Thursday, 27 March 2014


Next Monday I will attend a meeting in Brussels of the
European Resource Efficiency Platform, of which I am Chairman.

The Platform brings together European Commissioners, MEP’s, Government Ministers, NGOs and business representatives.

The aim is to agree a strategy on how to reduce Europe’s use of any material resources that will eventually run out. 

In the course of their daily lives, Europeans use up 15 tonnes of physical material every year. 80% of it is never recycled. Much of it is a non renewable resource dug up from the ground.

Some of these are materials whose scarcity could be used as a form of political blackmail by those who control them. A third of the 15 tonnes we each use up every year is imported from outside the EU, much of it from politically unstable places like Russia and the Middle East.

The oil crisis of the 1970s was a notable example of the use of  the scarcity of a finite material to achieve a political goal. 

The present dependency of EU countries on Russian natural gas is another example. If Russia supplies 40% of Europe’s gas, that reduces Europe’s political independence of Russia.

Energy is not the only area in which Europe needs a common policy if it is to maintain its political independence and freedom of action.

 A little discussed but very important example of a resource that is in finite supply, and which could be used for blackmail, is phosphate.

 It is anticipated by some that the world’s known phosphate deposits could be exhausted by the end of the century. The largest phosphate deposits are found in North Africa (Morocco), the United States, and China.

Although phosphorus is used for other purposes, its use in agricultural fertilizers is critical for the future of civilization.

Heavy users of phosphate, like Ireland and the rest of Europe, have no indigenous supplies of phosphate. We could starve without imports of phosphate.

Without mineral phosphate, I doubt if the world’s agricultural land could feed the world’s present population, even if all farming became organic. While renewable are a substitute for  fossil fuels used for energy, there is no known substitute for phosphate used in agriculture, and phosphate prices have trebled since 2000.

Today much of the fertilizer phosphate that is used is being wasted, leading to excessive run off of this mineral, inducing algal blooms in lakes and rivers and contributing to ocean dead zones.

Other non renewable resources modern societies depend upon include

+ zinc,+ iron ore,+ bauxite (to make aluminum), and +“rare earths” (used in many electronic gadgets including smart phones,most of which are never recycled)

Water is another scarce resource that needs to be conserved, used sparingly. Some forms of agricultural production, particularly in hot countries, are running down irreplaceable supplies of underground water resources that are not being naturally replenished. When that water is gone, it is gone! Some of the food, produced by use of that irreplaceable water, is then being flown to far away markets using untaxed aircraft fuel that is also derived from finite oil supplies.

Now is the time for Europeans to start economising on our use of non renewable resource for the sake of our lives, and of our political independence.

Basically, Europe must find a way to decouple economic growth from the depletion of all resources that will eventually run out.

We must increase our productivity by getting more income, from less physical material.

We must reuse material, rather than dump it.

We must insulate our dwellings properly.

We must replace non renewable energy supplies with renewable ones, which will involve  reorganising our electricity grid, which  in turn will also involve  pylons and windmills(to which some mistakenly object).

The era of very cheap air travel may end if, in the interests of fair competition, airline fuel were to be taxed on the same basis as is fuel used in road and road transport. That would be particularly severe for islands like Ireland which depend on air travel more than continental countries.

In the short run, all this will be costly and politically difficult, and households, businesses and countries may need to be given financial incentives that mitigate those costs.

Some particularly wasteful activities may have to be totally banned.

Getting 28 countries to agree on issues like this will be far from easy, but it is ultimately a matter of political survival.

It is better to do something now, and do it gradually, than to wait for a war or some other crisis to force us to do it all suddenly in a rush.

Tuesday, 25 March 2014


I enjoyed reading “The State of Africa, a history of the continent since independence” by Martin Meredith (Simon and Schuster).

It is a comprehensive narrative history of all the states on the continent, from Egypt to South Africa. It is necessarily a long book but is very readable and fair minded.

Not all countries started with the same advantages. For example , Ghana had had  38 years of experience with internal elections, under British rule, before independence, whereas Tanzania had had only 38 months of such experience. Much more investment had been made in education by the British in West Africa, than in the East Africa.

The fall of Communism in Europe led to the spread of democracy in Africa. In 1989, only three Africa countries had had a record of consistently holding free and fair elections, Senegal, Gambia and Botswana. But over a period of five years thereafter most of the one party systems in Africa were dismantled.

