Friday, 30 October 2009

Little Support for 'President Blair'

The big European Council meeting is wrapping up this afternoon, and it looks like two definite conclusions are emerging: the Lisbon Treaty will shortly be signed by Czech president Klaus and Tony Blair will not be the first “president of Europe”.

Sources at the council
meeting are saying that almost all EU leaders are now unfavourable toward the prospect of Blair getting the presidency - most notably the leaders of Portugal, Spain and Greece (basically the only socialist governments in the EU other than the UK) and Angela Merkel, the main power broker as the leader of the largest EU country. It looks like the only leader supporting Tony Blair is his former rival, Gordon Brown. How bitterly ironic.

The British media has run with this story today
, effectively proclaiming the idea of a Blair presidency dead. In fact the story has been so widespread, and Downing Street so willing to publicly accept defeat, that I can’t help but wonder if this is an attempt by New Labour to feed this story to the media in order to take Blair out of the “frontrunner” status. Frontrunners are notoriously handicapped when it comes to getting nominated for EU positions. It may be that Blair now thinks the best way of getting the position is by appearing to be out of the race.

Much of the British media has been focusing on Blair’s role in Iraq and economic policies that stoked the financial crisis as the reason so may on the continent are opposed to his presidency. But I can tell you the biggest objection I hear coming from Brussels is there mere fact that he is British. They say the presidency should not go to someone from a country that is not really a fully participatory member of the EU – considering that it doesn’t use the euro, is not in the borderless Schengen zone, is the only country to receive a rebate from its EU financial contributions and has opted out of the charter of fundamental human rights.

Interestingly it would appear that the socialists are not backing Blair because they’ve made the political calculation that David Miliband is the only socialist who stands a chance of getting the new foreign policy chief position. And since both new positions can’t go to Brits, they want to squash talk of Blair right now in order to get Miliband in the running early. And his very pro-European speech earlier this week certainly ingratiated him to many on the continent.

So it looks like we’re back to square one, though Blair could conceivably pull it off. There is a lot working against him, but in the end the powers that be in continental Europe may decide that the appeal of having a “heavy hitting” president outweighs the baggage that Blair would bring to the position with him.

Tuesday, 27 October 2009

Miliband: UK Must Drop the 'Hubris and Nostalgia'

UK Foreign Secretary David Miliband delivered a stunningly pro-European speech yesterday, laying out a plea for the UK to stop being “lost in hubris, nostalgia or xenophobia” and instead become a leader within the EU.

It was probably the most pro-Europe speech from a British politician in two decades, and was a dramatic departure from New Labour’s characteristic avoidance of the Europe issue. It was an almost shockingly honest levelling with the British public – thee hallmark of a politician on the way out (He’s probably already accepted the fact that Labour will lose the UK general election next year). Today the British press was speculating over whether the speech was an audition for the newly created position of EU Foreign Minister, for which Miliband’s name has been circulating as an idea should Tony Blair not be nominated as the new President of the European Council.

Miliband made a clear case for why it is in the UK’s national interest to be part of a strong EU. It is a given that the 21st century will be dominated by two superpowers: China and the United States. Miliband stressed that the UK would be lost and forgotten in this new world if it tried to go it alone, but a strong EU would be an important, equal competitor/partner with these two. Speaking in London, he said:

“The choice for Europe is simple. Get our act together and make the EU a leader on the world stage, or become spectators in a G2 world shaped by the US and China. I think the choice for the UK is also simply stated: we can lead a strong European foreign policy or – lost in hubris, nostalgia or xenophobia – watch our influence in the world wane.”

There was no talk of “red lines” or the ‘us-versus-them’ rhetoric that has dominated the Europe discussion in the UK. There was also no glorification of the largely imaginary “special relationship” between the UK and US as an alternative to European integration, in fact there was an acknowledgement that the current US administration would prefer the UK to be more cooperative with its EU partners.

Miliband also called out the Tories on the false promise they have been offering the British public - that it is possible for the UK to ‘go it alone’ without the EU and still be prosperous. Miliband implied that Tory leader David Cameron knows full well that a British ‘divorce’ from the EU is not only unwise, it is also realistically impossible.

"The truth is that there is a deception here at the heart of [the Conservative’s] policy – a deception of the country that you can hate Europe as it exists today and remain central to European policy making,"

A Tough Sell

Some of the British press reaction today to Miliband’s speech has been hostile. It is, after all, a tough pill for the Brits to swallow. I don’t begrudge the British for being resistant to the idea of giving up some national sovereignty. It’s natural for any area or group to want to be completely independent – especially since the advent of the nation state in the 19th century. The question is whether complete independence is feasible or productive. In theory, I would love the idea of having an independent New England, my home region in the US. I don’t feel much of an affinity with vast swathes of America, especially the South, and I instinctively like the idea of New England not having to be linked with them, instead being allowed to set up its own national laws. But I also recognize that there are practical benefits to being part of a large union, and that New England would not be a very relevant or wealthy power all by itself.

What the British public don’t seem to realise is that this isn’t a choice – it’s a necessity. It’s not an option for Britain to maintain its current standing in the world alone – it currently punches too far above its weight now as a result of being a former great power, but it will lose its relevance (including the inevitable loss of its seat on the UN Security Council) in a century dominated by the US and China. At the same time, relying on the so-called “special relationship” (a term I’ve never heard used in the US) is no longer an option either. Barack Obama has signalled that the US no longer sees the UK as a significant partner separate from Europe, and he would actually prefer that the UK work fully as part of the EU and stop obsessing over its relationship with the US.

