Friday, 21 December 2007

Today Eastern Europe wakes to no borders

It’s official. As of this morning you can now drive from the Russian border in Estonia to the Atlantic beaches of Portugal, across 24 countries, without passing through a single border crossing. As of midnight, the 2004 EU entrants are now part of the Schengen Zone, the border-free area that allows you to pass through European countries as easily as if you were going from Indiana to Illinois.

Considering the post-cold war implications of this day (all but one of the 2004 entrants are former Warsaw Pact countries), the scenes last night were dripping with symbolism. As Canada’s Global Mail reports, at the border of Germany and Poland the guards spent yesterday removing kilometres of tall steel fence, leaving unmarked and unguarded fields between them. Fireworks lit up the border bridge between Poland and Germany in Frankfurt on Oder early this morning. On the road between Vienna and Bratislava, Austrian and Slovakian leaders met to saw through border-crossing barriers. And in Estonia, the government put its border-inspection stations up for auction. Perhaps nowhere was the scene more striking than on the Czech-Slovak border, as the countries were split apart just in 1993 and now find themselves without a border between them once again.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

King steps in to end Belgian crisis

Belgium’s King Albert II has interceded in order to resolve the long-running crisis in Belgium, which has had no government for six months now as the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south have been unable to form a coalition government.

An emergency interim government has been formed, which can stay in office for no more than three months. Then the situation may be back to square one.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the whole situation is that for the most part life has gone on as normal while the country has had no government, which has made many Belgians begin to question the point of having a government in the first place. But the situation was starting to affect the economy, and last week the European Commission warned that the political paralysis was beginning to affect Belgium's economy.

For more information on the history of the Belgian crisis you can read my blog entry about it here.

Pan-Europe healthcare plan delayed

Though proposals were expected today on the controversial new plan that would make it easier for patients in Europe to travel to other EU countries to receive healthcare, a European Commission spokesman said this morning the proposals have been put off, citing “agenda reasons.”

The idea behind the plan is that patients should essentially be able to “shop around” Europe for their healthcare, having operations done in countries where the wait time and expertise most suits their needs, and then having their home healthcare system foot the bill. So, for example, a UK resident who needs a surgery but is facing a 4 year wait to do it at an NHS hospital, could travel to France and have the operation done sooner (and maybe better), and then get the NHS to foot the bill.
But the plan has been enormously controversial, and the UK is particularly opposed to it because some fear it will spell the “end of the NHS” because the system would be forced to transition to a more insurance-based continental system.

For this reason the proposals have been hitting consistent delays, being drafted and redrafted, and the proposals today were expected to offer countries like the UK the option to pre-approve such out-of-country treatment and to opt-out. Of course, the proponents of the plan say this would negate the very purpose of it.

Mark Mardell had an interesting package on the BBC last night about a woman who faced a four year wait for gastric bypass surgery in the UK, so she opted to have the operation performed in Belgium where there was no wait for £5,000 (insert joke about the weight difference between continentals and Brits here). He's detailed more about this issue in his Euroblog today.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Turkish troops enter Iraq

The AP is reporting that about 300 Turkish troops have crossed into northern Iraq. Ankara hasn’t confirmed the reports but Kurdish officials are saying that Turkish troops entered Iraq overnight and moved up to three kilometres (1.9 miles) inside

The operation follows air raids over the weekend in which Turkish warplanes bombed suspect Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq over the weekend. Iraqi officials say the bombs hit 10 villages.

Today’s development is the first deployment of Turkish troops inside Iraq since Turkey’s parliament voted to allow the military to conduct operations into Iraq to fight the PKK. Ankara has since then assembled up to 100,000 troops near the Iraq border.

Monday, 17 December 2007

The president and the supermodel

There’s something about heads of state dating that’s so exciting! The headline grabbing divorce of French president Nicolas Sarkozy from wife Cecilia meant that Sarkozy became, more or less, “the most powerful bachelor in the world.”

But now it’s looking like that singleness didn’t last very long, as Paris is abuzz today over rumours that Sarko’s new girlfriend is Carla Bruni, the famous Italian model and singer (pictured at right - doesn't Laura Bush have that same outfit?). L’Express reported today that the relationship has been confirmed and nearly all the French glossies are going to run cover stories on it this week.
Given Sarko’s incredibly busy schedule it’s hard to understand how he could possibly have time for all this romancing. But Certain Ideas of Europe noted today with some amusement that apparently the way the couple has chosen to publicize their relationship is through a highly visible visit to – where else – Euro Disneyland. Given the French perception of “Sarko L’American,” that will certainly play a part in the press coverage. Perhaps Sarko just couldn’t resist the irony – debuting your glamorous model girlfriend by taking her on a visit to the tackiest place on earth.

Friday, 14 December 2007

EU hopes to be hero in Kosovo

As we speak the EU is having what will probably be the shortest European Union summit so far, with it having started at ten and due to get out shortly after lunch. Many hope this is a sign that the ‘new EU’ promised by the tightening-up of the reform treaty has arrived. Now that the reform treat has been agreed, the union can get down to business, the argument goes.

For those that want to see an efficient and effective EU, the proposed resolution of today’s meeting is a promising sign as well. The summit is set to agree to offer Serbia a fast track to EU membership in exchange for its acquiescence in Kosovo bid for independence. The agreement would also create an EU police force to protect and stabilize the new country, finally allowing the US-led NATO who have been occupying the country for six years to leave. The draft summit statement says the mission for Kosovo would have up to 1,800 police, judges and prosecutors – making it the largest such mission ever undertaken by the bloc.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Europe bans kiddie junk food commercials?

Well…kind of. Actually a consortium of the world’s largest food makers have voluntarily, in response to pending action by the EU commission, agreed to stop advertising unhealthy food during children’s television programs by the end of next year throughout Europe. Seriously, no joke. That means no more Coco Crispies or Count Chocula ads during Power Rangers.

In a joint statement 11 companies, which together account for more than 2/3 of cash spent each year on food and beverage advertising in the EU, agreed to stop advertising unhealthy food and beverages on television programs, Web sites or in print media where children under age 12 could be considered a target audience.

They also agreed not to engage in any commercial communications related to food and beverages in primary schools, unless part of a specifically requested educational program.

These are no small-fry companies either. They include Coca-Cola, Groupe Danone (Danon), Burger King, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Ferrero and Unilever.

At some point in the next year the companies will set a “high nutritional hurdle” which foods will have to meet in order to be advertised during children’s programming.

It’s important to point out that this new policy will apply only to EUROPE, because that is where the regulatory threat was coming from. Since there’s no such regulatory threat in the US, fat American toddlers will still be transfixed by a magical little leprechaun running off with their lucky charms. USA! USA!

Brown ashamed of Europe?

I'm starting to view Gordon Brown with some "Britoscepticism."

