Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Dutch to ban halal and kosher animal slaughter

The Dutch parliament has voted overwhelmingly to ban ritual slaughter of livestock that does not stun the animal beforehand. This would ban the production of halal and kosher meat in the country, which is the only kind of meat that can be consumed by strictly religious Muslims and Jews, respectively.

The fight has made for some strange bedfellows. The campaign against the bill has seen an unprecedented unification of the country's Muslim and Jewish populations, who both say the bill puts animal rights ahead of human rights. On the other side stands an unusual pairing of animal rights activists and the country's anti-Islamic far right.

The controversy over the bill, which came despite its widespread support in the parliament, persuaded the Dutch government to promise that no ban would go forward without the approval of the Senate (an approval not legally necessary in this case). They also inserted a provision which would allow religious groups to apply for a permit to kill animals without stunning them first. But this would only be granted if they can prove that the animals do not suffer more than in ordinary killing. But legal experts say this would be nearly impossible for the halal and kosher butchers to prove, and the burden of proof is on them. Agricultural bodies such as the British Farm Animal Welfare Council have concluded that halal and kosher killing causes severe suffering to animals.

Monday, 27 June 2011

US getting worried and impatient over euro crisis

The Greek parliament is voting this week on the drastic austerity measures that have been ordered by the EU as a condition for the country receiving the rest of its bailout money. As Washington watches the situation unfold with unease, US officials are voicing an increasing amount of frustration that European leaders do not seem to have the situation under control. And the officials know that if the euro collapses, it could easily take the US economy down with it.

As Quatremer noted today, the euro has become such a powerful currency (now the second reserve currency of the world) that if it runs into trouble it would have a devastating impact not just in continental Europe but throughout the world.

Back in the 1970's when the US took the decision to take the dollar off the gold standard, the situation was watched intensely by the rest of the world. As the US treasury secretary noted at the time, "the dollar is our currency but your problem." Now, with the euro being used by a common market larger than America's, the opposite could be said to America. And the increasing grumblings suggest that American officials don't like being at the whim of decisions being taken across the Atlantic.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Commission laments 'rising xenophobia' as Schengen unravels

The June summit of EU leaders has wrapped up here in Brussels – the blockades are being removed from the streets and the whirl of helicopters overheard is slowly starting to dissipate. As expected, the council voted to establish a "safeguard mechanism" in the Schengen passport-free travel zone that would allow member states to reintroduce internal EU border controls in exceptional circumstances.

The final text adopted today says the border checks should only be reintroduced "as a very last resort" in a "truly critical situation where a member state is no longer able to comply with its obligations under the Schengen rules as concerns the prevention of illegal immigration of third country nationals."

Such a mechanism was demanded by Italy and France earlier this year when the two got into a row over illegal immigration happening as a result of the Arab spring. France accused Italy of deliberately sending Tunisian migrants to France and issuing them bogus identity cards because they wanted to get them out of Italy as soon as possible. France said it should be allowed to set up border controls with neighboring countries who are failing in their duties to protect the EU external border. But existing rules forbid member states from imposing border controls at internal EU borders. Italian PM Silvio Berlusconi wholeheartedly agreed, as if to say "Yes, we're completely incompetent. Please allow France to set up protections against us."

Thursday, 23 June 2011

'Baby steps' toward a real EU border patrol

The EU institutions and member states reached an agreement last night to beef up the EU's border patrol agency, Frontex. The news, coming just before the summit of EU national leaders today and tomorrow in Brussels, shows how much immigration concerns are at the centre of the political agenda right now. While the populist rhetoric in member states is more often calling for less EU rather than more of it these days, an agreement to expand the EU's border patrolling powers was easily reached.

The deal will allow Frontex to buy its own equipment, so that it will be less dependent on helicopters and vehicles leased from member states. It will also make it binding for member states who have pledged personnel to the agency to deliver on their promises. The Frontex patrols will now be coordinated into "European border guard teams" that will be swiftly brought in if a member state is struggling to control it's external EU border – but still only on the invitation of the member state. To date, the only EU member state that ha summoned a significant number of Frontex forces is Greece.

Wednesday, 22 June 2011

Here comes Poland: the EU's 'anti-environment' presidency?

The Hungarian presidency of the EU, which is now drawing to a close, got off to a rough start. Just before taking the reigns of the rotating ministerial presidency, which goes to a different EU country every six months, they passed a media law which critics said severely curtailed press freedom in the country. The European Commission became so concerned that in January, just 48 hours into the Hungarian presidency, they warned Hungary that the media crackdown could be a violation of EU law.

Hungary eventually relented, a little, but the timing of the law's enactment meant that for the last six months the Hungarian presidency has been associated with media repression. Many were questioning how a country which seemed to be so far outside the European mainstream in respecting press freedom could lead the bloc. And really, these sorts of questions never went away - particularly as a new controversy erupted with the ruling party unilaterally drawing up a new constitution for the country.

