Thursday, 31 July 2008

Prime Minister Miliband?

The British buzz today is all about UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband’s manifesto in yesterday’s Guardian which, depending on who you ask, is either being grossly misinterpreted by the media or an outrageous act of disloyalty. Right now the question remains: Is David Miliband going to challenge Gordon Brown in the fall?

His interview later today with BBC Radio Two's Jeremy Vine may settle this question if he explicitly denies planning to challenge Brown – which apparently Downing Street is demanding he do. If he doesn’t, then chances are he almost certainly plans to, and it will be all out civil war in the Labour Party.

Back when Tony Blair first stepped down in 2007, there was suggestion that there should be a contest for the Labour leadership and Miliband was always one of the first names suggested. But in the end there wasn’t one, and Gordon Brown – who had been Tony’s right hand man as Chancellor of the Exchequer (head of UK finances) during the Blair years – replaced Blair uncontested. Now that Brown has had such a bad run of things, and following the disastrous result in the Glasgow East byelection – Labour is in full panic mode and looking for a solution. Miliband now appears ready to challenge Brown and make a bid for the leadership.

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.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

The French Riviera

What can I say, the Cote D’Azur is truly stunning. Every day on this trip we’ve enjoyed beautiful sunny weather, swimming dips in a sparking blue sea, with stunning views of seaside and mountains. We had to take a moment and soak it all in when we first entered the Riviera area, stopping off at a jagged cliff on the coast near Cavalier-Sur-Mer to have a picnic with some local French cuisine we had purchased at the market(fortunately picked out by my friends, I must confess to my culinary ignorance). The only sign of people in this remote spot were the handful of nude sunbathers on the small bit of sand below. We were lucky our guide book told us about this one section of the coast that hasn’t been built up.

From there we went to a very different area, the celebrity playground of St. Tropez, or “San Trop” as its been dubbed by the jet set. I don’t think I’ve been to a more nausea-inducing town in my life to be honest. It was incredibly gauche, with gaunt women tottering around the town in over the top outfits and blinding jewellery. We speculated that San Trop is basically what you’d get if Hello magazine became a town. It was really revolting, and quite a contrast from tasteful, understated Aix. While we were eating dinner Paris Hilton came sauntering by with Paparazzi in tow, and at that point we knew it was time to leave.

Friday, 25 July 2008

A week in Provence

Driving from Catalonia to Provence was interesting, most notably because of the number of similarities between the two regions. For one thing the flags of both are very similar, both with red stripes on a yellow background. The native languages of the two regions are also very similar, and I’m told that Provencal and Catalonian are actually almost mutually comprehensible. Of course the big difference is that Catalan is actually the functioning, used language of Catalonia. Provencal is effectively a dead regional language, now only used for scholarly purposes (and, we noticed, on street signs in some of the city centres of the region). The French were just better at enforcing language conformity I guess.

We began the French section of our trip in Montpellier, a university town on the southern French coast. The city isn’t technically or historically part of Provence, but rather the province of Languedoc. We actually didn’t find Montpellier to be very interesting, but that may have a bit to do with the fact that our hotel was terrible and far from the city centre. We did however drive out to the town of Carcassone to the West of Montpellier, a middle ages fortified city that has been remarkably preserved. That was definitely very cool, even if it did remind me of Epcot Center a bit (I could have done without all the kids running around with plastic swords and knight’s helmets). It was a stunningly beautiful city though.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

Barcelona

I’m here in Montpellier, France after an amazing weekend in Barcelona. So far the trip has been really fun, Barcelona is an amazing city and I feel like we saw many different sides to it over the three days. Driving from Barcelona to Montpellier yesterday was also really amazing; watching the landscapes, language and culture change as we drove over the Pyranees reminded me of why I love driving on trips. In Catalonia the land was much drier, and when we stopped in Gerona for dinner it still looked very Spanish. Once we crossed the Alps and arrived in Perpignan things instantly took on a different look. Everything seemed much greener, for instance.

