Angela Merkel: The ‘Arab’ chancellor

 
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By Khaled Diab

If Arabs could have voted, Angela Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right.

Monday 25 September 2017

Unlike the ‘Hussein’ in Barack Obama’s name, Angela Merkel Muhammed is not related to a conspiracy theory that the German chancellor is a secret Muslim. Born in August in Münster, the Angela in question is the daughter of a grateful Syrian couple who fled the danger and desolation in their devastated homeland and were granted asylum in Germany in 2015.

Prior to this, like many Arabs on the progressive or leftist end of the political spectrum, I had not been impressed by Merkel’s destructive neo-liberal policies and economic nationalism, most notably demonstrated in her handling of the Greek debt crisis. But Merkel’s willingness to gamble her political future to defend the weak and vulnerable strengthened her image in my eyes.

Although unaware of it herself, Baby Angela embodies the admiration her adult namesake has earned in the Arab world since Merkel defied a sceptical and hostile Europe, and her own conservative and far-right opponents at home, to welcome hundreds of thousands of refugees and migrants in 2015.

While Merkel was being booed by far-right protesters in Germany, Syrians and Arabs were sending her messages of love and admiration on social media. “We will tell our children that Syrian migrants fled their country to come to Europe when Mecca and Muslim lands were closer to them,” one Facebook user reportedly wrote in an expression of gratitude.

Merkel’s principled stance on refugees in the face of stiff opposition and a number of Islamist terrorist attacks earned her a great deal of respect and numerous Arab commentators showered her with praise. “Despite all this, Ms Merkel courageously refused to ‘shut the door’ in the face of any/all asylum seekers found to be legitimate refugees,” wrote London-based journalist Faisal J Abbas in July 2016, while urging Syrian refugees to become more adept at “cultural diplomacy” and “to show more keenness to integrate and respect the culture of their new home countries”.

However, Merkel has subsequently flip-flopped on the issue of refugees, supporting the much-criticised EU-Turkey deal and pursuing similar ‘one in, one out’ deals with North African countries. This may have shored up her support among conservatives at home but has damaged her image somewhat in the Arab world.

The EU’s efforts to block the migrant flow from war-torn Libya, where the central state has completely collapsed, has helped fuel what many witnesses and observers, including the UN, have classed as the emergence of a modern-day slave trade.

Although many Arabs echo the western praise of Merkel as the new ‘leader of the free world’ due to her willingness to stand up to Donald Trump, Arab pro-democracy and human rights activists, as well as opposition figures, are perplexed and critical of Merkel’s willingness to collaborate with dictators and despots to deal with the flow of refugees, to combat terrorism… and to do lucrative business.

While lauded and applauded in the pro-regime Egyptian press, Egyptian President Abdel-fattah al-Sisi’s visit to Germany in 2015 and Merkel’s visit to Egypt in March of this year, drew condemnation from human rights groups and Egyptian opposition figures. “After Merkel’s visit, Sisi is full of confidence that the big hitters have got his back, that they will turn a blind eye to his human rights crimes, with the excuse that he is fighting against terrorism,” wrote Wael Kandil, a journalist and liberal politician who went from opposing ousted Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi to supporting him, becoming an outspoken opponent of Sisi in the process.

Some go even further and see Merkel as not only maintaining a cynical silence in the face of Sisi’s human rights abuses but of being a “tyrant” in her own right. “When it is in a certain direction, selling weapons, plundering economies, manipulating politics, bombing people, [it] is called business, diplomacy or humanitarian military intervention,” wrote Walid el-Houri of Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry, in 2015. “The human cost, the lives destroyed, the blood spilled by the German government, among many others, is no less than that by Sisi’s, and the two are no less than complicit.”

Despite such harsh criticism, Angela Merkel received generally glowing coverage ahead of the forthcoming elections in the Arab press. In the run up to the elections in Germany, many Arabic-language newspapers ran admiring profiles of the chancellor, focusing on her unusual path to power, her early life as a scientist in East Germany, and her apparent frugality and modesty.

