Wednesday, 30 April 2008

Serbia gets a deal

Despite many assertions that it would never happen, the much-discussed deal between the European Union and Serbia to fast-track its membership in the union has come to pass. Yesterday the EU signed a pre-membership pact with Belgrade that would enhance trade and cooperation and speed the process by which Serbia could eventually join the union.

The timing of the agreement is no accident. The deal was rushed through in Brussels ahead of a new round of elections happening in Serbia in two weeks. The EU is desperate to avoid a defeat of the pro-Western party by the Nationalist party, and the agreement is meant to be a signal to Serbian voters that if the country cooperates, it will be rewarded with EU membership.

Serbia today is town between adopting a pro-EU path or spurning the union and aligning itself with Moscow. The presidential election in February saw the moderate pro-EU candidate Boris Tadic narrowly defeat his nationalist, pro-Moscow rival Tomislav Nikolic. But the president is a largely symbolic post, and the real test will be in the general election on May 11, when the country will decide which bloc it wants to put in power.

Tuesday, 29 April 2008

The incest imprisonment: why Austria?

Across the world the media is in breathless shock over the extraordinary case of an Austrian man who kept his daughter imprisoned in his basement for 24 years, fathering 7 secret children with her. The attention is not surprising, this is a truly bizarre story. But what does it all mean for Austria, especially considering this is the third such instance in just two years?

To recap, Josef Fritzel, a 73 year old retired engineer in the town of Amstetten in Austria, has confessed to drugging his daughter Elisabeth at the age of 18, imprisoning her in his windowless basement, and then keeping her and the subsequent children he fathered with her chained in this secret lair for 24 years. The story is so complex the news broadcasts on the subject have had to use charts to explain the various players in it.

Apparently Elisabeth’s mother, Rosemarie Fritzel, had no idea about any of this, Mr. Fritzel having told her in 1984 that Elisabeth had run away and joined a cult. Over the next two decades Fritzel had seven children with his captive daughter, three of whom he kept locked in the basement with her. Extraordinarily, the other three he brought to the surface, raising them in the main house as normal children. Fritzel told his wife they had been left at the doorstep by Elisabeth, with a note saying she couldn’t take care of them.

Monday, 28 April 2008

Auf wiedersehen tempelhof

Berlin's historic Tempelhof Airport, which has been on death row for awhile now, has finally run out of appeals. The airport, which was the site of the Berlin airlift of 1948-49, is slated to be shut down to make room for the desperately needed intercontinental airport being built. Though a grass roots campaign had been formed to save the airport because of its historical claims to fame, a referendum vote yesterday in Berlin failed to save it, because not enough Berliners turned up. The referendum didn't receive enough turnout to make it valid, evne though the people who did show up voted by a ratio of 3 to 2 to block the airport's closure.

Other than the airlift, the airport has some other claims to fame. Orville Wright tested one of his flying machines on the grounds, and Adolf Hitler later built the largest building in Europe there (which has curiously caused the Israeli press to dub it "Hitler's Airport").

Friday, 25 April 2008

London election: more than just a mayor

The big London mayor election is less than a week away now, and the whole of the UK seems to be  focused on the event. But the race between the current Labour mayor Ken Livingstone and his Conservative challenger Boris Johnson is receiving so much attention not only because polls show them neck-in-neck, but also because the result will be a harbinger of what may come when prime minister Gordon Brown finally has to call a general election.

It is quite different to be in a country that essentially only has one major global city. It would be hard to imagine any city’s mayoral election in the US attracting national attention, even New York’s. In fact the Mayorship of the US capital, Washington DC, is one of the more irrelevant positions because DC is technically run by congress.

But the London Mayor is without a doubt the most powerful directly elected position in the UK (since the prime minister is not directly elected but rather chosen by his or her party). Amazingly, the position was just created in 2000, and Ken Livingstone has held the title since its creation, and he has largely shaped its definitions and parameters.

Wednesday, 16 April 2008

Obama and elitism: a view from the UK

As the whole ‘bitter’ flap continues to engulf the US presidential election, I thought it might be interesting to provide some insight into what the controversy looks like from across the Atlantic.

To review, last weekend Barack Obama answered a questioner at a “closed-door private fundraiser in San Francisco” (a detail both Clinton and McCain have managed to describe in the past week as if it were akin to a puppy-killing festival) who asked him why he’s had a hard time winning over white blue collar Democrats. Speaking off the cuff, he said:

“You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing's replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton administration, and the Bush administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate, and they have not. So it's not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns, or religion, or antipathy to people who aren't like them, or anti-immigrant sentiment, or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations."

