Friday, 30 December 2016

Could the US have a military coup?

The military is the only American institution left with public trust, and that trust is enormous. As a new era dawns, the previously unthinkable is on the table.

Each year, I come home to the United States for an extended break over the Christmas holiday. Ordinarily it’s a time to relax, recharge, and spend some quality time with family. But this year a dark cloud is hanging over my visit.

I’m from the New York area, so it’s no surprise that people here are still feeling a sense of shell shock about November’s election result. But this isn’t the same disappointment people felt during the George W era. This isn’t about politics. There is a palpable sense of anxiety and fear in the air. Nobody knows what’s coming next.

There is a sense that everything people thought they knew about their own country has suddenly evaporated. More than one person has described the feeling as being one of a “living nightmare” that they still expect to wake up from. Someone else told me that the sudden shock of having the world you thought you knew come tumbling to the ground gave him “the same feeling as on September 11th”.

Friday, 9 December 2016

Is Trump pulling a Juncker with his cabinet picks?

While EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker's strategy was designed as a trap for national European capitals, it's hard to gauge whether there's any method to Trump's madness.

Last night on The Daily Show, host Trevor Noah came up with a theory behind the extreme hard-right cabinet appointments of Donald Trump.
"You know, sometimes I think Trump is trolling us, people,” he said. “It’s like the ultimate troll! Because you realize, every single person he’s picked for his cabinet wants to destroy the thing that they’ve been put in charge of."
Trump has appointed a man who hates the Environmental Protection Agency (and is even currently suing it) to run that same agency. He's appointed a fast food executive opposed to workers rights and the minimum wage as labor secretary. He's appointed a conspiracy-peddling alarmist as national security adviser. The list goes on.

Friday, 2 December 2016

The EU may get its first far-right president. But does it matter?

Sunday may be a pivotal turning point for Europe, but not because of the presidential election in Austria. A referendum in Italy could bring the euro back to crisis point.

In May, when Austria held its first attempt at holding a presidential election, newspapers in the UK and the US were full of breathless coverage. "Austria is on the brink of electing Europe's first far-right president since WWII" they declared.

The BBC and The Guardian both used the occasion to run features about the 'rise of nationalism and populism in Europe', both of which curiously left out Britain's own UK Independence Party. 'Populism is other people' they convinced themselves. Now, after Brexit and Trump, the Anglo-American coverage is quite different.

And the coverage has returned, because the Austrian election is being re-run this Sunday, 4 December. 

In May, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer, the leader of the Freedom Party, was beaten by Alexander Van der Bellen from the Green Party by just a few thousand votes. The two were facing each other in a shock second round after the country's main center-right and center-left candidates were eliminated. It was the first time a candidate from either the Greens or Freedom Party made it to the second round.

Friday, 18 November 2016

3/4 of electorate gave their nod to Trumpism

In the week since the US presidential election I've seen a lot of people posting that "only one in five Americans" endorsed Trump for president. No.

While it is true that only 19.5% of Americans cast a vote for Donald Trump last Tuesday (versus 19.8% for Clinton), one cannot then make the leap to say that 80% of Americans are opposed to Trump and are being dragged along unwillingly. That is nonsense.

First off, 29% of Americans are not eligible to vote, either because they are too young or because they have committed a crime. We have no way of knowing how those people feel about Trump. Then we have to people who were eligible to vote but chose not to - 45% of the eligible population.

Tuesday, 15 November 2016

Obama passes the torch to Merkel

For the past 70 years the US President has been known as the 'leader of the free world'. Tomorrow Barack Obama arrives in Berlin to hand that title to the German chancellor.

Barack Obama's European farewell tour, which is kicking off in Athens today, was meant to be a triumphant farewell to a continent where he remains enormously popular.

Instead, the trip has become a crisis tour. The US president must urgently reassure the European public that the continent is not about to be plunged into war by a Donald Trump presidency, and that American moral leadership remains intact. In his private meetings, however, he will have to acknowledge that he cannot assure any such thing. He will have to urgently plan with European leaders for how to peacefully transition to a post-Trump world.

The most important of these meetings will come tomorrow in Berlin, when he meets with the reluctant new leader of Western liberal democracy - Angela Merkel.

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Think you can escape America? Think again


Horrified by what I was seeing from Americans, I left the country a decade ago. But I came to learn that wherever I go, the American people determine my fate.

