16 9 / 2014

The final hours of hectic campaigning are underway in Scotland. On Thursday the small European nation has to decide whether it wants to continue being part of the United Kingdom or become independent. The latest polls for the Scottish independence referendum suggest it will be a very close decision.

Is this for real? Another small European state in the making after Slovenia, Slovakia, Montenegro etc? And now a land less populated than metro Atlanta, as NPR points out.

Clearly, the NO campaign (also known as ‘Better Together’) is now deeply concerned that Scottish independence might actually happen and so are prominent economists and the US government.

Former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers, Nobel-prize winning economist Paul Krugman as well as billionaire investor George Soros have all urged  the Scots to say “NO” to independence.

President Obama told Britain’s prime minister Cameron, the United States had a deep interest in ensuring the UK remained "strong, robust and united", although he stressed that the decision on independence was ultimately “up to the people of Scotland”.

Cameron himself just signed a cross-party pledge promising “extensive new powers” for the Scottish Parliament “delivered by the process and to the timetable agreed” by the Conservative Party, Labour, and the Liberal Democrats.

Britain’s entire political establishment must be in full panic mode to offer this obvious bribe at the last minute. Nobody has really prepared for a YES vote: will Scotland be able to keep the pound? Westminster says no. Will Scotland be in the EU? Brussels says no. What form of government will Scotland have? Keep the monarchy like Australia and Canada? How stable will the Scottish economy be? How about the economic impact on the EU?

Small wonder the financial markets are nervous.

So, why do so many Scots want out of the United Kingdom after so many centuries together? Is it a romantic folly which just ignores the possible economic consequences?

The YES campaign actually promises more jobs and benefits and denies any dire economic repercussions.  

Many analysts believe it’s about a younger generation of Scots for whom the shared history of winning World Wars as part of Britain and running a colonial empire has become meaningless when compared to the notion that their nation is being run by English Tories from London.  

Something will have to change. Something has changed already: almost the entire Scottish nation is passionately involved in a political decision when other votes in the past mostly exposed apathy. The turnout on Thursday is expected to be very high.  

24 8 / 2014

Joseph Beuys has long been one of the most controversial modern artists of Germany.

In 2005, The Observer’s Sean O’Hagan called Beuys “fabulist and realist, romantic and activist, a man who made his life into one long, continuous and often seemingly contradictory art performance. Beuys was the last of art’s great 20th-century myth-makers, an artist who, since his death in 1986, has attained mythic status.”

O’Hagan admitted that “we are still trying to work Joseph Beuys out today, even as his ideas have infiltrated contemporary art to the point where we no longer notice them.”

Three artists in Düsseldorf recently came up with an odd idea to “work out” Beuys. They took what was left of a Beuys Fettecke (“Fatty Corner”) - mostly really old butter - and distilled it into liquor!

When Andree Korpys, Dieter Schmal, and Markus Löffler were done, they tasted their potent concoction and at least Löffler detected a hint of parmesan. “But it’s really about the taste of art history,” he said.

They called their message in a bottle Joseph Beuys, Remains of a Fatty Corner destroyed by the Authorities because the 1982 Fettecke, a chunk of butter on display at the Düsseldorf Academy of Art, had been “cleaned up” by a janitor to the horror of Beuys aficionados a mere nine months after the master’s death.

Artist Johannes Stüttgen rescued what he could from the garbage and subsequently claimed the leftovers as his own since Beuys had supposedly told him at the time: “Johannes, I’m finally making a fatty corner for you.”

Last month, Stüttgen allowed his colleagues to turn the Fettecke into “liquid documentation” but Beuys’ widow Eva was not exactly thrilled with the homage and threatened a lawsuit for copyright infringement.

Apparently, she mostly didn’t like the title of the project which has now been changed to Spirit. Remains of the destroyed Fatty Corner by Joseph Beuys.

She also didn’t like that the name of her late husband appeared in bold print, known as “fettgedruckt” or “fat print” in German!

Good thing the warring parties came to an agreement or the fat would really have hit the fire!

Is this the commemoration of a great artist then or a farcical gimmick? Who knows - but some people couldn’t resist calling it what to Germans is known as a “schnapsidee”:  literally an idea induced by the abuse of liquor.

26 7 / 2014

The war of words and sanctions between the West and Russia is going into the next phase.

