This is another world

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We enter now the world of the EU Lobbyist. Second only after Washington, the Brussels bubble has between 10…and 100,000 lobbyists, depending on who you ask. No-one really knows. There is no compulsory register. But £3bn is spent on lobbying each year, so someone benefits. Most if them work for private sector organisations, like the City of London. The independent sector lobbies too, only on a much smaller scale. In one building, both British Petroleum and the island of Mauritius have their offices.It’s a peculiar bubble.

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So, what does a lobbyist do? S/he tries to influence the key players in making laws, affecting, say, the economic or energy or environmental sectors they represent. Approaches include gifts, invitations, and the ‘revolving door’, offering second jobs to gain access to important people, like Commmissioners, MEPs and their assistants. 

Take TTIP*, for example. Under a clause in the proposal, called ISDS, private companies could sue governments (but not the other way round) in a private court for loss of future earnings. In one instance, the tobacco firm, Phillip Morris, sued the Australian government over it’s decision to sell tobacco in plain packets on public health grounds.

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Fortunately, the Australian government won the case and paid most of the costs. In another, Togo backed away from a legal challenge, because the cost of going to this court was more than its entire public health budget. Cigarettes stayed in their bright packaging in Togo.

Under ISDS, a single law firm is appointed to provide the judge, the Counsel for the Prosecution and for Defense, being paid for all three (£1,000 per hour) without any apparent conflict of interest.

Private sector industries understand the importance of public opinion on laws going through The Commission, which originates many of the proposals for the Parliament and the Council of Ministers. MEPs can also start legislation.

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Companies may set up front groups of the ‘public’. These are really made up of individuals recruited by them, for example, patients’  groups, supporting pharmaceutical companies.

But the Commission is keen to know what the public thinks. TTIP is effectively sunk after a public consultation, in which over 150,000 people said ‘No’  to TTIP. 

EU citizens and groupings are mistrustful of the big corporations. They realise they can’t rely on their public servants, not all of them, anyway. While some MEPs are excellent, others are, well…not quite so good.

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More and more, there is a feeling that we have to take matters into our own hands. These matters are too important and more change needs to come from the bottom up, if it’s to come at all. Hence, there are growing numbers of peaceable, direct actions around the world, such as the protests against the Dakota pipeline against the big oil companies.

When the world outside makes people inside the Brussels bubble change, it changes.  Because of its history, the EU wants to be seen to be listening to people, which makes it all the more important that we take this message back to our communities.

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How will you do this?

*TTIP – Transatlantic Trade and Investment Programme

My country is the world

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‘My country is the world. My religion is to do good.’ So wrote Thomas Paine. Well, does the EU do good? At times, it seems that the EU exists solely for economic growth, imposing on all members the model of how to do it.

The original vision of the community was to integrate its economies so that, if it had disputes, it would be able to resolve them by consensus and not by today’s equivalent of sending in a ‘gunboat’. The Ukraine, the Crimea…ask yourself what might this mean today?

By and large, the EU has been successful. That’s why so many countries are in it or want to join. But it is a ‘capitalist club’. It’s main driver is the internal market. Look how Portugal, Ireland and, particularly, Greece have been treated. But it does listen. Despite billions being spent by giant multi-national companies on lobbying Commissioners, MEPs and their assistants, the EU has made substantial progress in areas such as workers’ and social rights and environmental protections,  because it is also lobbied and consults with Trade Union and so-called Third Sector representative alliances. Such successes go mainly unreported in the UK TV and press as all we hear about from Europe is ‘toasters and pasties’…for years and years and years.

Laws do take longer to make in Europe compared to national Parliaments (three years on average), because of its size and the consensual rather than adversarial model it uses. This does allow the possibility for the lobbyists to influence decisions along the way and vital that we do so. The UK has done very well out of Europe in terms of its rebate and inward investment, not to mention all the benefits which come from trading in a tarriff-free single market.

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In Britain, society is divided between the haves and have nots. Many families have two ir more jobs. Kids get gadgets, not time with their parents. Interest rates are kept low for now. Family debt is large. While the EU promotes the internal market and is often blamed for failings, like corruption, only a relatively small number of areas or competences are binding on all members. It is more often the UK government’s own policies on, for example, wealth creation and redistribution (or the lack of), which affect its subjects/citizens more directly.

