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Sunday, 30 September 2018

Why Theresa May’s plan to bypass Barnier was doomed (Irish Times)

Irish Times title: Why Theresa May’s plan to bypass Barnier was doomed

Subtitle: The idea made no sense but fed into the British tabloid narrative about Brussels


"The British government has been putting it about for some time that Theresa May was planning to appeal above the head of the EU’s Brexitnegotiator, Michel Barnier, to her fellow heads of government. The idea has apparently been to reach beyond the so-called European Commission bureaucrats and appeal directly to her fellow politicians. Although it is entirely appropriate for the prime minister to speak directly to other prime ministers, the notion of bypassing the EU’s negotiator was always destined to fail. It was, as the joke goes, like crime in a multi-storey car park. Wrong on so many different levels.

The strategy reached its intended height at the recent informal EU heads of government in Salzburg. May was afforded the opportunity to present her most recent thinking on Brexit to her colleagues over dinner. They listened courteously and probably with some sympathy for her domestic political travails. That was it. May also had some useful bilateral meetings in Salzburg, including with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. The EU 27 then reaffirmed their full backing for Barnier. No surprise for anyone.

Nevertheless, on her flight back to London, May might have wondered briefly why her pleadings had not led to any watering-down of the EU’s negotiating position.

The most obvious reason is that Barnier’s mandate comes from the heads of government themselves. He is doing precisely what they have made clear they want him to do. He is carrying out their wishes calmly and effectively. The process of formulating the EU’s position on Brexit has from the beginning been exceptionally open and intensive.

All member states have had the opportunity to shape the EU’s overall strategy and detailed negotiating approach. In addition to the European Council itself, the member states meet very frequently with Barnier and his task force in the General Affairs Council, in the Committee of Permanent Representatives and at the article 50 committee. Each member state also meets the commission team frequently on a bilateral basis. These meetings ensure that Barnier is aware of every evolving nuance in each capital, and above all in Dublin.

No surprises
Another reason why May should not be surprised that her words failed to lead to any breakthrough in Salzburg is that the UK’s partners were, of course, already intimately aware of the UK’s negotiating positions. Those positions have been reported faithfully and in detail to other member states after every negotiating session between British and European negotiators. Moreover, the UK has been working hard to make known its views directly in capitals around Europe, including at political level. Their arguments naturally receive a polite hearing wherever they go. However, any impact of such visits will already have been fed by member states into the EU’s overall negotiating approach in advance of Salzburg through the open channels available to them. Incidentally, an issue on which partners are particularly well briefed is the Belfast Agreement. The subtleties and complexities of Northern Ireland are very well understood around European capitals.

To the extent that EU governments have not been convinced by British negotiating positions, it has precisely nothing to do with getting access to the right interlocutors. It is simply that the British views have not been sufficiently convincing. No more, no less.

Experienced British officials know all of this well. The UK used to understand the EU’s decision-making processes better than anyone. It was therefore able to exert exceptional influence in the EU until the decision to leave. One hopes that some of those British officials are still speaking up and being listened to in London.

Contrived fiction
There are probably many reasons for the contrived fiction about bypassing Barnier. For a start it is difficult for anyone to accept that their arguments are simply not gaining traction. It also feeds comfortably into the British tabloid narrative about Brussels bureaucracy. The fiction seeks to shift the focus from the British red lines, which define the limits of a solution but are apparently sacrosanct, towards the EU’s stance in defence of its basic principles, which it suits some to portray as inflexible.

Moreover, the nonsense about Brussels bureaucrats helps the British government to argue domestically that a solution would be at hand if only the right people would engage. It helps to keep alive the illusion that the German and French business cavalry are about to appear on the horizon, riding to the UK’s rescue, although it is clear that the cavalry are sitting comfortably back at base camp.

I hope a reasonable agreement can be found in the Brexit negotiations. That would be in everyone’s interests. Ireland, as one of the most affected member states, will certainly work to that end. However, the UK’s search for workable compromises means the ongoing painful slog of engaging with the EU’s negotiators rather than deluding itself that better ones can be found."

Bobby McDonagh is a former Irish ambassador to the UK, Italy and the EU


Source: https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/why-theresa-may-s-plan-to-bypass-barnier-was-doomed-1.3636119#.W6SwLcDiCYg.twitter

Sir Mark Ivan Rogers speech on Brexit

Speech given by Sir Mark Ivan Rogers KCMG at the British Irish Chamber of Commerce Annual Gala Dinner, Thursday 6 September 2018

"Thanks.

Very honoured to be invited.

Ladies and gentlemen: we now face a very critical few months in the Brexit process, and the potential for a severe political crisis between the UK and the EU, as well as for domestic British political turmoil on a scale we have not seen since the War.

We need a great deal of wisdom to be shown on all sides if we are to avoid, over Brexit, the sort of bitterness which this Continent thought it had left behind for good.

This autumn marks the 100th anniversary of the end of the first great global conflagration of the 20th century. One cannot but be reminded of the wisdom of what Maynard Keynes wrote in his brilliant work on the Economic Consequences of the Peace in 1919.

I quote:
“Very few of us realise with conviction the intensely unusual, unstable, complicated, unreliable and temporary nature of the economic organisation by which Western Europe has lived for the last half century. We assume some of the most peculiar and temporary of our late advantages as permanent, and to be depended upon, and lay our plans accordingly. On this sandy and false foundation, we scheme for social improvement and dress our political platforms, pursue our animosities and particular ambitions, and feel ourselves with enough margin in hand to foster, not assuage, conflict in the European family”.

He might almost be describing a number of people on both sides of the Channel in 2018 not 1918.

In the superb pages which follow, Keynes goes on to demolish the complacency – what he termed the “vast unconcern” – of the British political class, for whom these questions were far away and their own lesser problems more troubling.

We are, fortunately, not in the world of 1918. But when a fine commentator like Simon Nixon refers to a “whiff of 1914” when talking about the current state of play on Brexit, he has a point. Liberal world orders can collapse. The first era of globalisation ended with the Great War. On most metrics, it took 80 years to get back to the level of global integration of the early 20th century.

And orders do collapse when the players in key capitals are so embroiled in domestic political crises that they can no longer think straight about the interests and incentives of those on the other side of the table, and can no longer take decisions requiring a vision beyond the next few months.

Self absorption and muddled thinking in London, of which there is plenty on every side , is met with dangerous complacency and an absence of much serious thinking about the “British question” on the EU side of the table.

But there IS a British question. It ought to, and will, matter, greatly to the EU. And it needs more than a smooth technocratic exit process to address it.

However tempting it is for capitals to think that, as the British have brought all this on themselves without much apparent thought or honesty as to what a post Brexit settlement could ever look like– an understandable accusation – any Brexit deal which was widely perceived as a humiliation, will not be a stable, lasting one.

And all sides need a stable, amicable post Brexit settlement, not an endless toxic running battle.

There is now, in my view, a higher risk than the markets are currently pricing of a disorderly breakdown in Brexit negotiations, and of our sleepwalking, into a major crisis, not because either negotiating team actively seeks it, but precisely because each side misreads each other’s real incentives and political constraints and cannot find any sort of landing zone for a deal, however provisional.

There are, of course, those who have always wanted “no deal”, primarily because they actively do not want even a preferential free trade deal with the EU, for fear of the inevitable constraints they know any FTA the EU would ever sign would bring with it.

Its advocates are now terming this a “WTO deal”. There is, of course, no such animal. But their aim is to offer the public comfortingly plausible reassurance that there is either no cliff edge, or that there is an all-weather mattress for all parts of the economy if the UK simply walked off the cliff without a deal.

The UK’s notices to the private sector about preparations for a “no deal” actually reveal the truth – rather starkly.

In multiple sectors and on multiple issues, there simply isn’t a WTO “rule book” on which to fall back. That is, in any case, just not what the WTO has or does.

Advocates of “no deal” know this really. They know that a genuine “no deal” would bring several
key sectors of the economy to a halt. So they argue that European self-interest will be the deus ex machina which delivers a whole set of legal mini deals ensuring that it’s all alright on the night.

