Personal views from University of Bath researchers on the news of the day

Is the EU anywhere near getting its own army?

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📥  EU Referendum, Heath Science & Technology

David J Galbreath, University of Bath and Simon J Smith, Staffordshire University

As part of a warning by a group of former military officers that the European Union undermines the UK’s military effectiveness, former General Sir Michael Rose expressed concern at the EU’s plan to set up its own army.

But in a speech on May 9 outlining why the UK would be more secure if it remained in the EU, Prime Minister David Cameron said suggestions of an EU army were “fanciful” and that the UK would veto any suggestion of it.

As Cameron pointed out, there is a significant gap between the rhetoric and reality of the establishment of a fully functional European army.

The creation of a European army is a long way off and by no means inevitable. Even the most supportive nations, such as Germany, would acknowledge this reality.

As defence falls within the intergovernmental sphere of EU law, any single member state can veto its creation ensuring that the prospect of the UK getting dragged into an EU army against its will is zero. In fact, one could argue that the UK remaining inside the EU would do more to prevent an EU army than a Brexit would.



£4,300 to quit the EU? Bring me my cheque book

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📥  EU Referendum

Those who would have us remain in the EU simply don’t get it. They project all manner of reasons for why we should do so. Economic reasons, security and migration reasons, global connection and trade reasons. Heck, they even point to the bleeding obvious – that the Brexit camp is led by a bunch of fruitcakes like Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.

Every right-thinking person on the planet, it would seem, argues for the UK to stay in the European Union. All of the party leaders want us to remain, as does the government, many leading businesses, the International Monetary Fund, even Barack Obama (though using a US president to promote the EU highlights the profile problem of European leaders).

Quite frankly, I’m expecting the Archbishop of Canterbury to come out any minute now to pronounce on the Christian case for staying in. After all, Tracey ‘f******’ Emin has.


How democratic is the European Union?

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📥  EU Referendum, The Conversation

One of the constant arguments raised by critics of the EU is that it is “undemocratic”. Those arguing for the UK to vote to leave in the June referendum present it as an opportunity to hand control of British affairs back to the British parliament, the only body with a mandate to make decisions for the country.

On the face of it, the EU has a democratic structure. The European Commission is not elected but it is fully accountable to the European Parliament. And all the EU member states are represented in the Council of Ministers. But does that make it democratic or does it have, as some argue, a democratic deficit?

I suggest that we expect certain characteristics to be present in the structures of any liberal democracy. They should be representative, transparent and accountable. If these characteristics are present then the democratic institutions will normally enjoy legitimacy and authority. So I propose to discuss the presence or absence in the EU of these characteristics.

The EU is undoubtedly representative – more so than many national parliaments, including Britain’s. The European Parliament is made up of MEPs from all 28 EU member states, each elected using various forms of proportional representation (unlike the House of Commons, which is elected through a widely criticised first-past-the-post system).

Smaller states are over-represented in the European Parliament and voter turnout at elections is usually significantly lower than turnout for national government elections – although this is hardly the European Parliament’s fault.



Responding to the O’Neil report on superbugs

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📥  Heath Science & Technology

Dr Ruth Massey, from the Milner Centre for Evolution at the University, responds to today's publication of The Review on Antimicrobial Resistance’s report on Tackling Drug-Resistant Infections Globally.

"It has been estimated that superbugs (antimicrobial-resistant microorganisms) will kill someone every three seconds by 2050 unless the world acts now. In response to this the O'Neill Report on "Tackling drug-resistant infections globally" was released today. It proposes 10 intervention strategies that aim to both reduce the demand for antimicrobial drugs, so our current stock of drugs last longer, and also to increase the supply of new antimicrobial drugs effective against superbugs. The focus of this report is very much that this is a global problem that needs addressing at a global level if we are to be successful.

"The report contains some bold proposals such as the need for a test result before a prescription for antibiotic be issued, which will require a major shift in the expectations of patients in many countries. One particularly refreshing proposal is that basic research is critical to our success. Recently much financial support has been directed at strategies or products that are almost fully developed, but all of these required basic research programs to get to this stage. With this report proposing both short and the long term strategies to tackle this problem, we have to hope that governments listen and put the proposals into action."

To find out more about Dr Massey and her work see http://www.bath.ac.uk/bio-sci/contacts/academics/ruth_massey/.


