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?