Category Archives: EU issues

Winding euonym back up

Wow isn’t my timing great! Just as I decide to wind down my European blogging, the Conservatives go and get a majority and an In/Out referendum is on the table for 2017. Under those circumstances, I think even the Australians will be a bit more interested in EU issues, so I’ll write a bit more about them than I have been doing!

So what are my thoughts on this the day after? I’m not a big fan of referenda in general – we have a representative democracy and in the absence of clear instructions, as in the Irish constitution, on which issues should go to a referendum, it seems to me to be either a cop out or a buck pass. As in UK politics in general, matters get reduced to a simple black/white, when we know that they are almost always more nuanced than that.

Having said that, if there is one, then bring it on. I’m not worried about having a chance to have the debate, and within a referendum campaign, I am hoping that those who see our membership of the EU as a necessity, or something of importance, but have had no real reason to articulate that publicly, may now be prepared to stand up and be counted. Hopefully there will be more room in public debate for both, or rather all, sides of the argument. Hopefully we will move on from a situation where three-quarters of the stories in the BBC’s UK and the EU section are about Nigel Farage.

Screenshot from BBC iPad app on 9 May 2015
Screenshot from BBC iPad app on 9 May 2015

 

The interesting dimension is Scotland, and also Wales and Northern Ireland. If English votes take the UK out of the EU, how will that play in those home nations that have tended to have a more realistic if not necessarily positive relationship with the EU?

These are certainly going to be “interesting times” for a Eurogeek, whichever side of the world I will be on in 2017.

A returning Masters student’s view on digital environments

On Thursday I took part via online conferencing in the European Commission’s Digital Competence Day 2014. I was asked to talk about the digital experience going back to University. Due to the somewhat intermittent nature of Aussie broadband (or maybe the instabilities of the conferencing system) I got frozen out at the end, and I’m not sure how much anyone really heard of it. So I thought I’d write up the main points I was trying to make.

I was last at university in 1993. We didn’t have email then. There was an internal messaging system called the Vax that we used to send ridiculous messages within our group of friends – I think I still have the print-outs in a box somewhere. There were a few computers with the library catalogue, but loads of card catalogues still around. I typed up my essays on a word processing machine (a sort of glorified typewriter that saved the text).

Now the university experience is completely digital. Your interaction with the university administration is completely through the online portal. You enrol, register, get your timetable, pay your fees there. All information about your classes is sent via the Learning Management System. Most lecturers ask you to submit essays through TurnItIn, a system for checking for plagiarism. The library catalogue is online, you can request books online from other libraries, renew online and pay your fees. Pretty much any article you want from an academic journal is available online. You can get serious research done without going near the university. You can send things for printing from home, and access them once on campus by swiping your student card.

You have no option about this. This is the way things are. Digital by default indeed. But there is a lot of help. The library has a student-run IT help-desk. There are Twitter and Facebook accounts to help you and they reply very quickly. The library has an online chat function, which I have used and is incredibly practical. There is even a phone number to call if you need advice or assistance!

The other interesting element is the focus on BYOD – bring your own device. Obviously for a university, the provision of equipment is not a resource option (though there are of course workstations in the libraries that you can book. Online of course!). Space is at a premium and teaching spaces take priority. So the university sees BYOD as an opportunity.

Wireless is available to staff and students in all buildings of the university. There are higher levels of security than logging on to wireless in most public spaces. Each student has an allowance of 1GB of data per week from external (non-University) websites. It is clear what the rules are (no copyright infringement etc) and there are sanctions for breaching these rules, such as a loss of access to the network. The system is designed assuming that most people will play by the rules, and builds in how to deal with those that don’t, rather than designing it so that no-one can break the rules, but making it unwieldy and hard to use.

Of course, a university is different from a workplace. For one thing, work is much less collaborative here. (Something I found when applying and being asked to provide examples of my writing: if I hadn’t had the blog I wouldn’t have had anything to show that was me.) Also, this is a place of ideas, free-thinking, innovation. They can’t lock us into certain processes or tools as that would shut down the very freedom and creativity they are trying to develop in us.

But I do think there are lessons to learn.

Firstly, people work in different ways so providing one way of doing things is counter-productive, in the literal sense that it will reduce people’s productivity. Creating an environment that recognises and allows those differences will, I believe, be positive for the organisation.

Secondly, the leadership challenge is in helping people to adapt to the change. It isn’t good leadership to allow them to avoid or bypass it. That is self-defeating for them personally and for the organisation as a whole.

When I look at the change in the Commission’s digital mindset over the time I have been involved in this, I think we have a lot to be proud of. But we also have a long way to go and I hope we can learn from outside experiences such as this.

Why should you care about traditional foods?

I attended a lecure yesterday by Ken Albala entitled Marketing European Food and the Image of Authenticity. His essential thesis was that consumers are willing dupes in a marketing ploy to present food as “authentic” or “traditional”. We like to believe the food and products we are buying are true to their roots and artisanla and we are happy to take at face value labels, terms and packaging designed to give us this impression. He used humorous examples from Alto Adige air-dried Speck (“air-dried” insofar as the factory windows are open) to Fleur de Sel de Guerande (produced according to traditional methods, but not actually tasting any different to mass-produced Sel de Camargue).

Professor Albala is an entertaining speaker and one who clearly has a wealth of experience and a huge war-chest of stories, and both made for a very interesting hour, in which he made a number of valid points. I particularly agreed with him when he questioned the very concept of “authenticity”.  Authentic at what point? After all, Europe didn’t have potatoes or tomatoes until the sixteenth century, so you could say Colcannon or ratatouille are inauthentic. He compared those that wish to ossify a particular version as authentic to Academie Francaise-style grammarians – food culture, like language, lives and develops and must be allowed to do so.

Where I felt his talk was limited was that it presented a  metropolitan and essentially utilitarian notion of why tradition or authenticity matters, or at least within its European framework. I believe that for many, the idea of protected designation of origin labelling is not (purely) about marketing or even taste, but about guaranteeing traditional ways of life and processes and ensuring continued social diversity in rural Europe. You could argue that the Common Agricultural Policy has always been an essentially social project and that the PDO/PGI/TSG schemes are just a twenty-first century way of dealing with the social dimension of rural economies, rather than the distinctly twentieth century option of market support. So even if there’s no difference between Sel de Guerande and Sel de Camargue on your tongue, you buy it because you feel a difference in your soul.