This is, I fear, simply delusional.

I am all for knowing in any negotiation what, in negotiators’ jargon, one’s Best Alternative to a Negotiated Agreement – one’s BATNA – is. It is particularly important in a negotiation like this one, where the default if there is no deal is not the status quo.

But it is simply not the case that the best alternative here is a set of negotiated mini deals!

Let’s think it through.. The reality, in any breakdown scenario, is that any UK PM who felt obliged to say that the Withdrawal negotiations had reached a dead end, would refuse to pay the exit bills.

And the inevitable response to that from all 27 in the Council the following day would be to say there would be no resumption of normal trading relations with the UK unless and until it had agreed to honour its full debts.

In the meantime, the 27 would no doubt enact, at 27, the emergency provisions, which enabled whatever continuity in whichever sectors it deemed in its interests. That would not mean the complete cessation of all business. Of course not. It just means an entirely unilateral and deliberately asymmetric selection by the EU of where there will be continuity and where there will not.

That is not taking back control. That is giving it up.

The EU would calculate that the UK would be back at the table with its chequebook out within the week.

So, to sum up, we know that those who argue for “no deal” are not really after a “no deal” but a complex set of legally binding mini deals assuring continuity across large tracts of the economy, for which however there would be neither the appetite from the EU nor the time, in the only political circumstances we could conceivably be facing if the current talks failed.

But please do not run away tonight with the idea that simply because it would have completely different – and vastly more damaging – results than those who are arguing for it claim it could not happen.

If the talks broke down over the backstop issue, or if no Parliamentary majority could be found for whatever proposition is on the table, the legal default is “no deal”.

And this is where the EU side of the table needs to understand the risks that the UK Parliament might have no majority for an essentially “blind” Brexit. In other words a Brexit where all that is clear is what is in the Withdrawal Agreement on the backstop, on citizens rights and on the UK’s financial obligations on exit, and the nature and ambit of the future relationship is so vague in the accompanying Political Declaration as to leave everything open for the trade negotiation starting only after the UK has formally left.

If, as seems possible, a decent chunk of the Conservative Party cannot bring itself to vote for whatever proposition the Prime Minister gets into that Political Declaration, the political reality is that she would be dependent on Opposition party votes to ratify a deal.

The EU27 needs, at leader level, very seriously to work through now where it wants these negotiations to end.

To date, understandably, it has run the Article 50 as a virtually entirely technocratic process, in which leaders have had – and felt they needed – no serious discussion of the Brexit question or of the future relationship with the UK. And have, equally understandably, prioritised maintaining their unity, and privileged maintaining the integrity of the European project, and notably of the Single Market and Customs Union, over all else.

The 27 have put their own interests in the key issues for the Withdrawal Treaty first, and said that all the substance of the future economic relationship is for another day, and for a different negotiation commencing only after Brexit.

None of this was difficult to foretell.

Any expert knew that would not happen, and that the business of extricating ourselves from the EU would, inevitably, be a tortuous process not an event, would take years to get right, and would involve hundreds of individual issues and complex trade-offs on both sides.

No FTA on the planet has been easy and rapid to negotiate, and this is the first one on the planet which will be between partners seeking to diminish rather than enhance their level of trade liberalisation and integration.

Yes: it is true that this makes the UK a unique proposition as a third country which has previously been a member. But, no: that does not necessarily make the negotiations easier.

It makes some of them appreciably harder, because, as we have seen, the UK will start with a view that the baseline ought to be essentially the status quo on market access rights, and the EU will start with the view that no non member unprepared to meet any of the key obligations of membership, from financial contributions to the full four freedoms and the full jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, can expect anything close to the privileges of a member, and will be wary of setting precedents which other non-members would aim to capitalise on.

This has only come as news to people who had not really thought through the complexity before the event.

It is also genuinely peculiar that those people whose strongest case against the UK’s membership has always resided in saying that the Union’s deepening integration had taken hold in every nook and cranny of UK life, primarily via the inevitably huge legislative programme entailed by any supranational Single Market, should then seem surprised that taking oneself deliberately out of the Single Market should entail the completely automatic re-erection of barriers to trade that had only been dismantled via that legislation.

I stress “automatic”. The EU’s position is not wilful, vengeful or a fresh voluntary decision. The barriers resume because we British have chosen that they should.

That is what Brexit means: Brexit.

And for a services-rich economy like the UK, as anyone who has conducted trade negotiations knows, liberalisation of trade in services cross border is much tougher and more complex than liberalising goods trade. Which is why the big strides have entailed precisely the sort of regional integration – with an inevitable political and juridical dimension – in which the EU has pioneered progress.

Is the Single Market perfect or complete? Of course not.

However, leaving the Single Market entails making cross border trade with its former partners within it much more difficult, and will diminish not increase trade flows. One cannot avoid that. One should not mislead the public by trying to suggest otherwise.

And the EU is right to be saying that, without meeting the obligations, there cannot be the same rights. That is the legal set up we indeed helped create. UK politicians decrying this as “legalism” are frankly not really serious about what any deep cross border trade liberalisation must entail.

No FTA on the planet is remotely like the Single Market. If you want to leave the Single Market because you can’t accept the jurisdiction of a “foreign” Court, and enforcement action taken by a
foreign executive, that’s fine and entirely legitimate. But then don’t pretend that the trade you end up with with former partners will be at the same level on the same terms. It will not. Nowhere near. And on services, the difference will be radical.

But – and there is a but – the EU has choices here too.

And it needs, as I said at the outset, a serious strategic sustained discussion at the level of heads of Government of where it wants to go with the UK once we have left, and what that means for its own place in the world.

For a long while, it has been possible, and convenient, for the 27 to avoid that question

The original red lines strategy from the Prime Minister in her October 2016 Party Conference and January 2017 Lancaster House speech just made it extraordinarily easy for the EU toget immediate complete unity on the position that, if she stuck to those red lines, the only option would be a Canada style FTA. And to point to the EEA as the only available option, were the red lines to be abandoned.

I know it has then taken London another 18 months to get to the Chequers deal.

I know that, to any non Brit, to be told by London, after that extraordinary length of wait, that Chequers, which was the result purely of a contorted bitter internal negotiation, cannot be deviated from, because the only alternative is a “no deal” – which, as I say, the UK Government knows to be unviable – is, to put it no more strongly, immensely tiresome.

I know that Chequers contains many wholly unsaleable elements and will not – cannot – be agreed by the 27..

So the 27 can, if it wishes, still readily react to Chequers by saying “this is still not remotely serious. The only options remain straight Canada Dry or EEA. Let’s just get the Withdrawal Treaty, with the backstop, and the money, in the bank.” And keep the Political Declaration vague and open enough to enable the British Prime Minister to try and ram it through, saying to the House that the only alternative is the abyss, and to her Party that the only alternative if it does not pass is a General Election.

That seems to me the likeliest course the EU will take in the next few weeks. The UK Government may even press it to[o]. The more detailed the text, the more glaringly obvious the problems of the destination will be. Note: editorial [change] by LO.

I hope though that this is not what the EU does.

There are 2 problems. First, for the reasons I have already explained, this may very well lead to an accidental “no deal” and consequential huge EU-UK crisis, because it’s patently a bad deal for the UK. I of course understand that the expectation of continued UK turmoil and confusion makes many capitals very cautious about what to put in any Declaration, given a future Prime Minister might immediately want to disown it.

Second, the EU can clearly choose effectively to impose a thin Canada style economic deal as the destination, bolt on a bit more on trade facilitation, and package this with deeper agreements on non-economic issues. And congratulate itself over the cigars that it has royally screwed the exiting state with a deal heavily skewed to the EU’s advantage, such that no other Member State would ever be tempted to tread that path.

But the EU does need to think through hard – and now – where that ultimately leads over a couple of decades. A thin FTA which will inevitably represent a very poor deal for the UK with the EU on services, in which we have a major surplus, and will be a radically worse deal than today’s for UK-based manufacturers embedded in pan European supply chains.

