Monday, 31 March 2008

Could the Bucharest NATO summit give birth to an EU army?

When it comes to great expectations, few summits could be said to be generating as much anticipation recently as the NATO summit in Bucharest this week. Besides hammering out a plan to rescue the military fiasco in Afghanistan, it is set to enlarge and restructure the alliance in a way that will fundamentally change it.

The Balkans are at the heart of this restructuring. With Kosovo having declared its independence in February, the nation is waiting with baited breath to see how NATO, which has been occupying the breakaway republic for eight years, will handle the situation. Some current members are insisting that stability in the region can only come from accelerating the membership of the region’s countries in NATO. Bulgaria, Greece, Romania and Turkey are already members, and Albania, Croatia and Macedonia may be invited to join at the summit.

However many EU countries are insisting it should be Europe itself that solves the crisis. The EU is working out a plan to create an EU police force to protect and stabilize the new country, allowing NATO to leave. With up to 1,800 police, judges and prosecutors it would be the largest such mission ever undertaken by the bloc. Whether or not this happens will depend on what occurs at the Bucharest summit.

Thursday, 27 March 2008

The Sarkozy show comes to London

Nuclear collaboration, economic turmoil and an EU army may have been at the top of the agenda for French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s official visit to London this week, but for the British media there was only one thing at the top of their agenda: Carla Bruni. The former supermodel singer and now first lady of France has dominated coverage of the visit. In fact the couple were greeted in London with naked photos of the first lady plastered all over the front pages of the British tabloids – one of the many nude photos of Bruni floating around out there is being auctioned in New York this week.

Out for drinks with some American friends last night, they expressed frustration that such trivial tabloid fare was dominating the coverage of this important state visit. Granted it is all rather silly, with some news reports even calling Bruni “France’s Princess Diana” (a stretch to say the least!) But Bruni’s visit was actually important for a clear reason: Sarko’s ‘celebrity’ lifestyle and his whirlwind courtship and marriage to Bruni following his divorce has invited the scorn of the French population which has seen his behavior as decidedly unpresidential. The visit to Windsor Castle to meet with Queen Elizabeth II needed to bring respectability back to the office and demonstrate to the French people that both Sarkozy and Bruni, whose former boyfriends have included Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton, could be taken seriously on the world stage. Essentially it wasn’t such a difficult mission, all they had to do was show up dressed appropriately and not screw up. But part of Bruni’s mission was to look elegant and sophisticated next to the Queen, and she seems to have succeeded in that.

Wednesday, 26 March 2008

Venezia

This weekend, for Easter, I hopped a flight over to my family’s house in Zurich and we took a train south across the Alps to Venice. Everyone in Europe gets Good Friday and Easter Monday off so I thought I’d take advantage. Having heard that there was going to be a snowstorm all weekend in Switzerland, we decided to try to get away somewhere marginally warmer. It’s always amazing the difference in temperature after you cross the Alps. It’s really a beautiful train ride, we’ve driven across the Alps before but the train ride was actually more scenic I thought. The St. Goddard pass is really just a fascinating route. And the fresh snowfall made for a scenic journey.

We stopped off in Milan on the way, I was amazed by the enormity of the Milan train station. I suppose a massive rail hub like Milan needs a massive train station. The weather happened to be beautiful when we stopped off there, it looked like a nice city but I saw was the central square around the railroad station really. I’ve heard the rest of the city is rather industrial.

Friday, 14 March 2008

Summit summaries

The European Union leaders’ summit has wrapped up in Brussels, and judging by the coverage it seems to have been a rather underwhelming affair. The FT’s Brussels Blog called it a “Ho-hum” affair. Yet there were two interesting developments from the summit, one involving French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s plan for a ‘Mediterranean Union’ and the other involving Gordon Brown’s frank words over the coming economic crisis.

Sarkozy played up the Mediterranean Union discussions as a triumph for France, but the reality is the original proposed plan by France has been so watered down by the other EU nations that it’s almost unrecognizable. Germany has been illogically insisting that it be given membership to such a union even though it has no Mediterranean coast, and they seem to have gotten their way even though Sarkozy has vociferously opposed it. The whole concept has been a continuing source of hostility between the two nations, with both distrusting the motivations of the other. The Germans have objected to a Meditteranean coast-exclusive group because they fear it would break up the EU.

