Friday, 16 December 2011

An itinerant decade

I came to a startling realization yesterday. 2011 will be the first year in a decade that I have not moved to a different city during the course of the year. Since 2001 I have packed up and moved to a new city at least once each year. And there has actually never been a year in my adult life where I haven’t moved to a new apartment! 2001 and 2011 have the exception of being years where I moved to a new apartment, but in the same city.

I say ‘startling’ because it’s a kind of bizarre way to live one’s life, constantly moving to new cities. Of course not all of those moves were to unfamiliar cities I had never lived in before – a lot of this was moving away from New York, then returning, then leaving again. But now that I’ve managed to stay in one city for an entire calendar year, does it mean I’m settled here in Belgium? If it does, I don’t feel it. I’m in a good place in my life here – I’m enjoying what I’m doing, have an interesting job, good friends and a good apartment. So I think I’ll be here at least another couple years. But could I live the rest of my life in Belgium? Absolutely not. So when will I know when it’s time to leave?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

This isn’t about the UK any more

The markets have returned to panic mode today as their confidence in national governments to approve the new Eurozone financial consolidation treaty wavered. Ratification has hit some bumps in the road, with Finland’s prime minister expressing dissatisfaction with the transfer of authority over national budgets to the EU on Tuesday. In Ireland, the opposition parties seem keen to force a referendum on the issue even if the country’s legal services rule that one is not required.

The euro fell below $1.30 today, its lowest point in a year. Yields on Italian bonds widened to new highs. It’s a familiar pattern we’ve seen repeated several times now: markets rally upon news of a new European Council agreement, but then crash a few days later when they look at the details and realise it’s not as strong as they’d hoped. The UK's abandonment of Europe may have been the big story on Friday, but now the more important story sets in - the markets have not been satisfied.

But there seems to be some confusion in the British media though about what this all means vis-à-vis the UK’s decision to veto the attempt at treaty change on Friday. The Spectator has run a column from the Eurosceptic think tank Open Europe scolding the British media for describing the UK as isolated as a result of the 26 vs. 1 outcome last week. There isn’t really any such divide, Open Europe insists, because many other member states support the UK’s reticence. As evidence that all is not what it seems, they run through the list of objections to the new treaty being expressed in national capitals this week.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Last-minute surprise deal in Durban to save Kyoto

Chaos may be erupting at home in the European Union, but in South Africa news came this morning that the EU has scored a surprising success in international climate talks. A binding roadmap for a globally binding agreement by 2015, which the EU had demanded in exchange for continuing the existing commitments of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, was signed this morning by all greenhouse gas emitters – including the US and China. It is the first time all major emitters have agreed, in principle at least, to binding emissions reductions.

It was truly surprising news. As of Friday (the day the talks were supposed to end) it looked like they were going to collapse in failure. Though the EU had been able to convince Brazil and South Africa to sign the roadmap, the US, China and India were still refusing. There was fear that Durban would end with no deal, which would mean the end of any internationally binding emission reduction commitments. It would have essentially taken climate talks back to 1995 and made a mockery of the UN process.

The US and China did not participate in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed nations to binding emissions reductions by 2013. The Clinton Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, but by the time it came up for ratification in the US the George W. Bush administration had taken over - and they refused to ratify it. They said they would not participate in a binding protocol that did not include China, now the US’s biggest competitor.

Friday, 9 December 2011

9 December 2011: The day Britain left Europe

David Cameron emerged as the villain of the hour in the early hours of this morning as news broke that after tense all-night discussions, the UK has vetoed treaty change to save the faltering euro. The meeting then went to plan B, forging ahead on a new treaty with just the 17 countries of the eurozone. But nine non-eurozone countries then said they would also sign the new treaty, leaving the UK as the lone one out. This may sound like a small detail, but in reality it is huge. As the world press is reporting this morning, this effectively means the UK has begun the process of leaving Europe. And even the UK’s usual allies in the American media were aghast.

“UK Threatens Eurozone” headlined ABC News this morning. “UK to Euro nations: We’re out, good luck” heralded CBS News this morning. The reason for Cameron’s veto is bound to make him even more unpopular globally. In order to give his assent to the treaty change, which would not have affected Britain but only the countries using the euro, he demanded that the UK be given an opt-out from proposed increased regulation on banks and financial traders. That financial transaction tax (or 'banker tax') proposed by the EU earlier this year had nothing to do with last night's negotiations.

France and Germany balked, and Cameron walked. As one journalist friend noted last night, "The UK has refused to help solve the crisis because it wants to help the banks who started the crisis." Because the other 26 members walked away and went ahead without Britain, it means the financial transaction tax is still on the table, and the situation on that issue is unchanged from what it was before the summit. Cameron walks away with nothing.

