A spoonful of duckweed helps Brexit go down


In a slight change of direction, I’ve been commissioned to write some science stories over the next few months and that means my inbox is now flooded with Swiss science newsletters. Actually, it’s a great way to start the day, finding out about scientists’ wild and wonderful ideas. The creativity is infectious!

Today brought a press release from Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology about duckweed, aka Wolffia. Two researchers, Cyrill Hess and Melanie Bingelli, want to take this common water plant beloved of ducks, and make it widely available as a superfood for humans. Duckweed contains lots of high-​quality plant proteins and fibre, as well as valuable unsaturated fatty acids. They think it could become a staple for vegetarians, perfect in smoothies or salads, apparently.

Apart from the various challenges the scientists have to overcome in the production process, there is one important administrative hurdle to get over, and it involves the European Union. Hess and Binggeli have to apply for EU approval for Wolffia to be listed as a novel food before it can be sold as a foodstuff. This approval might eventually make the production and sale of the plant economically viable.

If you want to read more about their work, check out the press release here.

So what’s the Brexit connection? I’m getting there. Reading about this exciting research, it struck me, not for the first time, how central the EU is to everything that happens in the European region, scientific research and food production being just two of countless examples.

Switzerland had a free trade agreement with the EEC from 1972, but when the EU single market came along, new arrangements were needed. The plan was for Switzerland (along with fellow neutrals Sweden and Austria) to join the European Economic Area (EEA) in 1992, which would have offered the advantages of EU integration without compromising on sovereignty. But when voters rejected this option, the government had to go back to the drawing board, a bit like the position the British are in now. Membership of the EEA might have made sense for the UK which is obviously much more integrated in the EU economy than Switzerland ever was but, thanks to Teresa May’s red lines, this was ruled out at an early stage after the Brexit vote.

Since 1992, the Swiss have negotiated some 120 bilateral agreements with the EU, a slow and painstaking process. These agreements, along with membership of Schengen, have brought Switzerland very close to full integration. Thanks to the 1999 Agreement on Trade in Agricultural Products, for example, approximately 58% of Swiss agricultural exports went to EU member states in 2018, while about 75% of its agricultural imports came from the EU. Maybe one day duckweed will feature among those exports.

The UK officially leaves to the EU on January 31st and the (in)famous Withdrawal Agreement will be in place until the end of this year. The idea that Boris Johnson’s government wants to negotiate a raft of new agreements governing every aspect of the UK’s future relationship with the EU in 11 months is for the birds. Yet another unnecessary self-imposed deadline that could only be met at great cost to the smaller negotiating partner.

Seeing the distasteful triumphalism of the flag-waving Brexit Party MPs in the European parliament yesterday was yet more evidence of the national delusion at the heart of Brexit. I still can’t understand the appeal of this behaviour although it clearly pleases many British people. Which is why the Johnson regime is running video ads this week in the same style which would have been dismissed as a parody of patriotism just a few short years ago.

As I wrote in The Naked Irish, the long-term effects of Brexit are impossible to predict. Walking away from the world’s largest trading block and all the preferential trading deals it has in place with the rest of the world seems bonkers to any sane observer. I certainly don’t see the UK, one of Europe’s most unequal societies thanks to home-grown policies, becoming a better place for the majority to live in the wake of this decision. No-one wants the population of the UK to go through unnecessary suffering and instability. What’s bad for them is bad for the rest of Europe too, particularly Ireland. It’s a crying shame.

Look, it’s too late for the duckweed lesson. The UK isn’t listening anyway. As the country sails off into the sunset /over the cliff of Brexit, the people I feel sorry for are the other half of the population who have been press-ganged into a future they did not choose.

On a different note, you may be interested in two votes taking place in Switzerland next week. I wrote a piece for The Irish Times about the affordable housing initiative, which shows that housing is an issue everywhere. And fellow Bergli Books author Diccon Bewes wrote a great piece on his blog about the second vote on extending racism law to include homophobia.

Remember the song ‘Be Back Soon’ from the Oliver! musical? That’s stuck in my head now so I hope you don’t mind me passing it on to you 😊

(Photograph: ETH Foundation / Das Bild)

Brexit: disarray and disappointment for Christmas


Brexit has given us another Shakespearean year in British politics and, like many observers, I am simultaneously gripped and dismayed by the drama. I am fully expecting a once-in-a-lifetime thunder storm to accompany the final act, though it is anyone’s guess what that ending will look like.  

For the Irish, there is too much at stake for schadenfreude. The dominant feeling is disbelief that we are witnessing such an extreme public display of incompetence and bad judgment on the part of our former rulers. Whatever we thought of the English, we never considered them to be foolish.

The Brexit project was based on the premise that the EU was bad for the UK and that life outside the union would be much better. The UK’s real, home-grown problems, such as having the highest rate of income inequality in the EU, were ignored in the debate which concentrated on the woolly issue of sovereignty, fuelled by wild economic fantasies.

