CETA ratified by the Netherlands thanks to the Labor Party Senate faction

I frowned when I noticed that Mei-Li Vos was nominated again as the party chairwoman of the Dutch Labor Party (abbreviated PvdA in Dutch) in the Senate. This nomination was approved by the members of the PvdA. The election of the senators still has to take place on 30 May, but this is a formality since the PvdA acquired sufficient seats in the provincial council elections earlier this year. Mei Li Vos will again become the chairwoman, even though she was responsible for the disgrace of approving the CETA free-trade agreement on 12 July 2022. The PvdA faction in the House of Representatives and the members of the party were opposed to approval. The Senate faction of the Dutch Green Party (GroenLinks), with which the PvdA Senate faction wants to merge, also voted against approval. The GroenLinks Senate faction criticized the PvdA during the voting, but that was all. What followed was a deafening silence with both parties about the disagreement, as if both wanted to avoid that this issue would derail the intended fusion of both parties.

I’ve written about CETA before. In principle I’m not opposed to a free-trade agreement with Canada, but it’s the Investment Court System (ICS) which I have a problem with. This a parallel court system which is only accessible to investors. This is strange, because the ordinary justice system in the EU and Canada is functioning fine. Why ICS is such a bad idea has been explained well by legal experts several years ago. Shortly before the vote in the Senate four members of the PvdA with expertise on the subject appealed to the PvdA Senate faction to vote against the treaty for similar reasons. Many others have done so as well. The Senate faction under the leadership of Mei-Li Vos ignored all those pleas and voted for approval anyway. Of course you can claim that the Senate faction has its own considerations, but if your colleagues in the House of Representatives, your members and GroenLinks are against the treaty voting in favor of it is an embarrassment. The board of the party could have pressured them by refusing a new term for the senators if they didn’t follow the party line. The members could have voted against the nomination of the senators for a new term. Both did nothing and were indifferent. This angers me and harms my support for the proposed fusion of both parties.

The senators wrote an opinion piece to explain why they would vote in favor of the treaty. The argument that improving the ties with Canada is good because of the war in Ukraine comes across as weak. There is no excuse to approve a bad treaty because of that war since there is no need to hurry. If CETA were to be dismissed, it is likely that a new treaty would be designed without ICS and other controversial elements. If criticism of the treaty is met with change there would be more support for it and a greater chance that a modified treaty would be approved. I’m not well informed enough to analyze the other arguments, but I get the impression that the PvdA senators allowed themselves to be manipulated by the pro-CETA lobby with all kinds of weak promises which aren’t legally binding. I have more confidence in all legal experts who say that CETA is no good than a PvdA senator like Ruud Koole, a political scientist, who says it’s not that bad.

On the other hand something could be said for the argument that we shouldn’t block the treaty if so many other EU member states and the European Parliament have already approved the treaty. This is the line of thought in an editorial comment in my newspaper, the Volkskrant. Let’s be honest that the ratification process for this treaty is painfully slow. The European Parliament approved CETA on 15 February 2017. CETA is now being applied provisionally, without the investment protection provided by the ICS, while some EU member states still have to ratify the treaty. It would be better if the EU would work more efficiently and approval of the European Parliament is adequate to implement a free-trade agreement. In the case of CETA we would be disappointed, but the European Parliament would mean something and would be more carefully followed by the European voters. If the PvdA senate faction had said they were unhappy with the treaty but approved because they valued the European consensus and efficient decision making, I could at least have tolerated their decision somewhat. But with such weak arguments this is impossible. All I can see now is that the PvdA Senate faction is full of naive weaklings which just follow the lobbyists and the coalition which is currently in power.

There still is a chance that CETA can be stopped because multiple EU member states, including France and Italy, still have to ratify it. If CETA were to be approved, I predict that we will regret it. The Dutch government announced on 18 October 2022 that it would withdraw from the Energy Charter Treaty because energy companies abuse it by filing huge damage claims against participating states. The politicians don’t seem to learn from past mistakes.

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One year after the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022

The incredible depravity of the Russian Armed Forces knows no bounds. Last year I was sickened when I read that a 96-year-old Holocaust survivor was killed during the shelling of Kharkiv in March. I was angered when I read about the Bucha massacre in April. But I became truly incensed when I read about the death of Serhii, a 2-day-old who was killed by a Russian cruise missile strike on a hospital in Vilnyansk last November.

Murdering newborns and babies has been an unthinkable crime since the Massacre of the Innocents two millennia ago. While most historians now consider the Massacre of the Innocents to be a myth, the Russian Armed Forces are doing this structurally and deliberately in Ukraine. Serhii wasn’t the first and most likely won’t be the last.

What makes this special for me is the story on Serhii’s death in the Washington Post (linked here above). I tend to get used to the shorter news stories on Ukrainian casualties, but the details in this story make it personal and deeply hit me emotionally. Unlike the adults who were massacred in Bucha, Serhii wasn’t even able to grow up and enjoy life. He never got the opportunity to play with his friends or enjoy a holiday with his family. All of it was deliberately denied to him by the Russian military.

What kind of twisted mind does it take to deliberately target hospitals with cruise missiles, knowing full well that newborns may die? At the top of the Russian chain of command is Vladimir Putin, a man who has two daughters himself. Lower in the chain of command we have the ‘remote control killers’, the military engineers who plan the flight paths of the Russian cruise missiles aimed at Ukraine. Bellingcat investigated them and published a report which included some social media photos of these people. If we look closely we can see two of these military engineers look like ordinary family men, who have little children as well. Putin may be a psychopath according to some psychologists, but I find it difficult to comprehend why those military engineers have no qualms about destroying hospitals.