We see our civil space shrinking. We notice less and less public funding on education, health, offending and social care. Many believe as UK subjects that we are able to influence the legislative process. Can we? There is a view our MPs are simply ‘lobby fodder’, ordered about by the Whips’ office. As in the lead up to the EU referendum on membership, the issues are complex and layered and take time to understand and work through. Yet the language reported in our press is of red tape and shady deals. In reality, the civil service supporting the EU, the Commission, is tiny and costs a fraction of those of national states. The reporting of Brussels goes in stark, blunt language which obscurs the real position and shuts down dialogue. We need people to talk about these questions in a way that enlightens and encourages informed discussion.

During one session at Solidar, we discussed in small groups how to reform the EU, because it us broadly recognised that it needs to change. But what needs changing? The Commission wants to listen, we’re told. So, we bring forward three proposals for the Commission to consider. Firstly, we espouse hospitality. We’d like to get to know each other better.  How can we share our stories? Where do you come from? Let’s reflect on how we see each other then. It may turn out to be be life enhancing.

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Secondly, let’s promote and celebrate diversity.  This contributes to a prosperous, tolerant and  peaceful Europe. The WEA group from the UK was as diverse as you could possibly get. This is so wonderful about Britain in Europe. Brit In…um, BritIn*…like the sound of that. Over 50 of us from the North of England made connections and created friendships which made us think and feel deeply. They also made us laugh and sing together and hear each other’s stories. Soon, there’ll be a film of our study visit.

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And thirdly, let’s take advantage of the opportunities being in Europe gives us for working and learning.

These are our proposals. Will you support them? Would you like to amend them? Fine, let’s talk about it more. It may take more time but the deal we reach will be longerlasting.

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The founding fathers of the European project were motivated by the experiences of men, women and children, all living creatures to build structures and created processes, which work for peaceful resolution of conflicts between states. How might the UK’s withdrawal from the EU affect this now? If at all…it’s a fair question..?  I heard a friend tell this story. A wise woman once said, ‘Good and Bad are in equal measure in this world, but Good has to try at least five times harder to make it balance.’ How hard do we try?

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*thanks to Elaine E for BritIn, says so much more than Remain, during a conversation on the bus.

Further reading:

The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide by Chris Bickerton, A Pelican Introduction

Thoughts from the day

 

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Keep Calm and Article 50

£144bn EU Budget out of £6211bn, the combined spend of member states

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Of £350m per week the UK contributes to the EU, it is £260m after the rebate, then £170m after all incoming EU investment.  There are also all the benefits of trading without paying tarriffs at every stage.

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How does it affect a 62 year old woman in Greece, just about to come into her pension…asking questions like these lead you to different solutions…MEP

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The Council of Ministers and its austerity-blocking ways…

Proposals brought forward by the Commission (among others), and discussed and agreed by  EU Parliament and the Council of Ministers; the latter is made up of appointments by the member states.

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WEA is a member of Solidar, and so, therefore, at least indirectly, am I.

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How are we going to challenge the free market paradigm..?

Without warning, a group of people were thrust onto the longstanding, relatively well-knitted but poor community in a part of the city, one which had been feeling neglected for quite some time. The new people were disruptive. They caused nuisance and there was an increase in anti-social activities. There was a spike in incidents reported to the police.

It couldn’t be left to fester. This would only lead to more serious actions and their consequences. So, a number of local community leaders together with the local authorities invited everyone to a meeting – actually, a series of meetings – where everyone had their say. The meetings led over time to the new group becoming integrated into the local community. There was even more funding coming into the area as a result. Nowadays, it looks like a vibrant local community, which it always was.

And the group that was catapulted into the area?

‘Eastern Europeans..? Asians..? Africans..? ‘

‘What are you thinking? They were students.’

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Where is Africa in all this?

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I live in a city. Most people who live in cities voted to remain. Most young people voted to remain too. I am one of the 48%ers. But there is a disconnect with the many who voted to leave. We experience pain, fear, blame, betrayal (on both sides) and anger…

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…a Polish woman was enrolling on an ESOL course. I was explaining to her how she could apply to a fund for her course fees. She wasn’t working nor receiving benefits. I grew curious. ‘If you’re not on benefits and not working, what are you living on?’ ‘Our savings. I used to be a manager here in a pizza restaurant. So did my husband. We both moved to manage another restaurant with the same company in another city. But then I got pregnant, so we came back here. We have more friends and people around us here. I don’t want to take benefits. I don’t want people to say ‘You Poles!’ You’re only here for the benefits.’ And then she burst out crying. ‘I feel so afraid here now…after the referendum.’ And I felt…well, I did my best to reassure her that she was in a friendly city with people who wanted her here. Her child will be born here…but she doesn’t feel safe…And I feel…how do I feel? What can I do?

