Wednesday, 30 September 2009

"Das ist Deutschland Hier"

Oh SNAP! One expects this kind of thing from the French, but from the Germans??

Here is video of the new German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle admonishing a BBC reporter who asked him a question in English on Monday, snapping: "We're in Germany here."

The snippy retort has raised eyebrows in Germany and across Europe, most notably because Germany has long been one of the European countries with the least “language pride”, happy to operate in English as the ‘lingua franca’ of international diplomacy and business. Westerwelle’s comments are particularly surprising coming from a soon-to-be foreign minister, who presumably will need to use his command of English frequently when meeting with foreign dignitaries from around the world.

And incidentally, this BBC reporter was actually reporting for the World Service, which is an English language global news service that doesn't broadcast within the UK, but rather across the world to Africa, Asia, Europe and the Americas.

The French are notorious for this kind of defensive language pride. Could this be a sign that the Germans are starting to feel more confident about defending their own national identity? The BBC reporter’s question was about how German foreign policy would change with Westerwelle as foreign minister. Though he grumpily refused to directly answer the question, his rant may have revealed plenty about how Germany's foreign policy will change under his leadership. Was this a calculated signal to the international community, or a momentary bout of crankiness?

Germany is now the largest and most economically powerful country in Europe by far. Yet Germans are also renowned for their humble and realistic approach to their relative size and importance on the world stage. They have historically accepted the fact that German is not a world language and that English is the lingua franca (hence even though there are three co-equal working languages of the EU – English German and French – German is not often used in an official working capacity). This has set them apart from the French who many view as delusional about the importance of their language in the world. Germany, because of it’s WW2 legacy, has for the past half-century been very self-effacing and accommodating – particularly with English. As is often noted, 'it's not allowed to have German pride'.

Does Westerwelle’s rant signal the rebirth of a newly assertive Germany?

Gordon Brown the Populist?

Ah party conference season in Britain. As the ocean breeze wafts in and the trains from London unload hordes of shuffling MPs, there’s always a slight whiff of desperation in these strange rituals. From an American perspective they always seem rather bizarre because they are held every September regardless of whether an election is coming up, whereas US party conventions only happen a few months before an election.

Of course this year there is a real election these conferences are preparing for, as these will be the last gatherings before the polls which should take place next April or May. The three main party conferences are all gearing up for that big showdown, and with the governing Labour party down at record low poll levels (recent polls have put them in third place behind the Liberal Democrats) it has become a natural assumption that the Conservatives will win.

In his rally-the-troops speech yesterday “Our Prime Minister Gordon Brown” basically threw the policy kitchen sink at the crowd, announcing a barrage of blatantly populist measures in a desperate bid to reverse the Labour Party’s fortunes. In the hall it seemed to work – the talk of insurrection was ended and the delegates seemed to resign themselves to the uncomfortable reality that Gordon Brown is not going to step down, and no one in the party is going to challenge him. But considering it was just a few weeks ago that Brown uttered the dreaded ‘c word’ in a speech (cuts – what were you thinking?) and said that Labour was going to have to make some difficult choices, I couldn’t help but wonder where those difficult choices were in his speech. Despite this barrage of people-friendly policies there wasn’t any indication of how any of it would be paid for.

Responding to the MPs expenses scandal, Brown said he will change the law to allow constituents to recall their elected MP – even though this doesn’t really make much sense in a parliamentary democracy. He said Labour would scrap its plans to introduce a national identity card – even though the UK is one of the only countries in Europe to not have one. Labour will increase taxation on the very top earners – even though they already did this last year. Labour will reverse the 24-hour drinking law (which allows pubs to stay open after 11pm if they purchase a special license) in certain areas - even though numerous studies have shown that an enforced 11pm cut-off encourages closing-time punch-ups and traffic accidents. And Labour will scale up efforts to target "anti-social behavior" by menacing youths - even though already those youths are now wearing the ABSOs with pride around their necks.

‘Fat cat’ businessmen will be subject to new regulation that can curb their bonuses – even though it is unclear how this could be enforced by law. Free care for pensioners (seniors) is to be extended in England, though it is unclear where the money for that will come from. And Labour will hold a referendum on whether to change the voting system from the current first-past-the-post system (as exists in the US) to a proportional representation system (as exists in continental Europe).

Free care for old people? No identity cards? Sobering up yobs in city centres? Way to make the tough decisions Gordon. Though this conference was meant to highlight the difference between Labour and the Tories, to me it seemed to only highlight a similarity – both seem to be basing their policy decisions on popular will rather than good decision-making. Granted, several of Brown’s policy announcements are good ones. But his speech was suspiciously lacking in the belt-tightening measures he said were necessary just weeks ago.

I was pleased to hear him mention the Tories dangerous Europe policy in his speech, but I wish he had gone into more detail about it as most British people don’t know anything about the Tories’ move to the fringes of the European Parliament. Of course ‘Europe’ isn’t such a crowd-pleasing word to use in British politics, so I’m surprised it got a mention at all.

The big story of the conference however was Lord Mandelson’s speech. It’s incredibly entertaining, you really should watch it. Unsurprisingly it was almost all about him, but it was remarkably engaging and animated for a British politician’s speech. In fact the general media commentary is that it was overly so, with some comparing his performance to an overdramatic drag queen in a panto show. Of course any American watching this speech would be perplexed as to why the British media is characterising it in this way, but you have to keep in mind that British politicians are not known for their engaging speaking style.

Personally I loved the Mandelson speech. It was exactly what the Labour Party needs right now – dynamism, self-confidence, pizzazz. Mandelson was a close ally of Tony Blair and is known for his cut-throat ways, accused by many of trying to convert British politics to an “American style” of personality-driven politics. His performance was so animated that, if it weren’t for his constant praise of his former enemy Gordon Brown, I would have thought he had designs on challenging Brown for the leadership himself. Watching his speech I thought to myself, “Well, why not?” He’s engaging, intelligent, charismatic – and has a breath of new ideas and experience. I’m not sure whether it’s the fact that he’s gay or his reputation for treachery that has made him calculate that he could only ever be the power behind the throne, but as Labour’s fortunes continue to decay, maybe they should just try it. But I’m not as clued in to British politics as others, is this a crazy thing to suggest?

Incidentally, I was a bit perturbed by Mandelson’s characterisation of his time in Brussels as an EU Commissioner as a banishment to the wasteland. The UK’s EU Commissioner is arguably the second-most powerful position the British have, though it may not come with the kind of fame and recognition Lord Mandelson relishes. Mandelson is a smart man and he did great work as EU Trade Commissioner. It was a bit annoying to see him toss that off as ‘lost time’ while playing to the home troops.

The conservatives’ party conference will be next, and it will be equally as important. A lot of people I know here in London are thinking about voting Tory but have many reservations about it. Lord Mandelson on Monday told the conference that Tory party leader David Cameron is just a new face on old Tory policy, a cheap sell job presenting a face of moderation that masks old Tory intentions to gut public services and reverse socially progressive legislation. Cameron needs to convince those still on the fence that the Tory party really has changed, that it really has pulled to the centre. Right now a lot of the people who say they will vote conservative in polls may not have the guts to actually do it come election time, because they still have lingering concerns about what the Tories would do.

