Exercises in Arrogance: I

This is not an exercise for beginners. It is an exercise in advancing the exploration of arrogance. it started as a banality. On the way to the Rathaus on Thursday I went to the hairdresser and was in a chatty mood. Here I am telling my hairdresser about the fact that I have two main professional occupations, and he volunteers that he knew that one is politics, but did not know the other. This was the funny thing, I was not even thinking of politics. Politics is something that I do in my spare time, it is not a profession. Politics is also a civic duty. After all, if you are not willing to govern, you are damned to be governed.

Thursday’s triple – in fact quadruple – dose of the Bern city parliament had something for everybody. There were big items on the agenda and we did not get through half of those items. Still, some of the meatier subjects were debated. The annual report 2013, or a great opportunity for the left to say that they also know about finance, and the right to point out the errors, or vice-verse. Thursday night was no exception and we got it approved, but not without a vote of protest from our fraction. The best was yet to come. The details are theatrical. At one point it really got out of hand and people were shouting at each other (and yes, the local newspaper reported on that). Civilised I say, in comparison with some parliament squabbles elsewhere, but unusual for typically slow and anaesthetised Bernese. The protocol of Thursday’ sessions is going to be a doozy! 

The epitome of ridicule was reached as the clock was about to strike 23:30. At that point one member of the parliament gets up to make yet another motion of order and argued that we were wasting taxpayer’s money by going into overtime, thus we should break up and resume the debate at another time. Parliamentarians in this city get paid in 3 hour blocks, and since we had been debating since 20:30, we had been at it for three hours and were no where close to conclusion. We voted, and this was motion did not get a majority. This one motion prompted yet another one by another parliamentarian asking that our honorary for the overtime be cancelled. This caused a commotion because such a motion of order is not permitted according to the statutes. However it is possible to ask that we voluntarily forfeit of the honorary. This was put to a vote, and roughly speaking those who had wanted to debate the damned business to its bitter end, forfeited, and those that wanted to go home didn’t. 

In view of all these antics, one must be curious as to what it was that we were debating. You guessed it, about spending money. This time about a public transportation project that has captured the fancy of mostly left politicians, but which is meeting considerable opposition from the residents, the extreme right, and the liberals. When one looks at the project in detail, there are major flaws with it. Surely Bern should update and modernise its public transportation, but this project is ridiculously poorly conceived. A lot of arguments for it are about serving two suburban communities (Köniz and Ostermundig)  with trams. Both Köniz and Ostermundig have train stations. Needless to say that S-bahn (trains) are a whole lot faster than trams and do not cause congestion on the streets or hinder bike riders. But that is not all. Actually, I get bored listing all that is wrong with this concept. The debate in the Stadtrat is however a bit more interesting, but just as poorly informed. Lies, and more lies, and who gives a damn? Damn lies!

Still, the substance seems almost besides the point; marginalised. The basics of the exercise are about power. The majority block wants this project’s credit to be approved, and the minority doesn’t. The strategy on the pro-project side is to get it through as fast as possible, and that on the minority side is to delay it. It is the way it is. Anyhow the fellow with the motion that we forfeit our honorary is now poking fun at the fellow who wanted to interrupt the debate because he did not forfeit. This is pathetic! Kindergarden silliness. 

Indeed the arguments against going into overtime were not very sound. We will debate this damned tram project as long as it takes, this is what a parliament is for. This is not a business meeting to be run efficiently. Democracy, for better or worse,  is not very efficient. First people are irrational, and if anything, politics is irrational. Fortunately the whole project will be put up for a vote in September, and then the residents can have their say. 

Europeans

Unlike the philosopher Jürgen Habermas, I am not alarmed at Europe’s state of political affairs. Is it a sad state of affairs? Or is this the natural dynamical process of political life? Push here, pull there, exaggerate here, exaggerate there, and at the end of the day, what you want is to steady the boat in the rough seas of human misery, exuberance, greed, and goodwill. 

I also do not see the that the latest 25 May super-sunday European parliament elections offers much to brag about in terms of democracy. While the folks did not quite all stay home, a majority did just that. Whatever the result may mean or whatever its consequences are, it is a minority result (43.1%), and there is no amount of justification that changes that fact. On the bright side, more and more Europeans are realising that voting on European matters is relevant to their lives and livelihoods.  

However, a parliament elected by a minority does pose more problems than it solves, especially when a minority of those elected are from the extreme right, and stand against anything that is either called democracy, human rights, liberalism or socialism. In a world that sees itself challenged with problems of global dimensions – climate change, violation of human rights, violations of international law, inequality, etc. – a vociferous minority that is xenophobic, protectionist, intolerant and against the very institution to which they have been elected is indeed a challenge that has the nature of a malignant disease. But, this is the state of affairs in Europe right now. These are interesting times.

