Friday, 21 December 2007

Today Eastern Europe wakes to no borders

It’s official. As of this morning you can now drive from the Russian border in Estonia to the Atlantic beaches of Portugal, across 24 countries, without passing through a single border crossing. As of midnight, the 2004 EU entrants are now part of the Schengen Zone, the border-free area that allows you to pass through European countries as easily as if you were going from Indiana to Illinois.

Considering the post-cold war implications of this day (all but one of the 2004 entrants are former Warsaw Pact countries), the scenes last night were dripping with symbolism. As Canada’s Global Mail reports, at the border of Germany and Poland the guards spent yesterday removing kilometres of tall steel fence, leaving unmarked and unguarded fields between them. Fireworks lit up the border bridge between Poland and Germany in Frankfurt on Oder early this morning. On the road between Vienna and Bratislava, Austrian and Slovakian leaders met to saw through border-crossing barriers. And in Estonia, the government put its border-inspection stations up for auction. Perhaps nowhere was the scene more striking than on the Czech-Slovak border, as the countries were split apart just in 1993 and now find themselves without a border between them once again.

Wednesday, 19 December 2007

King steps in to end Belgian crisis

Belgium’s King Albert II has interceded in order to resolve the long-running crisis in Belgium, which has had no government for six months now as the Dutch-speaking north and French-speaking south have been unable to form a coalition government.

An emergency interim government has been formed, which can stay in office for no more than three months. Then the situation may be back to square one.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the whole situation is that for the most part life has gone on as normal while the country has had no government, which has made many Belgians begin to question the point of having a government in the first place. But the situation was starting to affect the economy, and last week the European Commission warned that the political paralysis was beginning to affect Belgium's economy.

For more information on the history of the Belgian crisis you can read my blog entry about it here.

Pan-Europe healthcare plan delayed

Though proposals were expected today on the controversial new plan that would make it easier for patients in Europe to travel to other EU countries to receive healthcare, a European Commission spokesman said this morning the proposals have been put off, citing “agenda reasons.”

The idea behind the plan is that patients should essentially be able to “shop around” Europe for their healthcare, having operations done in countries where the wait time and expertise most suits their needs, and then having their home healthcare system foot the bill. So, for example, a UK resident who needs a surgery but is facing a 4 year wait to do it at an NHS hospital, could travel to France and have the operation done sooner (and maybe better), and then get the NHS to foot the bill.
But the plan has been enormously controversial, and the UK is particularly opposed to it because some fear it will spell the “end of the NHS” because the system would be forced to transition to a more insurance-based continental system.

For this reason the proposals have been hitting consistent delays, being drafted and redrafted, and the proposals today were expected to offer countries like the UK the option to pre-approve such out-of-country treatment and to opt-out. Of course, the proponents of the plan say this would negate the very purpose of it.

Mark Mardell had an interesting package on the BBC last night about a woman who faced a four year wait for gastric bypass surgery in the UK, so she opted to have the operation performed in Belgium where there was no wait for £5,000 (insert joke about the weight difference between continentals and Brits here). He's detailed more about this issue in his Euroblog today.

Tuesday, 18 December 2007

Turkish troops enter Iraq

The AP is reporting that about 300 Turkish troops have crossed into northern Iraq. Ankara hasn’t confirmed the reports but Kurdish officials are saying that Turkish troops entered Iraq overnight and moved up to three kilometres (1.9 miles) inside

The operation follows air raids over the weekend in which Turkish warplanes bombed suspect Kurdish Workers Party (PKK) bases in northern Iraq over the weekend. Iraqi officials say the bombs hit 10 villages.

Today’s development is the first deployment of Turkish troops inside Iraq since Turkey’s parliament voted to allow the military to conduct operations into Iraq to fight the PKK. Ankara has since then assembled up to 100,000 troops near the Iraq border.

Monday, 17 December 2007

The president and the supermodel

There’s something about heads of state dating that’s so exciting! The headline grabbing divorce of French president Nicolas Sarkozy from wife Cecilia meant that Sarkozy became, more or less, “the most powerful bachelor in the world.”

But now it’s looking like that singleness didn’t last very long, as Paris is abuzz today over rumours that Sarko’s new girlfriend is Carla Bruni, the famous Italian model and singer (pictured at right - doesn't Laura Bush have that same outfit?). L’Express reported today that the relationship has been confirmed and nearly all the French glossies are going to run cover stories on it this week.
Given Sarko’s incredibly busy schedule it’s hard to understand how he could possibly have time for all this romancing. But Certain Ideas of Europe noted today with some amusement that apparently the way the couple has chosen to publicize their relationship is through a highly visible visit to – where else – Euro Disneyland. Given the French perception of “Sarko L’American,” that will certainly play a part in the press coverage. Perhaps Sarko just couldn’t resist the irony – debuting your glamorous model girlfriend by taking her on a visit to the tackiest place on earth.

Friday, 14 December 2007

EU hopes to be hero in Kosovo

As we speak the EU is having what will probably be the shortest European Union summit so far, with it having started at ten and due to get out shortly after lunch. Many hope this is a sign that the ‘new EU’ promised by the tightening-up of the reform treaty has arrived. Now that the reform treat has been agreed, the union can get down to business, the argument goes.

For those that want to see an efficient and effective EU, the proposed resolution of today’s meeting is a promising sign as well. The summit is set to agree to offer Serbia a fast track to EU membership in exchange for its acquiescence in Kosovo bid for independence. The agreement would also create an EU police force to protect and stabilize the new country, finally allowing the US-led NATO who have been occupying the country for six years to leave. The draft summit statement says the mission for Kosovo would have up to 1,800 police, judges and prosecutors – making it the largest such mission ever undertaken by the bloc.