The best thing Labour can hope for is in-fighting between difference factions of the Conservative party at next week’s conference, and it looks like they just might get it in an upcoming row over whether to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty if it’s already been ratified across Europe by the time the Tories come into power. Ireland is holding its second referendum on the treaty Friday, and all polls predict that this time it will pass, completing the last hurdle for the treaty to be ratified across Europe and go into effect (barring some sabre-rattling from Czech President Vaclav Klaus).

Cameron knows that if such a referendum was held and the vote was ‘no’ (as it would probably be), it would be a violation of international law and would most likely result in Britain leaving the EU – which would spark a diplomatic and economic crisis for Britain. It’s a delicate issue, and it will be interesting to see how Cameron dances around it next week.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Return to Prague

Shiny new trams, freshly-cleaned buildings and, believe it or not, some smiling waitresses - Prague has come a long way since I lived there in 2002.

This past weekend I made a pilgrimage of sorts back to where my European adventure began. I had been to Europe before I moved to Prague to study and do an internship at Radio Free Europe in 2002 (just once on a trip to Austria and Germany with my high school band). But Prague was the first place in Europe I lived, and it was experience that changed my life. I had always been fascinated by European history, but it was in Prague that I was introduced to the possibility of living on this continent.

It was quite a setting in which to be introduced to Europe. Having survived both world wars largely undamaged, and containing a treasure-trove of OTT counter-reformation architectural delights, it’s truly a stunning city. To be sure, the oft-levelled criticism that the refab following the Velvet Revolution have turned the city into a fairy tale Disney World are fair. At times the city centre does seem a little too much like a contrived veneer set up for tourists. But as opposed to other such cities which get that description such as Venice or Florence, Prague is also a living, functioning capital city. And its fascinating history is not limited to the fairy tale buildings of Stare Mesto and Hradchany, it is also a living museum of sorts to the communist era.

That is really what I found so thrilling about living in Prague. The city has gone through so many distinct periods – from early success as an independent medieval kingdom, to various control by German Luxembourg and Habsburg dynasties, a hotbed of the reformation, the centre of production for the Austo-Hungarian empire, 40 dark years under Communist rule, and finally to a member state of the EU. All of this history is reflected in the city’s architecture and layout, not too mention in the unique personality of its inhabitants.

Of course, these impressions were all shaped back in 2002, when the country was not yet in the EU and still very much in transition. It’s still a society in transition to be sure, but the city felt quite different this time around. But perhaps it’s me that’s changed more than Prague. Living in the UK I’ve become well aware that Prague has turned into one of those cities where Brits go to get drunk for cheap, often in the form of stag and hen dos (Bachelor and Bachelorette parties). I was a bit concerned that seeing British tourists peeing and vomiting all over everything might take away some of the magic in my memory of Prague!

To be sure there were plenty of groups of drunk Brits stumbling about, but the most unavoidable tourists were Americans. They were literally everywhere, so much so that after awhile I started to feel like I could have been walking around in Boston. Unlike the British tourists, the Americans were perfectly well behaved and nice enough. Still, it’s not so nice to hear that nasal, loud accent everywhere. I began to wonder if it had been like that when I lived there and I just hadn’t noticed, because I hadn’t yet come to view hearing American accents as hearing something obtrusive or ‘foreign’.

Czesky Changes

Whether or not the hordes of Americans were there back in 2002, there were plenty of things that have changed since then. The most startling was seeing my old place of employment, Radio Free Europe, turned into a museum. Back in 2002 it was housed in the old Czechoslovak federal assembly building (which had closed in ’93 after there was no longer a Czech-Slovak federation to assemble) located next to the National Museum on Wenceslas Square (pictured left).

RFE is a radio broadcaster set up during the Cold War by the United States congress in order to broadcast programming into Eastern Europe. Listening to the broadcasts was often a criminal offense back then. After the cold war ended RFE began gradually closing its Eastern European stations and opening new ones in the Middle East and Central Asia. After 9/11, the US government decided that the building needed a huge cordon of security around it, because it was broadcasting into the middle east. So the traffic flow at the top of Wenceslas Square was severely disrupted as all the roads around it were closed off. To get into the building I had to go through an elaborate system of security checks at 4 different points!

Because of the chaos this was creating RFE had to move out, and today the area around the building is completely opened up and a museum about the federal assembley is now housed inside. What a strange feeling, being able to see the desk you used to work at being shown to you on a guided museum tour.

Down at Old Town Square I came across a thoroughly nauseating change that’s taken place below the NYU in Prague building, where I went to school. There right below it was a new Hard Rock CafĂ©, screaming out in all its tacky glory (pictured). I really hope NYU kids aren’t going there all the time. Really, how horrid!

Blocked by Floods and Popes

I first arrived in Prague in September of 2002, just after the worst floods in the country’s history swelled the Vltava across vast swathes of the city. I stepped off the plane into what was still a disaster area. The metro had been flooded, streets had been ripped apart, and cultural institutions like the Rudolfinium were in ruin. It all added to the learning experience really, it was incredibly interesting to watch as the city slowly recovered and rebuilt.

But unfortunately Prague’s very efficient and comprehensive metro system was shut down almost the entire time I lived there, and I never ended up taking it. So I was excited to finally use it this time around. It’s a really great system, and it made it so much easier to get around rather than having to use the tram to get everywhere. Still, I guess travelling by tram is nicer because you can get a better feel for the layout of the city, plus it’s much more old-timey!

However our transportation wasn’t completely unfettered, as this time around it was the pope rather than rising flood waters which blocked my path. The pontiff happened to be making an official visit to the Czech Republic while we were there, closing off sections of the city as he moved around. The castle was effectively closed the whole weekend because the pope was there addressing Czech politicians. This video of a spider crawling around his robes while he spoke to them has been circulating across the internets.

The stated purpose of his visit was to bring the largely atheist Czechs back to the fold of Catholicism. The Czech Republic is the most atheistic country in Europe, with 60% identifying as Atheist or Agnostic and few regular church attenders. In his speech to the politicians the pope blamed the communist government for this current state of affairs, recounting how they closed churches and arrested priests. But it’s quite a stretch to say that Czech atheism is entirely the result of just 40 years of Communist suppression, particularly when the Czech Republic’s fellow post-communist neighbour, Poland, is the most religious country in Europe. The reality is that it was the Catholic church itself which engendered this disgust with religion in the Czech people, coming down brutally and severely against the country’s attempts to switch to protestantism during the Hussite and 30 Years wars.

