Thursday, 28 April 2011

Turkey from West to East

Is Turkey part of Europe? This question was at the back of my mind during a week-long visit to Istanbul over the Eastern break. Far from being an academic geographical consideration, the question has big implications for both the future of Turkey and the European Union. At least, that's what were told.

Turkey is a candidate country to join the EU, having started accession talks in 2005. Most of the countries of continental Europe are against Turkey joining, particularly France. But the UK, backed by the United States, is forcefully pushing for Turkey's membership in the union. Nicolas Sarkozy insists that Turkey is not geographically or culturally part of Europe and does not belong in the EU. David Cameron says that it is Islamophobia that is keeping Turkey out, and that the EU should not be an 'all-Christian club'. The argument for accession stresses that Turkey's largest city as well as 3% of its territory is in Europe, and that historically Turkey (as the Ottoman Empire) ruled over many countries now in the EU including Greece, Cyprus, Bulgaria, Romania and Hungary.

Wednesday, 27 April 2011

Berlusconi and Sarkozy slam on the brakes

Usually it's the Northern European countries that are the ones clammoring for rollbacks on EU integration. But in a strange twist this week it's the reliable core stalwarts of France and Italy that are agitating for a step back in the EU integration project. The leaders of the two countries sent a letter to the European Commission yesterday asking for the ability to re-establish border controls between Schengen states in 'exceptional circumstances'.

The letter was sent after Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi held a summit in Rome yesterday trying to diffuse the diplomatic crisis between the two countries. Italy has demanded help from its EU neighbours, saying that it can't handle the influx of economic refugees floating across the Mediterranean to escape the chaos in North Africa and landing on Italian shores.

Deciding that the EU wasn't acting fast enough to provide assistance, Silvio Berlusconi's government started issuing the migrants with "temporary residence visas" and telling them they could use them to seek work in other EU states, knowing full well that the French-speaking Tunisians and West Africans would go to France. The French were furious, and started stopping trains at the French-Italian border which they suspected of carrying the migrants. Each side is accusing the other of violating the EU's Schengen agreement, which allows passport-free travel between member states.

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Koran burning: US and Europe have different ideas on free speech

The US military is still struggling to quell violence across Afghanistan and elsewhere caused by a Florida pastor's public burning of the Koran. The burning, which took place on 20 March, came months after the same pastor had decided to cancel his first planned book-burning after everyone from senior US military figures to President Obama told him not to do it. They said such a burning would incite violence across the Arab world and put US troops in danger.

In the end, he went ahead and did it anyway. So far at least one US military death is thought to be linked to the protests sparked by the Koran burning, but of course this is difficult to prove directly But throughout all of the warning issued to the pastor by the US military and politicians in the run-up to the burning everyone was keen to stress one thing – though the burning would put the lives of US troops at risk, the pastor had every legal right to burn the Koran under the freedom of speech entitled to him by the first amendment of the US constitution. So, the pastor faces no legal consequence for the Koran-burning he staged. And he is now planning more burnings starting on Good Friday in Michigan.

Contrast this to how a similar incident was handled across the pond in the UK. A man staged a public burning of the Koran at a shopping centre in Carlisle on 19 January. He was arrested, and yesterday a judge sentenced the man to 70 days in jail for religiously aggravated harassment. The judge called his stunt "theatrical bigotry".

Monday, 18 April 2011

Tensions flare at French-Italian border

France and Italy are locked in a war of words today after France stopped several trains from crossing the border between the two countries over the weekend. France, suspecting that Italy was trying to dump North African immigrants into the country, stopped the trains at the old border station between Ventimiglia and Menton, 20km east of Nice. Now, each country is accusing the other of violating the rules of the EU's passport-free Schengen Zone.

Since the pan-Arab uprising began in January in Tunisia, Italy has been sounding the alarm bell about an increase in migrants trying to cross the Mediterranean to escape the chaos in North Africa. The tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, just off the Tunisian coast, has been inundated with refugees washing up on its shores in makeshift boats. There are now more migrants housed in a refugee camp on the island than there are residents.

Italy has asked the EU for assistance in dealing with the migrants, most specifically through deployment of the EU's Frontex border patrol force. They have also asked other member states to contribute financially to the effort, saying that Italy can't afford to patrol the EU's borders all on its own. Because the Schengen Zone is a passport-free area, most of the migrants crossing into Italy are just trying to get into the EU. Once they get into Italy they can go to France, Sweden or Germany without facing a border check.

Friday, 15 April 2011

Angry birds: Are 'True Finns' about to stage a revolution?

Those who have been tracing the recent rise of the European far right will have their eyes trained on Finland this Sunday, as that country holds a national election. According to recent opinion polls the Finnish nationalist party the "True Finns" could ride a wave of populist fervor to unprecedented electoral success on Sunday.