This would deliver a very substantial dislocation for the UK economy as soon as the status quo transition had ended. The UK economy will restructure over time, but the initial shock of the regime change will be great. Again, let’s stop pretending otherwise.

The anticipation of the end of that status quo transition would therefore begin – would have to begin – in the private sector the moment the Political Declaration pointing to a Canada type deal was signed. Indeed, frankly, as you know, in many corporates, that work is already under way in the expectation of a pretty lousy trading deal for the UK. People cannot wait till 2020 to prepare for a radical regime change in January 2021.

This is of course precisely why some of the anti Chequers Brexit supporters, as they gradually come to understand the scale of the change Brexit represents across the economy, and see, in the words of Nick Boles last weekend, the humiliation that might await this autumn, are now desperately casting around for a new plan, with a lengthier non “vassal state” transition built in, to enable us to profit for several years from a Norwegian style deal and thence gravitate more smoothly to a Canadian style deal, permitting far more divergence from the EU27.

This “Norway first, transiting to Canada” model, is of course, simply yet another pipe dream, which the EU has no reason to agree, even if it were a different Prime Minister coming to the table with it, and even if it were legally possible.

Whether or not some other way out could have been sought two years ago, it is too late now. thers are not, in Autumn 2018, going to refashion the entire permanent EEA framework now so we can have some temporary comforts on our way to being a third country. I am tempted to say that only a Brit could imagine otherwise.

But the EU must also see that, if it essentially imposed a Canada style economic deal, with a couple of bells and whistles on governance and on trade facilitation, it also predetermines the inevitable UK response when, during the FTA negotiations, the EU makes its inevitable demands for a plethora of level playing field provisions to guard against what it would see as unfair competition. The UK might, at a pinch, agree some non regression clauses in various fields, but it will say that none of these provisions apply to other third country FTA partners, and the EU cannot have its cake and eat it.

The EU will no doubt then respond that the scale and depth of the trading relationship, given the geography, mandates these sorts of provisions.

To which my answer would be: “precisely”.

This is not, and never will be, just a bog standard third country relationship like any other. It has geostrategic implications, particularly given the current fragile state of the West. And the EU needs the UK to want to remain a major player on the European Continent, and in confronting common challenges, economic as well a diplomatic, as we have for centuries.

We are condemned by history and geography to be such a player. In any sane political environment, we shall want to be. And it is wholly against the EU’s own interests, as well as ours, to see the relationship descend to into one bedevilled, even defined, by trade and anti dumping flare-ups, by mutual recriminations over distortive tax and subsidies regimes and by regulatory arbitrage.

For Ireland specifically, a Canada type destination for the UK does not solve the border issue, unless you believe that ultimately, a Northern Ireland specific backstop can be agreed which then exists in perpetuity.

Nor is it good for an Irish economy when much of your EU trade which is not with the UK, flows through the UK.

The advocates in the UK of a Canada style deal minimise or ignore the border issue, and intend to “address” it essentially by refusing to erect a hard border themselves and blaming the EU as and when it insists on such a border at what will be the external border of the Customs Union. The border will never be these people’s fault.

There will of course be a countervailing very significant flow of financial and other services sector business relocations from the UK to Ireland. But even here, the risks are significant, and while it is not for me to try and define Irish self interest, the liberal, dynamic, outward-looking, competitive EU which wants to build a successful Capital Markets Union, is not ultimately best served by forcing London to refocus away from the European Continent.

I am very wary of saying too much specifically on the backstop question, given the intractable politics. It is obviously the biggest stumbling block to getting a Withdrawal Treaty over the line. Virtually everything else is in place. But I am not sure the 27 can seriously expect a UK PM to swallow a combination of a Political Declaration pointing to a Canada Dry style destination coupled with a Northern Ireland specific permanent backstop.

I have to be candid. Politically, the only way one can see the PM selling a WA with a legal all weather backstop in it is if she is simultaneously able to point to a Political Declaration which suggests a trade deal for all UK which will obviate the need for such a backstop ever to come into force.

And that is of course the origin of the frankly fantastical and unsaleable Facilitated Customs Agreement proposal. Because, politically, the alternative which manifestly could sell in the EU – a genuine Customs Union with the UK – cannot seemingly be sold to those in her Party for whom, as I said earlier, one vital central purpose of Brexit was to deliver full autonomy on future UK trade policy.

Chequers as it stands, then, is a non starter with the EU. And I am not going to waste time by seeking to defend any of it, when even the Government which produced it seems unable to articulate its case.

Which would have to start and end by explaining why a Canada type deal is so bad for the UK. Which it is. And which the Prime Minister knows. Which is why she has been on an odyssey seeking a non Norway non Canada way since she took office.

But an EU response which purely rebuffs, which says “let’s deal solely with the withdrawal issues and keep the Political Declaration as vague, aspirational and ambiguous as possible”, or one which pins down that the only viable destination on offer is a Canada style FTA, with a much deeper ancillary set of non economic agreements – because those suit the EU – attached, will merely set up further conflict and mutual alienation down the line, and has the potential to deepen the fracture with the UK, as we may have no choice but to take an economic course which will turn cross Channel relations more adversarial.

If EU leaders now think, with Keynes type foresight, where THEY might want the EU- UK relationship to be in a decade or two, then they need to think hard this autumn about where we are heading. Chequers, whatever else, represents a Prime Minister who now recognises that across many key goods sectors, divergence on standards is a chimera which only sounds good to those who have not bothered to understand what friction free trade entails in the 21st century, have never read an FTA, and who privilege theoretical autonomy over real free trade, and who, as I say, have little or no understanding of trade in services.

The 27 ought, in my view, to have the sense to build on that, and build on the good elements of Chequers on future governance arrangements, and reflect profoundly on the depth and amity of the economic relationship they want.. If they do not, I think we shall be looking back from 2038 wondering why the rupture became so much deeper than was desired by any of the main players."


Source: http://www.britishirishchamber.com/2018/09/07/sir-mark-ivan-rogers-kcmg-speech-at-british-irish-chamber-of-commerce-annual-gala-dinner/

Liefdesgeluk moet je verdienen (NRC)

Pier Ebbinge (79) , liefdesmakelaar, die van de advertenties, noemt het zijn roeping mensen samen te brengen die elkaar anders nooit gevonden hadden. „Juist succesvolle mensen kunnen godvergeten vervelend zijn.”

"Goed uitziende man van bijna twee meter. Nog net geen 80, psychisch en fysiek jeugdig. Carrière als sparringpartner van top guys achter de rug. Thans liefdesmakelaar. Innemend en aanwezig. Spraakwaterval. Buitenmens die stadse genoegens waardeert. Weet hoe de hazen lopen en vertelt graag hoe het zit. Licht misantroop. Geniet met volle teugen van het leven, maar drinkt sinds een maand of vier geen druppel meer. Wil scoren en doet dat naar eigen zeggen ook. Brengt vrouw aan de man en vice versa.

De lange man die opgevouwen in een nisje bij brasserie Keyzer zit, is Pier Ebbinge (79). Hij is het brein achter de advertenties die u dikwijls op zaterdag aantreft op een prominente pagina (bij voorkeur op de 3) in NRC. Ze laten zich lezen als een mini-roman, een liefdesverhaal in losse flarden. Op internet is het elk weekend een ‘ding’ om op basis van zijn karakteriseringen te achterhalen wie die ‘bevlogen, succesvolle schrijfster (59)’ is die een thuishaven wil bouwen met een denker/doener. En welke ‘karaktervolle ondernemer’ (57) uit de ‘high-end society’ zou er op zoek zijn naar een charmante, volslanke vrouw uit goed milieu?

Zes jaar geleden schreef Pier Ebbinge een boek over zijn ongeëvenaarde methode om mensen tot elkaar te brengen. Liefde en werk heette het, maar de uitgever wilde het niet uitgeven. „Volkomen terecht,” zegt Pier Ebbinge nu. „Ik schrijf als een consultant.” Voor hij ‘adviseur in liefdesgeluk’ werd, deed hij met zijn bedrijf Ebbinge Consultancy aan executive search – bedrijven aan topmensen helpen. Hij verkocht het in 1995 aan KPMG, daarna is hij zich gaan toeleggen op partner search – topmensen aan geschikte partners helpen. Het boek over Ebbinge is er alsnog gekomen, maar nu geschreven door journalist Mark Koster. Cupido voor de rijken heet het. Pier Ebbinge licht graag in levenden lijve toe wat ten grondslag ligt aan zijn succes.