The counter-reformation came with a fierce and imposing blow, the leaders of the Hussite protestant religion were executed by the Catholic Habsburgs and grand building projects were instituted throughout Prague in order to show the Czechs who was boss and intimidate them into nominally returning to Catholicism. In fact, that is why Prague is such a beautiful city, because this massive building project was undertaken after the 30-years war to win back the Czech people. They nominally returned to Catholicism but it never really took, and their enthusiasm for the religion was sufficiently low that when the communists came in and suppressed the church, few people complained. Even now it was evidence how little impact religion has in this country, as there were no picture of the pope around the city or cheering crowds anywhere to be seen. Indeed, everyone seemed to be either indifferent to or unaware of his visit.

It was notable too that even St. Vitus Cathedral he celebrated mass in is still owned by the Czech governmentand is operated as a museum, not as a place of worship. The Catholic Church has been trying for years to get the most important Czech cathedral back but has so far been unable to do so.

The Rudeness Thing

One consistent observation from Western tourists about Czechs is the almost unbelievable rudeness of service staff. I’ve always thought this was rather unfair to the Czech Republic, as this is a trait common to all the post-communist countries of Eastern Europe. Prague just happens to be the most visited city in that region. But it is true, ideas about customer service vary differently between Western and Eastern Europe.

While there this weekend I noticed perhaps a slight improvement in customer service, but there were still plenty of almost comically unfriendly staff interactions. One thing that does seem to be unique to the Czechs is that their unfriendly interactions with strangers, be it in the context of customer service or not, seem to be tinged with an explosive and inexplicable rage.

For instance, as we were visiting the Loretto monastery in Hradchany, we entered about ten minutes before they were closing for a lunch break. We were still in the courtyard when they wanted to close it up, but there were still plenty of people milling about. A staff woman yelled at me from across the courtyard that we had to leave, but her directions on where to go were confusing and I was unclear on what she wanted me to do, come toward her or go along the ropes. My hesitation seemed to infuriate her, she became flustered and belted out with exasperated rage ‘You must leave!!”

The British person I was with was confused by the interaction, but I recalled from living in Prague that I encountered this kind of thing a lot. Once I was quietly humming to myself while riding the tram and listening to my discman, and a woman of about 35 came over and said something to me in Czech. I removed my headphones and told her I don’t speak Czech, and she glared at my icily. She then spat out, literally almost quaking with fury, “Stop…singing.”

I have no idea where this bizarre rage in customer service comes from, but I would be interested to hear any theories from Czechs! I did notice that it’s perhaps gotten a little better, in that we did encounter a few service people who were nice, and one waitress who even smiled!

For the most part all my old haunts were still there: Radost, Chapeau Rouge, Roxy. But I did notice that the gay scene in Prague has changed dramatically. When I was living there there were lots of gay bars and clubs but they were mostly underground, with doorbells to get in. The most popular bar, Friends, was down in a dank cellar. Now Friends has moved down the street in a very open bar with big windows. The biggest club, now renamed Valentino’s, has undergone such a transformation that it barely resembles its former self. That was really interesting to see.

It did take a bit of the edge out of the experience, I no longer felt like I was at some kind of dangerous periphery of Europe. But as the Czech Republic becomes more integrated into the EU and Western Europe, it was bound to happen. It’s still an amazing city and I’ll always look back at my time there with affection. But seeing the city this weekend with my new ‘Europeanised’ eyes, Prague became more of a real city rather than an ‘idea’ in my head. And that’s really what I wanted, to integrate my experience in Prague with my current life in Europe. It might not be as edgy or as adventurous, but Europe has become home now. And I’m glad that I now feel like Prague is part of that.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Angry Europeans and Embarrassed Americans in New York

There's no doubt about it, this week's UN climate change meeting in New York has been a humbling experience for America. Being shown up by China in the field of environmental protection isn't exactly a shining moment for the US, but it may be a harbinger of the century to come.

European diplomats at the summit are reportedly seething at US inaction, and their reaction to Obama's almost completely substanceless speech yesterday was nothing short of incredulity. But with the climate bill stalled in the US senate and the healthcare fight likely to push it off the agenda until after the hugely important Copenhagen summit in December, Obama's hands are tied. With no climate bill passed by December, the US will likely not be able to commit to the post-Kyoto framework being worked out at the December summit, considered by Europe to be the "last chance" to save the world from the effects of climate change. Though just a year ago it was thought India and China would be the biggest obstructionists to reaching a global agreement, this week it has become clear: the US may be the lone force standing in the way of fighting climate change.

China, on the other hand, unveiled some big commitments this week. Yesterday China's President Hu committed China to getting 15% of its power from non-fossil sources by 2020, planting enough forest to cover an area the size of Norway and limiting the growth of carbon emissions as a percentage of the country's gross domestic product. I'm also hearing word that today at 2pm there will be an announcement at the New York Stock Exchange that China will launch a carbon valuation system called the "Panda Standard", where companies have a certain carbon allowance and can buy or sell credits as they need to. I've even heard that this announcement later today by China may be followed by an announcement setting up a Chinese cap and trade system like Europe's Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). I would be truly shocked if they do announce that, but if they do it would be hugely embarrassing for the US, which still has no cap and trade system or even a voluntary standard.

Once the Chinese government became convinced of the reality of climate change about a year ago, they have acted dramatically and rapidly with new environmental measures that now put them ahead of the US in several ways. They’ve restructured their development plans to cut down on high-emissions projects, and within two years they have phased out 54 million kw of coal-fired power capacity by small polluting power plants. Last year the issued new rules on the construction sector for the use of renewable products. They’ve poured money into the development of public transport and the promotion of environmentally-friendly vehicles. Also last year the government ordered retailers to stop providing free plastic shopping bags. China now has the world’s largest hydropower generating capacity and is currently the fourth largest wind power producer after the United States, Germany and Spain – and it’s catching up quickly. Last year renewable energy accounted for about nine percent of the country's energy total, surpassing the US.

Of course, with a top-down command economy China can afford to do these things at this speed. As Thomas Friedman has lamented, if only the US could be "China for a day". But no matter how they've attained these rapid results, the Chinese are putting the Americans to shame.

Needless to say with all the hope that was placed in Obama by Europeans, this has been a disappointing day across the pond. Newspapers over here have been questioning Obama's ability to deliver on climate change, with one particularly scathing article from the Guardian called 'Obama the Impotent' making the email rounds. The Guardian writes:
"On the campaign trail, Barack Obama promised to reverse the Bush administration's terrible ecological record. Yet so far the world has seen more symbolic gestures from the Obama administration than accomplishments. Its biggest achievement so far has been a disappointment. President Obama signed an executive order to increase US motor vehicle mileage standards – but only to a level that will push fuel efficiency by 2020 to a level that European and Japanese cars reached several years ago, and even China has already achieved."
However one consistent theme has been that the European papers are not blaming Obama himself for the inaction, but rather the government system he has the misfortune of having to lead. Writes the Guardian:
"Thwarting Obama on a regular basis is an unrepresentative senate where "minority rule" prevails and undermines what a majority of the country may want. With two senators elected per state, regardless of population, California with more than 35 million people has the same number of senators as Wyoming with just half a million residents. This constitutional arrangement greatly favours low population states, many of which tend to be conservative, producing what one political analyst has called "a weighted vote for small-town whites in pickup trucks with gun racks."
It should be no surprise that China is beginning to surpass the United States in several ways, after all this is slated to be the "China century," which will see a return to a two-superpower world with the US and China competing for power. But the fact that China is now surpassing the US in the fight against climate change should be a big wake-up call to Americans, especially liberals.