Almost everybody outside of Russia and the self-declared ‘Donetsk People’s Republic’ in eastern Ukraine believes that Moscow-sponsored separatists shot down a Malaysian airliner nine days ago, causing the death of 298 people.

Many experts think the Soviet-era weapons system used in the attack on MH17 was supplied by the Russian military. Neither the rebels nor Moscow were exactly helpful with the investigation after the crash, either.

Now, the European Union is extending its sanctions against Moscow’s security apparatus. Russia is not amused and has indicated that this move will impact its ability to cooperate in “international and regional security issues”.

The foreign ministry in Moscow generally accuses the Obama administration of launching a "smear campaign" over its alleged involvement in Ukraine, saying it rejects “unfounded public insinuations” from the US government.

US and EU sanctions against Moscow started after the Russian annexation of Crimea in March which is not talked about much anymore. President Putin pretty much got away with that one.  Unfortunately, the Russian leader had to follow up with instigating and arming an uprising in eastern Ukraine as well.

Ukrainian government forces were unable to end the rebellion which is led by characters straight out of a James Bond movie. Most of them are suspected to be Russian intelligence or military or both.

President Obama has called the MH17 incident a “wake-up call for Europe” but significant divisions remain over exactly what types of sanctions should be implemented.

Clearly, accepting the aggressive behavior of Vladimir Putin is unacceptable for the West but letting the new cold war escalate is not a good option, either. And there seems to be very little maneuvering space in between.

28 6 / 2014

Saturday is the 100th anniversary of one of the darkest days in European history. On June 28, 1914, Yugoslav nationalist Gavrilo Princip assassinated Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo, now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina. 

Although his aim was to break off Austria-Hungary’s South-Slav provinces to create a Yugoslav nation, one month later, the terrorist attack triggered a global war, thanks to an intricate system of treaty alliances.

After the Austrian retaliation against Serbia, its ally Russia mobilized, drawing Austria’s ally Germany into the war. Kaiser Wilhelm’s generals fought the Russians in East Prussia but also invaded Belgium and Luxembourg, in order to attack France. This brought the United Kingdom into the war; in November 1914, the Ottoman Empire joined the Central Powers as their ally. The American Expeditionary Force arrived on the Western Front in 1917. Ultimately, there were over 37 million casualties in one of the largest wars in history.

The tangle of alliances which ultimately caused the Great War emerged from the diplomatic maneuvers of the 19th century and were originally designed to prevent war. But by 1914, Germany in particular was happy to force change via the battlefield, expecting easy victories on both the western and eastern front.  

The Kaiser’s hubris led Germany into the disaster of defeat and crushing reparations which paved the road to Hitler, the Holocaust, communism, and another world war even more terrible than the first one.

The map of Europe changed dramatically after World War I, and Princip’s Yugoslavia was one of the new countries to emerge from the vanished empires, although he did not live to see it.

The place where Franz Ferdinand was killed in 1914 now features a billboard reading: “The street corner that started the 20th century.” Yugoslavia didn’t make it to the end of that century and its history still haunts the city of Sarajevo which suffered unspeakable horrors during the bloody breakup of the nation Gavrilo Princip killed and died for.  

26 6 / 2014

European Union leaders are meeting for a summit in Brussels Thursday and Friday to nominate the next European Commission president and to discuss priorities for the next five years following the EU election in May which saw strong results for anti-immigration parties and politicians who want their countries to get out of the EU.

Most everybody wants Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker as the next commission president but Britain’s prime minister David Cameron has made it more than clear that he does not.

His “last stand” against Juncker in Brussels will probably be demanding a vote on Juncker. In that case, Germany’s Angela Merkel wants a majority vote and not a British veto. Berlin supports Juncker.

For the French daily Le Monde, Cameron is engaging in “combat perdu” but it’s popular in Cameron’s homeland where he has to deal with the anti-European UKIP.

So, setting the agenda will boil down to bickering over who gets the EU top job, a “federalist” such a Juncker or maybe someone who support reforms that would make the EU more of a European economic zone rather than a political union.

It looks like the European leadership will once again reinforce the notion of all too many European citizens that the EU is an unaffordably expensive talk shop that cannot arrive at an effective common strategy  - on energy and climate change, for example.

Yes, a 2030 framework for climate policies is on the agenda, too but don’t hold your breath for actionable results on this summit. No sense of urgency here and the continuing Ukraine crisis will probably also be drowned out by British posturing over Juncker.