Monday, 25 February 2008

China

I'm in Hong Kong this week on a business trip, my first trip to East Asia. So far it's been very interesting.

I came in early for the weekend to see my friend from grad school Liz, who is living and working in Shenzen. The first thing I noticed about the area is the big difference between Hong Kong and the mainland. Of course for all of its history as a city until 1997 Hong Kong was under the control of the British, and it was just a little over ten years ago that it was handed over to the Chinese, but with special stipulations. Hong Kong became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region under the "one country, two systems" policy, continuing to operate as a seperate country for most intents and purposes until 2047.

Monday, 18 February 2008

The world's newest country

It’s official, Kosovo is now an independent state. Or is it?

On Saturday a long-awaited vote by Kosovo’s parliament declared it to be an independent state and no longer part of Serbia. In reality, Serbia hasn’t controlled Kosovo for nine years. The territory has been run by the United Nations and NATO since 1999 when NATO intervened to stop a Serbian crackdown on the separatist movement there, a crackdown which sometimes took the form of ethnic cleansing and genocide. Kosovo is today dominated by ethnic Albanians, but is the historic heartland of the medieval Serbian state.

However the road to nationhood isn’t as simple as just a proclamation. Serbia vehemently opposes the move, and its leaders say they will fight to the end to prevent Kosovo’s independence. Serbia filed legal charges against Kosovo's leadership Monday for creating a "false state" and vowed to block any attempts to allow Kosovo to join international associations. It has also declared the new state invalid and illegal. Serbia’s traditional ally Russia has said it also rejects the move and will use its seat on the UN security council to block the body from recognizing the country. The US, Britain, France and Germany are expected to recognize the state within days.

Friday, 15 February 2008

Report: Blair dropped Saudi probe after being threatened

This story in today's Guardian reveals an absolutely shocking allegation made against Tony Blair in court: Saudi prince and close Bush ally Bandar Bin Sultan cajolled Tony Blair into dropping Britain's bribery investigation into a Saudi oil deal by threatening to unleash terroist attacks on Britain.

Bandar bin Sultan, who was the Saudi Ambassador to the US for 20 years, and a close personal friend of the Bush family, is under investigation for taking $2bn in bribe payments from BAE for arranging an arms deal. The British government investigation into this was mysteriously halted after Bandar visited Tony Blair in December 2006.

Now people have testified in court that Bandar, who's now the head of the Saudi National Security Council, basically told Blair that if he didn't stop investigating his corruption, he'd withhold information on suspected terrorists and there'd be a loss of "British lives on British streets." The Guardian writes:

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Brussels doesn't like to be ignored

Brussels is baring some teeth this week, as it becomes increasingly assertive in the face of US efforts to negotiate with different EU countries separately in areas now handled by Brussels.

This week’s spat is over a new set of security requirements the US wants to impose on European countries designed to keep track of who is entering and leaving the country. The US is demanding in-flight security officers aboard transatlantic flights, an electronic travel authorization system, and an accord to share further data on air passengers and lost and stolen passports.

The European Commission today shot the proposal down saying it was "unacceptable" and went "too far". But what they seem to be most angry about is that the US didn’t consult them and instead attempted to circumvent Brussels, taking their demands to the individual EU capitals. Jonathan Fauli, the head of the Commission’s Home Affairs department, told reporters yesterday,
"We don't negotiate matters which are dealt with in Washington with the state of California - that would be disrespectful and we expect the US to be similarly respectful of our law and system here. The USA knows perfectly well that there some things you come to Brussels to talk about.”

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

France to Europe: grow up

French president Nicolas Sarkozy may be considering returning French forces to NATO military command, but comments yesterday by the French defence minister reveal that the country might want something in return: the go-ahead from the Americans to build an EU army.

France has for years floated the idea to build up an EU army with a military headquarters, but it has met resistance from both Washington and its European allies. Washington has regarded the efforts as a threat to NATO unity and as an unnecessary duplication of NATO’s functions. At the same time, European nations have refused to increase their defence budgets in order to develop a European standing army.

French president Charles De Gaulle pulled the French military out of NATO (the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation) 40 years ago over concern about American domination of the alliance. The system, set up primarily for the defense of Europe from the Soviet Union after World War II, has historically been considered by many as an American military protectorate over Europe. In April a conference in Bucharest, Romania is scheduled to work out a major overhaul of the alliance, largely in reaction to its difficulties in Afghanistan but also to deal with its proposed enlargement to Eastern European and Caucasus nations bordering Russia. The conference could also bring a commitment by Sarkozy to hand French troops back over to the alliance.

Friday, 8 February 2008

The archbishop and sharia law

The big news in the UK today, splashed across the front pages of the morning rags, is yesterday’s observation by the leader of the Anglican Church, Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, who said that it "seems inevitable" that elements of Sharia Muslim law would be incorporated into British legislation.

Almost instantly the comments have been greeted with shock and condemnation from nearly every corner of British society. Christian groups, secular groups, the head of the equality watchdog, several high-profile Muslims and MPs from all parties have all strongly condemned the statement. A spokesman for Prime Minister Gordon Brown said this morning, “sharia law cannot be used as a justification for committing breaches of English law, nor should the principles of sharia law be included in a civil court for resolving contractual disputes.”

The essential question is whether Muslims living in Britain should have a different set of laws that apply to them that are in accordance with Sharia law. The issue is especially pertinent in divorce proceedings, which under Sharia law are extremely strict and not very favorable to women.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

President Tony Blair?

It looks like discussion around Tony Blair becoming the first “President of Europe” is heating up. According to the BBC, Blair is now discussing the prospect with current British prime minister Gordon Brown.

