Wednesday, 4 December 2013

Caving in on the cave-in


The humiliating saga of the ETS aviation dispute has exposed the limits of respect for EU law, both outside and inside Europe.

It's not looking good for the European Commission's proposal to undo an EU law that would have charged all airlines for the emissions of flights taking off or landing in Europe. An increasing number of member states and MEPs are coming out in opposition. But they don't have a problem with the retreat. They say the Commission isn't retreating far enough.

Last week Germany, France and the UK told a meeting of member states that they want to change the proposal to a more complete surrender.

In October, in response to intense international pressure, the Commission proposed to change the law so that emissions that take place outside EU air space are exempt. But Germany, France and the UK want to exempt foreign airlines from the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) entirely - even for the portions of flights that take place within EU airspace - because anything less would not be politically acceptable to China, India, Russia and the United States.

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

Climate nationalism

Many having given up on the international process delivering solutions to climate change, and eyes are turning to national solutions to fill the void.

While covering last week's UN climate summit in Warsaw, I found myself encountering very different moods depending on which section of the venue I was in. While I was in the rooms surrounding the main plenary chamber, constructed on the field of the city's mammoth National Stadium, I could feel an overwhelming aura of pessimism. Exhausted-looking delegates on the sidelines spoke of demoralising gridlock and a negotiating process on a knife's edge.

But travel upstairs to the ‘national pavilions' located at the top of the stadium, where individual countries hosted events and showcased their climate actions, and the mood couldn't be more different. The Chinese pavilion was exuberantly showcasing their regional emissions trading schemes. The Americans were trumpeting the new emissions standards for power plants. In the EU pavilion, individual member states were announcing new financial contributions to fighting climate change and deforestation left and right.

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Quebec: no need for readmission

Given that it is the only significant independence movement in the developed world outside Europe, the cause of Quebec secession is often used as an example in discussions of separatism in the European context. And so it was perhaps not surprising that at an event at the European Parliament last week about independence movements within the EU, a Quebecer was on hand to share his experiences.

The European Free Alliance (EFA), a collection of seven separatist members of the European Parliament from Scotland, Wales, Corsica, Flanders, the Russian community in Latvia and the Basque Country, hosted the event on “the right to decide” last Wednesday (13 November). The group sits in a sometimes uncomfortable common group with the Greens, who notably had little by way of promotion of the event on the group’s website.

In addition to Quebec, the event looked at the independence referendum situations in Scotland, Catalonia, the Basque Country, Wales and Galicia.

Europe has long had a strange relationship with Quebecois separatism. The situation in Belgium is often compared to that of Canada. France has been a strong supporter of Quebecois separatism, while simultaneously suppressing separatist movement sin Corsica, Brittany and Savoy. But are there really lessons for Europe from Quebec’s experience?

Friday, 15 November 2013

International nationalists

The far right has a poor history of working together in international forums. An alliance brokered by Geert Wilders and Marine Le Pen is seeking to reverse that trend.

"There is nothing harder to set up than a nationalists' international," wrote political scientists Michael Minkenberg and Pascal Perrineau when they analysed the performance of the radical right in the 2004 European Parliament elections. The latest attempt to disprove that truism was launched last week by Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s Front National (FN), and Geert Wilders, the Dutch maverick anti-Islam campaigner.

At a press conference held at the Dutch parliament in The Hague this week, Le Pen and Wilders announced a pact to work together to build an alliance in the next European Parliament to slay “the monster in Brussels” and wreck the Parliament from within. Given the patchy – to say the least – record of populist and nationalist groups’ attempts to join forces at European level, it was hardly surprising that scepticism dominated the initial reaction.

In the last Parliament, far-right groups briefly forged an alliance under the “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty” group banner. But that pact fell apart after Romanian and Italian nationalists rowed over Alessandra Mussolini calling Romanians “habitual lawbreakers”. Perhaps it is not surprising that nationalists whose principal policy platform is being anti-foreigner have trouble co-operating with “foreigners”.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

EU citizenship for sale

As the holder of an EU passport through some arcane and perhaps undeserved reasons (ancestry), I’m often asked by my fellow Americans how they too can get in on this European action. For me it’s been an incredible asset, to hold both EU and American citizenship, and I know many people in America who would cut off their right arm to have the right to come and work in Europe for awhile.

Well Americans, today’s your lucky day. This week the Maltese Parliament approved a measure that would allow anyone to purchase Maltese citizenship for the low low price of €650,000 ($875,000). What a bargain!

When Europe’s media got wind of this news yesterday, people were scandalized. This tiny island nation of 450,000 people is part of the EU and therefore a holder of a Maltese passport would have the right to live and work anywhere in the union. They would have the right to free healthcare throughout Europe and free/reduced tuition at any of Europe’s universities. And they would benefit from visa-free travel arrangements between the EU and the United States.

