of countryside to view. And it is very hilly. The Caparthian mountains dominate the northern part of the country, along its border with Poland and I was heading over there. So as the roads climbed steadily upward, I continued my journey, this great road trip towards mother Poland, with stunning viast as along the way!


(Stream next to Harmanecka Cave in Slovakia)

We took a detour, and headed off the main road, and decided on a far more hilly route. It added around an hour to the journey, but it was worthwhile. Seeing the beauty of Slovakia, the freedom of the road, the choice of where to go. This was the reason behind taking a road trip, the reason to drive rather than fly to Budapest. It was the choices available. Stopping off wherever we wanted to. Eating here of there, seeing something because we could. No rushing, after all, our hotel was booked, they knew we were coming along.

But all good things have to come to an end, and this road trip was no different. Night was fast approaching, the fuel was running low and to be honest, we had run out of Euros. We had plenty of Zloty, but we needed to head back into Poland to make any use of that. And then the smart move was made. The short cut.

Ugh.

Short Cuts are great. They are a way to see a new place, they take you off the main routes and it is an adventure. But, when the car is running low on fuel, you are out of local currency and you are driving on the wrong side of the road, they are not a great way to travel. Plus, it was getting dark, and as there are no great urban centres in this part of Slovakia, there are no bloody street lights! Help me! And it is not as if I could floor it through these short cuts, as let me illustrate, the roads are almost dirt tracks!

But somehow, we made it off the single track roads, back into civilisation and then finally, we turned round the corner and destination reached – Viva Polska!


(Never have I loved a border crossing as much as now!)

But the journey was not over. Despite the tribulations of Slovakia, we still had to cross Poland – and it is a big country. The EU’s sixth biggest nation in terms of area, this chunky country means that crossing the border is not enough. We had to stop off to get something to eat. Feed the driver…and Zywiec was the pit stop of choice for fine Polish fare in a really funky restaurant.


(But I don’t eat fish on a Sunday…)

Belly full, it was time to head off to our destination – Czestochowa. Although Budapest was the primary destination of my road trip, the thought behind it was if we are going to travel so far, why not make another stop. And so my travels across Europe continued, but this time, back in Mother Poland

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Back to Budapest 4 – Parklife!

Budapest’s City Park is one of those delightful places to wander through on a lazy Sunday morning. Or in my case, before I was going to jump out of the city and head back to Poland, continuing my grand road trip. So after a quick rinse and wash, it was time to jump up and head to the park. Onto the metro I went and a few stop s later, I arrived at one of Budapest’s prettiest sights. As I did not spend much time here last year, it was good to actually take a proper bit of time out in the park before I headed out of the city.

Its main entrance in Heroes’ Square which is a world heritage site, famed tourist magnet and the setting of my Gravatar. Beautiful, huge in its expanse and green! In any city parks are welcome, but in a city as pretty as Budapest, it is simply the icing on the cake! It makes the city really stunning and it the place to head to anytime, but when the sun is shining, the make it so!

Now, City Park is considered to be the world’s first public urban park. While is shares a history with many other European parks of being a hunting ground for the local Sovereign, the area today known as City Park was actually opened up in the 18th Century to be used for relaxation purposes. By order of the Emperor! And while the park has been heavily modified since then, the concept of a green public space, free for all to utilise began here. And utilised it is! A wonderful lung in the middle of the city, this breath of fresh air has a boating lake (or ice rink in the winter), an underground station and its own bathhouse! The famed Széchenyi Baths.

Being located so close to the Park, Heroes’ Square deserves a mention. It perfectly compliments the park. This wide open space, (a bit of a traffic eyesore however). A world heritage sight, the Square itself houses museums and art galleries galore, plus being at the end of the iconic Andrassy Avenue (akin to Kensington Gore in London) marks a great focal point of the city.

So that was that, my trip to Budapest was over. Far too quickly too, this time I only spent a weekend here, but what a great weekend. The destination of my first road trip, it was great to meet up with old friends in the city and to see even more of this incredible European Capital. But for me, Sunday had arrived, and that meant it was time to head back onto the road. Time to head back to Mother Poland and time to head back on the road. I had barely recovered from the last drive, but it was time to head north on my road trip. This time I would be spending a lot longer through Slovakia, instead of flooring through on highways, taking in some of the scenery of this new country. But of course, that has to wait for another blog post…

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