Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Snow Chaos: Should Western Europe prepare for colder winters?

I've been at home in the US for the past five days, and boy am I glad I got out of Europe when I did. I decided to head home for Christmas earlier than normal this year because I had a lot of holidays left to take - normally I head home two or three days before Christmas. On Friday morning I woke up to get ready for my flight to find a winter wonderland outside my window. But though the heavy snow caused a delay in my train to the airport, somehow my flight to New York wasn't delayed at all

But apparently after I left that snow just didn't stop falling. It's kept coming and coming, grounding airports in Europe to a halt from London to Milan. Brussels Airport was set to shut down yesterday after they found they had run out of de-icer fluid, but then apparently they found some more. But Heathrow Airport and Charles de Gaul are still ground to a halt as they grapple with the snow and cold. The busiest airport in Europe has now become "Hotel Heathrow" as stranded travelers have been camping out for the fourth day in a row, sure to miss Christmas with their families. The same scene has been seen at London, Paris and Brussels' international train stations, as high-speed lines have been ground to a halt. I sure feel lucky to have gotten here to spend Christmas with my family, but I can't say the same for my friends stuck in London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris.

The travel chaos is prompting many questions in Europe, but perhaps the most important is this - is this a freak act of nature, or an example of egregious poor planning by these Western European airports?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

EU gets tough with Switzerland

Any Swiss citizen working in the EU, or vice versa, should take note of some stern language used toward Switzerland by EU foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday. Warning Switzerland that the system of bilateral agreements that govern the Alpine country's relationship with the EU has "clearly reached its limits," the ministers called the current arrangement incoherent and unwieldy. Switzerland, they warned, is in danger of losing its rights for free movement of goods, persons, services, and capital with its neighbours.

Switzerland's relationship with the EU is governed by a complex system of bilateral agreements which make the country a sort of "semi-member state". Switzerland has to follow certain areas of EU law, but doesn't have to follow others. It participates in the free movement provisions of EU law, which means that any EU citizen can work in Switzerland, and vice versa. It also participates in certain common market rules, but is not part of the customs union (which is why you can buy tax-free goods when flying from Switzerland to elsewhere in Europe). At the same time, as a non-EU member it gets no European Commissioner, has no vote in the European Council and does not have MEPs in the European Parliament.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Berlusconi, the Italian asbestos – hey, at least he isn't gay!

Incredible, he's done it again! Despite all logical odds, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has again narrowly escaped defeat like some kind of reality-defying illusionist. But this is Italy, and perhaps logical odds were never the right indicators to use here. After all this is a country where the prime minister can cling to power even after he's been caught lying to a police station to release from jail an underage Moroccan erotic dancer he’s having relations with. This is a country where half of the administration can be forced to resign after corruption scandals, and yet the leader himself is still left standing triumphantly.

How can one explain this bizarre land south of the Alps? As has often been noted, few other developed countries would tolerate this kind of extreme behavior from their elected leader. In the past this blog has been routinely wrong in predicting Berlusconi’s imminent defeat. I just couldn’t believe that someone could hold on to power after these kinds of revelations were out there. Last year, during the prime ministers scandal-plagued divorce from his wife, allegations of sex with minors, hiring prostitutes and lavish orgies at Silvio's Sardinian villa were everywhere - and the prime minister didn't even bother denying them.

This is why when these revelations about the Moroccan belly dancer (pictured below) came out in October - and Berlusconi issued his subsequent defense of, “Yes I’m passionate about beautiful girls, but it’s better than being gay,” - I didn’t even bother writing about it. Yes, the fact that he got his Moroccan Lolita released from jail by telling a police station she was the Egyptian president’s daughter might have seemed like surely the final step too far. But I had been burned too many times by prematurely predicting Berlusconi's demise.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Anti-Caucasian football riots in Moscow expose World Cup problem

Central Moscow erupted in rioting this weekend as nationalist football hooligans attacked police officers and state buildings. The riots are the result of an explosive mix of ethnic tensions, ultranationalism and football that has cast doubt over the decision by FIFA a week ago to select Moscow as the host of the 2018 World Cup. Today the tensions continue. Hundreds of anti-riot police have amassed around Red Square and the Kremlin.

In Russia, as in much of Europe, football hooliganism often goes hand-in-hand with white supremacy and neo-nazi movements. The spark that lit the fuse for this particular riot came several weeks ago, when an ethnic Russian football fan was killed during a fight with a group of men from the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. He was a fan of the Spartak Moscow football team and a member of one of its most aggressive fan groups - or "firms" as the Russian hooligan groups like to call themselves. The Caucasian man arrested for the murder was subsequently released, prompting outrage from the Spartak Moscow fans who say the police are favoring the ethnic minorities.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Violent protests in London as government increases tuition

London was rocked today by the most violent anti-austerity protests yet seen, with Parliament Square becoming the scene of incredible sights of mayhem. The near-rioting took place just outside the Houses of Parliament where, inside, British politicians were casting the big vote on increasing English tuition rates by 300%. Horses charged into the crowd, fires raged and several police officers were seriously injured. Protesters broke into the treasury building and ransacked it. Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street were attacked. Even Prince Charles and Camilla were attacked as they tried to drive to the theatre, with protesters surrounding their car and smashing the windows.

The turmoil outside was mirrored by turmoil inside. The Liberal Democrats, who are in the governing coalition with the Conservative Party, saw a rebellion over the issue. Half of the Liberals defected, as did several Conservatives, shrinking the coalition's 84-seat majority to a majority of just 21 on this vote. The opposition Labour Party brutally criticised the plan, which will for the first time put British students in tens of thousands of pounds of debt after finishing a four-year degree - a situation that will be unique in all of Europe.

OK, now it's the first Citizens Initiative - or not?

Back in October I wrote about how the first "European Citizens Initiative", a new right to petition the EU enabled by the Lisbon Treaty, was going to be about genetically modified crops - or so-called "Frankenfoods" as the European tabloid press likes to call them. Even though the institutions were still crafting exactly how the citizens initiative was going to work, it was thought at the time that citizens could still submit their petitions in the mean time. Plenty of legal wrangling ensued, and the Commission has come to the opinion that it does not yet have to officially accept petitions. The European Parliament, on the other hand, thinks that they do. The issue has still not been resolved, because the Commission and the Parliament can't agree on how the Citizen's Initiative should work.

Today Greenpeace got fed up with waiting and staged a demonstration outside the commission demanding that Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso come outside and officially accept their petition, which calls on the EU to stop approving GM crops. But instead of the commission president, the only one to emerge was Health Commissioner John Dalli. Meeting the activists on the giant 380 square meter carpet containing all 1 million signatures collected, Dalli said "I can assure you that there is a political will to listen to everybody and one million signatures is a voice that we should listen to." Photos were taken, handshakes were made, and Dalli walked back into the Berlaymont building. The commission then quickly put out a press statement saying that the commissioner had "received" the petition. But speculation soon spread both outside and inside the commission headquarters - what does "received" mean? Did the commission officially accept the petition?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Is Obama the world's worst negotiator?