Putting the global economy at risk in order to protect London City traders may not be the most popular stance given the current economic crisis. And Sarkozy emerged from the meeting this morning eager to exploit this. “You cannot have an opt-out and then ask to participate in all the discussion about the euro that you did not want to have, and which you also criticised,” Sarkozy declared to the press after emerging from the meeting at 5:30 this morning. It took Cameron a full half-hour after Sarkozy spoke to comport himself and figure out what he was going to say in his own press conference.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Cameron's choice tonight: will UK be inside or outside the room?

The degree to which the Left has become irrelevant in Europe was in evidence today as the European People’s Party (EPP), the EU grouping of Europe’s centre-right conservative parties, met in Marseille. The annual meeting of centre-right leaders, which coincidentally is this year a day before the final European Council, has toda become a first round in the treaty change talks. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been there meeting with Europe's Conservative leaders, helping them to devise a strategy to save the Euro. Every leader who is important in this process was there today.

But it is not only the Left that is noticeable in their absence today in Marseille. Despite being a centre-right conservative leader, David Cameron is not there either. That’s because in 2009 Cameron took the decision to take his Tory party out of the EPP group and create a new, europsceptic grouping called ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’. That group is essentially just the British Conservatives, with a few hard right parties from Eastern Europe thrown in for good measure.

That decision, which was the fulfilment of a promise he made to the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party in 2005 in order to be appointed party leader, may well be weighing heavily on the British leader’s mind today. He has already been locked out of the discussions amongst Eurozone leaders to devise a strategy to end the euro crisis. Now he is also locked out of the pre-summit meeting today in Marseille where so much of the strategy is being formulated. The later is a self-inflicted wound, and must be particularly hard to take considering it’s hard to see how creating a new EU group has benefitted the Tories in any way.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Kicking them while they’re down

It wouldn’t have taken much to make the US-based ratings agencies less popular in Europe. But Standard & Poor’s decision last night to put all 17 countries that use the euro on review for a possible downgrade has left European leaders seething with anger. Just two days before the make-or-break European Summit that was supposed to save the euro, the markets seem to have decided that whatever the European heads of government decide will not be enough.

Just hours before the S&P news broke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had emerged from an emergency meeting in Paris outlining a plan for rapid and fundamental treaty change in order to stem the crisis – to be agreed on Friday. That, combined with Italy’s unveiling of drastic austerity cuts over the weekend, caused European markets to rally and Italy’s long-term borrowing rate to fall below 6% on Monday afternoon – the lowest it’s been since October. But S&P soon put an end to the party by announcing that the AAA ratings of the FANG countries (Finland, Austria, Netherlands and Germany) are in jeopardy. Without that AAA rating these countries can’t hope to bail out the collapsed economies of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain).

It’s not hard to see what influenced S&P's decision. Merkozy - I mean, Merkel and Sarkozy - had emerged from their meeting at the Elysee Palace in almost lock step. Sarkozy, who has been pleading with his German counterpart for months to embrace the idea of ‘Eurobonds’ that would collectivise European debt, suddenly did an about-face.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Customs, security and immigration - learn it, live it, love it

I have many irrational pet peeves, and many seem to involve air travel. One of the most silly may be my disproportional irritation when people use the word 'customs' when they really mean immigration or airport security. But as silly as this little hang-up is, it actually does make a big difference not only to public policy but also to your rights and plans as a traveler. And yet I hear people confuse these three things very often when they're telling their travel stories, even frequent travelers. I'm in Switzerland this weekend visiting my father, himself a very frequent traveler, and I was just explaining the difference to him. So I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post about it.

Customs, immigration and airport security checks are three distinct processes you may encounter at an airport or border crossing. Sometimes you may have to go through all three, other times you just encounter one or two and other times you won't go through any. It all depends on which countries you're traveling between. For instance, when you travel between Belgium and the UK you go through immigration, but not customs. When you travel between Belgium and Switzerland you go through customs, but not immigration. If you're flying between Belgium and Finland you would only go through security, the same as you would if you were flying between Florida and California. Confused yet? Here's a quick guide.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

After 18 months, Belgium will have a government again

Belgium will make history this weekend in two ways. When a new government is finally formed on Sunday it will end the longest period that any country has gone without a government in modern history. And when Elio di Rupo is appointed prime minister, Belgium will become the first country in the world to have an openly gay male head of government.

I've specified 'male' because Iceland actually beat Belgium to the punch for the first gay leader of any sex – their openly lesbian Socialist Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir was elected in 2009. In both countries the leader’s sexual orientation has been of little concern to the public or the media. In Belgium it is rarely ever mentioned, and in Iceland people were actually confused in 2009 when their PM’s sexual orientation received worldwide attention.

The sexual orientation of Di Rupo, also a Socialist, isn’t the only thing that makes him a different sort of politician. He is the son of Italian immigrants – a sizable population in Belgium’s Wallonia region who are descendants of the Italians who came to work in the mines in the early 20th century. This fact prompted one Belgian politician to say Di Rupo was evidence that the “American dream” is possible in Belgium.