Leaving the EU is a new concept but it is imaginable, assuming you approach the task with good imagination, good planning and some respect for the rest of the union. That we are where we are today clearly shows the plan had no great minds or vision behind it. It is obvious that the Leave campaign never expected to win. The goal, or the game, was to stir up as much discontent as possible while using the debate as a vessel for grand-standing and disruption. At the end of it all, the Leave campaign has left us with a dated, mean-spirited brand of nationalism in lieu of a workable roadmap for Brexit.

The English and Welsh decision to leave the EU, dragging Scotland and Northern Ireland along, was based on negative, not to mention dishonest, campaigning. The narrative of the European Union as a tyrannous force from which the British have to be liberated is bizarre considering the UK’s influential place in the union and the special exceptions it successfully negotiated over the years.

The EU has many flaws but it is not the enemy. If the British public need an enemy so badly, why don’t they look slightly further afield to the country that revived the practice of annexation in the 21st century?

The vote result showed a profound lack of consideration for others – whether immigrants or the Irish or fellow EU countries – and a lack of understanding of the wider implications, such as who would really benefit from this course of action. Why did Putin, to name one Brexit fan, speak out against a second referendum? Because the first result, actively encouraged by his back office, fits perfectly into his agenda of weakening Europe.

Trade was a big argument in the referendum but the Leave campaign denied how complex and painful severing ties with the EU was bound to be. In the 25 years of the single market, entirely new ways of doing business have evolved based on 28 countries being a single trading space. The pain of undoing that mesh of interdependence will be felt for years.

When it came to the prospect of Northern Ireland being pulled from the EU, the Leavers did not bother with denial, just indifference. Thanks to the single market, a hard-won peace agreement and the (relatively new) good working relationship between the UK and the Republic of Ireland, the island of Ireland has, in many ways, been able to move beyond the border.

Joint membership of the EU goes way beyond trade for Ireland. As part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, we in the Republic voted to remove the territorial claim to Northern Ireland from our constitution. This was conceivable not just because everyone wanted peace so badly but because we were all EU citizens. Being European is an additional, welcome identity that unites us and makes it easier to for the two Irelands to cooperate in healthy ways. The shared identity enhances the links between north and south which can only be a good thing. Taking it away is the most destabilising thing that could be done to Northern Ireland.  

The border is not just a line on a map. For many, north and south it is a scar that in recent years was finally allowed to heal in a context of forgiveness.  The fading of that scar allowed people who had been oppressed by it to feel free, and it took away the legitimacy of paramilitaries. We don’t know what life will look like – economically, emotionally and politically – with the scar cut open again. But we have got the message that the people who voted leave could not care less. 

Historically, the Swiss have also had an ambivalent attitude to the EU, and there is an influential segment of Swiss politics and public opinion that beats the same nativist drum as the Brexiteers. This was the constituency Steve Bannon was seeking out when he came to Zurich in March and praised the delighted audience for being the first to stand up to the EU.

Just like the British isolationists, these Swiss have a superiority complex when it comes to Europe. They believe they are better than other Europeans, sweating away stupidly under the yoke of the evil EU. They knock the EU as a rotten construct while benefitting from its strength and partnership in a myriad of tangible and intangible ways. It is a highly unattractive mix of snobbery combined with a sense of entitlement.

The Swiss are not EU members but their relationship with the EU is so close, complicated and crucial to the smooth functioning and well-being of the nation, that they might as well be.  

As well as intensive contact between people – 17.5 per cent of Swiss residents are EU citizens (not including dual nationals), and 430,000 Swiss live in the EU – Switzerland is hooked on the EU because the single market of 510 million people is its largest trading partner.

Switzerland is part of the Schengen area and ties are increasing rather than diminishing, for example in the area of food safety, public health, research, electricity and CO2 emissions. The raft of bilateral agreements that govern the relationship are in the process of being replaced by one over-arching agreement, though there is resistance from the usual suspects to this pragmatic solution.

And while we are all bitching at each other in Europe, things are evolving quickly on the global stage. Since the phenomenal rise of China, the world now has two great economic and military powers where before there was one. China has no allegiance to Europe or wishy-washy ideas like human rights, and Trump has proven that US sympathy for Europe is only skin deep.

Over the same time period, Russia has been trying to claw back to a strong position since the break-up of the Soviet Union, and while unable to score on economic progress, it has fallen back on dirty tricks and military posturing.

The EU has plenty of shortcomings and often does not live up to its own ideals but we don’t know what life in Europe would be like without it. When it comes to regional trade, the EU is the only game in town. When it comes to geopolitical influence, 28 countries may find it hard to reach consensus but as a group they still manage to play an important role as a global voice for democracy.

Whatever happens in the next three months and beyond, we have no choice as Europeans but to wish the British people well and to hope for a tolerable outcome to Brexit that does not cause undue suffering and instability. The British rejection of the EU, adopting the role of the thankless child, has brought the rest of the family closer together – for now. All is disarray and disappointment this Christmas. Let’s stock up on some good cheer and goodwill before the next instalment of drama in 2019. 

Catching fleas from Bannon, a European view


Six months ago, I sat in a concert hall in Zurich listening to Steve Bannon fantasise about civil unrest, while the audience around me murmured their appreciation in subdued Swiss fashion. Bannon was talking about the new serfdom of the working class, but this was not a gathering of the disadvantaged. Anything but.