Barack Obama is being attacked by his own party this week after a massive capitulation to Republicans giving large tax cuts to the wealthiest two percent of Americans. For Democrats, two years of frustration over the president's frequent urge to compromise with the opposition while getting nothing in return seems to have bubbled over and exploded in a torrent of anger.

From pundits to politicians, many Democrats were furious on Tuesday over what they see as Obama's lack of appetite for political fights. There was talk of a party revolt in the congress, with Democrats saying they would vote against the Obama-backed deal. The anger got so loud that the president was forced to summon a hastily arranged press conference where he forcefully defended himself against the accusations by his own party and insisted he is indeed a fighter. But his speech, which at times seemed dismissive of the disappointment  felt by his own party, has done little to quell the fury. Take a look some choice clips from the speech in this video clip below.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Wikileaks dump and Europe

As the wikileaks "dump" continues to drip drip drip into the media, journalists here in Europe have been scrambling to find important policy-affecting observations from American diplomats about the old world. But while revelations about diplomacy in the Middle East and East Asia have been serious and consequential, observations about Europe have veered more toward tabloid gossip. Perhaps it's a reflection of what little strategic importance Europe has to the United States these days.

While diplomats in Asia were writing about how China may be signalling it will no longer protect North Korea, how Saudi Arabia may be gunning for a war with Iran and how Yemen may be taking credit for US attacks, diplomats in Europe apparently thought it was more interesting that French President is thin-skinned and "an emperor with no clothes" or that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is "feckless, vain and ineffective." The cables from US diplomats in Europe released by Wikileaks so far have often seem dismissive or mocking when speaking about European politicians.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Is Switzerland becoming the black sheep of Europe?

 The Swiss People's Party may have scored another victory yesterday in their campaign against the "black sheep" within Swiss society, but judging by the reaction of the European press today it may be the Swiss themselves who are becoming the real black sheep. In a referendum held Sunday, 53% of the Swiss endorsed a far-right initiative to automatically expel foreign residents who have committed a crime, following their time served in a Swiss prison.

According to the AFP, Austrian website news.at announced the news with the headline, "Switzerland is now the black sheep -- majority for tougher rules against foreigers." The headline is a reference to the notorious advertising used by the far-right Swiss People's Party (SVP) showing a group of white sheep kicking a black sheep out of Switzerland. The imagery, which helped propel the SVP to a huge election win in 2007, was again brought out in the SVP's campaign for the expulsion initiative (but this time with a new twist, one of the white sheep has been stabbed!). The Austrian press wasn't the only one criticising the referendum outcome. Belgian newspaper Le Soir noted today that the Swiss are increasingly choosing a "radical road". German newspaper Sueddeutsche Zeitung wrote that once again Switzerland is "sending a signal to the world that it doesn't care what others think of it." Many of the papers are noting that the vote comes exactly one year after the Swiss voted to ban minarets on mosques.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Putin suggests an EU-Russia union

Should Russia and the EU link up in a "common continental market?" Vladimir Putin thinks so. The Russian prime minister made the case for such a union in an editorial appearing in a German newspaper yesterday ahead of a two-day visit to Germany. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel quickly made her feelings on the subject known. Asked about Putin's editorial at a press conference yesterday she said she would have to "pour cold water" on the idea when she meets with Mr. Putin, though she said an EU-Russia free trade zone is a possibility.

The idea of a pan-European free trade zone, similar to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) struck in the 1990's, has been floated for some time. But Putin's editorial seems to go further than this. "We propose the creation of a harmonious economic community stretching from Lisbon to Vladivostok," he wrote. "The result would be a unified continental market with a capacity worth trillions of euros." He said "the global economic crisis has revealed both Russia and the EU to be economically very vulnerable," adding that Russia is too dependent on its oil and gas exports while the EU is too dependant on imports, and the EU has lost its competitive edge because of de-industrialisation. Linking the two economies, Putin wrote, could solve problems on both sides.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Ireland in crisis

Today was a dramatic day in Dublin. First came the news that the government was giving in and accepting an EU bail-out, prompting angry demonstrators to swarm government buildings in protest of the decision. But as the day went on Ireland’s financial crisis morphed into a political one. The Green Party, a junior partner in the governing coalition, announced it was pulling its support - prompting a collapse of the government and a general election. The Irish government now appears to be in complete meltdown.

Since last week Ireland has been under pressure from the EU to accept the bail-out as it became clear that Ireland’s banks were in so much trouble that the Irish government was going to be unable to borrow money. Brussels was afraid this insolvency would spread to the other vulnerable so-called “PIGS” countries, causing the euro currency to collapse. If such a crisis were to spread to Spain, the eurozone's fourth largest economy, it could spell the end of the euro and as a consequence, some leaders have suggested, the end of the EU. After spending a week denying that they would take the money, today the Irish government accepted a rescue package worth up to €90 billion ($124bn).

So why the initial resistance, and why the protests today? Surely Ireland getting money is a good thing for Ireland right? Well the rescue package comes with a lot of strings attached, and they will be painful strings for the Irish population. In exchange for the aid, Ireland must make €4.5 billion in public spending cuts and €1.5 billion in tax increases. Overall, the country will have to save €15 billion by 2014. This will undoubtedly cause an increase to the unemployment rate, aleady high at nearly 15%. Essentially, it doesn’t matter who the Irish public elects in the general election that will likely be called in January (after the bail-out has been approved by the current parliament). The country will be governed by the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank for the next three years.

Friday, 19 November 2010

Today’s EU-US 'summit': progress or face-saving?

All this week I was inundated with press releases, previews and briefing notices leading up to the big EU-US summit taking place in Lisbon today, the first such summit since the Lisbon Treaty went into force a year ago. From the way the EU institutions were hyping it, you would think this was some kind of massive meeting of powers set to define the course of the next century. The reality? Barack Obama is taking two hours out of his busy schedule while at a NATO summit in Lisbon to meet with European Council President Herman Van Rompuy and European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on the sidelines.

Apparently this is all that US officials were willing to offer the new “EU president” even though the EU was originally thinking they could get a separate day with Obama while he was on the continent for the NATO gathering. But the EU grabbed the opportunity for even a two-hour meeting, eager to avoid another massive humiliation after Obama snubbed the union last May when he suddenly backed out of a planned EU-US summit in Madrid. The entire summit was cancelled after that last incident, and apparently EU officials didn’t want to have to go all of 2010 with the US president not meeting with his new EU counterpart.