In the years prior to independence, there had been a boom in prices paid for African commodities and that made the job of the new rulers harder, when the boom ended shortly after independence, and the terms of trade moved against Africa . Population growth added to the problem. Africa’s population grew from 200 million in 1960 to 450 million in 1990.

Tribalism is often blamed for Africa’s problems, but it had been encouraged under colonial rule as a cheap way of governing the population.

Civil Wars have done enormous damage and they are each described in some detail. 

Lately, these wars are taking on a religious character and this is a topic that deserves further study.

This excellent book whetted my appetite to read more about this continent, which has so many problems, and so much potential.

Thursday, 20 March 2014


Adolf Hitler’s 1938 threats to, and eventual occupation of, Czechoslovakia bore some similarities to what is now happening between President Putin and Ukraine. 

In 1938,Hitler exaggerated, and stirred up, grievances over language rights in the German speaking part of Czechoslovakia. He directed the local German speaking leaders inside Czechoslovakia  to ensure that they did not reach any settlement with the Czech Government. He used the lack of an internal settlement as a basis for seeking to incorporate these areas in Germany, under the pretext of protecting the rights of the German speakers.

Western leaders tried to mediate and negotiate without success, culminating in the showdown at Munich, where Chamberlain abandoned Czechoslovakia in return for piece of paper signed by Hitler and himself in which both agreed on “the desire of our two peoples never to go to war again.”. 

Eventually, when Hitler broke his word and occupied the whole of Czechoslovakia in March 1939, trust broke down completely.

Hitler tried the same game with Poland in August 1939, possibly thinking he would get away with it again and the British and French would again huff and puff but do nothing. If that was his calculation, he was mistaken.

The crisis over the Sudetenland in 1938 played out more slowly than the one over Crimea. Putin has acted with much greater speed. In the former case, there was even time for a British Commission of Enquiry, the Runciman Commission, to spend a few weeks studying the situation on the ground in the Sudetenland and reporting back to London.

There is another important difference between the situation of Ukraine and that of Czechoslovakia. France had a Treaty of Mutual (military) Assistance with Czechoslovakia, which had been signed in 1925, guaranteeing Czech borders. Britain had no such Treaty but was drawn in because of its strategic commitment to France. That is why the Czechs feel, to this day, a particular grievance about France’s lack of action in 1938.

In contrast, Ukraine does not have a military alliance with any western country. It is not a member of NATO, and has no Treaty based military guarantees of its borders.

But, since 1994, Ukraine does have a general guarantee of its borders from Russia, the US, and Britain, given in return for giving up its nuclear weapons arsenal. According to this so called Budapest  memorandum, Russia, the U.S., and the UK confirmed, in recognition of Ukraine becoming a member of the nuclear non proliferation Treaty and in effect abandoning its nuclear arsenal to Russia, that they would,
+ respect Ukrainian independence and sovereignty within its existing borders,
+ refrain from the threat or use of force against Ukraine, and
+ refrain from using economic pressure on Ukraine in order to influence its politics.
This is hugely important, and creates a major moral obligation because one of the goals of global policy is to get countries with military nuclear capacity to give it up in return for guarantees. If such guarantees can be unilaterally abandoned without consequence, this strategy for  opposing nuclear proliferation breaks down.

President Putin may feel that Russia should not have agreed to that memorandum in 1994. But it did. Hitler certainly felt the then German Government should not have signed the Versailles Treaty. But it did. Indeed, German negotiators had much less choice, in signing the Versailles Treaty in 1919, than Russian negotiators had in 1994, in signing the Budapest Memorandum.

There was no duress in 1994.

What is happening to Ukraine, and in a different way what happened to Libya, will make it more difficult to get nuclear armed regimes to give up weapons in return for guarantees, however solemn. This is not just a matter of international law. It is one of practical politics and global security, for everybody including militarily neutral countries, like Ireland.
Unlike Ukraine, the Baltic States, Latvia and Estonia, which also have Russian speaking minorities, are members of NATO and do have military alliance guarantees.

It will be the existential test for NATO, if Russia makes or carries out threats on Latvia or Estonia, similar to the ones it has carried out on Ukraine.

Friday, 14 March 2014


I am just back from a visit to Nigeria where I spoke at an event in the capital of the Rivers State, Port Harcourt, on democracy. The event was also addressed by the former  UK Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw MP.

