Tuesday, 30 June 2009

EU Takes a (Half-Hearted) Stand on Smoking Bans

Throughout my travels around Europe one of my favourite things to do is observe the differences between countries – and if you’re someone who enjoys a drink or two, many of those observable differences can often be found at bars.

From the availability of beer versus wine to the size of drinks to the closing times, bars can be a great place to see the particular cultural quirks of a society play out. In recent years one area of difference has become increasingly pronounced – who and who does not have a smoking ban. It's a blisteringly confusing patchwork of laws.

Today, the EU announced a move to ban smoking in enclosed spaces across the EU. But as we say in the US, Brussels seems to have shown up a day late and a dollar short.

Monday, 29 June 2009

Say hello to the standard EU phone charger

The European Union has reached an agreement with mobile phone makers today to create a standardized phone charger that will work across all models and brands. The agreement was reached after the EU told the phone companies that it did not reach a voluntary accord it would force their hand with legislation. And as the phone companies learned from the roaming rate cap battle, Brussels is willing to put its money where its mouth is when it comes to telecommunications.

Starting next year, new mobile phones will come with the same electrical input socket, mini USB, and they will all come with the same charger (with different prongs for the British Isles and the continent of course). MEPs noted that the new system would make it easier to use someone else’s charger if you’ve forgotten your own, with consumers no longer having to hunt around for a charger that matches the make of their phone.

Commissioner Verheugen demonstrated that difficulty at today's press conference, although perhaps with a bit of exageration!

Of course the main purpose of the change is environmental. Allowing consumers to reuse their old charger with a new phone will cut back on electrical waste

The agreement was reached with Apple, LG, Motorola, Nokia, Samsung, and Sony Ericsson, which together make up 90% of the EU phone market. Since most of these companies also design phones in the US and the rest of the world, I would assume that this standardization will eventually spread to the rest of the world. After all, why would they make phones with different electrical input jacks specifically for Europe?

While this change probably won’t have a huge impact on anyone’s life, it is interesting to note how quickly the companies responded to the EU’s threat of legislation. It’s clear that in the area of consumer rights, companies have learned a lesson from the roaming rate cap debate. From now on when the EU threatens to use legislation for force a consumer rights issue, companies may quickly decide it’s better to each a voluntary agreement than to dig in their heels and resist, only to be forced to change by legislation later on.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Tories Form “Anti-EU” EU Party

Well he’s gone ahead and done it. David Cameron has made good on his leadership contest pledge four years ago to leave the mainstream centre-right party in the European Parliament and form a new anti-federalist minority party, the “European Conservatives and Reformists” group. Considering the big impact this will have on the UK’s influence in the EU, I’ve been shocked (and frankly a bit disgusted) by the barely perceptible amount of coverage yesterday’s announcement received in the British media.

The new block will be the fourth largest in the parliament, which sounds big until you realize that the parliament is made up of three main blocks (the conservatives, the socialists, and the liberals) and then a whole lot of side parties. Really, it’s a bit like bragging that the Democratic Unionist party is the fourth largest block in the British House of Commons, both in terms of size and influence. Ideologically it would be more like the 7th largest Commons party Sinn Fein actually, considering the Tory MEPs apparently don’t think their constituents should be part of the EU in the same way Sinn Fein doesn’t believe their constituents should be part of the UK.

The Tories’ allies in the party are a ragtag group of mostly Eastern European far-right parties including Poland’s PIS and the Czech Republic’s ODS, but the Tories are the overwhelming majority in the party (they needed to join with MEPs from at least 8 member states to form a Brussels party, and they met the bare minimum). Leaving the EPP, which is currently the largest party in the parliament and is also the party of the Commission President (the most powerful position in the EU), will mean a huge loss of power for the UK in shaping EU policy. Tory MEPs will lose all of the committee seats they had held by virtue of being part of the largest bloc, and as members of a small party they will be unlikely to be chosen as rapporteurs – the people who escort legislation through the parliament and shape the changes the parliament will make. This defection, along with the increased seats for the UK Independence Party and the two new seats for the BNP, means the UK will effectively not be using 30 of its 72 seats.