Panic is spreading to the shires as rural police react to the threat of terrorism

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📥  Society

This article first appeared in The Times Red Box

Twelve years ago exactly, in an article for the New Humanist magazine, just two-and-a-half years into the ‘War on Terror’, I warned of a ‘bizarre badge of honour that could readily become a self-fulfilling prophecy’. Today, as a Police Federation chairman warns of fears that police officers in rural areas would be ‘sitting ducks’ in the event of a terrorist gun attack in the UK, my analysis has come home to roost in spades.

Back then I noted that ‘no serious local authority can afford not to have revised its emergency procedures’ in the light of the presumed threat posed by Al Qaeda. I added with a rhetorical flourish that ‘it almost seems that if your town, city or region is not assessed as potentially being on Osama bin Laden’s hit-list, it cannot be worth visiting’.

Now, it would seem, it is not just large urban areas that can sense themselves as potentially being under attack, but remote rural localities too. More so even, as we are advised that the police in such circumstances are ‘unarmed and vulnerable’.



Jeremy Corbyn could transform the Brexit debate – but does he want to?

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📥  Election 2015

Charles Lees, University of Bath

The tone of the debate ahead of the European Union referendum on June 23 has been shrill and disappointing. As with the 2014 Scottish independence referendum campaign, arguments on both sides have been simplistic, focusing on voters’ fears rather than their hopes, and appealing to their worst – rather than their best – natures.

British voters are being badly served by their political elites and also by a Westminster-focused media that is largely transfixed by process rather than substance. For there is much of substance to talk about. As my University of Bath colleague Aurelien Mondon recently argued: “debating the future of Europe is essential. But when will we start?”

The poverty of debate so far provides the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, with a huge opportunity if – and it’s a big if – he has the imagination and wit to take advantage of it. In a speech on Europe on April 14, Corbyn argued that there was a “strong socialist case for staying in the European Union”, saying that it protected worker’s rights and could act as a force to tackle tax dodging and corruption.

Yet, like Boris Johnson on the other side of the debate in the exit camp, Corbyn’s position as an advocate for remain is somewhat ambivalent given his previous public statements about the EU.



Bremain or Brexit?

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📥  EU Referendum

I was invited to speak at the European People’s Party’s (EPP) European Ideas Network in the European Parliament (EP) earlier this month in Brussels. The focus of the discussion was the somewhat wordily entitled ‘EU response on the upcoming and possible subsequent events commonly known as Brexit’ and the panel included myself, two other academics and a number of EPP MEPs, chaired by the group’s vice-chairman Paulo Rangel.


The EPP, which in effect, comprises Centre Right MEPs from across the member states including the German CDU and the French neo-Gaullist Republicans, remains the largest party in the EP. Historically it has had, and still retains, a pro-EU outlook. The Conservative party famously withdrew from the group following the European elections in 2009 and set up the smaller, more EU-critical grouping called the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). This group somewhat controversially includes the Radical Right Danish People’s Party, The Finns Party and the Alternative for Germany Party which has been threatened with expulsion from the group following remarks by one of its MEPs that firearms might be used as a last resort to repel refugees from crossing borders.


Brussels Attacks

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📥  Public Policy, Society

The incidents at Brussels airport and on the Metro network there this morning ought to serve as a reminder that complete security is unachievable. Having made air-side at airports more challenging to reach, it was only a matter of time for terror attacks to focus on the passenger-side. Those who now talk of the need for better intelligence and even more security seem not to understand this displacement problem.

There can be no security solutions to social problems. But the Belgian PM, Charles Michel, has, like our own PM, David Cameron, sought to legislate his way out of problems in recent times. New laws allowing police raids and opposing hate speech match attempts here that focus more on preventing the assumed inevitable than understanding  its social origins and seeking to alter these through political leadership.

Belgium is different to the UK of course, but not that much so. It is divided between a French-speaking South and a Flemish-speaking North. Brussels in particular is also home to two significant international institutions – the EU and NATO – while having unemployment rates in excess of 30% in some districts. Accordingly, its identity is confused and contested, as are its organs of state, and this has led to a vacuum where its values and vision ought to be.

