Category Archives: English

articles in English

Rail travel in Germany

This article shall help friends to navigate towards affordable rail travel when in or passing through Germany. The main rail operator in Germany is Deutsche Bahn. Their website www.bahn.de has all the rail connections within Germany and probably also the best overview of any connection in Europe. You can normally also book all tickets from their website. If you can NOT book a ticket there, this may be because you are looking at a local/regional tariff (only available at local ticket machines) or particular international connections (especially to France or Brussels, e.g. TGV or Thalys) which can then be bought at the other international rail operator.

Note: my comments here focus on long-distance travel (usually involving the high-speed ICE trains).

Tickets for intercity connections (NOT local metros etc.) can be bought up to the minute you enter the train at ticket machines, the web or via smartphone (or also on the train but with a heavier extra of more than 10 Euro). The App for finding connections and buying tickets Continue reading

A bright(er) outlook for Europe after the Euro-crisis

The European Union surely has had better moments. What first entered centre stage with some troubling fiscal gaps in Greece’s budget in late 2009 has now turned into a much more sustained challenge for the continent itself – and equally for the rest of the world. However, things are still undecided. At this time people can probably argue with equal justification that we are nearing the end of the downward spiral or that things continue to get much worse if and when a Euro-zone break-up eventually occurs.
I tend to be an optimist and I am convinced that within a few years things will become better than they were before the crisis. This essay sets out the justification for my optimistic perspective and, if realised, what repercussions the optimistic evolution would have for Europe and the rest of the world. It will look at a ‘return of Europe’ and will suggest the implications it has on three dimensions, namely the economy, Europe’s role in the world and the evolution of its identity. These three dimensions shall be analyzed along a chronological perspective, starting with the origins of the crisis and the structural context, recent and current developments with a lasting impact on Europe and eventually an outlook of Europe’s perspectives beyond 2014.

It wasn’t us…
Since the global financial crisis hit Europe, the prevailing narrative Continue reading

Japan’s future may be bleak – but not so bleak after all

In mid/late February I had the chance to join a 9-day study trip organized by my university to go to Japan. It was my first visit to the country and here are some thoughts on the economic prospects of Japan:

When I was a child (that was at the turn of the 80s and 90s), people in Germany (and I guess elsewhere) used to smile over the weird Japanese tourists who traveled 8 European cities in 6 days. Today the Japanese tourists are hardly realized among increasing shopping tourism from China. But China is not only flooding European shopping streets with its newly-rich, it has also become a point of attraction for ambitious young students as a destination for internships, studies and a possible career. In the meantime Japan appears to have disappeared somewhere in the Asian nirvana. I guess its image (if there is any) is to be some sort of a rich and friendly country. But it is not really known as the place to be (like China) nor for anything else really. The slightly more informed person will know that Japan’s prime minister changes every few months (making it even harder to remember anything about the country) and it somehow manages to get credit even though it has had higher debt levels than Greece or Italy. While China is rising, Japan simply does not seem to take place in Europe anymore. For those few public policy Continue reading

Copy-paste journalism – plagiarism in the media?

I have been working on a paper on dating for a while (hopefully ready for publication in summer), so I try to gather articles on the subject when they appear in the news I read. It so happened that the Economist published an article (Sex and Love: The modern Matchmakers) in its current edition (from 11 February 2012) reviewing a published journal article by Eli Finkel of Northwestern University. Finkel is assessing if online dating websites are as successful as they claim to be. Apparently she finds that there is no evidence for this.

After I consumed that article last weekend, I was stuck yesterday when another story on online dating appeared in the BBC online news – interestingly referring back to the same article by Finkel. And to make things worse, today the German edition of Spiegel Online published another article, again, refering to the same Finkel journal article. Continue reading

Travel light – on packing and sleeping

I came across three useful travel tips that I should I should share. (And note to self.)