Tuesday, 12 November 2013

Torch the rainbow

A monument to peace displayed by Poland outside the European Parliament during that country's presidency of the EU was burnt to the ground last night in Warsaw.

Chalk it up to some very unfortunate timing. Yesterday, as delegates arrived for this year's UN climate summit in Warsaw, they were warned to exercise caution and to stay out of the city centre. Violent demonstrations had broken out throughout the city.

The demonstrations actually had nothing to do with the climate summit. The meeting just happened to be opening on the same day as Polish national day, when far right and far left Polish groups have traditionally clashed in street brawls during demonstrations.

The violence isn't ordinarily noticed by the world's media. But given that international journalists have converged on the city this week for the climate summit, it was embarrassing timing for the Polish government.

It didn't help that the most iconic image from the violence was the sight of a giant rainbow in central Warsaw burnt to the ground last night. Those in Brussels might recognize the rainbow shown burning in this photo. It was displayed in front of the European Parliament by the Polish government during their EU presidency in 2011.

Tuesday, 5 November 2013

Eastern enthusiasm

A visit to Lithuania this week showed me how history and geography make such a difference to attitudes toward the EU.

Lithuania is a land in between. Part of the Soviet Union until just two decades ago, it today finds itself sandwiched between two dangerous and unpredictable neighbours. It’s not a very comfortable geography, to say the least.

To its East lies the pariah state of Belarus - Europe’s last dictatorship and, one might also say, Europe’s last Russian satellite state. To its West lies the Russian exclave of Kaliningrad - a barren, unforgiving place that few dare enter, repopulated by Russians in 1949 after its German inhabitants were killed or expelled.

But to its North and South lie fellow countries of the European Union – Latvia and Poland. The 103km border between Poland and Lithuania therefore forms a perilous land bridge between unfriendly Russian talons. Since2009 the two countries have been part of the EU’s passport-free Schengen area, giving the border additional importance as the only way to get to the Baltic and Finnic countries to the North without a visa.

But despite this pivotal importance, this narrow passageway faces a dearth of infrastructure connections. As I write this I am on a plane flying back from Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, where I spent the last two days at a conference devoted to this lack of connection.

Thursday, 31 October 2013

Toilet humour

British MEPs and their national press were on pun overload this week after they learned that in the coming days the EU is going to set the criteria for which toilets can receive a special ‘ecolabel' based on using less water in a flush.

 The voluntary labels are designed to attract consumers who might want to save money on water or help the environment.

 The European Commission has been issuing these ecolabel criteria for various products such as television sets and textiles since 1992. 17,000 products have been given criteria for the ecolabel so far. But this time, the criteria are for a product that makes people giggle. So as soon as it was picked up as a news story, you could see the reaction coming a mile away.

 Silly topic + EU angle = UK headlines.

 And headlines there were. On Tuesday The Telegraph ran an article saying the EU is planning to “standardise the flush on lavatories”, introducing a “euro-flush” that will be imposed after an exhaustive study of European toilet habits.

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Immigrant-on-immigrant xenophobia

Italians were shocked yesterday to learn that a Northern Italian teenager who had recently gone to the UK to study and find work had been beaten to death over the weekend. Joele Leotta, 19, was brutally attacked by a group of young men who accused him of “stealing English jobs”, the Italian papers reported.

The Italian papers were quick to make a connection to increasing anti-European and anti-immigrant rhetoric from the Conservative government in the UK. Some intitial reports in Italy mentioned the new campaign by the government to send vans into certain neighbourhoods telling illegal immigrants to “go home” in big letters.

The initial press coverage prompted Hannes Swoboda, the leader of the Socialist (S&D) group in the European Parliament, to issue a press release saying the murder was the result of the xenophobic climate created by the government. "The xenophobic, aggressive climate inflamed by populists such as UKIP and by the rhetoric of the Conservatives in government is now leading to murder in the streets of Britain,” said Swoboda in a statement. “Campaigns such as vans with slogans telling immigrants to 'go home' and continuous negative rhetoric against foreigners – including EU citizens – are creating an ugly mood in Britain, which has long prided itself on being an open-minded and tolerant nation.”

Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Dutch rally round ‘right to be racist’

It’s that time of year again. The stockings are being hung by the chimney with care, the hot wine stands are setting up shop, and of course, the Dutch have begun putting on their blackface, big red lips and afro wigs. It’s time again for ‘Black Pete’ to pay us a visit.

And right on cue, it’s also time for the perennial hand-wringing about whether or not this minstrel character, who tags along with Saint Nicholas as he hands out presents to Dutch and Flemish children at Christmas, is racist.