Throughout all the troubles of the past few months, the British media have been picking on Brown and labeling him a 'ditherer'. With each unfolding embarrassment, it seemed there was a plausible defense for Brown. When the elections fiasco happened, it could be argued that Brown hadn’t “intended to call an election and then chickened out,’ but had rather failed to squash unprovoked rumors of an election early enough. When the Northern Rock bank run and bailout happened, many, such as the ECB, believed that the government stepping in was probably the best option. When the government lost the identity records of thousands of people in the second largest data loss in history, one could say it would be foolish to blame Brown because he had nothing to do with it. And as the controversy over “dodgy donations” has unfolded, with new stories of Labour improperly accepting campaign money unfolding every day, it seemed that the only reason this was a story was because Labour had put those campaign finance laws into effect in the first place and these were the inevitable growing pains as the system figures itself out.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

'Permalancers' walk out in US

There was an interesting article in the New York Times today about the "permalancing" concept so popular in the US which I wrote about in my blog entry last week about the new EU protections for temp workers. "Permalancers" are people who work regular full-time hours, but are classified as "freelancers" by their company so they don't have to give them benefits.

Yesterday a large number of freelancers at MTV networks walked off the job to protest the company's cuts to healthcare benefits for the 'permalancers.' The permalancers already have an extreemly low level of healthcare coverage and the new cuts whittle them down to almost nothing.

I have a number of friends who work for MTV as 'freelancers,' one friend has worked there full time under thsi status for 4 years. But they're all tucked away with visions of sugar plums dancing in their head right now so I can't ask if they took part in the walkout. But what's really interesting about this is that it seems to be the first instance of people working udner this status undertaking collective action.

Incidentally, no MTV office in Europe has anything even resembling the "permalancers" system, I'm told.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Secular society in the UK

As an American living in the UK, people often ask me what some of the biggest differences are between living in the two countries. Always eager to please, I usually list the positive differences first. For instance, for me, quality of life here is better. Music is more to my taste. Nearby places to travel are more interesting and London is more international than New York City. And of course, free healthcare!

But beyond all these things, there’s been an underlying difference which I wasn’t able to really put into words until recently. And it's historically one of the biggest differences two societies can have between one another: religion.

As an Atheist, I feel much freer to express my religious beliefs in the UK than I ever did in the US. In America, I usually felt that I had to keep my religious affiliation to myself, and I knew few others who also openly identified as atheists. Here in the UK, most people I know identify as atheists. For me, it means I feel a greater degree of religious freedom in the UK.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Europe’s temps set for full benefits

It looks like the UK is going to lose the battle in Brussels over a new law that would give temporary workers the same rights as full-time staff.

A government source told The Times today that the issue is being linked in with the working-time directive restricting employees’ hours, and that given the fact that only four EU countries oppose the measure as a whole, Britain will be forced to accept the change under qualified-majority voting rules at a council of ministers meeting tomorrow.

Business interests in the UK have been vocally against the measure, saying that the law could force companies to get rid of as many as 250,000 jobs if they were forced to give full benefits to their temporary employees. However British unions have been busily debunking this argument and have been pressuring the government to drop its opposition to the changes.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Europe gets its own GPS

After much hand-wringing and negotiation, the EU has finally agreed on a framework to go ahead with the ‘Galileo’ program, a $5 billion satellite navigation system which it says will give it “strategic independence” from the US.

Friday in Brussels ministers announced that work on the system, which is designed to rival the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), will finally begin after five years of delay. The announcement caught some off guard because many had assumed the project was dead on arrival. According to the ministers, the system will be operational by 2013.

The decision is important for a few reasons. The fact that GPS, which is the only satellite navigation system now available to consumers, businesses, militaries or governments, is controlled by the US government meant that the US can deny other country’s access to it at any time. As the world’s militaries have become more and more reliant upon global positioning, the potential problems of this system being owned and run by the US military have become glaringly obvious.

Monday, 26 November 2007

Did Sarko win?

It was a long battle, but looks like French president Nicolas Sarkozy may have won this round in his war with the French left. Or did he?

The past weeks have seen a broad range of unions take to the streets to protest Sarkozy’s attempted reforms of the French social system. Public transit workers, civil servants, teachers, nurses, tobacco shop owners, air traffic controllers, fishermen and even opera stagehands have taken to organized action in attempts to resist the changes. Last week nearly half of all universities in France were shut down by protests, and there are reports that soon lawyers and judges are also going to have a walk out.

Now of course such things are not unusual in France, it’s a nation quite fond of revolutions and street protests. But there’s been something very different this time around, found notably in the lack of public support for the strikers. This feeling that the public was not behind them was probably what convinced many of the transit unions to vote to return to work late last week. Sarkozy, it seems, isn’t prepared to blink any time soon, and the unions may be starting to do so.

This current battle is just the first of many that will come in the coming year, and the French people knew it was coming. Sarkozy’s entire election campaign was centred around his central slogan, “work more to earn more,” and was filled with promises to break the power of the unions and drastically alter the French social system, which many people see as crippling France’s productivity, making it impossible for the country to compete in the modern global economy.

But no one said it would be easy, and history has not been on the capitalist reformers’ side. Former President Jacques Chirac tried to take on the transport workers and their pensions in 1995, only to be forced to surrender after three weeks of industrial action. But Nicolas Sarkozy is a very different man than Jacques Chirac. He has been very direct and clear about the radically new direction he plans to take France in, and the public voted him in (relatively narrowly), thereby giving him a mandate for change. So far, the public seems to be sticking by their vote.

How long will their patience last? We are still in the early days of this fight, and long protracted strikes like those seen in France in the 60’s and 70’s may be too much for the public to take. Clearly, its too early to tell who will win this fight, but it’s clear that both sides are prepared to dig in their heels. The question is, who will blink first?

Friday, 23 November 2007

Poland changes its tune

The effects of the election in Poland that ousted the Kaczynski stranglehold on power is already being seen, with the new government saying it wants to be the first to ratify the Lisbon Treaty.

The speaker of the Polish parliament Bronislaw Komorowski said yesterday "I hope that Poland will be the first country to ratify the treaty. This would be a symbolic gesture, signifying Poland's return to the heart of Europe."

At the same time, that signature is going to have one notable caveat - Poland will still be exempt from the the Charter of Fundamental Rights. Komorowski said that to try to undue the exemption worked out by the country's previous far-right regime would be too much of a risk, saying "We won't run the risk of the president not ratifying the treaty (..) That would be the worst for Poland and for Europe."

That document, which outlines citizens' rights and is technically legally binding by the treaty, is seen in conservative circles as a backdoor to allowing abortions, euthanasia or gay marriages.

The fear is that the older Kaczynski twin, who is still president, would refuse to sign any agreement which embraced the human rights declaration, throwing the whole treaty into jeapordy. Poland, as wella s all of Europe, he argues, can't risk it.

Interestingly, the new government is also signalling a change in its relationship with Russia and the US, possibly softening toward the former and hardening toward the latter. He says Warsaw is also willing to "open dialogue" with the Kremlin on two thorny issues – the US ambition to place parts of a missile shield in Poland. That project, which the US desperately wants, may now be in jeopardy.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Brown feeling blue

It’s safe to say this has not been a good week for Gordon Brown. First came the news that Northern Rock, the mainstay UK bank that had a bank run about a month ago and was bailed out by the government, can’t find a buyer except predatory private equity firms making obscenely low-ball bids. This is bad news for chancellor Alastair Darling because the government may not recoup its bailout money, and although they assured the bank’s customers that their money was safe in order to stave off the bank run, it is now unclear whether that money really is safe.