On 2 November 2004 I made a fateful choice. I was living in Chicago at the time, and was watching that year’s presidential election results at a friend’s apartment. We were all pretty sure that Democrat John Kerry was going to win. After all, sitting president George W Bush had been completely discredited by the Iraq War debacle, right?

It didn’t work out that way. Despite polls predicting a Kerry win, Bush emerged victorious. People at the apartment were perplexed, some were crying. I left by myself and walked to Lake Michigan. I stared out at the water and decided I did not see a future for myself in the United States. I vowed to move to Europe.

Thursday, 3 November 2016

As America votes, Europe holds its breath

Once again, Europeans wait while 300 million people on another continent determine their future. Why do they accept this state of affairs?

If you think things are tense in the United States right now, you should try it here in Central and Eastern Europe. 

People are incredibly anxious about what might happen on 8 November. There are the obvious concerns - a volatile and unpredictable man being given access to America's nuclear arsenal after a victory sending global markets into freefall. In an age when America is still the bedrock of the global military and economic order, such an earthquake would send shockwaves throughout the world.

These are the worries of the whole globe right now. But in Europe, they have additional reason to fear. No area of the world is more dependent on the United States for its peace and prosperity than Europe. And it is this dependence that makes the media's coverage of US presidential elections here so breathless. In many ways, Europeans devote more attention to the American election than they do their own.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Soft Brexit or Hard Brexit? It's a false choice

Today's vote in Wallonia against an EU-Canada free trade deal makes it painfully clear - Europeans will not approve any arrangement that lets Britain have its cake and eat it too.

Over the past weeks, people in the UK have been engaged in a tortured debate - should we have a "hard Brexit" or a "soft Brexit"?

A hard Brexit, viewed by most people (even the Brexiteers) as the worst outcome, would mean that the UK cuts economic ties with Europe, and continues to trade with the EU only on WTO terms. In other words, the UK is left with the same relationship with the EU enjoyed by Morocco.

A 'soft Brexit' would mean the UK retains market access while formally leaving the EU. This would occur either by the UK joining the EEA (à la Norway and Iceland) or negotiating bilateral treaties (à la Switzerland). Either of the latter two options would involve compromise. Crucially, the EU has made clear that the UK can't have either of these "soft Brexit" scenarios without maintaining freedom of movement (the ability for EU citizens to live and work in any EU country).

Friday, 7 October 2016

"I hate Britain, but I love Brits"

British people are going to have to get used to their new most-hated-nation status. As an American in Europe, I can give some tips on how to endure it.

"I hate America, but I love Americans". It's a line I've heard so many times in the past decade of living in Europe that I barely notice it any more.

I got it particularly often when I first moved to Europe in 2006. It was just three years since the launch of the Iraq War, which the vast majority of Europeans opposed. George W. Bush, immensely unpopular in Europe, was still the president. I had to face down a lot of hostility toward the country I came from.

But usually, after an energetic rant against the crimes of America, the person speaking to me would finish by saying something like, "but I love Americans. They're so creative, so full of energy. I love their TV and movies. I just don't understand how these same people can vote for leaders like this."

Monday, 26 September 2016

The Brexit diaspora

After Brexit, many British expats are considering never returning to a home that now feels alien to them.

I'm in Brussels this week, and have spent much of it catching up. I was away all summer, and though I was here briefly for work in early September, this is the first time I've been able to see a lot of my friends since that fateful day on 22 June.

Belgium may be experiencing a sunny Indian summer at the moment, but somehow the city still feels dark. There is a palpable fear about where the world is going. Post-Brexit, and possibly pre-Trump, we find ourselves in a moment of extraordinary unease. In my entire life, I've never felt such an overwhelming air of pessimism and fear all around me. It seems as if everyone has lost hope.

Nobody seems to be feeling this more acutely right now than Brits in Brussels. They've dedicated much of their lives to the idea that they were part of a grand project - citizens of a unifying Europe. Suddenly, half of their countrymen have pulled the rug out from under them, upending their entire lives. You are no longer a European citizen, they have been told. Come home at once.

Monday, 19 September 2016

This one map of Berlin shows all you need to know about Europe's refugee divide

Huge gains for an anti-immigrant party in East Berlin reflect the East-West divide in Europe as a whole.

Yesterday, German Chancellor Angela Merkel waited nervously in her unassuming Berlin residence while the voters in Germany's capital city determined her fate.

