Sunday, 20 January 2013

Some 'Facts' about the EU

I read an article today about the YouGov poll which has shown that since 5 January 2013, outright support for a British withdrawal from the EU has reduced sharply from 51% to less than 42%, with a rising number now supporting Britain's place at the heart of Europe, at least dependent upon a renegotiation of our position in it.

The EU is one of those strange subjects - almost no-one knows anything about it, but everyone has an opinion on it. UKIP would supposedly pull us out of it, despite the fact that it's the only part of politics where they wield any genuine influence. Labour admit they were wrong about it, but don't seem to know where they currently stand on it. Dave and his backbenchers quarrel over it all the time, and the promised referendum on continued membership still looks about as likely to arrive as the Rapture.

The thing that annoys me most is that amongst all the intelligent debate, there are a number of people who will insist on presenting their opinion as fact. For your benefit (and not least my own), I have done a little bit of research on the opinions of one 'elsyd', who does just that on the article above. Hopefully, it will answer some of those nagging questions that you always see thrown around in Facebook debate.

CLAIM: Britain's net contribution to the EU is in excess of £50 million a day.

ANSWER: False. The enclosed graph from the BBC shows that the UK contributes a net 3.5bn Euros per year, or approximately 9.831m Euros a day. Still not chicken feed, but let's at least be accurate. To give the figures context, the UK receives approximately £550bn in tax revenue each year, meaning that net EU spending accounts for less than 0.63% of our national income annually - akin to a person on an above-average income buying a Starbucks coffee each day. Or to express it exactly, we are contributing approximately 16 Euro cents each day for each person living in the UK.

There are those who will argue the value of what we receive, but just some of the potential benefits we receive in return for our money are that we avoid having to pay potential trade tariffs on new trade agreements, there are no legal obstacles for those who wish to set up businesses in any EU country, we receive subsidies for farmers and fishermen (though many will question the appropriateness and value of these), and we also gain a political union that can stand up to China, USA, Russia, Brazil and India in the global war for resources. As part of a bigger power base, the UK is more likely to be globally influential.

CLAIM: Auditors have failed to sign off account EU spending for the last 18 years.

ANSWER: True. This article in the Telegraph shows that the EU had an overall error rate of 3.9% in 2011, which is too high for the European Court of Auditors to sign off. The European Commission nonetheless point out that the error rate does not mean the money is lost, because when fraud or irregularities are detected, the EU claims the money back from the member state.

CLAIM: Britain cannot control immigration from EU because of open border regulations.

ANSWER: EU citizens have the unrestricted right to live and work in the UK where non-EU citizens require authorisation before taking a job. This is a strange thing to make an issue of, as citizens from outside the EU can still live and work in the UK if they fulfill certain criteria. The jury is out on whether this is a good or bad thing. Immigration brings skills that UK workers do not have and increases the flexibility of the labour market, but it also puts greater pressure om infrastructure, such as the housing market and the NHS.

CLAIM: Apart from Belgium, Holland and Malta, Britain has the highest density population in the EU, and is rising dramatically due to immigration.

ANSWER: True, or at least according to Wikipedia. The enclosed page gives these statistics. However, the UK has the second highest population in the EU too, so perhaps this is not surprising. As a comparison, Greece has one of the lowest population densities, so it cannot be suggested that low population density in itself is something to aspire to. Nonetheless, all the main political parties seem to be in agreement that the level of immigration should be controlled somehow.

It should be mentioned that there are potential benefits to high population. Many immigrants are young people looking for work, and this article from the Guardian suggests that this could help avoid shortfalls in pension liabilities that will be experienced in other nations where the numbers of young people are falling.

CLAIM: In excess of 500,000 Polish migrants alone are known to be in the UK (2011 Census).

ANSWER: True. The BBC have released the following figures from the 2011 census, showing that an estimated 579,000 Poles live in the UK. Once again, it is difficult to see the significance of this figure, particularly given the previous articles about how the population in the UK is set to grow to approx 77m by 2060. I am privileged to know several Polish people who work alongside me in local government, and the following Wikipedia page lists many individuals of Polish descent who have made significant contributions to the UK - including Labour leader Ed Miliband, who was born to a Polish mother.

CLAIM: If we left the EU, many of these jobs would be available to the British unemployed. Where sufficient British skilled workers are currently not yet available, visas could be issued to EU workers, as is the case for non-EU migrants at present.

ANSWER: Potentially, it would be possible to set up an arrangement whereby every immigrant, wherever they were from, would require a visa to work in the UK. However, immediately leaving the EU would not guarantee that many of the current immigrant population were forced to leave the UK - many could expect to receive visas by virtue of successive generations living and working in the UK - and as 'elsyd' himself implies, this does not guarantee that UK workers could be found to fill the gaps.