But this news was quickly overshadowed by the bombshell that dropped Tuesday, when it was revealed that the government has lost data on 25 million Britons. Two unencrypted disks with the records of 7.2 million families claiming child-benefit payments went missing when they were sent from the Revenue and Customs department, which is overseen by the Treasury, to the National Audit Office. It's the biggest loss of personal data in British history, and second only to the loss of data by the VA in the US last year.

Then yesterday Sir Ken Macdonald, the Director of Public Prosecutions, and Lord Goldsmith, the former attorney general, told the House of Commons yesterday that not only did they not support Brown’s proposal to extend the amount of time suspected terrorists can be held without charges, they would resign if any such changes were to be imposed.

It’s been a meteoric fall for Brown in the last two months, from riding high during his initial ‘honeymoon period’ to his current position, it’s unbelievable how a PM can fall so far so fast. It all started when Brown allowed election rumours to persist unabated, catching political flack when he finally squashed them. This made Brown look irresolute and calculating, and gave the Tories a big opening to criticize him. Now, with the vicious tongue lashing delivered by David Cameron to Brown in yesterday’s prime ministers questions, some in the Labour party are even quietly wondering whether Brown is the right man to lead them into the next elections. Even though there’s virtually nothing Labour MPs could do to change this, the fact that they are hypothesizing about it must be deeply worrying to Brown’s team.

Something tells me those elections won’t be coming for a long, long time now.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Farewell, crown jewel

My India visit is drawing to a close, I'm now just trying to kill time while I wait for my very long journey home. Overall it was an interesting and enjoyable trip but I'm eager to get home and be in my own bed. Interestingly, when I lived in New York I would dread going back after a trip, but now each time I go away reinforces how much I love living in London. It's funny, I moved there feeling fairly neutral about the city and have ended up - dare I say it - falling in love with London.

Bombay has been interesting, I definitely enjoyed it more than Delhi. It's so much easier to get a handle on, being as centralized and compact as it is. I’d say Bombay is like New York and Delhi is like DC, both in terms of their layout and their vibes.

Exploring all of the Victorian architecture here in Bombay is a real trip. It’s also nice the way it’s laid out all along the Arabian Sea. The air quality is still horribly bad, but at least in Bombay you get a breeze off the ocean, unlike in Delhi where the dirty air just seems to hang there. Either way I’m eager to get a gasp of fresh air once I get back to London.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Observations on India

I’m on day seven here in India and it’s safe to say the hassles of everyday life are starting to get to me! I keep thinking that if I were here for pleasure I’d be having a really amazing time, being able to relax and just sit by the pool or do sightseeing. But being here on business is a completely different story. The lack of modern amenities and decent infrastructure make getting around extremely difficult here, and when you’ve made five appointments per day spread out across the city, it gets a little stressful!

Not that I’m not enjoying my visit, it really is a fascinating place. But relaxing is definitely not a word I would use to describe this trip. I’ve learned so much so far on this visit though, things I had no idea about before. I really thought that India’s two largest cities would be more developed. Certainly, there is a great deal of development going on, but it would be a stretch to describe these places as ‘developed’ in their present state. Essentially India is where the West was 100 years ago. They’re in a state of rapid building and unprecedented growth, sitting on the back of a 19th century infrastructure and society. It really is like a trip back in time being here. The streets are teeming with the poorest of the poor, the creaking rail cars are filled with people hanging on to the sides, the markets are a jostling cacophony of street merchants. Yet dotted throughout these cities are modern developments, shielded by walls and guards from the rabble outside. This is exactly what New York City would have looked like 100 years ago.

Thursday, 8 November 2007

Sarko fever: catch it!

Sacre Bleu! I can’t get over these headlines today from the US about Sarkozy’s visit. “We love America, Sarkozy tells Congress” screams ABC. “Bush, Sarkozy stand on common ground” says the LA Times. “Sarkozy -- a Frenchman conservatives can love,” declares the Baltimore Sun. “French President Says America Can Count on France,” contorts Voice of America.

Head to the other side of the Atlantic and the coverage is very different. The BBC focuses on the disaster Sarkozy heads back to today with the headline “France divided as Sarkozy woos US”. Reuters highlights the distaste Sarkozy’s reception in the US will leave with most French people saying “Sarkozy returns from US to skepticism” And the Belfast Telegraph notes that “Sarkozy's warm words mask deep divisions with US.”

Were they watching the same speech?

Tuesday, 6 November 2007

New EU terror laws

The EU got one step closer today to establishing a coordinated anti-terrorism policy through all member states. And they didn’t pull any punches this time. The ambitious plan calls for banning web sites that show how to make a bomb or advocate violence, and creating a Europe-wide registry keeping extensive information on the people flying into and out of the EU.

The changes, of course, closely mirror what’s taken place in the United States since September 11th and in fact, such directives were put in place by the EU way back then. But with all the chaos over the failure of the constitution, it got lost in the shuffle and little has been done on a coordinated basis.

The report accompanying the new laws issued by Franko Frattini, the feisty and ambitious European Justice Commissioner, basically criticizes every European country for being too soft on terrorism. Frattini is calling for countries to have a specific category of “terrorist murder” offences with tougher penalties spelt out in law. In addition the commission wants all 27 EU members states to have similar separate crimes for terrorist incitement to violence, terrorist recruitment, terrorist planning, etc.

The commission targets the UK, Italy, Germany, Spain and Ireland in particular on this front, saying they have developed few or none of the specific terrorism offenses the EU called for after September 11.

Thursday, 1 November 2007

Why are we bound by borders?

A Turkish friend of mine just sent me this map which I find extremely interesting. He was pointing to the AFJ-designed hypothetical creation as an example of “US arrogance,” but I think it makes for an interesting study as the crisis with the PKK pushes Turkey further and further toward an invasion of Iraq.

The map is a redrawing of the national borders of the Middle East based on ethnic and religious lines. It accompanied this 2006 article in the Armed Forces Journal about what a fair Middle East would look like. Apparently the map has been circulating around Turkey without the accompanying article (I had to do some super sleuthing to even find the article) and is being presented as actual plans of the US military to redraw the Middle East. This assumption, of course, is not only wrong but idiotic, considering that much of this redrawing would be not in American interest and the US is actively resisting such a redrawing by clumsily trying to hold together the nonsensical, European-drawn borders of Iraq. A group in Turkey even announced a competition to redraw the US map in retaliation. Check them out here, they’re absolutely absurd. Isn’t the fact that no Turk was able to draw new borders for the US that make any sense evidence against their own point? The US is a culturally and linguistically homogenous nation, and the ethnic and religious divisions that exist are spread out. None of these entries even takes into account the political differences that might actually be astute (like the infamous “Jesusland and United States of Canada” map that came out after the 2004 election).

Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The referendum reality

Is Labour calling Cameron's bluff?

Mark Mardell had an excellent post on his BBC Euroblog yesterday on the trouble with all these calls for a referendum on the reform treaty in the UK. Cameron is now being pressed by Labour to promise that if he were prime minister he would call a referendum on the treaty, even if it had been voted through by the House of Commons. Of course Cameron can’t make any such promise because he knows it was idiotic for Labour to promise a referendum on the constitution in the first place because that’s what’s giving them trouble now. Given that he’s making political hay about calling this a “trust” issue, he would be incredibly short-sighted to set himself up for the same trap.