A Gallup poll last month put the True Finns in second place at 18.3% of the vote, just behind the ruling centre-right National Coalition Party. Led by MEP Timo Soini, the party has all the ingredients of today's far right in Europe: anti-immigration, anti-EU and pro-nationalism. They also display all the anomalies of today's far right: pro social welfare (but for ethnic Finns only), relatively pro gay rights, and working hard to project a respectable, PR-friendly image.

It is the same formula that has led to success for the Sweden Democrats in neighboring Sweden, the Danish People's Party in Denmark, the Freedom Party in the Netherlands, the National Front in France and the British National Party in the UK. And in the same way as all of these other countries, the main parties of Finland have been working to co-opt much of the far right's message in order to blunt their electoral impact.

Thursday, 14 April 2011

When tax policy and climate change collide

Generally, there are few areas in which the fiercely eurosceptic English public thinks EU regulation serves a useful purpose. One of those areas has traditionally been climate change. Even the Conservatives, the most anti-EU of the three main British parties, have highlighted the constructive role EU legislation can play in Europe's efforts to fight climate change. The EU is good as a free trade block and as a way of pooling efforts on climate change, they say, but it should stay out of areas best dealt with by member states such as taxation, finance, immigration, health and safety, transport and human rights.

The problem is it isn't that simple. Efforts to combat climate change in a coordinated pan-European way must by definition spread into many sectors, including all of those mentioned above. This conundrum was evident yesterday when the European Commission presented its plans to revise the EU energy taxation directive in a way that would change fuel taxes to make them more in line with climate change goals.

Saying the existing EU rules dating from 2003 are "outdated and inconsistent", the commission has proposed setting a minimum rate at which member states can charge fuel tax based on the carbon dioxide emitted and the energy produced rather than on the volume of the fuel. This would end the situation where renewable fuels are taxed the same as fossil fuels and some of the least energy-efficient fuels are taxed less than more energy-efficient ones. Fuel taxes have actually decreased by 10 cents per litre since 1999.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Why aren't Germans on Facebook?

I stumbled across an interesting project the other day, mapping out the penetration of Facebook in different countries around the world. It's amazing to see how something that just a few years ago was a small networking site for college students has become a worldwide force which has signed up more than half the population in several developed countries.

In Europe the geographic trend is pretty clear to see – Northern Europeans are the most likely to be on Facebook, which Eastern Europeans are the least likely. Iceland has the highest level of Facebook penetration, with 59% of its population signed up to the site. The UK and Denmark are tied for second place, each with 45% of their population signed up. This is more than in the homeland of Facebook – 42% of Americans have a profile on the site.

The lowest level of Facebook usage within the EU is in Latvia, with just 6% of people using the site. Next is Poland with 8%. And in third to last place comes, hang on – Germany? It's true, only 13% of Germans have a profile on Facebook.

Friday, 8 April 2011

Belgium's rebel prince

The youngest son of Belgian King Albert II is in hot water again after conducting unauthorised diplomatic missions in Africa, including a secret meeting with a leader of the Libyan rebel forces and an audience with the president of Belgium's former colony the Congo, all without any diplomatic oversight. The King had explicitly told him not to go to the Congo.

It's not the first time that Prince Laurent has been in trouble, but it looks like this time he could be facing serious consequences. Even his father, who has defended himin the past, has let it be known that he is displeased with his son's actions. Yesterday Yves Leterme, Belgium's 'caretaker' prime minister while the country has no government, that he will prepare new restrictions on the prince which will mean that if he engages in such behaviour again the government can cut of his annual stipend of €300,000.

Thursday, 7 April 2011

US government on verge of shutdown

The Tea Party Republicans weren't kidding around when they said they were coming to Washington to make war on government. Because agreement on a new budget has been blocked by the new Tea Party caucus, the government will shut down midnight Friday night unless Republicans who control the House of Representatives and the Democrats who control the Senate can come to an agreement. Given that Tea Party protesters are now gathering around Washington chanting "Shut it down!", House Republican leader John Boehner is unlikely to find any way to compromise and save the government without infuriating the new Tea Party caucus.

The consequences of a shutdown would be dire. Unlike when a country has 'no government' - as has been the case in Belgium for about a year - a government shutdown literally means a shutdown of government services. 800,000 federal employees would be put out of work. "Essential workers" like soldiers and police officers would continue to work but would not be paid. National parks and museums would close. Government mortgages and small business loans would be halted. Economists are saying that a shutdown could put America's very fragile economic recovery in danger. Millions of people who depend on government services, like veterans or the disabled, will suddenly be on their own. And don't even try getting a passport to leave or a visa to enter the US during the shut down. All of these things will grind to a halt.