Monday, January 23, 2017

Brexit may turn Brits into Swedes as we all go lagom

Sweden is perhaps best known for ABBA, The Cardigans, IKEA, meatballs, and Volvos. But the word lagom has entered the British lexicon and is likely to become the epitome of 2017.

Austerity and recession have yet to hit the British economy despite claims by the Remain camp that a vote to leave the EU would lead to economic ruin. But the British pound has crashed since the referendum resulting in a gradual increase in the cost of living. In December inflation rose to 1.6%, up from 1.2% in November and the highest rate since July 2014 [BBC]. And many manufacturers and suppliers are beginning to increase prices as the cost of imports increase.

For those with fluidity and disposable income a rise in the price of fuel, Marmite and a plethora of products made by Unilever and Premier Foods will mean little [BBC].

But there is a certain 'clique' of society who, whilst not scraping a living, will be looking at ways to make cutbacks. And this is where Sweden is making an influence.

Before Brexit the only Swedish words people might have known would be have been those associated with IKEA products.

But in recent weeks there have been countless articles indoctrinating the British public into a very Swedish phenomenon, that of lagom.

Going lagom

Lagom roughly translates as 'just enough' or 'not too little, not too much'. In Sweden it is said to be the philosophy of life. But it is creeping into the UK.

Recently IKEA pushed out a sales pitch on the benefits of lagom entitled "Live Lagom" whilst a Daily Mirror article published last November reported that lagom helped one former student clear her overdraft.

Danny Robbins play Cold Swedish Winter, which focuses on the Swedish way of life and lagom in particular, is being rerun on BBC Radio 4

Meanwhile the Daily Mail reported in its Femail section that lagom has the benefit of bringing happiness.

Hype and conspiracy 

Apparently the Brits all went a little bit Danish in 2016 — snuggling up in hand-knitted blankets, lighting pine-scented candles and sipping hot chocolate.

"We were embracing the cosiness Danes call hygge", the Daily Mail declared. Hygge was, essentially, a lifestyle all about cosiness [BBC]. However some argued the phenomenon was more a conspiracy to sell everything from fluffy socks to cashmere cardigans, wine, wallpaper and vegan shepherd's pie [Guardian].

But whether or not hygge was ever in vogue in 2016 or a conspiracy to increase sales of fluffy socks, the buzzword for 2017 is most definitely lagom.

The year of lagom

Pronounced lar-gom it's one of the most frequently used words in Sweden — you'll eat a lagom amount of food, live in a lagom house and drive a lagom car. In other words, just good enough to enjoy life but not over-the-top or ostentatious [Evening Standard].

Swedes have taken this approach to life with a passion and little if any cynicism. But in a post-Brexit Britain embracing lagom could prove beneficial. It of course might be hard to swallow both for Remainers and Brexiters. Both might argue why one should be 'forced' to change one's lifestyle because of the EU referendum.

But sadly facts are facts - unless one is living in Trump's post-truth world of 'alternative facts' [BBC / Guardian / Independent] and post-Brexit Britain is going to get more expensive.

Apparently the Swedes are happier than us and much is put down to lagom [Huffington Post]. But can Brits embrace lagom?

Whether Living Lagom can sweeten the taste of leaving the EU or merely soften the economic blow remains to be seen. Whilst you mull over these thoughts why not just relax and enjoy another Swedish concept, that of Fika - a coffee break where friends gather, drink coffee and eat cake. Fika is perhaps one instance where you can have your cake and eat it [Evening Standard].

tvnewswatch, London

Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Theresa May sets out her plan for Britain

Theresa May has set out her plan for Britain as she embarks upon leaving the EU [BBC]. But while her speech clarified some details in her Brexit plan, most notably her decision that she would not seek to retain access to the Single Market, other details were less than clear. Indeed for some the plan was more one of hopes and dreams than definite intentions.

No Single Market

In her address the British PM said the UK "cannot possibly" remain within the European single market, as staying in it would mean "not leaving the EU at all".

But the prime minister promised to push for the "freest possible trade" with European countries and to sign new deals with others around the world.

Such a plan would place the UK in a similar position as Canada which has recently signed a free-trade deal with Europe. However such a deal could take up to a decade or more to negotiate.

Customs Union

Whilst she abandoned the idea of retaining access to the single market she said she did wish to negotiate a customs agreement with the EU. Such a plan has been likened to an agreement Turkey has with the EU.