It all comes down to the age old question of why people are evil. After looking for answers, I thought the explanation given by the famous social psychologist Roy F. Baumeister was the most interesting. He dismisses the existence of pure evil because he thinks evil deeds are caused by many complex factors.

If I apply Baumeister’s explanation to these cases, Putin probably doesn’t even consider his action to be evil. In his eyes the West is ganging up on him, expanding NATO and infringing upon the Russian sphere of influence. He constantly argues that Russia is the victim of Western hostility and has to defend itself. His egotism took a blow when the Soviet Union was dissolved, so he feels justified in his mission to ‘restore the empire of Peter the Great’. The military engineers probably don’t share this ideological motivation, but have more ordinary reasons. They just want to collect their paycheck and don’t want to loose their jobs. They can hide behind the ‘just following orders’ defense and work at great distance from the carnage of the battlefield in Ukraine. They can deceive themselves with the fact that they are small cogs in the Russian war machine and that someone else presses the button to actually launch the cruise missile. Due to all the state propaganda in Russia they might not even take notice of the suffering they cause.

But make no mistake, despite my attempt to understand the evil of the Russian military, I have no compassion for them. There is no excuse for killing newborns, other war crimes and starting wars of conquest. Putin, his accomplishes and the Russian military do the devil’s work. They are vermin which needs to be eradicated from Ukrainian soil.

It’s hopeful to see that this eradication effort is still going strong since I wrote about the Russo-Ukrainian War the last time. Ukrainian counteroffensives were successful while the Russians kept making mistakes and turned out to be poor students of history. The campaign to break Ukrainian morale by destroying civilian and energy infrastructure failed, just like the Blitz during the Second World War failed. Russia incurs huge casualties in its slow conquest of strategically insignificant Bakhmut, which is reminiscent of the German obsession with Stalingrad during the Second World War.

If Russia persists in this unsuccessful war for them, its current dictatorial regime might find itself overthrown like the Russian Provisional Government during the February Revolution of 1917. Russia’s setbacks during the First World War were an important cause of that revolution. History has taught us that even small events can have great effects. Even when dictators consider their hold on power secure, they can still be surprisingly deposed and executed like Ceaușescu during the Romanian Revolution. One plot or one mistake by the Russian regime might be all it takes for another Russian Revolution.

At the same time, I feel ashamed and privileged to live in peace in the Netherlands while Ukrainians from my age are fighting the Russians on the front. If I did not have obligations to my family and work over here, I might have been tempted to join the Ukrainian military myself. In my circumstances I decided to simply donate to the Ukrainian Armed Forces through the National Bank of Ukraine last year. I hope my readers can do so as well. Understand that even the smallest donation helps. I intend to make a second donation this year.

While the support from Western states for Ukraine is encouraging, I still feel a lot more could be done. The current deliveries of Leopard 2 tanks seem to be pitiful compared to to the number of active tanks in European armies. It’s not like the Europeans need these tanks themselves, so it’s disappointing to see weak excuses being made for not sending them to Ukraine. Greece for example possesses the largest number of Leopards in Europe, hundreds of them, but refused to send any of them to Ukraine. The excuse is that it needs those tanks for its own defense, while stating at the same time that it’s not worried about possible conflict with Turkey. As if conflict between these two NATO-members was even remotely likely, regardless of their strained relations. I hope the war ends soon after a Ukrainian victory, but this reluctance of its allies to fully commit is frustrating and costs Ukrainian lives.

Finally, there is one more thing I must discuss. Let’s ostracize Russia as thoroughly as possible from the international community. That includes Russian athletes. A compromise which allows them to participate under a neutral flag may be better than their own flag, but it’s still a sham. You can’t expect Ukrainian athletes to compete with Russians while the Russian military is ravaging their country. If Russian athletes still want to compete, they should demonstrate their disapproval of Russia’s war by migrating. The ATP and WTP international tennis organizations don’t understand this. The same goes for the International Olympic Comitttee, with its deluded chairman Thomas Bach. Bach thinks the Olympic Games promote peace and complains that the Olympic Games are being politicized by efforts to ban Russians. He completely forgot the politicization of the 1936 Summer Olympics and how ineffective it was in promoting peace. You can’t separate politics and sports, as a more recent example like the 2022 FIFA World Cup in Qatar shows. Let’s see how the plan of the mayor of Paris to ban Russians from the 2024 Summer Olympics in that city holds up. If it doesn’t hold up, we should go as far as to boycott the 2024 Summer Olympics, as should have been done in 1936.

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Green politicians have an exemplary role

This is a subject which kept me busy years ago, but which I’d still like to discuss now. Several years ago the party leader of the local GroenLinks party (the green party of the Netherlands) in The Hague wrote on his weblog that he had been on holiday to Japan. This was and is contrary to the environmentalist political positions espoused by GroenLinks, which include reducing air traffic at Schiphol Airport and not opening Lelystad Airport. No one agrees with every political position of their party, but it’s disturbing when leading GroenLinks politicians make choices which go against the party line regarding this issue. Environmentalism is one of the founding principles of GroenLinks and air traffic contributes disproportionately to climate change. GroenLinks politicians (should) know this.