I nearly spit out my drink last night when I saw the way Channel 4 News mentioned the official formation of the party. It was literally the last item in their quick news roundup, a 10 second sentence tossed in as a seeming afterthought. It was the same on the BBC, and this is after the British media basically completely ignored the issue during the run-up to the Parliament election. Newsnight was the only show I saw that gave the issue more than passing lip service, and that was only in a roughly two minute interview with a correspondent in Brussels.

To the extent that today’s papers have covered the development at all, they’ve tended to focus on salacious details about the unsavoury characters the Tories have chosen to align themselves with, Both the Daily Mail and the Guardian devoted most of their articles to this aspect, rather than on the loss of influence for the UK in Brussels. The Financial Times was the only paper I saw that focused on the loss-of-influence angle, quoting Labour party officials as saying the Tories have ‘moved to extremism in allying with the extreme right’. The FT quotes foreign secretary David Miliband as saying Cameron has throw away influence in Europe "in favour of ideological isolationism".

What’s Next for the ECR?

So what was the point of this move? It’s hard to tell what productive purpose this could possibly serve other than scoring political points back home, tapping into the ever-popular Europhobia in Britain. The stated reasoning is that the EPP was too federalist in its attitude, and the Tories wanted to form a new party to oppose moves that would give Brussels any more power, and advance moves that would give power back to the individual member states. That’s all well and good except for the fact that the parliament has very little to do with such issues. The parliament doesn’t make legislation, it merely approves it. It is in the Commission, the EU’s executive branch, where law is made. And it is in the Commission where any decisions about the makeup, membership or structure of the EU are taken. So there’s really very little a minority party could hope to achieve in the parliament in terms of “opposing federalism”.

The Tories argue, however, that losing British influence in the short term is worth the sacrifice if in the long term they can eventually form a viable, strong anti-federalist party that could put the kibosh on Commission attempts to further integrate and harmonize EU law. While this could be true, with the way the parliament works their little party would have to grow exponentially in order to have that kind of influence, and with their lack of interest in Europe it’s hard to see the Tories grabbing the bull by the horns for that project. It’s strange that a national party that is not very interested in Europe and indeed quite internally divided by the subject would choose to take on this quite ambitious project of “reforming” the EU.

And perhaps therein lies the problem with British euroscepticism. So much of what the UK does to resist EU federalism are empty gestures, symbolic grumblings of discontent that do nothing to advance British interests and instead shut the Brits out of influence in Brussels. They are quite simply cutting off their nose to spite their face.

It will be interesting to observe where this drama goes from here, though after months of following this subject I suspect this is the end of the story rather than the beginning. The Tories are unlikely to take much of an interest in this new party they’ve formed, and it will probably sit in the back of the parliament somewhere in stagnation, all but forgotten by the rest of Brussels. A few of the Tory MEPs will probably stop showing up to vote at all now that their position in the parliament has been so substantially weakened.

Who knows, I could be wrong. The far-right fascist parties that were given seats across Europe have given indications that they would like to join, which would not only increase the size of the party but also spice it up a bit. But the Tories are almost certain not to let them in - and why would they, when they already got their requisite number of foreign MEPs from eight countries? I suspect the end goal here was really just to form a party, not for the party to actually accomplish anything.

Saturday, 20 June 2009

Saving the Earth Dutch Style

This week I was in Holland, being shuttled around the country on a press tour showing journalists various environmental projects. I know it’s almost cliché to say this at this point, but coming from the Anglo-Saxon world I couldn’t help but feel a bit ashamed at how much further along countries like the Netherlands are in developing sustainable solutions to climate change. Many of these solutions have been being developed since long before climate change became a prominent issue, and people have largely gotten used to the adjustments they’ve had to make to their daily lives. One example was this houseboat, pictured right.

The other journalists on this tour were an interesting mix, coming within Europe from Brussels, Germany, Denmark, Spain and the Czech Republic as well as further afield from China, India, Brazil and South Africa. It was interesting to hear everyone’s comparisons with what’s going on in their home countries, particularly the developing BRIC countries.

There were also interesting comparisons we could make between countries in the EU, particularly with Denmark and Germany which are also quite far along in developing sustainability projects. One funny detail was that many of the Dutch presenters for the projects would wistfully say that what they have might be good, but it’s nothing compared to what they have in Germany. This made my German colleague laugh, because in Germany apparently they always think of Dutch as having the height of green achievement. Two such modest peoples!

