Friday, January 11, 2013

Will governments stay on defense?

BarriersThere’s no wi-fi or power outlets in the waiting room at the UKBA, so when the batteries died on my laptop and tablet, I was left looking out the thick protective windows at the empty plaza in front of the building.  It was probably conceived as a public space where people could gather, talk, and eat on sunny days.  Now it’s walled off from the street by concrete barriers, from the sidewalks by high fences.

It’s not much different inside.  The clerks are protected from the clients by reinforced windows; the furniture is bolted to the floor.  Yet this is, to paraphrase the Gettysburg Address, a government of the people, by the people, for the people. 

What’s happened?

There’s no doubt that people are frustrated with government: they doubt their leadership’s ability to make their lives better, to provide civil and social infrastructure, or to manage laws and resources for the common good.  Promises to improve services and hold down taxes never materialize.   Governments everywhere, whether Western-democratic or Eastern-authoritarian,  are viewed as venal, corrupt, wasteful, and under control of the moneyed and the powerful.

Kohr Little EuropeYet governments are, well, sovereign.  They literally own the country, they make and enforce the laws, set rules for the economy and media, maintain the civil and defense forces.  How did things go so wrong that they must surround official buildings with bunkers?

I was talking with one of the facilitators about the incongruity of seeing national governments on the defensive in their own countries. We agreed that they are caught in the middle, enforcing transnational policies on immigration, austerity, trade, and the environment that are at odds with their national self-interest.  The people electing them and the media holding them to account are increasingly critical.  He predicts that they will soon respond to populist pressure from within, turning away from global institutions and idealism.

There’s  rich academic literature on the topic,  the problem and the risks are widely perceived but there is little agreement on remedies. Many hold that nations have already transferred so much power that they can’t regain national sovereignty. The solution, in many papers, is to complete the globalization process more quickly so that the benefits arrive sooner.

I’m suspecting that the opposite may happen.  There may be a weakening of the EU, withdrawal from the Euro, default on financial debt, or increased border and trade protections. But something has to change: a sovereign that holds power won’t remain in a defensive crouch when they have the ability to re-assert control.

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Blog and Podcast links - 2013

I wanted to give a quick shout-out this morning for Invader Stu, a fellow expat blogger up in Amsterdam.  Stu tells wonderful stories about everyday life among the Dutch: he’s asking readers if they might support his nomination for a 2013 Bloggie award.  This is a good opportunity to recognize an insightful writer, and it only takes a few minutes to complete the entry. Instructions are on Stu’s blog, here.

Blog page

I’m also taking the opportunity to update my NetVibes aggregator page of Dutch blogs and podcasts.  This is an collection of pages and broadcasts that I follow, more complete and up-to-date than my lists on Facebook or Google Reader.

I get a bit wistful updating the Blogs I Follow page each year: there are usually four or five blogs that go silent as writers repatriate or lose interest.  But a number of good new essayists have emerged this year, and I’m pleased to add them to my list. 

The left column has more general interest news and business blogs: the center and right have expatriate blogs.  The entries are in no particular order, except that I follow the top few more closely: Stu, Nick, Judy, Flamingo (all in the Netherlands), Harry (for the Dutch perspective on Minnesota), and Aly (now moved to Korea from Georgia and still going strong).

PodcastsThe Podcast page is a good mix of news, perspective, technology, and analysis, simply arranged alphabetically.  I lost patience with a number of shows this year (Adam Curry has lost all touch with reality), and I still regret that there aren’t more Dutch language podcasts to recommend.  Still, there is likely to be some shows in there that enlighten and entertain in varying measure.  And the Sinica Podcast remains my recommendation for the year if you want perspectives on expat life and China.

..and there are a few links to my personal pages and feeds.  I’m available to family and friends on Facebook (up to my Dunbar Number of connections), professional associates on LinkedIn, and preferably, a koffie or biertje along the rivers Maas or Cam.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Renewing my Tier 1 visa

UKBAIt was dark and raining when I lined up outside the UK Border Agency office in Croydon this morning.  Asylum left; Visa’s right, the officer directed.  At 7:30 precisely, wholly uncharacteristic of a government agency, we shuffled through the front door.