Oesters vooraf?, suggereert hij. „Die zijn zo licht en feestelijk.” Ik bedank. Hij heeft oesters léren waarderen, zegt hij, omdat hij houdt van iemand die ervan houdt. Zijn dochter. Ze is een van de twee dochters die zijn tweede vrouw Odine 27 jaar geleden meebracht in hun huwelijk. Nee, schudt hij. Hij is absoluut niet van plan in z’n uppie oesters te gaan eten. Hij kiest het zeeduo, en ik doe met hem mee. O, en voor hij het vergeet. Hij schuift een potje pruimenjam mijn kant op. Vanochtend gekocht bij een stalletje met zo’n geldbakje langs de weg in Twente, waar hij woont met zijn echtgenote, zwarte herder Gigi en twee poezen.

Eén vinger in de lucht, drie gedachtenlijntjes die hij wil uitwerken. Onderwerp: waarom relaties tegenwoordig zo vaak mislukken. Eerste lijn: de samenleving is loszanderig geworden. „Heerlijk woord, vind ik dat. Loszanderig.” Kerk, dorp, en soms zelfs familie, er is weinig meer wat ons bindt en relationeel houvast geeft.” Ongewild raak ik afgeleid door zijn linkerhand, waarvan de duim ontbreekt. Die zat ooit beklemd tussen z’n zeilboot en de kade. Hij is al bij het tweede lijntje; de opvoeding. „Kinderen worden grootgebracht om op eigen benen te staan. Ook de laatste drie generaties vrouwen zijn zo opgevoed.” Een goede zaak, haast hij zich te zeggen. Maar: „Te manifeste zelfstandigheid bemoeilijkt relaties.”

Narcisme en zelfvoldaanheid
In een goede relatie – en hier knoopt hij de twee lijntjes samen tot een nieuwe – mág je niet te onafhankelijk zijn. Vrouwenemancipatie is nog geen halve eeuw oud. „Veel mannen moeten er nog aan wennen.” Wat hij veel ziet bij de jonge garde: man en vrouw gaan onderling de competitie aan. Wie heeft gelijk, wie is het slimst, wie verdient het meest, wie is de bovenliggende partij. „Van elkaar willen winnen, is dodelijk in een huwelijk. Overal mag je scoren, maar niet thuis.” De ander zien, steunen en „psychisch knuffelen”, dat is de crux.

Wat hem ook opvalt, en hij is bijzonder tevreden over de wijze waarop hij dat nu formuleert: „Iedereen verlangt een diepgaande relatie, maar mensen ontberen soms het vermogen die relatie te creëren waarnaar ze verlangen.” Waarom? Door ik-gerichtheid, narcisme, zelfvoldaanheid, enzovoort. Ook bij mensen die maatschappelijk succesvol zijn, zijn doelgroep zeg maar? „Juist succesvolle mensen kunnen godvergeten vervelend zijn. Ze denken dat ze thuis op dezelfde waardering en acceptatie kunnen rekenen als buitenshuis. En als dat niet zo is, zoeken ze hun heil elders.” Zijn stellige overtuiging is: liefdesgeluk moet je verdienen. „Soms moet je op een imbeciele manier lief zijn voor elkaar.”

Laten we het nu hebben over wat hij zonder overdrijven zijn roeping noemt. Mensen samenbrengen die elkaar zonder zijn tussenkomst nooit gevonden hadden, zelfs niet als ze zich in dezelfde ruimte zouden bevinden. Zijn klanten – opdrachtgevers noemt hij ze – zijn zonder uitzondering midlife of ouder. De jongste vrouw voor wie hij een partner zocht was 39, de oudste 72. „Na de 45 gieren de hormonen door de lijven. De waarom-vraag wordt gesteld: waarom doe ik wat ik doe? Koppels gaan uit elkaar. Partners overlijden. Een nieuwe partner is zeer gewenst, maar de tijd ontbreekt om een geschikte te vinden.”

Monomane man
Pier Ebbinge bezoekt zijn opdrachtgever thuis voor een interview van tweeëneenhalf, drie uur lang. „Ik doe de volledige anamnese. Als een medicus.” (Zijn vader was gynaecoloog in Den Haag.) Hij vraagt naar opleiding en werk, relaties en familie, ouderlijk huis, en „al het andere”. Weten hoe iemands jeugd verliep is van belang. „Mijn vak is hun conditionering te begrijpen en te duiden. Juist succesvolle mensen zijn vaak tegen de klippen op gegroeid.” Na het interview begint het werk voor hem pas echt. De advertentietekst opstellen. Rake, weloverwogen steekwoorden in twintig regels, de ruimte van de advertentie in de krant. Het zijn eerder columns dan advertenties, vindt hij. „Ze zijn beroemd.” Genootschap Onze Taal heeft hem ooit uitgenodigd er een „lullepotje” over te houden.

Kan hij zichzelf ook in een advertentie omschrijven? „Nee, dat is veel te dichtbij.” Het is ook nooit nodig geweest. Zijn eerste vrouw trouwde hij op z’n 21ste. Het huwelijk duurde 26 jaar. „Twintig jaar langer dan het leuk was.” Was hij soms te jong voor het huwelijk? „Absoluut.” Te beschadigd ook? Hij is de zoon van een dominante vader die hij adoreerde, zo staat het in het boek over hem. Van zijn elfde tot zijn veertiende werd hij ondergebracht bij een pleeggezin. Even heeft hij weer thuis gewoond, daarna werd hij naar het christelijk internaat in Zeist gestuurd. Aan die „onprettige periode” wordt hij niet graag herinnerd, zegt hij. Zijn eerste huwelijk, de twee kinderen die daaruit voortkwamen, die tijd ligt zó ver achter hem. Liever spreekt hij over het „grootste cadeau” in zijn leven: zijn echtgenote Odine, een „buitengewoon karaktervolle en lieve vrouw”. Bijna dertig jaar geleden kwam ze spontaan in zijn leven en rekende „tactvol” af met de onhebbelijkheden die hij in het „wereldje van top guys” had opgedaan. „Ik was een monomane man. Zakelijk succesvol, maar emotioneel zat er veel vast.”

Zijn geluk in de liefde gunt hij ook anderen. Mits hij die ander mag. „De interessantste mensen vind je in de absolute toplaag van de maatschappij. In de klasse onder de elite heerst meer benauwdheid, smalle denkkaders, geborneerdheid en veel ik-ik-ik. Dat is geen materiaal voor een relatie. Het wordt weer leuk bij de lower lower class. Daar vind je authentieke mensen.” Hij klinkt, zeg ik, niet bepaald als een mensenvriend. „Ik houd van de mensen van wie ik houd”, zegt hij. Waarom zou hij zijn tijd verkwisten aan mensen die het niet in zich hebben om van een relatie iets te maken? Hij doet dit werk voor zijn plezier, ja. „Al wil ik natuurlijk wel scoren.”

Klein fortuin
Op advertenties voor een man stromen de brieven van vrouwen vaak binnen. Op zoekende vrouwen komen minder reacties. „Bijzondere vrouwen zoeken vaak een bijzondere partner. Maar soms zijn mannen juist niet geïnteresseerd in een slimme, wakkere, succesvolle dame.” Een enkele keer is iemand onbemiddelbaar. Hij hoeft niet lang na te denken over wie dat is. „De verwende vrouw.” De vrouw met een wensenlijstje. „Ik haat wensenlijstjes.” Ze heeft meestal gestudeerd, luncht met vriendinnen, golft met een aardige handicap, past op de kleinkinderen. „Misschien dat ze dertig procent van haar tijd overhoudt, en ze zoekt een man die daar precies in past.”