When I asked this party leader during a meeting how he dealt with this inconsistency, he bluntly replied that he considered this a personal choice. Shortly after a leadership election had been held by GroenLinks The Hague I asked the new party leader what her stance on this issue was in January 2022. Ideally I had asked this question during the debates of the leadership election, but I could not attend these due to my agenda.

This new party leader also thought it was a personal choice and argued that we shouldn’t judge others for using holiday flights. She didn’t say whether she used holiday flights herself. I ascertained that we disagreed on this matter, but that I would still vote for her in the municipal elections. There was more which connected us than what separated us, after all. However, if I had been able to ask the question during the leadership election debate and I didnn’t like the answer, I might have voted for a different candidate than the one who won the election.

I object to the opinion that this is a ‘personal choice’. It may be one in name, but not in substance. It is not personal because the choice will disadvantage others. The kerosene burnt by aircraft engines ends up the air which we all breathe. We all suffer from the dangerous climate change caused by the combustion of kerosene. The local residents around Schiphol Airport live suffer from noise pollution and health risks due to higher concentrations of particulate matter there. If you choose a flight, you choose for others as well.

In a different sense the choice is not personal because it will have electoral effects for GroenLinks. What would happen if the party leader of the orthodox Protestant SGP turned out to be Catholic? Or if the party leader of the Islam-oriented party DENK would not adhere to the rules of the Ramadan? Or if the party leader of the Party for the Animals would eat meat? Outrage would follow and those party leader would probably have to step down or would not be reelected.

Boarding a holiday flight is apparently not considered such a grave error by environmentalist political parties. Even so, when even the national GroenLinks party leader Jesse Klaver uses a flight, this news is picked up by a Dutch right-wing populist weblog like GeenStijl. Klaver is reported to have taken a flight to Barcelona, particularly a journey which could have been done by train within one day from the Netherlands. It is no surprise that Klaver is accused of hypocrisy and that this is electorally damaging to GroenLinks. Potential voters could be discouraged from voting for GroenLinks after reading such reporting. This is how the party’s interest can be damaged from a ‘personal choice’ by a GroenLinks politician.

Likewise the D66 party leader Rob Jetten, who took pride in being considered a ‘klimaatdrammer’ (climate nagger) by his opponents, was criticized in the House of Representatives over his use of flights by the right-wing PVV party leader Geert Wilders. Jetten acknowledges that he uses flights because he sometimes has no alternatives, plays down his frequency of use and then says that higher taxes on flights could solve the problem. Wilders unsurprisingly counters that Jetten can easily pay the extra taxes while this is harder for the ordinary Dutch citizen. Here many will identify with Wilders’ argument that Jetten is a hypocrite. I’m not convinced at all that Jetten sometimes doesn’t have alternatives: many of his flights were for holidays far away and not for business. Holidays can easily be enjoyed closer to home with the train. And those business flights can easily be replaced by phone or video calls.

I’m not perfect myself. In 2015 I took a holiday flight for the last time, to Turkey. Since then it became clear to me that I could not justify flights any longer due to climate change. Because of this I resolved to never set foor in an aircraft again. This may mean that a holiday to India or Indonesia is practically impossible, but that is something I have to live with. Other holiday destinations in Europe are fine too and can be reached easily by train. We have to learn to be satisfied with less.

I usually don’t criticize others when they tell me they used flight to get to their holiday destination. If they ask me about my choice for holidays with the train I explain them my position, without judging. I don’t think you should expect activism from the average person because flying has become so normal and the government facilitates this by not levying taxes over kerosene.

I hold GroenLinks politicians to higher standards. Especially they should realize they have an exemplary role. Why should the average person fly less when they see that even Jesse Klaver flies? When you have this exemplary role you have to be willing to make sacrifices. You have to able to let the interests of the climate and your party prevail over your personal preferences.

In the future I will continue scrutinizing GroenLinks politicians over this subject in internal elections. I will weigh their position on this issue in my voting behavior. If more GroenLinks members care about this it will possibly bring about change.

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The Dutch response to the Russian gas cutoff is too late and too weak

On Monday 20 June the Dutch cabinet decided to turn op the coal power plants because we might face gas shortages in the winter now that Russia stopped its gas deliveries. While this may have been partially inevitable on the short term, the cabinet made the wrong choices and has been very naive.

First a short timeline. On 24 February the Russian invasion of Ukraine started. On 1 April the director of Gasunie Transport Service said that the Russian threats to halt gas deliveries were taken seriously. If Russia would stop deliveries there would be no escape from cutting off Dutch industry from gas, he said. On 8 april research agency Kalavasta revealed that The Netherlands pays approximately € 30 million for Russian gas on a daily basis. Meanwhile all kinds of sanctions had been imposed on Russia by the EU (with Dutch approval), but gas was still excluded. On 27 April Poland and Bulgaria were cut off from Russian gas. The Netherlands followed on 31 May.

Instead of making the choice to stop buying Russian gas ourselves, Russia made it easy and made that choice for us. It’s embarassing that the Russians were one step ahead of us and we didn’t make a conscious choice to do so ourselves. We should have made that choice already when Russia annexed the Crimea in 2014, or at least in the first days after the invasion of Ukraine in 2022. Everyone with some common sense should have seen it coming that Russia would start blackmailing us with our dependency on their gas if we would support Ukraine. It’s also clear that by buying Russian gas we financed the Russian invasion of Ukraine indirectly. But the cabinet did nothing.