Because you see he can’t put the vote to a referendum either, because no matter which way it turns out it would hurt him as a new prime minister. The assumption is that were the treaty voted on in the UK the result would be ‘no,’ not on the actual merits of the treaty but because the British public is widely sceptical of EU expansion. But if the referendum were to result in a yes, it would look like a political defeat for Cameron right at the start of his leadership (assuming the Conservatives push for a no vote).

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Sarko storms out of 60 Minutes interview

I couldn't resist posting this video of Sarko walking out of a 60 Minutes interview. Given his notorious temper, I think we're due one of these every few months. I know I'm excited!

Weaving through Wales

This weekend two friends and I took a little road trip to South Wales. It was my first time there so it was a good opportunity to see more of the UK than just London, or even just England. It’s a beautiful landscape, but once again I found myself perplexed by some of the historical curiosities of modern Wales.

On the way to Wales we made a quick stop at Stonehenge, something I’ve been dying to see since I arrived here. The Brits seem to really have something against it. Everyone we talked to told us not to go, or if we’re going to go make sure it’s on the way to somewhere else, because it’s horribly boring. But I thought it was quite interesting. First off there’s the natural appeal of getting a photo of yourself in front of a world-famous landmark. But beyond that it is interesting to actually see this thing you’ve seen so many times in photos up close and personal (or as close as they’ll let you get). It is much smaller than you’d think it was, but I think it’s worth the trip.

We stopped off for a pub lunch in a little English village called Bromham, which was quite charming. Then it was on to Wales, crossing the massive Severn estuary. The water level was shockingly low, which was a preview of the rest of the bodies of water we would encounter in Wales. I don’t know if we just kept encountering these things at low tide, but everywhere we went there was no water but just massive banks of mu

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Forget green, go blue!

The EU unveiled its plans for the union-wide “blue card” yesterday. It’s meant to be modeled on, as well as a competitor to, the US green card. Though the card appears to be a logical solution to the problem of hiring skilled labor, it appears to do little to solve the growing problem of illegal immigration in Europe.

The blue card will be like the American green card in that it will be based on a points system that takes into account job skills, language proficiency and the presence of family in the country already. For example someone with an MBA who speaks English and German would have a better chance of getting one of these cards than someone who doesn’t speak any European language and has no family in the EU.

The measure comes at a time when EU countries are facing a severe skills shortage, particularly in the areas of engineering, healthcare and IT. With the EU population aging rapidly, there is an urgent need to bring new immigrants onto the continent. But the way this has been done so far is considered by many to have been not only ineffective, but detrimental to the societies involved.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The white sheep win in Switzerland

Despite the "foreigner-friendly" win in Poland, the weekend saw a very different election result just a thousand kilometers away in Switzerland. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has gained infamy in the past few months for running what many see as a blatantly racist ad campaign, won 29% of the vote this weekend and gained seven seats on the National Council. That makes SVP Switzerland’s largest party by a long shot.

Meanwhile Switzerland’s second-largest party, the center-left Social Democrats, had a disastrous weekend. They lost nine seats and had a 4 percent drop on its showing in 2003 elections. The party now has 43 seats on the 200-person National Council compared to the SVP's 62. SVP is led by the populist Christoph Blocher, who is one interesting character, let me tell you.

The news is highly disturbing to many in Europe because the result means that the party’s overtly racist campaign advertising was a huge success. The party had run a series of ads depicting three white sheep grazing on a Swiss flag, kicking a black sheep off of it. The ads were accompanied by the slogan, "for more security.”

Poles go to the polls

It’s official, the right-wing government of the Kaczynski twins in Poland has been toppled. Poles turned up in record numbers in yesterday’s snap election (the highest turnout since the fall of communism in 1989), overwhelming the Polish election authorities and forcing polling stations to be open late into the night. And even before the exit polls were in yesterday, it was clear that the high turnout meant that the twins were in trouble.

The Kaczynski Twins are Jarosław, the prime minister of Poland, and Lech, the president of Poland. They are former child actors (see picture below) who in 2000 created the Law and Justice Party, a far-right, fervently Catholic party that has been running the country for a number of years now. With an absolute lock on power, the twins have pursued an aggressive agenda of going after former communists and alienating their neighbors and allies. During their time in power the twins have managed to irritate just about every other country in Europe, most notably with their comments about Germany and World War II. They’ve also been unfriendly toward the EU, holding up negotiations on the reform treaty by demanding that Poland get more seats in the European Parliament. They've also had an aggressive agenda on 'morality policy'. One Law and Justice minister even wanted to ban the Teletubbie Tinkie Winky from the country because of he is allegedly gay.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Le divorce

Think you’re having a bad day? France’s new president Nicolas Sarkozy is having probably the worst week of his life, dealing concurrently with a massive public transit strike and a divorce. It looks like the end of his marriage has come at the same time as the end of his honeymoon period as president.

The presidential palace announced yesterday that Cécilia Sarkozy and Nicolas have divorced “by mutual consent” At the same time, Sarkozy is dealing with the first major challenge to his attempts to shake up the French social and economic system.

France has ground to a virtual standstill as public sector workers, mainly in transport and electricity, stage a massive strike over a proposed change to their special pension rights. Yesterday’s concurrent strike and divorce announcement is being called "Black Thursday" in France, and will probably come to be known as the day that Sarkozy lost control of the positive news agenda that he’s had since he became president five months ago. Sarkozy’s whole schtick has been his “ironman” persona, a strong, determined and energetic leader that is determined to strong-arm the changes that France desperately needs. But the collapse of his marriage so soon into his presidency, as well as speculation that the marriage actually ended before the election but Sarkozy has been keeping it a secret, will surely make him lose respect with the public.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Lisbon Looming

There's just one day until Brown goes off to Lisbon to endorse (or maybe not endorse) the Lisbon Treaty, and news reports like these should be making some people in Brussels awfully nervous.

Now that the disastrous election fiasco has delivered a firm punch in the jaw to Brown, the Conservatives are eager to continue the momentum and renew demands that he put the treaty endorsement to a referendum. The British tabloid press has also got in on the act.


On its Web site, the British tabloid The Sun has superimposed Brown's face onto a picture of Winston Churchill, turning around Churchill’s tribute to British airmen in World War II, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” into a jibe at Brown, saying, "Never have so few decided so much for so many." The graphic was accompanied by an online poll.

Monday, 15 October 2007

All set for Schengen

We’re getting down to the last months of the year and, surprisingly, we may actually see the Schengen expansion come to pass by year’s end, according to recent reports.

The Schengen Agreement is the system that came into effect in 1995 that got rid of border checks between certain European countries. So now, for instance, when you travel between Germany and France you don’t go through any border check, and when you fly between these countries you don’t have a passport control check point. It was named after Schengen, Germany, where the agreement was signed (there's now a little monument to it there which I've seen, pictured at right).

But, the Schengen membership is different from the EU membership, which makes it rather interesting. The UK and Ireland, for instance, are both in the EU but not part of the Schengen Agreement (they just love that whole ‘island nation’ thing). Norway and Iceland, on the other hand, are not in the EU but are part of the Schengen Zone. So, when I fly from London to anywhere in Europe, I have to go through passport control, which is quite annoying (particularly if you don’t have an EU passport, since they get a separate and shorter line). But if I flew from France to Norway, I would not go through a passport check. Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, is scheduled to join Schengen next year.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The honeymoon is over

Apologies for not writing in my Euroblog for so long, I’ve been in the US for some weddings for two weeks and wasn’t getting much news from the old world. But boy did things change while I was away!