The counter question I would ask is that if you have a worker in post, who is diligent, effective and contributes both to your culture and your economy, why would you seek the upheaval of replacing them en masse just because of their nationality? Then again, perhaps we could find jobs for them in the new, massive, bureaucratic visa service...

CLAIM: There is a serious housing shortage in the UK which requires building on swathes of Greenfield sites. If we were not in the EU, many existing homes would become available, thus protecting our countryside.

ANSWER: Once again, this seems to imply that as soon as we left the EU, we could force large numbers of people to become immediately homeless, necessitating their swift return to the country of their origin. Leaving aside how ridiculous this suggestion is, we could instead look to articles such as this one, which suggests that greenbelt policy has more to do with boosting house prices than protecting the countryside. Then there are BBC articles that suggest only around 10% of land in the UK is 'urban', and that even less than that is actually built on. The one fact we can agree on is that if the population really is going to jump by 17 million people in the next fifty years, they will need homes to live in, so someone had better start building them, pronto.

CLAIM: Uncontrolled numbers of Bulgarians, Romanians and Roma Gypsies will have freedom to come to Britain at the end of this year.

ANSWER: As those nations become part of the EU, they will gain the right to move and work anywhere within Europe, as any other EU citizen already has. Some are likely to come to Britain, with the positive and negative impacts that have already been discussed. The Independent may like to suggest that Romanians in London are either 'beggars, pickpockets and prostitutes', but this ignores the fact that as with Poles and many other races before them, most of those that come here will do so to work and offer their families a chance at a better life.

CLAIM: EU migrants have the same access to benefits as UK citizens – jobseekers, housing, etc.

ANSWER: Partly true. However, the implication here is that anyone can stroll out of the EU and demand a huge house and limitless benefits without ever having worked in the UK. This presentation to Islington council makes it clear that those who have never worked in the UK are likely to have 'no recourse to public funds' (i.e. they are not eligible to receive benefits) and that the UK already has the right to restrict access to the labour market in the UK under existing EU treaties. This means that the UK can freely decide to restrict people from working, and by default, restrict their access to benefits.

CLAIM: The tremendous pressures on our NHS, Schools and Transport would be considerably reduced, if we left the EU.

ANSWER: The answer to this is far more complex than a simple statement of this kind can address. If fewer people lived in the UK, there would be less need for infrastructure, but also fewer taxpayers paying for it, and if all the foreign nurses employed in the UK were asked to leave the UK immediately, this would leave the profession in crisis. You could respond with a similarly incongruous argument - namely that the NHS, schools and transport could all do more if they received more funding, so logically, we should automatically increase the tax rate to do this.

CLAIM: UK trade is declining with EU whilst exports are growing to emerging economies such as China and India.

ANSWER: Figures from UKTradeInfo suggest that for the last two years, UK imports and exports both inside and out of the EU have remained largely static - significantly, long term trend data is not easy to come by, so this is surely a generalisation. The sentiment that 'elsyd' is expressing - that it is advantageous for the UK to trade with emerging economies - should not be taken to suggest that we do not benefit from trade with EU markets.

CLAIM: The EU Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has all but destroyed our own Fishing Industry. Free from EU rules we would be able to resurrect this great, renewable resource.

ANSWER: Short of sending out warships, it is hard to see exactly how we could protect our fishing waters. Regardless, it could be argued that the CFP has played a role in protecting future fish stocks through a number of policies which are explained in detail here. With many of our stocks already overfished, it is not as straightforward as simply leaving the UK and sending boats back out to sea.

However, there remain stories about boats dumping dead fish back into the sea, and CFP will retain its status as a contentious cornerstone issue of the UK's place in Europe.

CLAIM: As a member of the EU, we pay huge subsidies to French farmers. Is it not time we supported our own agricultural industry?

ANSWER: France receives farming subsidies, as does the UK. However, the figures show that like the UK, France is a net contributor to the EU.

CLAIM: Our country is virtually governed, not by British Law, but by EU regulations, including many of the idiotic rulings of the European Court of Human Rights. If we left, we would be free to keep the 'sensible' ones and create a 'UK Bill of Rights and Responsibilities.' Britain would then be free to legislate in the interests of its own people.

ANSWER: Ah, damn those human rights...if only we didn't have them, there'd be none of this nonsense requiring employers to pay a minimum wage, nothing obliging them to provide a safe and comfortable working environment and nothing preventing governments from installing whatever crazy laws they wanted, without anyone being able to do a thing about it.

Since EU law is created from a consensus based on member law (something that the UK contributes to), it is arguably more democratic than anything we have in the UK. Yes, it still makes silly mistakes, but those are inevitable in any legal system and a system external to the EU would not make the UK immune to this problem.