Instead of firing up coal power plants the cabinet could have decided to implement painful measures to strongly reduce gas consumption directly after the invasion. Then our gas storages would have been filled at higher levels and increasing supply from coal power plants may not have been necessary. On 19 April a motion was filed by the Dutch political party GroenLinks which requested the government to ban the use of gas in greenhouses for floriculture. With the war and climate crisis the use of valuable gas for floriculture couldn’t be justified, according to the motion. Unfortunately the motion was rejected by the House of Representatives.

The answer of the lobby was predictable. Glastuinbouw Nederland gave arguments which are hard to follow, such as that the green transition is impossible without floriculture and that floriculture is necessary for innovation in the greenhouse sector. How do you advance the green transition by consuming gas and why can’t you innovate in the greenhouse sector with just vegetables and fruits? One of these floriculture lobbyists doesn’t shy from exaggerating, arguing that flowers and plants supplied by floriculture are essential to our mental health. There’s no doubt that our ancestors who had no floriculture must have all been severely depressed during the winters, when they couldn’t buy flowers at all.

This is illustrative for the actions of this cabinet and a large part of the Dutch population. Total unwillingness to deal with even the slightest of painful measures. ‘Painful’ is actually a misnomer, it’s more appropriate to speak of reducing our self-indulgence. Next to giving up on floriculture there are many other easy measures to devise for quickly reducing gas consumption.

We should stop with floriculture and use those greenhouses to cultivate vegetables or fruits without fossil fuels. Ban patio heaters and ban heated shops with permanently opened doors. Ban artificial ice rinks and let those who want to go ice skating take train to colder places in Europe where they can do so outdoors. Rebuild heated swimming pools to outdoor swimming pools where water will warm up naturally for five months of the year. If you insist on swimming in the winter, just use a wetsuit. While such choices are hard and will face resistance, they would deliver. An obligation to replace domestic gas boilers with (hybrid) heat pumps from 2026 onwards is not going to help us right now.

There are of course many people who have difficulties with paying their energy bill. We have to support this group financially of course. But on the matters I’ve discussed above it is possible to give up on. Because while we here are worrying about our floriculture, the Ukrainian people are being robbed of their land and butchered.

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New lows in the Russo-Ukrainian War

It never occurred to me that I could be shot randomly on the street. While I’m riding my bicycle to work, or after buying a bag of potatoes at my supermarket. The dead men on the photos of the Bucha massacre apparently couldn’t imagine this either. I saw those photos of Ukrainians lying dead next to their bicycles and their groceries. They are just some of the victims of the Russian military which didn’t have the luxury of ending up in a mass grave. This enraged me.

It doesn’t really come a surprise, after all the news that the Russians are regularly shelling hospitals and childcare centers. After the news of looting and the rape of Ukrainian minors. The Russians aren’t liberators, but a pillaging band of savages. They are far from liberating the Ukrainians from a Nazi regime, they are behaving like the Nazis themselves.

While the Russian war crimes anger me, so does the Western reluctance to come to the aid of Ukraine. It’s astounding that there still isn’t a ban on buying Russian gas, oil and coal. Yes, especially Germany could be hit hard by a ban on Russian gas. There might be discussion on how hard, whether it’s manageable or crushing, but I’m sure it’s incomparable to the devastation Ukraine has suffered. Ukraine sustained $100 billion in damages just to infrastructure in less than a month after the Russian invasion. That’s more than half of Ukraine’s GDP. We have to be willing to share in the economic pain in this war. That ban should have already been in place weeks ago because the dependence on Russian gas is holding us back from serious aid to Ukraine. With serious aid I don’t mean sanctions and supplying arms to Ukraine while we stand by and look on.

We supposedly live in a world order in which we solve conflicts peacefully and denounce wars of aggression. The first article of the Charter of the United Nations reads as follows:

The Purposes of the United Nations are:

1. To maintain international peace and security, and to that end: to take effective collective measures for the prevention and removal of threats to the peace, and for the suppression of acts of aggression or other breaches of the peace, and to bring about by peaceful means, and in conformity with the principles of justice and international law, adjustment or settlement of international disputes or situations which might lead to a breach of the peace;

The UN has failed terribly in this regard. Russia was able to invade Ukraine under international protest, but only the Western UN members have enacted serious sanctions against Russia. If the UN doesn’t enforce its Charter, if it does nothing to stop this blatant war of aggression and the war crimes, it’s obvious that aggressors can just ignore the UN.

The UN should be reformed to be more effective. Obviously the UN Security Council with its veto powers needs to be abolished. If we take the UN Charter seriously any war of aggression should result in an automatic declaration of war by all UN members on the aggressor. Somewhat similar to Article 5 of the North Atlantic Treaty which is the basis of NATO. I know this is problematic because there have been precedents. The USA ignored the UN as well when it started the Iraq War, for example. Of course the non-aggression principle should apply to everyone, including the West. Perhaps only the UN should be able to authorize invasions in special cases such as genocide, as it happened in Rwanda or Yugoslavia for example.

