Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Snow Chaos: Should Western Europe prepare for colder winters?

I've been at home in the US for the past five days, and boy am I glad I got out of Europe when I did. I decided to head home for Christmas earlier than normal this year because I had a lot of holidays left to take - normally I head home two or three days before Christmas. On Friday morning I woke up to get ready for my flight to find a winter wonderland outside my window. But though the heavy snow caused a delay in my train to the airport, somehow my flight to New York wasn't delayed at all

But apparently after I left that snow just didn't stop falling. It's kept coming and coming, grounding airports in Europe to a halt from London to Milan. Brussels Airport was set to shut down yesterday after they found they had run out of de-icer fluid, but then apparently they found some more. But Heathrow Airport and Charles de Gaul are still ground to a halt as they grapple with the snow and cold. The busiest airport in Europe has now become "Hotel Heathrow" as stranded travelers have been camping out for the fourth day in a row, sure to miss Christmas with their families. The same scene has been seen at London, Paris and Brussels' international train stations, as high-speed lines have been ground to a halt. I sure feel lucky to have gotten here to spend Christmas with my family, but I can't say the same for my friends stuck in London, Brussels, Frankfurt and Paris.

The travel chaos is prompting many questions in Europe, but perhaps the most important is this - is this a freak act of nature, or an example of egregious poor planning by these Western European airports?

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

EU gets tough with Switzerland

Any Swiss citizen working in the EU, or vice versa, should take note of some stern language used toward Switzerland by EU foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday. Warning Switzerland that the system of bilateral agreements that govern the Alpine country's relationship with the EU has "clearly reached its limits," the ministers called the current arrangement incoherent and unwieldy. Switzerland, they warned, is in danger of losing its rights for free movement of goods, persons, services, and capital with its neighbours.

Switzerland's relationship with the EU is governed by a complex system of bilateral agreements which make the country a sort of "semi-member state". Switzerland has to follow certain areas of EU law, but doesn't have to follow others. It participates in the free movement provisions of EU law, which means that any EU citizen can work in Switzerland, and vice versa. It also participates in certain common market rules, but is not part of the customs union (which is why you can buy tax-free goods when flying from Switzerland to elsewhere in Europe). At the same time, as a non-EU member it gets no European Commissioner, has no vote in the European Council and does not have MEPs in the European Parliament.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

Berlusconi, the Italian asbestos – hey, at least he isn't gay!

Incredible, he's done it again! Despite all logical odds, Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi has again narrowly escaped defeat like some kind of reality-defying illusionist. But this is Italy, and perhaps logical odds were never the right indicators to use here. After all this is a country where the prime minister can cling to power even after he's been caught lying to a police station to release from jail an underage Moroccan erotic dancer he’s having relations with. This is a country where half of the administration can be forced to resign after corruption scandals, and yet the leader himself is still left standing triumphantly.

How can one explain this bizarre land south of the Alps? As has often been noted, few other developed countries would tolerate this kind of extreme behavior from their elected leader. In the past this blog has been routinely wrong in predicting Berlusconi’s imminent defeat. I just couldn’t believe that someone could hold on to power after these kinds of revelations were out there. Last year, during the prime ministers scandal-plagued divorce from his wife, allegations of sex with minors, hiring prostitutes and lavish orgies at Silvio's Sardinian villa were everywhere - and the prime minister didn't even bother denying them.

This is why when these revelations about the Moroccan belly dancer (pictured below) came out in October - and Berlusconi issued his subsequent defense of, “Yes I’m passionate about beautiful girls, but it’s better than being gay,” - I didn’t even bother writing about it. Yes, the fact that he got his Moroccan Lolita released from jail by telling a police station she was the Egyptian president’s daughter might have seemed like surely the final step too far. But I had been burned too many times by prematurely predicting Berlusconi's demise.

Monday, 13 December 2010

Anti-Caucasian football riots in Moscow expose World Cup problem

Central Moscow erupted in rioting this weekend as nationalist football hooligans attacked police officers and state buildings. The riots are the result of an explosive mix of ethnic tensions, ultranationalism and football that has cast doubt over the decision by FIFA a week ago to select Moscow as the host of the 2018 World Cup. Today the tensions continue. Hundreds of anti-riot police have amassed around Red Square and the Kremlin.