May failed to mention anything concerning the European Free Trade Association [EFTA]. A free trade area is one where there are no tariffs or taxes or quotas on goods and/or services from one country entering another.

The negotiations to establish them can take years and there are normally exceptions. So agriculture and fisheries might be exempted, certain industries protected and some goods may not be covered.

Also imported goods would have to comply with the law of the country they are being sold in. So, for example, you could have a free trade agreement with the US but still a ban on the import of GM foods or different safety standards for electrical goods.

There is a free trade zone in Europe, which the UK helped to create. EFTA, the European Free Trade Association, counts Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and Liechtenstein as members.

The EU has free trade arrangements with many other countries in Europe and beyond, including Turkey and Ukraine and countries that are applying to join the EU.

So how is a customs union different from a free trade area? The key difference is that the countries that club together agree to apply the same tariffs to goods from outside the union.

Once goods have cleared customs in one country they can be shipped to others in the union without further tariffs being imposed [BBC].

Complicated negotiations

But negotiations on such matters could be extremely complicated. Indeed such matters could well be delayed as the EU negotiating team has already stated that matters on trade might not be discussed during the two year period set aside in Article 50.

Last November Michel Barnier, the European Commission's chief Brexit negotiator, said the UK would have only 18 months to negotiate a deal and this would only cover some aspects of the 'divorce' [Guardian].

He made clear that any trade arrangement was of a "different legal nature" to a withdrawal agreement and would take longer to agree than divorce. "You cannot do everything in 15-18 months of negotiations; you have to take things in the right order," he said. The sequence of talks is significant because British ministers had hoped to complete a trade deal in short order with the EU, or at least have clarity on transition arrangements within the first year of Brexit negotiations at the latest, so that businesses have time to prepare [FT].

Thus it is still not clear what Theresa May can negotiate for in the 18 months following the triggering of Article 50, nor what she will be able to walk away with.

WTO option

Some have also raised concerns that the PM's approach could create friction with the WTO. Emma Reynolds, MP for Wolverhampton North East, tweeted, "PM's middle way on customs union could fall foul of WTO rules, customs union must cover the majority of trade between two countries."

This would not bode well for Britain especially if, as some believe, the country resorts to WTO rules, often referred to as a hard or diamond-hard Brexit.

May has already made clear that no deal, with the EU, is better than a bad deal. But should the UK fall back on WTO tariffs British industry could be hit very badly.

Speaking at the International Trade Committee Mike Hawes from the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders said going to WTO rules "could threaten the viability of the UK automotive sector" with some £1,500 added to the cost of each car sold.

Moreover, leaving customs union would result in additional costs because of delays to parts deliveries sourced from elsewhere in Europe. European manufacturers might see the European market as more important than UK market and thus EU manufacturers would "align with political imperative of their home country".

In addition current UK-built cars do not have enough "local content" to abide by free trade agreements, because of current level of EU made parts.

Political fallout

While the pound gained on the back of May's speech there was fallout too on the likely prospect Britain head for a hard Brexit. The Italian daily La Repubblica commented, "Out of the EU, out of common market, out of everything. It appears that Theresa May's intention through negotiations with the EU at the end of March is 'a hard Brexit' - a very hard Brexit indeed." [BBC]  

German firms were reported to scale back investment in the UK as it heads for a 'hard brexit', according to Germany's Chamber of Commerce and Industry [DIHK].

"There now will be less investment from German companies in Britain," Volker Treier, head of the DIHK's trade division, told Reuters.

He also said that a hard Brexit would impair growth both in Britain and the rest of Europe, and that the UK would probably become less important for Germany as export destination.

Meanwhile the Czech Europe Minister, Tomas Prouza, tweeted "UK's plan seems a bit ambitious" and appeared to criticise the apparent 'cake and eat it approach' espoused by May. "Trade as free as possible, full control on immigration... where is the give for all the take?" he asked.

May's plans were also criticised by Guy Verhofstadt, named as the European Parliament's lead negotiator on Brexit [Twitter].

It was an "illusion" for Theresa May to suggest "that you can go out of the single market, that you can go out of the customs union and that you can cherry-pick, that you can have still a number of advantages - I think that will not happen".

Michael Fuchs, a close conservative ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, also accused Theresa May of "cherry-picking".

