Portugal, Jobs, and Banks

I’m back from Portugal, where I spent almost the entire time in dingy bars watching the world cup and drinking heavily with an American mate, joined briefly by a Venezuelan ex-colleague who happened to be transiting in Lisbon airport on his way back to Angola. I saw a tiny bit of Porto and nothing at all of Lisbon, which made me rather glad I’d been there before. That said, I had a great time: catching up with friends and getting drunk in foreign countries is as good a holiday as any, even if it could just as well take place in your basement. The first thing I’ll do today is eat a vegetable: I don’t think I saw one the whole time I was there. I consumed copious amounts of pork, bacon, sausage, potato, and grease though. I was also offered, quite brazenly, all manner of illegal drugs in the street of Lisbon, something which didn’t happen last time.

Anyway, this morning I found this on my Twitter feed:

It’s the second story I find interesting. Leaving aside the high probability that not a single person working at The Times knows the first thing about fruit picking and they’re likely just repeating whatever they’ve been told, since when was a job being fun a requirement to taking one? It’s little wonder we rely on foreigners to pick fruit if the local youth are permitted to refuse jobs and collect welfare because the work being offered isn’t fun enough for them. Perhaps The Times, rather than engaging in Brexiit scaremongering, could have gone into the reasons behind this extraordinary sense of entitlement in today’s unemployed and reflected on their role in supporting the various governments under whose watch it developed.

Incidentally, the chap I was drinking with in Portugal works in banking and, according to him, the giant American banks are shifting thousands of jobs from London to Paris. I asked how they’d cope with the unions and labour laws, and he said they’ve done their homework and they’re simply not going to deal with the unions. If they run into any labour disputes, they’ll simply up and leave. I have every reason to believe what my friend says is accurate, but I suspect these banks have been lured in with promises of special dispensation and once they’re installed the reality is going to hit them right between the eyes. I wonder how long it will be before the CEO of an American bank realises by law he must form a work council:

Any company with at least 50 employees must set up a works council (CE). This committee is composed of representatives of the staff and trade unions, with a mandate of 4 years maximum. It is chaired by the employer. It has economic, social and cultural attributes. To carry out its missions, it has hours of delegation.

We’re not in London any more, Toto.

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Answering Questions Nobody Asked

Writing in Prospect Magazine, Oliver Kamm takes eight hundred words to explain what is obvious to most:

Public opinion is right. The government has no plan for Brexit because Leave campaigners themselves had no plan for it. Theresa May is winging it. There was no vote to leave the single market or the customs union, yet the prime minister insisted on a maximalist vision of departure from Europe that will require reimposing a hard Irish border and will damage economic growth by constraining flows of goods, services, investment and labour. May’s very act of triggering Article 50 when she didn’t know what her European policy was, as well as her vainglorious decision to hold an unnecessary election, has brought British policymaking to a state of stasis that inspires pity and derision among our European partners.

Yet there is no obvious appetite to revisit the referendum vote. Around two-thirds of voters (in the Comres poll) believe the country should accept Brexit and “move on.” What’s the explanation, given that the government doesn’t command public support or respect in its handling of the process?

So the public don’t like the way May’s government is handling Brexit, but they don’t want to reverse their decision to leave? Well yes. What they want is a government which handles Brexit competently. Is this so difficult to understand? When people complain about the state of the NHS, they’re not saying they don’t want healthcare. When the public complains about the way their local council handles rubbish collections, they’re not calling for rubbish collections to be abolished.

But Kamm, living as he does in a Metropolitan media bubble and heavily invested in the status quo of the Establishment (of which he is very much part), can’t understand this. What’s more, he’s assumed everyone else can’t either, so he’s penned this piece. He does offer us an explanation, however. The TL:DR version is:

Firstly, Leave voters are stupid and don’t understand the consequences of Brexit. Secondly, May and Corbyn are making it unreasonably difficult to simply reverse. If only the plebs were as smart as me.

Tell me I’m being unfair.