But this year, thanks to some comments by a human rights observer, the debate has taken on an almost frenzied dimension that has even seen a prominent Dutch politician call for the Netherlands to pull out of the United Nations.

The Dutch are furious that a member of the UN’s human rights committee is looking into the issue of whether Black Pete is a racist caricature. The head of the committee, who is Jamaican, told a Dutch TV station she found it impossible to understand how Dutch people do not see it as racist. Dutch people have responded with a torrent of outrage, accusing the UN of trampling on something that is an age-old tradition and is culturally important to them. A petition organised to 'save Black Pete' gathered a million endorsements in its first day. News broadcasters are dressing up as Pete in protest, and Dutch people are making YouTube videos dancing around in blackface singing about how not racist they are.

Monday, 21 October 2013

How small is too small?

Yesterday the citizens of San Marino voted on becoming an EU member state. But is that even possible? 

As Brussels braces itself for the inevitable disappointment of a referendum on EU accession in Iceland, when or if that ever takes place, it will come as little comfort that another non-EU European country rejected EU membership yesterday.

The Republic of San Marino, the tiny microstate of 33,000 people situated within Northern Italy, held a referendum yesterday on whether to apply for EU membership. The proposition failed because not enough people turned out to vote. Though a narrow majority of people who voted approved the measure (50.3% versus 49.7%), a referendum needs 32% of eligible voters to vote yes in order for the measure to pass. The 'yes' vote amounted to just 20%.

Unlike an eventual Iceland referendum, the San Marino referendum was not a response any actual offer of EU membership.  The question of whether to start accession negotiations with Brussels was put to voters after a group of citizens collected the required number of signatures. No matter how the referendum turned out it was non-binding. It would be up to the San Marino government whether to actually request accession negotiations, and it would be up to EU member states whether to accept that request.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

The car chancellor

Allegations of nefarious influence have abounded this week in Brussels, with German chancellor Angela Merkel accused of controlling the Council of Ministers, and automaker BMW accused of controlling her.

So who's really pulling the strings? And how did we get here?

On Monday, Germany overturned a deal on car emission limits in some very unusual circumstances, somehow convincing several other member states to switch positions on a deal that had already been agreed in June.

On Tuesday, it was revealed that Merkel's Christian Democratic Union (CDU) party received a donation of €690,000 from the Quandt family, which owns 46.7% of BMW, just days before Monday's fateful meeting. The revelation has prompted German media to dub Merkel "the car chancellor" and question whether hers is a pay-for-play government.

A gift from a partial stakeholder of an automaker might not have raised eyebrows were it not for the very heavy-handed and unusual way Germany has gone about trying to avoid this emissions limit at the last moment - a limit the industry has known was coming since 2008. 

In terms of how Germany has worked to change this EU proposal, the country has technically not violated any rules. But Berlin has become involved in this legislation at two highly inappropriate times that are outside the normal legislative procedure – during the Commission drafting of the proposal and during a vote to rubber-stamp an already-agreed deal.

Tuesday, 8 October 2013

Vapers win the battle, but not yet the war

Despite the message being sent today by Europe's media, the e-cigarette war is not over. Chalk it up to an oft-repeated confusion about EU policymaking.

Following today's vote on new EU tobacco rules in the European Parliament, a wave of jubilation from the so-called ‘vapers' spread across the Twittersphere.

These enthusiasts of new electronic cigarettes have been working tirelessly to convince MEPs to block a European Commission proposal to regulate the new contraptions as medicines for the purposes of market approval.

Today they got their wish. Members of the European Parliament voted 350-300 to instead classify the cigarettes as tobacco, even though they in fact do not contain any tobacco.

The cigarettes deliver nicotine electronically, without the smoke or tobacco responsible for most adverse health effects from smoking. The vapers had argued that the bureaucracy involved in getting a medicine to market would be too much for the small companies getting started in this sector and kill the industry. Some health advocates agreed with them.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

Total recall

In the coming months, the UK is set to enact a right to recall elected politicians. But the American example shows this may not be the boon to democracy it appears.

Recently, the disgraceful tale of a Scottish politician refusing to resign in the face of 23 (yes, 23) separate domestic abuse convictions has revived talk in the UK of that old populist hobby-horse – the right to recall.

Bill Walker, a Scottish National Party member of the Scottish Parliament (pictured below), was convicted last month of a series of domestic abuse offenses against three different ex wives and a stepdaughter over three decades.

Though he was expelled from the SNP after the conviction, for weeks Walker refused to vacate his seat – and there was nothing the SNP or the Scottish Parliament could do to make him leave. As the British media examined the bizarre situation, those who advocate establishing a citizen's recall law in the UK came out in force to argue that this disgraceful state of affairs makes their case.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

The pan-sceptic ticket

Nigel Farage's state of the union response suggests UKIP will make climate change denial a centrepiece of their European election campaign.