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Fear

20161030_102108.jpgSo,  some of you may know that fifty of us WEA people have come to Belgium to learn more about the theory and practice of the European Union. We’ll visit Ypres and the Menin Gate too. Travelling through Belgium,  it is hard not to think of war, with so many towns ending in -cerque, like Duncerque.

Which brings me to Fear. Fear of unemployment, of other people, like migrant workers, of low paid, insecure contracts. I also feel afraid that history is repeating itself. We have populist leaders, elected to power, attacking the ‘establishment elites’, laying blame on minority cultural groups (jews, moslims…).

I see young men and women, marching in uniform on Remembrance Sunday, proudly wearing their red poppies.  And I listen to the words of poets telling us how cruel war is, picturing their brutal, needless deaths in words. War is obscene, to paraphrase Harry Patch. Is Russia right now eyeing up Lithuania, testing the NATO alliance. Would the US come to the defence of a fellow NATO member or is it now Europe’s problem?

In one book I read, it asks if the EU works like a capitalist club. Look how it treats the people of Greece, imposing free market economic policies in return for support. Still, Ireland and Portugal are recovering. And the EU does much to protect the rights of working people. In the UK, leaving may jeopardise these rights as successive governments prioritise financial centres over social need.

On the other hand, the Europe is controlling and interfering, isn’t it? Somehow, I feel those who hate the EU have found the simplest words, like the school bully, to connect with people while those who support it fail to express the positive contributions  to peace and prosperity clearly it makes.

And this is where I feel the EU project has failed the most. It has somehow lost its way and become nearly all about money and growth, when, in the beginning, it offered hope after two world wars in quick succession.

Before we get too dispirited, I do see signs of hope.  Our young people are increasingly active politically. More people generally are talking about politics in Europe, even if many still don’t understand the consequences of Brexit. And I recently had a meeting with a young local councillor. He had given up being a banker to retrain as a teacher in a small comprehensive school, because he wanted to do something more meaningful with his life.

So, we go to the Parliament tomorrow and what do I hope for in the world. I hope for a safe space where people of all persuasions, some antagonistic, can hear one another and find the shared spaces in which to keep the world and everybody on it well and prosperous and feeling safe.

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Further reading:

The European Union: A Citizen’s Guide by Chris Bickerton, A Pelican Introduction

Out of chaos…

gate-3-landsOut of chaos may come conflict

Out of conflict may come difficulty

Out of difficulty may come acceptance

Out of acceptance may come peace.

gate-3-landsOut of chaos may come conflict

People tortured,

hurting them.

Those that do it,

who allow it,

who give orders,

hurting us all.

Out of conflict may come difficulty

A tiny sapling breaking through concrete

Out of difficulty may come acceptance

The waves rolling…

Out of acceptance may come peace.

gate-3-landsOut of chaos may come conflict

Out of conflict may come difficulty

Out of difficulty may come acceptance

Out of acceptance may come peace.

gate-3-landsThese words and music put together by four friends (Jane, Caroline, Bernie and one other) with help from our teacher, Taylor Giacoma, during two one-hour workshops at the north west regional gathering of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), held in Wilmslow on Saturday 5 November 2016.

 

Kids, yer tea’s ready! Part 4

Sarah sat with the report from Rehana in her lap – toxic run off into the water chain – she

Drawing by Ruth

Drawing by Ruth

shook her head. Poisoned. Her own children poisoned. The whole village poisoned. She dropped her head. What could she do? Then, a song came to her,

Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger

My love is stronger than your fear.

Don’t be afraid, my love is stronger

And I will promise always to be near.

She looked again at the last paragraph. Rehana had suggested holding a meeting of everyone in the village. Would they be able to? Would anyone come? Well, you could only try.

She and Nighat called at every house. She told them about the water report and that there would be a meeting in three days’ time on Thursday night to see what they could do. ‘Not much’ was the common response. What could they do, even? Sarah wondered but she was determined not to do nothing.

