Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Digital identity

THE car park at the Great Northern Hotel just opposite Peterborough railway station on the East Coast mainline is normally packed to the rafters with fancy cars and 4x4s, left each day by commuters who chose to park here because it is closer to the station entrance. In normal times this extended parking lot is a money spinner for the hotel owners.

Today, on a fine late September morning in 2020 during the midst of the Covid-19 global pandemic, it is barely a quarter full and I have the choice of a any number of prime parking spots immediately adjacent to the hotel itself.

The railway station itself is also unusually quiet, just a couple of black cabs wait in the ranks and there seems to be only a handful of commuters and day trippers. None of the normal hustle and bustle.

My East Coast train is one of the latest Azuma models, sleek and lightweight, cutting the non-stop journey time to London Kings Cross to around 40 minutes on a fast run. This morning there are only two other passengers in the first class carriage, another rarity.

Heading from Peterborough towards Huntingdon, the countryside is generally flat and largely uninteresting with a few gently rolling hills, if you could even call them that, on the distant horizon. Pockets of trees, a lonesome church standing on a mound not far from the track like some spiritual railway sentry, and small farmsteads scattered around seemingly at random punctuate the view.

I am on my way to the Estonian Embassy in London to collect my personal e-Residency digital ID card which has been waiting for me since the beginning of March shortly before the initial Covid-19 pandemic restrictions and national lockdown kicked in.

From Kings Cross station the embassy is a walk of up about an hour so I’d already dismissed this option as my intention was not to spend too long in the capital city on this time. I didn’t fancy the tube train either in the pandemic situation so I stepped across the road to the iconic St Pancras Hotel, used the facilities there and hopped into a waiting taxi at the main entrance.

The roads were busy but still unusually quiet for London and the cab driver told me his fare takings was eighty percent down on what he would normally expect for the time of year. As a result we arrived outside the embassy in Queens Gate Terrace in seemingly next to no time.

There was time to kill before my appointment slot so I walked down past the attractive and well-kept Georgian buildings to the end of the street, and then up and down the short high street of Gloucester Road South a couple of times looking for a cafe in which to have a coffee.

Jakobs, a small Mediterranean-style cafe called just off Queens Gate Terrace, looked perfect for my short pit stop. A little rustic but all the more endearing for that, it looked to be owned by a second generation Greek family making a steady living, at least in normal times.

There were several small round wooden tables on the pavement edge outside and though there was a little sun around I decided to step inside. It was casual bistro style, with a long glass fronted counter to the right leading through to the back.

At the end of the counter the passageway opened into a square room, populated with assorted dining tables and chairs, and in one corner a battered old upright piano. It was quite dark but homely and friendly.

The walls were adorned with old family photos and other personal treasures, some of them distinctly religious. There was what looked like a picture of Jesus on the side wall leading to some steep steps down to the basement, and on the end of the counter was a faded photo frame containing the printed out words of the Lord’s prayer.

Behind this middle room and through a wide archway was another more open space. A sloping, glazed roof made the area light and welcoming, and gave it the feel of a conservatory. The walls were rough plastered, some exposed to the brick and a mixture of paint colours.

There were bench seats on three sides, each with a small dark-wood table set with a knife and fork wrapped in a white serviette. The place was immediately endearing and friendly, and it seemed like I has stepped back to a different age. Though, of course, there was the obligatory wifi connection.

Thirty minutes later it was raining when I walked back to the Estonian Embassy. Outside a ‘payments and documents’ sign indicated I should descend an outside staircase to a basement office, so down I went. Impressively, the door swung open automatically before I had chance to work out what to do.

I stepped inside and walked along a short corridor with a natural wildlife scene depicted in a giant mural along the wall. A smartly dressed receptionist with long, blond hair sat behind a desk and perspex screen like a bank teller, and was wearing thin safety gloves, the sort a doctor might put on to examine something personal and intimate. It was a sign of the times.