Monday, 21 September 2009

Bankers Beware: Brussels to Reveal Pan-EU Regulator

One year after the meteoric collapse of Lehman Brothers, both Washington and Brussels are preparing to unveil massive regulation overhauls that, if they come to pass, will have the extraordinary effect of putting the world’s entire financial system under the thumb of two powerful – and competing - regulatory regimes.

So far both America and Europe have failed to institute meaningful reform to the financial system that would prevent a similar financial collapse from happening again. This was almost painfully evident during President Obama’s stern speech to Wall Street last week on the one-year anniversary – full of tough words but backed by little action taken in the past year to better regulate American financial institutions.

This reality was angrily pointed out by some American commentators, who said that a regulatory overhaul should have been made central to the massive bail-outs a year ago. The Obama administration counters that regulatory reform at the height of the crisis would have destabilized a system already on the verge of collapse. This situation has been mirrored across the pond, where both national governments and the EU have resisted making significant regulatory reform so far.

But now it is clear that the financial sector is once again on stable ground. Whether this is a direct result of the massive cash infusion it was given over the past year is debatable, but given the windfall profits and massive bonuses that have begun to creep back in, it’s no longer tenable to argue that the sector is too fragile to introduce massive reform. It appears the Obama administration is set to introduce its overhaul in the coming weeks. Across the pond, it appears some consensus has finally been reached in order to create financial regulation at the EU level. If the plans come to pass it would mean that just two centralized, powerful regulatory regimes would govern basically the entire world’s financial sector, which would mean that the laissez-faire days of Anglo-Saxon capitalism are a thing of the past.

The EU proposal that will be unveiled on Wednesday will reportedly create three new supervisory authorities in the areas of banking, insurance and securities. The new authorities would supervise financial institutions and step in during emergency situations to take urgent action. They will reportedly have the power to shut down Europe’s stock markets during a crisis. The new authorities would also be able to rule on disputes involving financial institutions that operate across EU internal borders. For large recapitalisations or bail-outs, the decision would come directly from the European Commission by a simple majority vote of commissioners.

The UK has been the biggest objector during these negotiations, but reportedly they have been satisfied with a compromise deal that would require that member states be allowed invoke a clause taking that voting decision instead to the council, to be voted on by member states’ finance ministers, by a qualified majority vote.

Eventually the authorities will draw up themselves technical standards to be applied throughout the EU, which all EU and EEA financial institutions would be required to follow. The commission would then have to approve these standards. The purpose of this standardisation is to make sure everyone is playing by the same rulebook and that companies no longer have to spend millions on compliance efforts across different regulatory regimes in Europe.

A separate European Systemic Risk Board will also be created, according to EUObserver. That board would watch the financial system for risks or problems, and it can issue warnings early when it identifies problems.

Significant details of the Obama administrations plans for a regulatory overhaul have not yet emerged, but if they are as ambitious as these Brussels plans, the world could be looking at a very different regulatory environment in the near future.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Obama Throws the Russians a Bone

In a major foreign policy move, President Obama announced today he is abandoning the Bush Administration's missile defence system plan for Eastern Europe. The plan, which would have seen long-range missiles installed in Poland and a radar system in the Czech Republic, had infuriated Russia, who saw it as a direct threat. The Bush administration had always insisted it was not meant to threaten Russia but rather to defend Europe from rogue states like Iran, but this seemed dubious to the Russians considering that the missiles themselves would have been pointed at Russia, been far more powerful than needed to take out the small-arms capability of Iran, and were to be placed just a few miles away from Russia’s border.

Obama said today that after a thorough review of the program he had decided that a more “cost-effective" system using land- and sea-based interceptors would be better suited to Iran's short- and medium-range missile threat. Though the administration stressed that this decision is “not about Russia”, the reality is that it largely is, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While it is true that the system Bush planned to install seemed geared more for the Cold War than for the realities of modern dangers, it is also true that it was proving to be a huge obstacle in US-Russian relations. Considering that those relations are in desperate need of improvement in order to have a peaceful world, dismantling this plan could be good for America’s security in more ways than one.

Shortly after Obama was elected Russia had made a bold move showing that they were serious about their objections to the missile system. President Dmitry Medvedev delivered a speech the day after the historic election saying that if the missile shield were installed Russia would install short-range missiles just off the Polish border in its territory of Kaliningrad, in response to the US "provocation." All indications were that they were serious about this threat, and the resulting tit-for-tat could have resulted in a missile defence arms race that no one wants to see.

Reaction from the American right was predictable, decrying Obama for “selling out” American allies (the narrative for the right seems to be that he is a lilly-livered coward abroad while being some kind of Hitler like tyrant at home). But reaction from the international community, and from Russia in particular, reflected a collective sigh of relief. Russia's ambassador to NATO called it a “breakthrough" for US-Russian relations, saying that with this obstacle removed the two countries could move ahead with talks about reducing their nuclear weapons stockpiles. NATO Secretary-General Anders Fogh Rasmussen said it was "a positive step", reflecting the fact that few in Europe were excited about this system which was ostensibly meant to protect them. The missile defence system, after all, was going to outside the scope of NATO and completely US-controlled.

And the conservative governments of Poland and the Czech Republic who had agreed these deals with the Bush Administration, although surely disappointed, were muted in their reaction. The Czech public on the other hand have expressed elation today, as the plan was very unpopular there. The Poles were more mixed in how they felt about the plan, but my Polish friend tells me the media reaction there so far hasn't been too dramatic.

So was this a big concession to Russia? As the title suggests, it was a 'bone', an easy gesture to make considering it wasn't in US defense interest to have it anyway. Essentially no one, including the US military, thought the missile defense system made any sense except the American and Polish right-wing. Iran does not have the capability to deploy or make long-range missiles, and it's never been proven that these systems being installed actually work. As Joe Cirincione told MSNBC last night, the Bush Administration was installing "a technology that doesn't work against a threat that doesn't exist".

Of course the missile defence system has just been one aspect of American foreign policy that Russia has seen as a provocation by the US. They've also seen US invitations to the nations of the caucasus and Central Asia to join NATO as an anti-Russian provocation. It's doubtful Obama will recognise the "Soviet sphere of influence" Russia is trying to claim, nor will he rule out the possibility of these nations joining. But he is unlikely to persue the NATO-expanding policy with the same irresponsible gusto that the Bush Administration did. That gusto was largely to blame for the Georgian War, an entirely avoidable conflict brought on by Georgia misinterpreting Bush's neocon rhetoric for actual promises of future military assistance.

