Tuesday, 30 March 2010

The new power of the pink press? British, Czech conservatives fumble in gay interviews

Surely this is just a bizarre coincidence, but oddly enough two conservative politicians at opposite ends of Europe took major tumbles last week following misstatements in interviews in gay newspapers. Both David Cameron in the UK and Mirek Topolánek in the Czech Republic have run into trouble for ill-chosen words used in interviews they had clearly underprepared for. Does this mean the pink press has come of age?

Last week British Conservative leader David Cameron, who will be challenging Gordon Brown in next month’s general election in the UK, had a mini meltdown of sorts during a filmed interview with the Gay Times. The trouble started when the interviewer asked Cameron why his Tories in the European Parliament failed to support a recent vote criticising a Lithuanian law banning the “promotion of homosexuality” (The image below is an actual campaign flyer in Vilnius for the Lithuanian law). David Cameron seemed completely caught off guard, and could only respond that he didn’t know anything about the vote.

Friday, 26 March 2010

To IMF or not to IMF?

You were lucky yesterday if you caught a glimpse of Angela Merkel running around Brussels like a mad woman. The German chancellor was the center of attention during the spring summit of EU national leaders, as all of Europe looked to her to come to the rescue of Greece, and by extension, the Euro currency.

Merkel was going it alone in her unyielding objection to a bail-out for debt-ridden Greece, and she dug in her heels firmly. After much negotiation she relented and agreed to a bail-out, but on one condition – the American-controlled International Monetary Fund would have to be involved. European leaders are leaving Brussels today with a bailout plan in place, but only as an “emergency measure” to be triggered if Greece goes completely broke and cannot get any more credit.

Though it's stabilised the situation for the moment, the solution devised seems to have truly pleased no one. The euro rebounded from its long decline today in response to the news, but the markets did not reflect much confidence in the measure. Merkel is under tremendous pressure. The idea of a bail-out is extraordinarily unpopular in Germany, where many point out that such a bail-out is specifically forbiddon by the Maastricht Treaty. Many in Germany are saying that a core part of the eurozone agreement was that one state would never have to bail out another in the currency union. That, say some analysts, is why Merkel insisted on involving the IMF. Making the bail-out appear like an international effort will shield her from legal challenges that will surely be launched at home on the basis of the fund's violation of the Maastricht Treaty.

Wednesday, 24 March 2010

A Gallic Plot?

Yesterday there was an amusing story going around about how the French Europe minister has invited Catherine Ashton, the native Brit recently appointed as the EU’s first foreign minister, to learn “the language of diplomacy” at a school near Avignon.

It was more of a tongue-in-cheek jest than an actual offer for assistance, but Ashton has taken him up on it and will be spending a month this summer in the south of France taking French lessons. But of course France’s offer wasn’t really about language. It reflects the increasing French dissatisfaction with Ashton as she creates the new EU diplomatic corps, which they fear is going to be dominated by the English.

Ashton speaks only rusty French, and she will only take questions at press conferences in English – a fact which has deeply irritated the French media. The fact that Ashton does not speak fluent French has been continually pointed out by those who think she is not qualified for the job. This is particularly true in France, where the phrase “the language of diplomacy” is not used with a smirk or as an old-timey throwback, but as their actual understanding of the world. Of course the reality is that French ceased to be the language of diplomacy 70 years ago, but don’t tell that to the French. Even within the EU, English has largely replaced French as the lingua franca since the accession of the Eastern European member states in 2004.

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

The US healthcare bill - what's in it?

Today Barack Obama signs the US healthcare reform bill into law. It's been a long, ugly and draining process, but in the end Obama and the Democratic congress have succeeded in doing what no US president before has been able to - reform the broken American healthcare system.

I thought I'd write a brief entry on what this bill actually entails because I've found a lot of Europeans (and Americans, for that matter) are confused about what it contains. Many of my friends on the left seem to be under the impression that the bill has been watered down so much that it is almost meaningless and will do no good for anybody. People on the right still seem to believe that this is a government takeover of the healthcare system that mandates rationing of care. Neither is true.

Thursday, 18 March 2010

The case of the disappearing Brussels journos

Take a good look at the Brussels press corps, because in a few years it may have disappeared into thin air. That's at least the concern running through the EU capital at the moment, as the number of accredited journalists in the city plummets.

Today I stopped by an extraordinary meeting of the International Press Association (API) that was called together to specifically address this question. I had come by because my company is dealing with a separate issue, the harassment of journalists working in the International Press Centre by the Belgian authorities. As it turns out though, these two issues are probably not unrelated.