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If gates are left open, people will walk through them

This, from Brendan O’Neill, is worth a read:

[T]he political elites cannot come out and say ‘We no longer want Britain to be a democratic sovereign nation’. So they developed a pseudo-progressive language to describe and justify their weakening of British sovereignty. They claim to be post-borders. They argue that the nation state is over. They say any defence of the nation is nationalism, and nationalism is dangerous. They insist that in a globalised world it is futile to try to erect borders against flows of people or goods or capital, and so on. And they seem ignorant of the message that their anti-borders, anti-nation political myopia sends to both the British people and the world at large. It tells British people their views don’t really matter, certainly not as much as cleverer people in Brussels. And it tells the world that Britain is a pretty porous place, not really that keen on protecting its borders. That it is a post-country, effectively, beholden to external influence and flows rather than being assertively, democratically sovereign. Perhaps now we might think about the kind of message this self-denuding cult of post-nationhood sends to more confident nations like Russia.

Indeed, we should not be surprised that a nation whose political and intellectual elites continually say ‘We are post-nation and we are open to the flows and fluxes of the globe’ might also find itself more open to the opportunism of states that have scores to settle here. After all, we effectively said: ‘We have no borders.’

I have to say, having seen over the last few years acts of despicable violence carried out on British soil by people who were in every meaningful sense foreigners (and in some cases unequivocally so), I find the outrage over Russians running about killing people a little…inconsistent. If Putin were a little less pasty and a bit more Muslim, I doubt we’d be making such a fuss. I’d find all this tough talk over Russia a lot more convincing if we’d not been so pathetically weak in every other area of national security, protecting the public, and looking out for our long-term interests.

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Testing Times

Okay, so I’ve spent the morning trying to think of a reason why Putin would order this hit on Skirpal in a way that implicates Russia. Let’s look at something Jean said in the comments:

Quite simple people – as much as Putin would like to see NATO gone, he is far more interested in breaking up the EU. After the last expansion of both organizations, in 2004, he was asked whether he would cooperate with both and he replied that he couldn’t imagine not working with them. He changed his tune in 2005 after the EU commission starting talking about bringing an anti-trust case against Gazprom.

Perhaps unfairly I initially dismissed this, but let’s suppose he’s she’s right. From an outsider’s perspective, Britain and the EU are at each other’s throats, trading insults and seemingly as divided as ever as the Brexit negotiations lurch on in fits and starts. It may suit Putin to test the EU’s commitment to Britain and measure their hostility to Russia. Would the EU rush to Britain’s aid in the wake of a hostile Russian act, or will they mince their words and do nothing? The former would require principles and the belief that Russia is indeed a threat to Germany or France (the rest of the EU doesn’t count). The latter would be driven by EU hatred of Britain over Brexit and Germany’s considerable commercial interests in Russia. It’s not difficult to see how this will play out. I’d not be too surprised if Macron denounced Russia, whatever else you may think of the young French president, he doesn’t just say what everyone else wants him to. But this is weak sauce:

Mrs May spoke to French President Emmanuel Macron on Monday and “discussed the wide pattern of aggressive Russian behaviour and agreed that it would be important to continue to act in concert with allies to address it”, her spokesman said.

What allies? Germany? Heh.

Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said the use of any nerve agent was “horrendous and completely unacceptable” and officials were in touch with the UK.

Downing Street said the incident was not an “article five” matter – a reference to Nato rules which say an attack on one member constitutes an attack on all.

No? Why not? I don’t think going to war with Russia is a good idea at all, but if this is a direct attack on the British people by the Russian government, as we are being told, then why does this not trigger Article 5? I know the answer: Article 5 is to be triggered only when it suits the geopolitical interests of the US. Which is fair enough, they’re the ones who will do the bulk of the nuking and the fighting.

So what will the Americans do? This is what the BBC reported:

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said the US agreed with the UK that Russia was likely to be behind the attack.

“We agree that those responsible – both those who committed the crime and those who ordered it – must face appropriately serious consequences,” he added.

“We stand in solidarity with our allies in the United Kingdom and will continue to coordinate closely our responses.”