So it seems as if everyone is happy with this announcement except the American Neo Conservatives. And as the never-confirmed limited-term ex-UN ambassador John Bolton makes the rounds today describing this as “a concession to the Russians with absolutely nothing in return” (I’ve never seen anyone get so much media exposure for themselves out of such a limited public career) you have to wonder what decade he’s living in. Altering this plan will result in a more cooperative Russia and probably in the long run a more logical defence capability for the United States.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

Move over Somalia, Sarko's after the cyber-pirates Now

My twitter erupted with activity yesterday as news spread that the French lower house had at long last passed the much-maligned Hadopi bill, the hugely controversial legislation that would ban people from using the internet if they are caught repeatedly downloading files illegally.

This was the third attempt to pass the measure, but the third time was the charm and since it’s already passed the French senate, Sarkozy’s piracy-busting measure will now become law. It will be the toughest anti-internet piracy legislation in the world. The slow journey of this legislation has been closely watched by other European countries and now that the precedent has been set, they will now likely enact their own similar laws.

The bill, named after the new anti-piracy government agency it will create, would permit authorities to impose a variety of penalties on people caught downloading illegally including cutting off their internet connection for a year, imposing fines of hundreds of thousands of euros, and even jailing them for two years.

It’s Official – Five More Years of President Barroso

It’s unusual for an EU commission president to serve more than one term, and many in the parliament and member states opposed him. So how exactly did the former Portuguese prime minister squeak by on re-appointment to the EU’s highest office today?

The short answer is, there wasn’t really any alternative.

Barroso is from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP), which currently has a majority in the European Parliament and the leadership of most EU member states (including Germany, France and Italy – and though the current British government is not technically centre-right, Brown strongly supported Barroso’s re-appointment). Still, there was great concern about his re-appointment resulting in a “lame duck” commission presidency for the next five years.

Barroso’s first term as president of the EU’s executive body has been fairly lacklustre, having overseen the defeat of both the EU Constitution and the Lisbon Treaty (although the latter will likely soon pass in the Irish re-vote next month). Many have accused him of not having a “grand vision” for Europe, or even a cohesive idea of where the union should go. His tenure has been marked by a drift into Euro-stasis, a paralysation over the past five years that stands in marked contrast to the gung-ho attitude in Brussels before his tenure at the turn of the millennium.

But the fact that he was re-appointed handily despite all these misgivings (he was even able to obtain an absolute majority of 389 votes today – a big triumph for him) shows just how severe the Brussels leadership crisis is. Despite their intense opposition to Borroso’s re-appointment, the Socialists failed to come up with any candidate to oppose him. No candidate emerged from those who had misgivings on the right either, though France’s prime minister did seem to be toying with the idea for a bit earlier this month.

Immediately after the vote the Party of European Socialists (PES) issued this press release saying that as the second largest block in the parliament, they will insist on being given one of the “three key EU posts”. By that they appear to mean the Commission President, the High Representative (which will be empowered by the Lisbon Treaty) and the Council President (a post that will be created by the Lisbon Treaty).

But considering that they weren’t even able to field an opposition candidate for the commission presidency, who exactly are they thinking they could field for the first “president of Europe”? Tony Blair has been floated as an idea, and as a Labourite he is technically in the PES. But considering his support for the Iraq War and his role as a champion of free-market Anglo-Saxon economics, its doubtful continental PES members would be too pleased with this choice.

If Barroso’s second term does indeed turn out to be a “lame duck presidency” it will be interesting to see how this affects the development of the two new positions created by the Lisbon Treaty. Both of them have been really vaguely defined, and their remit and power will be largely shaped by their first holders. If the offices are held by two socialists in opposition to a weak or irrelevant Barroso, it could have the effect of strengthening the Council at the expense of the Commission. This could go some way in satisfying those who complain about Europe’s “democratic deficit”, as the Commission is an unelected institution.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

New Photography page

I've updated my portfolio website with a better photography section, revamping the creaky old interface that I hadn't updated since 2003 and replacing it with a picasa album that's more focused on my travels. Picasa lets you geo-tag the photos on Google Earth which I really like, tagging them all this week was like a little trip down memory lane. Check it out if you like,

Tuesday, 8 September 2009

Should Turkey Join the EU?

Yesterday’s much-anticipated report from a high-level commission blasting Brussels for its handling of the Turkey accession issue was predictable in many ways. It was perhaps even a little tiresome in the way it relied so heavily on the oft-repeated claim that racism and xenophobia are what drive opposition to Turkey’s membership. But even more predictable still was the very different way the British and continental media covered the report.

The Independent Commission on Turkey’s denunciation of Brussels’ foot-dragging was a headline-generator in the British media. Yet it received scant attention on the continent - even in France, the country which took the most punches in the document. Google news English finds 30 stories about the report, while Google News French finds only three working links (one of which is actually a blog). France24, Le Monde, and Le Figaro all seem to have ignored the news. Perhaps not surprising considering the continental powers are opposed to Turkey’s membership, while the UK is in favour. Those national media outlets on the continent that did cover it took a very different angle than their British counterparts, proving much more sceptical of the report’s conclusions.

The commission condemns the EU for delaying accession talks with Turkey, saying it is violating its previous promises that Turkey will eventually become a member while many (perhaps most) in Brussels have no intention of ever seeing this become a reality, preferring to string Turkey along in order to make it friendly to EU interests and more inclined to push through pro-Western reforms at home. The report accuses national political leaders (read: Sarkozy) for coming out strongly against Turkey’s membership in order to exploit domestic concerns about immigration, job security and Islam. It even goes so far as to say that this contradiction between what the EU had previously publicly avowed in the 1990’s and what its national leaders are saying today “put in question EU credibility, reliability and the principle…that agreements are to be honoured.”

To an outsider it might seem bizarre that the traditionally euroskeptic UK would be the one pushing most vocally for Turkey to enter the EU. Indeed, in the British media the issue is often presented as a no-brainer. Of course Turkey should enter the EU, people here seem to think. Any efforts to keep them out, according to the Brits, are just due to continental (read: French) racism and Islamophobia.

So it isn’t surprising that I find most people here are a bit confused about the debate, and some of the larger issues involved. So, I thought I’d make a little Q&A based on some of the questions someone was asking me last night. Whether or not Turkey should join is a very complex issue that essentially goes to the heart of the larger question about what the EU should be – a federal union or a free trade zone. Countries have therefore split on Turkey’s accession based on their feelings about European federalism – the idea that the EU should have supranational power in areas outside of trade. The fact is that the day Turkey joins the EU is the day the dream of a federal Europe is over. A federal Europe is simply not possible in a union with Turkey as a member.

Questions? Shoot.

Is Turkey part of Europe?

A very small part of Turkey (about 5%) is geographically within what has historically been considered Europe. Of course, the issue gets a little tricky because unlike its ocean border to the west, Europe’s eastern border is not as clearly defined (owing to the fact that geologically speaking it is more accurately part of a larger Eurasian continent). But the traditional border has been understood to run from the Mediterranean and Aegean, through the Dardanelles and the Bosporus straight, across the Black Sea, and North along the Ural mountains in Russia. This makes Turkey and Russia the only two countries straddling the two continents of Europe and Asia. However the 10% of Turkey that lies in Europe is relatively sparsely populated because it is not very hospitable terrain.