In Russia, as in much of Europe, football hooliganism often goes hand-in-hand with white supremacy and neo-nazi movements. The spark that lit the fuse for this particular riot came several weeks ago, when an ethnic Russian football fan was killed during a fight with a group of men from the predominantly Muslim North Caucasus region of the Russian Federation. He was a fan of the Spartak Moscow football team and a member of one of its most aggressive fan groups - or "firms" as the Russian hooligan groups like to call themselves. The Caucasian man arrested for the murder was subsequently released, prompting outrage from the Spartak Moscow fans who say the police are favoring the ethnic minorities.

Thursday, 9 December 2010

Violent protests in London as government increases tuition

London was rocked today by the most violent anti-austerity protests yet seen, with Parliament Square becoming the scene of incredible sights of mayhem. The near-rioting took place just outside the Houses of Parliament where, inside, British politicians were casting the big vote on increasing English tuition rates by 300%. Horses charged into the crowd, fires raged and several police officers were seriously injured. Protesters broke into the treasury building and ransacked it. Christmas shoppers on Oxford Street were attacked. Even Prince Charles and Camilla were attacked as they tried to drive to the theatre, with protesters surrounding their car and smashing the windows.

The turmoil outside was mirrored by turmoil inside. The Liberal Democrats, who are in the governing coalition with the Conservative Party, saw a rebellion over the issue. Half of the Liberals defected, as did several Conservatives, shrinking the coalition's 84-seat majority to a majority of just 21 on this vote. The opposition Labour Party brutally criticised the plan, which will for the first time put British students in tens of thousands of pounds of debt after finishing a four-year degree - a situation that will be unique in all of Europe.

OK, now it's the first Citizens Initiative - or not?

Back in October I wrote about how the first "European Citizens Initiative", a new right to petition the EU enabled by the Lisbon Treaty, was going to be about genetically modified crops - or so-called "Frankenfoods" as the European tabloid press likes to call them. Even though the institutions were still crafting exactly how the citizens initiative was going to work, it was thought at the time that citizens could still submit their petitions in the mean time. Plenty of legal wrangling ensued, and the Commission has come to the opinion that it does not yet have to officially accept petitions. The European Parliament, on the other hand, thinks that they do. The issue has still not been resolved, because the Commission and the Parliament can't agree on how the Citizen's Initiative should work.

Today Greenpeace got fed up with waiting and staged a demonstration outside the commission demanding that Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso come outside and officially accept their petition, which calls on the EU to stop approving GM crops. But instead of the commission president, the only one to emerge was Health Commissioner John Dalli. Meeting the activists on the giant 380 square meter carpet containing all 1 million signatures collected, Dalli said "I can assure you that there is a political will to listen to everybody and one million signatures is a voice that we should listen to." Photos were taken, handshakes were made, and Dalli walked back into the Berlaymont building. The commission then quickly put out a press statement saying that the commissioner had "received" the petition. But speculation soon spread both outside and inside the commission headquarters - what does "received" mean? Did the commission officially accept the petition?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Is Obama the world's worst negotiator?

Barack Obama is being attacked by his own party this week after a massive capitulation to Republicans giving large tax cuts to the wealthiest two percent of Americans. For Democrats, two years of frustration over the president's frequent urge to compromise with the opposition while getting nothing in return seems to have bubbled over and exploded in a torrent of anger.

From pundits to politicians, many Democrats were furious on Tuesday over what they see as Obama's lack of appetite for political fights. There was talk of a party revolt in the congress, with Democrats saying they would vote against the Obama-backed deal. The anger got so loud that the president was forced to summon a hastily arranged press conference where he forcefully defended himself against the accusations by his own party and insisted he is indeed a fighter. But his speech, which at times seemed dismissive of the disappointment  felt by his own party, has done little to quell the fury. Take a look some choice clips from the speech in this video clip below.

Monday, 6 December 2010

The Wikileaks dump and Europe

As the wikileaks "dump" continues to drip drip drip into the media, journalists here in Europe have been scrambling to find important policy-affecting observations from American diplomats about the old world. But while revelations about diplomacy in the Middle East and East Asia have been serious and consequential, observations about Europe have veered more toward tabloid gossip. Perhaps it's a reflection of what little strategic importance Europe has to the United States these days.

While diplomats in Asia were writing about how China may be signalling it will no longer protect North Korea, how Saudi Arabia may be gunning for a war with Iran and how Yemen may be taking credit for US attacks, diplomats in Europe apparently thought it was more interesting that French President is thin-skinned and "an emperor with no clothes" or that Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi is "feckless, vain and ineffective." The cables from US diplomats in Europe released by Wikileaks so far have often seem dismissive or mocking when speaking about European politicians.