Language has actually been an interesting issue on this trip. I’m with three friends from London: one from Bermuda, one from Australia and one from Paraguay (further evidence of how truly international London is as a city). Carlos, who is from Paraguay, was a great resource to have on this trip because he speaks Spanish. Granted, Barcelona is in Catalonia where they speak, read and write in Catalan, but everyone also speaks Spanish. So everywhere we went we had Carlos speak to people for us. Once we crossed the Pyranees, it was Adam the Bermudan’s turn to be translator. Adam spent a year in high school in Brittany, France and a semester in college in Paris, so he speaks French quite well.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

I'm officially Italian! Now off to Spain

I received word this morning that my Italian passport has arrived. At long last, after a year’s worth of hard work, I've had my Italian citizenship officially recognized. In theory I’ve been an Italian citizen all along (I got it through my great grandfather) but now I finally have an Italian passport. It feels very good! Now on to the next step. Although what that is I’m not quite sure!

It’s an odd day to get this news, coming as it does right as I’m preparing to fly to Barcelona tonight for a 10 day road trip from Spain to Provence. As you can imagine I have lots to do so I don’t even really have time to think about this development. I’ll probably have a little celebratory dinner at the beginning of August when I get back. I know lots of people will be glad to hear this news, especially my grandmother who did so much work making this happen.

I’ll try to file some blogs while I’m on my trip with my observations. I’m going with three friends from London (all with different nationalities which is exciting). We’re going to be in Barcelona for four days, then we’re renting a car and driving up the coast, hitting Montpellier, Arles, Avignon, Aix-En-Provence, Marseille, Cannes, Nice and Monaco. It should be a lot of fun, I’ve never been to any of these places before. I’m particularly curious to see the South of France, as to date the only place I’ve been in France is Paris, and I have mixed feelings about that city mostly due to the people in it! I’ve heard people in Southern France are very different, so we shall see.

This trip will give me some time to reflect on what comes next, and I think it will be easier to come to a good conclusion about that while I'm outside London.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Belgian government collapses

Here we go again. Last night the Belgian government collapsed, just four months after it was formed in March. Before then, the nation had been without a government for nine months while the French- and Dutch-speaking parties were unable to form a unity government.

Belgium’s King Albert II is considering the resignation, but he doesn’t really have much leeway to block it. The prime minister of the four-month-old coalition government, Yves Leterme, had set a deadline of July 15 for getting an agreement on devolving more power to the regions. Belgium is made up of Dutch-speaking Flanders in the North, French-speaking Wallonia in the South and Brussels, which is French-speaking but located within Flanders. The Flemish, who are wealthier, want more local power, but the Walloons are resisting this because it would marginalize their influence.

Monday, 14 July 2008

Club Med: Levant Becomes the Focus

Though French president Nicolas Sarkozy's ambitious original plans for a Mediterranean Union have been dramatically scaled down, the group still had its first meeting yesterday in Paris.

Sarkozy was practically beaming after the meeting, calling his idea for the Mediterranean Union an “extraordinary concept,” and heralding the fact that the meeting was able to get Arab leaders and the Israeli leader in the same room. While it's still debatable what impact this new union will actually have, and whether it can really accomplish any of the goals it has set out, it was interesting to see where the media focus on the event seemed to fall.

From the time Sarkozy first suggested the concept during the French presidential campaign last year, the language was always about a union between the “North” and “South” Mediterranean, with seeming focus being on North Africa, the majority of which was formerly held by the French. But the media coverage of yesterday’s event was largely focused on the Levant. The Syrian and Lebanese leaders, both in attendance, said yesterday that the two countries might establish diplomatic relations for the first time in their history. And the Israeli leader said a peace deal with the Palestinians had never been closer. There was also a theoretical statement by the leaders saying they would like to keep the region “free of weapons of mass destruction.” Here's the coverage from ITN:



But there were also significant initiatives announced at the meeting that had nothing to do with the Middle East peace process, including a high-speed rail network from Casablanca to Istanbul, a plan to make the Mediterranean the cleanest sea in the world by 2020 and the development of a common emergency response force to deal with natural disasters in the region. For now though, it was the diplomatic aspects of the meeting that attracted most of the media attention.