Some argue that because the Ottoman Empire (Turkey’s progenitor) at one time controlled all of the Balkans up to Vienna, it is culturally part of Europe. However this is a tenuous claim because if such logic were applied across the board the states of North Africa should also be invited to join, as their progenitors once controlled Spain. Historically speaking it would have been a tough sell to convince the Austrian emperor (or anyone else in 15th century Europe for that matter) that the Ottomans were “European”. The successful defence of Vienna which halted the Ottoman advance into Western Europe gave the city the nickname as the ‘savior of Europe’ at the time. Their motivations may have been racist or religionist, but there can be no doubt that during the Ottoman Empire’s many centuries of existence, few in Europe would have considered the Turks to be “European”.

Additionally, the Ottomans never took much of an interest in actively governing their Balkan or Greek territories, preferring to leave the actual administration to local rulers. They were much more preoccupied with their Middle Eastern and North African territories, which constituted the majority of the empire.

As a secular nation, isn’t Turkey more linked to Europe than to the Middle East?

It is true that the Turkish state founded by Ataturk is rabidly secular, but unlike in Europe, that secularism has had to be enforced through repression and authoritarianism. To this day religious practice is heavily restricted in Turkish public life by law. Ataturk and his successors have considered this necessary because there is a significant amount of the country that is fervently religious, which the ruling class (mainly the military) fears. The rural population is growing increasingly religious with time, following the revival of Islam that has occurred across the Middle East in the past two decades. The recent success of the openly Islamic AKP party demonstrated how much more powerful Islam is becoming as a political force in the country. The fact that secularism has always hung by a thread in Turkey and has had to be guarded by authoritarian means reflects the fact that Turkish secularism does not even resemble the secularism of Europe, which has arisen naturally among the population and not been enforced by the state.

Turkey is the only stable Muslim democracy in the Middle East. Wouldn’t it integrate seamlessly into the EU?

To hear the proponents of Turkey’s accession talk, you would think Turkey was some kind of earthly paradise of humanism and democracy. But while it is true that Turkey is a democracy, it is anything but stable, particularly at the moment. The country is still involved in two ongoing conflicts, one against Kurdish separatists in the East and the other in the Turkish occupation zone of Cyprus to the west, both still unresolved issues. And just this week Turkey took the first move to establish diplomatic ties with its neighbour Armenia for the first time. That tension is unlikely to be resolved any time soon because Turkey still refuses to acknowledge the genocide of ethnic Armenians that took place during World War I.

Turkey doesn’t just have instability in its foreign relations. Its domestic politics are teetering on a wire at the moment as well. With the Islamist AKP taking civilian power in 2007, there is a constant risk of the army staging a coup to preserve Turkey’s secularist code. In the mean time the country maintains one of the Western World’s most authoritarian regimes in the area of human rights. Press freedom is still severely limited in Turkey, where it is still a crime to insult “Turkishness”. Just yesterday Turkey decided it would be the only country in Europe to refuse to sign a resolution in support of a jailed reporter in Kazakhstan, because it contained a provision which stated that journalists, “should be free to report on all issues of interest to the public, including commentary on how the state is run.” Turkey of course couldn’t sign it, because it can technically be a crime in Turkey to criticize how the state is run.

But the EU is taking in Eastern European countries that also have corruption and human rights problems, but who happen to be Christian. Isn’t this hypocrisy?

It is true that the EU took on the countries of Romania and Bulgaria in 2007 despite complicated corruption problems, with an eye to providing support and guidance to those countries to help them transition to being transparent and stable democracies. This has been referred to as the “transformative” strategy of EU enlargement and has been very controversial as an idea in and of itself, especially now that the appetite for enlargement has waned. But though Sarkozy and other opponents of Turkish entry have said that enlargement should stop for now, they have held the door open for Croatia, Serbia, Bosnia, Macedonia and Albania (a Muslim country, by the way) to join eventually. Obviously, these are countries with some fairly significant, and recent, problems.

But there is one key difference between all of these post-communist countries and Turkey, and it’s not just that they are Christian or all indisputably in Europe. They also all have very small populations. They are therefore more easily manageable for an EU that is taking on a “transformative” role. Additionally, these countries’ entry would not make a big demographic difference to the EU.

Turkey, on the other hand, has a population of 75 million, larger than either Britain or France. If it entered the EU it would become the second biggest member of the block. And given that Turkey’s population is expected to reach 85 million or more by 2020, by the time it could feasibly enter it would probably be the largest member and have the largest voting block in all decisions of the European Parliament.

So this isn’t just a question of saying, “Oh well, it’s Europe-ish, they respect human rights ok I guess, sure let them in, why not?” Turkey’s entry would fundamentally change the nature of the union itself, leading to the bizarre situation where the most powerful country in the EU has only 5% of its territory actually in Europe! There’s no way the rest of the EU member states would accept that scenario in a federal Europe, therefore Turkey’s entry into the EU would mean a federal EU is an impossibility, and it would have to be scaled back to be just a free trade zone like NAFTA. Of course, British Euroskeptics would like nothing more than to see this happen.

So when I see the British media go on and on about how Germany and France’s objection to Turkish entry is motivated by racism and Islamophobia, I’m left rather perplexed. If the Independent Commission on Turkey was being a bit more intellectually honest, they really should have pinned more of the blame for the EU’s Turkey double-speak on the British, who are really the ones stringing the Turks along. Using Turkish entry as a backhanded way of changing the EU is hardly a fair thing to do to Turkey, considering that they are promising them membership in a union that would cease to exist as a result of their very entry.

The commission is right about one thing – Brussels needs to stop stringing Turkey along and give them a firm yes or no. But it is wrong in concluding that the recent vocal objection to Turkey’s entry is some kind of populist political ploy by national leaders. It is a legitimate concern and goes to the very heart of what the EU is meant to be. And in that way, this debate really had very little to do with Turkey and much more to do with the conflict between federalists and euroskeptics. And until that conflict is resolved, it is likely Turkey will continue to be unfairly strung along.

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Ye Olde York

Driving up the A1 motorway yesterday, my friend and I had our eyes glued to the horizon, each of us hoping to be the first one to see the giant steel angel come soaring into the sky from beyond the hill. Considering my friend was driving, we realized this gazing perhaps wasn’t the smartest strategy as he had to slam on the brakes to avoid a rapid traffic slowdown ahead of us. Searching for angels in the sky can be dangerous!

Eventually the massive Angel of the North, which has come to be a symbol of Northern England since it was erected outside Newcastle in 1998, did at last emerge. If I’m honest, I was a bit underwhelmed. Having been told that with its wingspan it’s as wide as the Statue of Liberty is tall, I was expecting something much bigger. I suppose it was big, sure, but not BIG! Perhaps that’s just my American expectations creeping in.