I sat down and handed over my passport and she efficiently retrieved a small packet from a grey office filing cabinet behind. Accompanying paperwork was passed to me and I had to sign a receipt. We laughed a little as I hesitated with the date, suddenly distracted by the unexpected sound of birdsong which was playing the background from an unseen speaker.

Estonia, a former Soviet Republic on the edge of the Baltic Sea, is now the most advanced digital society in the world. Estonians use their digital ID cards to access all government services, including health, as well as many private ones.

The e-Residency card for non-nationals is an electronic form of identification allowing the holder to log into online services in Estonia such as government portals and online banks. And whilst it does not give  the right of physical residence in Estonia its business benefits are attracting people from across the world in many fields.

It can also be used to legally sign documents electronically within the EU and as an online identification in all EU countries and it offers the chance for non-residents to run and operate an EU based, online business.

After the final day of 2020, now rapidly approaching, my own British passport will become significantly devalued, removing many benefits, including the previously unrestricted right to live, work and study in across Europe.

For those in the UK, working and doing business in the EU and wanting to continue as a freelance like myself, the Estonian e-Residency scheme is an imaginative and small step in the right direction. 

Wednesday, 18 November 2020

Monks of Tallinn

I CAME across them all of a sudden the other night after climbing the steep, cobbled street from the old part of town and turning through an ancient stone gateway at the top of the escarpment. Tallinn's giant, faceless monks.
    They have no eyes or facial features but, even so, seem to stare at you through the cold, dark night as they silently keep watch over the ramparts of the old walls, like some menacing alien statues in an episode of Dr Who.
    The sculptures of the monks in Tallinn's Danish King’s Garden allude to the stories and legends associated with this historically significant yard and liven up the area for both the residents and visitors alike.
    At night the three 2.5 metre bronze statues - Ambrosius, the Expectant monk, Bartholomeus, the Praying monk, and Claudius, the Watchful Monk, cast an eery presence over the Danish King’s Garden where they stand.
    Since the end of the 18th century, when the towers surrounding this garden area began to be converted for the use as living quarters, many strange stories have emerged allowing the area to lay claim to be the most haunted place in old Tallinn.

   Among the most popular was the ghost of a monk, or even several monks at a time. Usually, the monk appears as a giant figure of light and other times as a provider of admonishing or inspiring messages. The most recent sighting is claimed to have been in the mid-1980s when the Polish workers were restoring one of the the medieval towers.
    It is not even the end of November but here in the northern Baltic state capital of Estonia, the leaves have long since disappeared. The skeleton trees form tormented silhouettes against the cold, grey sky - a stark winter nakedness, just like the people in enjoying the heat and steam of the hotel sauna back down the road.
    Estonia lies on the edge of the Eurasian land mass. A tiny country with a population of just 1.3 million, spread out over a natural and largely unspoilt Baltic landscape. Having only been independent from the former Soviet Republic since 1991, it is also a very young country.   
    Before that it was an impoverished Soviet bloc republic fronting the chilly Baltic Sea. When you gaze out from the parapet encircling the attractive old town, the Soviet era brutalist-style concrete block towers perch awkwardly in the vista. They still provide many of Estonia’s citizens with utilitarian apartment living.
    There is a distinct sense of place here. Beautiful architecture abounds in the medieval town, in contrast to the austere grey tenements and blocks of flats further out. But everywhere is neat and not a speck of dropped litter anywhere.
    Someone tells me that it is all very different in the summer when the long hours of daylight transform the capital Tallinn, and I can only imagine what it might be like. Not as now when the light on an overcast day rarely gets above the dim setting.
    From the hotel there was a short climb towards the old city walls. Turn left at the top and you enter a jumble of cobbled streets, flanked by the impressive parliament building to my left and the towering  orthodox cathedral opposite.
    Outside of the parliament building was a large group of young children, probably aged around ten years old and obviously mounting a small protest of some kind. They were happy to talk in almost perfect English and told me theywere adding their voice to the climate “emergency”, inspired by the teenage Greta Thunberg. A very modern sign of the times set poignantly amongst the architecture of the past.
    The cathedral itself, built to a design by Mikhail Preobrazhensky of St Peterburg, reflects the typical Russian revival style of the late 1800s, during which modern-day Estonia was part of the Russian Empire.