For a start, the poor are as rare as hen’s teeth in Switzerland (OK, seven per cent of the population), but more importantly, they don’t come out on a cold weeknight and pay 40 francs to listen to a political speech, especially not during ice hockey season.

No, this was more like an outing of business clubs and retired professionals. As I wrote in The Irish Times, mostly the kind of people you would see in a city’s central business district at lunchtime, minus the young women working in lower paid roles.

It would be nice to dismiss Bannon as a political Ozzy Osbourne (also coming to Zurich soon on tour), just another ageing performer who still needs the attention or the money that a tour generates. But of course, Bannon is more than a performer, he is a master strategist who represents a powerful movement that wants to revolutionise Western society. It is clear that we, the media, need to keep tabs on him but, as the current confusion of inviting and disinviting shows, not clear whether or not to engage with him.

One thing to be very careful of in this context is journalistic ego. When Bannon speaks, the media lights up the stage. The person interviewing him gets a share of the glory. His Swiss host last March, news editor and right-wing populist parliamentarian Roger Köppel, practically swooned with excitement when he came out to introduce Bannon to the 1,400-strong crowd. The ensuing ‘interview’ was so soft it resembled a sponge bath.

Now we have David Remnick of The New Yorker and Zanny Minton Beddoes of The Economist, both struck with the same brilliant idea at the same time of inviting Bannon as speaker.

Remnick invited Bannon to attend The New Yorker Festival in October, for which he would be paid an honorarium. The news became known on September 3, unleashing a storm of criticism. The next day, Remnick rescinded the invitation without actually accepting any of the arguments that had been voiced against his plan. Reading between the lines, Remnick probably hoped to be the one to slay the dragon with his “rigorous interview” skills. While he has now dropped the festival appearance, he intends to interview Bannon again in a more traditionally journalistic setting in future.

Meanwhile, the editor-in-chief of The Economist, Minton Beddoes, is not for turning. Bannon is scheduled to take part in an event on September 15th in the Open Future festival, a 24-hour rolling event in Hong Kong, London and New York.

In a statement issued on the same day as Remnick’s, defending the magazine’s position, Minton Beddoes spoke of the importance of testing ideas in open debate. While she is clear that Bannon’s world view “is antithetical to the liberal values” of The Economist, she maintains that it is nevertheless necessary to engage in a conversation with critics, including the man she describes as one of the chief proponents of nativist nationalism.

Even Köppel echoed this approach. “If he is the devil,” he told the crowd, “we have to interview the devil!”

So what are these ideas we are supposed to test in open debate? One idea is that we, the mainstream media, are the enemy of the people. Early in the show in Zurich, Bannon called for the lights to be turned on and for the “opposition party media” (a nonsensical notion in the Swiss political context) to make themselves known. That was such an alien and disturbing moment for me as a European journalist, and I shudder to think what American journalists have gone through since this media-trashing narrative took hold under Trump.

When he’s not talking about the corrupt global elite, a good part of Bannon’s spiel is plain boasting. If you don’t stop him, he will relive the excitement of the presidential election night, literally hour-by-hour, gleefully listing the order in which the states turned red.

He does not hide the fact that the election was won on the perception that the US was in decline. The goal of the campaign he led was to sow discontent and provide simple solutions – namely a clamp-down on immigration and trade. Trump and Bannon needed voters to believe that the US was in decline and, as we now know, they used very effective social media tools to reinforce that message.

In the more hysterical portion of his Zurich speech, Bannon’s message got a bit murky. He talked about central banks debasing national currencies, and governments debasing citizenship. He proposed cryptocurrency as a silver bullet, a way of bypassing government. And then, surprisingly, he spoke about the threat of data harvesting.

“Your digital identity is extracted from you for free and used behind a cloud of secrecy to enslave you.” A strange line of attack coming from the man who helped found Cambridge Analytica. Strange is one thing, the next level of this conversation of ideas was sinister.

Bannon predicted turmoil and sounded pleased about it. When asked what he would say to people who fear the consequences of popular revolt, Bannon said it was a false choice. “You are not going to have stability. The system cannot continue as it is.”

In a nutshell, Bannon’s world view is that there is either going to be a right-wing revolt or some form of socialist or state capitalism. These are the stakes and he is clearly in favour of what he calls turmoil or unrest, in other words violence. Bannon’s aim is to provoke that revolt and I’m not sure he cares who wins, as long as the fantasy of destruction is fulfilled.

The Economist wants to expose bigotry and prejudice. I share that desire. But can The Economist, and all the other principled journalists, be sure that they are not being played? Bannon is about perception, not facts. He sounds notes at a frequency that is missed by most reasonable people but highly nourishing to his true listeners.

Sadly, the media, myself included, is as incapable of ignoring Steve Bannon as a kitten is of ignoring a dangling string. Our duty is to discuss, to analyse, to tear apart his arguments, and that may include an interview. But allowing Bannon to perform on your stage is another matter, one sure way for the kitten to end up with fleas.