When I left, the party conferences in the UK were in full swing and Gordon Brown was riding high on talks of an early snap election based on his high poll numbers and the conservatives’ chronic infighting. Virtually everyone I know in government was telling me that an election was all but certain. People were being told to cancel their vacations, parliament was hurriedly finishing up legislation, it was a frenetic scene. And Gordon Brown, based on his ‘honeymoon period’ bump and his deft handling of a series of crisies over the summer, was projected to lead Labour to a rousing victory, picking up parliament seats from both Lib Dems and Tories.

While I was home people kept asking me how Gordon Brown has been doing in his first months of office, and I went on and on about how well received he’s been by both the public and the media. It was his stark differences from Tony Blair, I kept stressing, which seem to be his greatest asset. Brown is dull and traditional, and that’s exactly what the public wanted. They had become disillusioned with the “American-style” politics of Tony Blair, which in the end, fairly or not, was characterized as a sleek PR trick, all style and no substance. Brown, at last, was everything a British politician was supposed to be.

Friday, 28 September 2007

More on Turkey

Reading the Economist's Robin Shepherd's entry today about Turkey's accession prospects, I realized I left a major point out in my previous entry. The biggest, and most practical concern about Turkey entering the union is that given it's monumental size, it would come to dominate the entire system if the EU becomes any further integrated than it is today.

Given that Turky's population is expected to reach 85 million or more by 2020, a scenario where the EU had adopted a weighting voting system and accepted Turkey as a member would mean that by that year, Turkey would have the largest voting block in all European decisions, larger even than Germany's! It would become the pre-emnent voting power in Europe, even though less than five percent of its territory is actually in Europe.

As Shepherd points out, the 27 nations in the EU would never accept this scenario. So, it follows, the only scenario in which Turkey could legitimately find itself a member of the EU is if the Eurosceptics are successful in keeping the integration of the union limited, making it more of a common trading block than a real union. This is why the Euroskeptic UK is so gung-ho about Turkey, while the core state of France and Germany are so opposed. The simple fact is, the question of Turkey is not just a question of what is Europe, or one of culture, religion, or race. It is fundamentally a question about what sort of union the EU is going to be.

Wednesday, 26 September 2007

Coin controversy

There’s been a lot of noise made over these new euro coins over the past couple days, with people advocating for Turkey’s entrance into the EU horrified that EU finance ministers had adopted a design for the new Euro coins that leaves Turkey off the map.

The coins are for the new members states of Slovenia, Malta and Cyprus, and feature a map of Europe that doesn’t feature Turkey. Those who support Turkey’s accession to the EU are furious, saying it reflects a bias against the potential future member state. And the English-language press has picked up the story and portrayed it as a deliberate slight against Turkey.

Tuesday, 25 September 2007

UK election next month?

It’s party conference season here in the UK. If you took the word ‘conference’ out of that phrase it would sound a lot more fun. But from what I heard from my friend Francis about the Lib Dem conference down in Brighton, these things are actually a raucous good time.

Party conference season refers to the three weeks in the fall when the three main political parties in the UK each have a big event outlining their platform for the coming year. They’re a bit like the national conventions in the US, except that they happen every year rather than every four years and are not expressly for the purpose of choosing a candidate to run for the country’s leadership (although sometimes such a leadership change is made).

Wednesday, 19 September 2007

EU slaps Microsoft, big energy

It’s been interesting to watch the very different coverage on either side of the Atlantic of the EU anti-trust ruling against Microsoft. While in Europe the ruling has been largely heralded, especially on the continent, in the US the coverage has been akin to something straight out of a World War I warning of the hun menace.

Even the New York Times coverage seems to suggest that the ruling is going to do tremendous damage to competition in the IT sector. The logic seems to be that big companies are the only companies that understand how to innovate or compete, and stifling them is going to cause a slowdown of growth.

On the other hand in Europe, there were huge sighs of relief coming from Brussels Monday. Considering the European Commission’s reputation as a crusader for consumers and competition, it would have been greatly damaged if the court hadn’t upheld their orders. Monday’s ruling is the result of nearly ten years of work by the EC to deal a blow to what they see as Microsoft’s monopoly over the software industry.

Monday, 17 September 2007

ECB on Northern Rock: What Northern Rock?

It’s official. The UK has become the first country to have a bank run caused by the current market turbulence. The run on Northern Rock bank that started on Friday and is continuing today is sending the public here into a panic. British commentators are speculating that there could be another Black Wednesday around the corner, while the Bank of England is trying to reassure the public that there’s nothing to be alarmed about.

Northern Rock is Britain’s fifth largest mortgage lender and is a massive bank here. So when news broke on Friday that the bank is going broke because of the worldwide credit crisis and the Bank of England has bailed it out with a limitless line of credit, the bank’s customers ran to the branches and started queuing to get their money out in cash. It was really insane, I walked by a branch on Friday and it was complete pandemonium, like that bank run scene in It’s a Wonderful Life.

Tuesday, 11 September 2007

Kosovo showdown looming

The deadline for answering the Kosovo question is looming. Some sort of government needs to be put in place by 10 December, when the UN mandate ends. I’m particularly interested in these developments because I send my rent cheque to Kosovo every month as that’s where my landlord is (weird story). If Kosovo becomes independent, he and his family will probably move back here (since he is Serbian) and I’ll be out of a home!

Essentially the problem is this: a majority of the people living in the Serbian province of Kosovo are ethnic Albanians (Albania being the neighbouring country to the west). As with other areas in the larger Yugoslav civil war, a big part of the conflict was tension between the Muslim Albanians and the Christian Serbs. During the Yugoslav civil war in the 1990’s, Albanians in Kosovo conducted a peaceful secessionist movement. In 1995, after the Dayton Agreement ended the Bosnian War but did not address Kosovo, the Kosovo Liberation Army (KLA) was formed in 1996 with the goal of attaining an independent Kosovo. They employed guerilla-style tactics against Serbian police forces, paramilitaries and regular civilians. The situation devolved into complete chaos and Serbs began massacring Albanians, triggering a US-led 78-day NATO campaign in 1999. An estimated 10,000 ethnic Albanians and 3,000 Serbs were killed during the fighting, a majority of them civilians and many through a campaign of ethnic cleansing.

Monday, 10 September 2007

Dismantle Belgium?


There was an interesting piece in The Economist last week about Belgium and whether or not its existence really makes sense in the 21st century. Ostensibly it was just about the current conditions in this one tiny country, but in effect it cuts to the heart of the future of Europe as a whole.


The magazine asks the question, given that we’re now in month three of Belgium having no new government because the two parties can't agree, is it time to revaluate the Belgian state? After all if the parties, made up along ethnic/linguistic lines of French-speaking Walloons in the south and Dutch-speaking Flemings in the north still have so much tension after nearly 200 years, perhaps the time may be coming to rethink Belgium’s status.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Helsinki

One of the most striking things about Helsinki is the dominance of its skyline by two very different churches. Approaching the city from the sea, you see the blazing white Helsinki Lutheran Cathedral to the west, and the glowing red Uspenski Orthodox Cathedral to the east. Inside the two cathedrals, the differences couldn’t more striking. The Russian Orthodox cathedral is littered with golden Byzantine iconography, while the Lutheran church is a sparse, monotone mass of white walls.