The new medication had also arrived and the children in the tent were showing signs of reviving. David, it seems, would always bear the scar across his forehead but it was a small price to have him breathing and sitting up and asking for food. At least, that was a good sign.

Thursday night came and Sarah and Sam, Nighat and her husband, Mohamed, waited for  people to come. Only a few parents had arrived by the start time but kept quiet.

Time passed. The clock ticked round another quarter of an hour and no-one else came. One of the parents spoke up. ‘I don’t think anyone else is coming, Sarah. Everyone’s too scared. The police have been round telling us to stay home for fear of arrest.’ ‘Arrest? What are they going to do to people?’ ‘People are scared, Sarah. They don’t want to get involved.’

The next morning, Sarah and Nighat knocked on every door again. They explained. They cajoled. They pleaded. But it was no good. A young couple with small children had been visited by police. Someone else had disappeared for the night, turning up three days later, black and blue. ‘We want to help. We really do, Sarah, but…’ it was that ‘but’ that was the problem. And the smaller children hung round the backs of their mothers’ legs as the older ones looked on. And into the square drove a police van, just to keep an eye on things, to maintain order. And Sarah and Nighat went home, back to the tent to check on their kids.

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By Rosa

It was mid-day afternoon next day when Sarah heard singing in the village. What was going on now? She wiped her hands and took off her apron. Nighat joined her and they walked up the village. A group of about ten children, from toddlers to teenagers, were facing the police van. And they were singing,

The river is flowing, flowing and growing.

The river is flowing down to the sea.

Mother, carry me.

Your child, I will always be.

Mother, carry me down to the sea.

‘What are they doing?’, Nighat cried. And they chanted, ‘Clean water! We want clean water!’ One of the policemen got out of the van, carrying a baton and advanced towards the oldest child. A few feet away, he raised the baton. At the same time, a figure stepped out from behind a tree, pointing a camera. Something must have been said from inside the van because the officer lowered his stick and went back.

The next day, the children gathered again in the village centre, a few more of them this time. And they sang and they chanted. The van was there. This time, two officers got out, holding their batons across their chests. They pushed into the kids and told them to go home. In the back of the van, they could hear a dog barking. The children had linked their arms but broke freely, rejoining behind the officers. They formed a circle and sat cross-legged on the brown earth. They stopped singing and sat in silence. A stillness fell. Pockets of parents looked on, fearful and unsure of what to do, Sarah and Nighat included.

On the third day, the children gathered, practically all the children of the village, who were able. All the parents stood watching. Three police vans were parked on the green by now. The officers got out of their vans, led by a senior officer. Two more held onto dogs on a leash. And they advanced into the children, scattering them. The children tried to reform but the dogs drove them back. Their parents came out to join them. The sirens were wailing, dogs barking, clubs on shields banging and, over all this, all the children and all of he parents started to sing ‘The river is flowing…’

The officer hesitated. A stranger to the village, whom nobody had noticed, stepped out from behind a tree, holding a camera. The senior officer ushered his men back to their vans. The children reformed their circle of silent waiting as the vans sped off, leaving a cloudy trail of dust.

20160625_120130.pngThe stranger’s name was Sean. ‘Hi,’ he said to the small crowd, gathered afterwards in Sarah’s home, drinking tea. ‘I’m a friend of Rehana’s. She told me about what was going on here and I thought I’d come see for myself.’ ‘You’re the reporter she spoke of?’ He nodded. ‘Truth is, there seems to be a pattern to these large companies polluting the land without telling anyone or putting it right, when it’s discovered. They walk away. I’m looking for evidence for an article I’m writing to open up the whole issue for questioning.’ ‘Well, you’re in the right place!’, Sarah said. They talked over tea and biscuits long into the night, agreeing to call another meeting. This time, surely, the whole village must come out.

And they were right. Under the large oak in the centre of the village, almost a hundred people were sat on the grass or stood waiting. Sarah reminded everyone of what had happened over many years. Sean backed this up with stories of water pollution, unproven, by this company across the land. They heard them coming. Several police vehicles with lights flashing powered onto the green and drove straight at the group, headlights on full beam, breaking only at the last minute. Officers poured out of the vans with dogs. One on a loud hailer ordered the villagers to disburse. They were holding an illegal meeting and failure to disburse would be considered an act of violence, which the police would be bound to meet with force. ‘You have two minutes to go home!’

