Sunday, 30 May 2010

Germany reclaims Eurovision for the big 4

Another year, another Eurovision. Last night was actually my 4th since I moved to Europe. I think I'm going to start counting my years here based on the number of Eurovisions I've watched.

This year's entries performed in Oslo were ok, but not as good as the very solid entries of last year's competition in Moscow. Still, I thought the winning entry from Germany was very good and deserved to win. It's a catchy tune and it sounds very modern. It's very much in the Brit pop mold, and the German singer even adopts a sort of faux-British accent for it. But it was cool that Germany won, it's the first time they've won as a united Germany. West Germany last won the competition in 1982 with Ein Bisschen Frieden.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Be careful what you wish for, teabaggers

The Tea Party movement in the United States saw its most high-profile electoral success last Tuesday with the primary election of Rand Paul, son of the notorious Texas Libertarian Ron Paul, to be the Republican candidate for Senator in Kentucky. The pundits told us it was a “victory over the Washington establishment” delivered by voters seething with anger. Paul’s mainstream Republican challenger had received the endorsement of long-serving Republican senators, while Paul had been endorsed by the Tea Party and Sarah Palin. “This is a message to Washington from the Tea Party!” shouted an elated Paul at his victory speech.

But it wasn’t long before the reality began to sink in about exactly who the teabaggers were pushing into power. Like his father, Paul is an adherent to a uniquely American brand of ultra-orthodox Libertarianism. This strain of thought opposes almost all government interference in people’s lives. It is opposed to income tax, the environmental protection agency, the FBI, the Americans with Disabilities Act, government pensions, medicare, you name it. If the government does it, they want it killed.

Lately this kind of non-government ideology has been gaining popularity amongst an increasingly radicalized American public. The Tea Party movement, born out of citizen anger over Barack Obama’s efforts to give all Americans health insurance, has morphed into a snowballing anti-government crusade that seems like it won’t be content until Washington has been burned to the ground. Spurred on by Fox News, the most watched news network in the US, the Teabaggers believe that the US government is “out of control”, developing into an authoritarian super-state that seeks to regulate every area of their lives.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Madrid

I had an amazing time in Madrid this past weekend – my first visit to that city. After several weeks in cold, rainy Brussels it was a welcome respite. It also made me realize just how much I’m starting to miss being in a big city.

Madrid reminded me a lot of New York. With its grid street pattern of cement blocks, tall buildings, extensive and efficient metro and intense late-night nightlife, it was a bit like being back in the big apple. London is like New York in a lot of ways, but in those key areas I’ve listed above it is definitely not. So Madrid is probably the second most “like New York” city I’ve seen in Europe. The nightlife there is not only a lot of fun, but it’s also very relaxed and not as rigidly structured as the nightlife in London, where people go out very early and the rest of the evening has all sorts of rules about when things close. Comparing it to nightlife in Paris, it does have similar late-night hours, but I would definitely never describe Paris nightlife as being “relaxed”.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Cameron's "euro-realist" first moves

Brussels received some encouraging news from across the channel today when we learned newly-elected UK Prime Minister David Cameron has dropped Mark Francois, the fiery eurosceptic who served as his shadow Europe Minister in opposition, in favour of a more centrist politician. The news is being received here today as a welcome sign that the Tories’ coalition with the Liberal Democrats will have a real and tangible effect on their stance toward the EU.

David Lidington, the man appointed to the Europe Minister post instead, is being described as a “euro-realist” by some of the more moderate members of the Conservative Party. He was, for instance an advisor to former Conservative prime minister John Major in the 1990s when he guided through passage of the Maastricht Treaty, the most significant milestone in the EU’s development.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

So who are these "liberals" anyway?

I've had a lot of Americans ask me this week "what the hell is a Liberal Democrat?" The UK election has received some coverage across the pond over the past weeks, and I've been watching with interest how the American media has been covering it. Some have chosen to leave any mention of the Liberal Democrats out for fear of confusing people. Others (Fox News notably) have described them as being "another liberal party" with Labour.

