Live And Learn

Pete North recently wrote a series of tweets about the virtues of blogging. What I found particularly interesting were the characteristics he described which distinguish blogging from legacy journalism.

The idea that “learning is a collaborative effort” and that “blogging is opening up a dialogue for cross-pollination of ideas” particularly chimed with me.

In the past I have drawn comparisons to the collaborative style of communication blogging encourages and the open source software movement.

This is another tricky subject. The “technology industry” as people now call IT (roads and writing are also technology, ed.) is full of techno-utopians who appear to think that applying Silicon Valley fads to subjects outside the domain of software design will solve all of the world’s problems.

I appreciate the danger of taking ideas from one domain and using them to describe another, but in the case of blogging and open source software I think that the domains are (or can be) quite similar. The similarities are especially apparent when you are writing about technical subjects or matters of fact and you are aiming for accuracy. Comments can help you debug your blog posts.

To that end, my previous blog post has so far prompted two responses. The first, a pertinent question, with a (hopefully) clarifying answer.

The commenter asks, “In the EU Treaties does the term “third country” not relate to a country which is not a member state of the Union?” In this particular case, I am nearly certain that the commenter in question already knows that the answer to that particular query is, “yes”. In the context of the EU treaties, the term “third country” is used to refer to any sovereign state that is not also an EU Member State.

Fine. That’s nice and clear. This being the EU, however, the matter does not end there.

As I wrote in my previous post:

To clarify, “third-country” is a value-neutral term, used by the EU to describe any country that does not participate in the Single Market. If the UK leaves the EU and does not negotiate to join EFTA, so as to participate in the EEA agreement, the UK will become a third-country.

At the risk of belabouring the point, I will note that, as already mentioned, in the EU treaties the term “third country” is used to describe an non-EU Member State, whereas above, I am using the term “third-country” to describe any state that does not participate in the Single Market.

So, was I wrong to use the term “third-country” in that particular context? The short answer is, “I don’t think so”. In all honesty, the division is not as clear as one might like, although I do think it is possible for people of good faith to agree a common understanding of the term, thereby allowing debate to move forward.

The complication stems, at least in part, from the fact that the European Commission uses the term “third country” to mean both countries that are not in the EU and countries that are not in the EEA, which also includes three EFTA members (namely, Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein).

One such example is the Data Protection Directive, guidelines for which are provided here. The discrepancy arises, I suspect, from the fact that the three EFTA countries that participate in the EEA agreement are not considered “third countries” in matters covered by the EEA (Single Market) acquis.

Even the way in which the term Single Market is used is something of a movable feast. Amidst this confusion, however, lie the seeds of a solution. The fact that even the EU struggles to clearly articulate a coherent vision of its neighbourhood policy would appear to indicate that a British government imbued with a proper sense of purpose could present Brexit as an opportunity to build something much better.

Opinions Are Like

I cannot recall ever feeling so disconnected from the political process.

Since becoming politically conscious, I have always enjoyed thinking about and discussing political issues.

For a long time, I used to watch Question Time every Thursday and listen to Any Questions every Saturday. I don’t think that I have tuned into either show for at least the last three years now.

As a result, I am sure that I miss some things. But, once you acquire more than a surface-level knowledge about a topic, you quickly discover that politicians and journalists rarely know very much about the topics they discuss on programmes like Question Time and Any Questions.

Of course, politics is a vast subject and politicians, especially those who appear regularly in the legacy media, are invited to talk about all manner of things. However, I do not think it is unreasonable to expect a basic level of competence and a willingness to learn more—and it is in terms of that willingness to learn more that our national debate is really lacking.

Nearly one year after the EU referendum and nearly two years since the David Cameron led Conservative Party won an overall majority in the House of Commons, committing the then Prime Minister to honour a very firm manifesto commitment to give the British electorate the option to vote on whether the UK should remain in or leave the European Union, I am still seeing the same few slogans and talking points repeated.

Even the invocation of Article 50 does not appear to have triggered any significant degree of self-reflection.

Every few days, I will see a former Remainer say that Norway has “no say” over Single Market rules. That lie has been comprehensively debunked on this and related blogs more times than I care to consider. Demonstrating that the nations which comprise the EFTA pillar of the EEA agreement have a say in the formulation of Single Market rules sets an extraordinarily low bar.

The necessary information is prominently displayed on the EFTA website, which, one might think, would be a good place to look for information about EFTA. In what universe is it acceptable for politicians, journalists and even academics—some of which claim to be subject matter experts!—to not know this stuff? The people who now occupy those roles are failing in their responsibility to shape, guide and inform public debate.

Instead, what passes for political debate in this country is dominated by people with opinions. I suspect that I could make a coherent argument explaining how this absence of aptitude is born of so many years of politicians, journalists and academics being at least partially shielded from the realities of governance as a result of the presence of supranational EU institutions, which have been invited to do so much of this necessary work on behalf of the “political class”.

I could do that. But that would require evidence and, why bother, right? People don’t appear to be able to tell the difference between evidence and opinion, regardless.

A good case in point is Angela Merkel’s assertion that, upon leaving the EU, the UK will become a third-country. A standard response I have seen in several places says something along the lines of, “Who can say? Maybe we will, maybe we won’t, that will depend upon the negotiation”.

That way of thinking betrays a fundamental misunderstanding. In fact, the misunderstanding is so fundamental that it is difficult to correct. One finds oneself merely repeating the same words over and over again (sometimes in a slightly different order).

To clarify, “third-country” is a value-neutral term, used by the EU to describe any country that does not participate in the Single Market. If the UK leaves the EU and does not negotiate to join EFTA, so as to participate in the EEA agreement, the UK will become a third-country.

See what I mean about repetition?

This is not a matter of opinion, something that is “up for grabs” or “subject to negotiation”. Presently, there are only two ways to avoid third-country status; one is to be in the EU, and the other is to be in EFTA. However, because Theresa May has “ruled out” that course of action, the legacy media does not see fit to provide any of that context.

Instead, we have severely under-informed and ill-informed people offering opinions with little or no basis in fact and as far as they are concerned their opinion is as valid as any other because who knows how the negotiations will go or what we can agree with the EU as part of the Article 50 talks, it’s only a matter of opinion after all.