   The wind was bitterly cold as I trudged the steep flight of steps towards the imposing main entrance of this architectural masterpiece. It was the date anniversary of my father’s sudden passing three years before and inside I purchased a candle for a euro from a polite old lady at the desk to light in his memory amongst the other flickering flames of prayer and remembrance.
    The old part of the city on the top of the hill was a cris-cross of lanes and beautifully styled old buildings. I headed past another immense church and down a narrower cobbled street towards some lights.
    It was three pm in the afternoon and the short autumn daylight was already fading to dusk on a day which had been murky since breakfast time. Candles burning in lanterns framed the arched gateway to an old courtyard with a welcoming warmth. A stylish pot cat was tethered with a bight red leather lead to the bottom of the gatepost.
    Even with woollen gloves my hands were numb but inside the courtyard there was welcome shelter and respite from the cutting breeze. Small tables and chairs were arranged around the courtyard, each with their own candlelit lanterns, and a potter’s workshop lay to one side. No one was sitting outside today but at the far end was an inviting small doorway to a cosy-looking cafĂ©. I ventured through the double doors, seeming much like a basic air lock designed to keep the heat in and the bitter cold out.
    Inside it was dim, the lighting soft with candles burning on each of the tables. The atmosphere made the coffee and local cheesecake taste especially good and I decided I quite liked Tallinn, even on such a cold and austere, early winter’s day.

Tuesday, 10 November 2020

Brexit's wretched betrayal

A SPEECH given yesterday by Sir John Major, the UK prime minister from 1990 to 1997, is one that every journalist, TV host and political pundit should be obliged to watch from beginning to end. And, for that matter, anyone else who is interested in the country's post-Brexit trajectory.

In a pre-recorded lecture at Middle Temple, London, he told viewers that Brexit may prove "even more brutal than expected" due to the UK's own negotiating "failures".

He stated that the UK's "inflexibility" and "threats" towards the EU would make future trade "less profitable". And he warned of the "corrosive" impact to the UK's reputation of a proposed new law giving ministers the power to over-ride aspects of the Brexit agreement.

It came on the same day that the House of Lords rejected parts of the government’s controversial Internal Market Bill. Peers removed a series of clauses which would give the UK the right to disregard obligations in the EU Withdrawal Agreement in relation to Northern Ireland, defeating the government twice by huge margins.

Sir John, an outspoken critic of the UK's exit from the EU, described the Bill as a “slippery slope down which no democratic government should ever travel" and he urged Parliament to resist measures which he said threatened essential liberties and could place ministers above the law.

"This action is unprecedented in all our history - and for good reason. It has damaged our reputation around the world," he said. "Lawyers everywhere are incredulous that the UK - often seen as the very cradle of the rule of law - could give themselves the power to break the law."

Sir John stated he was not optimistic about the prospects for trade talks between the UK and EU, which resumed in London on Monday, saying the UK was not being "frank" about the possible outcomes when the UK leaves the single market and customs union at the end of the post-Brexit transition period.

The government  has said it is hopeful of securing a comprehensive deal modelled on the EU's arrangement with Canada but Sir John said it was "disingenuous" of ministers to pretend they were not seeking far deeper commitments in key areas, such as energy and aviation.

He said he feared, as a result, the process would end up with either no deal or a "flimsy and bare-bones" agreement that created new trade barriers and would be a "wretched betrayal" of the promises made to British voters during the 2016 referendum.

"These costs and complexities are the certain legacy of Brexit," he stated. "This is as a result of our negotiating failure - and it is a failure.