We were approaching Newcastle, the last stop on an eight-city tour of the Northern England, usually referred to in the UK both affectionately and derisively as just “the North.” It’s a strange land of rolling green meadows, windy moors and bulging dunes – a place where the local accent changes every 10 miles and people cling to their locality and roots with a fierce pride rarely seen in the South. It’s also a land of striking contrasts. This was the industrial heart of Victorian England, a place whose abundance of raw materials gave rise to a rapid overdevelopment, turning small villages like Manchester, Liverpool and Middlesbrough into bulging metropolises virtually overnight. That flurry of industrial activity has long since faded away, leaving the relics of a poverty-stricken rust belt concentrated around the Mersey river on the Irish Sea coast and the Tees river on the North Sea coast.

At the same time the North, particularly Yorkshire, played a hugely important part in British history before industrialisation, and in between the urban conurbations lies some of the most beautiful, history-filled countryside in Britain. It was that contrast that I wanted to discover on this road trip.

Proud Manchester

I made the journey with two American friends who I know from New York but who are now fellow ex-pats in London with me. We first took a train up to Manchester, exploring the city Saturday morning before being entertained by the festivities of the annual Manchester Gay Pride in the afternoon. It’s universally acknowledged as Britain’s biggest and best pride celebration, and I have to say that description bore true. The dinky little London pride paled in comparison to this, and the city’s relatively small size meant that the pride celebration almost seemed to take it over. It was also clearly an activity for the whole city, with lots of straight families turning out for the parade and plenty of straight people at the pride celebration on Canal Street. Actually the whole area around Canal Street ws closed off and you had to pay 20 quid to get in! I had never heard of having to pay to get into Pride festivities, but my friend Lori says that's the way it's done in DC.

There were those in the parade who weren’t so happy with the increasingly celebratory/commercialised nature of gay pride, coming as it does now with corporate sponsorships and such. But when you take a step back, tt is pretty amazing how different a gay pride parade is in the UK than in Eastern Europe, for example, where the parades are still largely an expression of protest and are often met with violence (as happened last year in Budapest). I can sympathise with these marchers’ (pictured left) frustrations about the increasing commercialisation of the gay community and the phenomenon of the ‘pink pound’, but perhaps if they considered the alternative it wouldn’t seem so bad.

Beyond the Pride festivities, which were great, I was very impressed with Manchester as a city. Once a rotting industrial corpse just 15 years ago, today the city’s undergone a complete renovation that has made it England’s unrivalled second city. We went down to the old canals, which in the 19th century would have been heaving with ships bringing coals in to the factories, to find them completely fixed up into a beautiful business and entertainment district. The massive intersection of train tracks, roads and canals at Castlefields is actually quite beautiful, a truly stunning site hovering over the ruins of an ancient Roman fort. And though parts of the interior of the city have been turned into massive indoor shopping complexes, they were architecturally interesting and forgivable. The conversion of city centre spaces into massive indoor shopping malls was to be a theme for the rest of the trip.

On the Road

On Sunday we rented a car to begin our slow journey northeast, diverting first over to Liverpool. Although some redevelopment has been undertaken, notably along the waterfront in preparation for the city’s year as a “European Capital of Culture” in 2008, the city is still a marked contrast to Manchester because it has retained much of its post-industrial squalor. Albert Dock has been the main focus of regeneration, and the area is now rife with Beatles kitsch. In addition to seeing a performance by the ‘Cheatles” right on the dock (pictured) you can also take a Beatles tour of the city to see the houses in which the Liverpool lads grew up (we declined, though we did go to the Beatles experience museum). We also visited the Tate Liverpool, which was otherwise unremarkable save for an AWESOME floor where you listened to disco music in headphones while looking at sexually suggestive sculptures, surrounded by countless disco balls, flashing lights, and even a light-up disco floor in the centre. I kind of wanted it to be my apartment.

Aside from the dock, the other main thing to see in the city is the two cathedrals, one Anglican and one Catholic, facing each other on opposite ends of Hope Street. They were both built at a feverish pace during a time of increasing conflict between Anglican Protestants of Liverpool, native English, and the Roman Catholics, descendants of the Irish immigrants who had flooded into the city during the industrial revolution (cousins of the Irish who left at the same time for America during the potato famine). Both the cathedrals are massive, with the two sides desperate to outdo each other. But looking at the two today, it’s clear who won. Though it is the fifth largest cathedral in the world, the Anglican Liverpool Cathedral is pretty bland and uninteresting, clearly trying to mimic older architectural styles even though it was just completed in the 1950’s. The Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, on the other hand, is a stunning modernist achievement. The outside is rather strange-looking, with locals often deriding it as the “Liverpool funnel”, but I thought the inside was beautiful. It has a theatre-in-the-round style, with stunning lighting leading up the interior of the cone to the roof. I was very impressed. I have to say, the most interesting modernist cathedrals I’ve seen in Europe have all been Roman Catholic – defying that denomination’s reputation for a staid rigidity in embracing new ideas.

We then checked out the inevitable massive indoor shopping centre complex next to the water, completed just a year ago. My friend Josh, who is an architect, was eager to see it. However it was pretty uninspiring, and in some parts heinously ugly.

However if we thought that was bad, we hadn’t seen anything yet. Our next stop was Leeds, which I can report has to be one of the most characterless cities I’ve ever seen in Europe. Like some of its Northern neighbours, Leeds has also undertaken a redevelopment project. However theirs has involved turning the city centre into a giant shopping mall. Almost the whole place has been turned into the massive indoor complexes. We arrived at night around six when the indoor centres were all closed. We found to our frustration that all of the restaurants were actually located inside the malls, so we had a hell of a time finding anywhere to eat. All we could find was street after street of bland high street chain stores, all closed. I suppose if you needed to do a whole lot of shopping in one day, Leeds would be a good place to go. Otherwise, the city seemed like a total waste of time to me. But then again, I don’t like shopping.

I enquired of my friend Josh if any rust belt cities in the US were considering turning their empty city centres into indoor shopping malls. “What city centres?” he responded. It’s true, Americans don’t want to go into a city centre even if it’s to buy things, they prefer their shopping malls to be out in the suburbs where they live. And judging by the results of such a redevelopment in Leeds, I’m not sure I would endorse such a plan for cities in the US. Josh says the problem is that all these redevelopment plans are centred around shopping, and when something like the recession hits it puts the breaks on the whole project. It’s not that the developers can’t get financing any more. Since the only thing they’ve planned for development are shops, the plan is going to hit a hurdle when people stop shopping. From what we saw of Leeds, it appears the recession is having a pretty bad effect on the city. The place was deserted.

Winding, Windy Moors

Nearby the city of York, our next stop, couldn’t have been more of a contrast. A hugely important city from the 11th to the 18th century, it was almost entirely bypassed by the Industrial Revolution and remains remarkably preserved. Even the city walls (pictured) remain standing, as do an original Norman castle and a stunning, massive cathedral. It’s all a bit Disney, but it is truly beautiful.

The Romans founded York about 2,000 years ago, and since then it’s had a sucession of rulers – first the Anglo-Saxons, then the Vikings, then the Normans. Each of the four rulers left their mark on the city (and progressively changed its name along the way – from Eboracum to Eoforwic to Jorvik to York. It was without a doubt the highlight of the trip, and a particular delight for us New Yorkers – an interesting view of the former glory of our city’s namesake.