This was the end of a three-month prep for renewing my Tier I UK residence / work permit.  I’ve been on it for three years; it was required to operate my UK startup and to accept funds, and had worked smoothly throughout even though I base in the Netherlands.

But the renewal is much more difficult than the annual Dutch ‘Send a photo,  check, and a bank statement’ process. 

In the UK, points-based scoring requires re-validation: Five categories of evidence and original documentation in support of each one.  I needed my original diploma, signed and stamped bank statements, and three trips to Amsterdam to secure statements from my accountants.   The pre-audit ruled out the Dutch as being legitimate sources of financial data, so the job was re-done by UK auditors. 

Costs and frustration mounted.

This morning, I had my pile of documents and a handler alongside to see if I could complete the process.  The appointment and application were checked; we went through security and they confiscated a corkscrew from my suitcase.  We went through an application check, a background check, and they took fingerprint and facial biometrics.  I paid the fee for a 2-year renewal: 1800 gbp (on the card, at least I get airline miles).  The packet went in to an examiner and I settled in to wait.

The process took four hours.  There were three call-backs to provide additional evidence (which I fortunately had) and one bump for a supervisor check (customary for self-employed applicants).  At one point, my handler was handed a red piece of paper and he grabbed his cell phone and ran out of the room.  I thought it had sunk, but they wanted the professional registration number of the UK  auditor.

Finally, I was given a letter that my application had been approved and was advised 1) not to leave the country for the next week until my biometrics card arrived, 2) that I have no recourse to public funds, and 3) that I could not train to be a doctor nor seek employment as a professional sportsperson.

At tis level, both applicants and auditors are trying to do the right thing, and both are ill-served by the system (and I think that the US has equal difficulties).  OccupationsProfessionals seeking a work permit have skills and ambitions to create businesses and products that grow jobs and exports.  Reviewers are conscientious in assuring that applicants will be able to integrate and perform.  But the process is so expensive and intimidating, very difficult to get right from either side.

Does it, in the end, serve the positive goals of society to make the process so challenging for those who want to come and contribute?

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Maastricht mid-winter

The city is cloaked it’s post-Christmas grey, cool and drizzling, the river running high and muddy, the streets glistening in early twilight.  People balance umbrellas as they balance on bikes, fearing the sudden wind gust or icy spot.

Koopzondag is still in full swing today, attracting crowds into the Old Center looking for bargains.  The stores seem to be running a Dutch Auction to clear the shelves:  first 20% discount, then 30%, now 50%, tempting browsers to grab items before someone else does. 

I was trapped in a long line at the Bijenkorf to buy my 2013 Calendar (Molen voor elke maand, right): everyone is cashing gift cards ad making exchanges.  In contrast to the US, people are chatty and smiling for the most part.

Christmas is rapidly being deconstructed across town.  The Market at the Vrijthof has been  disassembled, the walls and roofs of the huts piled in flat tacks, the SkyWheel coming down wedge by wedge over an afternoon.  The bars along Kesselskade are taking a break from the Market crowds, and stay dark and shuttered so that staff can get a few evenings off.

Still, the lights remain along the streets and in the trees, I’m hoping they’ll stay for a couple of more weeks.  Carnivale is coming early this year (Feb 8-12) so I expect that the bunting and yellow-green-red lamps will be distributed along the streets shortly.

I’m getting my New Year rolling, business meetings for my projects, appointments with banks and physicians, drinks with friends.  It’s all loose and agreeable, no immediate deadlines to push towards and a much lighter task list.  I still need to get the class lectures prepared and my UK visa sorted, but those feel like distant clouds in an otherwise good start to the year.

Ryanair is running 10 euro flights between Maastricht-Aachen Airport and London-Stansted.  It’s really nice, cutting an hour off of the usual flights via Eindhoven.  They are running full too, so I’m hoping there’ enough traffic for the airline to keep the route running

The only gap is the connection from town center to the airport.  Taxis are 25 euros each way; the 59 bus costs only 4 euros but only starts at 8 am and runs only once an hour.

I’m assured by Veolia that its’ holiday scheduling, but when holiday travelers need to catch the only passenger flight at 7am,  wouldn’t it make sense to add busses rather than cut them?