The funniest, and maybe most useful, is from last weekend’s Financial Times. Always wondered how to max your hand luggage? – Here is the solutionn – the Dutch version of ‘wearable luggage’. This is a coat into which you can put up to 10kg of luggage and later (e.g. after check-in) fold into a bag. Very handy for flying with hand luggage only! Find out more at their website www.jaktogo.com. (Note that they are selling with 25% discounts until end of October).

Spiegel Online ran a nice article (unfortunately only in German) on how the freak travellers (backpackers) minimise the weight of their luggage. The bottom line is to buy a scale. But not the one you think. We are talking about the ones you normally use for food or letters etc., i.e. one to measure the 50 grams some stuff weighs too much. More in this (how to pack) and this article (how to spread in your backpack).

Read this blog if you consider a longer stay-over in an airport (or an overnighter). Nice reviews of experiences of sleeping over in various airports world wide. A particularly relevant read for Ryanair & co travellers. – My Facebook agreement with Manila having been voted the world’s worst airport has created a debate among friends, and it turns out that some Asian airports have probably not (yet?) received the (negative) attention they deserve. But Manila is a seriously crappy airport, with no proper connections between the four terminals and clueless staff all around. Point made.

Singapore’s lack of cycling facilities

Spiegel Online is featuring this short article about a new global index on the quality of cycling in global cities. The index was prepared by a Danish blogger and cycling expert who runs the blog Copenhagenize.eu. No surprise, Amsterdam and Copenhagen top the ranking of 20 cities. Sadly though only one Asian city makes it into the index: Tokyo (a very positive top 4). Unfortunately, it is not clear if other Asian cities are excluded because they have not been considered for assessment or because of their low quality of cycling infrastructure. Of all the big Asian cities I have seen, none struck me with any kind of an impressive cycling environment (Taipeh possibly having the biggest chances though).

Singapore (for once) trailing global cities in life quality?

After having spent a bit of time in Singapore, I wonder why this city is not investing far more attention and infrastructure to cycling. Surely, the all-year humid climate and temperatures for 30 degress during the day are not permitting a cool 10-minute bike-ride to university as relaxed as in Berlin. But then again, the government is very keen to emphasise health issues and constraining car traffic with some of the highest obstacles (i.e. prices) to car driving in the world. Would it not make more sense to start providing bike lanes on at least the big roads? Nowadays, you do not even know where to go as a cyclist in Singapore because roads are crowded and dangerous – and pavements are often too narrow even to walk.

Just like Continue reading

How Eurobonds are the way forward

Market pressures on ailing Euro-zone countries persist and the Merkels and Sarkozys struggle to find an answer. The latest hype gaining ground is the idea of Eurobonds. These would be jointly issued bonds by all Euro-zone (or even EU) governments to finance government debt by national (or sub-national) governments.

Ironically, I remember several interesting discussions with my Italian federalist friends who have always lobbied within JEF and UEF to support the introduction of Eurobonds – to allow the EU (budget) to run deficits primarily for EU-wide infrastructure projects. I have always (and continue to) oppose this idea because I think we do not need another layer of debt  in the EU while there is sufficient room for mobilising funds to invest in EU-wide infrastructure projects from the ineffective CAP and structural policy – and where necessary also from national coffers. While the financing mechanism for these Eurobonds would be the same, the current discussion is promoting Eurobonds on a very different level.

Eurobonds to solve the debt crisis

Eurobonds as advocated these days are seen as a tool to lower borrowing costs for peripheral Eurozone countries (Greece, Ireland etc.) who struggle with run-away interest rates on newly issued debt. They are practically cut off from the market, hence EU intervention mechanisms like the EFSF are now used to finance their debt. In some ways the EFSF is not so much different from the Eurobonds discussed today except the fact that the EFSF is primarily seen as a crisis intervention – and not a permanent – vehicle. Because (just like with the EFSF) Eurobond debt is guaranteed by countries like Germany or the Nordics borrowing is cheaper for such jointly guaranteed Eurobonds. So, why should we not issue Eurobonds Continue reading