In 2005 there were 1,300 accredited reporters in Brussels, more than the Washington press corps (a fact the EU was very proud of at the same time). Today, according to a blog this week by the Economist, the number is just 752. Well, 753 as of yesterday, when I received my accreditation. In the past year alone, almost 200 journalists have left Brussels.

The API meeting was called to approve a resolution demanding immediate action from the EU to stop the hemorrhaging of Brussels journalists. A noble aim to be sure. But during the meeting I couldn't help but feel perplexed by the remedies that API is demanding.

Tuesday, 16 March 2010

Brussels and London in finance face-off

Tensions between the UK and the EU over finance rules seem to be coming to a head this week. No sooner had news broke today that British prime minister Gordon Brown is blocking EU efforts to increase financial regulation of hedge funds and private equity, than word was leaked that tomorrow the UK is going to get a very stern tongue-lashing about the size of its debt. Just two more examples of how when it comes to money, the English Channel is wider than the Atlantic.

Tomorrow the European Commission will tell the British government it must do more to cut its budget deficit, which is as large as that in Greece. Market watchers are growing increasingly concerned that once Greece has hit rock bottom speculators are going to turn to the UK's shaky financial system, hedging against the colossal debt. The UK is not part of the Eurozone therefor the EU has no power to exert control over the UK's plans or punish it, so the communication to come tomorrow could be considered more as "guidance". But it's very public "guidance" that will be humiliating for the Labour party.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

Tories make nice with Europe, but is it genuine?

When William Hague starts making nice with Europe, you know the Tories are getting very worried about their falling poll numbers. Over the past week the Conservatives have been bending over backward to rebut an increasingly successful line of attack by Labour that accuses them of being isolationist.

Yesterday in a speech in London the Conservative's shadow foreign secretary William Hague sounded a very different tone than he was just a few months ago. He insisted that the Tories would play a "leading role" in the EU if they were elected to power in May. Calling the EU “an institution of enormous importance to the United Kingdom and its foreign policy,” he said that the Conservatives’ intention was to be active in Brussels, “energetically engaging with our partners.” It was, to say the least, quite an about-face from the barely veiled contempt the Tories have displayed for the EU as they rode higher and higher in the polls over the past two years.

The speech clearly had two intended audiences. One was an increasingly skeptical British public who have begun to doubt whether the Tories have really changed from theconfused and conflicted party they were in the 1990’s. The other audience was fellow European leaders, particularly Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy, who have been enraged by the Tories’ behavior over the past two years. To say the least, David Cameron’s outspoken criticism of the Lisbon reform treaty did not go over well on the continent. But it was Cameron’s decision last year to remove the Tories from the pan-European conservative party (EPP) in the European parliament to form a new anti-EU party with hard right Eastern European parties which really provoked the ire of the Tories' centre-reight European counterparts. Merkel’s Christian Democrats have reportedly suspended meetings with the British Conservatives since that decision.

Wednesday, 10 March 2010

First week in Brussels

Well I made it to Brussels in one piece, and I’m halfway through my first working week here. The move went very smoothly, and the transition to being here full-time hasn’t been all that jarring considering I lived here for a month last year and have been coming to the office here about once a month over the past year. Still, it should be a very different experience living here than it was just working here.

Given that I moved my whole life in five suitcases via train (with the help of my saint of a boyfriend), it was almost eery how much this seemed like a non-event. I never felt very stressed about it, didn’t spend much time packing and generally didn’t think about the whole thing very much at all. I guess I really do have this moving thing down to a science now.

Tuesday, 2 March 2010

A tea party for Britain?

If you want a laugh this afternoon, check out this video of Tory MEP Daniel Hannan on Fox News in America talking about his efforts to bring the anti-government “tea party” movement to the UK.

The idea that this rag-tag movement of disaffected, gun-toting right-wingers with funny hats could ever catch on in the United Kingdom is laughably absurd. I probably couldn’t think of a more un-British phenomenon. But perhaps the most amusing part of this clip is watching Fox’s Neil Cavuto pretend that he knows anything about European politics.

Who knows how many people actually turned up to Hannan’s little gathering, I certainly didn’t hear anything about it in the British media (a quick check reveals about 100 people showed up). But though he may be on the fringe of British politics and is an unwanted thorn in the side of Tory leader David Cameron, it is important to remember Hannan is still a Tory politician. His brand of populist, anti-government rhetoric is just an extreme representation of a strain of thought that is still deeply engrained in the Tory psyche.