We also stopped off at Harrogate, a town that was the first thing out of everyone’s mouths when I asked them what they recommended to do in Yorkshire. I have to say I don’t get why everyone was recommending it. It’s cute I guess, but there’s nothing to do there. We stopped and had the requisite tea and scones at Betty’s, and then headed over to the Royal Baths only to find the building had been taken over by a Chinese restaurant! So we headed out. Harrogate- am I missing something?

From York we drove up to Castle Howard, the sprawling estate of one of Yorkshire’s most famous aristocratic families. The grounds are massive – I particularly enjoyed frolicking with the cows next to the ‘Temple of the Four Winds’. The Howard family still lives in the castle, though most of it has now been opened to visitors. As we entered the main staircase we learned about the current owner of the house, the Baron Howard who lives there with his wife and two daughters (he’s in the portrait on the left in the photo below in a rather funny aristocratic outfit). Later on the tour the guide remarked casually as he looked out the window, “ah there he is now.” Sure enough, there was the guy from the portrait out in front of the house playing with his dog. Weird!

Like many aristocratic families, the current owner’s father Baron George Howard opened up the house to the public in the 1960’s, knowing it was the only way to be able to maintain ownership of it. For the most part, those aristocratic families who didn’t open up their massive estates for public viewing back in the 50’s and 60’s later found that it was too late to do so and had to sell them to the state. Interesting foresight on George Howard’s part. He came back from fighting in WW2 to find his estate burned down and his two surviving brothers dead. He decided to open up the house to the public and to this day the family still lives there. I guess the lack of privacy for the Howard family is a small price to pay to live in such an amazing home.

Next we drove through the North York moors, which were stunningly beautiful. I still don’t quite understand what a moor is, I just know that the Kate Bush song ‘Wuthering Heights’ refers to them as being wild and windy. I’ve never read the book but I’m thinking maybe I should. At least now I can picture the landscape in which it takes place. Or maybe I’ll rent the movie. The film Brideshead Revisted was shot at Castle Howard, so many I can watch the two of them some time as some kind of Yorkshire double bill.

We got the full moors experience at a little village called Hutton-le-Hole, where we stopped and had yet more tea and scones. The place was literally crawling with sheep, not fenced in or anything. One came up behind me while we were taking our tea and let out a deafening “BAAAAA!” right in my ear. It nearly scared the guts out of me.

We also stopped at Rievaulx Abbey in the moors as well, which was pretty amazing. It was established in the 12th century by a group of Cistercian monks from France, shortly after the Norman conquest. The ruins are in surprisingly good shape, and you’re really able to get a feel for the layout of the monastery as you walk around. The abbey was destroyed during the reformation by Henry VIII after he split from the Roman Catholic church and confiscated the property from most of the monasteries. This seemed to have a traumatic effect on the North akin to the “harrying of the North” by the Normans judging by the way it is described by the guides at the churches and monasteries up there. They all seemed ready to spit at the ground every time they mentioned Henry VIII’s name.

Northumbrian by Nature

As we headed further North, the local accents became more and more difficult to understand. We had already been struggling to understand Manc, Scouse, and Tyke accents, and we were hardly prepared for the Teesside, Pitmatic and Geordie accents waiting for us in the Northeast. Luckily I recently discovered this handy guide to the 37 different English accents in the UK) The Teesside accent we encountered in Darlington was particularly difficult to understand. The whole Tees Valley was kind of a nasty place, a blighted post-Industrial conurbation.

We spent the next night in Durham, another old city first set up by the Normans, with a remarkable Norman Castle and Cathedral. The Castle is in surprisingly good shape, but it is completely owned by the university at Durham and options to see it are fairly limited. As a town Durham was kind of underwhelming, it’s a university town and the fall term hasn’t yet started. Durham is considered the third best British university with a collegiate system (after Oxford and Cambridge), often derided as a fallback choice for people who didn’t get in to the first two (what we call “safety schools” in the US). I have to say if you were planning to go to Oxford or Cambridge and ended up at Durham instead, it would probably be a bit of a disappointment. The town is alright, but it just doesn’t compare to Oxford or Cambridge (and is obviously a lot further to London!).

We spent the first half of our last day looking at the ruins of Hadrian’s Wall, the defensive ramparts that marked the Northern boundary of the Roman Empire. The wall basically runs straight west from Newcastle to Carlisle, in the neck section of Great Britain that gets quite narrow before it becomes Scotland. We explored the ruins of a Roman Fort at Chesters, one of the border crossing points on the wall that would have served as a sort of immigration check and customs house of Celtic travellers wishing to enter and leave the Empire. Looking at the wall I thought a bit of the US-Mexico border, trying to imagine this line as the dividing point between wilderness and the greatest empire the world had ever seen to that point. The comparison probably isn’t too apt though because Mexico isn’t exactly barbarian wilderness, and even the areas to the South of the wall were still dangerous, wild places during Roman times. In fact the better comparison looking at the fort would probably have been to a small US base in Afghanistan, an outpost in the middle of a dangerous wilderness where the empire tried to recreate the comforts of home for the Roman troops. The bathhouse of the fort, located just to the side and by the river, is remarkably well-preserved. One can only imagine what the native Celtic population thought of these strange Romans and their bathing rituals. Perhaps it’s the same as what Afghanis think of the supermarkets and movie theatres set up on American bases. From my brother’s description of his time at Bagram Air Force Base, this is what it sounds like anyway.

The last stop was Newcastle, where we encountered the slightly underwhelming Angel offering us a greeting. Newcastle was pretty grimey, but they have made clear efforts to fix up the riverfront section along the Tyne. They’ve built this massive concert hall on the Gateshead side of the river that looks like some kind of giant glass worm. Neither me my architect friend cared for it.

The thing in Newcastle that will stick in my head the most though is the bizarre situation of the Norman Castle, which gave the town its name when it was built as a “new castle” by William the Conquerer’s son shortly after the Norman conquest (an event featured in the Bayeux Tapestry). However all that is left of the castle today is the central keep, and it is now surrounded by a dizzying intersection of Victorian-era railway bridges, under which it is almost lost (pictured below). It would be a bit as if the only thing left of the Tower of London complex was the central keep (the tower itself), and the City of London completely surrounded it with motorways and rail tracks. Not exactly picturesque! Still, it was interesting to go inside, and to learn about all of the various strange uses the Geordies have put it to through the centuries (it at various points held a barber shop, brothel, mansion home, cess pit and trash heap).

We then took the three-hour train ride back, which I mostly spent grumbling about the lack of high-speed railways in Britain. People often fly from Newcastle to London actually, as absurd as that may seem.

All in all it was a great trip, and I was able to experience a part of the UK I had very little knowledge of before. Living in London it often feels like you’re not really in England, and you can often feel like you’re in a little bubble separated from the rest of the country. So it’s good to get out into real Britain every once in awhile and see the sights.

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