One of the more interesting sites we visited was energy-from-waste incineration plant in Amsterdam called the Waste and Energy Company, a public utility.

Having never seen a trash incineration plant before, I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. But I had plenty of pre-conceived notions about massive industrial plants spewing out plumes of noxious gas they torch piles of needless human waste. When our bus pulled up it looked like this was going to be the reality, as we could immediately see two giant smokestacks pouring white smoke into the air. However once inside and given a tour, I was surprised by many of the things I learned about the plant. The facility, which processes over 1.4 million tonnes of municipal and industrial waste annually, is actually the largest waste processor at a single location in the world. Two freight trains and 600 garbage trucks deliver trash to the facility each day.

Gross right? But astonishingly, the facility is able to recycle nearly 99% of the waste it receives. It does so by using the heat produced from burning the garbage to generate energy, much like a coal plant burns coal to produce energy. The facility produces 1 million MWh of electricity per year, enough to cover three quarters of Amsterdam households. All of Amsterdam’s public transportation is powered from the plant, as well as all street lights. The plant also uses the excess hear generated during the burning to provide businesses and homes with heat and hot water. Thus two environmental issues are solved: what to do with garbage and how to create energy without using finite resources like oil, coal and gas.

That’s all well and good, you may say, but what about the toxic emissions that are produced from the burning process? Well the AEB plant has devised a way to treat this. During the burning process, the steam (which drives the turbine) is separated from the smoke, and the smoke is then extensively filtered through flue-gas cleaning, which actually takes up 2/3 of the whole plant! By a process of separation, new materials are extracted from the gas. The sulphur recovered is used for the production of plaster board and blocks for the building industry, and the calcium chloride extracted can be used to defrost roads in winter. And the metal waste that can’t be burned is extracted, ground into bottom ash, and made into artificial sand for use in the construction of roads and buildings. In the end 99% of the impurities are filtered out. That smoke I saw coming out of the building? Only water vapour.

Still, energy-from-waste plants remain highly controversial. Many argue that although they do reduce CO2 emissions, they provide perverse incentive for governments to do nothing about the amount of waste generated by their societies. Additionally, such plants will always generate some pollution and the facilities can also be dangerous if there are accidents. Green groups in the UK have been particularly aggressive in opposing such plants, defeating plans for them in every council that has considered it.

Another interesting site we visited was a house outside of Amersfoort which generated its own energy. Apparently this has been increasingly done with new home construction in the Netherlands, as the government has started a feed-in program where homes that generate excess electricity can give it to the power grid and be paid for it. With this particular home, the solar panels and wind turbine on the roof generate more electricity than the house needs during the day, so that electricity is sold to the state and put into the wider grid. At night, when the sun is down, the house buys electricity from the grid, but it buys less electricity than it sells during the day so the homeowner actually makes a profit. The house also has many other energy-savings tricks including a special type of insulation made of Styrofoam (pictured left). But at the same time it looks like any other house, with a typical 1930's boxy Netherlands design (pictured above).

All in all it was an interesting trip. It was especially interesting talking to all the other journalists, especially the ones from Brussels. It actually made me excited for my move there in the Autumn. This weekend I'm in Zurich, Sunday is Father's Day in the US and UK so I thought I'd come here for it. I'm basically living at Heathrow Airport these days! After this I have a few straight weeks in the UK though. Well, at least 2 weeks. Hopefully we'll get some sunshine in London finally.

Monday, 15 June 2009

Prince-on-Prince Contact

In a shock turn of events, it was revealed on Friday that Prince Charles has been successful in his bid to stop the Qataris from constructing modernist apartment blocks on the site of the old Chelsea Barracks, which is across the street from my flat. As you can imagine my flatmate, who has been intimately involved with the negotiations between our building’s residents and the Qataris, is none too pleased that the concessions he’s worked for two years to get have now gone up in smoke.

So what did it take for Qatari Diar (a real estate firm owned by the Qatari royal family) to abandon their planned development, designed by one of the worlds most prominent architects for a site that they purchased in the most expensive land transaction in British history? From the looks of it, it was a little princely camaraderie. The decision follows communication between Prince Charles and the Emir of Qatar in which the Prince of Wales asked him to stop the modernist development and instead start over with a more classic, traditional design.