The UN doesn’t do its job and NATO isn’t able to intervene because Ukraine is not a NATO member. The individual states of the West and the USA in particular is our last hope. If a world order based on non-aggression isn’t worth defending, then what is? We shouldn’t be waiting for more destruction in Ukraine before we intervene. The fact that Russia invaded Ukraine without any provocation is sufficient reason for Western military intervention on behalf of Ukraine. Anything else is cowardice and selfishness. Russian threats of using nuclear weapons should not be an excuse for non-intervention; we are lost if Russia can get away with everything under threats of deploying them. We have nuclear weapons too. We should not rest until we have routed all of those filthy Russian child murderers from Ukrainian soil and the country is restored to its pre-2014 borders.

Now that we are discussing arms shipments to Ukraine, can we also send them some cruise missiles? I’d love to see them used against the 19 kilometers long Crimean Bridge, which was built by the Russians after their annexation of the Crimea. It cost the Russians $3.7 billion to construct, so it would settle the score somewhat regarding the damages to infrastructure and would be a blow to Russian prestige. Just give some advance warning so no one gets hurt when they pass over the bridge.

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To stop Russia, the West needs to raise the stakes

Two days ago Russia sent troops to the self-declared Donetsk and Luhansk People’s Republics on Ukraine’s eastern border. Russia has threatened Ukraine with military conflict for months already. It accused the West of fearmongering when Western leaders said a Russian invasion of Ukraine was imminent. Meanwhile it assured us that it didn’t seek a military conflict with Ukraine and that it was pulling back its troops. Unsurprisingly, the Russian leadership was full of lies again.

I’ve written about how the West dealt with Russia before, around April last year. Back then Russia intimidated Ukraine with a massive build-up of troops on Ukraine’s border for several weeks, but ultimately decided to pull back. Back then I already wrote that the West was being too soft on Russia. This time West is responding more severely and stated that sanctions will be tougher. Canceling the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline and cutting Russia off from the SWIFT financial transaction system for banks is no joke. Arms were shipped to Ukraine as well to make an invasion more costly for Russia. However, the message of the West was still that if Ukraine was invaded, it’s on its own.

That refusal to aid Ukraine militarily is cowardice. Russia’s dictator Putin isn’t impressed by the sanctions I just mentioned, even if they are more harsh than before. His calculation is that he can deal with them and that it will blow over, just like it did after the invasion of Crimea. Even if Russia gets cut off from SWIFT and Nord Stream 2 gets canceled, Europe will still want to buy Russian gas. Putin has never been seriously opposed by the West and he can escalate tensions as much as he wants. If de-escalation doesn’t work on him, the West must start escalating itself. Any action taken by the West must threaten Putin with significant negative outcomes. If the West wants peace, it needs to prepare for war; si vis pacem, para bellum.

Here’s what I would do. First of all, the West should station military forces on Ukraine’s territory. Just tell the Russians that it’s for a military exercise and that they don’t need to worry. It’s the same as the Russians have been telling us all the time when they were building up forces near the Ukrainian border. The goal is not to start a military conflict, but to deter Russia from invading Ukraine any further. If Russia would do so, it would risk a big war with the West. That’s not something Putin would be willing to risk. I’m tired of hearing this excuse that direct military support can’t be given because Ukraine is not a NATO-member; nothing is holding back Western states from offering direct military support to Ukraine on an individual basis instead of via NATO.

Next, the West should abandon its reluctance to offer NATO-membership to Ukraine in spite of the Russian occupation of parts of its territory. Threaten Russia that Ukraine will be invited to join if Russia doesn’t back down. Ukrainian NATO membership is exactly what Russia wants to avoid.

Then, threaten Russia with two absolutely crushing sanctions: closing off the Bosporus and the Danish straits for all shipping to and from Russia. Because Russia’s largest ports and naval bases are all situated in the Black Sea and the Baltic Sea, it would be devastating for its economy and navy. These measures are feasible because even the Øresund between Denmark and Sweden is no wider than four kilometers at its narrowest point. Sure, it would require shelving the Montreux Convention and the Copenhagen Convention which made these straits international waterways open to all. But both Turkey and Denmark are NATO-members which are not on good terms with Russia. Only Sweden isn’t, but perhaps they could be persuaded.

Of course the West should entice Russia to back down by proposing an attractive compromise so Russia can save face. This compromise would require Russia to abandon the lands it occupies in Ukraine and Georgia. In return, Russia is promised that Ukraine and Georgia will not become NATO-members. Russia also gets a free lease of its naval base in Sevastopol (in the Crimea) for something like fifty years. It already leased the Sevastopol naval base before the pro-Western revolution in Ukraine. Of course more detailed agreements about arms control and troop deployments on the borders of NATO members and Russia should be included as well. The aforementioned threats to compel Russia to accept this compromise should be discussed behind closed doors so that Russia is not humiliated publicly. Russia could then present its gains from the compromise with its head held high.

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Population exchange and trading territory as a solution for Bosnia and Herzogovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina is close to falling apart because the Serbian part of the country is moving towards secession. The Serbs have already withdrawn from the federal parliament and now threaten to withdrawn their troops from the federal army as well, in order to form their own army. They want complete autonomy in their part of the country.

When the Bosnian War was ended with the Dayton Treaty in 1992 the country was transformed into a federal state. It was divided in two entities, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina for the Islamic Bosniaks and Catholic Croats and the Republika Srpska for the Orthodox Serbs. I don’t get why they thought back then that this would work out. A federal state like Belgium already has difficulty in functioning properly while its two populations are still able to work together. It was easy to predict that a federal state with three population groups which hate each other is especially disfunctional. Sometimes we have to acknowledge that the fires of nationalism burn too hot and that we can’t impose a multi-ethnic state.