Thursday, 18 November 2010

Will the ugly ducking CAP get a beauty makeover?

There's an episode of the 1970's sitcom The Brady Bunch where middle child Jan Brady decides she's sick of being overshadowed by her pretty, popular older sister Marcia and resolutely decides her problems will be solved by wearing a bizarre black wig at a friends birthday party. So she trots confidently down the stairs in her new 'do, announcing, "Look everyone, it's the new Jan Brady". But the wig looks so incongruous on her petite frame that the partygoers just look confused.

I started thinking about this scene (mocked hilariously in the Brady Bunch movie of the 1990's) as I sat in the European Commission press conference today unveiling its ideas for 'the new common agricultural policy (CAP)'. Agriculture commissioner Dacian Ciolos insisted that the function of CAP would have to be widened beyond just the simple mission of producing food and instead take on a climate change and biodiversity mission in order to gain legitimacy with the non-farming public. But as I listened to the raft of green measures that may be incorporated into the policy, I wondered if the CAP wasn't going to end up looking a little bit like poor Jan Brady, a 14 year old girl standing in the middle of the birthday party wearing a wig clearly designed for a 60 year old woman.

Tuesday, 16 November 2010

David Cameron's lucky day

It's been a good day for UK Prime Minister David Cameron. This morning Britain's Prince William announced he will wed his long-time girlfriend Kate Middleton in a lavish royal wedding next year. Cameron was reportedly ecstatic when he announced the engagement to his cabinet, and it's not hard to see why. A royal wedding is exactly the sort of thing the Tories need to lift the spirits of the British public, who are suffering so much from the economic crisis and the budget cuts. In fact the engagement announcement already started fulfilling its role as a much-needed distraction today as it completely drowned out the simultaneous announcement from 10 Downing Street of a raft of new cuts including, ironically, the scrapping of legal aid for poor people getting a divorce. So while the royal family celebrates an upcoming wedding, their subjects learn it will now be harder for them to obtain an equitable separation.

Meanwhile over in Brussels, word came this morning that Cameron may get his wish for a complete freeze in the EU budget after all. Talks between member states and the European Parliament over the 2011 EU budget broke down last night. With no agreement in sight, it will mean that the 2010 budget will have to be used next year. Freezing the EU budget at 2010 levels was exactly what Cameron wanted, though this is probably not the way he wanted to get it. But Brussels was in despair today over the failure to reach an agreement, which will have very serious consequences for the EU. Both the commission and the parliament seemed to be shocked by the deliberate sabotaging of the budget that appears to have been led by the UK with the aid of their Dutch and Danish eurosceptic allies.

It was particularly shocking considering that parliament had broken precedent and completely capitulated to member states' demand that the budget not be raised by more than 3% (the parliament had originally called for a 6% raise). What appears to have happened is that certain member states are using the budget negotiations as a power play, seeking to sideline an increasingly assertive European Parliament that has sought to use the new powers it was granted by the Lisbon Treaty. The irony of the situation was lost on no one in Brussels today. The British Conservatives, who are constantly whining about the "democratic deficit" in the EU, are seeking to marginalise the only directly elected EU institution. And they are willing to play a dangerous game to do so.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Is direct democracy preventing a solution to the euro problem?

Angela Merkel may have won her battle for a change to eurozone rules last month, but as lawyers grapple with exactly how to make those treaty changes, the devil is proving to be in the details. The greatest irony of the whole situation may be that it is the eurosceptic populations of Northern Europe - who have been the most unfairly hurt by the euro currency crisis - that are proving the biggest block to making changes with real teeth that would stop Southern European states from from again abusing the rules of the common currency.

Ever since the German chancellor reluctantly agreed to bail out the collapsed Greek economy and create a permanent mechanism for similar crises in the future, she has insisted that EU treaty changes are needed to prevent the bail-out being challenged in Germany's constitutional court. So she has called for treaty changes explicitly allowing such bail-outs and also measures to punish eurozone states who abuse the bloc's rules as Greece did. The later element would have the objective of preventing the need for another such-bail-out in the future. The changes are needed urgently, she says, because that future may be of the not-too-distant variety considering the recent economic news coming out of Ireland and Spain.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

UK tuition increases spark student riot

Fury over the conservative government’s decision to raise university tuition fees as part of its massive spending cuts program boiled over into the streets of London today, culminating in violent clashes at the Conservative Party headquarters at 30 Millbank. What started as a peaceful student protest quickly spun out of control, as demonstrators smashed the windows of the headquarters, poured into the lobby, and scaled the roof. They lit fires, smashed cars and refused to move from the street outside the building. It was unprecedented for a student protest in modern British history, and was the first major violent demonstration against Prime Minister David Cameron’s austerity package.

The protests center around a proposal by Cameron’s government to allow universities to charge students between £6,000 ($9,600) and £9,000 ($14,400) in tuition per year. Currently, tuition fees are capped at £3,290($5,264). These fees may seem low by Americans standards, where university education can cost around $40,000 a year. But they are part of a general shift in the UK that has been a long time in coming. For over a decade, the English education system has been drifting away from the state-funded European model and toward the mass-education American model. In just 15 years, students in the UK will have gone from paying £0 for a four year university education in 1997 to £60,000 in 2012. It’s no wonder students are angry.

Wednesday, 10 November 2010

EU to crack down on Schengen border violations

Today the European Commission announced a crackdown on member state compliance with the Schengen passport-free area rules, and during the press conference I couldn't help but smile to myself. The other week I had a bit of a rant with my friends after I encountered a British woman on a airport shuttle bus in Prague who didn't know what Schengen was. Since then the joke has been that I'm obsessed with Schengen. So naturally, I had to write a blog entry about the new proposal.

So, the Prague airport story. I was taking the airport shuttle to the airport and we were just pulling in to terminal 1 (the "international" terminal with flights to the US, China, etc) when an announcement came on saying that this terminal was for non-Schengen countries, and the following terminal would be for Schengen Area countries. I had my headphones on but I could see that there was a woman a few seats away from me with a confused expression on her face asking her neighbour something. By the time I took my headphones off we were already on our way to terminal 2, but I could then hear that the woman was frantically asking people what Schengen was. Apparently her neighbour, also a Brit, had reassured her "Oh Schengen means EU. You're going to London? Then terminal 2, definitely."

Monday, 8 November 2010

Europe is the past, India is the future

I'm watching Obama's speech to the Indian parliament now, and I can't help but contrast it to his much-watched 2009 speech to Europe. The message and level of ambition for the relationship is remarkably different. Obama just said the US-India relationship will "define this century," an element that was completely missing from his speech to Europe. Obama's speech has been overflowing with compliments for the emerging Asian economy. He said his presidency would not be possible without India's founding father Mahatma Gandhi. He's talked up India's "rightful place" on international bodies like the UN security council and the IMF. He's spoken of India's growth as an economic miracle, quickly becoming the largest middle class in the world. He's said India's role as the world's largest democracy has something to teach the United States. And he's spoken enthusiastically of India's role in the 21st century. He's practically offered to do their laundry for them.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

Daily Show 'sanity' rally: more harm to the left than good?