Mladic’ arrest is no reason to celebrate

Yesterday was a very good day. One of the most disgusting criminals of the last decades has been arrested and should be brought to justice soon. Ratko Mladic was a key operator in the ‘Balkan wars’ of the 1990s – Europe’s darkest moment after Nazi Germany. The arrest of Mladic should remind us of three things. Firstly, no matter how bad your actions, no matter how much of a safe haven you think you have – they will catch you at last. Secondly, the war and hate Mladic and his false friends have seeded in the western Balkans is far from overcome. Bosnia and Herzegovina is years away from a functioning state (let alone society) and too many conflicts remain unresolved. It is shocking how a war of a few years can destroy communities, societies, economies and very fundamental trust between neighbours within the same street for decades. Thirdly, and most importantly, the arrest of Mladic is not a day to celebrate. It is a reminder! – It should (but I wonder if it does) remind us that all what he has done could happen again if Yugoslavia were to break up today. Despite all talk and good intentions Europe (i.e. the EU) still lacks the very capacities and the inner trust it needs to prevent such disasters in the future. If there is any lesson to draw from Mladic’ arrest yesterday, then it is to become serious about a truly common foreign policy for Europe. The western Balkans still need it, the Caucasus needs it, the southern and eastern Mediterranean need it – and most importantly we EUropeans need it.

Film tip: My favourite (and most moving) film about the Bosnian war is the BBC’s semi-documentary ‘Warriors‘.

Holding governments accountable

The Open Budget Index (OBI) for the year 2010 assessed 94 countries from around the world in terms of their budget openness and accountability. The drive was coordinated by the International Budget Partnership, a Washington DC based independent think-tank.

Of the 94 countries reviewed, only 24 yielded satisfactory results when it came to maintaining a transparency in their budgets. Despite some notable improvements, many of the countries surveyed have numerous milestones to achieve. The situation in Southeast Asia is even more worrying as none of the seven countries surveyed achieved a satisfactory score (i.e. at least 60 out of a possible 100 points). Singapore was, however, not included in the recent survey.

The importance of budget transparency for democratic, economic and social development

Transparency is a central theme of the good governance discourse. For economic and social development, in particular in a transitional/developing region like Southeast Asia, access to and information about budgets can make a real difference to citizens’ lives Continue reading

Poor results of budget transparency around the world

Over the last year I have been working on one of the most interesting global transparency projects – the Open Budget Index. A few weeks back the final results have finally been published after our lengthy review process. Unfortunately, these results shed a disappointing light on government approaches around the globe: 74 of our 94 countries surveyed fail to meet basic transparency standards! This means that normal citizens cannot obtain even the most basic information on their national budgets. Find more information on the findings on the project website.

With the index we look at 123 indicators in public budgets and primarily check the availability of key budget documents like the executive’s annual budget proposal as well as the quality of the data they include. Other questions are concerned with access to documents, the openness and involvement of legislatures or the quality of other budget institutions like auditors. 91 of these indicators make it into the final score. You can find the ranking of all 94 countries here.

Three findings are particularly interesting I think: Firstly, the state of budget transparency does not rely on a country’s state of economic development. South Africa as the overall top scorer illustrates this best. Secondly, the ‘resource curse’ is a phenomenon we tend to support with our findings. Countries highly dependent on hydrocarbons also have lower scores in our index. Thirdly, with data over three periods now (2006, 2008, 2010 – and 2012 beginning to be in the making) we can observe that budget transparency is not a static process and that in particularly countries with poor or mediocre performances do start to move. Countries like Liberia or Mongolia have shown a positive and strong upward trend thanks to clear political leadership. Others like Fiji, following a coup, show a downward trend. This, if nothing else, shows very clearly, how budget transparency is a political process and many governments around the world can and need to do much more to empower their citizens when it comes to the most important policy document of any country – its budget.

Rich data sets with answers to all questions are available for further research. You can obtain them either from the website or through me or the facilitators at IBP in Washington DC. We are grateful for any hints on anyone who researches or works on budget transparency. Do get in touch!