Monday, 10 March 2008

Two reelections expose one deep divide

News came this morning of two big election results in Europe, both won by the slimmest of margins and both reflecting the increasingly polarized nature of their societies.

In the first, Malta’s ruling Nationalist party won the weekend’s general election by the slimmest margin in the Mediterranean state’s 40 year history. The nationalists beat the opposition Labour party by just 1,500 vores - .5 percent of all the votes cast!

The election was seen in some ways as being a referendum on the tiny island nation’s membership in the EU, which it joined in 2004. Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi ran largely on an economic platform emphasizing pro-EU policies. The Nationalist party has governed the nation for most of its history since it declared independence from the UK 1964, with only a few brief periods of Labour control.

Thursday, 6 March 2008

A new Europe strategy for Labour?

Well it’s official, the UK has ratified the Lisbon treaty. Brussels can breathe a big sigh of relief. It was a fiery scene in the commons yesterday as they debated the ratification. Tory leader David Cameron was doing his best to sufficiently rattle his saber to appease the tabloid press.

But Cameron’s predictable bravado was hardly the most interesting thing about the proceedings. Rather it was the behavior of the other two party leaders, Labour’s Gordon Brown and the Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg.

As The Times’ Peter Riddell pointed out in his column today, Gordon Brown seems to have finally “seen the light” when it comes to Europe. That, or he’s adopted a fundamental (and perhaps politically necessary) shift in strategy on how to deal with the European question. During the commons debate yesterday Brown was passionate and unequivocal in not only his defense of the treaty but in the wider benefit of membership in the EU. At a time when few politicians have had the courage to present the case for Europe to the British public, Brown seems to have suddenly shifted his tone. Having always been reticent to talk about Europe before, he suddenly was emphasizing the need for Britain to take a leading role in the union in order to achieve prosperity in security in a globalised world.

Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Tax cheat focus continues

Following recent moves by Germany to force Liechtenstein to crack down on tax cheats, the European Union is going a step further, effectively declaring battle today with Liechtenstein, Monaco, Andorra and Switzerland in their ‘war on super-rich tax cheats.’

The EU's council of economics and finance ministers, or Ecofin, is meeting in Brussels today to hammer out a strategy to force Europe’s tax havens into submission. They plan to do so by strengthening the EU’s 2005 savings tax directive, through which the ‘tax haven nations’ have easily been able to find loopholes.

What they’re going after is the increasingly common practice of very wealthy citizens of European countries domiciling themselves in small nations outside the EU with loose tax laws. Germany has recently gone hard after the practice, led by finance minister Peer Steinbruck, who says the tax cheats cost Germany approximately €30 billion in lost revenue.

Monday, 3 March 2008

Liechtenstein licked?

An interesting story is developing over Switzerland's impending entry into a border-free Europe. It looks like its tiny neighbor Liechtenstein may see its status as a tax haven challenged as a result of the change.

Switzerland is not part of the European Union, but the treaty which has dismantled the internal borders of continental Europe actually has nothing to do with the EU. It is a separate treaty called the Schengen Treaty (named after the town in which it was signed) and membership in the so-called "Schengen Zone" is separate from membership in the EU.

Switzerland is set to enter the zone in November, so after then there will be two large non-EU nations in the zone (Switzerland and Norway) and two large EU nations not in the zone (the UK and Ireland). There will also be no border between Switzerland and its neighbors. Good thing my brother and I got this picture at the France-Switzerland-Germany border while we could!

Sunday, 2 March 2008

Hong Kong

I'm back in London now and slowly getting over my jet lag. Overall my Hong Kong trip went very well, both for my work activities and for my leisure time.

Though I was nervous about it, my on-stage interviews at that conference went fine. I was fortunate enough to have a fairly engaging and outspoken guy as my interviewee, so he was able to keep the conversation lively and engaging. The panel I moderated about frontier markets also went well, though it was hard to link the disparate geographic regions we were discussing into larger themes. But I got good feedback from the audience afterwards.