I thought I'd post a video from this weekend's Real Time with Bill Maher show on the subject of Jon Stewart's "Rally to Restore Sanity" because I remember last weekend a lot of Europeans were asking me about it and whether I was going to watch. "No," I told them, "I'm not going to watch it, and if I was in the US this weekend I wouldn't be attending it either." At the time I don't think I was articulating my annoyance with Stewart and the rally all that clearly, but I told my friends I thought the rally was going to be almost depressingly irrelevant. Of course in the end it was. Though the rally had a huge turnout, the youth vote in last Tuesday's election was the lowest in years. On Friday night, Bill Maher delivered a monologue that I think will resonate with a lot of American Daily Show viewers who were uncomfortable with Stewart's rally but couldn't articulate why.

Yes, the Daily Show rally, held on the national mall in Washington, may have attracted twice as many people as tea party pied piper and Fox News host Glenn Beck's "Rally to Restore American Honor" which it was meant to lampoon. But that was cold comfort to some in the dwindling ranks of the politically active American left, who saw the rally more as a depressing reminder of the current state of things than anything they could be proud of. The Daily Show's writers and producers have an undeniable liberal viewpoint, and the show spends most of its time making fun of Fox News and Republican politicians. But the show also likes to present itself as being "non-political." After showing outrageous clips from politicians on the right, host Jon Stewart frequently insists that the same level of craziness exists on the left. But he rarely provides any actual examples of this phantom American left.

Friday, 5 November 2010

EU to create "right to be forgotten"

As the public's concern over internet privacy violations on sites like Facebook continues to grow, the EU unveiled new proposals yesterday to give people more control over how their online personal data is collected and used. The new update to EU privacy laws would oblige service providers to make personal information and user-supplied content easily and quickly deletable. Citing the effect such information can have on a person's professional and private life, the European Commission says the issue is important enough to take EU-wide action. The commission says it has even received complaints from its own staff about Facebook's privacy policy. And that must be a big deal, because most of the people I know who work for the commission are on Facebook all day!

Perhaps the most interesting thing about the proposal is that it would create a new right for EU citizens, a so-called "right to be forgotten." The original EU data protection rules date back to 1995, when such issues of online privacy did not yet exist. In theory the right to control over one's own personal stored information is already enshrined in EU law, but the commission said yesterday its applicability to the online world has been patchy and unclear.

Wednesday, 3 November 2010

The United States of Paralysis

The results are in, and there were no big surprises from last night's US midterm election. As predicted, Republicans have wrested control of the House of Representatives from Democrats but failed to take the Senate. But maintaining "control" of the Senate is surely cold consolation for the Democrats today. As the Washington Post's Ezra Klein writes in his blog this morning, there was perhaps no worse outcome from the perspective of actually getting anything done in the next two years than the result delivered yesterday.
"Republicans don't fully control Congress, so they don't have enough power to be blamed for legislative outcomes," he writes. "But Democrats don't control the House and they don't have a near-filibuster proof majority in the Senate, so they can't pass legislation. Republicans, in other words, are not left with the burden of governance, and Democrats are not left with the power to govern. Republicans don't have to be responsible, and Democrats can't do it for them."
That's the rub, isn't it? Given that the Senate is the institution that has given Democrats so much trouble during the past two years in the first place, holding on to it is not much of a consolation prize for them. By overusing an ancient procedural rule that can block any vote with just 40 out of the 100 senators, Republicans in the Senate were able to block almost every bill the House of Representatives passed. Indeed yesterday's result is really stinging because it was the House Democrats that really showed political courage over the past two years, casting tough votes even though they knew they would be politically unpopular. There were few such profiles in courage among Democrats in the Senate. And yet it's the senate Democrats that have clung onto power. Nobody ever said politics is fair.

Could a Franco-British military be the start of an EU army?

Today’s agreement for military cooperation between the UK and France may or may not be as “historic” as the media is claiming today – but it all seems to depend on which side of the channel you’re on. In the UK, political leaders have been keen to stress the “pragmatic” nature of the relationship between the two countries who are both pursuing austerity measures and looking for cuts wherever they can. The suggestion from Prime Minister David Cameron almost seems to be that this is a temporary arrangement. Meanwhile Nicolas Sarkozy and other French leaders are telling their newspapers that this is a “moment of history” and the start of a “long-term relationship” that essentially commits the two to work together for 50 years.

So who’s right? The answer is that it will be very dependent on what type of relationship the UK and France have over the next 50 years. After all, military agreements like this have been signed between the two countries before which came to nothing. Most famously, a more general agreement was made between Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac before their dramatic falling out over the Iraq War put an end to all that. So who’s to say that this agreement won’t also be scrapped as soon as the two countries differ again on foreign policy?

Friday, 29 October 2010

Everybody wins in Brussels?

The European leaders are exiting the Just Lips building now, and they are all smiles. To hear them tell it, everybody got what they wanted out of yesteray's horse-trading in the Autumn European Council. Merkel and Sarkozy got their eurozone treaty changes and David Cameron got his budget freeze. The British media sure seems to have swallowed Downing Street's line that Cameron was "successfull" in convincing 10 other member states to back him on his call for a cap at 2.9% for an EU budget increase. Hooray hurrah!

Er, but wait a minute...wasn't it a complete budget freeze that Cameron was asking for? The British media seem to have forgotten that between yesterday and today. In fact, Cameron's freeze proposal was roundly rejected by member states yesterday, so he then fell back to a position of wanting to keep the budget increase to the commission's proposed 2.9%. To claim that this was a "victory" for Cameron is pretty absurd, considering a 2.9% increase was the stated position of most member states going into the meeting. The 6% increase requested by the European Parliament was never a realistic figure - every year they request more than they expect to get in order to increase their bargaining position with the council. Yes, member states agreed not to negotiate to any figure above 2.9%, which will surely displease the parliament, but the other 10 member states certainly didn't need much "convincing" from Cameron to agree to this position.

EU just wants a little love

Let's face it, these days the EU is just not very popular with the European public. Gone are the heady days in the early 2000's when there was boundless and perhaps unrealistic ambition in Brussels for what the EU could accomplish. Today, as the financial crisis bites and people's confidence in the common market has been damaged, one of the EU's biggest problems is how to win the love of its public.