But young people there are the same as the world over. They want to feel that they belong to, and believe in, something. If the mainstream fails to offer this they will look elsewhere. What we see is not so much radicalisation as disengagement. Worse, those who ought to offer a lead, such as teachers, talk of avoiding engaging youth on subjects such as the Holocaust, for fear of causing offence or angering those in their charge.

This mainstream evacuation means that run-down districts, such as Molenbeek, with which several recent incidents – from Charlie Hebdo to the Paris attacks, as well as those on a Thalys train and now these – appear connected, suffer not so much from resentment and presumed grievances, as a lack of ambition and leadership by those in authority. The country from which more people go to join ISIS in Syria as a percentage of the population is now Belgium.

Going forwards, it will only be by addressing the social confusions of the mainstream that a solution will emerge.

Professor Bill Durodié is Head of the Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies and Chair of International Relations at the University. His work focuses on risk, resilience, radicalisation and the politics of fear.

Listen to his inaugural lecture, now available as a podcast, on the politics of risk and resilience. 

For any students or staff in Brussels or Belgium, please note this link

Budget 2016: an appeal to remain in the EU

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📥  EU Referendum, The Conversation

Twelve minutes into his “big statement” budget, Chancellor George Osborne made a strong plea for the British public to vote to remain in the European Union in the June referendum.

Citing the Office for Budget Responsibility, he argued that voting to leave would result in “disruptive uncertainty”. It would affect interest rates, the exchange rate, and possibly international investment decisions.

In fact, the OBR report is less robustly certain of the outcome of a potential Brexit vote than the chancellor suggested in his speech. It notes that the evidence is scant, and that any effects would take time to be felt, and would depend on the subsequent negotiation process.

There is certainly more rhetoric than hard fact in much of the business case for membership to date. However, the OBR’s assessment of the available evidence confirms that markets do not like the state of uncertainty surrounding Britain’s position on the EU.



Unpicking the Budget Challenges

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📥  Public Policy, Society

It was just a few months ago that the Government announced an unexpected improvement in their finances which facilitated a more benign environment with fewer cuts and the possibility of lower taxes. Now we are suddenly faced  with the reverse scenario with the Government needing to make savings, or increase taxes, to fill an unexpected black hole in their finances.

This sudden turnaround should emphasise just how difficult making economic policy is and how cautious we should be on any economic pronouncement with respect to either the future, or indeed the present. It is a hard task, but nonetheless one feels the Government should have done better and in particular been a little more cautious in the Autumn.

Measuring debt

The UK debt stubbornly resists falling as a proportion of GDP. In 2012 gross debt was 85.8% of GDP and by 2015, according to the IMF, it was 88.9%. In part this is because of a reluctance by the Government to raise taxes. In part too it is because the debt to GDP ratio is just that, a ratio. If GDP fails to grow by any amount then the ratio at best will only fall slowly. The emphasis by the Government in this budget will probably lie with further cuts in government spending, but an alternative would be to focus on growth.

In this week's Budget the Chancellor can be expected to focus on cutting government spending. It is difficult because so many areas are ring fenced and it seems likely that the cuts will focus on the welfare budget, hitting the least well off and most vulnerable. There is also likely to be an increase in so called stealth taxes, such as national insurance contributions. Given this, will the Government, as is rumoured, be able to make tax cuts for the higher earners by reducing the rate at which people begin to pay the higher rate of tax?

A surprise in store?

But I think too there will also be a surprise or two in store, something nobody expects, in part to divert attention from the harsh reality of further government cuts. One possibility is measures will be taken to reduce tax avoidance with the Government finally prepared to take this problem seriously, particularly as it applies to large multinationals. Another possibility, unlikely in the short term, but almost inevitable in the long term, is that the ring fenced areas will begin to come under substantial pressure.

Critical to real progress on the debt is a strongly growing economy. If, for example, it grows by 3%, then the debt can grow by 1% but still as a ratio to GDP it declines and quite rapidly. But the world economy is in a difficult state and given our dependence on this for exports, healthy and continuing growth seems a little distant.

Government cuts have real consequences for us all. Government cuts have impacted on local authorities. Bus services are being cut, the police are being cut, the health service although ring fenced is under pressure, road and other infrastructure building is constrained. Although for the South West, probably the biggest issue right now probably has little to do with the budget, but is rather the future of Hinckley Point.

For more on Professor John Hudson's research see http://www.bath.ac.uk/economics/staff/john-hudson/.