"Because of our bombast, our blustering, our threats and our inflexibility - our trade will be less profitable, our Treasury poorer, our jobs fewer, and our future less prosperous.

“It now seems that on 1 January next year, Brexit may be even more brutal than anyone expected," he added.

 To listen to Sir John Major’s speech in full click here: ‘The State we Are In’

Monday, 2 November 2020

Under cover of Covid

DATES and events are beginning to converge for the UK like some perfect storm on a doomsday calendar. The end of the new national lockdown, being implemented across England from this Thursday (4 November), will nominally take us to within 30 days of the end of the EU transition period.

And if the lockdown has to be extended, either nationally or regionally, not only is it going to bump straight into Christmas but then swiftly follows 31 December, the day that the UK goes rogue from Europe.

It means the UK is likely to be in the midst of two major crisis at the same time, at least one of them wholly self-inflicted and still, potentially, postponable.

Twelve months ago who would have prophesied, or even dare imagine, that the country would be living simultaneously in the first and second episodes of some wild dystopian trilogy? 

That Britons would, throughout 2020, have had their civil liberties severely restricted, that pubs would be unable to serve a pint, and that people would be forbidden from visiting their families or loved ones.

At the same time the impending conflagration of the ending Brexit transition period does not seem to bother the current prime minister and his team, at least in public. Or is it that a government can, perhaps quite reasonably, only concentrate on one major thing at once?

More likely, its appointees and associates are all still hedging their Brexit hedge fund bets and, come January, whatever the Covid-state-of-the-nation, are looking forward to divvying out some lucrative financial rewards.

The Lighthouse Keeper has been viewing events and this unfortunate convergence of dates with increasing alarm and disdain for some time from a favourite cliff top perch on England’s North Norfolk coast.

It looks out over the grey North Sea and, on clear days, it almost seems possible to see the low-lying coast of the Netherlands, hardly sunlit uplands in a physical sense but nevertheless beginning to look quite enticing from this side of the Brexit divide.

Of course, whichever way you view it, the country is in something of a pandemic-driven economic crisis already and, by all accounts, preparations for leaving the EU are also seriously behind the curve, which means a bumpy ride for many come the New Year.

The fact that the Covid-19 crisis has also been handled in a somewhat lackadaisical and reactive way by the Johnson-led government hardly bodes well for the enormous, long-term complexities of post-EU Britain.

Only this morning, on BBC Radio Four’s Today programme, Prof Andrew Hayward, a member of the government’s SAGE science advisory group, said: "We can't turn back the clock but if we had chosen a two-week circuit breaker in mid-September we would definitely have saved thousands of lives.

“And we would clearly have inflicted substantially less damage on our economy than the proposed four-week lock down will now do."

Ministers will say that there are other costs to lockdown that they were weighing up, which is very true and too often forgotten. But by making a late U-turn, it becomes much harder to make that point, as now those costs are being borne anyway, with none of the benefits of acting earlier.

Are we repeating the same inexcusable mistakes elsewhere and will we, come the start of January, be saying just the same about a botched and ill-planned Brexit departure?

If only we had used the time to prepare wisely. If only we could turn the clock back. If only we had strategic leadership with the country's best interests at heart.

Despite the government's current narrative, Brexit isn't really the story of getting a trade deal with the EU. It's the story of discarding one. And not just any old trade deal. The country is discarding single market and customs union membership, part of the most advanced trade deal anywhere on Earth.

To put the tricky situation in further context, I turn to the latest article by Prof Chris Grey and the conclusion of this blog is a precis of what he published on Friday (30 October) soon after returning from a half-term trip to Germany.

“Drive down any motorway today and you see the unavoidable message of the government’s increasingly panicky campaign - ‘time is running out’. Brexit is no longer mentioned, for we are not supposed to recall that what were to have been the ‘sunny uplands’ turn out to be a quagmire of paperwork, expense and inconvenience," he writes. 