Creating a tax haven

As for Britain's politicians they were essentially split into two camps with those in the leave camp waving flags whilst those on the other side sought to pick holes in the PM's speech.

Lib Dem leader Tim Farron was quick to criticise May's announcement that Britain would quit the single market, saying it would be bad for jobs and industry [Twitter]. Writing in the Guardian he added it amounted to "a mixture of vague fantasies, and toothless threats to our nearest neighbours."   

Meanwhile Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said Theresa May was determined to use Brexit to strip away workers rights and turn the UK into a tax haven [Independent].

Theresa May might have a plan, but she is still stepping into a minefield with no clear path and no determinate length.

It appears clear to some however that May's vision might just be a tax haven on Europe's doorstep. In an interview with a German newspaper Welt am Sonntag, the Chancellor Philip Hammond said the UK is willing to do "whatever we have to" to bounce back after Brexit even if it meant ripping up its economic model and become the tax haven of Europe [Independent].

The Dutch daily Algemeen Dagblad called the prime minister's speech "not just a bit of Brexit but the full whack".

"Bye bye EU... the unspoken, big threat from London is creating a tax paradise in front of the gates of Europe," it said.

tvnewswatch, London

Tuesday, January 03, 2017

2017 - A not so happy start to the new year

Many people focus on the new year as a cause for celebration. But for a lot of people it can create more than a few problems. Some might look back on the year and, thinking of the bad or tumultuous events, will feel less than enthusiastic about celebrating.

One could also look back on a bad year and, after reflection, come to the conclusion that "things can only get better". 

The song with the same refrain was famously used when Tony Blair won Labour's 1997 General Election. But when it was recently played at a Labour party event the current leader Jeremy Corbyn was reportedly less than impressed, although some dispute these accounts [Mirror]. Whatever the truth of those events, Corbyn will be even less impressed by polls published soon after the new year celebrations which indicate Labour is on course to win fewer than 200 seats for the first time since 1935 in any future election [BBC].

2017 had barely started before violence marred the festivities. As the midnight clock chimed and the world welcomed in 2017 the celebrations were marred with violence as an Islamic State terrorist burst into a Turkish night club in Istanbul killing 39 and injuring many others [BBC / CNN].

Hundreds woke up in France to find their cars torched in what had become has become an annular display of protest in deprived cities across the region [The Local]. The figures were up on last year which had seen a drop in the number of such incidents [BBC]. According to the French interior ministry, the total of 945, which included cars that were either "totally destroyed" or "more lightly affected", amounted to a 17% compared to 2016 [Telegraph].

There were no such scenes of violence in London or across Britain, although there were some fights and drunken brawls [Daily Mail]. Meanwhile security services, concerned that terrorists might strike, prompted increased security patrols [The Sun].

While cars burned in France, it was the New Year performances by well-known stars that raised temperatures in Britain and the US.

In Britain the singer Robbie Williams welcomed in the new year with a live performance on the BBC. But even his fans felt somewhat disappointed especially by his singing which was rather flat and out of tune. "Wow, Robbie Williams nearly hit some of the right notes in that last song!" one viewer exclaimed on Twitter.

Jokes about his daughter's vagina and attempts at humour by swearing on the BBC were also considered somewhat poor taste and childish. "I'm sorry @robbiewilliams but that "vagina" gag was despicable" Mr J in the UK tweeted whilst Katherine posted, "I'm really confused as to why Robbie Williams decided New Years was the time to discuss not taking pics with fans & his daughter's vagina???"

Others were also perturbed over his use of hand sanitiser on New Year's Eve after shaking hands with fans. One viewer tweeted "Robbie Williams sanitising his hand after touching the public is the most hysterical start to a new year ever. The year of memes commences."

The singer has responded to the incident by posting a tongue in cheek video in which he hugs a woman before reaching for a large bottle of sanitiser and shudders as he rubs it into his hands [Evening Standard].

Hours later Mariah Carey created an even bigger reaction on social media after technical issues made her look less than professional as she struggled to lip sync to some of her well known hits [BBC / Telegraph]. Video footage of the disastrous performance has been pulled from many news websites over legal rights issues although clips are still on YouTube.

Of course such things pale into insignificance when looked at the backdrop of New Year terror attacks that struck Turkey and Iraq [Wikipedia / Reuters].

But wherever one was as 2017 began, it did seem to start on a rather sour note.

Let's hope that things do get better as the aforementioned song refrains.

tvnewswatch, London