So is this really the result of some royal influence, or is the royal contact angle just an over dramatisation by the British press? Right now it’s a bit unclear. As I wrote about in my previous post on this topic, the letter my flatmate received from the prince last month seemed to indicate that he probably didn’t want to see his royal name too associated with this mess - an effort that, judging from the headlines on Friday, clearly failed. One can easily see why he wanted to avoid it though. The heir apparent has been the target of considerable anger following this news, particularly from architects who say he should stop his “meddling”.

However the fact is that Charles was not really the driving force behind the opposition to this plan. The resistance was led by a proactive and energetic residents association (one that my building wasn’t a part of). It was that group, the Chelsea Barracks Action Group, that commissioned the ‘alternative’ Chelsea Barracks blueprint by traditional architect Quinlan Terry that much of the media has presented as being the brainchild of the prince (the one on the right in the above photo, compared to the planned design on the left). The prince, in fact, was really just peripherally involved in this whole dispute, from the looks of it. This was really a victory for CBAG chairwoman Georgie Thorburn, who has pursued this issue with almost messianic zeal over the past year.

But as peripheral as his involvement may have been, was Prince Charles the factor that tipped this in CBAG’s favour in the end? We’ll probably never know, as the intimate chats between royalty aren’t usually public knowledge, especially in Arabia! But what is for certain now is that the Chelsea Barracks site is back to the drawing board, and will continue to lie as a giant pit in the middle of posh Chelsea, with its two abandoned high-rise barrack dorms sticking up like rotting teeth. Not so great for the neighborhood’s aesthetic, but hey, at least I’m not going to be woken up by construction equipment in the morning any time soon!

Incidentally I’m in Amsterdam this week for work, on a press tour of some environmental projects throughout Holland. I’ll try to write a little bit about some of the things I’ve seen later in the week.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Euroelection: BNP Overshadows the Real Story

Europe’s centre-left is licking its wounds this week after the European Parliament vote, and nowhere is the pain being felt more acutely than by Labour in Britain. But perhaps the larger significance of the poll results for this island nation, which the British media have so far failed to pick up on, is the fact that the British will not be using 60% of their potential voting power in the new European Parliament.

Anti-EU parties did enormously well in Britain’s European Parliament vote. The UK Independence Party, which believes that Britain should secede from the EU, got 16.5% of the vote, beating Labour and coming in second with 13 seats. With the far-right British National Party – which also wants to exit the EU – gaining two seats, Britain will be sending 15 MEPs to represent them in the European Parliament who don’t believe the institution should exist at all. And of course “sending” is perhaps a misleading term here, since all 15 of these MEPs are unlikely to ever show up in Brussels to cast a vote, preferring to remain in Britain in protest.

Yesterday I was at a sustainability conference in London’s Docklands, and was listening to an opening speech given by Tory MEP Caroline Jackson, who represents Britain’s Southwest region. She said she was dismayed that British voters had chosen to waste 15 of their seats in parliament. Those 15 seats which will remain conspicuously empty for the next five years, as the British people have elected them in based on an issue that has absolutely nothing to do with the European Parliament, which decides neither which countries are in the EU nor the makeup and structure of the union.

Jackson went on to point out that with the departure of the Tories from the main centre-right group European People’s Party (EPP), the reality was that the UK has now effectively relinquished 30 out of its 72 seats.

Fulfilling a pledge he made back when he was campaigning for the Conservative Party’s leadership, David Cameron is taking the Tories out of the EPP, the largest block in the European Parliament with all the continent’s centre-right parties – including those of Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy – saying that the block is too federalist. He is instead trying to form a new Eurosceptic party, finding strange far-right allies from Eastern Europe to join him. Jackson, who has decided to leave the parliament after this term, could barely conceal her disdain as she listed these parties, which include the Czech Republic’s ODS (which she pronounced o-di-ous) and Poland’s PIS (which she refrained from making into a word). “Rather unfortunate acronyms” she observed dryly.