This week Justice and Citizenship Commissioner Vivane Reding and Internal Market Commissioner Michel Barnier unveiled a new bundle of consumer protection mesures, and the main message seemed to be, "Please, love us!" But Reding seems determined that this raft of new rules, coupled with the introduction of a new 'Single Market Act', will be accompanied by an assertive communication campaign that will try to make sure EU citizens know that these new benefits and protections are coming from Brussels.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

A day of deal-making in Brussels

As European leaders meet in Brussels today everyone seems to have something to sell. David Cameron and new Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte have stepped off their trains this morning with demands for an EU budget freeze for 2011. Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy arrived this morning having formed a pact between them a few days ago to jointly demand treaty changes allowing the EU to sanction eurozone countries who misbehave. And representatives of the European Parliament will be on hand to demand the introduction of direct EU taxation that would go directly to Brussels. It will be an intense day of horse-trading as each block tries to get what they want.

The British and Dutch conservatives want to freeze next year's budget at 2010 levels, opposing the 6% increase approved by the parliament last week. They say it would be obscene to increase the EU budget, which is financed by member states, at a time when national governments are pursuing drastic budget-cutting measures. Members of the European Parliament (MEPs), on the other hand, point out that a 6% increase is significantly lower than what they usually call for. But they say they would be willing to consider a freeze if the member states agree to new forms of direct EU taxation on things like aviation, financial trading and carbon credits. Right now the EU is entirely funded by member state governments.

Tuesday, 26 October 2010

EU considers closer ties with Cuba

In one of her first moves after the EU's foreign relations arm (the EEAS) comes into existence at the begining of December, the new EU foreign affairs chief Cathy Ashton is going to contact the Cuban government to explore closer ties with Havana, according to news reports today. The development is interesting because it shows how the new EU foreign policy, made possible by the adoption of the Lisbon Treaty, may seek in some ways to be a counterweight to American foreign policy. But there are deep divisions within the union about whether it should seek a different policy toward Cuba than the United States.

The EU has in fact had a "common position" on Cuba since 1996, but this policy has been seen by some as a NATO-crafted backing of the American position on Cuba. It says that EU member states will only normalise their links to Cuba if the country makes progress on democracy and human rights. Spain has been the leading voice for increasing ties with Cuba, and over the summer they were keen to highlight to Brussels Cuba's decision to release 52 political prisoners. According to reports, these pleas from Spain have found a sympathetic ear with Ashton.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

UK cuts 1/5 of government spending - is it possible in the US?

As rolling strikes and violent protests against austerity measures continue to cause chaos in France today, across the channel the new conservative government of David Cameron introduced their much-anticipated package of budget cuts, the biggest slash to the UK budget since World War II. Naturally, the stoic British public is not reacting in the same 'take to the streets' manner of the French in their reaction to Sarkozy's attempts at budget cuts. Instead, there seems to be a sense of profound sadness and anxiety in the UK today.

Put quite simply, the cuts are massive. £83 billion ($130 billion) in cuts were announced this afternoon, an average of 20% out of every government department. 490,000 government employees will lose their jobs. Government offices in London will be cut by a third. Rent will be increased for people in public housing, police services will be cut, local town councils will get less money, and prisons will have less space. The retirement age will be raised to 66 (compared to 62 in the US). Both the sales and income tax will rise, with most of the increases coming out of the salaries of top earners. University teaching budgets will be cut by 75%, meaning the cost of tuition will rise considerably. And the British military isn't immune either, it will see an 8% cut in its budget. Even the queen will have to make do with less. Cameron is giving her a 14% pay cut.

Wednesday, 13 October 2010

The real tea party

The other day I was at a conference here in Brussels and one of the speakers, who was German, made a joke about America's tea party movement. Making the case that European consumers would not like paying extra taxes in order to pay for recycling, he joked, 'but in the United States I understand they have the tea party to take care of this kind of thing'. The audience laughed, and I laughed as well, because I assumed it was said tongue in cheek. But then when I thought about it I realised, wait, maybe he's serious...

I wouldn't blame Europeans for thinking the American tea party movement is motivated solely by their opposition to taxes, after all this is how its portrayed in the European media - particularly by the British press. And they in turn are taking their cues from the American mainstream media, who have also been portraying it as a movement of libertarian fiscal conservatives concerned about deficit spending and taxes. But even as this narrative continues, there is clear and unavoidable evidence that this is not what the movement is mainly about at all. In fact the movement has no real focus, serving mostly as a confused jumble of rage. Its participants – who show up to street demonstrations and rallies wearing funny hats and revolutionary war costumes - appear to have various grievances, and some seem to have no specific grievances in particular. But one thing is clear – the leaders of the tea party movement, and the candidates they have elected to represent the Republican Party in November's midterm election, are the same old social conservative culture warriors that have been around for years. Only this time, they're wearing funny hats.

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

EU smoking ban in the works for next year

They've made tenuous moves in the past, but this time it looks like they're serious. Yesterday EU health chief John Dalli told a German newspaper that the European Commission will make a push to ban smoking in all public places, transport and workspaces throughout the EU next year. It is an ambitious idea considering that the status of smoking in public places currently varies widely across the union, and even the United States has been unable or unwilling to try to put in place a federal smoking ban.

Last year the European Commission took a rather half-hearted stand on public smoking, merely encouraging member states to adopt their own smoking bans by 2012. But since then a new commission has come to power and the new health commissioner appears to be more aggressive on the issue than his predecessor. He wants to propose new legislation next year to reduce the amount of nicotine used in cigarettes, make shopkeepers keep cigarettes out of view from customers and enforce new labelling requirements on cigarette packs. He also told the newspaper that he wants to push for an EU-wide smoking ban.

Monday, 11 October 2010

Anti-gay riot in Serbia deals blow to EU hopes

Some 140 people were injured and 200 arrested over the weekend in the Serbian capital of Belgrade as ultranationalist rioters sought to disrupt a gay pride march going through the city protected by armed guards. As the country seeks to join the European Union, the embarrassing incident is just the latest to demonstrate the gulf between the "good behaviour" demonstrated by the Serbian government and the "bad behaviour" exhibited by a large segment of the Serbian population. Or at least that's how Brussels sees it, and that gulf continues to make EU officials very anxious.

The new tension this riot creates with Brussels is heightened by the fact that there were several EU officials marching in the parade to show solidarity – including an expected appearance by the EU ambassador to Serbia. Today Jelko Kacin, who leads the European Parliament's unit looking at Serbian accession, told the Associated Press that the riots "show an elementary lack" of tolerance for minority rights in Serbia and the "inefficiency" of the state in preventing this trend. The march this weekend was the first one to be organised since the last attempt in 2001 resulted in mass chaos and street brawls as nationalists and football supporters' clubs attacked the gay rights marchers. Another march had been planned for last year but was cancelled because of concern over the violence. This year the parade was protected by 5,000 police officers – which equals roughly three officers per pride marcher.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

"Frankenfoods" the subject of first EU citizens initiative

The first citizens initiative petition will soon be presented to the European Commission under new rules created by the Lisbon Treaty. The treaty gives citizens the right to demand that the EU look into a specific issue if they can collect 1 million signatures. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the petition concerns one of the hottest and most controversial issues with the European public: genetically modified crops.