And as The Independent’s Mary Dejevsky notes today, the “special relationship” was always a one-way ‘vassal state’ arrangement, and it no longer makes sense for either party in the 21st century. “Identifying our national interests so closely with those of the United States placed us in the demeaning position of having to change our foreign policy whenever the US elected a new administration, even though our own government was the same,” she writes.

If the UK wants to be a relevant, important country going forward it has only one option – to be a big player in a cohesive, strong EU. As foreign secretary, David Miliband understands this. Yet he has been the only Foreign Secretary in living memory with the courage to say it.
Of course Miliband’s words would be more encouraging were he not about to be ousted from power by British voters next year. If polling data is to believe the Brits will vote in a new government that is the most Eurosceptic of any since the UK joined the EU. As Dejevsky notes, Cameron is swimming against the tide of history, his only European allies on the margins.

Still, there is reason to believe that Cameron’s anti-Europe rhetoric is only a show, a cheap populist pantomime in order to win votes before settling into a more real politik stance once he gets into office. Who knows, the future could follow the old ‘Only Nixon could go to China’ rule and Cameron could end up being far more cooperative with Europe than Labour was. I attended a policy talk in Brussels back in March where economist Simon Titley was actually predicting that it would be the Tories who will introduce the euro in the UK.

Perhaps this is just wishful thinking on the continent. The fact is nobody knows what Cameron will do in regards to Europe, but if his actions match his campaigning rhetoric then the UK is in trouble. New Labour may not have been very courageous or honest with its Europe stance so far, but as the saying goes, perhaps its better the devil you know.

Sunday, 25 October 2009

Brussels - Europe's Pseudo Political Exile?

The European Commission is a strange animal - a massive maze of overlaping departments, constituencies and nationalities. Given that it can be difficult to wrap your head around, I often feel that the perception of "democratic deficit" in the EU has a lot to do with the public's lack of understanding of what the European Commission - the EU's executive branch - is. So I thought this weekend's news from Germany might make a good anecdote for explaining some of its idiosyncrasies.

News is emerging this weekend that German chancellor Angela Merkel will replace Germany's Social Democrat commissioner Günter Verheugen with Conservative Guenther Oettinger. This is a natural consequence of the election result last month, when Merkel's Conservatives got enough votes to kick the Social Democrats out of her coalition government. As they say, elections have consequences. The voters of Germany cast their lot with the Conservatives, and so they will now have a Conservative German commissioner in the EC, hand-selected by Merkel.

Though the commissioners aren't directly elected, they are nominated by the national governments which people elected - so contrary to common belief they are, indirectly, accountable to voters. If (or when) Labour is voted out of power in the UK next year, the Tories will remove the current British commissioner (Baroness Ashton) and replace her with a Tory when the next commission ends after its five-year term.

Another recent election which changed the governing party was in Greece, where the Socialists ousted the Conservative government. For this reason Greece's commissioner, Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, will likely be exiting stage left very shortly.

So there's your Democracy. However, there's another aspect of this Germany news which highlights a not-so-reaffirming aspect of the Commission.

Guenther Oettinger is the premier of the southern state of Baden-Wuerttemberg, and has been mired in some controversy in the past. In April of 2007 he gave a eulogy for one of the previous premiers of Baden-Wuerttemberg named Hans Filbinger. Filbinger served in the legal department of the Nazi regime and his involvement with them was an ever-present source of controversy throughout his career after the war (thought he contends he was made to cooperate with the Nazis against his will). In his eulogy, Oettinger played down Filberger's Nazi past and for this he was widely criticised. He even received a public scolding from Angela Merkel for it.

So immediately after news emerged of this pick there were rumblings of discontent - not so much for the fact that Merkel was putting someone with this controversial background into the position, but for the fact that it appeared like Merkel was trying to quickly shuffle a high-ranking CDU politician who had "misbehaved" out of sight. The Social Democrats came out with a statement today accusing Merkel of "withdrawing a beleaguered premier from circulation," according to M&C.

Now, failing to mention someone's decades-old loose Nazi connections in a euology may not seem like a big transgression, but in Germany it was a notable affair. So it seems as if this could be yet another instance of a national government 'sweeping problems under the rug' by sending problematic politicians to Brussels where they remain out of sight, and yet still relatively powerful.

It reminds me of what happened to Peter Mandelson in the UK four years ago. Mandelson is a hugely powerful politician who was intrumental in the rise of Tony Blair, but a series of scandals eventually made it untenable for Blair to keep him in the British cabinet, and he was shuffled off to a political exile in Brussels in 2004. Now during that time as Trade Commissioner Mandelson was hugely influential, but in the British press it was as if he had disapeared. Finally last year, when Gordon Brown's troubles were growing especially daunting, Brown made a shock move by bringing Mandelson back from Brussels and putting him in his cabinet. Speaking at this year's Labour Party Conference, Mandelson made it sound like he had been locked in a dungeon in Brussels for four years, and had at last been let out to see the light of day again.

That's the rather bizarre thing about commissioners. They are very powerful and they set the policy for Europe, yet once they are in Brussels they often disapear from the front pages of their nation's newspapers. It's a bizarre form of modern political exile in Europe, a way for governments to quickly push someone out of the spotlight who is much needed and talented, but also controversial. From some early political reaction in Germany, it appears that the appointment of Oettinger may be that kind of move.

For some people, like Mandelson, they could never be satisfied with power without prestige. For others, it may suit them fine. I don't know anything abotu Oettinger to say into which camp he falls.

But I do think that this practice of trying to 'hide' ministers in Brussels does a disservice to helping people understand how the EU works and who the people are that are running it. In the end I think what many in Europe call a "democratic defecit" is actually an attention defecit. The commissioners feel unelected and unaccountable because nobody ever hears about them. But in reality, the decisions people make at the ballot box do have an impact on the composition of the European Commission, even if it is a few steps removed down the line.