Everyone looked round at each other and some started to leave. ‘Stay’, cried Sarah. ‘Stay. We can’t go back now. They are killing our children. They are killing our future. We have to say ‘Stop!’ No more!’ A police officer focused her camera on Sarah. A CCTV camera was turned on the crowd from the top of one of the vans. Sean also had his camera out. Everybody held their breath. Nobody moved till a small boy, wires dangling from his arm, his forehead bandaged, appeared out of the shadows. He lent heavily on a make shift crutch, dragging one of his legs behind him. ‘David!’

David walked slowly up to the officer in charge. ‘I don’t want to die here. I don’t want to go to prison. I have done nothing wrong here, except play with my friends. And you threaten us. I want to know why. Why do you hate us? Are we not the same people? Aren’t we?’

‘You don’t know what you’re talking about. You’re just a kid. Go home, go back to your family and keep your mouth shut.’ But a couple of teenagers came and stood by David. The police were so close, they were almost breathing on them. Then, more children followed. Parents tried to hold them back but soon all the children were standing next to David. ‘This is our home! Put down your weapons and stay with us for food. Else, go now!’

The officer froze. This was something he’d never experienced before. Snap went Sean’s camera. ‘Out of here now’, shouted the officer. And they left.

The sound of hearts beating of everyone in the village for a moment was louder than any words. All of the children around David cheered. The parents looked at each other, grinning nervously. Everyone hugged one another in pairs or small groups. Something had happened here. Something significant. They just couldn’t name it.

David was exhausted. His dad carried him back to his bed in the tent. ‘You stay there, young man, and get some rest.’ Sarah and Nighat made sure he was ok. ‘We’ll talk about this tomorrow’ and they left. Quiet settled on the tent. Julie asked, ‘What happened up there? What did you do, David?’ ‘Oh, nothing, I had to warn the village they were in trouble, that’s all. I had to be there, and so I went.’ It was still warm outside. Night birds sang outside and through the tent flap, David could see the full moon, lighting up the night sky. Not long after, he fell into a deep sleep.

Drawing by Ruth

Drawing by Ruth

The police never came back. Sean wrote his report for ‘Despatches’ with photos showing the stand-off and detailing accounts of intimidation and harassment. The story was picked up by the national press and even got TV and radio coverage. An investigation led to the dismissal of the police chief and a retraining education programme for all officers in community policing. Elections were held and new councillors were elected, a clean sweep, including Sarah. And the multi-national, agro-chemical company declared its total ignorance of any wrongdoing and promised to put right the problems quickly. Afterwards, the regional court fined it an enormous sum for polluting the water supply and awarded compensation to the village.

To celebrate, the whole village gathered one evening around the old oak tree. Every family had laid out tables and chairs or picnic blankets. Food and drink were shared for all and they had a great feast. Sarah and Ian, Nighat and Mohamed and the other children’s parents hugged and smiled at one another in a circle. ‘Aleluja!’, sang out Nighat. And the others joined in. It was picked up one by one by all the village for it was a song they all knew but hadn’t had cause to sing for a long time. ‘Aleluja!’, the whole village sang out across the valley.

 

Six months later, a group of children gathered together one Saturday morning. They’d just finished their morning chores and had come out to play by the pond. The news had come though about the retesting of the water supply. Now it was clean and good. Julie and Nathan, Amina and Biswas, David and Ella sat in a circle swapping stories and sharing food, mostly samosas and rice. Later, ‘Who’s for a swim?’ Nathan raised an eye brow. ‘Don’t think I can manage a swim’, David said, ‘after all that rice but a paddle would be good.’ And they all kicked off their sandals, rolled up their trouser legs or tucked skirts into knickers and ran into the water, splashing each other and laughing. In no time, they were all soaked but the sun was shining, the trees were green and damsel flies joined in their dance around them. Even a kingfisher whizzed past. David missed it. ‘Here? Where, show me!’ But it had gone. ‘Never mind, I’ll see it tomorrow or the next day…’ and a tune came to heart and he started to remember a favourite song. Soon, all the children joined in.

Every little cell in my body is happy.

Every little cell in my body is well.

I’m so glad. I’m so happy.

Every little cell in my body is well.

Soon, they would be back at their studies and daily chores to help their families but right now, they were just thankful they could play.

Every little cell…

Drawing by Ruth

Drawing by Ruth