CLAIM: The EU is moving towards a Federal State of Europe, with ever greater fiscal and political integration. Britain’s ability to rule itself would disappear and we would be ruled by the bureaucrats in Brussels.

ANSWER: Those would be the same MEP bureaucrats that we...elect democratically on a regular basis, correct? Fiscal and financial integration does throw up some minefields (e.g the Euro, common interest rates) but these are not a cast iron argument against integration. You could argue, for example, that integration of members states hasn't worked out too badly for the US.

There are genuine questions to be answered about the UK's role in Europe, and we cannot afford to let our biased newspaper owners and editors to own the debate. I don't claim to have the answers, but I can at least frame the questions. For example, large numbers of us would apparently prefer a renegotiated relationship with the EU. What, then, should we be negotiating? It is perhaps ironic that Germany, the country traditionally viewed as the one that gets the most benefit from the EU, is its biggest contributor.

Saturday, 5 January 2013

Some Advice for the Men of OK Cupid

Yesterday a friend of mine sent me a link to a Tumblr blog called 'Nice Guys of Ok Cupid'. I'll do you a favour and sum up the content, firstly because I don't want you to immediately switch to that blog instead of this one - it's the social media equivalent of a car crash, horrific, terrifying and compelling all in the same breath - and secondly, because I think I might have something genuinely positive to contribute to the debate. No, really. Stay with me.

OK Cupid is a dating website in the US, and it gives people the usual opportunity to create a profile with a picture and some text. The site also offers some assistance with creating the right impression for your future beloved by giving members all sorts of loaded questions that seem to be there for the sole purpose of giving people a chance to embarrass themselves. 'Nice Guys' is the work of one woman, who finds and posts the most humiliating and excruciating male profiles by men who claim themselves to be 'nice' in one breath, while then disproving this (occasionally spectacularly) with the rest of their profile.

I'm not going to analyse the blog itself in any detail. I encourage you to read it, especially if you are a young single man who is bewildered at your lack of success with women. Think of it as a 'how-not-to' guide. But don't go yet! I have some advice for you first. It may not prove to be useful for you, but like all the best advice, it's free, and offered with a genuine intent to help you. And if you're want to know my credentials, they are that despite being a chubby, badly-dressed dumbass without two pennies to rub together, I still managed to find someone who loves me :)

This is a dating profile

First things first. Basic housekeeping will reap rewards in the long run. America is a big country, and there are a lot of single men out there. You may be fortunate and blessed with a huge trust fund, the enduring looks of Brad Pitt and Channing Tatum's abs, but the fact is that most of us are average in most respects, so while we may not immediately stand out for our qualities, we can at least minimise the things we do badly. So here's a checklist:

- Use a good picture of yourself. You want to look your best, so style your hair, and put on a shirt. Use the best camera you have. You want the picture to be as high-quality as possible and show you looking clean and respectable. Don't wear sunglasses - you aren't Horatio Caine. Let a girl see your eyes, and a genuine smile. If you're in doubt, ask one of those 'friendzone' female friends to take the picture for you!

- Learn to spell (or at least use a spellchecker.) Yes, I know that textspeak is the language of a new generation, but there really is no excuse for poor spelling. I'm not going to lambast you for the odd typo, but some profiles are almost unreadable. You're creating an image here that shows off your positive attributes - and that image is that you're of reasonable intelligence, and take the time to do things well when they matter.

- Have something interesting to say. This is critical, and I really get the feeling that some people sit down to prepare themselves for failure. Think about it carefully. If you wanted to sell a car, would you list it in the newspaper as 'One car for sale, nice'? If not, why would you list your main quality as 'nice' in an 'About Me' section? Give yourself something to work with, and talk about your alloy wheels and your swish decal. In short, talk about what you like, and more importantly, why you like it.

Remember that this is a shop window for your thoughts and feelings, but shouldn't be seen as an opportunity to project your feelings onto others. Contrary to popular opinion, women are not all shallow and superficial bitches and sluts. Which leads us nicely onto...

- EMPHASISE THE POSITIVE. I cannot repeat this one often enough. There is a reason why Facebook does not have, and never will have, a 'Dislike' button. No-one is expecting you to be a robot that has no negative aspects to their personality, but at least serve up some positive ones first to balance them out. Don't get onto contentious subjects like whether you are anti-abortion or whether non-Christians will burn in hell. At this stage, you have a chance to talk about the things that you are interested in and passionate about, and can share with someone else.

Your basic rules for things that go on your profile should be: if they are positive, likeable qualities, or they are funny and self-deprecating, they should go on. Everything else should be saved up for when your prospective beau has already gotten to know you a bit.

