Friday, 30 May 2008

Welcome to the religion century

Tony Blair made some interesting comments at a fundraising dinner in Toronto last night. Coming on the eve of the launch of his new Faith Foundation, which was unveiled to the world today in New York, it offered a stark and blunt assessment of the century we are entering. While probably true, his comments will no doubt be quite troubling to secular Europe.

Speaking at the Women’s College Hospital in Toronto, Blair described the impetus behind his new faith foundation as an effort to “get faith in action,” saying that the goal of his new foundation is to help various religions work together to make the process of globalisation more humane. Sounds innocuous enough. But it was his blunt assessment of the power religion will have over the world over the next century that got my attention. Spoke Blair:

“Religious faith will be of the same significance to the 21st Century as political ideology was to the 20th Century.”

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Eight months of uncertainty

With the amount of worldwide press coverage that the US election has been getting, it’s easy to forget that there are still eight months left in George W. Bush’s presidency. Amid all of the excitement over Clinton, Obama and McCain, the unpleasant reality is that over the next 2/3 of a year the world is going to be living with the most handicapped lame duck US presidency in living memory. It’s something that the global community, and Europe in particular, should be feeling more than a little anxious about.

Lame duck’ periods are of course a repeating phenomenon in the United States, happening every time a president approaches the end of their term (if they are not running for reelection). During this period media attention shifts away from the current president and the administration is unable to propose any new initiatives. Diplomats are able to speak with less authority because they may be replaced in a matter of months, and the White House may not bother filling vacancies and instead wait for the new administration to make appointments. Because people know that everything is about to change in a matter of months, very little gets done during this period. It’s an impractical system, but it’s something that the US has come to live with.

However this year is different. Normally these periods last a few months, not the year and a half that has happened this cycle. And the widespread scorn for this outgoing administration is at unprecedented levels. Never in the past century has the US seen a presidency so delegitimized with so many months left in it. Bush’s disapproval rating, at 70 percent, is now higher than for any president in US history. It is even higher than Richard Nixon’s post-Watergate numbers immediately before his resignation (66 percent).

Monday, 26 May 2008

Moscow 2009: A Eurovision boycott?

As yet another Eurovision comes and goes, the next day analysis here in the UK is as predictable as the sequins, feathers and glitter that accompany the song contest each year. Once again there is collective hand wringing over what the contest has become, and questioning over whether the UK should continue funding it. But as standard as all of the British complaining over the contest has become, there was a new starkness to the exasperation of perennial British host Terry Wogan this year when Russia emerged the winner, as he muttered at the end of the program, "Western participants have to decide whether they want to do this again.”

For my American readers, perhaps a little explanation is in order. Eurovision is a yearly song contest which has been held in Europe since 1956. Each country selects a song to represent them, and they all battle it out in the grand finale, with people all over Europe phoning in their votes to determine the winner. The contestants could be already famous in their given countries or they could be previously unheard of. Some famous past winners of the competition include Abba and Celine Dion.

Friday, 23 May 2008

The end of New Labour?

As much as the London mayoral election was heralded as a sign of impending doom for Gordon Brown, yesterday’s UK by-election (an election between major polls in a small area) result in Crewe will certainly now overshadow it. The crushing defeat of Labour saw a massive 17.6 percent swing away from Labour toward the Tories, much more than had been predicted by any pollster I know of. It’s safe to say the Tories expected to win, but they probably never dreamed they would win by this much.

This morning the Conservatives are basking in their triumph with some aggressive and confident talk from Tory leader David Cameron, who is heralding this victory as “the end of New Labour.” If a 17.6 percent swing were to be replicated in the next general election, it would be enough to hand over the government to the Tories.

Cameron may be indulging in a bit of overconfidence. After all, this election was more about working class voters punishing Brown for his recent abolition of the 10 percent tax rate than it was about their wholehearted embrace of the Tories. The district of Crewe and Nantwich has been solid Labour territory for decades, and while they may have wanted to send a message of dissatisfaction with Gordon Brown in this by-election, that doesn’t necessarily mean such working class voters would want to hand the government over to the Tories in a general election. The message to Labour from the working class may just be “don’t take us for granted.”

Thursday, 22 May 2008

The migration mess

The EU currently finds itself in a conundrum. It is now a unified labour block where EU citizens can work in any member country. The benefits to this system are many, but at the same time Brussels has had to move quickly to harmonize labour rules across the bloc to make sure this unified working block has the same working rules. That has included establishing a minimum amount of days off a year (24), laying out basic human rights for workers, and most recently a proposal to introduce an EU ‘blue card’ that would mirror the US green card and allow an immigrant to work anywhere in the EU.

But the union still has a long way to go, and labour laws still vary widely from state to state. One of the trickier issues around labour has been how each state handles illegal migrant workers. Harmonization of the rules has become urgent not just because of the slow coalescence of labour law but also because of the rapidly expanding Schengen Zone, the zone of European countries that have dismantled their internal borders. Now that someone can travel from Estonia to Lisbon without going through a border check, border security, immigration and work status have become very important issues, particularly for those nations which now find themselves at the periphery of the EU, suddenly tasked with patrolling the borders of all of continental Europe. Malta has had the hardest time, constantly faced with waves of immigrants from Africa coming by boat hoping to reach the EU offshore island in the Mediterranean.