“It’s a sad moment for me, as a Conservative, to find that the Conservatives have put themselves in this bottom group, leading effectively nowhere,” she said. She isn’t alone in this observation. Many Tory MEPs have pointed out that this decision will put the Conservatives on the fringes of Europe, with no influence in the parliament and shut out of decision-making. If they had stayed in the EPP, the Conservatives would have been one of the largest parties in the EP’s largest block. It would have been a powerful position in an increasingly powerful body within the EU, which now controls the majority of British policy in the areas of environment, agriculture and trade.

As it stands, the second-largest country in the EU will have just 42 real usable seats in the European parliament (minus 30 wasted seats), compared to Germany’s 99 effective seats and France’s 68 (minus their 4 wasted seats from fringe parties). While the rest of mainstream Europe is fully engaged in the EU as it works to solve problems that cannot be solved nationally - such as climate change, terrorism and the financial crisis – Britain will have taken its toys and gone home. They’ll remain part of the EU, governed by its laws, but refusing to actively take part in shaping its policy.
The Tories are now going to lose most of their ranking seats on the parliament's committees. Representatives of British industry and NGOs will now have few MEP to go to to influence EU policy in Britain's favour. Essentially, the UK has cut off its nose to spite its face. Many in Brussels are scratching their heads at what could motivate what they see as an idiotic, irresponsible decision.

Far-Right Ascendance in Britain

However the fact remains that a vast swathe of the British people have yet to be convinced that the EU serves any purpose, and they see no reason why the UK can’t single-handedly solve these large problems all on its own. And there is a growing segment of the country that believes the “British race” would also be better off on its own.

The British Media hasn’t taken much notice of the diminished influence the UK now has in the parliament. They’ve instead focused on the fact that the British National Party, the far-right group that doesn’t allow non-whites as members and espouses the ideas of Adolph Hitler, won two MEP seats. The victories, which were won in the North of England, have caused alarm and revulsion across the UK. When notorious BNP leader Nick Griffin tried to hold an impromptu victory press conference outside the houses of Parliament yesterday he was confronted by a group of anti-fascist protestors who pelted him with eggs. The anti-fascist group says they will trail the far-right leader wherever he goes to remind the public of his extreme racist views, but the reality is such protests will probably bring him more attention than having the seat will.

Of course Britain won’t be the first EU country sending far-right MEPs to Brussels. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s Front National has long been sending elected members to the body, and there are far-right MEPs from Eastern Europe that have called for the mass deportation of Roma (gypsies). But this is the first time that Britain, the mother of all Democracies, has sent a fascist representative to Europe. In fact, this is the first high office that the BNP has been elected to (so far they’ve only managed to get seats on local town councils), and without a doubt it gives them some legitimacy (if not any actual power since they’re unlikely to ever make a trip to Brussels to cast a vote, lest they mix with the foreigns).

Such a win for the BNP does great damage to the nation’s psyche because it challenges many of the narratives the British people have for themselves. Most British people forget that there was significant fascist movement here during the 1930’s that in the end was unable to wrest power. The sad reality is that this win means the BNP is now a bit player in British Politics that isn’t going away, but they are unlikely to become a significance force with anywhere near the reach of Oswald Mosley’s fascists of the ‘30s.

The British people’s attitude about the irrelevance of the European Parliament has enabled two fascists to sneak into their representation in Brussels. In the long-run, the more important consequence of that will be the European disengagement and isolationism that one day Britain may look back on and regret if it finds itself alone and irrelevant in the 21st century. “And all we were talking about was the bloody BNP,” they may remark with a larf.

Tuesday, 9 June 2009

Europe Goes Conservative in Crisis

If you heard a soft whimpering sound Sunday night, it was likely the sad echoes of Europe's left sobbing into their beers. All across the continent, with only the exception of Greece and Slovakia, Europe's Democratic Socialists were dealt crushing blows in the European Parliament election, whether they were the ruling party or the opposition.

Considering this result has come at a time when a majority of Europeans want to see more state action in the economy and people are reeling with anger against "fat cat capitalists", the result has left Europe's socialists scratching their heads, wondering what to do next. Though there is a mood of public anger across the EU, the ruling conservative governments in Germany, France, Italy and Poland didn't see their parties punished at the polls, in fact some of them even gained seats. On the other hand, the governing socialists in Spain, Hungary and Britain all took a drubbing at the polls. The Party of European Socialists (the block of various centre-left parties in the European Parliament that includes Britain's Labour, France's Socialists and Germany's Social Democrats) lost 20 seats.