The network is claiming there are forces in the prime minister’s office who are actively encouraging such an idea. It is thought that Blair and Brown are discussing the pros and cons of such a move, and Brown is waiting for Blair’s green light before he voices his support for the idea, which would signal that Blair is actively campaigning for the job.

Blair’s recent activity suggests that he is leaning in that direction. Last month he delivered a speech to Sarkozy’s UMP party conference – in French! Sarkozy has in turn expressed his desire for Blair to take the job.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Is Berlusconi stepping into an EU trap?

Fascinating post today in the FT’s Brussels Blog about the likely re-ascendance of Silvio Berlusconi to power in Italy. Needless to say Brussels is not enthused about the prospect, which looks likely to happen in an April election after the collapse of Romano Prodi’s government. Not only is Berlusconi a rightist leader with an aggressive streak and hostility toward the rest of Europe, but also his European Union presidency (which rotates to a new country every six months under the current system) in July to December of 2003 was a fiasco.

However the FT points out that there are some in Brussels that may be looking forward to Silvio retaking the reigns because it would finally give them the impetus to launch a challenge to Berlusconi’s media empire.

Berlusconi owns Mediaset, by far the biggest commercial TV broadcaster in Italy which also owns the biggest national advertiser, the biggest publisher and much more. Effectively he’s able to control all the media in the country, which is how he was able to stay in power for so long in a country which normally can’t keep a stable government going longer than a year or two.

My first 'gun in the face'

Well, I guess it was only a matter of time considering the fact that London has a much higher crime rate than New York, but I got mugged yesterday evening in South London. Suffice it to say last night was one of the more surreal evenings I’ve had in my life.

Already I knew it was going to be an interesting night because I was finally going to go visit my friend who lives in a boat in the Thames. No, he’s not a pirate, but he sold his flat and bought a sailing boat, and lives in it in a quay next to Canary Wharf. The easiest way to get there from where I live is to take a boat, there’s a public transport boat that runs up and down the Thames called the Thames Clipper. It was almost completely empty, but had amazing views going down the river. I’m thinking when my family comes to visit this weekend I’ll take them on that rather than a boat cruise, it’s faster and cheaper.

When we arrived at the Greenland Pier Dock a few people got off, but it was mostly deserted. It’s a mix of boats docked and really nice flats, generally a pleasant-looking, expensive area. It reminded me of Roosevelt Island actually. My friend was running late to meet me so I went for a walk to explore. I came across this floating bar in a ship called the Wibbly Wobbly. Then my friend showed up. It was 7:30pm.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Brussels: first impressions

This weekend my friend Lori and I took a pleasant little mini-trip to Belgium. It was, believe it or not, my first visit to Brussels. Beyond being a little getaway, it was also a chance for me to check out the city and see if I could imagine myself living there.

If you're a regular reader of this blog you of course know that I have a keen interest in European politics, particularly those of the European Union. And given that I'm a journalist, I would very much like to translate this interest into a career. At the moment here in London I'm actually covering real estate investment in Asia, which is about as far away from European politics as you can get. But I'm currently in the process of getting Italian citizenship (through my grandparents), which would give me an EU passport and enable me to work anywhere in the EU. When and if that comes through, it will be time to evaluate my career options. Given that I have a big interest in the EU and am knowledgeable about the subject given my educational background, covering it seems a natural choice.

Of course such a transition would require a move to Brussels. So I figured it would be a good idea to check the city out to see if I could do it. We even got a hotel in the European Quarter to get the full experience.

Monday, 4 February 2008

Tadic wins in Serbia

The European Union breathed a collective sigh of relief yesterday as Serbia reelected pro-Europe Serbian president Boris Tadic, delivering a blow to his rival, ultranationalist Tomislav Nikolic.

Tadic has sought to improve Serbia’s ties with the West and put Serbia on the path to EU membership. Nikolic wanted to limit ties with the EU and instead ally Serbia with Russia. Tadic won by a slim margin in an election with a high turnout at 67 percent.

The election was thought to be pivotal to the looming independence of the Serbian province of Kosovo, which has for years been under UN occupation following the NATO intervention in the Serbian civil wars of the 1990’s. The EU now wants to take over policing of an independent Serbia. Though both candidates are opposed to Kosovo’s independence, Tadic sees membership in the EU as crucial to Serbia’s future. It is therefore thought that though he will protest any plan for Kosovo independence, in the end he will go along with it in exchange for a faster road to EU membership.

In a move to influence the election, the EU last week made a move to grant an ‘interim pact on trade and cooperation’ with Serbia, hoping to send the message to Serbians that more rewards would follow if they elected Tadic.

Now that the election has passed it may just be a matter of weeks before Kosovo declares independence, but it remains to be seen how Serbia, and perhaps more importantly Russia, react.

Friday, 1 February 2008

Denmark to probe CIA terror flights

Denmark has become the latest European country to launch an investigation into covert CIA flights transporting terror suspects. Interestingly, this time the renditions in question took place in a territory outside of Europe: Greenland.

A documentary broadcast Wednesday by the DR1 TV network in Denmark made a claim that CIA flights transporting terror suspects touched down at an airport in Greenland in 2005. The Danish prime minister responded on Thursday by saying it is fully investigating the claim. Greenland is an overseas province of Denmark.

The flight would have been part of the controversial and top-secret “extraordinary rendition” program the CIA has been running in which terror suspects were transported to countries outside the United States. Human rights groups have claimed the flights were intended to transfer the prisoners to countries or jurisdictions that allow torture.