Friday, 23 October 2009

Race-Focused 'Question Time' Ignored Griffin's Europe Role

It was the dramatic conclusion of a month-long drama – Nick Griffin, the controversial leader of the whites-only British National Party, appeared on revered public affairs program Question Time last night amidst massive protests outside the studio, and the largest audience in the programme’s history glued to their TV sets at home.

There’s been much written today about what went on last night, but for me what was most interesting was what was not said on last night’s program. Almost unitarily focused on race, host David Dimbleby went out of his way to avoid any discussion of the institution Griffin was actually elected to in June, the European Parliament. I found this bizarre considering it was that election which the BBC says necessitated Griffin’s appearance on the programme in the first place. If it’s the June election that changed the equation in the BBC’s mind, why was the program unitarily focused on things that were said and done well before June 2009?

The level of public attention this program and the build-up to it received has been astounding. Griffin is the leader of the far right British National Party, which has advocated for an “all-white Britain.” His own extremist history has included membership in the violent Neo Nazi group National Front in the 1970’s, denying the holocaust and advocating the criminalisation of homosexuality, the deportation of British Muslims and the denunciation of multiculturalism. He has in the past professed admiration for both the Klu Klux Klan and Adolf Hitler.

Normally a person with such extreme views would not be featured as a guest on a major British public policy show, but the BNP has a significant electoral success in June, garnering one million votes in the European Parliament election which netted them two seats in that body, their first elected positions ever (Griffin and his deputy took up the seats). The BBC said now that Griffin has been elected to a national position by the British public, it cannot justify refusing to allow him on the broadcaster’s main programs – since it has a mandate as an unbiased public institution.

This sparked a huge outcry, culminating in a massive protest yesterday at BBC Television Centre during the taping of the episode. The show itself ended up being rather predictable. Both the other panellists and the audience took turns berating him for his racist views, and Griffin gave blathering incoherent responses that showed he is essentially a rather confused idiot. The program quickly turned into a game of cat and mouse – with Griffin working hard to project an image of a new moderated mainstream BNP which isn’t overtly “racist,” and the panellists and audience reminding him of all the racist things he’s said in the past, which he repeatedly denied saying.

Of course his excuses for why he had “changed his mind” about many of the odious things he’s said in the past were as inept as they were implausible. He twisted, laughed and clapped bizarrely as he was confronted by his past statements. And he seemed completely unprepared when presented with a quote from before the June election, on video, in which laid out a plan to pretend to moderate his beliefs on race and religion in order to make the BNP palatable and get it into office. Surely, if you’re planning some kind of Machiavellian coup like that, you probably shouldn’t talk about your plans on video!

The main aim of both the BBC and the panellists seemed to be to highlight Griffin’s racist views for the BNP voters at home who don’t consider themselves to be ‘racist’ but voted for them as a “protest vote.” The BNP has tried to gloss over their racist foundations with pamphlets full of images of British flags, happy families, proud soldiers and Churchill, Churchill, Churchill. The Tory representative, Baroness Sayeeda Warsi (herself British Asian), seemed to actually be making a concerted effort to steal away those “protest vote” BNP voters over to the Tory side. (Incidentally, I thought she and the Tories were the clear winners from last night’s show. She did a great job, though I was a little creeped out by her efforts to woo BNPers to the Conservative bosom).

Race-Baiting

But throughout it all Dimbleby was hell-bent on keeping the conversation focused on race and sexuality, as Griffin’s previous statements on those subjects are repugnant to the vast majority of British people. But the newly politically calculating Griffin refused to be drawn in, saying very few overtly offensive things during the conversation. In fact the most offensive thing he said was probably that Islam is an “evil” religion, a view I suspect many in Britain share (even many on the left). Throughout the whole discussion I kept thinking what some BNP-voter up in the East Midlands would be thinking watching this – a bunch of smug West Londoners seemingly putting racist words in the mouth of Griffin while he just sat there and said very little. For people who already feel alienated from the political system, this probably just played right in to their admiration of Griffin as an ‘underdog standing up for the working class’.

The fact is that outside its positions on race and sexuality, much of the BNPs political platform are grievances shared by an increasingly large swathe of the British public – xenophobic attitudes toward the EU, immigration and resource sharing. But Dimbleby was intent on steering the conversation away from those issues so the program could highlight Griffin’s differences with mainstream British opinion rather than the overlap. He didn’t want to highlight the aspects of the caged monster shared with the stone-throwing audience. But if Griffin’s opinions are supposedly so uniformly vile to the British public, how did he attract a million votes in the last election?

The omission was evidenced by the almost absurd non-inclusion of any discussion about the body Griffin was actually just elected to, the European Parliament. Toward the beginning of the program a questioner tried to ask Griffin about Europe and Dimbleby shut him down. “We’re talking about race!” he bellowed. “We’ll get to that later.”

Of course they did not get to that later. Clearly Dimbleby considered this to be an irrelevant question. Nevermind the fact that that Griffin is now representing the UK in the European Parliament!

The fact is probably many in the audience probably agreed with Griffin’s opinion that the EU is dangerous and tyrannical, and after all, finding commonalities between Griffin and the British public was not what this show was all about. No no, let’s stay focused on race so we can all boo and jeer Mr. Griffin’s medieval views (views which, by the way, have now been largely erased or covered over in the official BNP party platform). God forbid any of the audience, or on the panel, should look in the mirror to see how their assumption of British superiority over the rest of Europe, their subtle xenophobia rather than overt racism, informs their attitude toward European integration. That probably wouldn’t have been very comfortable for them, seeing their opinions mirrored in the spittle-flecked ramblings of a far-right nationalist.

