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Sensemaker: The EU has three problems

Wednesday 3 March 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Nicola Sturgeon faced calls to resign as Scotland’s first minister as she gave sworn evidence on her handling of sexual harassment complaints against Alex Salmond.
  • A whistleblower revealed that Pontins, the holiday camp company, kept a list of 40 “undesirable” surnames, most of them Irish. 
  • A Japanese fashion billionaire invited up to eight artists to join him on a voyage round the moon. 

Today is Budget day in the UK. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has promised £20 billion to continue job and business support schemes at least until September. Total borrowing for 2020-21, at around £370 billion, is eight times what Sunak anticipated a year ago. How does he plan to pay it down? Will he even bother? More on him, his budget and his answers tomorrow in Sensemaker and Sensemaker Audio, and on Friday in Sensemaker Live at 1pm. 

In the meantime…

The EU has three problems

Daniel Kelemen of Rutgers University in New Jersey is a longstanding admirer of the EU who spends his time studying what ails it. He warns that his latest piece of research (£)* is depressing for Europhiles. It is, but it’s important too. He asks why a body devoted to democracy allows anti-democratic governments to thrive within it, and comes up with three answers:

  • The EU’s politicisation is half-baked. Europarties in the European Parliament can protect anti-democratic ruling parties in member states and actively prevent other EU bodies intervening against them. Hungary’s Fidesz, for example, bolsters the centre-right European People’s Party with MEPs who in turn make sure the EPP blocks efforts to punish Fidesz for shutting down opposition media, for instance, and promoting conspiracy theories about George Soros.
  • EU funds support autocracies. Poland is the biggest recipient of regional funding and Hungary the biggest per capita, even though both routinely violate EU norms by packing courts with political appointees and failing to punish political corruption.
  • EU free movement rules weaken opposition parties and empower ruling ones. This is more speculative on Kelemen’s part, but his theory is that the easy exodus of eastern Europe’s younger and more progressive workers to richer western member states denudes centre-left parties of the activists they need to fight centre-right incumbents. Emigration from Hungary to other EU countries trebled from 2010 to 2018 while their remittances, indirectly supporting a reactionary government in Budapest, more than doubled. 

Kelemen calls the EU’s structural sickness an “authoritarian equilibrium”. He sees it metastasising from Poland and Hungary to Bulgaria, Malta and beyond. The most powerful British argument for staying in was always to stay in and reform. It is hard to see which member states truly have the stomach for that now.

*to download the full article from the Journal of European Public Policy costs a ridiculous £42 including tax – shame on them – which is why we’ve done that and read it for you.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Freight costs
The cost of moving a 40-foot container-load of freight from Hong Kong to LA has quadrupled since the start of the pandemic. Why? Because Americans have stopped spending their money on going to the movies and are spending (even) more of it on household appurtenances like treadmills imported from Asia. So says Bloomberg. The port of LA is operating at more than full tilt for normal times. Shipping agents have to book containers weeks rather than days in advance and extra air freight charters are being laid on from Europe as well as Asia to ease supply bottlenecks. Oh to be in shipping. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Folded letters There was a fashion in the 17th century for tightly folding and refolding letters. Many were never opened. It’s not clear why not, but the result is that they now represent a gold mine for historians if they can be read without destroying them. Physically unfolding 300-year-old paper can do just that, but a team of 11 researchers has found a way to scan and digitally unfold the letters using X-ray microtomography and dedicated software. They’ve been able to start reading never-opened letters from a trunk containing hundreds delivered to the Hague between 1689 and 1706. The first one read this way was a request for a death certificate from one Jacques Sennacques, dated 31 July 1697.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Intensity and snow
Two separate items today.

Item one: China claims to have cut the carbon intensity of its economic activity by 18.8 per cent over the past five years, conveniently beating a goal of 18 per cent. Whether or not the data can be trusted, expect more talk of carbon intensity reductions as opposed to absolute emissions reductions as China and other late-to-industrialise countries gear up for COP26. 

Item two, because it would be a disservice to my fellow chionophiles to let this pass: a paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters says atmospheric rivers contributed to a rapid increase in the height of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet in 2019. There is only one way you can thicken an ice sheet – with snow. Atmospheric rivers, more often associated with warmish moisture barreling in off the Pacific with names like Pineapple Express, can deliver prodigious amounts of snow at the right height and temperature. So there must have been some truly epic blizzards in Antarctica two years ago. To note: the Clausius-Clapeyron effect accounts for this as a result of global warming and rising average moisture content everywhere. There is still a net loss of about 100 gigatonnes of Antarctic ice to the surrounding oceans every year. 

The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Texas unmasked
Governor Greg Abbott of Texas has lifted his state’s mask mandate, meaning Texans can no longer be penalised for not wearing them indoors or in public spaces. The mandate was only lightly enforced anyway, but Texas is now the biggest US state without one and Democrats and doctors have condemned the move as madness. Modelling by the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation has consistently shown mask mandates to be the single most effective way of reducing Covid infection and death – more so even than vaccination until the roll-out hit its stride. But Abbott has been under increasing pressure from fellow Republicans to reopen the Texan economy, and has now done so – “100 per cent”.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Massacre in Tigray
Reports are emerging slowly because of a near news blackout in Ethiopia, but CNN and others have established from multiple interviews with survivors that Eritrean forces acting in cooperation with Ethiopia murdered dozens of churchgoers in a single operation last year. Most of the victims, including women and children, had been attending mass in the village of Dengelat in eastern Tigray, where the Ethiopian army has been trying to suppress a separatist movement since November. Debretsion Gebremichael, the separatists’ leader, has accused Ethiopia’s prime minister, Abiy Ahmed, of genocide, and the US has called on him to withdraw his forces from Tigray. A year ago Ahmed was still being lionised as the architect of a free and open Ethiopia. 

And finally… spare a couple of minutes to see how paramedic Paige Stride and PC Rob Wilkins met and fell in love. If you don’t have a couple of minutes, the gist is they met and fell in love thanks to an emergency callout to a north London chicken shop in the middle of the pandemic, and now they’re getting married.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around. 

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images

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