I was a bit taken aback on Wednesday when, during his response to President Barroso's State of the European Union speech in Strasbourg, UKIP leader Nigel Farage devoted almost the entirety of his speech not to warnings about the creeping European super-state, but to an impassioned denial of climate change.

The subject is nothing new for UKIP. The official party line is that there is no proof that climate change is man-made, and this is often brought up by UKIP MEPs. The party has been particularly vocal about renewable energy, blasting “ugly” wind turbines blotting the English countryside and biofuel subsidies it says are responsible for fuel poverty in the UK. This was made clear by UKIP MEPs during Monday's debate on biofuel legislation, which strangely put UKIP on the same side as the Greens.

But it was surprising to see Farage devote so much time to the issue during a big-picture debate on the EU that had nothing to do with climate change. The EU had fallen victim to a “green obsession”, he said. The resulting legislation had driven manufacturing away from the UK and forced people into fuel poverty.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Selling the parliament

For any journalist who has previously covered the start of a national election, today's launch of the 2014 European Parliament elections was a different sort of animal. As I sat in today's launch in Strasbourg and watched the promotional video, I had to ask myself – what other parliament would have to sell its own existence at the same time as overseeing a campaign?

Indeed, where I come from, politicians are these days bending over backwards to criticise and disassociate themselves from the Congress they want to be elected to. Sitting at today's launch, one had the sense that a main job for MEPs campaigning will be to explain the virtue of the Parliament to their constituents. Or at the very least, to explain what the European Parliament is.

“Many do have the opposite opinion to what is actually happening,” Parliament vice president Othmar Karras told us. “It is incumbent on the members of this house to put the facts on the table so there are no more misunderstandings.”

Monday, 9 September 2013

Emotional debate

I'm on the train to Strasbourg this morning, ready for a busy week including the European Commission president's annual ‘state of the union' address and a controversial proposal on bank supervision.

But what I'll be watching most closely is Wednesday's vote on what has been an enormously emotional issue – proposed new restrictions on biofuel in the EU.

When the EU devised its renewable energy legislation in 2008, biofuels were still in their relative infancy but were meant to be a savoir for weaning transport off of fossil fuel. The legislation required that by 2020, 10% of transport fuel would have to come from renewable sources, i.e. biofuels. But even then there were concerns within the Commission about the wisdom of this policy. What if the EU law created a rush for biofuel that caused food shortages by turning food to fuel? Or, more frustratingly, what if the process of clearing new land to make room for growing the biofuel crops actually caused more emissions than the biofuels abate?

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Timetable diplomacy

It's crunch time ahead of this month's make-or-break annual summit of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO).

If no deal on aviation emissions can be reached at this summit, starting on 24 September, the EU and its large global partners may be plunged back into a trade war over the question of whether the EU can charge airlines for emissions that took place outside EU airspace.

All emissions from planes taking off or landing in the EU were to be covered under the EU's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) from January 2012. But in November the EU suspended for a year its coverage of foreign air traffic after the US, China and others raised howls of protests over sovereignty issues.

Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Ins and outs

As the British seek new EU opt-outs, Danes will likely vote to end theirs.

Over the past several years, as UK prime minister David Cameron has taken his country further and further toward the EU exit door, he has been keen to stress that the UK is not alone in its desire for a more devolved EU. He points to the increasingly Eurosceptic Dutch, who have, like the UK, recently conducted a review of the EU's powers. He points to the Danes and Swedes, who are also voluntarily remaining outside the Eurozone.

So when news came this week that it now looks likely that Denmark will hold an ‘EU referendum' next year, it may have seemed like welcome news for the British Conservatives. Cameron has attracted a large amount of ill will on the continent by scheduling an in/out EU referendum for the UK in 2017. But why should Britain be singled out for scorn, when the Danes are holding their own EU referendum?

However the Danish case is a very different animal. The British referendum will be a vote on a theoretical new EU-UK relationship which the government will negotiate, giving the UK more opt-outs from EU law. The Danish referendum will be the opposite – a vote on whether to end the opt-outs Denmark negotiated for itself back in 1992.

Thursday, 8 August 2013

Russia's '1936 games'?

Relations between the United States and Russia seemed to hit a post-cold-war low this week when president Barack Obama cancelled a bilateral meeting with Vladimir Putin ahead of next month's G20 summit in St. Petersburg.

 After years of tension over Syria, missile defense and human rights, Russia's decision to grant asylum to NSA leaker Edward Snowdon was the straw that broke the camel's back. But the real low point in relations may have come during an appearance this week by the US president on America's most watched comedy show.