"In Kent on the way to Dover there is more visible evidence of the future - huge construction works for  the giant lorry parks that will be needed post-transition.

None of the difficulties, as everyone should know by now, will be avoided by an EU-UK trade deal, although they will be worsened without a deal. The outcome remains opaque. 

Tony Connelly, a journalist for the Irish TV channel RTE, reports that one reason the outcome of negotiations remains unknowable is Johnson’s almost pathological aversion to making the necessary choices.

One suggestion is that he will await the outcome of this week’s US Presidential election before deciding which way to jump. It may be a plausible enough theory of Johnson’s decision-making process, if only because it is so inane.

Economically, of course, even the best US trade deal will not come close to compensating for the damage of there being no deal with the EU.

A tiny foretaste of just how dishonest the spin will become came in the government’s triumphant announcement that, as a result of a trade deal it has just signed with Japan, soy sauce will be cheaper from 1 January as it will attract a zero tariff.

Even that turned out to be a lie of a strange and complex sort. Soy sauce currently has no tariff charged anyway because of the EU-Japan trade deal which the UK is leaving, so the deal with Japan doesn’t make it cheaper it just stops it getting more expensive by virtue of trading on WTO terms."

Its all very nonsensical and misleading, just like the Alice in Wonderland politics the Lighthouse Keeper wrote about in Johnson’s land of fake believe back in 2019. 

Prof Grey goes on: "Moving from Brexiter PR back into the real world what we find are new reports of impending labour shortages once transition ends in fields ranging from agriculture to dentistry, of regulatory uncertainty in industries from aerospace to chemicals, and of ongoing difficulties in the recruitment of trained customs staff.

Many of these stories are, as they have been for years, under the public radar, appearing in the business pages of newspapers or in the specialist media of particular industries.

There is more public awareness when the Brexit effects on holiday-makers are reported, as with last weekend’s outrage at the ‘petty EU’ for ‘threatening’ British tourists with longer passport queues from next year.

It’s a story that encapsulates so much of the Brexiter mindset. That this was likely to be an effect of Brexit is not a new idea, but they dismissed it in the past as Project Fear. Then, when it threatens to become a reality, they treat it as a form of punishment as if, whilst leaving the EU, Britain ought to retain the rights it had as a member.

As the years have gone on, this mindset seems to have become so ingrained that there is no way of reasoning with it: all the adverse effects of Brexit are either denied (they won’t happen, it’s just scaremongering), ignored (they aren’t happening), displaced (they are happening but it’s not because of Brexit) or disowned (they shouldn’t happen, it’s only because the EU is punishing us).

Much that is familiar to everyday life in Britain is being ripped up by force majeure and few of us have alive today have experienced anything like it. But, still, Britain pushes on with the one, supposedly inviolable, immutable policy of Brexit.

It is a policy of such folly that the government no longer dares mention it by name and which even its most enthusiastic proponents have ceased to try to justify in any serious way. The Brexit Emperor lacks not just clothes now but skin and flesh too.

Yet even now – hugely difficult as it would be – it wouldn’t be totally impossible, given the extraordinary circumstances for the UK, to at least try to find some route to extending the transition,  rather than to just parrot that ‘time is running out’.

It seems feasible that, if the UK was open to such an idea, the EU would be at least willing to explore how to make it work, if only because of the worsening Covid-19 situation in many of its member states too.

The likelihood that this won’t happen, however, is down solely to the warthog stubbornness of a small group of fanatical Brexiters, still fighting the battle to leave that they have already won, and totally indifferent to its costs.

So, in Brexit trade terms we blunder on. Prisoners of a series of past decisions that we do not have the wit or the will to revisit, and of a small but powerful group of ideologues we are either too cowardly or too weak to face down. It is worse than folly. It is insanity.” 

The Lighthouse Keeper couldn’t agree more. 

To read Prof Chris Grey’s full post click here: Beyond folly”.