It’s puzzling to see how, while Griffin has been a unitary obsession of the British media over the past month, his new position in Brussels has been almost completely ignored. The most egregious example came yesterday in this article from the Guardian, which called on the Question Time panel to grill Griffin about his views on climate change (he denies its existence except when warning of overpopulation). Of course the show should have asked him about climate change (they didn’t, as it’s not race-related). Griffin is now on the European Parliament’s Environment Committee, meaning he has a sizable influence over environmental policy affecting the UK (the majority of which comes from Brussels), far more influence than the vast majority of MPs in Westminster. Yet the Guardian article manages to not mention Griffin’s position on the Committee even once, even though the whole purpose of the article is to rail about Griffin’s views on climate change.



I don’t mean to be a one-trick pony here, but it really irked me that this very significant development – that Griffin is now representing Britain in the EU and has a particular influence on environmental policy, was completely ignored. Perhaps there was good reason to focus on Griffin’s racism since he is so keen to gloss over it. And perhaps it was better not to delve into an actual policy discussion with him for fear of legitimising his position. But from my vantage point it was just yet another example of the British public’s steadfast determination to ignore the existence of the EU at all costs.

The British Tancredo

But perhaps I’m too hard on the British. After all I have to say, as an American I’ve actually been quite impressed and heartened by the energetic resistance to the rise of Griffin’s ideology. Much of the BNP’s current platform (the cleaned-up version that omits the group’s overtly racist origins) is nearly identical to the platform of mainstream Republican politicians in the US. Griffin’s immigration policy, as expressed on Question Time last night, is very similar to that of Republican Congressman Tom Tancredo, who was a major contender for the 2008 Republican presidential nomination. That’s not to mention the BNP platform’s similarities to right-wing American television commentators like Glenn Beck and Lou Dobbs. And Griffin’s current stated view on homosexuality, though it was condemned by the representatives of all three major UK parties on the Question Time panel, would easily be at home in the Republican Party’s official platform. So it’s nice to see that I live in a country where these kinds of views, so common in my home country, are so reviled.

Also, Britain should keep in mind that it is hardly the first European country to send far-right politicians to the European Parliament, France beat them to that by many years. In fact the experience of France with far right Front Nationale leader Jean Marie Le Pen (also of the European Parliament) has been repeatedly brought up as a cautionary tale by British commentators. An invite by the French broadcaster for Le Pen to appear on the French equivalent of Question Time was equally controversial, and resulted in a doubling in the size of the party. Le Pen eventually rode that wave of popularity all the way to victory in the 2002 presidential race, when a fluke in the 1st round voting meant that the second round was a one-on-one contest between him and French President Jacques Chirac. There are fears that Griffin’s appearance on Question Time could lead to a similarly meteoric rise in the UK, but I just don’t see that happening.

By the way, the BBC has a great article here about how the media deals with far-right parties across Europe. It’s a very interesting side-by-side comparison, and I think helps to set all this within a larger context.

Of course, that would require some thinking about Europe, which as we learned last night, the Brits are loathe to do.

Thursday, 22 October 2009

The Pope makes a bid for Anglicans

The Anglican Church has been in pandemonium this week, with everyone trying to make sense of the surprise announcement on Tuesday that the Roman Catholic Church is making a bid for their members. According to many religion commentators, the historic invitation from the Vatican is very likely to tear the Anglican Communion (which includes Episcopalians in the US) apart. But considering the opposing sides of the church have been at each other’s throats for a decade now, perhaps this open hand from Rome is just what it needs to facilitate an amicable divorce.

The Vatican announced that it is going to make special arrangements for protestant Anglicans to defect and join the Catholic Church as full members, while still being able to preserve their Anglican traditions and practices including – most significantly – the right for priests to be married.

Many media outlets, including this really interesting article from the BBC, have billed this as a historic and unprecedented decision. Historic it may be, but not exactly unprecedented. Most of the media has failed to note the fact that the arrangement will be similar to that accorded to the Eastern Catholic Churches, the ancient Christian sects of the Middle East which are in full communion with the Catholic church yet retain their own customs, including different baptism rites and the right of priests to marry.

Wednesday, 21 October 2009

US Alarmed by Cameron’s Europe Moves

It looks like worries about a future Tory government aren’t limited to Paris and Berlin. Reports are circulating today that US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton expressed concern last week during her visit to Europe over David Cameron’s increasingly combative stance toward the EU, saying the US is worried that the “direction of travel” from what will most likely be the next governing party of the UK could lead to a rupture between Britain and the rest of Europe.

Her concern is not in isolation. The Obama administration has been increasingly questioning the wisdom of Tory leader David Cameron’s recent hostile moves toward Europe, including his decision to take the Tories out of the main centre-right grouping in the European Parliament to form a new alliance with hard-right Eastern European parties and his antagonism toward the Lisbon Treaty. The Times reports today that the US Ambassador to Britain has also been voicing alarm over Cameron’s Europe plans, and that Jewish groups within the Democratic Party are expressing alarm over Cameron’s new ties to anti-Semitic politicians in Poland.

