Wednesday, 31 October 2007

The referendum reality

Is Labour calling Cameron's bluff?

Mark Mardell had an excellent post on his BBC Euroblog yesterday on the trouble with all these calls for a referendum on the reform treaty in the UK. Cameron is now being pressed by Labour to promise that if he were prime minister he would call a referendum on the treaty, even if it had been voted through by the House of Commons. Of course Cameron can’t make any such promise because he knows it was idiotic for Labour to promise a referendum on the constitution in the first place because that’s what’s giving them trouble now. Given that he’s making political hay about calling this a “trust” issue, he would be incredibly short-sighted to set himself up for the same trap.

Because you see he can’t put the vote to a referendum either, because no matter which way it turns out it would hurt him as a new prime minister. The assumption is that were the treaty voted on in the UK the result would be ‘no,’ not on the actual merits of the treaty but because the British public is widely sceptical of EU expansion. But if the referendum were to result in a yes, it would look like a political defeat for Cameron right at the start of his leadership (assuming the Conservatives push for a no vote).

Tuesday, 30 October 2007

Sarko storms out of 60 Minutes interview

I couldn't resist posting this video of Sarko walking out of a 60 Minutes interview. Given his notorious temper, I think we're due one of these every few months. I know I'm excited!

Weaving through Wales

This weekend two friends and I took a little road trip to South Wales. It was my first time there so it was a good opportunity to see more of the UK than just London, or even just England. It’s a beautiful landscape, but once again I found myself perplexed by some of the historical curiosities of modern Wales.

On the way to Wales we made a quick stop at Stonehenge, something I’ve been dying to see since I arrived here. The Brits seem to really have something against it. Everyone we talked to told us not to go, or if we’re going to go make sure it’s on the way to somewhere else, because it’s horribly boring. But I thought it was quite interesting. First off there’s the natural appeal of getting a photo of yourself in front of a world-famous landmark. But beyond that it is interesting to actually see this thing you’ve seen so many times in photos up close and personal (or as close as they’ll let you get). It is much smaller than you’d think it was, but I think it’s worth the trip.

We stopped off for a pub lunch in a little English village called Bromham, which was quite charming. Then it was on to Wales, crossing the massive Severn estuary. The water level was shockingly low, which was a preview of the rest of the bodies of water we would encounter in Wales. I don’t know if we just kept encountering these things at low tide, but everywhere we went there was no water but just massive banks of mu

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Forget green, go blue!

The EU unveiled its plans for the union-wide “blue card” yesterday. It’s meant to be modeled on, as well as a competitor to, the US green card. Though the card appears to be a logical solution to the problem of hiring skilled labor, it appears to do little to solve the growing problem of illegal immigration in Europe.

The blue card will be like the American green card in that it will be based on a points system that takes into account job skills, language proficiency and the presence of family in the country already. For example someone with an MBA who speaks English and German would have a better chance of getting one of these cards than someone who doesn’t speak any European language and has no family in the EU.

The measure comes at a time when EU countries are facing a severe skills shortage, particularly in the areas of engineering, healthcare and IT. With the EU population aging rapidly, there is an urgent need to bring new immigrants onto the continent. But the way this has been done so far is considered by many to have been not only ineffective, but detrimental to the societies involved.

Monday, 22 October 2007

The white sheep win in Switzerland

Despite the "foreigner-friendly" win in Poland, the weekend saw a very different election result just a thousand kilometers away in Switzerland. The right-wing Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which has gained infamy in the past few months for running what many see as a blatantly racist ad campaign, won 29% of the vote this weekend and gained seven seats on the National Council. That makes SVP Switzerland’s largest party by a long shot.

Meanwhile Switzerland’s second-largest party, the center-left Social Democrats, had a disastrous weekend. They lost nine seats and had a 4 percent drop on its showing in 2003 elections. The party now has 43 seats on the 200-person National Council compared to the SVP's 62. SVP is led by the populist Christoph Blocher, who is one interesting character, let me tell you.

The news is highly disturbing to many in Europe because the result means that the party’s overtly racist campaign advertising was a huge success. The party had run a series of ads depicting three white sheep grazing on a Swiss flag, kicking a black sheep off of it. The ads were accompanied by the slogan, "for more security.”

Poles go to the polls

It’s official, the right-wing government of the Kaczynski twins in Poland has been toppled. Poles turned up in record numbers in yesterday’s snap election (the highest turnout since the fall of communism in 1989), overwhelming the Polish election authorities and forcing polling stations to be open late into the night. And even before the exit polls were in yesterday, it was clear that the high turnout meant that the twins were in trouble.