Given their geographic locations, its not hard to see the two as symbols of a country torn in two different directions, between the Lutheran Swedes to the west and the Orthodox Russians to the east. Finland spent 300 years under Swedish rule, followed by a century under Russian rule after Russia wrested the territory from the Kingdom of Sweden in 1809. It was only in 1917 following World War I that Finland declared its independence and became an independent country for the first time in its history.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Stockholm

I'm here in Stockholm, just got back from my first day of interviews for the story I'm working on. Luckily all the appointments were relatively close to one another (it's a very centralized city, nice change of pace from London!) so it was relatively painless. Although they all started to get rather repetitive and by my last interview of the day I was definitly ready to be done.

So I'm back in my hotel room to write a quick blog before I meet my friend for dinner. My hotel is laughably horrible. I was trying to prove a point, or something, by booking the cheapest hotel I could find.

Thursday, 30 August 2007

London's statue status


Yesterday a statue of Nelson Mandela went up in Parliament Square, and it got me thinking. In a city with more statues than dentists, at what point do we start reevaluating the ones that are already here?

I mean logic would tell you that, on a practical level, if this city keeps putting up statues at the rate it has been they’ll be no room left in the public parks for anyone to walk around. But on a more sentimental level, one has to note that the kinds of people we’re chiseling into stone today are quite different from the people we immortalized a century ago.

Take the new Mandela statue for instance. When I went to visit it last night I saw that it faces a statue of Jan Smuts, who was the South African prime minister at the inception of white rule. Winston Churchill, perhaps the most well-known statue in the square today, helped to draw up the du-jour segregation plan at the outset of South Africa’s independence.

Tuesday, 24 July 2007

Turkey's Islamic landslide

I think you’d be hard pressed to find a political climate more reflective of a wider issue than what’s going on in Turkey right now. The conflict between the Islamic-rooted party and the secularist party resulted in the calling of an election on Sunday that saw the Islamic party receive a solid victory, more than anyone could have imagined last week. What will this mean for Turkey’s future, and its relations with Europe?

The situation is enormously complicated and requires a bit of explaining. Turkey was the center of the Ottoman Empire for centuries, which stretched at various times from Morocco in North Africa to Hungary in Europe. It literally had territory on three different continents and therefore acted as a bridge between many different cultures. By World War I the empire was antiquated and ailing, and following the sultan’s disastrous decision to join with the Germans and Austro-Hungarians in World War I, a group of “young Turks” in the army led by a man who came to be known as Ataturk (or “father of the Turks”) seized power and completely reformed Turkey, giving up its non-Turkish possessions and developing a fiercely secular, Western-oriented nation. Ataturk was an avowed enemy of religion and felt that the state must take safeguards to keep it firmly out of the government. For this reason, Turkey and the rest of the Middle East took very divergent paths in the remainder of the 20th century.

For decades the country was ruled by Ataturk’s heirs, the secularist army. But in the last ten years Islam has been becoming steadily more popular in the country, as evidenced by the rising number of women in Ankara and Istanbul wearing headscarves. This is worrying to much of the country, who fear that Turkey could slide toward the kind of governments seen in the rest of the Middle East. Even a moderately Islamic government, comparable say to the degree that the US government is Christian, would be extremely worrying to many Turks.

So when the Islamic-rooted party Justice and Development was voted into power five years ago, the army stood up and prepared to take up their traditional role of defending the secularist Turkish state, through force if necessary. When the party nominated the current foreign minister, Abdullah Gul, to be president. Gul’s wife wears a headscarf, and this fact was so unacceptable to the army that they not only derailed the nomination but demanded that the government hold new elections. But this move backfired and now Justice and Development is even more powerful than before, although they have pledged to nominate a new compromise candidate for president, presumably one who’s never even seen a head scarf.

So it’s a simple story of a pro-Western army trying to keep an Islamic fundamentalist party out of power right? Not even close. It’s a lot more complicated than it seems at first glance. For instance, it could be argued that Justice and Development is Islamic in the same way that Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats in Germany are Christian (i.e., a historic root in the religion but not strongly religious). What’s more, it can’t really be said that the party is anti-Western, because they’ve made a number of economic and social reforms in an effort to get Turkey admitted to the EU. They’ve actually presided over an economic boom time in Turkey, and the reality is this is probably the reason they received such an overwhelming result on Sunday. People weren’t voting for an Islamic party, they were voting for a party that had presided over successful times.

What’s more, the secularist army’s party, the Republican People’s Party, is “pro-Western” really just in its opposition to Islam and its promotion of Western lifestyles and values. The reality is this is an autocratic party that wants to stifle democracy, and this is one of the biggest obstacles to Turkey’s joining the EU. As long as the RPP remains so powerful, the country could never join the European Union.

It’s also not as clear-cut as religious people versus secular people, in many ways the religion issue is a mask for an urban-rural divide. As Mark Mardell pointed out this week, the conflict is as much about the educated, secular, urban elite of Istanbul and Ankara, who control the army and the beaurocracy, fearing the uneducated, religious mob of the rural interior. Writes Mardell:

This is a battle of different classes, as well as of religion and ideas. Anyone think of any other countries with an urban and coastal liberal elite that feels under threat from the religious politics of the rural hinterland? The big difference is that the Pentagon wouldn’t even dream of putting tanks on the White House lawn if George W held a prayer meeting.
I thought this was an interesting analogy. It would be as if the urban elites of the East and West coast controlled the army and the rural red state voters controlled the government (of course the opposite is true, the rural red staters control both!). But if this were the case in the US, the conflict wouldn’t just be about religion versus secularism, although that would be a big part of it. That conflict would just be part of a larger class conflict, and this is the case in Turkey today.

I thought Mardell’s story about a conversation he had with some Turkish generals was even more interesting. Writes Mardell:

I had an early morning drive across the Bosphorous to talk to a couple of retired senior military men, three-star generals. They argued Turkey was not a democracy, despite the fact it goes to the polls on Sunday in what appear to be free and fair elections, with multiple political parties and a free-ish and vociferous press. Their arguments strike me as rather Leninist. The masses are uneducated and illiterate so can be deceived by unscrupulous politicians. Only when they are better educated will Turkey be a real democracy. It is the army’s job to intervene if there is any deviation on the path to this true democracy.

They make a similar argument about "ethnic issues"... which means the Kurds. Poverty and bad education is the problem. The solution may need a tough military component but it's really about developing the south-east of Turkey until people stop worrying about issues of identity.
Turkey is really a very interesting country, and I’m curious to see how this unfolds over the next several years. One is really unsure who to side with in this debate.

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Budapest pride Marred by Violence

My friend Lee was at the Budapest gay pride parade on Saturday and he said it was really scary. He’s in an opera in Vienna right now, and he had been to the pride parade in that city the previous week and said it was very nice and pleasant, your standard pride parade.

So the following Saturday he went to the Budapest parade, which is literally 90 minutes away by train. But the difference couldn't have been more stark. Apparently there were as many protestors of the parade as there were marchers. It was like one of those old-timey gay pride parades in New York from the 70’s, where they were literally protesting something rather than just having a big street party. He took some pictures which you can see here. Apparently people were throwing eggs, bricks, beer bottles, anything really, and a couple people got beat up really bad. And lining the route of the parade (which really was more of a ‘march’ than a parade) there were no cheering onlookers, either indifferent stares or menacing taunts.