The concerns are further evidence that the Obama administration considers the so-called “special relationship” (a term I’ve never heard used in the US, though it is used almost obsessively in the UK) to be obsolete, and would prefer a united Europe to deal with in foreign policy. This is a sea change from the previous US administration, which notoriously used the idea of the “special relationship” to drive a wedge between the UK and Europe in the run-up to the Iraq war. As The Times notes,

“[Obama] believes that Britain should be at the heart of Europe — a position that has been put in doubt by French and German anger over Mr Cameron’s decision to sever ties with the federalist centre right grouping in the Strasbourg Parliament. Mr Obama is enthusiastic about the idea of a permanent EU president to replace the revolving chairmanship of the EU council, a measure opposed by the Conservatives.”
Wheras the Bush administration was hostile toward the EU and seemed to repeatedly seek to undermine it, the Obama administration has so far been an enthusiastic supporter, as demonstrated by Hillary Clinton’s speech in Brussels earlier this year. In fact I think I could without hyperbole call Obama a European federalist. He wants a strong, united Europe as a partner in combating terrorism, dealing with the financial crisis and providing a counterweight to China.

The administration’s reported comments seem to suggest that Obama has little patience for European leaders who cow-tow to old instincts of nationalism and divisiveness. And he has also demonstrated impatience with some of the more archaic, slow-moving aspects of the EU, and is likely eager for the streamlined reforms the Lisbon Treaty will bring about. Of course this is just speculation, but it’s what his administration’s statements and behaviour seem to suggest.

Indulging in a Moment of Homesickness

Apologies for not having written in awhile, I’ve been away in the US – moving around between different locales so much I didn’t get any chance to write. It was a good visit “home” after having not left Europe for ten months – the longest I’ve ever gone without visiting the US.

I put “home” in quotes because at this point I’m not exactly sure where home is, and the slight disorientation I felt on this trip was a reminder of that. My family is now spread out all across the world, with my dad living in Switzerland and my youngest brother living in Australia, while my mom and my other brother are still in the US. While in Connecticut I stayed in the house in which I grew up, but it’s now empty and tenantless. While in New York I visited Roosevelt Island where I used to live, but I don’t know anyone who lives there any more. My friends kept talking about the new resurgence of witty sit-coms on American TV and I hadn’t even heard of any of them (though I did get to watch them – Glee, Modern Family, Cougar Town – they’re pretty good).

These days New York is feeling like a different city from the one I left. Times Square has been pedestrianised, the west side elevated train tracks have been converted into a park, and there are even bike paths criss-crossing Manhattan now! There were a lot of new things I had to check out. The Times Square refurb was pretty underwhelming, essentially it just looks like they’ve put a bunch of chairs in the middle of the road – not a very pleasant place to sit and eat lunch if you ask me. I was particularly amused by the fact that they’ve painted the pavement in the new pedestrian zone green in order to approximate grass. I appreciate the effort to try to make New York a little more pleasant – one of my biggest complaints about the city is that there’s nowhere to just sit and relax. But they way they’ve done it now just seems to highlight the fact that New York just isn’t a very pretty city. But it is just temporary, and hopefully if they decide to extend the scheme after the end of this year they’ll actually extend the raised sidewalk into the pedestrian area to really separate it from the road.

On the other hand Mayor Bloomberg’s other big effort at urban beautification, the new high line park on the west side rail tracks, was quite pretty. I just hope they really do follow through on extending it, because it’s quite short as it is now (just from 14th to 20th street). But my favourite part is that it provides some great views of the Hudson, which is nice because normally you never see the water in New York (my other big complaint about the city).

Autumn in New England

The second part of the trip was spent in New England, first visiting family in Connecticut and then attending my friend Sharyn’s wedding in Maine. Apparently it now snows in October in New England, it strangely did so twice while I was there. Though it was freezing up in Maine it was also very beautiful, fully demonstrating New England’s reputation for amazing fall foliage.

It was great to see so many old friends from high school and college and get updates on what everyone is up to. Of course every time I visit the US I’m always asked the same question – am I ever going to move back? Over time my answer has softened from a staunch “hell no!” to a more deliberative “I wouldn’t rule it out.” The reality is this: though I don’t see myself leaving Europe any time soon, I have no way of knowing if future circumstances might warrant a move back stateside. Certainly, the election of Barack Obama last November went some way in restoring my faith in my homeland – though the recent ugliness displayed in the healthcare debate has dulled that down to a realistic acceptance that America didn’t change overnight just because Obama was elected.

I usually tell people that I just don’t think I could go back to the US and give up the quality of life I’ve become accustomed to in Europe. I can’t imagine going from getting 30 days of vacation a year to 5 (EU legal minimum is 25 vacation days per year, 5 is how many I was allotted at my last US job). After getting hassle-free guaranteed medical care here, I can’t imagine going back to having to scrounge around for healthcare and then pay huge premiums once I have it. I can’t imagine being back in a culture obsessed with work and advancement, where cultural knowledge and intellectual curiosity is devalued in favour of wilful ignorance and celebrity worship. And I can’t imagine going back to watching a broadcast news media that has reached such epic levels of dysfunction.

The Trade-Off

But despite these downsides to US life, it would definitely be nice to move back to New York – to be back with my friends and family, to have a consistent and stable group of people to surround myself with, and to be able to once again make oblique pop culture references that people would understand! But unfortunately this is what you give up when you move abroad. It’s a trade-off, essentially. The reward is adventure and excitement – the satisfaction of challenging yourself in a new environment where you know no one. The sacrifice is that you give up the stability of life at home. I sometimes feel envious of people who have tight ‘cliques’ – small groups of friends who see each other all the time. Though I have a lot of acquaintances in London I have very few close friends – a reality driven home when I returned here after six months on the continent to find my London friends had pretty much forgotten my existence.

But would I give up everything I’ve experienced over the past three years in order to have that stability? Absolutely not. It may get lonely sometimes, this itinerant life, but the rewards make it worth it. For me at least. But I can also see the value of staying in one place your whole life. It may not be glamorous, but it’s a valuable thing to be able to be surrounded all the time by people who love you and will always be there for you. Living abroad, I have to be content with getting that in small doses when I visit my family and close friends.