That’s why it would be best if both entities became independent and would exchange some populations and trade some territories. This has been done before in the past, such as between Greece and Turkey in 1923 after the Greco-Turkish War. Turkey and Greece agreed on a forced population exchange, which moved Christians from Turkey to Greece and Muslims from Greece to Turkey. In modern eyes this was a violation of human rights, but it was effective in preventing ethnic conflict.

To respect human rights this could be done with referenda today. First, both entities should agree on organizing a referendum on independence. This would only be possible if the sovereignty over the Brčko District, which is currently shared by both entities, would be transferred to the Republic. Otherwise that state would be split in two and wouldn’t have a continuous landmass. North of the Brčko District lies the Posavina Canton, which is part of the Federation. We should prevent this Canton from becoming an exclave of the Federation after the independence of the Republic. To do so, the inhabitants should be allowed to vote in a referendum on whether they want to be part of Croatia or the Republic. The majority of inhabitants of this Canton are Croats after all.

To reach agreement on referenda the Republic could make a concession to the Federation to trade the districts south of Banja Luka for the aforementioned territories. These districts currently form a large salient in the territory of the Federation. Trading these territories would smoothen the borders. These districts have Serb majorities, but are sparsely populated with just a few ten thousands of inhabitants. The Serb inhabitants can decide voluntarily to move to the Republic and receive financial compensation if they do so. Vice versa the same counts for Bosniaks and Croats, even if they don’t live in territories to be traded.

The Bosniaks and Croats seem to be able to get along with each other better. Still it would be a good idea to organize referenda in the municipalities in the south and southwest of the Federation and allow the inhabitants to decide on joining Croatia or remaining in the Federation. These municipalities have Croatian majorities. Note that the southern border of Bosnia and Herzegovina with Croatia is quite suboptimal. Currently the Croatian shoreline is interrupted by the municipality of Neum, which is part of Bosnia and Herzegovina. This municipality has a large majority of Croats however.

At the same time there is also unrest in Kosovo on Serbs which want secession. There are Serb majorities in a few municipalities in the north of Kosovo. Give them the option to vote in a referendum on joining Serbia as well. In exchange, Kosovo can demand that Serbia will finally recognize its statehood, which Serbia is still refusing.

In the magazine Politico they write that we should send a NATO-force to prevent further escalation by the Republic and Serbia, but I don’t see how this can be a structural solution. We have to acknowledge that the Dayton Treaty was a mistake and that we can’t simply smother nationalist desires for independence. You can’t impose a multi-ethnic state on peoples who don’t want to work together. The Republic and Serbia may be irresponsible and escalating the matter, but the nationalist desire for a nation state (one state for one people) isn’t unreasonable. Ethnic conflict in multi-ethnic state has always been the red thread in history. Nationalism and the formation of nation states has often been a good solution for that. See for example the Italian Unification, the decline of the Ottoman Empire, the dissolution of Austria-Hungary and the Soviet Union. We don’t judge these events negatively. In the first three cases it was accomplished with war, so let’s strive to realize it by democratic means. Just let me sit at the negotiation table as a diplomat!

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Do reasonable vaccine refusers exist?

Last Friday there was a Dutch news item reporting that the amount of hospital beds occupied with COVID19-patients is rising rapidly. Of this group, about 80 percent is not vaccinated. We read that this leads to frustration with hospital personnel. After all, if those patients did have vaccinations their chance of ending up in a hospital would have been much smaller. If they would have gotten a vaccination, the hospital personnel wouldn’t have been so exhausted. Nor would it have been necessary to postpone so many surgical procedures because of the COVID19-patients which keep the Intensive Care beds occupied.

In the same news item is a video report on two vaccine refusers. They present themselves as reasonable people with principal objections, not anti-vaxxers with conspiracy theories. But are there arguments so reasonable? Let’s evaluate them:

  1. I don’t trust the long-term side effects because they are unknown.
  2. Vaccines have been tested on healthy people, while I have heart- and lung issues. That’s why I want more about the side effects first.

Even more arguments from another news item:

  1. I see COVID19 as comparable with the Mexican flu and I survived that disease. I don’t take an ordinary flu vaccine either and I’m afraid to combine the vaccine with my rheumatism medication.
  2. I’ve had bad experiences with medication in the past, side effects of vaccines are unclear and after a vaccination I’m still vulnerable for COVID19.
  3. I’m 44 years old and healthy. I think that there’s a minimal risk of COVID19 being dangerous for me. After all, I step into my car each day as well with the minimal risk of a deadly car accident.
  4. I’ve already had COVID19 and was okay again after a week without entering a hospital. I think vaccines have been developed to quickly and that there still is too much uncertainty over the side effects.

The unknown side effects on the long term are minimal. The vaccine was also tested on and judged to be safe for those with underlying medical conditions, including those with heart- and lung diseases. Especially that group of people is at a greater risk of severe illness from COVID19, so they have much more to gain from a vaccine. Same for the person with the rheumatism medication. While the vaccine doesn’t protect from infection completely, it does slow the spread of COVID19. Those who have already lived through an infection still benefit from a vaccine because it’s unclear how much resistance they’ve built up after a first infection.