I watched the election results while in Berlin this weekend, and I can tell you that even though the Social Democrats knew they weren't going to do great, the sheer margin between them and Angela Merkel's Christian Democrats was highly depressing for them, since it now seems certain she will no longer need to ally with them after the general election in Germany in the Fall. Sarkozy's UMP also easily defeated his socialist rivals, gaining 13 seats to put the UMP representation in the European parliament over the French socialist contingent for the first time ever. In Britain Labour received its lowest vote in the history of any UK country-wide election, coming in with a shocking 15.7%. The dismal results may even have the effect of forcing Gordon Brown to call an election, which would almost certainly lead to Labour being ousted from power.

So does this mean Europeans are turning to traditional conservative economic theory to guide them out of the current crisis? Not a chance, say most analysts. The poll result is being attributed more to the chaotic and fractured state Europe's socialists find themselves in today than any kind of ideological shift for the continent. As the Socialists have been in chaos, Europe's centre-right has hijacked the traditional tenants of socialism, co-opting the ideas of the left. Sarkozy suddenly went from being "Sarko l'Americain" to Sarko the French champion against unrestrained Anglo-Saxon-style capitalism. It would seem that Europe is now asking, what is Socialism in Europe in 2009? What is it the socialists represent?

So the coming months will see the socialists regrouping, in each country, and figuring out who they are and what they represent. It's clear they have lost control of the narrative, and they have lost credibility with much of the public. Socialist floor leader
Martin Schultz was probably right Sunday night when he called the result "a very sad evening for social democracy in Europe."

*Of course the election was also a big victory for extreem parties, particularly the far-right. But I'll write more on that tomorrow. Oh and yes, the Swedish Pirate Party did win a seat. Arrr, matey!

Thursday, 4 June 2009

My first vote in Europe

This morning I voted in my first European election, a right newly available to me now that I have my Italian passport. An EU citizen can vote for an MEP in any EU country they live in. It was a fairly uneventful affair. Though it was 8:45am and hence prime commuting time, I was actually the only person at the Chelsea polling station.

In the UK they still use paper balloting, so they hand you a sheet, you take it over to a little desk, mark off a big x, and slip it into a box. It seemed very old-timey to me, as where I’m from in Connecticut they haven’t used paper balloting since before I was born. Even the big pull-lever voting machines with the automatic curtains - which seemed so cool to me as a child when I would go into the booth with my parents - now seem antiquated in the US with the advent of electronic voting machines. Funny enough, the paper I was given this morning was about a metre long, making it appear as if I had a lot to vote on. But in reality there was only one X to be made, next to the party you were choosing. Each party though has to list the six candidates it would field if it wins, making the list quite long with all of the small parties. It’s done on a proportional allocation basis, with the winning parties getting to put forward a certain number of MEPs based on how much of the vote they got in each district. The UK and Holland are the only countries voting today, the rest of Europe will vote on Sunday and the British results won’t be revealed until then.

I won’t say who I voted for but I will say it was a tough decision. In Brussels they complain that one of the (many) problems with the European parliament is that people vote on purely national issues, which are mostly irrelevant to the issues being considered by the European Parliament. Even knowing this, I have to admit that national political considerations in Britain probably contributed about 50% to my decision. It’s just really hard to ignore the national politics when so often the most immediate and tangible result of these euroelections is the verdict they deliver on the national party in power.

Off with their Heads!

Owing to the economic crisis, this ‘verdict’ element is more prevalent this year than ever before. Across Europe there are several countries where the governments are teetering on the brink of collapse, and a poor performance in the EP elections could topple them from power. Across Europe the parties in power are expected to do poorly while the opposition parties are expected to do well (with the bizarre exception of Italy where, though their leader is embroiled in a sex scandal involving a 17-year-old girl, it is expected that his hard-right ruling coalition will do unprecedentedly well). In Greece, where the conservative government is weak following violent demonstrations against the economic crisis, a big win for the Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement on Sunday could cause the collapse of the current government and a general election. Similarly in Spain, a big win for the conservative Popular Party could trigger a no-confidence vote for the ruling government of the Socialist Workers Party. In Germany and Portugal, big wins from the opposition would have a dramatic effect on upcoming scheduled elections in the fall. It seems that across Europe, whether the right or the left is in power, the verdicts delivered by Sunday’s election could be the opening shot of a coup by the rival ideology.