But, it’s always a nice feeling when I’m able to do so.

Thursday, 8 October 2009

"We Face an Aggressive Secular Attack"

The words above raised some eyebrows when they were bellowed yesterday at a conference at Georgetown University in Washington, but they weren’t from a fiery American evangelical – they were from former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair. The same Tony Blair who is currently the bookies’ favourite to become the first “president of Europe”.

Continuing my look
at the factors in the choice of the first person to take up the President of the European Council position, I thought I'd look at how these comments yesterday might affect the debate. Considering he is currently lobbying to be the symbolic leader of largely secular Europe, the speech seems remarkably ill-timed in its vitriolic attack on atheism (full text of the speach here). According to the Times, Blair said of the world’s religions:
“We face an aggressive secular attack from without. We face the threat of extremism from within.” Arguing that there was “no hope” from atheists who scorn God, he said the best way to confront the secularist agenda was for all faiths to unite against it. “Those who scorn God and those who do violence in God’s name, both represent views of religion. But both offer no hope for faith in the twenty first century.”
Apparently to Blair, Atheists and terrorists are two sides of the same coin. To call the comments incendiary is an understatement, and they may well come up during the difficult deliberations over the next month over who should take up the position of Europe’s first symbolic “president”. And it certainly won’t help Blair with secular Europeans that his speech was delivered in ultra-religious America.

Indeed it is Blair’s ties with America that are proving the biggest stumbling block to his candidacy, particularly his relationship with former President George W. Bush. The European left already reviles him for tearing Europe apart in 2003 by being an unquestioning defender of the Iraq war.

For me personally, there is just no way I could support someone for this position who said those words above. So my hesitation is over, I can unequivocally say that putting Tony Blair in that position would be a bad move for Europe, and it would not be worth the celebrity and energy he would bring to the role.

Contrary to the conclusions already drawn by the British tabloid media, I actually don’t even think it is very likely he will get the position. As the Economist’s Charlemagne column points out today, the fact that Tony Blair's name has been connected with this position for two years now actually works against him, as front-runners rarely secure euro-jobs in the end. And the reasons for various and disparate groups to oppose him are too high in number to see how he could overcome them easily. Small states don’t want to see the position go to anyone from the big three. The left hates him for the Iraq War, his abandonment of socialism to win UK elections and his sudden conversion to aggressive religiosity. The continental right is at best lukewarm toward him and at worst jealous of his celebrity. The British right reviles him. Who exactly is supporting this man?

So who am I backing? He may not be famous or charismatic, but my hopes are being placed in Luxembourg’s Jean-Claude Juncker. As leader of the Eurozone finance ministers he is keenly placed to help Europe through the recovery and to put in place new safeguards and regulatory regimes to prevent another crisis. Of course there are significant hurdles for him to overcome as well. Both Labour and the Tories hate him for his unabashed federalism, and Sarkozy reportedly thinks he bungled the start of the financial crisis.

So even though I was on the fence, there’s just no way I can hold my nose and cast my lot for Blair after hearing what he said in Washington yesterday, no matter how much his celebrity would give the EU some much-needed glamour and cache. Juncker may not be a Barack Obama, but given the disillusion many American progressives are now feeling about that presidency across the pond, maybe celebrity presidencies aren’t all they’re cracked up to be.

Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Both the Best and Worst Man for the Job


Now that the Irish have passed the Lisbon Treaty and it’s set to be ratified within months, the British press has transferred its characteristically ferocious obsession to what the treaty will do. And to hear them tell it, the sole purpose of this document is to make Tony Blair the “President of Europe”. Of course that is not true, and in reality no such position is being created. The position being referred to is the President of the European Council, which has always existed but will now go to a person rather than to a country (Sweden currently holds the presidency). The position doesn’t come imbued with much specific power like an American president, it's more of a symbolic coordinator role like the Secretary General of the United Nations.

But though it doesn’t come with executive power, the intention of the position – to designate a high-profile figure who can speak with one voice for all of the EU - is ambitious. Right now, the member state holding the Council presidency is unable to do that because they can essentially only speak for themselves, and they don’t have much time to develop a cohesive presentation of EU objectives given that they only hold the position for six months. So having an actual person in place for a longer term will make a big difference, although he is essentially "working for" the 27 European heads of government that make up the Council, not the other way around. He can only speak when he's been given permission by the entire council, a position he may find frustrating since he is used to the unilateral system of Westminster government.

The de facto “leader” of the EU up till now has been the president of the European Commission, a position currently held by Jose Manuel Barroso. But given that the Commission (made up of independent commissioners) and the Council (made up of the prime ministers of each member state) are often in conflict, Barrosso has never been able to convincingly speak for all of the EU even when he’s sitting in as its representative in bodies such as the G8. The Commission has no control over member states’ foreign or military policy. Of course the President of the European Council won't be able to unilaterally make foreign policy decisions (and nether can the new position of EU High Representative on Foreign Policy). The president is subject to the prime ministers of the member states, but he can work to attain a consensus amongst them and then announce and coordinate that policy (much in the same way Switzerland's executive branch works).

So the new presidency position calls for someone who has talents in two distinct areas: he or she needs to know how to work a room and twist arms in order to reach group consensus, and they need to be a high-profile, charismatic figure who can represent the EU on the world stage. Obviously, Tony Blair meets both of these requirements.