The vote taking place outside her door technically had nothing to do with her. It was a local election for the Berlin Parliament (landtag), not the national one (bundestag). Berlin and two other German cities (Hamburg and Bremen) are, for historical reasons, also federal states.

But the result would have a direct effect on Merkel's chancellorship because it came hot on the heels of her centre-right CDU party's humiliating defeat in her home state of Mecklenburg-Pomerania. The CDU came in third, behind the centre-left SPD and, alarmingly, the new nationalist party Alternative for Germany (AfD).

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Europe's Trump remedy

France and Germany this week launched a proposal for common EU military defence. If Europeans are worried about developments in the US election, they should be open to the idea.

Here in Europe, reactions to the election fiasco taking place across the Atlantic vacillate between bemusement and panic. "He can't really win, can he?" is a question I am asked almost daily.

On Friday, the question was asked by my hairdresser, a Turkish-German woman who lives in the Wedding area of Berlin. There was a real look of fear in her eyes.

US presidential elections have for the past half century been watched closely by the rest of the world - particularly after 1990. As the world's sole superpower (for now), the US government takes decisions that directly impact the entire globe.

Nowhere is that more true than in Western Europe, where people have been living under American suzerainty since the end of the Second World War. In some parts of Europe, particularly the UK, people follow US elections closer than they do their own. It is an item of endless fascination, and the most mundane developments in the campaign make the front pages of European newspapers.

Monday, 5 September 2016

Merkel's far-right home state

The German chancellor has suffered an embarrassing electoral defeat as the dark cloud of nationalism spreads over Europe. But predictions of her political demise are premature.

Last month, I took a trip with some friends to the Northwest German island of Rügen in the Baltic Sea. It's a beautiful holiday island full of white chalk cliffs and rolling green hills. But when we were there, it was also full of sights of a more disconcerting variety - political ads for the far-right and racist messages splattered in graffiti. 

As we left Berlin on the train and travelled north through Mecklenburg-Pomerania, signs for the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the extreme-right (neo-Nazi) National Democratic Party (NPD) became more and more frequent. They were all over the island, and were an especially frequent site in the island's departure city, Stralsund. On the posters for the main centrist German parties, Angela Merkel's center-right CDU and the center-left SPD (who are currently governing the country in a coalition), was written a chillingly familiar word in graffiti: volksverräter (traitor to the nation).

The only ads not splattered with grafitti were those for the AfD and NPD, some of which called Germany's new arrivals "rapefugees".

This is Chancellor Merkel's home turf - the constituency which she represents in the German parliament. And like parts of neighbouring Poland, it is not a friendly place for people of color.

Sunday, 4 September 2016

"The UK is over?" - America's view of Brexit

The UK's vote to secede form the EU is still an object of fascination in the US, where views range from pity to bemusement.

Last week, standing at a bar in Savannah, Georgia and drinking a 40-ounce of Miller Light, I found myself engaged in a most unlikely conversation.

I had just been introduced to the roommate of an old friend. He was telling the story of a recent unsuccessful date, aborted because of a lack of intellectual heft. "I mean, he didn't even know what Brexit was," he said incredulously.

I had to check my surroundings to remind myself of where I was. I've been working as a journalist covering EU politics in Europe for a decade now, and it's been rare indeed that I've encountered much interest in the topics I cover during my twice-yearly visits home.

Wednesday, 31 August 2016

The rank hypocrisy of Obama’s ‘Appletax’ reaction

The US claims the EU's Apple decision is “political”, but it is the American reaction that is guided by politics. And US disrespect for EU law has a long history.

In the summer of 2001, the US government was furious with the European Union.

Iconic American firm General Electric had just seen a multi-billion dollar merger with Honeywell, which had already been cleared by the US, blocked by the European Commission on competition grounds. US politicians were furious, business leaders were flabbergasted. 

Two years later, the newly-emboldened Commission struck again. It slapped a €497 million fine on American tech giant Microsoft for abusing its dominant market position. Again, there was much sabre-rattling in Washington.

Thursday, 11 August 2016

Do the Olympics promote harmony, or suckle nationalism?

An Italian athlete has accepted her silver medal as a European, brandishing the EU flag and declaring "Europe exists!". Why is this such a daring act?

Over the past decade living here in Europe, I've noticed a curious phenomenon every four years. While my American friends back home get wildly excited about the Olympic Games, my friends in Europe seem to greet them with a collective yawn.