Nigeria has had civilian democratic rule for 15 years now, the longest period of democracy since it gained its independence. Nigeria had previously had a number of, often brutal, military regimes, and it is now suffering  a major sectarian terrorist problem. 13% of its budget has to go on security.

It has a number of strengths, 
+ huge oil revenues,
+ 7% economic growth, 
+ a current account surplus of 12% of GDP, 
+ a Debt/GDP ratio of only 21%, and 
+ a strong, and free, press.
It has 500 living languages, far more than the EU has.

On the other hand, it has high unemployment and visible poverty. Adult literacy is only 61% (as against an African average of 67%).

42% of the population do not have access to clean drinking water, and life expectancy, at 52 years, is below the average for Africa.

Poverty is greatest in the predominantly Muslim north of the country. 

Agricultural yields are well below the average for comparable countries, and this is partly because there is a big deficit in transport and electricity infrastructure, which could be used to modernise farming methods.

Democracy is not as strong as it should be. Turnout in elections is as low as 28% and there are widespread suspicions of electoral malpractice

One of the reasons for under investment in Nigeria is corruption.

One  impressive aspect of the conference I attended was the open and frank way in which the corruption problem was discussed.

Various measures to stamp out corruption were suggested, such as

  • strengthening the independence of the judiciary
  • arrangements to ensure that the police always act independently of politicians
  • shifting the burden of proof, in cases where any payments are made in particular defined circumstances, to   require those who made  or received the payment to prove that the motive was not corrupt
  • early passage of  a Petroleum Industry Bill, to prevent the siphoning off of the country’s huge oil and gas revenues

To eliminate fraud in elections, which is widespread, the Indian practice of staggering elections over a number of weeks to allow greater independent scrutiny of electoral practices might be considered.

Politicians in Nigeria are very well paid, but are expected to deliver gifts to their supporters, a practice which encourages corruption.

Thursday, 6 March 2014


At its Congress in the National Convention Centre in Dublin on 6 March, the European People's Party(EPP) will designate its candidate for the position of President of the European Commission.The prospective candidates are Jean Claude Juncker, until recently Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Michel Barnier, currently a member of the European Commission, and Valdis Dombrovskis, the former Prime Minister of Latvia and currently also a candidate to become a Member of the European Parliament .
The entry of Dombrovskis into the race, and the divisions in the ranks of the EPP parties in France and Italy, makes it more difficult for the leaderships of one or two big parties to control the outcome in advance, in the way some German and French leaders might have been able to engineer in the past. This race could go right  to floor of the Convention Centre.
Delegates from member parties tend to go their own way, and surprises can occur, as when, at the EPP’s last Congress in Bucharest, Lucinda Creighton topped the poll for the EPP Vice-Presidency, beating Michel Barnier of France into second place. The winner in Dublin next month will need to have spent a lot of time on the phone and visiting capitals long before delegates arrive here. 

The fact that this decision is not being made behind closed doors, but at a party congress, meeting and voting in public, demonstrates the increased importance of European political parties in the EU decision-making. It also demonstrates a desire to involve the public more directly in EU politics, giving them a sense that they can hire and fire some of the top people in the Union.

The nominee picked in Dublin will then enter the race with
+  Martin Schultz, who is currently President of the European Parliament,the nominee of the Party of European Socialists, of which the Labour party is a member  
+ Guy Verhofstadt, former Belgian Prime Minister who has been put forward  by ALDE, the Liberal party of which Fianna Fail is a member, and
+ the nominees of  the Greens and European Left

Verhofstadt and the others would appear to have a slim chance of getting the big prize because their parties are unlikely to get enough seats in the European Parliament. This is critical, because the Lisbon Treaty says that the European Council must pick their nominee to be Commission President “taking account of the elections to the European Parliament”, and their parties are unlikely to elect enough MEPs.

In Ireland, a vote for Fine Gael in the European Elections will be a vote for whoever is the EPP Congress in Dublin chooses ; a vote for Labour is a vote for Martin Schultz; and a vote for Fianna Fail  for Guy Verhofstadt.

After the election, the European Council will decide on one nominee by a qualified majority.  But that nominee must then be elected by the European Parliament by an absolute majority .But no one party is likely to get such a majority in the Parliament. 