 During an interview on The Tonight Show on Tuesday (6 August), the US president sat impassively as the show's long-time host Jay Leno compared the Russian regime to the Nazis and Vladimir Putin to Hitler. Leno was referring specifically to Russia's recent passage of a law banning the ‘promotion' of homosexuality and an accompanying rise of gruesome vigilante attacks on Russian gays by far-right groups.

Tuesday, 16 July 2013

The sandwich protest

One of the favourite pastimes of interns in Brussels is to go ‘pluxing' on Thursday nights – outdoor drinking at Place du Luxembourg.

As they sip (or gulp) their two-for-one happy hour beers, these young, wide-eyed new arrivals to Brussels can often be heard discussing the drudgery and disillusionment of the unpaid positions they've taken on since arriving. They speak of long hours, little or no pay, and highly questionable educational value. It's no wonder they want to let off some steam come Thursday evening.

Given their fondness for the square, it's perhaps little surprise that the interns have chosen Place du Luxembourg for the location of a walk-out protest on Wednesday (17 July), demonstrating against unfair internship conditions in Brussels.

The protest, which will take place between 11h and 13h, has been dubbed the ‘Sandwich Protest'. The idea is that Brussels interns are living such a hand-to-mouth existence that the only way they can feed themselves is by scouring for free sandwiches at conferences and other events. “When did you last have something else other than a sandwich for lunch?” the organisers ask on their Facebook page.

Monday, 8 July 2013

Brussels' complicated expats

Tensions have been higher than usual in recent months between the Belgian and expat communities here in Brussels, after a series of articles by foreign journalists based here were seen as disparaging the city.

In May, a two-page spread by the Brussels correspondent for the French newspaper Libération, which called the Belgian capital 'ugly, dirty and dysfunctional', kicked off the storm. Since then, the Belgian press has seemed singularly obsessed with the outsiders' impressions. Much of the Belgian media's coverage has expressed outrage that the expat community, who have come to Brussels to work in and around the EU institutions, are so often complaining about their host city.

It was in this context that today the ‘Brussels-Europe Liaison Office' - a body which was set up by the city government to improve relations between expats and the natives - finally released the long-awaited results of its expat survey. The survey, which was conducted in May of last year with about 10,000 respondents, was meant to have results published last September. The year-long delay had sparked speculation that the results were being suppressed because the responses from expats were just too rude. Given that the liaison office has the job of improving relations, it would have been rather embarrassing to publish a survey where the expat population vented their dissatisfaction.

Friday, 28 June 2013

Much ado about colouring

The Brits are in a tizzy over an EU childrens book. But their own Parliament has produced four of them.

At the last EU summit, it was olive oil. At this summit, the burning issue that UK prime minister David Cameron wanted to discuss at his post-summit press conference was even more insidious – an EU-funded colouring book.

The multilingual children's exercise book produced by the European Parliament, first reported by the Telegraph earlier this week, is called ‘Mr and Mrs MEP and their helpers'. It contains exercises centered around a day in the life of two MEPs. Cameron distributed 30 copies of the children's book to the other EU leaders at the summit, saying something had to be done to reign in this reckless EU spending.

"[The other leaders] were shocked,” he told journalists after the summit. “First of all they thought it was a hoax done by the Telegraph and I had to convince them that it was a genuine, scandalous waste of money, and pretty sexist at that as well, because Mrs MEP stops at six o clock to go shopping and Mr MEP goes on until 6:40."

The colouring book is, admittedly, pretty awful. Its layout more closely resembles an IKEA manual than children's exercises, and its depiction of Parliamentary life makes it easy fodder for mockery.

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

US snooping, seen through a European PRISM

There are few things that can unite the quarrelling factions of the European Parliament, but somehow US President Barack Obama managed to accomplish it this morning. One by one, MEPs from various political factions denounced in the strongest terms the recent revelations of US government access to user activity data from internet giants like Google, Facebook and Microsoft – a programme that went under the codename PRISM.

Interestingly, it was the assurances the US President gave to the American people this weekend that seemed to infuriate the European lawmakers the most. The PRISM programme “does not apply to US citizens and it does not apply to people living the United States,” he told a press conference on 7 June. 

These words may have reassured many Americans, but they have put America's allies in an awkward position. Sites like Google and Facebook are global, after all, and widely used in Europe. If they aren't spying on Americans' internet use, then that means they are spying on people in other countries - including allies in Europe.

“What is coming from other side of the Atlantic is very worrying because they are justifying this system by saying it is not applicable to US citizens, only to foreigners,” Belgian Liberal MEP Guy Verhofstadt said in Strasbourg this morning. “Who are the foreigners? I think we are the foreigners, the Europeans.”

Monday, 10 June 2013

A week of border concerns

I'm on a train to Strasbourg for this week's plenary session of the European Parliament, for what promises to be a week largely focused on borders and travel. The fact that my train via Luxembourg has been plagued with delays seems appropriate given the travel/border legislation which is coming up this week.