Interestingly, with all the talk of the MidEast peace process and further governmental and economic ties, there was no talk about Democracy, or the lack of it, in the Middle East and North Africa. Perhaps such lecturing would have been counter-productive to the larger goal of bridging gaps between the North and South Mediterranean, but it was an interesting omission nonetheless.

Friday, 11 July 2008

Watered down at Club Med

Along with the pomp of the Bastille Day celebrations this weekend in Paris, the city will see another grand occasion: the first meeting of the “Mediterranean Union,” Nicolas Sarkozy’s pet project that he has made the centrepiece of France’s EU presidency. But the way Sunday’s meeting is being discussed, you’d think it was nothing more than a Camp David-style retreat. So is it the inaugural meeting of a new international body, or lip service to an idea that has failed to take flight?

Sarkozy’s vision of an alternative union has been watered down so much it is now almost unrecognizable from what he proposed during the French election campaign. What was originally intended to be a full-blown union offered as an alternative to the EU has now become a loose association that will be managed by the EU itself. It’s not surprising then that the union is now being labelled ‘Club Med,’ suggesting it is just a diplomatic association which will exchange pleasantries. Press reports looking ahead to Sunday’s meeting have focused almost entirely on the diplomatic aspect, noting that some of the world’s most bitter enemies will be sitting at the same table for the first time, including the leaders of Israel and Syria. Little is being said of what the union is supposed to accomplish because no one is quite sure at this point – the projects it has announced so far are little more than feel-good cooperation initiatives on things like cleaning up pollution and sharing solar panel technology.

Thursday, 10 July 2008

Merkel: Not so fast, Obama

Barack Obama’s planned visit to Europe later this month has been generating huge anticipation among politicians and the public alike. They are all eager for an answer to the question they’ve been asking for some time: Who is Barack Obama and what would his election mean for Europe?

Obama is expected to draw huge crowds in speeches in the three main European capitals, an unprecedented phenomenon for someone who is only a candidate. But then again, this is no usual election. However it would be incorrect, as some US media outlets have put it, to say that Obama enjoys huge “popularity” in Europe. I think a more accurate description would be “curiosity.” It’s safe to say that Europe isn’t enthused about a John McCain presidency (in the UK Obama is preferred over McCain five to one), but they do know what they would be getting with one. In many ways it would be a continuation of the Bush administration foreign policies, and that doesn’t get anyone here very excited. McCain would likely continue to push NATO’s missile defence plans and adopt a hard line on Iran. But at the same time he would likely be a more willing partner than his predecessor on the environment, and may be more prepared for trade concessions with Europe than Bush as well.

Monday, 7 July 2008

The Ray Lewis fiasco

When it comes to bad judgment, it’s looking like there will be few recent decisions in British government that will rival the Conservatives’ choice to appoint Ray Lewis as deputy mayor of London, holding him up as a shining example of the “new Conservative party.”

Last week’s whirlwind of accusations, denials and subsequent resignation have been a source of embarrassment for the new mayor, and may be a sign of things to come for the office, which was meant to be a showcase for what a Conservative government could do nationally in the UK.

It all started on Thursday, when Channel 4 first informed the mayor by phone that they were preparing a piece on Lewis after several Anglican Bishops informed the station that in the 1990’s, Lewis had been disrobed as an Anglican priest because of sexual and financial misconduct. They said Lewis had borrowed money from several parishioners – an act in itself rather inappropriate – and then left the country without paying it back.