This pattern is being bourne out again this year. In the morning, while the Americans are sleeping, my Facebook timeline is bereft of Olympics information. Then, around 2pm, it starts. 'America won this. It lost that. Chinese people are bad at X. Australians are good at Y. Russians are cheaters. This Moldovan athlete is attractive so all Moldovans are attractive. What is Moldova again?' 

I posted this observation on Facebook and asked people why they thought the difference exists. No one in Europe disagreed that Europeans are not so into the games, particularly compared to the Olympics-obsessed Americans. Funny enough, I think Americans assume the rest of the world is watching the games as closely as they are. I certainly did until I moved to Europe.

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

My continuing adventures with the German language

Germany's schlager superstar Helene Fischer
One year on, German continues to frustrate me.

It's been a year since I started learning German and wrote my first blog entry about the language, and some have suggested that I do an update. 

I'm reticent to do so because, to be perfectly honest, my German is really not at a level it should be for someone who started learning it a year ago. But my five-month long winter break in the Americas didn't really aid my process of German-learning. Though I intended to keep studying during my travels via an online course, once I got to Latin America I decided to do a short Spanish course while I was down there instead.

Needless to say, when I got back to Berlin in May and resumed my course, it was an overwhelming first day. I felt like I had forgotten everything from my elementary level class the year before and was starting from scratch. Particularly after having spent a few months learning a MUCH easier language (Spanish), I honestly felt like throwing in the towel. 'There are so many Americans here in Berlin that never bother learning German,' thought. 'Why can't I be one of them?'

Monday, 1 August 2016

Erdogan’s Germans

Politicians in Austria and Germany are becoming increasingly alarmed over the Turkish president’s influence in their countries.

Yesterday in Cologne, 30,000 German residents amassed in the city center to pledge allegiance to a foreign leader.

The demonstrators, Turkish immigrants or people of Turkish decent, were following a call to action from Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, asking people to show solidarity against the attempted military coup on 15 July. They brandished iconographied pictures of the Turkish strongman, waved Turkish flags and chanted their fidelity to Erdogan’s Islamist AKP party.

The Turkish president himself was supposed to address the crowd via a live video address, but this was banned by the police for fear that it would cause the crowd to become "overexcited".

Thursday, 28 July 2016

Despite a gruesome week, Germans keep calm and carry on

Reports in American media of German 'panic' are greatly exaggerated. Most still believe Merkel's refugee policy is the right thing to do.

Over the past week, as Germany was struck by a string of four violent attacks in a row, German Chancellor Angela Merkel stayed on holiday.

It might seem strange for people in other countries. It stands in stark contrast to the political reaction in neighboring France, where French President Francois Hollande rushed to the scene of recent attacks there and made dramatic pronouncements and new policy promises. 

It has matched the general tone of the measured response here in Germany, both from the media and from politicians. There has been no hysteria.

Of course, this is largely because the scale and scope of the French and German attacks were very different. The German terrorist attacks were failures, killing no one but the perpetrator. While the attacks in Belgium and France were co-ordinated large-sale attacks by ISIS cells, the events in Germany have been small attempts by lone wolves. While the other attacks have had clear links with ISIS, the Germany links are tenuous or non-existent.

Tuesday, 19 July 2016

It's time for the EU to drop the Turkish accession charade

Whether the coup was real or staged, it is beyond time that the EU drop the pretence that Erdogan's Turkey will ever join the bloc.

As the implications of the events of Friday night have sunk in, world leaders have started to suggest what they dared not say over the weekend.

Since Friday Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan has rounded up and arrested more than 6,000 members of the military and judiciary, accusing them of being involved in the supposed coup. "It looks at least as if something has been prepared," Johannes Hahn, the European Commissioner from Austria, said today. "The lists [of people to arrest] are available, which indicates it was prepared and to be used at a certain stage."

"I'm very concerned. It is exactly what we feared," he added.

Hahn's words carry significance because he happens to be the commissioner for EU enlargement. He is directly responsible for Turkey's accession process to join the EU. But in realty, that process is as theatrical and illusory as Friday night's coup probably was (more on that below).

Friday, 15 July 2016

Europe will referenda itself to death


From Budapest to Paris to Cleveland, the West‘s blind idolatry of direct democracy will be its own undoing. 

"The referendum is a device of dictators and demagogues," declared UK prime minister Clement Attlee in 1949. No surprise, then, that Europe’s next anti-EU referendum following Brexit has been called by Hungary’s Viktor Orban.

The Hungarian prime minister’s absolute control over the political, judicial and media institutions in his country have been likened by many to the power of a dictator, including by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker

Hungary has attracted particularly negative international attention because of its brutal treatment of Syrian refugees trying to cross through the country to Germany. It is the latter issue that has prompted the referendum, scheduled for 2 October. 

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

A myopic focus on Tony Blair

Judging by the public discourse, you might think Tony Blair was a dictator who railroaded the UK into war in 2003. But he was just one part of a foreign policy orientation incapable of saying no to the United States.

Today the long-awaited results of the Chilcot Enquiry into the UK's involvement in the 2003 Iraq War, the consequences of which the world is still living with, were finally published. 

Like the 9/11 Commission's report in the United States in 2004, it contains little in the way of bombshell revelations. Instead it paints an overall damning picture of the leadership of Tony Blair, the centre-left politician who was prime minister at the time. It gives ammunition to those who want to see Blair prosecuted. Perhaps the most memorable line of the report's executive summary is this:
"I will be with you, whatever."
These words were in a 2002 private memo between Blair and US President George W Bush. The line seems to vindicate a long-held perception in the UK that Blair was Bush's poodle. Indeed, the memo suggests that even a year before the war's launch, Blair had decided to go along with whatever the American president proposed.

The entirety of the media coverage of the report today has centred on Blair. But as I've written before, I find the UK's myopic focus on Blair in the aftermath of the Iraq disaster to be counter-productive. 

Why personalise it so? Was it really Blair who was Bush's poodle? Or was it the UK that was America's poodle?

Tuesday, 5 July 2016

The EU can, and should, reject any new UK commissioner

The British government is trying to find the most palatable candidate to survive European Parliament confirmation. But it is unclear why the EU should accept any British commissioner.

Prime Minister David Cameron's resignation in the hours after the Brexit referendum result on 24 June was the abdication heard round the world. But later that day, there was a less-noticed but also significant resignation in Brussels.

Lord Jonathan Hill, the European Commissioner from the UK, who is in charge of EU financial services, also stepped down. "As we move to a new phase, I don't believe it is right that I should carry on as the British Commissioner as though nothing had happened," he said in a statement. "In line with what I discussed with the President of the Commission some weeks ago, I have therefore told him that I shall stand down."

For awhile, it was unclear whether any new British commissioner would be sent to take his place. But today the Financial Times reported that the UK is about to nominate Sir Julian King, the current British ambassador to France. The Times writes that King would be considered an "apolitical appointment to ensure Britain is not left unrepresented at the EU’s executive body". 

The paper said the European Parliament is likely to reject any nominee that backed Brexit. At the same time, an incoming pro-Brexit government in the UK might be unhappy about having the pro-remain King be their man in the Commission.

But it is unclear to me why any UK nominee should be acceptable to the European Parliament.

The 'Brexit delegation' at Trump's convention

The Tory-led ECR group will attend Donald Trump's nominating convention, but Merkel's center-right EPP will not. It reflects the path British Conservatives have chosen to take.

Years before his faustian bargain to offer an EU referendum to maintain his Conservative Party leadership, David Cameron tossed the eurosceptics another bone to become party leader.

In his 2005 campaign to become Conservative leader, he promised to take the Tories out of the main-centre-right bloc in Europe, the European Peoples Party (EPP), and form a new eurosceptic bloc. For years, the eurosceptic wing of the Conservative Party had complained that the EPP, which contains the main center-right parties of Europe including those of Germany, France, Italy and Spain, was too 'federalist' in its approach to the European Union.

Sunday, 3 July 2016

Thousands marched, but what are the options for keeping UK in EU?

It is a time of huge uncertainty for Britain, but there are four scenarios which could see the country remain in the EU.

Yesterday saw an unprecedented, and uncharacteristic, outpouring of love for the European Union on the streets of London.
Tens of thousands of people marched on the British Parliament in a protest hastily organised on Facebook called 'March for Europe'. It was a show of European love not ordinarily seen in the British capital, where EU flags are normally verboten. And it wasn't a vague outpouring of sentiment either. The protesters had a specific demand for the parliament - do not pull the trigger on Brexit. That trigger is known as article 50 (more on that later).

The crowd was overwhelmingly young and educated. As The Guardian's Ed Vulliamy noted, "the hollow, bitter wit of the banners and placards was a fair indication of who took to the streets". “Un-Fuck My Future”, the placards pleaded. “No Brex Please, We’re British”. "Fromage, not Farage". Pictures of Whitney Houston singing “I Will Always Love EU” and Rick Astley singing "Never gonna give EU up, never gonna let EU down". 

“Hell no, we won’t go!” they chanted.

Saturday, 2 July 2016

Why England in the EEA would be a victory for France

France has always resented British influence in the EU. Excluding the UK from EU law-making could reshape the union in the French model.

In 1963, when the United Kingdom first applied to join the European Community, the answer from Paris was a resolute 'non'. 

French President Charles de Gaulle vetoed the application in '63 and again in '67. He said that "a number of aspects of Britain's economy, from working practices to agriculture...made Britain incompatible with Europe". He added that the UK had a “deep-seated hostility” to any pan-European project.

It wasn't until De Gaulle relinquished the French presidency that Paris finally relented and allowed the UK to join the club in 1972.

So what were the "aspects of Britain's economy" that De Gaulle was so worried about? It was free market liberal economics. De Gaulle, and his successors, distrusted the "Anglo-Saxon" (The French term for Anglo-American) model of capitalism and had a very different vision for Europe.

Tuesday, 28 June 2016

Can we stop the 'Democracy is beautiful' platitudes? This vote was a travesty

In the West we are brainwashed to always view more democracy as better. But the Brexit fiasco shows how inappropriate referenda are.

Being a Swiss person in England on Saturday, British journalists were keen to get tennis star Roger Federer's take on the Brexit chaos taking place around him. He gave a politician's answer. "It’s nice to have democracy here, that you have an opportunity to vote. It’s a beautiful thing."

Really Roger? You think what we've seen over the past days is "a beautiful thing?"

David Cameron expressed similar sentiments in his resignation speech after losing the vote. "The country has just taken part in a giant democratic exercise, perhaps the biggest in our history," he said. "We should be proud of the fact that in these islands we trust the people for these big decisions."

Monday, 27 June 2016

The UK Parliament can block Brexit, but it needs a mandate

There is zero prospect for a second referendum, but a general election may be called in the next few months that would be a de-facto second vote. The result could be an unravelling of the main political parties.

In the three days since Brexit, social media has been abuzz with the prospect of holding a second referendum. The argument goes that so many leave voters did not understand what they were voting for, it justifies holding a new poll. 

An official petition asking for a second referendum has collected more than four million signatures, which will force a parliamentary debate on the subject.

But the idea of a second referendum is fanciful. The process of the first referendum was so ugly, so destabilising, that few would want to put the UK through that again. 

Like Trump, Brexit won by accident

Brexiteer fumbling this weekend gives an impression of self-interested politicians who launched a campaign they didn't expect to actually win. Sound familiar?

This morning's appearances on the Sunday shows by the politicians who campaigned for Brexit was a full-on car crash. Perhaps the most extraordinary was Ian Duncan Smith's interview with Andrew Marr.

After trying to get any shred of information from IDS, Marr finally asked, exasperated, “What’s the plan?” “How do you mean?” IDS responded defensively. So Marr cited, for example, the leave campaign's promise to spend the "£350m per week that the UK sends to Brussels" (a completely inaccurate figure) to instead fund the NHS. 

“We never said that,” IDS replied. Marr was indignant. “Yes you did. So even if there was £350m per week, which there isn’t, how are you going to fulfil all of your other spending promises?”

“We never made any commitments. We just made a series of promises that were possibilities," IDS responded.

Sunday, 26 June 2016

Ireland faces its doomsday scenario

Both sides of Ireland are in a panic because Brexit could make the peace process unravel. But perhaps the North has come far enough to allow a non-violent reunification of the island.

"Of all the things that could happen to an Irish government short of the outbreak of war, this is pretty much up there with the worst of them," wrote The Irish Times, the republic's main newspaper, as the world woke up to the "Brexit nightmare" on Friday morning.

"Ever since David Cameron announced that he would hold a referendum back in 2012, Irish officials have regarded the prospect of a British exit from the EU as the worst thing that could happen [to Ireland]," the paper wrote. "[Irish PM] Kenny now faces leading Ireland through a period of difficulty and uncertainty unprecedented in the last 50 years, more complex and unpredictable than the recent financial crisis, more destabilising the Northern Troubles."

The UK is Ireland's biggest trading partner. One billion euros worth of goods flow freely across the Irish Sea each week, tariff-free because both countries are in the European Union. If the UK leaves the EU while the Republic of Ireland stays in, customs duties will have to be imposed on that trade. That is, unless the UK joins the EEA, but I've written before on why that is unlikely.

Saturday, 25 June 2016

Why Spain will not object this time to an independent Scotland

Spain is less likely to veto EU accession for a Scotland that is leaving a non-EU country.

Today Nicola Sturgeon, the leader of Scotland, left an emergency cabinet meeting in Edinburgh and declared that her government will seek "immediate" bilateral discussions with Brussels to "protect Scotland's place in the EU."

She already said yesterday that a second referendum on Scottish independence was "highly likely" following the UK's vote to leave the EU. The vast majority of voters in Scotland, Northern Ireland and London voted to remain in the EU, but a majority of people in England and Wales voted to leave - resulting in a 52% vote for leave. 

All of it gives the impression of a vote driven by English nationalism - whether the leave voters realised it or not. With their vote, they may have created the nation-state of England. It now seems likely Scotland and Northern Ireland will leave the union.

Sturgeon has said it would be unconstitutional for Scotland to be taken out of the EU against its will.

Friday, 24 June 2016

European in London? Here's what's going to happen to you

In a great irony, there is likely to be an increase in immigration from Europe over the next two years as people hope to be grandfathered in to a future visa regime.

Many of my friends who are non-English EU citizens living in London (a category I myself used to be in) have asked me today what's going to happen to them. 

They live and work in the UK on the basis of their EU passport. What happens when the UK pulls out of the EU, and freedom of movement across the channel comes to an end? Are they going to be immediately deported?

I've reassured them that most likely some kind of arrangement will be made for those EU citizens who have been living in the UK a long time. They're not all going to be immediately deported. But some of them might. I think it is likely that in two years, EU immigrants already in the country are going to have to apply for permission to remain, on the basis of the existing tiered visa regime.

Here are the different possibilities:

Welcome to the 1930s

For years, we thought it would be Greece that would trigger Europe's collapse. It turns out it is England that has brought us to the edge of the abyss.

The world woke up to terrifying news this morning. Against the recommendations of nearly all experts and world leaders, against the expectations of the financial markets and the bookies, England has voted to leave the European Union.

As expected, the world's financial markets went into panic mode. The pound lost 8% of its value, hitting a low not seen since 1985. Continental European markets have lost about 8%, US markets are currently down 3%. Analysts expect further losses on Monday. 

It is all reminiscent of the panic after the Lehman Brothers collapse in September 2008, or perhaps more relevant to Europe, the height of the Greek debt crisis of 2011 and 2012.

Monday, 20 June 2016

Yes, the gig for the UK journo in Brussels is to stretch the truth

A tell-all Facebook post by a former journalist at The Times has gone viral this weekend, exposing a truth that most in the EU press corps already know.

On Friday Martin Fletcher, a former foreign correspondent for Britain's The Times newspaper, posted some explosive allegations on Facebook.

"For 25 years our press has fed the British public a diet of distorted, mendacious and relentlessly hostile stories about the EU," he wrote. "And the journalist who set the tone was Boris Johnson."

Fletcher describes how, in 1999, he arrived in Brussels as The Times' Brussels correspondent, shortly after Boris Johnson's stint covering the EU capital for The Telegraph. Johnson later went on to become the Mayor of London and the main politician backing a British secession from the European Union. If there is a vote for Brexit on Thursday, Johnson is likely to be the next UK prime minister.

Monday, 13 June 2016

Orlando has no relevance to Brexit

The ad created today by Leave.eu was not only in poor taste - it was a lie.

Given that we are in the final week before the UK's momentous referendum on EU membership, there has been a lot of speculation today about what effect this weekend's tragic event in Orlando will have on the vote.

Some, it appears, were eager to ensure it had an impact. This morning the Leave.eu campaign sent out a tweet with this political ad, with an accompanying message saying the EU allows free movement for AK-47s.

Sunday, 12 June 2016

After divorce, UK and EU unlikely to be 'friends with benefits'

The EEA was not built for a country the size of Britain. To think that the EU will allow it to easily join is folly.

This week the EU's most powerful finance minister, Germany's Wolfgang Schäuble, will say in an exclusive interview to be published by Der Spiegel that the UK should not be given special access to the EU common market, à la Norway, if it quits the bloc.

"In is in, out is out," he will say in the interview, which was seen and previewed by The Guardian.  “That won’t work, it would require the country to abide by the rules of a club from which it currently wants to withdraw. If the majority in Britain opts for Brexit, that would be a decision against the single market."

Friday, 10 June 2016

No, the EU does not have 'five presidents'

How many Brits could name John Bercow, Mark Carney or George Osborne? Well these are the equivalents for three of the "five presidents" cited by Michael Gove in the Sky News debate.

During the live Brexit debate on Sky News last week, 'out' campaigner Michael Gove, the former UK minister for education, was taken to task by interviewer Faisal Islam.

Asked to back up his claims with hard facts, Gove deflected. Asked to name notable experts saying the UK would be economically better off outside Europe, he demurred. But he could tell he was on to a winner when he distracted from the questions by turning to the audience and asking them a question himself, "There are five presidents run the EU. Can you name them all?"

There was an awkward silence from the audience, and from Islam. No, it turns out, nobody could name them. Since then the Leave campaign has ran with this 'five presidents' line, and the British media has heralded it as an excellent point for the leave camp (The Guardian called it a "superb" moment for Gove in the debate).

There's only one problem - it's completely bogus. 

Just because there are a number of people with the title "president" in the European institutions does not make them all comparable to the "president" of the United States, France or Russia. But this is what Gove is implying.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Ryanair for rail? Don't hold your breath

New 'budget trains' between Brussels and Paris give the illusion of competition, but in fact are designed to block new market entrants.

After 24 years in the making, today there is finally light at the end of the world's longest tunnel. Today in Switzerland the first train is passing through the monumental Gotthard Base Tunnel, carrying Germany's Angela Merkel, Italy's Matteo Renzi and France's Francois Hollande.

It will carry passengers between the German-speaking canton of Uri and the Italian-speaking canton of Ticino in an astonishing 16 minutes. It will cut the journey time between Zurich and Milan by one hour. 

Though you might expect a massive infrastructure project like this to be opposed by environmentalists, it was in fact welcomed. It will stop the daily journey of hundreds of trucks carrying goods over the Alps between Northern and Southern Europe, a journey which has been causing huge environmental damage.

It is part of the steady expansion of high-speed rail across Europe. Trains will be able to link up with Italy's impressive Frecciarossa trains, which whizz passengers from Milan to Naples in just four hours, at 360 km/h (224 m/h). New high-speed routes are coming online all over Europe.

Tuesday, 24 May 2016

Why is the BBC afraid to call UKIP a nationalist party?

Populism is other people, according to the British media.

Austria's presidential election on Sunday, in which the country came within a hair's breadth of electing its first far-right head of state since World War II, has generated a new round of media coverage on the rise of extremist parties across Europe.

Today the BBC published an analysis of the 'Widespread revolt against the political centre', tracing the rise of these parties. It is accompanied by a map showing the percentage of votes won by "nationalist parties" in the most recent elections. 

Notice anything strange about this map? According to the BBC, the UK is either not part of Europe, or has no nationalist party. 

Monday, 23 May 2016

What planet are the Brexiters on?

No, Turkey is not about to join the EU. And the only country that wants it to is the UK.

Yesterday, on one of the UK's main Sunday morning politics shows, the UK's defence minister Penny Mordaunt made an astonishing claim. 

The pro-Brexit Tory politician told the BBC's Andrew Marr that Turkey is about to join the European Union, which would open the flood gates to Turkish immigrants coming into the UK. Asked if the UK has veto power over Turkish accession, Mordaunt replied, "No, it doesn't".

Except that it does - quite obviously. Any new EU member state must be approved unanimously by every county in the union, something that UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who is trying to stop the UK from voting to leave the EU, was quick to point out later in the day. 

Thursday, 19 May 2016

How a memorial meant to be a symbol of Belgian resilience became a symbol of Belgian dysfunction

For two months after the Brussels attacks, the impromptu memorial at Place de la Bourse was left to decay. It will finally be cleaned up tomorrow.

In the hours immediately after the terrorist attacks in Brussels on 22 March, people were unsure what to do. It seemed safest to stay indoors, but as the afternoon developed without incident people wanted to come outside to show their solidarity.

Unable to reach the locations of the attacks themselves, they came to Brussels' most well-known meeting point to pay their respects: the steps outside the giant Leopold-era stock exchange, The Bourse. They began laying flowers and candles on the street in front of the steps, writing messages in chalk on the building and draping flags over the intimidating lions guarding the entrance.