On Wednesday MEPs will vote on two legislative packages seeking to change the EU rules on asylum seekers and Schengen area of passport-free travel. Both of these pieces of legislation were put forward in the early days of the Arab Spring, when a sudden influx of refugees from North Africa cast doubt on the EU's existing rules.

Border states like Italy, Greece and Malta said the existing rules, in which member states can return asylum-seekers to the EU country they first entered, complained that the existing system was unfair. 

Among other things, the new rules will put in place a monitoring system for any sudden influx of migrants and allow a suspension of the rules.

Friday, 24 May 2013

A storm in an olive cup

Yesterday, the European Commission announced a rather unusual U-turn on a new regulation that would have banned restaurants from serving olive oil in refillable bottles. The cave-in came after a week of media pressure that even saw the leaders of Britain and Holland weighing in on the subject at Wednesday's European Council.

The law was set to quietly enter into effect at the start of next year, and would have mandated that any olive oil served at a restaurant table be in labelled, pre-packaged bottles with a tamper-proof dispensing nozzle. It was approved by a recent vote of EU member states, with 15 out of 27 countries approving it.

This is probably a case of a kernel of a good intention morphing into a monster PR disaster. At heart this was supposed to be a labelling regulation – making sure that restaurant owners don't buy expensive bottles of labelled olive oil and then refill them with cheaper varieties once they are empty.

But it ended up covering all containers, even unlabelled glass bottles. This made less sense, given that a consumer can't be tricked by a misleading label if no label is present.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

UKIP voters demand referendum...on Eurovision

As the EU referendum debate has heated up in Britain over the past several months, the UK-based polling agency YouGov has conducted periodic surveys asking the voting public whether they want an in-out referendum, and how they would vote in it.

In this week's survey, they threw an additional query into the mix – asking the same question but replacing the ‘European Union' with the ‘Eurovision Song Contest'. The result is rather revealing.
The survey shows that if a referendum on Eurovision were held, the UK's voters would vote to leave the song contest, with only 29% voting to remain in it. Among UK Independence Party (UKIP) voters, only 13% would vote to remain in the contest.

32% of the survey's respondants said they want the government to hold an in-out referendum on Eurovision (44% said they were opposed, while 24% said they weren't sure). The majority of UKIP voters with an opinion said they want the UK to hold such a referendum.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Backtracking on Commission size

EU leaders are expected shortly to announce that they have agreed between themselves not to reduce the size of the European Commission, overruling the text of the Lisbon Treaty. The change will likely be agreed unanimously this afternoon, according to Council sources.

The treaty had originally envisioned a reduction in the college at the start of the current Commission in 2010. Large countries would have maintained a permanent seat in the college, but smaller countries would have had to rotate the remaining chairs among themselves.

Dissatisfaction with this arrangement was cited as a reason for the Irish people rejecting the Lisbon Treaty in their first referendum in 2008. Before a second referendum was held the following year, it was agreed to add a provision into the Treaty extending the existing system until the end of the current Commission in 2014 "unless the European Council, acting unanimously, decides to alter this number." The Irish passed the treaty in the second referendum.

Monday, 20 May 2013

Is Merkel to blame for Germany's Eurovision loss?

German commentators were wringing their hands on Sunday over the country’s disappointing finish at the Eurovision final Saturday night. The country came 21st out of the 26 countries performing, despite fielding well-known dance act Cascada with a radio-friendly song which the German media had predicted could possibly win.

Others in Germany had, before the final, predicted the opposite – that the high level of anti-German feeling in Europe today over the austerity regimes imposed by Angela Merkel would make it impossible for Germany to win even if they fielded the greatest song eversung by mankind.

Out of the 39 countries voting, 34 refused to give Germany any points at all. Austria, Switzerland, Israel and Albania were the only ones to award the country points, along with bailed-out Spain - which came as a surprise (but could be accounted for by the large amount of German pensioners living in Spain for retirement). Germany received a humiliating score of just 18 points, compared to 281 points for Denmark's winning entry.

The coordinator for Germany’s ARD TV network told German media on Sunday, "There's obviously a political situation to keep in mind - I don't want to say 'this was 18 points for Angela Merkel', but we all have to be aware that it wasn't just Cascada up there on stage, but all of Germany."

Wednesday, 10 April 2013

Thatcher's rose-tinted American legacy

The American media’s reverential depiction of Margaret Thatcher this week says much about how the US and UK differ when looking at history.

As I’ve watched the international media coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher over the past few days, I’ve almost felt like we're talking about different women.