Tuesday, 15 April 2008

Berlusconi back on top

It’s official, Silvio Berlusconi is back in power in Italy after a significant victory in the country’s election Sunday and Monday.

The return of a former leader who was only ousted two years ago may not seem like a watershed moment, but the voting patterns were significant and could (I emphasize could) bring significant change down the line. In a country known for a vast menagerie of various parties making up its parliament, voters for the most part stuck with just the two big party formations in this election: Berlusconi’s People of Freedom (PDL) and Veltroni’s newly-formed Democratic Party (PD). More than eight in 10 voters backed one or the other, and in the end the elections put only five separate parties into the parliament.

Thursday, 10 April 2008

Italian election looming

There’s just three days to go until the big Italian election. As someone who is (hopefully) becoming a citizen of that country in a few months, I’ve been taking a keen interest. But it isn't just me. All the capitals of Europe are looking to Rome apprehensively, wondering if Italy is ever going to fix its government problem.

Let’s not mince words, the country’s political system is a mess. Since World War II it has seen a revolving door of governments that continually collapse and reshape. In its first 50 years of democracy Italy had 50 different governments. In fact the controversial conservative leader Silvio Berlusconi, who served as prime minister for five years before the current Prime Minister Romano Prodi unseated him in 2006, was the longest-serving Italian prime minister ever. Now Prodi’s fractious alliance between the center and far left has fallen apart in typical Italian fashion, the government was dissolved when the communists walked out and a new election was called.

Now Berlusconi is polling as much as nine points ahead, and Europe is bracing itself for another period of hard-handed rule by the media tycoon, who many people see as a bombastic demagogue. Disliked as he may be, many Italians now see him as the only solution to Italy’s chaos. But while he might bring stability, it would be hard to argue he will bring progress. His reign was marred by media censorship, economic stagnation and corruption scandals. Under his leadership Italy’s debt grew ever higher than its GDP and the promises of economic improvement he had made failed to materialize. However during the brief Prime Ministership of Romano Prodi, Italy's budget-deficit-to-GDP ratio fell from 4.4 percent in to 2.4 percent.

Wednesday, 9 April 2008

Finally, the chunnel turns a profit

Here’s an interesting item from Euronews today. It seems that at long last the chunnel has turned a profit! Eurotunnel, the operator of the underwater train tunnel linking Britain to continental Europe, has made a profit for the first time since it opened in 1994.

Back then the cost of building the tunnel ran so over budget that the company has been paying off the massive debt ever since. And of course they were not helped by the fact that at the same time there was an explosion of budget airlines taking people from London to the continent for next to nothing. Ridership didn’t meet expectations, and over the past few years it looked like the company was headed for bankruptcy. It lost €204 million in 2006 and €2.8 billion in 2005.

It was a daunting task to turn it around but somehow they seem to have done it. Chief executive Jacques Gounon has managed to strictly cut operating costs and complete a financial restructuring that has lowered the company’s level of debt and therefore its interest payments.

Tuesday, 8 April 2008

Skiing in Tyrol

Last week I went on a ski trip to the Austrian Alps. Yes I know, I feel as if I’ve been on a bit of Alps overload over the past year. I’ve now driven through them in four different countries and just the previous weekend I had taken a train through the Goddard Pass to Venice. This was supposed to be the year of Southern Europe!

We started our journey by flying to Munich, another place I’ve been way too many times. It’s a beautiful city though, I must admit, though I still find Bavarians a little off-putting. We spent one night in the city and then drove our rental car down to Sőlden, the resort in the Ötz valley where we skied. On the way we stopped at Neuschwanstein Castle, the fairy tale palace built by mad King Ludwig, the second to last king of Bavaria, in the mid 19th century.

Monday, 7 April 2008

Poll: Merkel most influential European leader

An interesting EU-wide poll came out today that will have big implications for who is chosen as the first so-called “President of Europe.”

The poll, conducted by Harris Interactive among adults in the largest EU countries, found that overwhelmingly most European citizens consider German Chancellor Angela Merkel to be the most influential leader in Europe.

Perhaps the most interesting take-away from the poll is how much better she scored than her closest rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, in his own country. Though Sarkozy has ambitious plans for reforming and strengthening Europe, only 18 percent of French people consider him to be the most influential European leader, while a whopping 38 percent would give that moniker to Merkel. A full 68 percent of the French regard Germany as the leading county of Europe today. With relations between Merkel and Sarkozy notoriously cold, the poll can hardly be encouraging news for the ambitious French leader.