That pattern may be about to be repeated with the Polish presidency. Just nine days before Poland is set to take over the EU presidency, the Polish environment minister shocked his counterparts by announcing at an environment ministers meeting in Luxembourg yesterday that Poland would single-handedly block adoption of the EU's 2050 energy roadmap. The policy document sets a non-binding EU goal for a 40% cut in carbon emissions by 2030, a 60% cut by 2040 and an 80% cut by 2050, compared to 1990 levels. The Polish minister said it was just all too much for Poland, which generates 90% of its electricity from coal. "We expect higher solidarity in Europe, understanding the situation of particular Member States," the minister complained.

Monday, 20 June 2011

EU issues Greece an ultimatum - could it backfire?

Last night Eurozone finance ministers got tough with Greece, deciding to withhold payment of €12 billion in emergency loans until the Greek Parliament enacts drastic austerity measures. The move is intended to intimidate the opposition forces (which includes the majority of the Greek public) into accepting the cuts, as the Greek prime minister faces a confidence vote in parliament this week.

But given the enormous disaster that would likely befall the Eurozone if Greece leaves the currency union, is this a threat the EU can afford to make? There is a real risk that this latest move could backfire. Massive protests continue in Athens today as people stand in front of the parliament chanting "we won't pay". Inside the building, Socialist prime minister George Papandreou is holding a confidence vote to reaffirm his mandate before he attempts to push these austerity measures through the parliament.

Now facing defection from his own party's members and extreme pressure from public opinion, Papandreou's confidence vote will be a rollercoaster ride over the next few days. There is a chance that this latest move from the finance ministers will further enrage Greek public opinion, where there is already an impression that the EU, at the insistence of Germany, is dictating draconian measures in an anti-democratic way. A perceived insult like this could put public optinion in Greece over the edge and cause even more Socialists to withdraw from the parliament. If Papandreaou's government falls it could mean a default on Greece's debt and, most chillingly, a withdrawal from the Euro. These events could spiral out of control and cause a meltdown of the European economy, and maybe even the world economy. Given that reality, is this really a threat the finance ministers can afford to make?

Friday, 17 June 2011

US tells Europe 'we won't protect you forever'

Defence departments across Europe are bristling this week following the stern tongue-lashing delivered by outgoing US Defense Secretary Bob Gates last Friday. In a speech here in Brussels Gates lashed out at European nations for their weak military spending and their lack of troop commitments to the North American Treaty Organisation (NATO).

It was the clearest signal yet that the days of this military alliance, set up to defend Western Europe during the cold war, may be numbered. Gates implied the alliance may come to an end unless European countries agree to restructure it into an equal partnership rather than a US-led military fiefdom. Oddly enough, it is America that wants to see an end to the current state of US military dominance in Europe, and it is the Europeans who are resisting this.
"For the better part of six decades there has been relatively little doubt or debate in the United States about the value and necessity of the transatlantic alliance," he told the NATO dignitaries. "For most of the Cold War US governments could justify defense investments and costly forward bases that made up roughly 50 percent of all NATO military spending.  But some two decades after the collapse of the Berlin Wall, the US share of NATO defense spending has now risen to more than 75%"

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

Belgium hits one year with no government

A rather embarassing anniversary was reached here in Belgium yesterday - it has been one year since an inconclusive election threw the country into a period with no government. At the time, it would have seemed obscene to suggest that there would still be no government in Belgium in a year's time. But that's where we are today, and perhaps the only thing more surprising than the length of this governmentless period is the barely noticeable effet it has had on the country.

In truth, it's hard to say whether the current governmentless period hit it's one year mark yesterday or a few months earlier. The previous government of prime minister Yves Leterme collapsed in April of last year, so in truth Belgium has not had a government for a year and three months. Either way, this is the longest period any country in modern history has ever gone without a government. In February Belgium surpassed the previous record held by the fledgling Iraqi democracy.

Monday, 6 June 2011

Europe's left continues to disappear

Yet another centre-left European government was ousted yesterday as the Portuguese voted overwhelmingly for the country's conservatives. Prime Minister Jose Socrates' Socialists, who have been in power since 2005, received just 28% of the vote. The centre-right party, bizarrely named the 'Social Democrats' (a legacy of Portugal's desire to avoid conservative-sounding names reminiscent of the dictatorship) got 37% of the vote, just short of an overall majority. They will form a coalition with the further right People's Party who polled at 11%.

"Centre-right wins in _____" is becoming a familiar headline for European Monday mornings. Conservative governments are re-elected, while centre-left governments are voted out. The left hasn't won an election here since the Socialists took power in Greece in 2009. With the Portuguese Socialists gone, this leaves the EU with only five centre-left governments - Greece, Cyprus, Austria, Slovenia and Spain. Compare this to the 19 governments controlled by the centre-right - plus three controlled by the right-leaning free-market Liberals.

Given the disastrous local election results for Spain's Socialists two weeks ago one can assume they will fall from power in the country's general election next year, if not earlier. This will leave the left with essentially no presence in Europe. It is an unprecedented situation in modern European history - the first time since the advent of widespread Democracy that the European left has had no voice.