As an American, it’s been interesting to watch the GM debate progress here in Europe. Genetically modified crops are now widely used in the United States, and it was never a very hot or controversial topic there. GM crops and even GM food does not seem to bother the American public very much. The exact opposite is true here in Europe, where the public across member states remains concerned about GM. Across Europe the media has been very hostile to these so-called "Frankenfoods". In the US the issue has gotten barely a mention.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Travel warning confusion

The United States issued a blanket warning yesterday for Americans in Europe, and I for the life of me can’t figure out what this is supposed to be. As an American living in Europe, I suppose I’m the intended recipient of this message. I’m sitting here at the Helsinki Airport ready to get on a flight to Brussels reading the US state department press release and the accompanying news coverage, and I’m left wondering what exactly the US government is telling me to do.

Despite issuing a blanket warning for Americans to avoid “public places” throughout the European continent until at least next year(what does that even mean?), a state department official on a press conference call today told reporters, “"We're not saying don't travel to Europe. We're not saying don't visit tourist, major tourist attractions or historic sites or monuments.” Yet they should register with the local US consulate (even if they’re only in Europe for a few days), avoid wearing or displaying anything that identifies them as American and try not to speak in loud voices with their American accents. Asking an American not to speak in a loud voice is probably as futile as asking an Italian not to talk with their hands, but that’s what they want.

Friday, 1 October 2010

Hard-Right Holland

You know we've entered a different era when Spain has become the leading progressive voice in Europe while the Netherlands has come under the sway of a hard-right party. If you had posited this scenario to someone in the early 1970's they would have thought you were crazy. But Holland's years-in-the-making drift toward hard-right conservatism was again demonstrated this week when a conservative coalition government was finally formed – with the participation of the far-right Freedom Party (PVV) of Geert Wilders. The new coalition is set to ban the veil and limit the number of "non-Western" immigrants allowed to come into the country.

Dutch elections were held back in June, but the two centre-right parties did not achieve enough of a majority to form a stable government on their own. The PVV, meanwhile, greatly increased their share of the vote. After months of negotiations, this week the centre-right parties concluded a deal with the far-right PVV, led by the controversial anti-Islam crusader Wilders, that will allow them to form a government with Mark Rutte as prime minister.

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

‘Red Ed’ elected new British Labour leader

As political theater goes, there’s nothing quite like sibling rivalry played out on the national stage. Such a drama has been playing out in the UK over the past several months as brothers David and Ed Miliband fought it out to become the next leader of the Labour party. This week it all came to a thundering climax as the Labour party conference chose younger brother Ed to be their leader.

The choice was not just between two different branches of a family tree – it was between two differing political ideologies. Or at least that’s the way it was being presented. Older brother David was the anointed successor to Tony Blair, and he was firmly entrenched in the “New Labour” makeover created by Blair and Gordon Brown in the 1990’s. That movement pulled the Labour party to the right to make it palatable to middle England and therefore electable. It came shortly after Bill Clinton remade the Democrats in the same way in the United States, though the term “New Democrat” has become almost an irrelevancy as the Democrats have settled comfortably into their new centrist role. That was never the case in the UK, where a large part of the Labour party resented Blair and Brown for pulling the party to the right and longed for a leader to end the New Labour project and return the party to its socialist routes.

Monday, 27 September 2010

US introduces entrance fee for European visitors

If you are European and wish to visit the United States, starting this month you will have to pay a $14-per-person entry fee for the privilege. The unilateral move by the US has come as quite a shock to the EU, especially since neither Brussels nor individual member states were consulted about it. And European leaders are in equal parts furious and bemused that the fee is ostensibly a “tourism promotion” tax on visitors. Now, the EU is considering a retaliatory measure charging Americans to enter Europe if the US refuses to scrap the fee.

Such a fee levied to visitors from countries that do not require a tourist visa is historically unheard of, and it appears to be a new concept the US is trying to introduce. But it’s an idea that members of the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg last week were not receptive to, to say the least. Using strikingly strong language, MEPs expressed fury over this new “Electronic Travel Authorisation System” (ESTA), which they say amounts in effect to a unilateral visa.

Monday, 20 September 2010

The mainstreaming of Europe's 'stealth far-right'

The results from yesterday’s general election in Sweden are in – and continuing the narrative of European elections over the past five years, the results are bad news for the left. The centre-left Social Democrats lost 17 seats in the parliament – just the latest blow for a party that until recently had dominated Swedish politics.

But the ruling centre-right coalition, who will hold on to power, weren’t exactly jumping out of their seats last night in celebration. Only Prime Minister Fredrik Reinfeldt's party managed to gain seats, while his three coalition partners all lost seats. This left the coalition just short of a majority, and they will have to ally with the Swedish Greens in order to put them over the threshold. So if everyone seemed to lose seats, where did the votes go? They went to the far-right Sweden Democrats (SD), who will now enter the parliament for the first time after winning 20 seats in yesterday’s election. It's a stunning development for a historically left-of-centre country like Sweden.

Friday, 17 September 2010

As expected, pope visit courts controversy in Britain

This week Pope Benedict XVI is making the first state visit by a pontiff to the United Kingdom. Considering the UK was historically the most anti-Catholic country in Europe (they have a holiday devoted to burning effigies of a Catholic traitor for goodness sake!), no one should be too surprised that this visit is causing some controversy.

In fact from the television coverage, it looks like the pope’s visit could be attracting more protesters than worshipers. The protesters appear to have two objections to the pope's visit. One: because it’s a state visit, the taxpayers are paying for it. Two: they are angry about the child abuse scandal and the Catholic heirarchy’s efforts to cover it up. Those are the ostensible reasons at least. But I suspect that if the Dalai Lama or an imam visited Britain on a state visit it wouldn’t be met with such a protest. Perhaps old historical animosity toward the ‘papists’ has a bit to do with this huge backlash to the visit. A great many public figures and politicians have objected to the visit as well, and the controversy has been raging ever since the visit was first announced. It even became a subject during the prime minister debates during this year's election. Surveys have shown that 2/3 of the British public dissaprove of the visit.

Is Sarkozy losing it?

Toward the end of today there was a flurry of speculation among the journalists at the summit of EU leaders in Brussels, when word got around that the Bulgarian prime minister was telling people a violent altercation between French president Nicolas Sarkozy and European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso had occurred during lunch. The fight, from the sounds of it, was pretty incredible - apparently Sarkozy was screaming so loudly at Barroso it could be heard all the way down the hall.