Hij spreekt elke kansrijke briefschrijver persoonlijk. Daarna presenteert hij zijn short list aan de opdrachtgever. De eerste ontmoeting tussen kandidaten is meestal in een restaurant. En dan is het out of his hands en komt het aan op chemistry, chemie. Seelenmassage hoort bij Ebbinges diensten. Hij mailt en belt net zolang met beide partijen tot kwesties zijn bezworen en verschillen overbrugd. Hij adviseert, geeft raad en stuurt. Jaarlijks bemiddelt hij voor zo’n tien à twaalf opdrachtgevers. De meesten krijgen via hem wat ze willen: een levenspartner. „Vorig jaar juni had ik drie huwelijken. Prachtig toch?”

Dat liefdesgeluk kost een klein fortuin. Voor een zoekopdracht inclusief advertentiekosten en btw rekent hij 20.000 euro. Eindigt de bemiddeling in een bestendige relatie, dan komt er een succeshonorarium van tussen de 20.000 en 40.000 euro bij. „Peanuts”, vindt Ebbinge, vergeleken met de werkelijke waarde van een relatie. Maar, zeg ik, de meeste mensen zullen zich hem niet kunnen veroorloven. Ebbinge, met een stalen gezicht. „Dat is pech.” Daarna, vaderlijk vriendelijk: „Reageren op een advertentie kan altijd.” Dat is helemaal gratis."

Saturday, 29 September 2018

Vladimir Putin is not invincible (CNN)

"Moscow (CNN) Russian President Vladimir Putin may stride confidently on the world stage. But not all looks rosy for him at home.

On Wednesday, the Duma, Russia's lower house of parliament, voted unanimously to approve an amended package of pension reforms, falling in line behind a proposal by Putin to raise the country's retirement age.

Russia's parliament is largely viewed as a rubber-stamp body: The deputies present approved Putin's amendments 385-0.

But the vote didn't stop some mild forms of protest, with a number of lawmakers absenting themselves from the chamber for the vote.

Valery Rashkin, a deputy who is a member of the Communist Party of the Russian Federation, posted a photo of party members wearing T-shirts that protested raising the pension age, in violation of the chamber's dress code.

In remarks at a rally outside parliament, Rashkin called the proposal a "genocide" against his fellow citizens, although he voted in favor of the amendment.

Leaving aside Rashkin's abuse of that word, the pension reform package is genuinely unpopular in Russia.

Introduced in mid-June, the bill originally proposed increasing the retirement age for women to 63 from 55, and for men to 65 from 60.

That proposal prompted a series of nationwide protests. Putin took the unusual step of addressing the nation in late August to argue for the changes, while calling for the proposed increase in the pension age for women to be changed to five years instead of eight.

Despite Putin's amendments to the bill, protests continued in cities around Russia. The popular outcry against the proposal even gave an apparent boost to the Communists: In a recent gubernatorial election in Russia's far east ern region of Primorye, a Communist candidate gave the Kremlin-backed incumbent an unexpected run for his money.

Russia's Central Election Commission annulled that vote, saying there were "serious violations," but it was a reminder that the pro-Putin United Russia party is taking a hit over the pension reforms. The unusual move to annul the vote came after federal election officials identified irregularities in voting, which had prompted complaints from the Communists of vote-rigging in favor of the incumbent.

The Communists are part of what is referred to as Russia's "systemic" opposition: They are reliably pro-Kremlin and generally steer clear of any platform that puts them in open conflict with the ruling party. But the recent controversy over the Primorye elections showed their willingness to resort to street demonstrations, something the Kremlin is usually keen to avoid.

It now remains to be seen if the passage of the bill will drive more Russian citizens to join the country's embattled political opposition, which has no representation in the national parliament.

And Alexei Navalny, the most prominent leader of the Russian opposition, has been absent from the most recent protests: Earlier this week, he was sentenced to 20 days of detention by a Russian court for organizing protests, right after serving a 30-day administrative sentence over a similar charge.

Putin may still get his way on pension reforms. The bill appears likely to come into force after his final signature and publication in the state gazette. But Russians may prove less docile than their elected lawmakers."

Source: https://edition.cnn.com/2018/09/26/europe/putin-pension-protest-analysis-intl/index.html

Putin Is Losing Russia’s Far East (Bloomberg)

Bloomberg title: Putin Is Losing Russia’s Far East

Subtitle: The Kremlin is throwing money at a strategically important region. That isn’t buying loyalty.

"Less than two weeks ago, Russian President Vladimir Putin touted to an audience of Asian leaders the success of his policies in revitalizing Russia’s Far East. Since that speech, Kremlin-backed candidates have failed to win gubernatorial elections in the two biggest Far Eastern regions, throwing into doubt Putin’s control over the vast, strategically important lands that lie closer to Tokyo, Seoul and Beijing than to Moscow.

In the last five years, Putin bragged to Chinese President Xi Jinping, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok, industrial output in the Russian Far East has increased by almost 22 percent. Thanks to government development programs, he said, 130 new companies have been launched and 16,000 jobs created. He could have added another talking point: In 2017, the Far East, comprising nine of Russia’s 93 constituent regions (95 if one counts the two created by the Crimea annexation), ledRussia in private-sector investment, attracting 1.2 trillion rubles ($18.4 billion).

These upbeat reports follow Putin’s focus on the Far East since the start of his previous presidential term in 2012. After calling on Russia to “catch the Chinese wind in our sails,” he set up a state corporation to speed up the region’s development, set up tax-free zones and free ports, and forced state-controlled corporations (whose investment is included in the official “private sector” numbers) to take more of an interest in the Far East. Even before this development blitz, Russia’s easternmost territories saw some state-financed mega-projects such as the construction of two spectacular bridges in Vladivostok at the total cost of $1.6 billion.

The centralization of power has been Putin’s trademark ever since he became president in 2000, and the effort he’s put into Far Eastern projects is understandable given the almost 4,000 miles between Vladivostok and Moscow; it’s just 830 miles to Beijing. Russia’s break with the West following its attack on Ukraine has boosted the Far East’s strategic importance: Moscow’s increased presence there is necessary for a successful Pacific pivot.

And yet something is going wrong with the Kremlin’s effort.

On Sept. 16, the Maritime Territory, which includes Vladivostok, the Far East’s biggest region with a population of almost 2 million, held a runoff vote in the gubernatorial race between Putin’s appointee, Andrei Tarasenko, and his Communist challenger, Andrey Ishchenko. The latter led with 95 percent of the vote counted, but then the official vote count suddenly showed Tarasenko gaining. Putin’s candidate was briefly declared the winner, but then even Russia’s tame Federal Election Commission couldn’t stand the weight of the evidence that the count was rigged in the final hours. Commission Chairwoman Ella Pamfilova even burst into tears when answering reporters’ questions about the vote, which was promptly invalidated. The region will go to the polls again (the date hasn’t been set yet) but the Kremlin doesn’t have a strong candidate.

On Sunday, Vyacheslav Shport, the Putin-appointed governor in the Khabarovsk region, the second-biggest in the Far East with a population of 1.3 million, lost by a landslide to Sergei Furgal of the nationalist, misnamed Liberal Democratic Party. Furgal garnered almost 70 percent of the vote.

Russia is not a land of free and fair elections. Generally, candidates the Kremlin favors are winners, thanks to a combination of vastly superior resources, the incumbency advantage and vote rigging. Candidates representing the radical opposition, such as corruption fighter Alexey Navalny, often aren’t allowed to run. Both Ishchenko and Furgal represent the parliamentary opposition that tends to work comfortably with the Kremlin. And yet their success signifies an important breakdown of the political machinery that keeps the Putin regime in place.

Both Kremlin fiascoes could be written off to the unpopularity of Putin’s plan to increase the retirement age for most Russians. Both Ishchenko and Furgal campaigned against it, putting Moscow’s candidates at a disadvantage. Other Putin appointees have faced electoral trouble lately because of the issue. In Vladimir, in central Russia, Governor Svetlana Orlova lost on Sunday to nationalist Vladimir Sipyagin, ostensibly in large part due to the pension issue.