Let’s take a look at the 44 years old man who compared COVID19 with a car accident. In 2020 there were 60 men in the age group of 40 to 50 years who died of COVID19. The amount of male traffic deaths in 2020 in the same age group was 38 however. If we consider that merely a third of all people who died in traffic that year was inside a car, you end up with 12 deaths in that age group as a consequence of a car accident. Probably the 60 male COVID19 victims would have already been in bad health as opposed to the healthy 44 year old, but on the whole COVID19 is a factor four more lethal for these man than driving in a car. While it was interesting to investigate the statistics, it’s irrelevant. My objection to this argument is that it’s a bad comparison. Dying of COVID19 is mostly preventable by taking a vaccine, which gives almost no side effects. Using a car is unavoidable for many people who need to get to work.

The arguments of vaccine refusers seem to originate from a lack of information on the one hand. If have doubts on medical care I consult my general practitioner and don’t make all kinds of wild assumptions myself. On the other hand they seem arrogant to me. How do they know for certain that there hasn’t been enough research on side effects of vaccines? They didn’t have any relevant education like medicine, epidemiology or virology and have no expert knowledge on the subject. If you do not have that, you trust on the knowledge and ability of a specialist.

Then there’s a special category of vaccine refusers with strong religious convictions. Especially in the municipality of Staphorst the vaccination coverage is, except for Urk, the lowest in The Netherlands with just 48%. Not surprisingly the infections in this municipality are rising the fastest and the neighboring hospital in Zwolle has to deal with a huge influx of COVID19 patients. What are their arguments?

The deeply religious Protestants from Staphorst which were interviewed by RTV Oost explain this. It all comes down to trust in God according to the vaccine refusers. He decides whether we get ill or not. Taking a vaccine to prevent us from getting ill is therefore a violation of that trust in God. For the same reason they don’t like insurance in Staphorst. But medical treatment and taking medication is okay, because treating an illness is different from preventing an illness.

I think this strict interpretation of God’s will goes very far. There’s nothing in the Bible about vaccines being undesirable. In some way I can understand their reasoning, but I still think it’s a weak argument. It doesn’t make clear why medical treatment doesn’t violate trust in God, while a vaccine would be in violation. But none of this is relevant because the Bible demands the faithful to love their neighbors. Love for the health care heroes which become ever more exhausted by the influx of vaccine refusers at the Intensive Care unit. Love for other patients who see their surgeries postponed again and again. The question for those living in Staphorst is what comes first: trust in God or love for thy neighbor, or the other way around?

The vaccine refusers already receive a lot of criticism from people who think they’re antisocial. Sometimes others are simply right about the consequences of your stubborn and antisocial behavior. It’s great that vaccine refusers can be so principled in this country. The pulmonary physicians are on the losing end however, with mountains of unpaid overtime in the evening and on their days off.

If vaccine refusers want to be so pricipled and refuse a vaccine, they should also be consequential and refuse health care for COVID19. But when push comes to shove these people are cowards and don’t have the backbone. Let’s help them to remain loyal to their principles by no longer admitting anyone who refused a vaccine to the Intensive Care unit for COVID19. No more life-saving treatment for them, just palliative care to sedate them when they bite the dust in the terminal phase of COVID19. I think the group of vaccine refusers would disappear like snow before the sun with such a prospect.

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High-speed rail in France should be faster

In my previous post I wrote about my holiday in Biarritz, but I would like to reflect on the high-speed train I used to travel there separately.

First I used the tram and metro to travel from The Hague to Rotterdam. In Rotterdam I used the Thalys high-speed train to travel through Antwerp and Brussels to Paris, stopping at Gare du Nord. Not surprisingly, this station lies north of the center of Paris. Then it was necessary to travel with metro line 4 from Gare du Nord to Gare Montparnasse, which lies southwest of the center of Paris. There I used the TGV high-speed train to travel through Bordeaux, Dax and Bayonne before exiting the train at Biarritz.

Travel times are as follows:

  1. The leg between Rotterdam and Gare du Nord took 2:37 hours on the outward journey and 3:05 on the return journey.
  2. The transfer and waiting in Paris required 1:12 hours on the outward journey and 2:14 on the return journey.
  3. The leg between Gare Montparnasse and Biarritz took 4:16 hours on the outward journey and 4:13 on the return journey.

I noticed several things. The journey time between Rotterdam and Gare du Nord varies quite a bit. For some reason Google Maps suggests a trip which combines a different metro line with a bus, rather than just using metro line 4. The transfer with metro line 4 actually requires no more than 20 minutes for the metro itself and 20 minutes to get from the metro to the train stations. Especially on the return journey, a lot of time was wasted on the transfer. Unlike the TGV Euroduplex, the Thalys is not a double-deck train, so boarding is less efficient. Because the train is so long the passengers need more time to walk to their wagon on the platforms.

According to The Train Line, the distance between Rotterdam and Gare du Nord is 370 kilometers and the distance from Gare Montparnasse to Biarritz is 668 kilometers. The maximum speed of the TGV Euroduplex (on normal commercial routes) is 320 kilometers per hour, which the train did actually reach (it’s shown on the monitors in the train) between Paris and Bordeaux. The distance between Paris and Bordeaux is 499 kilometers and it takes the TGV Euroduplex on average 2:20 hours to cross this distance.