The altercation came after Tuesday's shockingly strong condemnation of France's deportation of Roma (gypsies) by Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding. Reding had not only accused France of violating EU anti-discrimination law by targeting an ethnic minority for deportation, but also of violating free movement law by deporting "en masse" gypsies who are Romanian and Bulgarian nationals and therefor EU citizens. But what really seemed to make Sarkozy and his cabinet explode in anger this past week was Reding's comparison of France's recent actions to the country's history of rounding up and disposing of gypsies during World War II. One by one this week French ministers expressed their shock and fury at Reding's words, with the country's Europe minister even declaring "This is not how you treat a great nation like France!" But even after Reding apologized for making the World War II analogy, their anger didn't seem to diminish. And apparently, when Barroso told Sarkozy today that he is backing Reding's condemnation and the commission is united on challenging the legality of what France is doing, that's when Sarko lost it.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Gypsy exile in Europe mirrors wave of Islamophobia in US

It’s been an intense day of cannon fire shooting back and forth between Brussels and Paris, as the European Commission abruptly broke its silence on France’s deportation of Roma (gypsies) and came out swinging. EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding held a press conference this morning calling the French deportations a “disgrace” and said the EU is now considering taking legal action against France for violating EU law. It was a shockingly strong condemnation that caught the Brussels press corps completely by surprise, considering Brussels is usually loath to criticize anything France does. Reding even thumped the podium as she spoke, comparing the expulsion campaign to the persecution of Jews during World War II.

Within minutes Paris was reeling from the shock. At a hastily organized press conference in Paris, a spokesman for the government said they were “astonished” to learn of Reding’s declarations. He then accused Reding of standing in the way of France’s efforts to "improve the situation" of Roma, which he said was “at the heart of the government’s concern and action”. Later in the day, France's Europe minister showed just how unprecedented EU criticism of France is when he warned, "This is not how you speak to a major power like France."

The issue has been on a low boil since August, when French president Nicolas Sarkozy first took the decision to deport camps of gypsies who are foreign nationals (mostly Romanian but also Bulgarian) back to where they had come from. Only problem is, Romania and Bulgaria are now part of the EU, and as such their citizens have the right to free movement within the union. But for weeks the commission was silent on the issue. That is, until today’s explosion from Reding.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Referendum in Turkey - Careful what you wish for, Europe

Yesterday's referendum in Turkey, which saw 58% of Turks vote 'yes' to a dramatic reform of the country's constitution, was being warmly welcomed in press releases from both Brussels and the European capitals today. But despite their warm words for the vote's institution of Democratic reforms, there are no doubt worries behind the scene in Europe today as they take in what the vote really means for the direction Turkey is headed in. Paradoxically, although this is exactly the type of reform the EU has been demanding of Turkey in order for it to be able to join the EU, the vote's outcome can actually be seen as an indication of how quickly the Turkish population is drifting away from Western influence.

The changes are mostly aimed at reducing the role of the military in the country, and were champtioned by Turkey's current Islamo-conservative prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan. The vote represents a huge victory for Erdogan over the country's uncompromisingly secular military. It indicates that his Islamnic party will likely win the upcoming elections next year. And, it satisfies a main demand of the EU for Turkey to be able to join the union. But considering that the legitimate concern over the wisdom of a Turkish accession is now a consensus everywhere in Western continental Europe, this could actually cause some real headaches for European policy makers. It is likely they will just move the goal posts further out for Turkey's accession, a tactic criticised by last year's report on EU policy toward Turkey.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

Gay marriage conflict brewing in European Parliament

On Tuesday night, members of the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg held a debate with Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding seeking an answer to a complicated but inevitable question: Now that a majority (16 out of 27) of EU member states have some form of gay marriage, how are free movement rules going to work if those married couples wish to move to one of the 11 member states that do not have gay marriage?

As I wrote earlier this summer, now that Ireland has become the latest country to adopt gay civil unions, a clear pattern is emerging of a two-speed Europe when it comes to gay rights. In Western Europe, every country except Italy has now adopted some form of gay marriage. While in Eastern Europe, nine countries have adopted constitutional amendments banning gay marriage. It is a geographic divide reminiscent of the situation in the United States, where states on the East and West coasts have adopted gay marriage while states in the center and South have adopted constitutional bans. It would seem both the EU and the US are soon going to have to grapple with the challenge of establishing how a marriage can be valid in one state and invalid in another.

Monday, 6 September 2010

“We must prepare for the end of Belgium”

Is it a bluff, or are they serious? That’s the question all the Belgian media is asking today after the Francophone Socialist party leaders made an abrupt U-turn this weekend and, for the first time, started openly talking about the break-up of the country.

Up until now only the Flemish Dutch-speaking politicians that have seriously proposed breaking up the country, while the Francophone parties have refused to even entertain the possibility. But that seemed to change quite suddenly this weekend after talks on forming a new Belgian government collapsed yet again and the king accepted the resignation of Socialist leader Elio di Rupo as lead negotiator. Francophone socialist Philippe Moureaux came out saying Belgium is on the verge of an orderly separation. Rudy Demotte, the head of the government of Wallonia, said that “all options” are now on the table for them. Francophone Socialist Laurette Onkelinx told the magazine DH Dimanche, “We must prepare for the end of Belgium, otherwise we might be the ones to suffer.”

Thursday, 2 September 2010

A Mediterranean revolt against the EU-wide patent

A few years ago I worked as a reporter covering intellectual property investment - essentially venture capital firms investing in new inventions and forming start-up companies around them. It was an interesting gig, but when I moved to London to start the job I knew nothing, and I mean nothing, about intellectual property. So it was a steep learning curve. I remember one of the things I was very surprised by when I started learning about how to protect intellectual property in Europe was the fact that, despite the existence of a European Patent Office in Munich, there is no such thing as a Europe-wide patent.

It struck me as rather strange. Of all the things the European Union could do well, it would seem that organising Europe-wide intellectual property protection would be high on the list. After all, it's a common market for products, shouldn't it be a common market for ideas?

But the reality is that though Brussels has tried time and time again, there still is no European patent - only individual patents for each member state. So if a company wants to patent its technology, product or idea throughout the European common market, it must undertake the arduous task of applying for a patent in each of the 27 member states. Each state has a different system, which involves a lot of work. And of course each state charges a high fee, resulting in a high financial cost for companies and researchers.

Monday, 30 August 2010

No end in sight for Belgian political chaos

I just returned to Belgium this morning after a week in the US, and when I disembarked from the plane to my new country of residency I learned that it is one step closer to not being a country for much longer. The government talks following June's election have just collapsed – meaning the country still has no government and is unlikely to be able to form one before the end of the year. Not such great timing considering Belgium still holds the EU rotating presidency for the next 4 months. But even if that extra responsibility weren’t sitting on the Belgian government’s shoulders right now, this continuing chaos is starting to border on Kafka-esque absurdity. So as I readjust to life in Belgium this morning after a week home in the US, I’m yet again left asking – is there a compelling reason for this country to continue to exist?

