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Thursday 27/11/2014

David Cameron has staked much of his credibility as prime minister and leader of the British Conservative Party on a quixotic crusade to achieve ‘reform’ of the European Union.

Under pressure from a surging UKIP and the increasingly vocal eurosceptic wing of his own party, Cameron has repeatedly staked out a position supporting British membership of a reformed Europe. On 10 November, speaking at the Confederation of British Industry Conference, Cameron declared that the EU ‘isn’t working properly for us at the moment. That is why we need to make changes’.

Having promised EU reform, Cameron must deliver. Failure to do so will significantly weaken his already tenuous position. And yet, success seems unlikely. A sizeable number of his internal opponents are already preparing for a push against his leadership or defection to UKIP.

Rather than picking winnable reform issues, Cameron’s issues of choice are unlikely to produce success: he has attacked the principle of the free movement of people and roundly criticised the single currency. It is notable that these two issues are central to UKIP’s political narrative. As with his campaign against Juncker’s Commission Presidency over the summer, Cameron appears to have gambled his reputation on yet another unwinnable fight.

Tuesday 18/11/2014

The European Union is a union of sovereign states, who are sovereign in that they are entirely free to leave the EU. This freedom to leave means that the EU is not a “super state”. There is no coercive force, no EU army, to force Britain or any other country to remain in the EU. Britain enjoys a freedom, within the EU, that colonies did not enjoy within the British or other European Empires.

Britain is thus entirely within its rights in considering the option of leaving the EU, although that does not mean that such a course would be wise.

The EU does not exist on the basis of coercion. It exists on the basis of common rules, or Treaties, applicable to all, interpreted independently by the European Commission and the European Court of Justice,  that EU countries have so far  freely abided by, even when particular decisions were not  to their liking. If countries started systematically ignoring EU decisions, the EU would soon disappear.

One set of particularly important set of EU rules are the ones that apply to budget deficits and debts of EU countries within the euro zone. These rules have been incorporated in EU Treaties and in Treaties between Euro area states. One of the provisions is that if a country has an excessive deficit, it must reduce that deficit by an amount equivalent to 0.5% of GDP each year until it gets its deficit below 3%.

Friday 14/11/2014

After the Second World War it became clear that several European countries had failed to meet their defence tasks in the years before this war unfolded. In the Netherlands a broad consensus emerged that it was necessary to increase the level of defence spending. In the beginning of the fifties the share of defence in terms of GDP raised from around 4% to almost 5% GDP. However, in the late 1950s this share dropped to 3% GDP. In the thirty years of the Cold War the relative share of defence remained stable around the 3% GDP. After the fall of the Berlin Wall this share dropped sharply. Nowadays, Dutch defence expenditure is scarcely more than 1% GDP (1.1% GDP in 2013).

As a consequence Dutch defence is weak, and it remains to be seen whether we can contribute significantly to the necessary fight against the Islamic State (IS) or deliver a reasonable share for a new fast NATO force protecting the eastern border of Europe. And there is no room for other challenges that might occur in the (near) future.

However, except the USA, the Dutch situation of decreasing defence expenditures since the war is no exception. In figure 1 the share of defence expenditure as a percentage of GDP is shown for several NATO states as the Netherlands, Belgium, Germany, Austria, France, USA and UK.

Figure 1: Defence Expenditure level (% GDP) in NATO countries

Friday 14/11/2014

In What Money Can’t Buy, world renowned American political philosopher and Harvard Professor, Michael J. Sandel bravely takes up the challenge of trying to answer one of the fundamental questions of human history: what money should and should not buy.

Skipping the usual elaborate introduction, Sandel begins by illustrating how modern society has become a global marketplace where nearly anything can be purchased for the right price.  Sandel presents a collection of examples to strengthen his case.  For instance, so called ‘concierge doctors’ in the US now offer their services for annual fees ranging from $1,500 to $25,000. A move made possible by the fact that standard doctor’s appointments in the US often have to be hurried affairs because of the low reimbursement rate offered by insurance companies to primary care doctors for routine appointments. Those who are willing to pay the amount can count on “absolute, unlimited and exclusive access to your personal physician.” The drawback, of course, is that it’s unfair to those who are not part of the happy (wealthy) few.

Monday 10/11/2014

25 years after the fall of the Berlin Wall, for most Europeans, personal reminiscences mingle with historical reflections and a certain idea of an uncertain future. The opening of the border between East and West Berlin on the evening of 9 November, 1989, not only opened the road to the unification of Germany. It also brought European communism to an end, the classical East-West confrontation (a.k.a. Cold War) to a close, and it paved the way to a ‘Europe Whole and Free’, in the words of the then U.S. President George H. W. Bush.

In the midst of so many comments and observations about that magic year, here are three simple insights:

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