The latest 'poll of polls', collated on 19 February by VoteWatch Europe, suggests that the Socialists could get 221 seats in the new Parliament. That would still leave Martin Schultz 154 seats short of an absolute majority. 

The same polls currently give the EPP 202 seats, which would leave their nominee even further from a majority.

When they meet in Dublin, the EPP will be trying to pick a nominee that will help them gain the 20 or so extra seats that would put them ahead of the Socialists. Opinion polls in recent Euro-elections have tended to overestimate the likely Socialist performance so the race may be closer still.

The Treaty has, up to now, been interpreted in practice as meaning that the biggest party, even if it has no majority, would have the Commission President chosen from among its ranks.

But a nominee with only 30% of MEPs committed to him would have job getting up to 50% needed to pass in the Parliament.

There will be a lot of drama in the coming months. This will show that the EU is a not a bureaucratic entity, but increasingly a political and democratic one, where there is a real contest of both philosophies and personalities. 

Of course, once appointed, the Commission, under the Treaty, must “neither seek nor take instruction from any institution”, including from the European Parliament.  For that reason, I would have preferred if the President of the Commission was elected directly by the people directly, and did not have to depend on either the European Council or the European Parliament. But that is another debate.

All this highlights the ever more important role of European political parties. 

As the number of states in the EU enlarged, the number of members sitting in the European Commission and at Council of Ministers meetings became so large that free-flowing discussion was difficult.

To overcome that, Ministers of the different parties - EPP, Socialists and Liberals - started to meet in informal caucuses before formal Council meetings to discuss policy.  Many Ministers now feel they can get a better sense there of how the wind is blowing at these informal gatherings than at formal Council meetings. Similar party-based meetings are also taking place between Commissioners.
In  devising  common Europe wide party platforms for the European Elections, all parties  come to learn about political sensitivities in other EU countries, that they would not necessarily learn from  newspapers or diplomats. Gradually a European “demos” is being built.

Saturday, 1 March 2014


The economy of Ukraine is a mess. It’s income per head is only half that of Russia.

Yet it has a balance of payment deficit of 8% of GDP. In other words, even though it has a low standard of living, it is not earning enough to pay for what it consumes.

Its government also has a deficit of 8% of GDP. The Government  pays subsidies to its coal industry and subsidizes gas consumption. But its pension payments are in arrears and it has not the money to meet its immediate debt repayments. Tax collection is poor.

There has been substantial embezzlement of government funds, and public contracts have not been allocated to the lowest bidders.

These problems were there when the Mrs Timoshenko was in power, and were not tackled then.

They must be tackled now, or any aid the EU, the IMF or the US might give will simply go down a black hole. Any aid programme will involve tough conditions, which will further reduce living standards in the short term, and living standards are already low.

Much is made of the ethnic conflict between Russian speakers and Ukrainian speakers. This should be put in proportion. When Ukraine voted originally to leave the Soviet Union, the proposition got 90% support, so the pro independence voters included a lot of Russian speakers.  The issue should not be seen in Cold War terms, as a sort of “Russia versus the West” struggle.

I heard the new Ukrainian Prime Minister, Arseniy Yatsenyuk speak at a conference in Poland a few months ago.

He spoke out strongly for a truly independent Public Prosecutors office and an independent judiciary. He was against selective justice. He must live up to that now, and ensure that any prosecutions of members of the former regime are dictated solely by legally justifiable, and non political considerations, and that any law breaking by his own supporters is pursued with  similar vigour.

He also insisted that Russian should not be an official language of the country, alongside Ukrainian. Given that Russian is the first language of so many Ukrainian citizens, this seems to be an unproductive line to follow. Eastern Ukraine is Russian speaking, and the Crimea is predominantly ethnically Russian as well as Russian speaking.
It is also important to acknowledge that Russia may have some legitimate concerns of its own. For example, many Russians believe that Russian gas, transiting through Ukraine on the pipeline, is being stolen.

The  proposed  EU/Ukraine Association agreement is not a military alliance. Its value lies in the fact that  it will require Ukraine to overhaul its system of government in a way that will dramatically reduce corruption,  improve the rule of law, and improve growth prospects.  The Agreement does not prevent Ukraine  having a trade agreement with Russia, as well as with the EU.

There is no reason why the proposed EU/Ukraine Agreement should not benefit Russia too. A prosperous Ukraine will help the Russian economy, and  an unstable and impoverished Ukraine would be bad for ALL its neighbours.