Despite my own personal reservations about her economic policies and convenient embracing of certain dictators, this generally positive image resonates with many ordinary Arabs I know. “I like, respect and trust her,” said Marwan El Nashar, an Egyptian comic artist. “As someone who was a minister of women, youth and environment and with a scientific background, she’s [been] able to find a balanced formula in Germany and Europe,” echoes Nancy Sadiq, a Palestinian peace activist.

Judging by such reactions, if Arabs could have voted in this weekend’s federal election, it seems Merkel would have won by a landslide, rather than the embattled situation she currently finds herself in following the shock gains scored by the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

____

A version of this article appeared in German in Die Zeit on 20 September 2017.

 

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Egypt’s dollar woes

 
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By Khaled Diab

Hopes are devaluation will resolve Egypt’s dollar crisis, but the situation could spin out of control without a global currency for international trade.

100le

Monday 11 April 2016

As Egypt’s economy continues to nosedive, the country has been gripped by a chronic dollar crisis in recent months, exacerbated by falling revenues from tourism and the Suez Canal.

The dollar shortage has fuelled inflation and severely hurt importers and domestic manufacturers who depend on imported raw materials or components. For instance, many imported medicines have become totally unaffordable and there is a shortage in locally produced generic alternatives due to the inability to import active ingredients.

The hard currency shortage has even affected the black market, with a number of reports in the Arabic media over hours-long searches for dollars at inflated prices.

To tackle the situation and to cool the overheated black market, the Egyptian Central Bank decided to devalue the Egyptian pound by 13 percent and to sell $198 million to commercial lenders at 8.85LE, from its previous level of 7.73LE.

The Cairo stock exchange, along with financial analysts, was jubilant at the news, recording its largest single-day rise, of 7%, since July 2013, and ending the week a massive 14% up.

However, the effect on Egypt’s long-suffering poor and vulnerable will be far less benign – their underpaid labour has also been devalued.

“Egypt’s poor are enduring the brunt of Egypt’s economic crisis,” observes Timothy Kaldas, a non-resident fellow at the Tahrir Institute for Middle East Policy, in a reference to the high inflation, removal of subsidies, and increased unemployment which have corroded living standards. “The devaluation will undoubtedly increase the cost of certain essential goods, particularly food.”

Continued and worsening hardship for the masses is also bound to hurt the regime. Support for President Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi was predicated on his much-hyped capacity to bring Egypt to a safe port of stability and prosperity.

So far, the Sisi regime has demanded of ordinary Egyptians to tighten their belts, while cushioning the wealthy, has given activists and critics a royal belting, and has been unable to keep a rein on spiralling terrorism and insurgency. In addition, despite escalating repression, industrial action continues to sweep across the country (Arabic).

And this disaffection and instability is only bound to grow if the regime delivers only immense pain and no gain.

The Central Bank’s devaluation and loosening of the official exchange rate may not be enough to salvage the situation if Egyptians continue to face dollar shortages and if those receiving remittances from abroad find better prices on the black market, argues Kaldas.

Central Bank Governor Tarek Amer has vowed to do whatever it takes to keep the currency market in check.

However, the early signs were not promising. Despite the devaluation and dollar injections, the Egyptian pound weakened on the black market, reaching 9.55LE to the dollar shortly after the devaluation, while the devaluation is further fuelling a property bubble. In early April, it stood at 10.30LE, according to Reuters, though the official rate has remained stable at 8.78LE.

This has led financial analysts to expect further cuts in the official rate, with the attendant pain it will cause ordinary Egyptians. JP Morgan forecasts that the Egyptian pound will be devalued by a total of 35%this year, with a projected inflation of 14%.

And as has been demonstrated elsewhere in the world umpteen times in the past, from Argentina to Germany, the situation could easily spiral out of control, if these measures elicit panic rather than confidence, or if speculators run the pound into the ground.

Beyond Egypt’s specific economic woes and poor governance, this points at a deeper, wider malaise: how the global trading system is stacked and loaded against smaller economies.

The main reason Egypt and other countries suffer from “dollar crises” is because the US dollar is the world’s dominant reserve currency and the main medium of international trade, though the euro has closed the gap in recent years.

Obliging smaller and poorer economies to trade in the dollar and other reserve currencies makes them vulnerable to the whims of the currency markets and forex speculators.