Last night the leader of the French-speaking Socialist Party (PS), Elio di Rupo, offered his resignation to Belgian King Albert II after negotiations to form a new government broke down. He is trying to negotiate with the Flemish separatist party NVA, which won the majority of the vote in Flanders in the June election. Di Rupo’s Socialists won the majority of votes in Wallonia, and so the two parties with directly opposing goals must come to some kind of coalition agreement to form a national government with other parties. In the mean time, no government has existed at national level since April. But since most governance functions have by now been devolved to the three regions (Flanders, Wallonia and Brussels), you’d never know the difference.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

France's 'gypsy deportation' is becoming the EU's problem

The controversy over France’s deportation of Roma (gypsies) who are Romanian nationals continued unabated this week, as Sarkozy prepares to host what some are calling an “anti-gypsy summit” in Paris next week between 5 of the EU’s biggest powers. France’s deportations are not only drawing fire from human rights groups – they are also coming very close to violating EU law, since Romanian nationals are now EU citizens and, in theory, have the right to live anywhere in the EU. The deportations are calling into question what the limits of “free movement” really are. And there are signs that some rightist politicians in Europe may be looking for an opening to make those EU guarantees of free movement more restrictive.

France’s Roma deportations are actually nothing new. France has been closing down illegal Roma camps and sending their inhabitants home for years - and if those inhabitants’ homes happened to be in another country, that’s where they were sent. Last year 10,000 Roma were sent back to Romania and Bulgaria. These Roma have been paid to leave, and the government has always said they were being sent home voluntarily (although they were involuntarily removed from their illegal camps).

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Mosque hysteria: an ugly reflection on America

It makes me a bit queezy to have to write about this, but considering that this “ground zero mosque” issue has now crossed the Atlantic and is making the news in Europe, it would seem I have no choice. It’s incredible that such a ginned-up controversy has reached proportions so big that people are hearing about it here. Over the weekend while in Paris a French friend asked me incredulously, “I hear Obama is planning to build a giant mosque on ground zero?? What is he thinking??”

Le sigh. Yes, that’s it, Obama is personally flying down to the former site of the world trade center to build a mosque brick by brick. Honestly I don’t blame Europeans for being misinformed about this, the US media coverage has been almost completely fact-free, and that then gets passed on over here during a slow news month. And it’s an issue that easily resonates here in Europe because let’s face it, when it comes to Islam, America and Europe can be sisters in hysteria. So, forget whatever you’ve heard. Let’s review the facts, shall we?

Friday, 13 August 2010

UK may switch to continental time zone

Well after hearing this news about David Cameron proposing to move the UK clocks permanently forward an hour to match the time zone of continental Europe, I must say I am very opposed! Well, only because it would mean I'd have to come in to work an hour earlier, since at the moment I have the advantage of working British hours while in Brussels. But actually I have to say I am very confused about what exactly Cameron is proposing here, and the British press coverage isn't helping.

According to this morning's papers, Cameron wants to move the UK into "permanent summer time," setting British clocks forward one hour year-round. He says he may make such a proposal in the Fall, and if it passes that would mean that instead of "falling back" an hour in October, British clocks would remain on British Summer Time. But at the same time, the rest of Europe would fall back an hour (all European countries observe daylight savings time). That would mean the UK and France would suddenly be in the same time zone for the first time ever!

Thursday, 12 August 2010

After November: A Tea Party congress in America?

I just watched a somewhat bemused news story on French TV about Steven Slater, the US flight attendant who had had ENUF Monday, swearing at passengers before jumping out of a plane using the emergency slide. Apparently both sides of the Atlantic are in the full throes of the “silly season”, the term journalists use for the month of August when a lack of news results in an increased news focus on trivialities and non-stories. I myself am facing the daily frustration of having to write news stories at a time when no EU news is being made. Brussels basically shuts down in August and everyone takes their month-long vacations. Ah, Europe!

Consequently I don’t have much to write about for the blog either. So I thought I’d write a little something about the upcoming US midterm elections in November – since everyone keeps asking me about them. The spectre of them has had global implications in recent months, most notably in the Democratic leadership's decision to abandon the climate change bill because of fears its passage could anger voters before November. But the biggest effects of the election will be felt after November. It is looking ever more likely that the Democrats will lose their majority in the House of Representatives. And the new crop of ‘movement conservative’ Republicans that could be entering the congress will be the furthest to the right that the US has seen in decades. It could be an explosive result.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Is now the time for an EU tax?

EU budget commissioner Janusz Lewandowski has caused some raised eyebrows in European capitals today after FT Deutschland published comments about imposing a new tax on EU citizens that would go directly to Brussels. As member states emerge from recession and are looking for cost-saving measures they will be more receptive to the imposition of this new tax, the commissioner said. But how would such an idea go down with the European public? No doubt it wouldn't be popular, but would Europeans still revolt against the tax even if it actually ended up saving them money?

Right now most of the EU budget is contributed to Brussels from member state governments, and there is no direct tax on EU citizens to pay for the bloc's administration. Taxpayers are already paying for the EU, but they do it through their taxes to the member state governments, which in turn then send money to Brussels. It would be as if in the US, you didn't pay any federal tax but only tax to your state, which then in turn sent a chunk of money to Washington each year.

What the commission may propose in September is to move some of that taxation directly to a transaction between the individual taxpayer and Brussels. It's still unclear what form this could take, but it could include an EU tax on luxury items, air travel or large financial transactions.

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

Republicans propose changing US citizenship law

American Republicans upped the anti-immigration rhetoric to a whole new level this week when the leadership proposed that the government consider striking down the 14th amendment to the constitution, which gives citizenship to anyone born on US soil. They say the amendment, which was enacted after the civil war to ensure that slaves couldn’t be denied citizenship, is being abused by illegal immigrants who cross the border just to give birth.

Given how sacred the US constitution is to American democracy, it’s a pretty bold proposal to make. It reflects how heated the rhetoric around illegal immigration has become. Amending the constitution is a hugely complicated process that requires ratification by 3/4 of the states, so it is unlikely that this is a serious proposal rather than just pre-election posturing. But they’re saying it will be part of the Republican’s agenda if they win control of the congress in November.

Many Americans reacted with predictable fury to the suggestion. After all, America’s citizenship law enshrines the ideas etched on the Statue of Liberty - that the US will take in your tired, your hungry, your huddles masses yearning to breathe free. But I wonder if Americans are aware of how very unique their citizenship laws are. There are few other countries in the world that give someone citizenship merely by the fact that they are born on their soil. The only other developed country that does this is Canada.