Naturally, many people who think any hesitation on Trump’s part to launch an all-out nuclear strike on Moscow is proof that he’s Putin’s puppet, but we can ignore these idiots even though they’re many in number. But I don’t see why America is under any obligation to get involved here. Britain isn’t a particularly great ally of the United States right now: the public have generated considerable noise in letting Donald Trump know he won’t be welcome should he visit the United Kingdom, and he should expect mass protests of a size not seen since the Iraq War demonstrations. John Bercow, the speaker of the House of Commons, has publicly stated that he would oppose the current US president from addressing parliament, and both Theresa May and Amber Rudd saw fit to chastise Trump for daring to retweet a video which made Muslims look bad. Sadiq Khan seems to think the office of London’s mayor has a foreign policy element, and that should be directed at criticising Trump. Then yesterday a credible story circulated that an American citizen had been denied entry into the United Kingdom because her Austrian boyfriend says mean things about Muslims.

At this point, Donald Trump would be forgiven for thinking Britain should deal with its own problems for a change. The Russians have attacked you? Oh dear. Perhaps you ought to have focused on Russian agents running around your cities with nerve agents instead of endlessly insulting me and telling me what I can and cannot share on Twitter. If I’m honest, I hope he says just that (see bobby b’s comment here, too).

So this issue is going to severely test the relationship Britain has with the US, as well as what remains of their relationship with the EU. Even if Putin was not behind this attack, he will be paying serious attention to what each leader says, and what actions they’re prepared to support. It seems an overly complicated and risky way to go about it, but perhaps this was his plan all along? We’ve got to consider it. Let’s see what the Russians say today in response to May’s demand for an explanation. I may have to acknowledge Jean called this right from the start.

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Trump on Trade

He’s a funny fella, Trump. With a single tweet he’s got everyone denouncing tariffs and other protectionist policies, with even the BBC writing articles on how damaging they are. Suddenly everyone is a proponent of unfettered free trade, which until last week was the preserve of libertarians versed in Austrian economics and fans of Tim Worstall’s blog.

I mean, up until a few days ago we had the EU mandarins and Remainers assuring Brexiteers that tariffs will be implemented once Britain departs without anyone from the mainstream media pointing out this will hurt the EU more than it will Britain. In fact, most were insisting the exact opposite. Yet with a single tweet representing perhaps three seconds of thought, Trump has inadvertently got everyone agreeing on how stupid import tariffs are. Not that anyone running the EU, which operates some of the most protectionist policies anywhere in the world, understands free trade. But it does give the Brexiteers some ammunition with which to respond to the threat of tariffs in ongoing negotiations.

Tariffs don’t make economic sense of course, and free trade does make us richer on aggregate. But the ZMan makes a reasonable point here:

The hidden cost of free trade is a lot of people you don’t know losing their jobs or seeing their wages cut. When you’re the guy getting the pink slip, the cost is not hidden and that has a social cost, as well.

This is a point many Remainers miss about Brexit: not everything is about economics. Britain may well be worse off economically after leaving the EU, but many British people don’t believe wrecking whole communities through mass immigration (which is often highly localised) is an acceptable price to pay for half a percentage point increase in GDP. Of course, the financial gurus in London don’t mind because it’s not their communities being wrecked. Note that the strongest proponents of open borders work in professions which are closed shops, hence immune from the influx of cheap labour. If Polish accountants, Portuguese doctors, and Romanian law firms could compete freely for business in London, we’d see a wholesale change in attitude from the ruling classes.

The ZMan goes on:

The fact is, a nation is its people. What defines France is the shared character and shared heritage of the people we call French. What defines a people is not the cost of goods or the price of labor. What defines a people is what they love together and what they hate together. It is the collection of tastes and inclinations, no different than family traditions, that have been cultivated and passed down from one generation to the next.

Perhaps mass immigration has brought economic benefits to Europe, but it has also brought about an erosion of social trust, particularly in certain areas where unskilled migrants are concentrated. Did anyone ask the people who live in these areas their approval before upending their society? Or did we all assume that provided everyone gets richer on aggregate, such societal costs are acceptable (particularly if you and I don’t actually have to pay them)?