In addition, the dollar and euro distort trade in favour of the United States and Europe, enabling them to import and borrow far more cheaply than their fundamentals should allow.

But there are downsides for top-dog economies, such as making their exports less competitive and the inevitable trade deficits caused by the “Triffin Dilemma”. The unnaturally low cost of credit has played a central role in the US’s dangerously high public debt – on which it has come perilously close to defaulting – and contributed to the US subprime crisis and the European sovereign debt crisis.

The solution to this, in my humble view, is the introduction of a single global currency for the purposes of international trade. This would help remove the volatility of currency markets, end speculation, eliminate the currency black markets, and even the global economic playing field.

This is not a new idea. John Maynard Keynes, the legendary British economist, proposed just such a currency as the lynchpin of the post-war economic order, but was torpedoed by American opposition. Following the volatility and crises which have afflicted the global economy in recent years, China, Russia and other emerging powers have also called for just such currency reform.

A world trading currency would not only help stabilise and boost the global economy, it would also reduce the social fallout caused by dollar shortages and the immense inflationary pressures they create.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the updated version of an article which first appeared on Al Jazeera on 28 March 2016.

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Taxing questions about democracy in the Middle East

 
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By Khaled Diab

In the Middle East, there appears to be a link between autocracy and low taxes. Would higher taxation lead to greater representation or repression?

Tuesday 18 August 2015

The only certainties in life are death and taxes, sages, from Benjamin Franklin to Daniel Defoe, have been informing us for centuries.

In the Middle East, death is becoming an ever-more probable prospect of increasing ugliness and savagery. But taxes are a very different matter. Compared with Europe, America and other highly industrialised economies, most of the region’s taxation levels and tax revenue are very low.

The most extreme example are the petroleum-producing states. For example, Saudi Arabia’s total tax revenues account for around 5% of its GDP, while Oman’s is an even lower 2%. This is because most Gulf countries, flush with oil revenues, impose little-to-no taxation on their citizens and corporations.

Even in countries which are not rich in oil, governments impose and, more importantly, collect surprisingly little in the way of taxes compared with their Western counterparts. In Egypt, for example, tax revenue hovers at around 13-14% of GDP, even though the country possesses no sizeable natural resource wealth.

The inability or unwillingness of countries in the region to tax their citizens has far-reaching implications. Although everything from religion and the patriarchy to the deep state and corruption have been explored as causes behind the ongoing failure of the Arab revolutions, the issue of the economic bottom line has received surprisingly scarce attention.

The imposition of taxes by the state was a major factor in the emergence of democracy in Britain and Western Europe. Though it may be largely forgotten today, democratic participation was once contingent on the state’s financial dependence on its citizens. In fact, in its early days, rather than one person, one vote, the democratic system in place resembled more a Democracy Inc, with shareholders instead of equal voters.

For instance, from the 15th century, voting in England was limited to people holding land worth 40 shillings or more, and property was the defining feature of the electoral system until after World War I.

Reflecting how common the notion was that only those who could pay were allowed to play, the prominent Victorian liberal John Stuart Mill argued: “The assembly that votes the taxes, either general or local, should be elected by those who pay something towards the taxes imposed.”

In a way, this is the stage much of the Arab world is at right now, albeit informally. Through backdoors and informal channels, the wealthy and the upper-middle classes can influence the direction of the state and have their rights protected ­– at least far more so than the masses.

Today, the West lives in a more enlightened age and every citizen – whether rich or poor, male or female – possesses an equal right to vote. But the basic premise remains unchanged: the government takes money from the citizenry and so citizens have the right to choose the government and hold it to account.

If taxation is at the core of representation, does the inverse hold: that without taxation, there is no representation?

While numerous complex factors affect the level of authoritarianism in the Middle East, I’m convinced that it is no coincidence that political participation and democracy seem to be (loosely) correlated to the level of taxation.

Viewed in this light, it is unsurprising that the oil-rich states tend to be the most autocratic. This is both because the rentier state, as it is known, is not beholden to its citizens for its survival and because it can use the wealth it has accumulated to purchase influence and silence or ignore demands for reform.

