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.