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.

Tuesday, 3 August 2010

Finally the end of the road for Italy's Berlusconi?

This blog has predicted the fall of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi so many times it’s not even funny anymore. But hold on, this time you guys, I really mean it. Actually I have no idea, I’m done trying to make any kind of educated guesses about Italian politics any more – you can’t use reason to predict what will happen in an unreasonable place. It seems that Berlusconi could eat a baby on live TV and still hold on to power in that country.

On Wednesday the flamboyant Italian leader will face a crucial vote in the Italian parliament that could finally dislodge him from power. Last week, Berlusconi had a very public falling out with Gianfranco Fini, co-founder of his own political party the conservative People of Freedom. The two men formed the party two years ago when Fini merged his Alleanza Nazionale party with Berlusconi’s Forza Italia. Fini is a former Fascist who moved to the political centre in order to be groomed by Berlusconi as his most likely successor. But in recent months tension has been brewing between the two.

By last week Berlusconi had apparently had enough. In explosive remarks to reporters in Rome, he called Fini a “traitor” who was trying to sabotage the party by stirring up dissent against Berlusconi. Fini has publicly voiced some tepid criticism of Berlusconi in the past months over the numerous sex and corruption scandals surrounding him. He has also not fully supported Berlusconi’s new rules limiting press freedom.