Even non-petroleum countries often depend on resources other than taxes, including foreign aid, mining rights, or revenues from national assets such as the Suez Canal. This results in a situation in which governments are more concerned aabout pleasing foreign corporations and states than their own citizens.

“A basic feature of the social contract in the Arab countries is that the citizen accepts limitations on public representation and state accountability in return for state-provided benefits,” explained the Arab Human Development Report in 2009. “Such a contract is only possible when states have sources of revenue other than direct taxes, such as oil, to finance public expenditure.”

However, in the poorer Arab countries this tacit social pact has broken down, and it is teetering on the verge of collapse in the wealthier states. In fact, it would not be a stretch to say that in the poorer countries, the state plays little to no (positive) role in the lives of its underprivileged citizens.

In Egypt, for instance, the state once provided free education and healthcare of adequate standard, and attempted to guarantee full employment, at least in theory. Today, state schools are ignorance factories, state hospitals are death incubators, and with the public and private sectors in tatters, people are increasingly relying on the informal economy for employment and sustenance. That is why “bread” and “social justice” were two of the revolution’s main demands.

This raises the intriguing question of why it is that, though higher taxation is in the interests of both the state and its citizens, neither side seems terribly interested in broadening the tax base.

On the part of the government, Middle Eastern regimes do not have the authority or credibility to collect more taxes. More importantly, it appears they would generally prefer to enjoy a monopoly on power in an emaciated and failing state than to share power with citizens in a more vibrant, powerful and robust political partnership.

The motives of citizens are more complex. Naturally, taxes are unpopular almost everywhere. In the Middle East, more so. In much of the Ottoman Empire, peasants and workers were heavily taxed under a system known as Ilitizam, or “tax farming”. This double taxation had a devastating effect, such as depopulating entire villages in Egypt.

The situation did not improve with Western rule. After European lenders had helped to bankrupt Egypt during the construction of the Suez Canal, Britain formally occupied Egypt. In a 19th-century version of the Greek debt crisis, Britain handed over Egypt’s public treasury to European banks who swallowed up two-thirds of the state’s revenue.

With high taxation generally leading to no representation, not to mention a great deal of repression, persecution and corruption, it is unsurprising that the people of the region have such a cavalier attitude towards paying taxes. And native governments, with their high level of corruption, mismanagement and incompetence, have not helped raise the credibility of paying taxes in the public eye.

But there are some initial signs of change. Governments across the region are looking to increase their revenues by broadening the tax base. These efforts have mostly focused on indirect taxation, such as sales and consumption taxes, which are easier to levy and require less accountability.

However, indirect taxation is reaching its limits. Egypt, for one, has raised its low income tax level to try to shore up its deficit, especially as aid from its Gulf patrons gradually dries up. Even in the Gulf, a robust debate has begun about the need to raise tax levels to compensate for fluctuating and falling oil revenues. Additionally, it is time for the region to find a new ownership model for natural resources which boosts accountability and places control in the hands of citizens.

While governments are bound to try to impose taxation without real representation, in modern economies, this would require the kind of coercive ability no state in the region possesses. In addition, it will undoubtedly lead, like in the 19th century, to falling tax receipts, as taxpayers collapse out of exhaustion or find ever-more creative ways to evade taxation.

Although taxation alone will not bring about fair representation, manipulated cleverly by the citizenry, it will force the region’s governments to become more accountable and, eventually, more democratic.

____

Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.

This is the extended version of an article which appeared in Haaretz on 11 August 2015.

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A common cents approach to money

 
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By Khaled Diab

With the United States and Europe on the verge of bankruptcy, the time has come to consider a radical solution – a single global currency.

Monday 26 September 2011 

Western economies – and the global economic order they still dominate – seem to be stumbling from one debt crisis to the next: from the sub-prime mortgage crisis, which triggered the whole sorry mess, to the ongoing euro and European sovereign debt crises, not to mention the near-default of the United States on its ballooning foreign debt.

This ocean of debt in which the West is being subsumed is largely due to irresponsible lending – and also borrowing – decisions fuelled by the unprecedented availability of ‘cheap credit’ in consumer-driven societies apparently bent on living beyond their already-considerable means while widening the gap between the haves and have-nots.