The problem is he also has one giant albatross hanging around his neck: Iraq. The fact that he was prime minister when the UK followed the US in its war with Iraq hasn’t endeared him to the British public or to Europeans in general. The centre-left of Europe is deeply mistrustful of Blair because of his role in the war, and this is a stigma he is never likely to live down. And in the UK, as has been evidenced by the vitriolic reaction by the British press to the likelihood of his presidency, Blair is still widely reviled by both the left and the right. The right hates him because he presided over the humiliating defeat of the Tories and pushed for a marginal social democratic agenda, the left hates him because he acquiesced to American power, and because they feel betrayed by many of New Labour's policies and promises it did not fulfil. He’s also become an openly religious Catholic since leaving office, and that doesn’t exactly endear him to the secular left either in Britain or on the continent.

Given the painful divisions that emerged in Europe in 2003 over the Iraq War, and how those divisions exposed how weak and incoherent Europe still is in the area of foreign policy, picking someone as president who conjures up those memories may at first seem like something Europe would want to avoid. But the reality is there just isn’t any other logical choice – such is the dearth of high-profile, charismatic politicians in Europe. The runners-up? Jan Peter Balkenende of Holland, François Fillon of France, Herman Van Rompuy of Belgium and Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg. Not exactly household names.

Hated at Home

With this reality in mind I had long ago concluded that despite the Iraq problem Blair was probably the best pick. But in the past few days speaking with some of my friends here in the UK, I’m starting to get the full sense of how the wounds of the Iraq war have still not healed here. Even my most liberal friends have reacted with horror to the idea that Blair will assume the presidency, saying that after the British public and media worked so hard to push him to resign it would be an insult to see him appointed to an unelected position where he seems to be lording over them.

A recent survey showed that a majority of the British public (53%) is opposed to Blair becoming president. Perhaps even more surprising is the fact that only 66% of Labour party members want him to get the job. At their party conference this week the Conservatives seem to be content to make a bogeyman out of Blair, with Boris Johnson saying Britain is faced with the prospect of Blair “suddenly pupating into an intergalactic spokesman for Europe”. The media has been almost salivating with hostility toward the idea as well, with the Telegraph newspaper actually referring to a proposed British referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in a headline yesterday as the “Stop Tony Blair Referendum”.

Certainly, these fears are misguided. Logically the Tories should be rooting for the first president of the council to be British – that would give the UK the influence in Brussels to be able to push through the EU reforms they claim they are so intent on achieving. Opposing Blair is certainly a case of the Tories cutting off their nose to spite their face, perhaps succumbing to mob-pleasing populism over sound policy.

But this isn’t just the usual British paranoia about the EU revealing its ugly head. There is a real feeling of ill will toward Tony Blair in this country, and I’m starting to wonder if its really worth it for Brussels to further antagonize the British, who are already so hostile to the EU. It’s a bizarre situation – Blair being president would undoubtedly be a good thing for the UK (the vast majority of respondents to that survey admitted as much), but he remains so controversial in his home country that the appointment would infuriate many in the UK – particularly the liberal left which the EU so badly needs in its corner.

Perhaps this initial discomfort with the choice of Blair will go away after a short while, and the British people eventually will come to remember what it was that inspired and enthused them about Blair in the first place. If that were the case Blair could actually serve as the ambassador for Brussels who could finally make the British like Europe, or at least make them finally accept that they need Europe. It was always a shame that the Iraq War intervened to derail Mr. Blair’s hopes of making Britain a fully active and contributory member of the EU. Perhaps this is the opportunity for him to finally see out that goal. It would be one failed promise that New Labour could belatedly deliver on.

Monday, 5 October 2009

Ireland Rejects British Influence

As news breaks that the UK will soon be shut out of a new G4 group of major economies and could lose its seat on the board of the IMF, the bizarre reaction to the Irish referendum by much of the British press continues to look more and more out of touch with the realities of the modern world.

Europe-wide ratification of the Lisbon Treaty is imminent following Ireland’s massive endorsement of the EU reform agreement with a ‘yes’ vote of 67%. It looks as if Czech President Vaclav Klaus has lost his nerve and is ready to end his grandstanding talk of refusing to sign the ratification passed by the Czech parliament – a move which would have been constitutionally questionable anyway. So barring any unforeseen complications, it looks like this long effort to reform the EU to something more appropriate for its current size has been completed.

If the British media is to be believed, after rejecting the treaty in the first referendum in June 2008 Ireland voted yes this time around out of fear. Terrified by their vulnerability in the global economic downturn, the British narrative goes, the Irish have allowed themselves to be bullied into accepting dominance by Brussels, having lost confidence in their own ability to govern themselves. Under this narrative, the Irish made a courageous choice in the 2008 referendum when the treaty was, as the British press frequently puts it, “resoundingly defeated” (never mind the fact that the 2008 ‘no’ vote actually just squeaked by with 53%). Apparently in 2008 a slight majority indicated massive popular will by courageous people against an oppressive super-state, but in 2009 a large majority is the illegitimate result of misguided voters swayed by fear and intimidation. The Irish, it would seem, are only right when they agree with the British.

What is never mentioned in the British press is that after the June 2008 result Ireland has been given a basket of concessions and guarantees – the most significant being that the proposal to shrink the size of the European Commission from 27 commissioners to a more manageable size of around 20 has been abandoned. Under existing treaties each country is guaranteed a commissioner in the EC – even though commissioners are not supposed to represent national interests but rather fulfil a specific role of expertise such as trade, environment or energy. The large number of new member states that have joined in the past 10 years has meant there is now an excessive number of commissioners, with new remits for them being invented such as “Commissioner for Information Society and Media” and “Commissioner for Multilingualism”.

