Tuesday, 29 July 2008

Europe goes on holiday

When it rains it pours, and it looks like the last week while I was away brought a surge of big news across Europe while I was lying out on the beach. From the capture of Serbian war criminal Radovan Karadzic, to Barack Obama’s momentous trip across Europe, to the disastrous defeat for Gordon Brown’s Labour party in Glasgow East, it was a big week. And all packed in before European politicians jetted off for their August holiday. One thing’s for sure, they’re going to have a lot to think about while they lay out on their beach chairs.

In the UK, as predicted, the Labour defeat at the hands of the Scottish National Party in the Glasgow East by-election has meant the knives are now out for Gordon Brown. This solidly Labour district hasn’t seen a Labour loss in decades. If the Labour party can’t win here, where can it win? The whole party now knows it needs to make a drastic change quickly, but it appears to be splitting itself asunder over what that change should be. Should Gordon Brown step down as prime minister and allow a fresh, non-Blairite face to step in? It’s surely a tempting idea for the party, but the problem is there isn’t any obvious candidate to step into the role. Those supporting Brown are warning that if he is pressures to resign it will mean Labour will lose the parliament. Brown already came in without an election, and if the Labour party switches leadership yet again without an election, chances are there will be a roaring demand from the public to call one as soon as a new person steps in. With Labour now polling at unprecedented lows, the Conservatives would likely win such an election.

Those who think that the risk of changing leaders is too great are arguing that the party just needs a new direction. Many are pointing out that Brown was most popular when it first seemed that he represented a change from Blairism. It was only when he and his cabinet seemed to pull to the right and return in a panic to ultra New Labourism that his polls started sinking so fast. So, they argue, keep Brown and have him refocus his energies on being the anti-Blair. But is that too little too late? The Labour MPs have plenty to think about this August.

Following today’s decision in Brussels to postpone a decision on whether to unfreeze trade benefits for Serbia, its clear MEPs will have a lot to think about as well. Last week’s arrest of Radovan Karadzic, the Bosnian Serb general responsible for the massacre of Bosnian Muslims during the Yugoslav civil wars, was interesting not only for the remarkable transformation of Karadzic himself, but also for the fact that the pro-Western elections a few months ago had produced their first tangible result. The Serbian government, which for so long had been hesitant to take the unpopular move of seriously tracking down these war criminals, finally acted. The EU had promised a carrot-and-stick approach to Serbia: if it plays nice with the EU, the EU will return the favour. EU officials met in Brussels today to discuss whether that favour should be lifting trade restrictions between Serbia and the union, a first step toward a possible long road to Serbia joining the EU. But the distrust between the two still lingers, as the meeting decided that they needed actually have Karadzic in their hands at the Hague before they could agree on anything. Karadzic has still not been handed over to the criminal court as the vagaries of the Serbian legal system are being worked out. In the mean time, there have been massive demonstrations throughout Serbia protesting against Karadzic’s arrest.

As an American, obviously Barack Obama’s visit to Europe last week was of major interest to me as well. It’s been amazing to see how much the trip dominated the American and worldwide headlines, although as usual the coverage in either was quite different. We watched his Berlin speech from our hotel in France and I have to say I was impressed. It ticked off many of the boxes the international audience is eager to hear – especially his line saying that the United States has made mistakes and has not always lived up to it’s noble intentions. The stark words Obama used were, I think, a first for a US president or major presidential candidate traveling abroad, and you could see from the reaction of the audience how much they meant to the people assembled there. Europeans are eager- perhaps even desperate – for a change of direction in American foreign policy. So I think it’s safe to say he won the European public over. I was curious to see how his admission that America has made mistakes would be received back in the US, but from what I can tell it doesn’t seem to have generated much of a furor. I think Americans are ready to hear that right now.

1 comment:

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