In America, the wall-to-wall coverage – quite unusual for a foreign leader – has been downright worshipful. This tone has been matched by politicians on both sides of the aisle. "The world has lost one of the great champions of freedom and liberty, and America has lost a true friend,” declared Barack Obama on Monday. “She helped restore the confidence and pride that has always been the hallmark of Britain at its best."

Here in continental Western Europe, where Thatcher was far less popular, the coverage couldn’t be more different. One French politician remarked that Thatcher will see the miners she put out of work in hell, while German MP Michael Roth declared "her radical market policies and her Europe-sceptical politics will certainly not be missed.”

In the UK the coverage has been more nuanced. As people say, she was a bit like Marmite – you either loved her or you hated her. The political persuasions of British papers has determined which side they’ve chosen to emphasise. But no media outlet has ignored the fact that she split opinions. Even Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron’s statement to the Parliament on Monday acknowledged this.

Monday, 25 March 2013

Violence erupts at French anti-gay-marriage protests

Across Europe and the Americas, gay marriage has been enacted peacefully and with minimal protest. Meanwhile, in France...

Yesterday, an estimated one million people flooded the streets of Paris to protest plans to enact same-sex marriage in France. It was the second such massive demonstration, following one held in January against French President Francois Hollande’s effort to enact gay marriage - a fulfilment of a promise made during last year’s presidential campaign.

This time, the demonstration took a nasty turn. The protestors became violent. The police resorted to using tear gas, which allegedly injured some of the many children being used in the protest. The police counter that the anti-gay-marriage protestors were using children as human shields. The president of France's Christian Democrat party says she was injured by police during the protest. Today, the opposition UMP party of Nicolas Sarkozy is calling for the resignation of the Paris chief of police and French interior minister Manuel Valls in response to the tear gas 'used against children'.

Wednesday, 20 March 2013

A Cyprus whodunit

Brussels is in full blame-game mode today following last night’s rejection by the Cypriot parliament of the bailout package offered to the country by the EU. It’s a veritable whodunit mystery, with the answer depending on whether you’re inclined to believe the President of Cyprus, or the rest of Europe.

All sides agree on one thing – the decision taken by European finance ministers in the early hours of Saturday morning to require a one-time levy on all Cypriot bank accounts in exchange for the bail-out was colossally stupid, plunging the Eurozone into a new crisis and risking a bank run in the country. What cannot be agreed upon is whose idea it was.

Raiding people’s savings accounts is an unprecedented move. Such conditions were not imposed on any other country receiving bailout money, and indeed no such idea was ever even discussed. But Cyprus is a special case. As the likelihood of an EU bailout for the small Mediterranean island increased, worry began growing that the move would actually be a bail-out for wealthy Russian oligarchs who use the island for money-laundering or tax-evading.

Friday, 15 March 2013

Frigide Barjot - a very French protest


On Tuesday of this week, I was sitting in the press room of the European Parliament in Strasbourg - waiting for a press conference on the 2014 EU elections - when suddenly a woman clad in hot pink burst into the room. Her leathery brown skin and wild hair stood in stark contrast to the suited conservative members of parliament who were ushering her in. By her side was a young man with bleach-blond hair, also clad in pink.

This, the journalists learned, was Frigide Barjot - the leader of France’s anti-gay-marriage movement. The Conservative MEPs had invited her to the European Parliament to speak about her desire to extend her anti-gay-marriage movement to all of Europe. While notorious in France, Ms Barjot is unknown outside the country, and the journalists were perplexed as to why she was there. But I knew of her already, if only from the many Facebook posts I see from my French friends decrying her antics.

Friday, 1 March 2013

A week of turmoil for Europe

Yesterday was a big news day for EU politics, with a series of high-profile speeches in reaction to the disastrous election result in Italy on Monday. But despite the many speeches, the message has been singular: there is “no alternative” to austerity, and hostility toward the EU in domestic politics is exascerbating the euro crisis.

The day started with a speech by humiliated ‘technocrat’ prime minister Mario Monti at the European Commission. Having been rejected by his home country, it is perhaps unsurprising that the former European Commissioner wanted to come to Brussels, where people understand him. It was Brussels after all, at the behest of Berlin, who installed Monti on the Italian throne after forcing out Silvio Berlusconi at the height of the Italian crisis in 2011.

And it is no coincidence that it was the ‘Italians abroad inEurope’ voting region in which Monti received his highest share of the vote – 30%. This compares to the 9% of the vote he received at home – less than half the vote chare received by anti-establishment comedian Beppe Grillo.

Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Send in the clowns

There are plenty of people in Europe who hold stereotype-based views about Italy - that it is and has always been an ‘unserious’ country. Italian voters won’t have helped that perception over the weekend, when half of them voted for either a comedian or a clown to lead their country. “Do they think this is a joke?” one exasperated German asked me this morning.