However even though it is supposed to be irrelevant which countries these commissioners come from that does not always prove true in practice, and the Lisbon solution to rotate a certain number of Commission seats between the small member states had caused some concern. There was a lot of misinformation spread in the 2008 ‘no’ campaign in Ireland, but this issue was one of the verifiable legitimate concerns that the ‘no’ campaign had – fearing the treaty would lessen the influence of small states in the EU’s executive body. So they won this concession, there will remain 27 commissioners.

While it is true that the actual text of the treaty has not changed (doing so would have required re-ratification by all 27 states and would have held up passage by another five years) the Irish have been given binding guarantees that these changes will be inserted at the time of the next Europe-wide ratification issue, likely the accession of Iceland and Croatia.

The British press also doesn’t mention that this time around there was a much more extensive education campaign on what is actually contained in the treaty – a response to the fact that the exit polling in the 2008 referendum revealed that the most frequently cited reason for voting ‘no’ was a lack of information on what the treaty is. Turnout this time around was also about 10% higher than before.

The British roots of the ‘no’ campaign were also more exposed this time around, making the claim that a ‘no’ vote was a vote for the spirit of dead Irish republicans seem laughable. As the Guardian pointed out in an article last week before the vote, the ‘no’ campaign was full of Brits who flew over to urge a rejection of the treaty, led by Tory lobbyists and Rupert Murdoch’s newspapers. All this prompted fears that a ‘no’ vote would result in what Irish Labour leader Eamon Gilmore called a “two-speed Europe” where there would be “a mainland Europe and the British Isles, where we fall under the influence of Britain." So much for a ‘no’ vote honouring the dead Republicans who fought against the British.

The Tories’ Eurochaos

The ‘yes’ vote was exceedingly bad timing for British Conservative leader David Cameron, as it means the Conservative Party conference this week will be dominated by the ‘Europe issue’, a quagmire that continues to cause rifts between different factions of the party. Cameron had promised to hold a referendum on the treaty in the UK if it remained unpassed by the time they (most likely) come into power next April. However now it looks like the treaty’s changes will be adopted by the EU by the end of the year – and the British parliament already ratified the treaty.

The Eurosceptic wing of the Conservative party is demanding that Cameron hold a referendum on the treaty anyway, asking the public whether Britain should retroactively pull out of a treaty it already signed and which has already gone into effect. The problem is this would not only be illegal under international law, it would also be impossible. If Cameron were to hold such a referendum and the result is ‘no’ (which is the position he has advocated), there is no longer a ‘treaty’ to vote on, the treaty has become the EU. So at that stage, a ‘no’ vote on the Treaty would be a ‘no’ vote on the EU, and the British would have to secede from the union.

This is not an issue Cameron wants to put to a referendum, as the risks of a ‘no’ vote would be too great. Britain pulling out of the EU, as I’ve written about before, would mean it would have to completely renegotiate almost all of its international treaties in trade, labour and markets. It would very likely cause an immediate collapse in the pound, and investors would flee the UK like rats fleeing a sinking ship.

So Cameron has an uncomfortable reality to deal with this week. Trying to throw a bone to the Eurosceptic wing, he has hinted ahead of the conference that the Tories will launch a “public consultation” instead of a referendum, with the aim of moving significant powers away from Brussels and back to Westminster. Party insiders are saying he will announce this week an intention to “repatriate” powers involving social powers, employment and justice to a national level. Of course what he effectively would be asking for are more UK opt-outs, which would be almost impossible to attain retroactively, requiring the approval of all 27 member states. Many of those member states would surely question why the UK deserves special treatment, and would laugh any Tory who demanded such a concession out of the room. Considering Cameron has already enraged the French and German conservative governments by leaving the mainstream centre-right EPP grouping in the European Parliament to form a new alliance with the Eastern European hard right, he has few friends in Brussels or other Western European capitals these days.

UK Shut Out of World Bodies

All of this Tory talk seems particularly incongruous with reality considering that just this weekend it emerged that, following the death of the G8, the US is planning to form a new G4 group of the world’s leading economies that will not include the UK. The new group would be composed of the US, China, Japan and the Eurozone. The Eurozone, remember, does not include the UK because it does not use the Euro currency. Alistair Darling has reportedly been begging for the new group to instead include all of the EU rather than the Eurozone, but US officials have reportedly rebuffed this request saying that the member needs to be able to control a unified monetary policy. The news comes at the same time that Britain is fighting to maintain its seat on the board of the International Monetary Fund.

It was amusing to see the Daily Mail try to spin this as Gordon Brown’s fault, rather than the fault of the isolationist impulse the Daily Mail and papers like it have championed over the past two decades. The fact that it is inevitable that the UK by itself will not be able to justify its seat on these international bodies in the 21st century seems to be lost on them. The paper declines to mention the fact that were the UK on the euro, it would have a seat on this new G4 body and could maintain a board seat in the IMF. Nor does it mention that France and Italy are also in the same boat now that the G8 is being dissolved, yet they will have a major place in the G4 and IMF because they are part of the Eurozone. The comments below the story would be hilarious if they weren’t so jaw-droppingly ignorant, with each commenter deciding that this news is somehow evidence that the UK should leave the EU. Come again?

It will be interesting to see how the ‘Europe issue’ is handled at this week’s Conservative Party conference. Considering Cameron’s populist tendencies, he could probably just get up on the podium and say ‘Europe’ and have the whole hall boo and jeer in order to have a successful day. But Cameron’s crowd-pleasing rhetoric on Europe is on a collision coarse with reality. His recent defection from the EPP is probably but a first instance of this.

Hopefully, Europe can now put this treaty nonsense behind it and focus on more important things, getting on to the real work of guiding the continent through the economic recovery and leading the world in the effort to combat climate change. That is, if the Tories can let a sleeping dog lie.