The Kaczynski Twins are Jarosław, the prime minister of Poland, and Lech, the president of Poland. They are former child actors (see picture below) who in 2000 created the Law and Justice Party, a far-right, fervently Catholic party that has been running the country for a number of years now. With an absolute lock on power, the twins have pursued an aggressive agenda of going after former communists and alienating their neighbors and allies. During their time in power the twins have managed to irritate just about every other country in Europe, most notably with their comments about Germany and World War II. They’ve also been unfriendly toward the EU, holding up negotiations on the reform treaty by demanding that Poland get more seats in the European Parliament. They've also had an aggressive agenda on 'morality policy'. One Law and Justice minister even wanted to ban the Teletubbie Tinkie Winky from the country because of he is allegedly gay.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Le divorce

Think you’re having a bad day? France’s new president Nicolas Sarkozy is having probably the worst week of his life, dealing concurrently with a massive public transit strike and a divorce. It looks like the end of his marriage has come at the same time as the end of his honeymoon period as president.

The presidential palace announced yesterday that Cécilia Sarkozy and Nicolas have divorced “by mutual consent” At the same time, Sarkozy is dealing with the first major challenge to his attempts to shake up the French social and economic system.

France has ground to a virtual standstill as public sector workers, mainly in transport and electricity, stage a massive strike over a proposed change to their special pension rights. Yesterday’s concurrent strike and divorce announcement is being called "Black Thursday" in France, and will probably come to be known as the day that Sarkozy lost control of the positive news agenda that he’s had since he became president five months ago. Sarkozy’s whole schtick has been his “ironman” persona, a strong, determined and energetic leader that is determined to strong-arm the changes that France desperately needs. But the collapse of his marriage so soon into his presidency, as well as speculation that the marriage actually ended before the election but Sarkozy has been keeping it a secret, will surely make him lose respect with the public.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Lisbon Looming

There's just one day until Brown goes off to Lisbon to endorse (or maybe not endorse) the Lisbon Treaty, and news reports like these should be making some people in Brussels awfully nervous.

Now that the disastrous election fiasco has delivered a firm punch in the jaw to Brown, the Conservatives are eager to continue the momentum and renew demands that he put the treaty endorsement to a referendum. The British tabloid press has also got in on the act.

On its Web site, the British tabloid The Sun has superimposed Brown's face onto a picture of Winston Churchill, turning around Churchill’s tribute to British airmen in World War II, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” into a jibe at Brown, saying, "Never have so few decided so much for so many." The graphic was accompanied by an online poll.

Monday, 15 October 2007

All set for Schengen

We’re getting down to the last months of the year and, surprisingly, we may actually see the Schengen expansion come to pass by year’s end, according to recent reports.

The Schengen Agreement is the system that came into effect in 1995 that got rid of border checks between certain European countries. So now, for instance, when you travel between Germany and France you don’t go through any border check, and when you fly between these countries you don’t have a passport control check point. It was named after Schengen, Germany, where the agreement was signed (there's now a little monument to it there which I've seen, pictured at right).

But, the Schengen membership is different from the EU membership, which makes it rather interesting. The UK and Ireland, for instance, are both in the EU but not part of the Schengen Agreement (they just love that whole ‘island nation’ thing). Norway and Iceland, on the other hand, are not in the EU but are part of the Schengen Zone. So, when I fly from London to anywhere in Europe, I have to go through passport control, which is quite annoying (particularly if you don’t have an EU passport, since they get a separate and shorter line). But if I flew from France to Norway, I would not go through a passport check. Switzerland, which is not part of the EU, is scheduled to join Schengen next year.

Friday, 12 October 2007

The honeymoon is over

Apologies for not writing in my Euroblog for so long, I’ve been in the US for some weddings for two weeks and wasn’t getting much news from the old world. But boy did things change while I was away!

When I left, the party conferences in the UK were in full swing and Gordon Brown was riding high on talks of an early snap election based on his high poll numbers and the conservatives’ chronic infighting. Virtually everyone I know in government was telling me that an election was all but certain. People were being told to cancel their vacations, parliament was hurriedly finishing up legislation, it was a frenetic scene. And Gordon Brown, based on his ‘honeymoon period’ bump and his deft handling of a series of crisies over the summer, was projected to lead Labour to a rousing victory, picking up parliament seats from both Lib Dems and Tories.

While I was home people kept asking me how Gordon Brown has been doing in his first months of office, and I went on and on about how well received he’s been by both the public and the media. It was his stark differences from Tony Blair, I kept stressing, which seem to be his greatest asset. Brown is dull and traditional, and that’s exactly what the public wanted. They had become disillusioned with the “American-style” politics of Tony Blair, which in the end, fairly or not, was characterized as a sleek PR trick, all style and no substance. Brown, at last, was everything a British politician was supposed to be.