The Far Eastern failures, however, are different because of all the cash, preferences and political attention Putin has lavished on that part of the country. Despite it all, Moscow hasn’t endeared itself to locals.

Alexey Chadayev, a former Kremlin political aide and one of the few Russian intellectuals loyal to Putin, wrote on his blog that the failures were determined by growing gaps between three levels on which the Far East is run:
At the first, the Commander-in-Chief solves global geopolitical problems; at the second one, corporations fight for procurement contracts, budgets and financial flows; at the third one, business and local people hustle and survive as best they can. All these three processes are completely out of sync with each other.

Both Ishchenko and Furgal are local businessmen who have gained little from all the projects run out of Moscow; in that, they are like most locals. The government money has whistled over their heads like ordnance aimed at some other target. Moscow is still as far away as when Putin began trying to bring it closer. What locals see is, as Chadayev wrote, “corporate mega-projects against the background of a barely solvent car-parts store that has to pay tribute to fire safety inspectors, the taxman, the mob and the customs service.”

“If you live in the midst of this, you’ll vote for the devil himself out of spite,” Chadayev added.

The distance between Putin’s great-power rhetoric, his view that the Russian economy is stable, his huge government investment programs, and the way people lead their daily lives is huge throughout Russia. In most places, apathy fills the gap. In the Far East, however, there’s a lively sense of being on the empire’s edge, a frontier where obedience isn’t a virtue. There’s only a short distance from that to resistance, if not yet to separatism. Attempts at suppression are likely to backfire as badly as the recent vote-rigging campaign in Vladivostok.

Putin has a problem in the Far East that he can’t solve by his customary methods. It’ll be interesting to see whether he has any flexibility left to try other approaches. If not, the threat to his system and its centralizing impulses will escalate."

Source: https://www.bloomberg.com/view/articles/2018-09-24/putin-is-losing-russia-s-far-east

Kremlin in shock as Russians reject hand-picked candidates for third week in a row (Independent)

Independent title: Kremlin in shock as Russians reject hand-picked candidates for third week in a row

Subtitle: Unpopular pension reform is seriously undermining Vladimir Putin's authority


"The Kremlin has suffered a third weekend of election shocks, with its soldiers unexpectedly losing two gubernatorial races to scarcely credible “opposition” candidates.

In both Khabarovsk Krai, in the Russian Far East, and Vladimir Oblast, just east of Moscow, handpicked Kremlin candidates lost second-round run-offs to members of Russia’s Liberal Democratic Party - but despite its name, the party is a decidedly undemocratic, nationalistic party, reportedly linked to the mafia.

In Khabarovsk, the vote difference was a massive ratio of 3:1, with Sergei Furgal polling 67.57 per cent against incumbent Vyacheslav Shport’s 27.97 per cent. In Vladimir Oblast, Vladimir Sipyagin beat loyalist Svetlana Orlova by a smaller margin – 57 per cent to 37.46 per cent.

But in both cases, few had even predicted a second-round. Fewer still that second-round results would tilt so overwhelming against the ruling-party candidate. On early inspection, it appears the opposition candidates benefited from a surge of tactical voting. Mr Furgal registered 2.5 times the number of votes he received in the first round. Mr Sipyagin, just under. On both occasions, the incumbents’ vote stayed flat.

The results followed a similar story last week when the gubernatorial election in far-east Primorsky Krai was apparently won by a Communist challenger, Andrei Ishchenko. But the victory was snatched at the last, probably by wide-scale election fraud. Mr Ishchenko, incensed, announced a hunger strike the following morning – only to call it off by tea-time following a call from his loyalist leader.

Moscow’s elections chief Ella Pamfilova eventually ruled that election invalid. But she was largely ridiculed for her insistence that the complaints demonstrated fair and competitive elections.

Speaking with journalists on Monday, spokesman Dmitry Peskov admitted the Kremlin has been taken aback by the nature of the voting. Less convincingly, he insisted his boss was only interested in seeing an honest and competitive vote. Rigorous analysis was for another day, he insisted.

The Kremlin will not have missed the significance of the votes.

With one exception in 2015, they are the first reverses for the ruling party since direct governor elections returned in 2012. They come at a time that competitive, opposition politics have been eliminated from the country. President Vladimir Putin’s only obvious challenger, Alexei Navalny, left prison on Monday following 30 days of detention, only to be arrested immediately after his release.

Those “opposition” parties allowed to compete in Russia’s election system usually play a specific role. The deal is they offer candidates too outrageous or toxic to ordinary voters. Most of the time that has worked.

This year, however, something changed.

Against the backdrop of the government’s highly unpopular pension reform, voters have looked to give the ruling party a bloody nose wherever they can. And they have voted in masses for the candidate who has the most chance of defeating the party candidate –even if that means voting for the Liberal Democrat Party or no-less reviled Communists.

Both the leadership of the LDPR and Communist Party of Russia are loyal to the Kremlin. As such it is unlikely that any of the new governors will make life difficult for the Kremlin.

Mikhail Vinogradov, chairman of the St. Petersburg Politics Fund, said the results issued a challenge for the Kremlin and propaganda.

“The problem is that state propaganda accentuates not so much the positive of government candidates, as much as a thesis that the opposition is worse and weaker,” he says. “That logic is now broken. People are voting tactically. So what can the government do?“

The challenge is made more difficult by a more general protest sentiment returning, says Valery Solovei, a professor at the Moscow State Institute of International Relations. For a while, anger was directed mostly against the ruling party. Now the anger extends to the man at the very top.

“The pension reform changed everything. The message people are giving Putin is simple: either he returns to the old social contract where he protected ordinary people like them. Or they will react.”

The elections were about more than the victory of LDPR candidates, he says. They described something far deeper – the “moral and psychological condition” of the nation.

“This is about massive consciousness. Yes, this vote is a protest vote against United Russia. But it’s also a signal for the president. These were his candidates. The Kremlin doesn’t quite understand this yet. It will need to.” "

Source: https://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/elections-vladimir-khabarovsk-vladimir-putin-united-russia-solovei-vinogradov-a8552916.html

Ecuador gave Julian Assange diplomatic role at its Moscow embassy, says MP (Guardian)

Guardian title: Ecuador gave Julian Assange diplomatic role at its Moscow embassy, says MP

Subtitle: WikiLeaks founder’s failed plot to leave the UK aided by minister, according to classified documents


"Ecuador went as far as appointing Julian Assange to a diplomatic position at its embassy in Moscow as part of its failed plan to get him out of the UK, the Guardian has learned.

The WikiLeaks founder was named as a councillor in Ecuador’s embassy to Russia on 19 December 2017, just days after he was granted Ecuadorean citizenship as part of the aborted escape plan revealed by the Guardian last week. However, the nomination was later withdrawn after the UK refused to recognise his diplomat status.

A classified document signed by Ecuador’s then-deputy foreign minister José Luis Jácome appeared to corroborate information from multiple sources that Russia would have been the ultimate destination for Assange if the plan had been successful.

The involvement of Russia – a country from where Assange would not be at risk of extradition to the US – raised new questions about his ties to the Kremlin.

Assange, who has not left Ecuador’s London embassy since seeking asylum there in August 2012, has been a key figure in the ongoing US criminal investigation into Russia’s attempts to sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Classified documents, including the agreement to make Assange an adviser, have been seen by the Ecuadorean politician Paola Vintimilla, who will seek to have them declassified in a plenary session of Ecuador’s national assembly on Thursday.

“There was a ministerial agreement to make Julian Assange an adviser in the [Ecuadorean] embassy in Moscow,” Vintimilla told the Guardian.

“It was just days after he was given [Ecuadorean] citizenship and they asked the British government to approve his diplomatic status,” she said.

The stumbling block was the UK’s refusal to grant Assange diplomatic protection. Ecuador made two requests in the last week of December 2017, both of which the UK turned down, according to the documents.

On 29 December, Ecuador withdrew Assange’s diplomatic appointment to Moscow. The operation to extract Assange was provisionally scheduled for Christmas Eve in 2017, one source told the Guardian.