The confusion seems to be the result of the fact that "liberal" has different meanings in America and Europe. In the US "liberal" means someone on the left who believes in a combination of social liberalism, public welfare and a mixed economy. The American right wing has been relatively successful in giving the word "liberal" a negative connotation since the 1980's, hence the rise of the word "progressive".

But in Europe "liberal" is associated with classical liberalism, which is someone committed to the ideal of limited government, individual liberty and free markets. The difference has to do with the fact that the term, which originated in 19th century England, was never adopted in the US until the 1930's when FDR coined it to describe his New Deal policies. European liberals can be thought of more as "Libertarians" in the American context. Think Bill Maher.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

An unholy alliance

Well, that was a crazy couple days. But last night it all came to a dramatic and sudden end as Gordon Brown abruptly drove to Buckingham Palace to hand in his resignation to Queen Elisabeth II, making Conservative leader David Cameron prime minister. So now it’s all done and dusted right? Hardly.

The excitement started Monday afternoon when, as the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats were still holding their negotiations, Gordon Brown emerged from 10 Downing Street to announced that Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg had approached the Labour Party to see what they could offer instead. And, most dramatically, Brown announced that he would be resigning as leader of the Labour Party.

That announcement soon sparked breathless speculation throughout the media. Gordon Brown stepping down was considered by many to be a precondition for a Liberal Democrat – Labour coalition. Surely, the media inferred, Brown would not have made that dramatic (and rather humiliating) announcement unless some kind of deal had been worked out. For the rest of the day Monday the assumption was that some kind of Lib-Lab coalition was being formed. The problem of course was that a Lib-Lab union would still not meet the threshold of reaching a majority in the parliament.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Brussels holds breath as leaked Tory memo shows plan of attack

It’s safe to say that EU leaders have bigger things to worry about today than the UK general election. But a leaked memo about the Conservatives’ Europe strategy is likely causing extra heartburn throughout Brussels today. And it’s likely also added an extra dose of complication to the fertive negotiations going on between David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

The talks are proving difficult because the two parties are so far apart on major issues, and it’s going to be difficult for them to come to some kind of an understanding on how they can govern together. One of those major issues is Britain’s relationship with the EU, and hopes of agreement in this area were dramatically undermined last night when a top-secret letter from shadow foreign secretary William Hague to David Cameron was leaked.

The letter, written last week, assumed a Tory victory on Thursday and outlined a plan for a brash and aggressive introduction of the new UK government to EU foreign ministers at a meeting today. According to the document, Hague planned to tell the foreign ministers "the British relationship with the EU has changed with our election". Hague then planned to tell the ministers there would be no further integration of the UK with the rest of Europe. Instead, the UK would be clawing back national powers over criminal justice, social policy and employment policy during the first term of the Tory government. He also planned to tell the foreign ministers bluntly "we will never join the euro".

Angie’s anguish

Poor Angela Merkel. You do have to sympathize with the conservative German chancellor, trapped between a rock and a hard place. The dire situation in Greece requires her to commit tons of German money to keep the crisis from spreading throughout the eurozone. But a bail-out of this Meditteranean nation that has behaved so badly is enormously distasteful to the German public.

It’s a bit like the fable of the grasshopper and the ant. Germany has held down wages and been frugal in its spending, while Greece has been profligate and irresponsible, spending far more than they had while at the same time not bothering to collect taxes appropriately. For the average German, it’s enfuriating that the squirell will now have to bail out the racoon.