It’s the same with trade. I am all for free trade, and I don’t believe in tariffs for the reasons people say. However, there needs to be an acknowledgment that there are both winners and losers of free trade, and even though the winners vastly outnumber the losers, we should not glibly deny that losers exist. For decades, the consensus among the ruling classes has been that the losers of global free trade shouldn’t be considered at all – unless they can cause political trouble like farmers in France, or have family and friends in government like lawyers everywhere – and they are acceptable casualties in the battle for economic growth. Well, regardless of what the solutions to their plight are – assuming there are any – I believe we should start by acknowledging that there are losers of free trade, and understand their concerns. It’s easy to wave a hand and say “they can do something else” and make references to blacksmiths and motorcars, but retraining is pretty difficult in a town flooded with low-skilled migrants. And blacksmiths didn’t go out of business because the state encouraged cheap car plants to be built next door while punishing those who used anvils.

Consider NAFTA, for example. This has allowed Chinese companies to set up in Mexico with no intention whatsoever of supplying goods and services to Mexico, instead using it as a back door to the USA while bypassing their environmental and social regulations. Sure, the US now gets flooded with cheap goods making everyone richer on aggregate, only swathes of the country now consists of condemned towns perishing under an unprecedented opiate crisis. This is progress how?

A big part of Trump’s presidential campaign was acknowledging the losers of free trade and globalisation, which went a long way to propelling him into the White House – while his rival hob-nobbed with billionaires and poured scorn on the unemployed working classes. His latest comments on Twitter have now got everyone discussing the folly of tariffs in general, but also forcing them to acknowledge the social costs of free trade policies and the people who’ve found themselves disenfranchised. While this remains just a tweet and doesn’t translate into bone-headed protectionism, I don’t think this is a bad thing. Hopefully some sensible policies will come out of this, not least between Britain and the EU.

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Brexit or the Good Friday Agreement?

Alas we never hanged Tony Blair, so he is free to come out with rubbish like this:

What I find sickening is that the Good Friday Agreement apparently locks us into the EU in perpetuity, and this detail was kept from the British public by the treacherous Prime Minister who signed it.

I’m not so sure the British people are as wedded to the Good Friday Agreement as the establishment types think: firstly, many people don’t think those amnesties should have been granted in the first place, and secondly terrorism – or rather, the methods of dealing with it – have changed considerably since the days of the Troubles. Anyone suspected of terrorism could find himself on an MI5 watch list which is shared with the FBI, making life rather difficult for them indeed.

If, as the likes of Blair and the EU mandarins are saying, the choice comes down to enacting Brexit or keeping the Good Friday Agreement, I say we put the latter through the shredder. We’ll deal with the consequences if and when they arise.

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Thicket Untrimmed

Me, writing in July 2016:

I am also not convinced Brexit will result in pettyfogging EU regulations being torn up: we were the only country to employ armies of people in hi-viz vests bearing clipboards to ensure they were being followed to the letter, and it’s not like any of the current crop of politicians from any party believe in light regulation and small government. I can expect a huge lobbying effort being made to recreate all those “essential” EU regulations in a post-EU Britain, to be managed by sprawling government bureaucracies crammed full of civil servants. “Just think of all the jobs it will create!” will be the cry, once “Think of the children!” has faded.

David Davis, yesterday:

Britain will not be “plunged into a Mad Max-style world borrowed from dystopian fiction” after it leaves the EU, the Brexit secretary will say in a speech.

David Davis will say fears about a “race to the bottom” in workers’ rights and environmental standards are “based on nothing”.

He will argue for continued close co-operation between the UK and the EU on regulations and standards.

Why do I get the nasty feeling that Britain’s post-Brexit regulatory regime is going to go an awful lot further than the minimum required to sell goods and services to the single market? I can understand that technical standards need to be adopted, but why should Britain care what the EU thinks about its workers’ rights? It’s not as if they’re going to be sending kids down mineshafts and up chimneys, the differences will be over stuff like paternity leave and whether freelancers should be considered employees.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that Brits actually like this endless nannying by the government. If you don’t believe me, spend an hour on Mumsnet. Those people have the vote too, you know.