Vintimilla said another document lifted Assange’s asylum status – which would have been a first step to his appointment as an Ecuadorean diplomat. The agreement was signed on 4 December 2017 – a week before the Australian was granted Ecuadorean citizenship. It was signed and witnessed by the Spanish judge Baltasar Garzón, who has acted as a legal adviser to Assange.

In May, Ecuador’s president, Lenín Moreno, said that he had delegated all decisions about Assange to the then-foreign minister María Fernanda Espinosa, now the head of the United Nations general assembly. Moreno has previously described Assange’s situation as “a stone in his shoe”.

“He washed his hands,” Vintimilla said, adding that Espinosa had bent the rules for Assange. Just days before Assange’s citizenship was granted, laws were changed to allow those living under the country’s international protection to obtain citizenship.

Moreno, speaking on the sidelines of the UN general assembly on Wednesday, said that Ecuador and the UK were working on a legal solution that would allow Assange to leave the Ecuadorian embassy in London in “the medium term”. He gave no further details.

The Russian embassy in London denied any involvement in an escape plan for Assange in a letter published in the Guardian on Monday."

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/sep/26/ecuador-gave-julian-assange-diplomatic-role-at-its-moscow-embassy-says-mp

Revealed: Russia’s secret plan to help Julian Assange escape from UK (Guardian)

Guardian titleRevealed: Russia’s secret plan to help Julian Assange escape from UK

Subtitle: Tentative plot to whisk fugitive from London embassy on Christmas Eve was considered too risky

"Russian diplomats held secret talks in London last year with people close to Julian Assange to assess whether they could help him flee the UK, the Guardian has learned.

A tentative plan was devised that would have seen the WikiLeaks founder smuggled out of Ecuador’s London embassy in a diplomatic vehicle and transported to another country.

One ultimate destination, multiple sources have said, was Russia, where Assange would not be at risk of extradition to the US. The plan was abandoned after it was deemed too risky.

The operation to extract Assange was provisionally scheduled for Christmas Eve in 2017, one source claimed, and was linked to an unsuccessful attempt by Ecuador to give Assange formal diplomatic status.

The involvement of Russian officials in hatching what was described as a “basic” plan raises new questions about Assange’s ties to the Kremlin. The WikiLeaks editor is a key figure in the ongoing US criminal investigation into Russia’s attempts to sway the outcome of the 2016 presidential election.

Robert Mueller, the special counsel conducting the investigation, filed criminal charges in July against a dozen Russian GRU military intelligence officers who allegedly hacked Democratic party servers during the presidential campaign. The indictment claims the hackers sent emails that embarrassed Hillary Clinton to WikiLeaks. The circumstances of the handover are still under investigation.

According to Mueller, WikiLeaks published “over 50,000 documents” stolen by Russian spies. The first tranche arrived on 14 July 2016 as an encrypted attachment.

Assange has denied receiving the stolen emails from Russia.

Details of the Assange escape plan are sketchy. Two sources familiar with the inner workings of the Ecuadorian embassy said that Fidel Narváez, a close confidant of Assange who until recently served as Ecuador’s London consul, served as a point of contact with Moscow.

In an interview with the Guardian, Narváez denied having been involved in discussions with Russia about extracting Assange from the embassy.

Narváez said he visited Russia’s embassy in Kensington twice this year as part of a group of “20-30 more diplomats from different countries”. These were “open-public meetings”, he said, that took place during the “UK-Russian crisis” – a reference to the aftermath of the novichok poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal in March.

Sources said the escape plot involved giving Assange diplomatic documents so that Ecuador would be able to claim he enjoyed diplomatic immunity. As part of the operation, Assange was to be collected from the embassy in a diplomatic vehicle.

Four separate sources said the Kremlin was willing to offer support for the plan – including the possibility of allowing Assange to travel to Russia and live there. One of them said that an unidentified Russian businessman served as an intermediary in these discussions.

The possibility that Assange could travel to Ecuador by boat was also considered.

Narváez previously played a role in trying to secure Edward Snowden’s safe passage following his leak of secret NSA material in 2013. Narváez gave the former NSA contractor a so-called safe-conduct pass when he left Hong Kong for Moscow, where Snowden eventually found asylum. At the time, the then president of Ecuador, Rafael Correa, said Narváez had issued the pass without the government’s knowledge. The Spanish-language broadcaster Univision reported that Narváez travelled to Moscow the same day that he issued the safe passage document to Snowden; other sources have corroborated this report.

Assange’s Christmas Eve escape was aborted with just days to go, one source claimed. Rommy Vallejo, the head of Ecuador’s intelligence agency, allegedly travelled to the UK on or around 15 December 2017 to oversee the operation and left London when it was called off.

In February Vallejo quit his job and is believed to be in Nicaragua. He is under investigation for the alleged kidnapping in 2012 of a political rival to Correa.

Ecuador’s new president, Lenín Moreno, has said he wants Assange to quit the embassy. In March the government in Quito cut off his internet access and restricted his visitors.

Melinda Taylor, a lawyer specialising in human rights and international criminal law who represents Assange, has denounced his confinement in the embassy.

“I think it is shocking that Assange has been detained arbitrarily for approximately eight years for publishing evidence of war crimes and human rights violations. The UK could end this situation today, by providing assurances that Assange will not be extradited to the United States.”

Sources offered conflicting accounts of who cancelled the Assange operation, but all agreed it was deemed to be too risky. The stumbling block was the UK’s refusal to grant Assange diplomatic protection.

Under UK law, diplomats are immune from criminal prosecution if their diplomatic credentials have been accepted by the British government, and if the Foreign Office has been alerted to the diplomat’s status.

This is not the first time Assange has apparently considered seeking refuge in Russia. The Associated Press reported this week that the WikiLeaks founder tried to obtain a Russian visa. He signed a letter in November 2010 granting power of attorney to “my friend” Israel Shamir – a controversial supporter who passed leaked US state department cables from Assange to journalists in Moscow. Shamir would deliver Assange’s passport to the Russian consulate, and collect it afterwards, Assange wrote.

At the time Assange was facing allegations of rape and sexual assault made by two women in Sweden. In 2012 he sought asylum in the Ecuadorian embassy after he lost a battle against extradition in the supreme court.Assange denies the women’s claims. Swedish authorities eventually dropped both cases after the statute of limitations expired. Assange faces arrest for breaching his bail conditions.

During the US presidential campaign, Donald Trump praised WikiLeaks for releasing the emails that damaged Clinton. Confidential visitor logs obtained by the Guardian reveal that Assange received several Russian nationals during the summer of 2016, including senior figures from RT, the Kremlin’s international propaganda channel.

In March 2017 WikiLeaks published confidential CIA documents. Assange believes a grand jury indicted him over this and other leaks, with the charges filed under seal. Were he to leave the embassy the US would seek his extradition, his lawyers say.

The Ecuadorian government declined to comment. The Russian embassy in London tweeted on Friday that the Guardian story was “another example of disinformation and fake news from the British media”."

Source: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/sep/21/julian-assange-russia-ecuador-embassy-london-secret-escape-plan

Friday, 28 September 2018

From misogyny to rape and back

The confirmation of a US Supreme Court judge is being delayed because of rape accusations. The 45th President stated that these accusations are a con game by Democrats. Trump admits, however, that his defense of this judge is related to many similar accusations at him (CNN). At the same time, a 1980s TV hero was sentenced to 3-10 years in prison for similar accusations.

The above reminded me of the 2005 recording of Donald "Grab them by the Pussy" Trump (eg, Guardian-2016, video). Then I wondered if there is a link between hatred of women or misogyny (my 2015 blog), and sexual assault (eg, rape). This link can be found in a 1998 book by Diane Russell, a 2012 study, a 2013 Big Think article, a 2018 Quantara article and many other reports.

One could argue that the past behaviour of this judge is irrelevant today. In general, I have some sympathy for such a view because (some) people can indeed change. Even the judge seems to argue this: "'What happens at Georgetown Prep, stays at Georgetown Prep. That's been a good thing for all of us, I think." (USA Today)

Misogyny is, however, an example of a philosophical belief systemWiki: "Misogyny functions as an ideology or belief system that has accompanied patriarchal, or male-dominated societies for thousands of years and continues to place women in subordinate positions with limited access to power and decision making". Note: italic markings in quote by LO.