Critics have rightly singled out the banks who, in the belief that they had magically eliminated ‘risk’ through financial hocus pocus, have taken us to the edge of the abyss. They were aided and abetted in their pillage by the removal of many of the checks and balances from the international financial system.

But it is not just the architecture of financial markets that is at fault. Not only is the sovereign debt crisis currently being compounded and made worse by financial speculation, the unsustainable levels of sovereign debt on both sides of the Atlantic – with traditional trust in and sentimentality towards the dollar keeping the wolves at bay for now from the United States – are to a large part a product of the current currency regimen.

The United States, especially, and Europe, to a lesser degree, both possess powerful reserve currencies, which is both their fortune and misfortune, owing to the distortionary effects. Their fortune because its attractiveness to the world – both as a medium for international trade and as a reserve currency held by central banks and even individual businesses and citizens – means they can borrow at cheaper rates than they would be able to get if the dollar and euro were just local currencies.

But it has also proven to be their misfortune by providing them with debt that is so cheap that it would’ve been almost insulting to turn it down. In the United States, the effects of the world’s willingness to lend to the treasury has resulted in a situation where four in every 10 dollars spent by the government is borrowed and total public debt is $14.7 trillion, which is roughly equivalent to the country’s annual GDP.

The solutions to the debt crisis so far envisioned or rolled out mostly involve throwing more money, in addition to the trillions already spent or committed, at the system in the hopes of shoring it up and salvaging it, in what has been labelled ‘Keynesian economics’.

But perhaps the ultimate solution is to borrow another of Keynes’s theories, which few are currently considering, and that would be to throw away the existing currency system altogether and replace it with a single global currency, or ‘supranational currency’, which, perhaps unsurprisingly, is supported by the emerging powers of China and Russia.

In the early 1940s, John Maynard Keynes, the legendary British economist, proposed the creation of what he called the ‘Bancor’ which, backed by barter and its value expressed in gold, would be used for international trade transactions, thereby removing the distortions. And, at the Bretton Woods conference, Britain suggested that a supranational currency would be the best option for the post-war world order. The United States, blinded by the idea of the dollar becoming the world’s reference currency, torpedoed the idea.

But as the so-called ‘Triffin dilemma’ highlights, there is a fundamental conflict of interests between a national currency playing the dual role of a global reserve currency, with the inevitable outcome being ballooning deficits.

In addition to addressing this deficit disaster, a single global currency can break the destructive boom and doom cycles we are experiencing increasingly intensively. It will also remove unfair distortions in the global economy, remove the possibility of speculation, and even reduce inflation.

The disappearance of the dollar and, to a lesser extent, the euro in international transactions would ensure that Western economies no longer punch above their weight and developing economies no longer punch below their weights.

The decades-old debt crisis experienced by developing and under-developed countries is not only due to poor lending decisions on the part of international banking institutes and corruption among ruling elites, but also because these debts are payable in dollars and other hard currencies. In order to earn enough dollars to pay off their debts –the enormous interest and the principal amounts – poorer countries are forced to gear their economies towards maximising hard currency-earning exports.

Although critics of a single global currency point to its alleged inflexibility and how it would hinder national governments from adopting appropriate monetary policies, but it would free them up to focus more on economic policy. What critics also overlook is that a single currency, by removing currency volatility, would make international trade more efficient by removing exchange rate distortions, not to mention fairer, by giving an accurate valuation of a country’s economic fundamentals.

A global currency could also be complemented by a global minimum wage.

As a first step in the right direction, a notional, electronic global currency, against which national currencies have fixed exchange rates, could be created to be used on global financial markets and for import/export transactions.

In the longer term, despite the logistical nightmare involved, a physical, single global currency should be the ultimate goal. But unlike the euro, it should come equipped with its own powerful and robust central bank in which all countries, or alternatively regional blocs, should have seats commensurate to their economic size.

A single global currency is not a panacea to the world’s economic woes, but it will make the international trading system fairer and more efficient.

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Feeling Europe’s pain

 
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By Christian Nielsen

All is not well in the old world of organisational paternity, job security and economic rationality. But the silver lining is that we have millions of virtual ‘friends’ to feel our pain.