So if you've followed that advice, your profile should contain a picture that any girl would be proud to show to Mom, and be completely free of negative statements, but nonetheless still hint at your individual qualities. Now let's look at a few essentials for taking it to the next level.

Questions about race/homosexuality

You may not have noticed, but even in our modern, enlightened societies, women are not treated equally to men. No, don't try and argue with me because of something you saw, heard, read or experienced - accept it, because it's true. The reason that this is significant is that women are more likely to feel an empathy for other people who have also experienced prejudice, so if you make negative comments about people from other races, or people who are gay, be prepared that she might have a ton of reasons to disagree. I'm not going to attack you for the way you feel, but instead suggest that you challenge yourself. Make a friend who is black, hispanic or gay, and once you have spent enough time with them, ask yourself if they way you used to feel about that group is still reasonable.

Addendum note: some men seem to be quite open with their opinion that racist jokes are funny 'because they're jokes'. Well, I have a black friend who thinks that jokes about white men who can't get laid are funny too. The good news is, you're both wrong. Read on to my comments about RESPECT, below.

Questions about weight, leg shaving and any other aspects of physical attractiveness

If you publicly answer the question, 'If one of your potential matches was even slightly overweight, would this be a dealbreaker?' with a 'yes', I'm tempted to salute you for your honesty. However, if you are serious about finding someone special, you will help yourself by stacking the odds in your favour. Obviously, there has to be a physical attraction to facilitate the whole relationship process, but when you grow up, you'll find that people are about more than their weight, and by immediately writing off someone without getting to know them, you might well be missing out.

One question that appears to fox men regularly is: 'Do you think women have an obligation to keep their legs shaved?' Hint: the answer is NO. And the reason for this is that women don't have an obligation to do anything. If you were asked, you might politely and tentatively express a preference for women with shaved legs, which is perfectly reasonable. But if that girl you like doesn't want to shave, you can't make her.

Addendum note: No-one is obliged to have sex with you. Ever. No matter how nice you've been, or what you bought for them. If being nice and buying presents are your route into someone's affections, then I wish you the best with that. However, if it doesn't work out for you, then you can't complain that you're owed something that you aren't. Be an adult. Mark it down to experience, learn from it and move on.

Questions about previous sexual partners/supposed promiscuity

As with the previous point about appearance, be careful not to offend people by stating your preferences and values. You might prefer a woman to be relatively sexually inexperienced, but suggesting there is a set number beyond which a woman has had 'too many' partners will not win you friends, much less love.

On a personal note, if you find someone who entertains you, interests you, is physically attracted to you and could love you, what does it really matter who she's been with previously? How much can you really expect from someone else before what you asking becomes unreasonable?

Final thoughts

RESPECT WOMEN - For this, you could substitute women for 'other people' for much the same effect. A breakdown in mutual respect is one of those factors that makes the world seem a harsher place than it used to be. But it doesn't have to be that way. We are all trying to fit so much into our short time here that we forget to observe the little kindnesses that make for a better day for all concerned. So stop using terms like 'bitches' and 'sluts'. You're never going to use them in a positive context, so why use them at all? Even if someone legitimately mistreats you, you will be happier if you just shrug your shoulders and walk away.

But so many of these profiles express hatred and bitterness towards women that there needs to be some specific advice relating to this. Part of being a man means accepting that women have certain corridors of power that you can't access. You can beg and coerce and manipulate all you want, but a girl who doesn't want to sleep with you isn't going to sleep with you. Rape is a deplorable crime that is all about seizing the power that an individual feels they are being denied. When it comes to sex, women have the power. As a man, you will live a happier life if you accept this.

Ditch the notion of the friendzone. It's unhelpful and fails to acknowledge that friendships are good, regardless of who they're with. Doing this will help you appreciate people for who they are, not what they can do for you. If you were only being nice to the girl in the hope that she'll sleep with you, you weren't really being nice. Accept this.

RESPECT YOURSELF - If I could give you one piece of advice that will make you more successful in every aspect of your life, this would be it. I'm not talking about the 'self-confidence' spouted by self-help books that sees people talking to themselves in mirrors, but just having a genuine sense of who you are and the space that you occupy. Ditch the 'nice guy' persona, and become a respectful guy instead. Listen when people talk. Be kind without needing a reason why. I'm not saying that you shouldn't defend the things you love or that you should let other people take liberties with you, but you should be willing to compromise where necessary.

If you think that women are bitches because they lead you on, just don't let them! If you don't want to spend your weekends listening to women complain about their boyfriends, no-one is making you listen. Stop thinking of yourself as a victim and get a hobby. It will make you seem more interesting, and give you something else to do and to talk about. Have your own life, and live it without worrying about why you don't have a girlfriend.