Elections have consequences, and people get the leaders they deserve. Those Italians who insist on re-electing the clownish SilvioBerlusconi despite the ruin and shame he’s brought to Italy - and those Italians who decided they would rather see political anarchy by voting for a comedian who will not even sit in the parliament – will get the future they deserve. The problem is that because of the Eurozone debt crisis, we are all going to get the future they deserve.

Those outside Italy have long been baffled at how such a sizable portion of the Italian population could still support Berlusconi after the corruption allegations, Bunga Bunga parties, dalliances with underage Moroccan prostitutes and – most consequentially – the disastrous handling of the Italian economy. But what is newly shocking is the other surprise winner of this election – an anti-establishment comedian. The fact that so many Italians would vote for what is essentially an anarchist party, led by a comedian who does not even intend to take a seat in the Italian parliament, has rattled the world today.

Friday, 22 February 2013

The Italian election that could sink Europe

Italy’s constant lurching between left and right since WWII had, in the past, become so frequent that few people bothered to pay too much attention to the vagaries of Italian politics. But all that has changed since the advent of the eurozone crisis. All eyes are on the Eurozone's third largest economy this weekend as Italians go to the polls in what could be the most consequential Italian election of the modern republic.

Much of the international media attention has focused on the possibility of a return to power for the country’s notorious former leader Silvio Berlusconi, who was ousted in 2011 by what essentially amounted to an EU putsch. The prospect of a return to power for the now clearly mentally unstable Berlusconi is terrifying to the rest of Europe and would likely result in absolute panic in the Eurozone. But such a scenario is unlikely, even with Berlusconi’s last-minute efforts to try to buy votes by promising tax rebates.

Tuesday, 5 February 2013

UK rejects ‘separate but equal’ marriage

The British House of Commons has just concluded a historic vote, voting 400 to 175 to adopt gay marriage in England. But despite its historic nature, the legislation will prove to be of more symbolic than practical importance – particularly for its author, Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

In effect, the UK has already had gay marriage for eight years – but by another name. The Civil Unions signed into UK law in 2004 confer the exact same rights as a marriage – to the letter. Interestingly, as I’ve written about before, this made the gay marriage debate fade out of the limelight for many years in the UK. Because the civil unions were theoretically “equal”, gay rights activists weren’t really pushing too hard to have the word changed to ‘marriage’.

That was until an unlikely hero came along – David Cameron, leader of the British Conservative party. Cameron made it the central mission of his leadership to “detoxify” the conservative brand in the UK after years of being successfully cast as the “nasty Tories” by Tony Blair. Part of his effort to modernise the party was an campaign pledge in 2010 to enact gay marriage if elected. The response from gay UK was, “well, alright then I guess.”

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Brexit begins

By all accounts, the speech delivered by UK Prime Minister David Cameron this morning outlining his vision for a British disengagement with the EU was short on substance, contradictory and hackneyed. He mixed metaphors, made embarrassing errors reflecting a lack of EU knowledge and managed to enrage his EU partners even without having made specific demands.

But despite its rhetorical flaws, Cameron’s speech will be one for the history books. With three words - "in/out referendum" – Cameron has plunged the UK into four years of economic uncertainty. The prime minister will have the dreaded ‘Brexit vote’, but only in 2017, after the next election. With this he hopes to placate the fiercely eurosceptic wing of his party while at the same time kicking the can down the road. But the long time frame, business leaders and non-EU governments have warned, could be hugely damaging to the British economy. Investors will likely be hesitant to invest in the UK when their future in the European market is uncertain.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Obama warns Cameron over his dangerous EU game

The British eurosceptic right, normally known for their fawning obsession with America, have been in a strange state of cognitive dissonance this week after the Obama Administration delivered this frank warning to British Conservatives on Wednesday: if the UK leaves the EU, it could doom itself to international irrelevance.

Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary of state for European affairs, said in a speech in London that the UK leaving the EU would be a mistake, implying that Britain’s relationship with the US (and, presumably, most other major global players) would be damaged as a result.
"We have a growing relationship with the European Union as an institution which has a growing voice in the world – and we want to see a strong British voice in that European Union. That is in the American interest," he said. "When Europeans put their resources together and have a collective decision-making function they end up playing a major role in the world…And for the UK to be a part of that stronger, more important voice in the world is something I know a lot of British people welcome."
It isn’t just an academic debate. At the end of this month, British prime minister David Cameron will deliver a speech in The Hague on Britain’s future relationship with the EU. It is expected that he will announce a public referendum on EU membership that will take place in 2018 – well after the next general election and most likely after Cameron is out of office. Cameron has found it increasingly difficult to assuage the demands of a significant contingent of his increasingly anti-European party for a referendum on Britain leaving the EU.