But nowhere is the euroelection being watched more closely as a barometer than in Britain, where it is being held concurrently with many local council elections across England. Gordon Brown’s government is in freefall this week. The ongoing expenses scandal has caused Brown’s already weak government to fall apart, and each hour that passes seems to get worse. The last two days have seen the resignations of several cabinet ministers, and it is thought that Chancellor Alistair Darling will be sacked within days. Brown will have to form a new cabinet next week, but if Labour MPs refuse to serve on his cabinet, he will have to step down as Labour leader. A new Labour leader would then be selected by the party, who would inevitably have to call a general election that Labour will almost certainly lose. It is thought that Labour MPs are waiting for the result of today’s vote to make their decision. If Labour does dismally (some are predicting they could even come in fourth or fifth behind the far-right British National Party) then they will force his resignation by refusing to serve on his new cabinet.

It is expected that the Tories will probably receive the largest share of today’s EP vote, thought the majority of people almost certainly don’t realize what they’re voting for with that decision. David Cameron is set to take the Tories out of the parliament’s main centre-right EPP grouping shared by Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy and form a new Eurosceptic fringe grouping by allying with far-right parties of Eastern Europe. This issue has received almost no coverage from the British media, so it is certain that most of today’s Tory voters aren’t aware that they’re voting for a coalition that will include the anti-gay, climate-denying Polish nationalist Law and Justice party. That said, perhaps even if they knew they wouldn’t be bothered by it.

Rock Stars and Royalty

Of course there are interesting non-government-toppling things to look out for in Sunday’s results as well. In the Netherlands, for instance, the country is rife with speculation over the performance of controversial populist Geert Wilder’s anti-Islam Party for Freedom, which many are expecting to do quite well. In France, people are watching to see if the newly solidified Socialist Party leadership of Martine Aubrey will give people confidence that Sarkozy’s opposition is back in the game and safe for a vote after a year of chaos and in-fighting. I think that’s unlikely and they will probably do quite poorly, especially considering that Communist Olivier Besancenot’s new Anti-Capitalist Party is expected to do well and will probably siphon off votes from them. But just how well they will do is a matter of speculation, and I imagine it will keep Sarkozy up quite late Sunday night if they have a good result.

Then of course there’s the amusing MEP entries of this year’s election. The European Parliament, often half-jokingly maligned as a refuge of freaks, cast-aways and has-beens, has attracted its fair share of celebrity candidates this year. Slovakia, which was mortified after the last EP election five years ago when it had the lowest turnout in all the EU at just 17%, has pulled out all of the stops to try to get people to the polls this year, fielding an African-born pop singer, a fitness trainer and a former ice hockey star. Who knows that their objectives for Europe are, but I suspect the main intent with fielding them was just to make sure Slovakia doesn’t come last in turnout again.

Another interesting one to watch will be Sweden’s Pirate Party, a group formed entirely in reaction to the recent prosecutions in that country of file-sharing site managers. The candidates actually dress as pirates and have used pirate speak when campaigning (and they’re expected to gain some seats on Sunday!). There’s also Elena Basescu - Romania's equivalent to Paris Hilton – who is expected to win a seat as she is the daughter of the Romanian president. Other quirky candidates include a former Czech astronaut; a Finnish racing champion and a Bulgarian Taekwondo idol.

And of course my nerdy European history fascination can’t help but be interested in the fact that the reigning heirs of two of Europe’s formerly most powerful but today ousted (and banned) monarchies – the Habsburgs and the Savoys – are both in the running in Austria and Italy respectively. The candidacy of “Prince of Venice and Piedmont” Emanuele Filiberto in Italy is particularly interesting as he was banned from entering Italy his whole life (oweing to the expulsion of members of the former Italian monarchy when the Republic was declared in until Berlusconi lifted the restriction for him and his father in 2002. Shortly after that he celebrated his triumphal return to his family’s former kingdom by entering Italy’s version of Dancing with the Stars.