So with this information we can do some calculations on the average speed:

  1. Rotterdam to Paris: 141 km/h (assuming 2:37 travel time)
  2. Paris to Bordeaux: 214 km/h
  3. Bordeaux to Biarritz: 90 km/h (assuming 1:53 travel time)

It makes sense that Rotterdam to Paris is slower than Paris to Bordeaux because the former route has stops in Antwerp and Brussels, while the latter has none. But it doesn’t explain the entire difference. On the route, I noticed that the Thalys slows down significantly at certain parts in Belgium, not just the part of the route where it drives through Antwerp and Brussels where it might cause noise disturbance. The part between Bordeaux and Biarritz is pitifully slow, but that’s because the TGV is driving over ordinary rail there, not dedicated high speed rail.

The journey from Paris to Bordeaux is fast, but the entire journey is way too slow. If we want to reach our climate goals and convince the airline passengers to take the train, things have to be improved.

My improvement plan would look like this:

  1. Dump the Thalys and have a TGV Euroduplex (by the time this hypothetical plan is implemented more likely its successor, the Avelia Horizon) drive all the way from Amsterdam to destinations in France and further.
  2. Build a new TGV station for all TGV trains heading to Paris, so that a transfer to a different train station in Paris will no longer be necessary. This is already the case in Madrid, where a tunnel was constructed to connect the Chamartin and Atocha railway stations for high-speed trains. Such a dedicated TGV station should obviously be located on the outskirts of Paris and would necessarily require more time for passengers to transfer to the center of Paris in favor of faster TGV traffic around the city.
  3. Start with building high speed rail track from Bordeaux to the Spanish border sooner. Spain is already much closer to completing their high speed rail track to the French border (2023 compared to 2032). Progress on the the LGV Montpellier–Perpignan is even slower. That is the last gap of 150 kilometers on the Mediterranean side of France’s network to the Spanish border. It will be operational by 2040, which is downright shameful.
  4. Reduce the amount of stops after Bordeaux by removing the stop at Dax, which is just a small village with a population of little more than 20,000. Remove the stop at Biarritz as well, because Bayonne is larger and is very close to Biarritz anyway. These extra stops at small towns slow down the journey too much for little gain.

Let’s assume that all these measures are realized and that it’s possible to maintain an average speed of 200 km/h with the stops included. Assuming the distance between Amsterdam to Madrid on the rail network roughly equals their distance of 1.800 kilometers on the road network, travel by high-speed train could take just nine hours. It will surely be expensive, but it’s a matter of political will. Spain has already shown that it’s feasible because its high-speed rail network is much more extensive. Spain’s network is still being expanded significantly and swiftly, while France is lagging behind. If we want to be serious about excellent high-speed rail in France which can compete with air travel, it’s essential that these improvements are implemented.

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Why we should stop the Chinese lust for territory

China has been busy during the recent years with occupying the land of its neighbors. In May this year there was news that China secretly built three villages in a remote valley in Bhutan. This fits in a pattern, because last year China also made a claim out of nowhere on the Sakteng nature reserve in Bhutan. In the past this land was even shown on a Chinese map from 2014 to belong to Bhutan. Apparently this is all part of China’s plan to obstruct India, which has border disputes with China for a long time already. Bhutan is located between China and India and is an ally of the latter.

But China doesn’t limit itself to that border. The South China Sea isn’t safe for China’s unfounded territorial claims either. China is repeatedly violating the Exclusive Economic Zone (where only the state owner has rights for fishing and other economic activities) of the Philippines. Even though an international court declined the Chinese claims, China continues its behavior. The Filipino president Duterte at first tried to compromise with China and didn’t enforce the court ruling, but he seems to have lost patience with China now. Next to the Philippines, Malaysia complained about Chinese violation of its airspace in the South China Sea. The United States stated that it would come to the aid of the Philippines as its ally in case of Chinese aggression.

More alarming is the threat of war that China made to Taiwan in case it would declare its independence. China considers Taiwan to be part of China, but that’s twisting history. The Chinese Communist Party came to power only after it had driven out the Republic of China to Taiwan. It’s actually China which was part of Taiwan. The USA responded calmly, with a message that tensions over Taiwan do not need to lead to a confrontation.

Even though the USA push back, this still reminds me too much of the ‘appeasement’ of Nazi Germany in the prelude to the Second World War. To appease Nazi Germany it received a part of Czechoslovakia in the Treaty of Munich. This time nothing is given away formally, but in fact we do allow it to happen: China occupies foreign territory and doesn’t go away. It ignores the complaints of its neighbors and continues on its current footing. China already went too far with its genocide of the Uyghur people, but occupying the territory of other states should be a red line. It’s scandalous that Russia could get away with the annexation of the Crimea, but if the even more powerful China is allowed to go on with this we’re doomed.

The only way to deal with is more assertiveness. We want to avoid an armed conflict, but there’s much more we can do with sanctions. Serious sanctions which hurt Chinese exports severely are seemingly the only thing to make China listen. And that will only work if everyone joins: next to the USA also the neighboring countries of China and the EU. If China occupies land, we could target foreign Chinese property for confiscation, like the harbor of Piraeus near Athens for example. On Taiwan the USA, at the request of Taiwan of course, could build a military base. This is no different from what the USA has done in South Korea and Japan in order to protect its allies. The relation with China would drop to a new low, but it would deter China from a possible invasion of Taiwan.

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