But perhaps the more appropriate literary counterpart for Angie is Hamlet. Her foot-dragging and indecision during this crisis has been blamed by many for making the crisis get far worse. In the end she had to relent - so the delay accomplished nothing but exacerbated the problem. This weekend EU finance ministers agreed to establish a €962bn emergency crisis fund. It’s designed to stop the financial market turmoil as the situation in Greece deteriorates, reassuring jittery investors that the problem will be solved. Yet many are concerned that this fund is too late, and should have been agreed weeks ago before the situation got out of hand. Back then, it was Merkel who was the lone EU leader standing in the way. She knew the German people would punish her for agreeing to a bail-out.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

The British election explained

Nick Clegg is holding intense talks with David Cameron today, and it looks like these negotiations could go on for days. At the heart of the complications is this fact - even if the two men can work out an agreement and trust between them on how they would join together to form a government, they would still need to get that agreement approved by their parties. And given the big political differences between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats, that could be a herculean task.

Many Americans I've talked to have been confused about what exactly is going on here, and I can certainly sympathize. First they were hearing that this was the Liberal Democrats' year, that following the televised debates the "Clegg effect" was going to transform this election and make the UK's third party politically relevant for the first time in decades. But then when the results came in Thursday night, Americans heard that the Liberal Democrats had suffered a stunning defeat, actually losing seats in the parliament. Oh well, so much for that then. But wait, come Friday they learn that the Liberal Democrats are now the most important factor in these post-election days, as they will be selecting who will be prime minister. So how does someone lose so badly and yet end up selecting who the winner will be?

Friday, 7 May 2010

Westminster in chaos

It was a long night, and it was only just a moment ago that the BBC was finally able to declare an official UK election result – or non-result, as the case may be. For the first time in decades, a British election has yielded a hung parliament. No single party has a majority, with the Conservatives falling well short of the 326 seats they needed to form a government. Now the clock is ticking as politicians scramble to come up with some kind of solution.

It’s looking as if a Liberal Democrat – Labour coalition may not be enough for a majority either, which may rule out that option. It was a disastrously disappointing night for the Lib Dems and their supporters. Despite all the speculation after the first televised debate that this could be their year, the Lib Dems actually lost seats in this election. It’s truly stunning.

Of course along with all the polling showing surging support for the Lib Dems after the first debate came notes of caution that the pollsters did not know how the increased support would affect the actual vote. UK elections still use a peculiar first-past-the-post system for their elections which heavily favours the two main parties. This type of electoral system is normal in the presidential system of the US, but it is unusual in a parliamentary system. Most other parliamentary democracies use a ranked voting system where people indicate your first choice and then a second choice. The Lib Dems have made switching to a proportional representation or ranked system a cornerstone of their campaign, and recently Labour agreed to put it to a referendum. The Tories have refused to consider such a change, but it is likely that the Lib Dems would demand this if they were to enter into a coalition with the Conservatives..

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Populism, David Cameron, and the gulf oil spill

The election campaign is in its last heated days here in London, and it really is inescapable. I’m just here for a few days staying with my partner, and it seems like it’s been all anyone can talk about. Sarah Brown, the prime minister’s wife, even made a bizarre special appearance at a Vauxhall gay club Saturday night. Hey, gotta get those votes wherever you can! But I found it amusing that the next morning she was up early to attend mass at a black church in South London.

I’m on the Eurostar back to Brussels at the moment and feeling pretty bummed to be leaving right before the big day. I have a feeling the real excitement is going to begin Friday when the parties have to somehow hash out how they form a government from a hung parliament.

If I had to sum up the mood of my London friends in one word it would be anxious. They all come from various political stripes, but interestingly most everyone I know is planning to vote Lib Dem. Whatever their political ideology they have one thing in common – David Cameron makes them very nervous. They fear the former PR-turned-politician is all window-dressing with little real policy ideas, and in reality it will be the “nasty Tories” of the 1990’s that will be taking power. Having not lived through this period in Britain I can’t entirely relate, but some of them feel very strongly about this fear. But an opinion piece in the Independent this weekend compared the situation with the campaign of George W. Bush in 2000. He also promised "compassionate conservartism" but in the eyes of many he turned out to be just a populist front man for a Neo Conservative cabal with a very specific agenda. That agenda included going to war with Iraq.