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The EU Withdrawal Bill

I confess, I’m not too sure what’s going on here:

Theresa May is due at a summit in Brussels, hours after Conservative rebels in the Commons defeated the government in a key Brexit vote.

MPs backed an amendment giving them a legal guarantee of a vote on the final Brexit deal struck with Brussels.

One rebel, Stephen Hammond, was sacked by the prime minister as a party vice chairman in the aftermath of the vote.

I think this might be the key passage:

It will not derail Brexit but MPs who voted against the government hope it will give them a bigger say in the final deal Theresa May strikes with Brussels.

The government had promised a “meaningful vote” for MPs on the final Brexit deal, but this defeat means that promise now has legal force and must happen before any UK-EU deal is implemented in the UK.

I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing for Brexiteers. Firstly, I heard this EU Withdrawal Bill contained passages which effectively gave unlimited power to the government with no oversight. I don’t know whether the vote last night has removed those clauses, but I’m not going to be too upset that someone like May is getting a kicking from the back-benches over a bill with stuff like this in.

Secondly, a few months ago I wasn’t too happy at the prospect of parliament having an effective veto over the final agreement with the EU over Brexit. Back then I thought the most likely scenario is one whereby we get a reasonable deal which gets scuppered by a hardcore Remain parliament, but now I think it’s far more likely May & Co. will sign us up to the worst deal imaginable with concession after concession in return for almost nothing leaving us in the EU in all but name. If this is what the negotiation progress brings, and the EU continue to display their staggering arrogance towards the people of the UK, the make-up of parliament in 2-3 years time may well be firmly behind Leave and can subsequently reject it. In other words, I think the benefit of a Leave-leaning parliament being able to reject a terrible deal outweighs the risk that a Remain-leaning parliament will reject a reasonable deal.

How this will all play out, and what shape parliament will be in on the day the vote is taken, is anyone’s guess. But one thing is still abundantly clear: May needs to go, immediately.

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The Rights of EU Citizens

When I first moved to France I did so as an EU citizen, as you probably guessed. Under EU law, the non-EU spouses of EU citizens residing in an EU country other than their own are entitled to receive a residency card within 3 months of application. In practice, this means the non-EU spouse gets an entry visa in their home country and arrives in the EU country to join their partner: he or she is entitled to stay as long as they like, even once the initial visa expires, and is entitled to work because their rights are statutory and not dependent on receiving a residency card. However, for all practical purposes such as opening a bank account or leaving then re-entering the country, they will need a residency visa.

When I tried to apply for my wife’s in France, I was told there was a 6-week wait before they could accept her application. We waited 6 weeks and the bureaucrat at the prefecture said our paperwork was not in order and the application was rejected. I hired a lawyer who pointed out to the prefecture by law they were not allowed to reject the application for that reason, and the head bureaucrat shrugged and said “So what?”. They made us wait another 6-weeks in contravention of their own laws, so 12 weeks passed before we finally got the application in. EU law says the residency card must be issued within no more than 3 months, but 3 months passed and no card. The bureaucrats at the prefecture shrugged and said “So what?” I called the EU ombudsman to intervene, and they were very helpful, but they couldn’t get the bureaucrats at the prefecture to cooperate. Eventually the ombudsman called the French ministry of the interior and got someone to kick some ass in the prefecture, and we got a notice saying the card was ready for collection: this was some 5 months after the application, and 8 months after we’d first walked into the prefecture. When we went to collect the card they demanded 300 euros, but EU law says it must be issued for free. I called the ombudsman who called the French Interior Minister who called the prefecture who told them to give it to me for free. When the guy handed it over he said “Sorry, but we don’t know any of the EU laws. They don’t give us any training here.”