Usually, a person's beliefs do not change over time. It takes immense pressure and even a crisis (eg, burnout) to change your beliefs. In 2007, a writer called this as a "crisis of faith" (NYMag). A change of beliefs would imply stage 5 in the model on processing grief by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: Acceptance. Clearly, the people in my 1st paragraph are all in stage 1: Denial.

Obviously, the above is not evidence or proof that they did - or did not - do the things they are/were accused of. The above does show there is a cycle: From misogyny to rape and back. In this cycle, (i) misogyny results in sexual assault, and (ii) sexual assault originates in misogyny. This cycle indeed appears relevant to the persons in the 1st paragraph above.

It's important to realise that rape of women by men is not society's default. Hence, misogyny is also not society's default. Even in USA, a society with high inequality, a woman has a 75% chance of not being raped. In societies with less inequality, this chance is higher (the Hathor Legacy). Dutch statistics indeed show a higher chance of not being raped (NU-2018).

Trump's misogynistic views, his pending sexual assault accusations (eg, Guardian, Independent), and his strong defense of his Supreme Court candidate, predict nothing good. It feels as if Trump is orchestrating his personal legal fate in the various accusations against him (NYMag, July '18).

It Takes a Lot to Know a Man (2014) by Damien Rice

It takes a lot to know a man
It takes a lot to understand
The warrior, the sage
The little boy in rage

It takes a lot to know a woman
A lot to understand what's humming
The honey-bee, the stings
The little girl with wings

It takes a lot to give
To ask for help
To be yourself
To know and love what you live with


Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise 

Thursday, 27 September 2018

Trump may be a laughing-stock but he is no joke

Something unusual happened at the United Nations General Assembly of 25 September 2018. It wasn't the fact that Trump arrived 30 minutes late for his speech and that Ecuador's president took his place (eg, QZ). It also wasn't Trump's reaction to his audience: "I didn't expect that reaction........". It was the moment before that.

On 9 August 2014, Trump tweeted a remark that has now come to haunt him. Probably, that remark referred to Obama, who was quite good in cracking a joke (YouTube).

Within 1 minute after his opening words, the UNGA starts laughing at his - indeed ridiculous - claims in which he brags on his Administration's achievements.

The problem with laughing at someone is that you do not take that person serious. Hence, you tend to underestimate that person. There lies our danger with Trump. Trump may be the world's laughing-stock but he is certainly no joke.

Nowadays, Trump is viewed as a compulsive and/or pathological liar (eg, WaPo). Often, his lies are easily to detect (eg, bragging). His very many falsehoods are being counted by Washington Post's Fact Checker. I think, feel and believe that it's more relevant to count Trump's relevant truths from his many claims because these should reveal his true agenda.

Trumps is also seen as "chronically ignorant and obscenely intellectually lazy" (Independent) or even as "stupid" (Guardian). In my concept of the 7 Belief systems, this would, however, be viewed as having extreme beliefs. Also see my 2016 blog: Why are opinions stronger than facts?

Interestingly, extreme beliefs tend to invoke extreme devotion (Psychology Today-2017). This should be true for all of the 7 Belief systems: Love, Money, Philosophy, Politics, Religion, Science, and the Truth. However, I prefer to leave relevant names to your own imagination.

If only "given their extreme devotion and unwavering admiration for their highly unpredictable and often inflammatory leader" (PT), neither Trump nor his followers can be considered a joke. Note: italic markings by LO.

It's our responsibility to keep on listening to the "jester" of today's world. Sometimes he will make us laugh, and sometimes he will make us cry. Often, we will loathe him. Stop listening to him might be the most dangerous of all.

Script for a Jester's Tear (1983) by Marillion

Too late to say I love you
Too late to restage the play
The game is over


Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise 

Wednesday, 26 September 2018

China - economic tipping point

On 2 March 2018, the 45th U.S. President stated that "trade wars are easy to win" (CNBC). Initially, his statement was ridiculed, like most of his statements, and even at the UN. Expert opinions have changed since then. At this moment, analysts think that the US will indeed win the trade war because China is being hurt more than the USA (eg, BloombergCNBC, NYT).

The key issue in this trade war is that China imports far less from the USA (ie, $ 130 billion in 2017) than the US imports from China (ie, $ 506 billion in 2017). A main reason is the American outsourcing of production facilities to countries with cheap labour. This common phenomenon is the principle of comparative advantage, as developed by David Ricardo (1772-1823).

This same principle of comparative advantage is also causing the relocation of Chinese factories to other Asian countries (eg, Forbes, FT, NYTTrouw). This relocation had already started some years ago due to rising Chinese wages, but is now being accelerated following import tariff wars.

The above results in the following diagram:



In 2016, then-candidate Trump promised to do something about China (eg, IP theft, trade deficit, US jobs). The timing of the 2018 trade war may reveal additional strategic intentions (eg, 5G-USA, 5G-China). The trade war probably disguises a (strategic) "war" between 2 superpowers.

CNBC, 24 September 2018: "[] many longtime China watchers say the most important drivers and trends affecting Asia's largest economy go well beyond tariffs." This article makes an interesting connection between a 2017 IMF warning on unsustainable debt-fuelled economic growth, a debt-to-GDP ratio of 300+%, and an imploding (demographic) population.

Allegedly, China is restraining itself in the trade war because (i) China wants to retain the appearance of the victim in its trade fight with the U.S, and (ii) China is betting on Trump's removal as 45th President. The renewed submission of a competing superpower might, however, be too appealing for Trump's successor.

Dirty Laundry (1982) by Don Henley

Kick 'em when they're up
Kick 'em all around


Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

China - demographic tipping point

Yesterday's blog on "Reeducation returns to China", contained a line and - intriguing statistic - that kept bugging me: "According to estimates from the Pew Research Center, China may be home to up to 100 million Christians as of 2018, more than the estimated 90 million Chinese Communist Party (CCP) members." (DW-2018, Pew-2011) Note: italic markings by LO.

While the 11-15 million Uyghur Muslims represent about 1% of the Chinese population of 1,404 million people (Wiki), the 100 million Christians would already represent 7%. According to various sources, the Christian population in China is fastly growing and is "China on course to become 'world's most Christian nation' within 15 years" (eg, Telegraph-2014). 

The pace of Christianity in China reminded me of a June 2018 study: "Experimental evidence for tipping points in social convention" (eg, Phys, Science). Phys: "During the past 50 years, many studies of organizations and community change have attempted to identify the critical size needed for a tipping point, purely based on observation. These studies have speculated that tipping points can range anywhere between 10 and 40%." Note: italic markings by LO.

Phys-2018: "According to a new paper published in Science, there is a quantifiable answer: Roughly 25% of people need to take a stand before large-scale social change occurs. This idea of a social tipping point applies to standards in the workplace and any type of movement or initiative." Note: bold and italic markings by LO.

A few days ago, China and the Roman-Catholic Church reached a "provisional agreement" on the appointment of Catholic bishops in China (eg, NPRNYT, WaPo). It's hard not to see this agreement as a consequence of the fast growth of Christianity in China. For decades, China has tried to stop this development. Hence, most likely the old (political) adage applies: "If you can't beat them, join them" (Phrases).

The 89.5 million members of the Chinese Communist Party only represent 6.4% of the Chinese population. The "CCP members as a share of the Chinese population" is already declining since 2016 (graph), while the growth of the number of CCP members has nearly stabilized since 2017 (graph). China's future demographics may, however, obscure these ratios (my 2018 blog).

It's hard not to be reminded of an unfulfilled 1943 Edgar Cayce prophecy on China: "Cayce promised amazing changes in the country that would lead to more democracy and greater religious freedom. He also suggested that eventually the height of civilization would move from the West to the Chinese people: “And these will progress. For, civilization moves west.” "

King in a Catholic Style (1985) by China Crisis


Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise