Friday, 26 May 2017

Hurricane Trump comes to Brussels

While the current US president bullied and berated in Brussels, Obama awed and inspired in Berlin. Which man truly represents the American people?

Perhaps no image of Donald Trump's visit to Brussels will be more enduring than the now-notorious video of him pushing the prime minister of Montenegro out of the way so that he could get to the front of a shot of NATO leaders.

As an US citizen, I felt a deep sense of shame watching the incident. There was something painfully American about it. The worst part was his expression after the shove - the brash sense of entitlement, the obscene strutting. In just a few seconds Trump had confirmed the stereotypes that so many Europeans have about Americans. And it was consistent with his behavior during the entire Brussels visit - bullying, gloating, preening.

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

After trauma of Lisbon, Macron faces uphill battle for EU treaty change

The new French president may have softened Merkel's resistance to change, but leaders across Europe will be wary of opening a pandora's box.

Emmanuel Macron made his first foreign visit as French president yesterday, coming here to Berlin for a meeting with Angela Merkel.

That Berlin was his first destination is no surprise. The Franco-German relationship is the most important for Paris, and also the most important relationship in the European Union as a whole. But there was an added importance to this first visit. During his campaign Macron made promises about a process of renewal and reform of the EU. None of that will be possible without the cooperation of Germany's chancellor.

We still do not know if Merkel, a conservative, will be that chancellor. Germany is having a general election in September and she may be unseated by her center-left challenger Martin Schulz, a former president of the European Parliament.

Monday, 15 May 2017

In Eurovision, as in politics, the people wanted an outsider

At a time when the public is voting for political leaders who say they are from 'outside the system', Portugal's surprise Eurovision win shows entertainment is not immune to this trend.

When Salvador Sobral took the microphone to accept his victory in the Eurovision Song Contest in Kiev on Saturday night, it went a little differently than people might have expected.

Such speeches are usually filled with breathless platitudes, with artists thanking the fans and talking about how great the song contest is. But Sobral is not your usual Eurovision winner. He used the occasion to rail against "disposable" pop music in general - taking a few cryptic swipes at the song contest he had just won. His was "a victory for music and for people who make music that actually means something."

Given the political events of the past year, it all gave me a sense of deja vu.

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Italy should win Eurovision 2017, but it won't

Bookies think Francesco Gabbani is the man to bring Eurovision back to Rome for the first time since Italy won with a song about the EU in 1990. But language and performance issues present high hurdles.

With the defeat of far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen in Sunday's French election, Europe breathed a sigh of relief. It's no time to relax just yet, but at least for the rest of the week the continent can turn to more fun diversions. And on that note - Sunday also marked the start of Eurovision week.

Of course, the Eurovision Song Contest isn't the same politics-free distraction it once was. This year's competition is in Kiev, following Ukraine's shock win last year with an unabashedly anti-Russian song. After a viciously clever trap set my Moscow, Russia has pulled out of the 2017 contest. Their absence will be keenly felt this week.

Every year, countries try to emulate the previous year's winner. 2017 has been no exception. To match Jamala's haunting winning song about the Soviet genocide and deportation of Crimean Tatars, we have a whole crop of dark, brooding songs this year about serious subjects. But none match the emotional intensity of Jamala's performance last year.

Sunday, 7 May 2017

Today the dark clouds over Europe parted. Let's fix the roof while the sun is shining.

President Macron represents an opportunity for Europe to save itself. Will it be squandered like so many opportunities before?

When Emmanuel Macron took to the stage tonight for his enormous victory rally outside the Louvre in Paris, he did so with Beethoven's 'Ode to Joy' playing in the background. It was a truly shocking moment, because it is a tune that Europe's national leaders have been running away from for 12 years.

The Ode to Joy is the EU's unofficial anthem - unofficial because its official status was removed from the proposed European constitution after French voters rejected it in 2005. It is still played before sessions of the European Parliament nonetheless. But for national leaders, Beethoven's rousing melody has represented nothing but a headache.

For France's new president, it represents an opportunity.

The enthusiastically pro-EU centrist candidate Macron has handily defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen - a woman who had promised to dismantle the EU. Brussels, and national capitals across Europe, are tonight breathing a sigh of relief.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Le Pen and Trump: politics-as-entertainment

The French presidential debate echoed last year's US debates. Like Trump, LePen laughed while she bullied and mocked her opponent. We are living in an age of clowns.

Last night marked the one and only debate between the two candidates who will participate in Sunday's final round of French presidential elections, far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and centrist internationalist Emmanuel Macron. For me, it had eery similarities to last year's Trump-Clinton debates in the United States.

Donald Trump had a way of getting under his opponents' skin. He would mock them, call them names, and laugh in their face. Marco Rubio was "Little Marco". Ted Cruz was "Lyin' Ted". Hillary Clinton was "Crooked Hillary". He dragged the Republican presidential primary into the mud, as his opponents desperately tried to counter his popularity by sinking to his level. Trump even goaded Rubio, a US Senator, into challenging his penis size.

Monday, 24 April 2017

Europe’s new hope

Emmanuel Macron’s first-place finish in France’s first round of presidential elections was calming for people fearful of the rising nationalist tide. But Le Pen still poses a clear and present danger.

Standing in front of the EU and French flags last night, the man who came first place in France’s first round of presidential elections spoke passionately of a France at the heart of Europe, and part of a global community.

Emmanuel Macron came top in the country’s first round of voting, and is now heading for a run-off with far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen. In an extraordinary development, the two of them have exiled the country’s two mainstream centre-left and centre-right parties from power. And both could significantly change France from the country it has been under those parties’ rule over the past 30 years. “The people of France wanted change so badly…in one year we have entirely changed the French political situation,” he told the crowd.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

There is no such thing as Frexit

You cannot exit something that no longer exists.

I'm in Paris this weekend covering the first round of French presidential elections, a historic contest which will have a profound impact on Europe and the world.

Tomorrow's first round of voting could result in a run-off between a far-left and a far-right candidate, both of whom are hostile to the European Union and have in the past called for France to leave the EU. The latest polls show a race that is anyone's game, and could result in any number of second round combinations across the political spectrum. It is an election like France has never seen, and nobody knows that tomorrow will bring.

A first round win for far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen and far-left communist Jean-Luc Mélenchon would send shock waves throughout the world. It would not only mean the collapse of the mainstream political infrastructure in France. It would put the future of Europe, and of Western liberal democracy as a whole, in terrifying doubt.

Friday, 14 April 2017

It's official - Russia has pulled out of Eurovision

For the first time since the country entered the song contest in 1994, Russia will not broadcast the event. Will they ever come back? Or will they launch their own 'illiberal' Eurovision alternative?

After weeks of protracted negotiations, the organiser of the Eurovision Song Contest announced the news everyone expected: Russia will not participate in this year's competition.

The big question now becomes - will they ever come back?

Eurovision is hugely popular in Russia, and the loss of this significant audience is a big blow to the European Broadcasting Union, the coalition of national broadcasters that stages the contest. What is terrifying for the EBU is the prospect that Russia will now permanently pull out of the contest. 

Russian politicians have been calling for it to do so for years, ever since a bearded drag queen named Conchita Wurst won for Austria in 2014. One Russian MP said the contest had become 'a celebration of perversion', and said Moscow should revive the old Cold War alternative, Intervision, as a family-friendly alternative.

Wednesday, 12 April 2017

Mélenchon would 'renegotiate' Europe and call a referendum after. Sound familiar?

The far-left firebrand's plan to completely overhaul the EU or call a referendum on membership if he doesn't get his way is as naive and dangerous as David Cameron's 2015 gambit.

Two years ago, British Prime Minister David Cameron was running scared.

Faced with unending sniping about the European Union from his backbench MPs, and a UK Independence Party with the wind at their backs (they had finished first in the UK's European Parliament election the year before), Cameron panicked. He promised to 'renegotiate' the terms of Britain's membership of the EU, and then hold an in-out referendum based on the result.


As The Economist wrote earlier this month, it was a solution in search of a problem. Only 5% of British people saw the EU as one of the most important issues facing Britain at the time (more than half see it that way today). It was a move to placate politicians in his own party, not to address any real pressing concern from the public.

Friday, 7 April 2017

Europe's misplaced relief after Trump's Syria strikes

Does Trump's military strike in Syria signal that the American military protectorate over Europe is back? 

Last night at a mixer of policy wonks here in Berlin, I could feel the relief in the air.

The details were still emerging, but we knew at that point that President Trump was launching airstrikes against Bassar Al Assad's forces in Syria in retaliation for a brutal chemical weapons attack against his own people.

"It took some time but he's finally becoming serious," one Berliner told me. "He can say all he wants on the campaign trail but now that he's president he has to live up to American responsibilities."

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

With Brexit looming, time for a Celtic Union?

David Davis says Northern Ireland can opt to stay in the EU by joining with the Republic. So why can't Scotland?

Today British Prime Minister Theresa May took the historic step of requesting a divorce from the European Union. 

It will be remembered as a defining moment in history. Some are predicting it is the beginning of the European Union's disintegration. But others say, perhaps more convincingly, that it signals the start of the British union's disintegration.

Yesterday the Scottish Parliament voted to back First Minister Nicola Sturgeon's call for a new referendum on Scottish independence. The timing was no accident. Sturgeon timed her announcement of the new referendum push earlier this month to be one day before May planned to submit her divorce letter to the EU, upstaging the British PM and forcing her to delay the delivery until today. Scotland is remaining one step ahead of Westminster.

Wednesday, 22 March 2017

Russia just won the Eurovision propaganda war

Ukraine’s decision to ban Russia's Eurovision contestant from entering the country makes Kiev look like the bad guy. Once again, Moscow has outmaneuvered its enemies.

Eurovision, the annual contest in which European nations compete against one another to produce the best song, has been no stranger to political controversies over its 60 years. But nothing compares to what is now unfolding in Kiev.

This year, the song contest has become entangled in today's most controversial and beguiling geopolitical conflict - Russia's 2014 invasion and annexation of Crimea.

The stage was set last May, when Ukrainian contestant Jamala scored a shock win in the 2016 contest with a song about Crimea. It wasn't explicitly about the current conflict. Instead, it was an emotionally intense song about the Soviet Union's mass deportations of Crimean Tatars to Siberia in 1944.

Wednesday, 15 March 2017

Spectres of a Dutch past

Modern Holland sells itself as enlightened and peaceful, but this perception is not shared in Indonesia. Will today’s election return the Dutch to a more brutal era?

I’m flying somewhere over India at the moment, making my way to Amsterdam after a fascinating week on the Indonesian capital island of Java. Once I land in the morning I’ll be spending the day covering the Dutch election, and it’s safe to say the things I saw here on the other side of the world will be shaping my impressions.

The degree to which today’s election will say something about the direction Europe is heading has been a bit overstated in the English-speaking media. Headlines have declared breathlessly that far-right firebrand Geert Wilders is set to “win” the election and bring the Netherlands into the same axis of populism as the UK and US. But it's not quite that.

Thursday, 9 March 2017

Life after the coup

Educated city-dwelling elites in Thailand despised their democratically-elected leader, and many welcomed the country’s 2014 military coup. Are there lessons here for America?

In the centre of Bangkok, at a large roundabout, stands what is perhaps the most ironic monument in Thailand today.

The Democracy Monument, built in 1939 to celebrate the 1932 Siamese revolution which established a constitutional monarchy, attracts few tourists. It is much less of a landmark than its counterpart the Victory Monument not far away, which commemorates the 1941 Thai victory over the French.

As I stand alone below the four solid spikes of the edifice, I see cars and motorbikes wiz by without a glance. Perhaps they are too uncomfortable to look. Thailand has not had a democracy for two years. And if you ask Bangkokians, they’re just fine with that.

Thursday, 2 March 2017

Five paths for the post-Brexit EU27

Wednesday's Commission tract on the EU's future suggests a 'two-speed Europe' is probably the way forward. But wouldn't this just create more chaos and confusion?

Should the European Union separate or federate, or somewhere in between? 

This was the question posed in yesterday's remarkably honest and self-reflective white paper on the future of the EU, published by the union's executive body in preparation for a 'declaration of purpose' to be adopted at a summit in Rome next month by the 27 member states who will remain in the EU after Brexit (if it ever happens, that is).

The paper outlines five scenarios for how the EU should react to the Brexit vote - not in terms of how it should proceed with the divorce negotiations, but whether and how it should change itself to avoid any more member states choosing to leave.

Monday, 20 February 2017

A Canada-EU alliance is forming against a Russia-US-UK axis

Simultaneous visits to the EU by Justin Trudeau and Mike Pence reveal the ideological rift that is rapidly tearing the West apart.

If Mike Pence was expecting a warm welcome in Brussels today, he will have been unpleasantly surprised. The arrival of the US vice-president was greeted with protests from citizens on the streets and scowls from European Union lawmakers, in scenes reminiscent of the 2003 fallout from the Iraq War.

The hostility in the air was all the more palpable when compared to the reception of the Canadian prime minister Justin Trudeau just three days earlier. The European Parliament had Trudeau-mania, and some lawmakers were even seen being moved to tears by Trudeau's call for EU-Canadian unity, as detailed hilariously by Euractiv's James Crisp on Friday:

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Europe's 2017 elections are turning into referendums on Trump

Feelings of nationalism are running strong in France, but anti-Americanism may be stronger.

Three years ago, when a former investment banker named Emmanuel Macron was appointed as interior minister in the French government, nobody had ever heard of him. 

Today, he has come out of nowhere to second place in the French presidential election. It looks increasingly likely that he will be in a head-to-head with French far-right leader Marine Le Pen in May's second round of voting. More than anything else, there is one element that explains his meteoric rise: he is presenting himself as the anti-Trump.

His candidacy comes at a time when many in France, and indeed the entire European continent, are terrified that the French presidency will be snatched by Le Pen's far-right National Front - a party with anti-Semitic routes from the ashes of the Second World War. Were Le Pen to win, it would not only have implications for France. It would probably mean the collapse of the European Union, or at least its transformation into an irrelevance.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Europeans have been lied to their whole lives. They have three months to learn the truth.

European politicians have never explained to their citizens how dependent they are on America. As the Trump emergency unfolds, many still do not understand the danger they are in.

At the tail end of 2016, as Europeans adjusted to the reality that Donald Trump had won the presidential election, I found myself having two very different conversations in Europe.

One was with my Brussels and Berlin friends from what some might derisively term the 'educated elite'. They were scared, talking about what the result meant for Europe and how things on the 'old continent' were about to change.

Then there was the conversation I found myself having with people I just met, or acquaintances - people who don't follow politics or world events very closely. "What do you think about Trump?" they snickered, as if he was entirely my problem and not theirs. They expected a reaction of, "I'm so embarrassed for my country" or "things are going to be bad in my homeland". I've told them the entire global order is about to be thrown into chaos, starting first here in Europe. They stared back at me in confusion. Surely, Trump is America's problem, not Europe's.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

Six things that surprised me about Australia

Happy Australia Day.

I've spent the last month down under, and I just so happen to be departing this country on its national holiday. I'm on a plane now to Bangkok, where I’ll base myself for the next month while travelling around Southeast Asia.

I actually didn’t know this was Australia Day – their version of the Fourth of July - when I booked the ticket. But in the end it didn’t make much difference. From what I observed the holiday doesn’t seem to be a very big deal for Australians, and in fact many people I asked told me they are working today as normal. It was only made a formal public holiday in all states and territories in 1994 (although it had been unofficially observed since 1935). As one Australian told me, throwing in a Mean Girls reference, “the government is always trying to make Australia Day happen. It’s not going to happen”.

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

May's Brexit vision depends on the goodwill of Australians

Brexit Britain will cut itself off from Europe and 'turn to the world'. But does the world want them? In Australia, feelings are ambivalent.

This morning in London, Theresa May will make what is probably the most important speech of her political career.

The British people "voted to leave the European Union and embrace the world" she will say, outlining a vision for the UK to completely cut itself off from the EU and instead focus on rebuilding a globally-focused maritime trading empire. The first focus will be on the countries which share a monarch with Britain - Australia, New Zealand and Canada. 

I've been travelling through Australia for the past two weeks as part of a month-long visit, and I've been asking Australians how they feel about being part of Britain's glorious new trading vision. The reaction has largely been bemusement. But more on that later.

Wednesday, 11 January 2017

If it comes to US vs China, will Trump make Australia choose a side?

Militarily dependent on America but economically dependent on China, Australia could be the biggest loser in a coming trade war.

I'm in the middle of a three-week visit to Australia, currently on a flight to Brisbane after a fascinating week in Sydney. As I expected, as an American I have spent the week fielding confused and exasperated questions about Donald Trump.

The sentiments have largely echoed what I read in last month's 'Dear America, why did you let us down?' New York Times op-ed by Australian doctor Lisa Pryor. "You may not know us, the people beyond your borders, but we know you," she wrote. "And here we Australians are on the edge of Asia, a small and loyal ally of the United States, caught between our strategic alliance with you and our economic future with China. We feel worried, lucky — and alone."