The whole episode taught me that the rights of EU citizens are enjoyed only at the discretion of the bureaucrat sat in front of you. If they refuse to recognise them, then they’re not really rights at all. Disgracefully, the prefecture insures itself against legal action by capping any compensation lower than what it would cost to hire a lawyer even for a day. I raised this with the ombudsman and warned her that there is a strong sentiment among the British that costs of membership of the EU simply aren’t worth it because the supposed rights we enjoy often don’t materialise in practice, and I had now joined their ranks. This was back in early 2015, so before the Brexit vote. I contacted UKIP to see if they’d be interested in my experience, and they directed me towards some eurosceptic MEPs in Brussels. They asked me for details, I provided them, and never heard a thing back afterwards. For my wife’s part, the experience put her off living in France completely and she skedaddled the day after she got her card and never returned in any meaningful sense.

Although living in France I undoubtedly benefit from my rights as an EU citizen, it is undeniable that these are still subject to the whims of the local bureaucrats. In other words, they’re not rights at all. When I hear everyone wailing about how British citizens might lose their rights in EU countries when the UK leaves, I shrug and recall how we had to stand in line for hours with several hundred Africans on a dozen separate occasions, plus shell out over a thousand wasted euros, in order to exercise those rights. My non-EU colleagues, who weren’t labouring under the illusion of getting any rights recognised by a French prefecture, simply fell in line and went through the normal process. When we compared notes, I couldn’t for the life of me see how their experience was any different from ours.

I get the impression a lot of people who claim to be worried about their rights in the EU after Brexit have never actually tried exercising them. I’m happy to take my chances in whatever regime follows.

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We’ve agreed an agreement is necessary

Years ago I was an engineer working with a team that was being sent to site to carry out a load of construction works. Nothing too major, but no matter what the workscope any  company showing up on site has to have in place a Site Safety Plan, which is a document identifying all the risks associated with the works and how they intend to manage them. Any contractor working in the oil and gas business will have a procedure describing how to prepare a Site Safety Plan, and it will typically contain prescriptive instructions such as:

– A hazard identification workshop and risk ranking exercise shall be carried out prior to mobilisation.

– A risk mitigation plan shall be put in place detailing how each identified hazard shall be managed such that the residual risk is as low as reasonably practicable.

– Tool-box talks shall be prepared and tailored to address the residual risks associated with the works.

In short, prior to mobilising to site, the Safety Manager leads an exercise in identifying the risks and mitigating against them, which usually involves compiling (or writing) numerous procedures related to the execution of the works (e.g. excavations, lifting, vehicular transport, etc.) This will all be collated in the Site Safety Plan and communicated to everyone involved, including the owners of the site, and demonstrates that the risks involved with the works have been properly thought about and are being managed. (Bardon will know all this stuff backwards and inside-out, as would anyone who’s spent time on a site.)

Anyway, our Safety Manager was given several weeks to prepare this document, and a few days before mobilisation it was passed to me for review. This is what I read:

– A hazard identification workshop and risk ranking exercise shall be carried out prior to mobilisation.

– A risk mitigation plan shall be put in place detailing how each identified hazard shall be managed such that the residual risk is as low as reasonably practicable.

– Tool-box talks shall be prepared and tailored to address the residual risks associated with the works.

Rather than doing the tasks required, the Safety Manager had simply repeated what we were supposed to do prior to mobilisation. He had completely failed to understand that now was the time to do what was required. Or he had no idea how to, and just winged it. I suspect the latter.

I was reminded of this when I turned on the TV this morning to see Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker telling everyone a deal had been struck such that Brexit talks can now move forward. But when journalists asked for details, such as the shape of the final agreement on the Northern Ireland border, the response was that they’d agreed than an agreement must be reached. Via Gareth Soye on Twitter, I found this excerpt from the report which supposedly gives us more detail:

Since the result of the Brexit vote was known, the question was always how to reconcile a differing regulatory regime either side of the border without putting in place a hard border. This was supposedly something that had to be agreed before the talks could proceed, but in the finest style of a modern corporate manager they’ve just said:

“We will not have a separate regulatory regime for Northern Ireland nor a hard border. Now, moving on…”

I suspect the intention of both May and the EU is that this issue will never come up for serious discussion again because, one way or another, the UK will remain in the EU in all but name.

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