Thursday, 5 July 2007

Pesky Poland

I had an interesting conversation with a Polish person I met last night, and it shed a bit of light into the Polish character and why the country has been such a thorn in Brussels' side over the past few weeks.

To recap, the big news in Europe over the last month has been the meetings over the new treaty being hammered out to replace the EU constitution, which died when it was voted down by referendums in France and The Netherlands two years ago. There were two member states that were the biggest obstacles to progress in the talks. The first was, predictably, the UK, which has been the most historically uncooperative member and wanted all sorts of special exemptions from the treaty for itself. But the second was Poland, a new member state that was admitted just three years ago.

Poland is currently run by a pair of eccentric, very conservative twins. They caused quite a stir at the meetings by demanding that the EU adopt a voting system in which each country gets an amount of votes proportional to the square root of the population, rather that proportional to the actual population. This would give smaller countries more voting power and bigger ones less, and would essentially give Poland (population 38 million) the same voting power as Germany (population 82 million). The twins were intractable on this, and although all the other members states warned them that this type of hard-headed obstinacy doesn’t work in the EU and they should use softer diplomacy, in the end I guess they were wrong because the twins won and got no permanent decision on the voting system for at least another seven years, even though all 26 other members were opposed to this. The twins are now claiming that there was an “oral agreement” for further concessions to Poland and they want to redo the deal that was finally worked out.

Wednesday, 27 June 2007

Big British Butt Ban

SATURDAY SATURDAY SATURDAY, the Big British Butt Ban goes into effect!

From Jul 1 you will no longer be able to smoke anywhere indoors in England. I’m so curious to see how this unfolds. Having been in New York in ’02 when the smoking ban went into effect there, I’m interesting to see how this city’s reaction will differ. Frankly I’m surprised that they’ve chosen to do the switchover in the summer like NYC did, because that ended up causing quite a problem.

The first state in the US to start a smoking ban was California (which tends to be on the forefront of things like this). There it worked quite well, and there weren’t any problems during the changeover.

So when mayor Bloomberg passed the same ban in New York City, they expected it would go off just as smoothly. But they were forgetting on difference between New York and the main cities in California (LA, San Diego and San Francisco). Because of the warmer climate, many (if not most) bars in California have some kind of outdoor section or courtyard. In contrast, this is quite rare in NYC, as space constraints would make a courtyard very expensive and weather makes it financially impractical (why pay extra rent for a space you can only use 5 months out of the year?)

Monday, 25 June 2007

'We Have a Treaty'

Well the EU treaty has been drafted, and Tony Blair can walk away feeling quite pleased with himself, having won on virtually every ‘red line’ demand the British were making. Those who dream of a federalist state, however, will be bitterly disappointed by this compromise.

That’s not to say the
Eurosceptics in the UK won’t kick up a fuss about it, but they don’t have much of a leg to stand on now. Though the conservatives will demand one, there is no way Gordon Brown is going to hold a referendum on the treaty in the UK. And the reality is, even if David Cameron manages to defeat Gordon Brown in the next election, it is very unlikely that Cameron would put it to a referendum either. Because even this lukewarm treaty would be voted down by a British population generally hostile to Europe, and Cameron doesn't really want to be single-handedly responsible for either destroying the union or wresting the UK from it. Much like the gay marriage issue in the US, playing on the xenophobia of the Brits might win you elections, but it doesn't work as actual rational policy.

So who won here? Certainly not the federalists, and certainly not the Eurosceptics. It would be, I suppose what one could call the “moderates,” those who want to keep Europe moving forward and get it out of the quagmire it has found itself in since the constitution was voted down, even if it means making many sacrifices.

Just to explain a bit of the context, this treaty was made necessary when France and the Netherlands voted against passage of the original EU Constitution in 2005. Although 18 countries had already ratified the constitution, all it took was one state and the whole project came to a grinding halt. Europe has been trying to figure out what to do next for the last two years. When Germany assumed the rotating presidency of the EU this year (a policy which will thankfully be ended by this treaty), Angela Merkel made it her mission to revive the constitution, and she’s found a like-minded ally in newly-elected French president Nicholas Sarkozy. Both are pragmatists, and knew that they couldn’t just submit the same constitution to the public again. So all mentions of the word “constitution” were banned from the European political lexicon, and instead we get a “treaty.”

Eurosceptics here in the UK however will argue that the “treaty” is different from the “constitution” in name only, but the reality is there are some significant changes that dilute the power and efficacy of the original document. There is an opt-out for Britain from the Charter of Fundamental Rights (sort of like our Bill of Rights) so Britain can go ahead and torture as it pleases if it so chooses. There will not be a single foreign minister for Europe, so individual countries will still set their own foreign policy. And there won’t be any changes to the voting system until 2014. This last stipulation should keep Poland happy, which was clamoring for a “square root” voting system that would have given them as much voting power as more populous countries like Germany and France.

Of course the treaty still has to be approved by the individual countries, and each one gets to decide whether it will be put to a general referendum or voted on by the parliaments. Blair and Brown are saying the document doesn’t give any new power to Brussels so it doesn’t need a referendum. But neighboring Ireland is putting it to a referendum. The reason why is fairly obvious. In Ireland it will pass overwhelmingly. In Britain it would not.

So it will be interesting to see how this unfolds and which countries will go for direct referendums and which will not. To be honest I have no idea how long that will take. But if you want my two cents, I don’t think European governments should have to make up disingenuous excuses for why they’re not putting this to a referendum. I think all direct referendums are a bad idea, all the time, without exception. California horrifies me actually, with its constant and insane referendums constantly on the ballot. We live in representative democracies. People elect politicians because those politicians can become fully educated and involved in what’s going on. That’s why we entrust our representatives with making decisions for us. The idea that Joe Q. Public is well-equipped and knowledgeable enough to make these kinds of decisions is absurd, and worse yet it smells of mob rule. In this case, the British public is woefully misinformed about what the EU actually is and what it intends to do. The sheer insanity of the “Euromyths” that abound here never ceases to astonish me. What’s more, the British public unfortunately seems to let their smug sense of superiority overrule a rational, realistic assessment of how their country can remain relevant in the 21st century.

Politicians at least have the ability to see the forest for the trees. So it will be interesting to see who will be making the decisions on this treaty. But it is at least heartening to see Europe moving ahead again and perhaps moving out of the stagnation and pessimism of the last few years.

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Will the Luxembourg summit end with a new treaty?

It looks like the EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg may end without a document, after the leaders spent the weekend desperately trying to revive the EU constitution.

The meeting, which by dint of EU regulation must take place in this horrible building in Luxembourg nicknamed the “padded cell” (see photo, right) had a lot riding on it. To recap, the EU constitution, which would have given the EU a single constitution and framework of government, was voted down in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005, after many other countries had passed it in similar referendums. The constitution required the approval of every member state, so essentially the French “non” was the end of the road for it.