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

'Sanctuary' and 'asylum' across the pond

This story in today's Daily Mirror amused me because it reminded me of the ridiculous nature of semantics and word associations. Here in the UK the term "asylum seekers" has become practically an epithet, almost a catch-all for meaning 'illegal immigration'. Much of middle England has taken to using the term as shorthand for people who abuse the system to get residency in Britain, take advantage of social services and steal jobs from hard-working Brits.

Technically, an asylum seeker is someone who shows up at the UK border seeking asylum under existing laws because they are in danger in their home country due to war or other violence. That asylum is either granted, immediately turned down, or they are kept in holding facilities in the UK awaiting a decision.

Because the term has taken on such a negative meaning, a report out today is arguing that the term should be changed to ‘sanctuary cities.’ The report showed that only 28 percent of Brits say the word asylum has a positive connotation for them, whereas 81 percent said ‘sanctuary’ sounded positive.

Friday, 16 May 2008

BoJo, the Tories and Europe

It's been an intense couple of weeks in British politics. Following the devastating blow dealt to the Labour party in the May 1 local elections, the government seems to be in a full panic.

On Wednesday, Gordon Brown unveiled a preview of the Queen's speech (the British equivalent of the US State of the Union), which contained a hodgepodge of drastic new bills designed to rescue Brown's seemingly doomed government. All except the most blatantly pro-Labour media outlets are skeptical about whether the initiatives, which increasingly seem to be going after the votes of Middle England (the more conservative ‘heartland’ of the country), will work. A perfect storm seems to have gathered over Westminster, and the buzzards are already circling. In order for Labour to stay in power, does Brown have to go?

Monday, 12 May 2008

Pro-Europeans win in Serbia

Brussels must be elated today after the Serbian general election yesterday yielded a victory for President Boris Tadic's moderate pro-European party. Though many had feared that Kosovo's recent declaration of independence would give the upper hand to the nationalist party - who would have stopped EU accession talks and instead allied Serbia with Russia - the moderate party won a handy mandate-giving majority.

There will be wide speculation as to whether the victory is a result of the 'carrot and stick' approach adopted by Brussels over the past few weeks. Two weeks ago a deal between the European Union and Serbia to fast-track its membership in the union was reached. The pre-membership pact with Belgrade that would enhance trade and cooperation and speed the process by which Serbia could eventually join the union. Though there was hesitation by some EU nations to come to such an agreement because of a lack of cooperation by Belgrade in handing over war criminals to the international court trying people for crimes committed during the Yugoslav civil wars, they eventually relented in order to show Serbian voters that there would be a reward for putting the moderate party in power.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Rebirth in Lisbon

When in Lisbon, there are two key dates that stay on the mind: 1755 and 1974.

During a visit I made to the city last weekend, these two pivotal turning points constantly came up. They were both times of regeneration, of a culture and a city redefining itself after a dramatic upheaval. And they both speak to the remarkable ability for societies to recover and rebuild.

In 1755 Lisbon suffered a massive earthquake followed by a tidal wave and fire that completely razed the city and killed 15,000 people. In 1974, a military coup was able to finally wrest power from a dictatorship that ruled Portugal with an iron fist for more than four decades.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Fascism creeps back in Italy

The local elections held throughout England on Thursday saw an absolute trouncing of the Labour Party, with the most notable casualty being London mayor Ken Livingstone, who has been replaced as of Sunday by Conservative candidate Boris Johnson. Johnson is going to be a real wild card because not much is known about what he will do. In fact his whole campaign seemed to be centered around making buses shorter, as far as I can tell. One thing that’s clear is that Johnson benefited from good timing, cashing in on widespread dissatisfaction with Ken Livingstone as well as Gordon Brown’s plummeting polls.

But as Labour frets over the implications of having a conservative mayor for the first time since the office was created, on the continent the left is far more concerned about a different mayor recently put into office. It seemed to slip under the radar for the English-language press, but last week Rome elected a Neo-Fascist leader, Gianni Alemanno, as its new mayor. It is the first time since the fall of Mussolini that a Fascist party has attained such a high position of power.

In the early 1980’s Alemanno became well-known for leading violent fascist youth demonstrations in Rome. The young, square-jawed and handsome firebrand became a protégé of Gianfranco Fini, the rightist leader who later founded the neo-Fascist National Alliance party in 1993. Since then Alemanno has worked hard to become the legitimized voice of Fascism in modern Italy, appearing often on Silvio Berlusconi-owned television stations. Berlusconi later appointed Alemanno as agriculture minister in his 2001-2006 government.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Labour movements cry 'mayday!'

May 1 is a traditional workers' day holiday across most of Europe, with most of the countries on the continent having the day off (the UK and Ireland save the day off for the following Monday). It coincides with a traditional pagan holiday welcoming spring, and such festivities are a big part of the celebrations. But it is also a traditional day for labour protests, although the intensity of those has tapered off over the years.

Berlin, for example, used to see massive street protests. But over the past five years they've dwindled to almost nothing. In fact May Day in Europe is quickly coming to resemble the watered-down version that is celebrated in September in the United States, Labour Day. The American version was put at that time as a compromise with unions because the government thought the traditional May 1 was too radical). Like in the United States, where few people could tell you what Labor Day celebrates, May 1 in the Europe has now also begun to lose its meaning in Europe.