Friday, 4 July 2008

Betancourt's rescue: the view from Europe

The reaction to the dramatic rescue of Colombian hostage Ingrid Betancourt and 14 others this week has received some unusual coverage in the European press, quite different from that in the US. If one didn’t know the back story behind this situation they might think the coverage downright bizarre.

Betancourt is due to arrive in Paris at any moment to greet French President Nicolas Sarkozy. The meeting is largely required by political necessity, as Sarkozy and his predecessors had made the release of Betancourt one of France’s top diplomatic priorities, and Sarkozy has been working tirelessly for a diplomatic solution between the Colombian government and FARC, the leftist guerilla militia that took her hostage. Betancourt is a dual French and Colombian citizen.But the pleasantries that will be exchanged at the Elysee Palace tonight mask an embarrassing reality for France: in the end it was not France’s tireless diplomatic efforts that rescued Betancourt but a US-backed military operation in which France had no involvement whatsoever. That has to be a tough pill for the country to swallow.

The Colombian government, a US-backed rightist regime that has fiery relations with leftist governments in neighboring countries, was never a natural partner for France to be working with in the first place. But given that Betancourt - a former Colombian presidential candidate for an ecological party - is a French citizen, France felt a duty to find a solution to her captivity. But France’s tactic was chiefly diplomatic, trying to negotiate a settlement between FARC, which has historically been backed by the Leftist governments in Venezuela and Ecuador, and the Columbian government, treating FARC as a political group rather than a terrorist organization and putting faith in Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez to act as a mediator with them. Instead, the United States (which had three citizens as hostages alongside Betancourt) swooped in and coordinated a military rescue with Colombia's president Álvaro Uribe in an operation that even had Israeli operational assistance.

Wednesday, 2 July 2008

Sarko to the rescue

Can Sarkozy save Europe? This was the question being asked in France over the weekend, featured in big bold letters in Sunday’s Le Parisien. As France took the helm of the rotating European presidency yesterday, it seemed as if the only person who would confidently answer yes to that question was M. Sarkozy himself.

For the moment, the French president and the French capital were brimming with euroconfidence yesterday, with the Eiffel Tower lit up with the EU colours and stars, and with Sarkozy listing off a laundry list of ambitious goals that he’s had planned for this presidency for some time. The energetic and ambitious new French president has been urging a shakeup of European institutions for some time, demanding that the union focus on issues popular with the public in order to re-establish legitimacy and that it change its monetary policies to combat inflation. 

But Sarkozy’s day in the spotlight was overshadowed by the tumultuous events around him. After the Irish ‘no’ vote France’s time on the EU throne will not be as Sarkozy envisioned it. Instead of strengthening and reforming the union, he will likely spend the next six months desperately trying to save it. As the president outlined his ambitious policy agenda yesterday, he was being upstaged by comments from Poland’s president Lech Kaczynski, saying that for him to ratify the treaty after the Polish parliament passes it would be “pointless”. Both Lech and his twin brother Jaroslaw, who was until recently prime minister of the country until he was voted out, have been deeply unfriendly toward the EU, while the new prime minister, Donald Tusk, is pro-EU.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Tories consider blocking Welsh, Scottish votes

Quite a conundrum now affects the United Kingdom, ten years after devolution first gave constituent countries their own parliaments. Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all now have their own separate governments, legislating on matters that affect only their territory. But England, the constituent country where the vast majority of British people live, doesn't have such a local legislative body.

The result is that the national parliament in Westminster still makes the decisions that affect only England, but doesn't make decisions that affect only Scotland or Wales. And since the national parliament has elected representatives from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales, this means that in theory the people in those areas have more representational power. Scots get a say in local decisions in England, but the English don't get a say in local decisions in Scotland.

It might seem that the natural solution would be to give England a local government. But there is very little support for this amongst the English population. There have been attempts to start local elected assemblies for different regions of England, but after the first one attempted was voted down in a local referendum in the North East in 2004, all the other plans were abandoned. The only area in England with a local government now remains London.