In my view, a federalist Europe is the future. A united Europe that works together (this includes arguing and challenging each other in parliamentary debates), that is committed to peace and wellbeing of its citizens and its global neighbours, is what we need. We do not need a factious Europe where each little patch of land is screaming bloody murder against any little triviality that affects their poor understanding of sovereignty. 

It could be that I have imbibed heavily from the free trade Kool Aid bowl, but while not a goal in itself, just another tool, an open market offers many more advantages than any protectionist approach. We need an open European market in goods and services, we need the freedom of movement of persons and capital, and we need to think about where the real threats are. But are we working in this direction anywhere else other than in academia?

Still, Habermas may have a point. The point being that the political power elite is reluctant to think on behalf of us all, and are much too concerned with keeping face, or holding on to power, or just reluctant to leave their comfort zone. That is, in his words and translating liberally, the politicians in office are not willing to leave their daily power routines, and to face what is indeed a new situation that requires new solutions. Do we need a new breed of politicians?

Indeed, the choice for the new President of the European Commission is an important one, and it should be legitimised by respecting the Lisbon Treaty. Here there is much at stake, but I also welcome the very debate that is raging now about the candidates for this post which then this newly elected European parliament will have to vote on. 

While the results of this 2014 European election have only surprised by their reality, the result as such does not surprise many. The Europeans are an heterogenous collection of people with many different languages, cultures and traditions, and the future is as much ours as it has ever been. However between financial crisis, and a shifting equilibrium in economic factors, many are unsatisfied. The Greeks are suffering, and the Portuguese complain, and the Irish have had their troubles, and the English are rebelling. Somehow they all forget that is it not the European institutions that make them suffer, but rather it has been in the hands of their own politicians that their economies have faltered. Sometimes I do wonder if the EU is so close to Utopia that the average citizen cannot possibly relate to it. Or is it that its institutions are so complex and beyond the comprehension of the voters? 

I cannot figure this out either. I live in Switzerland, and I am an European in spite of my nationality. That is, that my own compatriots here have decided to not cooperate with the EU, or not honour the existing agreements, is one more indication that the Swiss are indeed Europeans through and through. The problem in my view is not the EU or its institutions, and it is not that I would be as naive as to believe that all possible optimisations have been made within the EU institutions, but I have spent a fair amount of time studying the very directives and communications that these institutions issue, and it is not Utopia that I find, but practical and necessary measures that allow this continent to function. It is also not that there are no mistakes that have been made or that will be made in the future. Still, the prevailing culture, the emerging European culture is one of dialogue and transparency. Dialogue and transparency are necessary ingredients in democracy. 

So, why is it that the Swiss are such exemplary Europeans? It could be because the Swiss, like the Greeks or the Dutch are all having their own share of difficulty adapting to a world that is increasingly more complex and interdependent. When challenged with new problems, it is easy to regress to past solutions, and to forget that the past solutions were for other problems, not for the present problems. But then, it could also be that I am an hopeless poet, and that I am misguided in thinking that critical thought, frank debate, and commitment to a shared future are all unrealistic. 

I want to live in an Europe that thinks forward with full knowledge of its past history, successes and failures. I think that we need to evolve our thinking, and our politics need to reflect that evolution. The future, if the planet is to have a mid-term future, lies in joining our efforts, not in squabbling about a non-existing sovereignty, or a chimeric neutrality. That said, I believe that we need the tools and legitimisation of self-determination. I am not alarmed about the chaotic state of affairs in which Europe finds itself, I think we can take this crisis, bang our heads together, and come up with solutions that move us towards what matters. 

But do we know what matters?

Vintage

I’m vintage. Not legend, vintage. This morning Kaspar reminded me of this, and supposedly Pascal had been the one to point it out. It was a day full of interruptions. Calls, singing, FaceTime, messages in all flavours. It’s my 57th birthday and on my mind the writing: an article, and a short blog post. 

upload

Being a day to celebrate, I started by lacing up the running shoes, and covering up with a rain shell. Headed to the river banks, and was out for over an hour in the drizzle. The Animals set the pace, and I hate to confess this, but my favourite weather for running is drizzle. Loved it! 

I could not avoid but feel like a bazaar of trademarks. Nike on the feet, Adidas on the legs, a Mammut shirt, in the pocket an iPhone, and to save grace, a Jack Wolfskin rain shell (the fashion label of grandmothers). It does give me an appetite for non labeled clothing and generic electronics. 

Thanks for all the attention! ’57 was a good year!