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Europe bans kiddie junk food commercials?

Well…kind of. Actually a consortium of the world’s largest food makers have voluntarily, in response to pending action by the EU commission, agreed to stop advertising unhealthy food during children’s television programs by the end of next year throughout Europe. Seriously, no joke. That means no more Coco Crispies or Count Chocula ads during Power Rangers.

In a joint statement 11 companies, which together account for more than 2/3 of cash spent each year on food and beverage advertising in the EU, agreed to stop advertising unhealthy food and beverages on television programs, Web sites or in print media where children under age 12 could be considered a target audience.

They also agreed not to engage in any commercial communications related to food and beverages in primary schools, unless part of a specifically requested educational program.

These are no small-fry companies either. They include Coca-Cola, Groupe Danone (Danon), Burger King, General Mills, Kellogg, Kraft Foods, Mars, Nestlé, PepsiCo, Ferrero and Unilever.

At some point in the next year the companies will set a “high nutritional hurdle” which foods will have to meet in order to be advertised during children’s programming.

It’s important to point out that this new policy will apply only to EUROPE, because that is where the regulatory threat was coming from. Since there’s no such regulatory threat in the US, fat American toddlers will still be transfixed by a magical little leprechaun running off with their lucky charms. USA! USA!

Brown ashamed of Europe?

I'm starting to view Gordon Brown with some "Britoscepticism."

Throughout all the troubles of the past few months, the British media have been picking on Brown and labeling him a 'ditherer'. With each unfolding embarrassment, it seemed there was a plausible defense for Brown. When the elections fiasco happened, it could be argued that Brown hadn’t “intended to call an election and then chickened out,’ but had rather failed to squash unprovoked rumors of an election early enough. When the Northern Rock bank run and bailout happened, many, such as the ECB, believed that the government stepping in was probably the best option. When the government lost the identity records of thousands of people in the second largest data loss in history, one could say it would be foolish to blame Brown because he had nothing to do with it. And as the controversy over “dodgy donations” has unfolded, with new stories of Labour improperly accepting campaign money unfolding every day, it seemed that the only reason this was a story was because Labour had put those campaign finance laws into effect in the first place and these were the inevitable growing pains as the system figures itself out.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

'Permalancers' walk out in US

There was an interesting article in the New York Times today about the "permalancing" concept so popular in the US which I wrote about in my blog entry last week about the new EU protections for temp workers. "Permalancers" are people who work regular full-time hours, but are classified as "freelancers" by their company so they don't have to give them benefits.

Yesterday a large number of freelancers at MTV networks walked off the job to protest the company's cuts to healthcare benefits for the 'permalancers.' The permalancers already have an extreemly low level of healthcare coverage and the new cuts whittle them down to almost nothing.

I have a number of friends who work for MTV as 'freelancers,' one friend has worked there full time under thsi status for 4 years. But they're all tucked away with visions of sugar plums dancing in their head right now so I can't ask if they took part in the walkout. But what's really interesting about this is that it seems to be the first instance of people working udner this status undertaking collective action.

Incidentally, no MTV office in Europe has anything even resembling the "permalancers" system, I'm told.

Friday, 7 December 2007

Secular society in the UK

As an American living in the UK, people often ask me what some of the biggest differences are between living in the two countries. Always eager to please, I usually list the positive differences first. For instance, for me, quality of life here is better. Music is more to my taste. Nearby places to travel are more interesting and London is more international than New York City. And of course, free healthcare!

But beyond all these things, there’s been an underlying difference which I wasn’t able to really put into words until recently. And it's historically one of the biggest differences two societies can have between one another: religion.

As an Atheist, I feel much freer to express my religious beliefs in the UK than I ever did in the US. In America, I usually felt that I had to keep my religious affiliation to myself, and I knew few others who also openly identified as atheists. Here in the UK, most people I know identify as atheists. For me, it means I feel a greater degree of religious freedom in the UK.

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Europe’s temps set for full benefits

It looks like the UK is going to lose the battle in Brussels over a new law that would give temporary workers the same rights as full-time staff.

A government source told The Times today that the issue is being linked in with the working-time directive restricting employees’ hours, and that given the fact that only four EU countries oppose the measure as a whole, Britain will be forced to accept the change under qualified-majority voting rules at a council of ministers meeting tomorrow.

Business interests in the UK have been vocally against the measure, saying that the law could force companies to get rid of as many as 250,000 jobs if they were forced to give full benefits to their temporary employees. However British unions have been busily debunking this argument and have been pressuring the government to drop its opposition to the changes.

Monday, 3 December 2007

Europe gets its own GPS

After much hand-wringing and negotiation, the EU has finally agreed on a framework to go ahead with the ‘Galileo’ program, a $5 billion satellite navigation system which it says will give it “strategic independence” from the US.

Friday in Brussels ministers announced that work on the system, which is designed to rival the US-owned Global Positioning System (GPS), will finally begin after five years of delay. The announcement caught some off guard because many had assumed the project was dead on arrival. According to the ministers, the system will be operational by 2013.

The decision is important for a few reasons. The fact that GPS, which is the only satellite navigation system now available to consumers, businesses, militaries or governments, is controlled by the US government meant that the US can deny other country’s access to it at any time. As the world’s militaries have become more and more reliant upon global positioning, the potential problems of this system being owned and run by the US military have become glaringly obvious.