Asked why he would make a good MEP, he said, "I was in exile for 31 years and I know Europe well. I speak five languages. I know half of the current heads of state personally, and the other half I'm related to." It’s an argument any Royalist could agree with!

Check out this BBC site for real-time election results on Sunday and Monday. I'll be in Berlin this weekend, but will certainly be keeping tabs on it from there!

Monday, 1 June 2009

Where are the Ideas for Britain?

I’ve written before on this blog about a general lack of ambition in Europe, the noticeable absence of a strong desire from Europeans for themselves or their country to achieve success. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the reaction of the British public to the unfolding expenses scandal which may be hours away from causing the resignation of the Chancellor.

The British media has been telling us that the public is “enraged” by the unfolding scandal, which is precipitating a “revolution” that could topple not just the current leadership but the entire system of British government. But judging by the reaction I’ve seen from ordinary Brits, this seems a highly dubious claim. In fact all I’ve heard so far is a whole lot of whinging, but very little ideas about what should be done about the problem. We can laugh that, of course, this is the stereotypical British way of dealing with everything. But in the end it’s a real problem, especially right now.

A friend of mine who is a journalist covering Westminster made this observation: as he’s been doing the “man on the street” interviews that every reporter is required to do while a scandal like this is unfolding, the reactions of people are all the same. “They’re all a bunch or crooks aren’t they?” “They should string ‘em up from the rafters, the lot of ‘em!” “All of the MPs have been on the gravy train!” But when my friend asks a follow-up question on their opinion of the system itself – like whether they believe MPs should be given a raise instead of using expenses, whether the number of MPs should be cut, or whether the House of Lords should be abolished – people just stare back at him blankly. “Oh, I don’t have any opinion on that” they say. Well hang on, a second ago you were just calling for all MPs to be hung from the top of Big Ben, but who exactly would replace them in this great plan of yours, Average Joe?

I may be accustomed to apathy having grown up as part of America’s Generation X, but this strange combination of indignation and cynicism I find in the UK is truly bizarre to me. Everyone is completely disgusted with the UK parliament – across all party lines – but nobody has any ideas or ambition to change things. Throughout all of the media analysis I’ve seen, as commentators go on and on about how “furious” everyone is, I have yet to hear a real discussion about ideas for reform. And I have yet to see one member of the public who really seems “furious”. I know that this sort of understated composure is the British way, but it’s hard to see how anything is going to change when nobody seems to care all that much. I mean, where is this fury the media has been describing? Where are the protestors outside the houses of parliament? If the definition of “fury” in the UK translates to a couple of people in the audience of Question Time making some half-hearted boos, I think all this talk about a “revolution” is premature, if not downright fantasy.

This country just doesn’t seem to have any plan for its own future, which worries me. And it never ceases to amaze me that British people will complain about too much power being handed over to Brussels on matters that should be dealt with by national MPs in Westminster, and then in the next breath go on to talk about how inept and corrupt British MPs in Westminster are. So let me get this straight – you think your own government is corrupt and dysfunctional, so as a consequence you want them to be in charge of more things? But interrupt a Brit’s rant about the EU to ask them their opinion about reforming the British system of government and they don’t’ have much to say. They’re simply not interested.

It’s shocked me that this week, in the run-up to the European Parliament elections on Thursday, people here are still going on about MEPs abusing their system of expenses in Brussels. Are they really serious? The shocking level of excess from British parliament MPs uncovered over the past several weeks makes the limited about of Brussels MEP abuse in a transparent expenses system look like child’s play. And nevermind the fact that it was UKIP MEPs, who were elected on an anti-EU platform saying Brussels was full of crooks, who ended up being the ones abusing the system!

It goes to the heart of the problem this country faces. Britain is suffering from a drought of ideas, wandering in a period of post-imperial trauma where it hasn’t figured out its place in the world, and doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to do so. While dithering over small, insignificant issues like MP salaries and expenses, nobody here is thinking about the big issues or engaging the public in a real honest conversation about Britain’s future.

And that, in the end, is the real crime being perpetrated by this country’s leaders against its people.