Now German chancellor, Angela Merkel, who now holds the rotating presidency of the EU, is trying to revive it, but in a different form. Gone is the talk of a “constitution,” and the nations are now trying to work out a “treaty” that will appease the eurosceptics but still have some teeth. The key objective for this week’s meeting was to give clear instructions for a symposium in the fall which will hopefully draw up a treaty to replace the constitution. The main sticking points that needed to be ironed out:

Swiss weekend

I had a very nice relaxing time visiting the family in Switzerland this weekend. I definitely needed it, as the last few weeks have been not entirely pleasant.

Saturday we spent just lounging in the lake. My dad got this hilarious big inflatable gazebo imported from the states that he can put outside the house in the water and take a little raft out to. The Swiss going by in their yachts seemed to react to it with a mixture of befuddlement and horror, which we found quite amusing. It just needed a big American flag at the top. But it was nice to lie out there with the geese and the ducks, it was eerily quiet on the lake Saturday, maybe everyone was at the Caliente festival in downtown Zurich.

Sunday we took a little road trip to the Italian section of Switzerland, which just drove home how truly bizarre that country is. The Italian section is the canton of Ticino, which is the part of Switzerland below the Alps. It’s right at the exit of the mountain pass that people from Northern Europe have used to get down to Italy for centuries. During the height of the Swiss consolidation period in the late 15th century the Swiss confederacy obtained it through conquest, attracted to its strategic location as the north-south crossroads of the Alps. It was actually the last area the Swiss obtained through conquest.

Friday, 8 June 2007

Tube vs. Subway

A lot of people here ask me how London compares to New York. I usually answer that I like it here, but there are two things that really bug me about this city and make me miss New York.

The first is how decentralized it is, how it’s really more of a collection of little villages than a core-oriented metropolis like NYC. I’m still really the only person I know who lives in central London, everyone here lives way out in the middle of nowhere, miles from the city center. Everyone says it’s because central London is so expensive, but honestly I don’t think it’s any more expensive (compared with the outskirts) than Manhattan is compared with the outer boroughs. The difference is in New York, people are willing to grin and bare it. They’ll put up with living in a shoe box and paying an exorbitant rent because it’s worth it to live in Manhattan. So, when I lived in New York I always lived in Manhattan (Roosevelt Island still technically counts!) and most of my friends did as well. And if I called a friend at 9 pm to see if they wanted to grab a drink, they could do so easily because they didn’t live too far away.

Wednesday, 23 May 2007

Sweden

I'm now on the plane from Gothenburg to London, flying over the Northern tip of Denmark at the moment. No the plane doesn't have wireless (I wish), but I'm just writing this offline and I'll publish it when I get home. The Gothenburg conference was very fruitful, I made a lot of contacts and it gave me a clearer picture of our magazine's ideal target audience, which will be helpful for the conference we're planning on organizing in San Francisco early next year.

Gothenburg itself was nothing special, pretty small. It is the second biggest city in Sweden, but I guess that's not saying much. One amusing anecdote from the conference, during one of the main sessions someone's cell phone went off, and I think they get the prize for the most embarrassing ring tone to go off at a very bad time. The speaker was in the middle oh a rather passionate speech about IP reform when all of a sudden a blaring police siren went off somewhere in the room. Everyone looked around a bit confused, thinking maybe it was a fire alarm. Then a familiar tune started, and I realized it was, I kid you not, the theme song for the cartoon "Inspector Gadget." It begins with a police siren. And I thought my ring tone was embarrassing! (It's Mason's Exceeder).

Sunday, 20 May 2007

Copenhagen-Malmo

I’m now on a train from Malmo to Gothenburg in Sweden. The high-speed trains here have internet access which is VERY nice. Especially since I’ve had a hell of a time getting access to internet the last few days. Copenhagen was fun, it’s a lot more cosmopolitcan than I would have imagined. The town hall square is just packed full of neon lights, kind of like Times Square as a medieval centre. I hit all the requisite sites, including the little mermaid statue, which yes, is very small.

Here are some things that there are a lot of in Copenhagen:

-7/11s
-bicycles
-squares
-Americans

There really were tons of Americans there, you couldn’t shake a stick without hitting one (and not just because they’re so fat). Even beyond just Americans, you hear tons of English there. So much so that there’s no need to ask if someone speaks English before you just start speaking, as opposed to France or Germany where that would be rude and somewhat presumptuous (I did ask the Danes I met if they were ok with that). 7/11 seems to have taken over all of Scandinavia, it’s almost eery. Literally there’s one on every corner.

Friday, 18 May 2007

Cologne-Hamburg

I’ve just arrived in Copenhagen, I’m at a café on the harbor with my laptop. It’s a bit cold to be sitting on the harbor for this long, but it seems like something one should do when traveling across Europe in the 21st century. The train ride here from Hamburg was really cool. Long, but cool. The train actually goes right onto a ferry and then the ferry crosses over to Denmark, then continues making its way on to Copenhagen. You can get out of the train and walk around too, it’s nice. Here’s a photo of the ferry.

Cologne did not dissapoint in its debauchery. Me and Hale went to this huge party at a club under the bridge that leads to the zoo. It was quite far but apparently there was this gay bus full of the gays picking people up and bringing them there. I thought the bus was just about the funniest thing I had seen in my life. Of course by that point we had finished off a whole bottle of rum so I was pretty amused by just about anything. The club was pretty crazy, here’s a picture of that too (love that cameraphone). Thursday was a holiday in Germany, the day of the ascension, so noone had work the next day. After that club we went to another club somewhere (who knows) and ended up staying there till 7:30 in the morning, at which point I realized my plan to catch a 9:10 train to Hamburg didn’t make a whoile lot of sense, so I decided to just head right to the train station and get the next train to Hburg.

Wednesday, 16 May 2007

Frankfurt

I'm here at the Cleantech Conference in Frankfurt, overall it's pretty interesting. This is my first time in this city (apart from the numerous times I've transfered through the airport), and the first thing you notice is how incredibly un-European it is. It really feels like an American City (an impression aided by the fact that there's tons of Americans here). The downtown is made up of tons of tall skyscrapers, and there's really no quaint "old town" area to speak of. The general impression I get from Germans is that it's maybe their least favorite city in the country (well, aside from Dresden!) beause it doesn't have much character, and feels just like a big conglomeration of skyscrapers. Kind of like if you made Canary Wharf into a whole city.

But, it has some flavour to it I suppose. I went out with my friend Sasha, who I haven't seen since I was in Pragut five years ago, last night. Him and his boyfriend (pictured left) took me out to this great sushi restaurant and then went to the gay neighborhood to a bar there. The city was all pretty quiet, but that was I'm sure partially due to the fact that Thursday is some kind of holiday here and everyone is saving their energy for tonight. We went to a karaoke night at this bar (pictured above), it was fun, reminded me of Pieces back in the day. One thing that was interesting was they give you this card when you go in the door, and when you order a drink the bartender swipes your card rather than taking your money. When you leave, they swipe your card to find out how much you spent on drinks, and you settle up there on the spot. It's a great system because it frees the bartenders up so you get your drinks faster. Those Germans, so efficient!

I'm on a break at this conference, here's a picture of where I am right now. Ha I love pointlessly using technology. I'm going to some panel discussions this afternoon and then I hop on the express train to Cologne to hang out with Hale. I haven't gotten much sleep this trip, and I have to be on a 9:15 train to Hamburg tomorrow morning. Hopefully I can sleep on that train, but that's doubtful.

auf wiedersehen

View Larger Map