Friday 9 September 2011

As the networked society lurches from place to platform, and younger generations rail against babyboomer notions of working, saving and, indeed, living, very little of the Europe’s cradle-to-grave social paternity pact looks likely to survive. 

Greeks are on the streets protesting that austerity measures imposed on them as a pre-condition for bailout loans by the European Union and World Bank are crippling the small country. Those with an understanding of economics are claiming it will stimy demand and further hobble the economy’s ability to ‘grow’ itself out of the debt crisis that the Greeks have saddled their children with. 

Rational observers of the situation in other EU member states, but especially Germany, shake their heads in disgust that their hard-earned savings are being squandered on profligate states, in other words ‘lazy good-for-nothings’. But no one is allowed to say that for fear it stirs up the sort of divisions that in the past have led to fragmentations in Europe’s social order, and even wars. 

Portugal and Ireland have also faced harsh economic realities of late, but appear to have taken their medicine with a degree of understanding based on the thinking ‘we probably got ourselves into this in the first place’. 

Facing the ire of the world’s financial markets, the Italians are now also on the ropes. Parliamentary promises of sweeping cuts to bring the country’s bloated debt under control are being watered down by an ineffectual Italian government bent on safeguarding the wealth of the few.

Belgium, the place where the European Union starts – and perhaps ends – is not looking so good either, with markets starting to grow weary of the country’s inability to form a federal government which, as outsider’s perceive, is the only body capable of addressing the small nation’s own financial woes.

Britain’s got its own troubles, both economic and social, which largely coalesce under the banner of ‘what to do about youth disenfranchisement’. Well, more jobs and social mobility would be a start, so the chorus goes.

France, Holland and Germany are trying to pick up the economic pieces, while Spain is doing its best to put its own house in order. And the Nordic bloc are trying to remember why they got themselves into this Union in the first place – though Denmark and Sweden probably knew something by opting out of or neglecting to sign up to the euro. 

Friends like these

With economic stress, the usual issues of health, wellfare and social protection come under serious scrutiny. Younger generations, perhaps with the exception of those in Greece, are largely under no illusions that the systems set up by their parents and grandparents to provide a secure net and a way forward for post-war Europe will serve them equally as well.

Graduates and entrants to the labour market today are increasingly working on ‘contracts’ with minimal perks and protection and maximum ‘flexibility’, as it is no doubt sold to the X and Y generations who, according to Entrepreur  magazine, are sincere in their comittment to jobs but for a ‘limited time’. Employers, who perhaps initially lamented this new twist on company loyalty, are now spinning it to their own good. It costs way too much in most EU countries to hire and fire people under permanent work contracts, so this is a win-win, as they see it.

With this so-called ‘job mobility’ in overdrive – a euphamism for hidden, and even real unemployment – the contributions to Europe’s once highly valued pension and social welfare system are thinner or more fragmented, at best. And then the whole ageing European population argument pops up, which is a ticking timebomb for the current 35 to 50 year-old workers who are like the factory, the factory worker and vaccuum-sealing machine in the corner. This worker bee generation is struggling to pay for the babyboomers who are exiting through the gift shop, their own teenage children’s education and (potentially bleek) future, all the while hearing that the social contributions they are squirelling away may well be a dry well when and if they are ever allowed to retire.

Troubling as this all sounds, there is a silver lining … social networks have apparently got our backs. ‘Job for life’ may not be trending right now, but who the hell cares? We’ve friends for life, millions of them all over the world who ‘like’ us even though we don’t have a job or can’t pay for the next round. In fact, we’re all gurus in our own minds with more ‘followers’ than James Jones ever mustered.

We’ve got faster, better, ‘funner’ smart devices and no shortage of apps to serve our every whim. And there is the whole ‘future internet’ (which is, by the way trending) thingy that promises to unleash the power of all the data we’ve been happily putting out there, joining up stuff, services and infrastructure in a federated wonderland which has the potential to create new business models, more and even better jobs, and the ever-illusive economic growth. Yes, we’re in hommage to the European Commission’s ambitious Digital Agenda.

So, a message to all you belt-tightening Greeks, confused Italians, stoical Swedes, miffed Germans … you’ve got loads of friends who feel your pain, and that’s really all that matters.

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