Friday, 16 December 2011

An itinerant decade

I came to a startling realization yesterday. 2011 will be the first year in a decade that I have not moved to a different city during the course of the year. Since 2001 I have packed up and moved to a new city at least once each year. And there has actually never been a year in my adult life where I haven’t moved to a new apartment! 2001 and 2011 have the exception of being years where I moved to a new apartment, but in the same city.

I say ‘startling’ because it’s a kind of bizarre way to live one’s life, constantly moving to new cities. Of course not all of those moves were to unfamiliar cities I had never lived in before – a lot of this was moving away from New York, then returning, then leaving again. But now that I’ve managed to stay in one city for an entire calendar year, does it mean I’m settled here in Belgium? If it does, I don’t feel it. I’m in a good place in my life here – I’m enjoying what I’m doing, have an interesting job, good friends and a good apartment. So I think I’ll be here at least another couple years. But could I live the rest of my life in Belgium? Absolutely not. So when will I know when it’s time to leave?

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

This isn’t about the UK any more

The markets have returned to panic mode today as their confidence in national governments to approve the new Eurozone financial consolidation treaty wavered. Ratification has hit some bumps in the road, with Finland’s prime minister expressing dissatisfaction with the transfer of authority over national budgets to the EU on Tuesday. In Ireland, the opposition parties seem keen to force a referendum on the issue even if the country’s legal services rule that one is not required.

The euro fell below $1.30 today, its lowest point in a year. Yields on Italian bonds widened to new highs. It’s a familiar pattern we’ve seen repeated several times now: markets rally upon news of a new European Council agreement, but then crash a few days later when they look at the details and realise it’s not as strong as they’d hoped. The UK's abandonment of Europe may have been the big story on Friday, but now the more important story sets in - the markets have not been satisfied.

But there seems to be some confusion in the British media though about what this all means vis-à-vis the UK’s decision to veto the attempt at treaty change on Friday. The Spectator has run a column from the Eurosceptic think tank Open Europe scolding the British media for describing the UK as isolated as a result of the 26 vs. 1 outcome last week. There isn’t really any such divide, Open Europe insists, because many other member states support the UK’s reticence. As evidence that all is not what it seems, they run through the list of objections to the new treaty being expressed in national capitals this week.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Last-minute surprise deal in Durban to save Kyoto

Chaos may be erupting at home in the European Union, but in South Africa news came this morning that the EU has scored a surprising success in international climate talks. A binding roadmap for a globally binding agreement by 2015, which the EU had demanded in exchange for continuing the existing commitments of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, was signed this morning by all greenhouse gas emitters – including the US and China. It is the first time all major emitters have agreed, in principle at least, to binding emissions reductions.

It was truly surprising news. As of Friday (the day the talks were supposed to end) it looked like they were going to collapse in failure. Though the EU had been able to convince Brazil and South Africa to sign the roadmap, the US, China and India were still refusing. There was fear that Durban would end with no deal, which would mean the end of any internationally binding emission reduction commitments. It would have essentially taken climate talks back to 1995 and made a mockery of the UN process.

The US and China did not participate in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, which committed nations to binding emissions reductions by 2013. The Clinton Administration signed the Kyoto Protocol, but by the time it came up for ratification in the US the George W. Bush administration had taken over - and they refused to ratify it. They said they would not participate in a binding protocol that did not include China, now the US’s biggest competitor.

Friday, 9 December 2011

9 December 2011: The day Britain left Europe

David Cameron emerged as the villain of the hour in the early hours of this morning as news broke that after tense all-night discussions, the UK has vetoed treaty change to save the faltering euro. The meeting then went to plan B, forging ahead on a new treaty with just the 17 countries of the eurozone. But nine non-eurozone countries then said they would also sign the new treaty, leaving the UK as the lone one out. This may sound like a small detail, but in reality it is huge. As the world press is reporting this morning, this effectively means the UK has begun the process of leaving Europe. And even the UK’s usual allies in the American media were aghast.

“UK Threatens Eurozone” headlined ABC News this morning. “UK to Euro nations: We’re out, good luck” heralded CBS News this morning. The reason for Cameron’s veto is bound to make him even more unpopular globally. In order to give his assent to the treaty change, which would not have affected Britain but only the countries using the euro, he demanded that the UK be given an opt-out from proposed increased regulation on banks and financial traders. That financial transaction tax (or 'banker tax') proposed by the EU earlier this year had nothing to do with last night's negotiations.

France and Germany balked, and Cameron walked. As one journalist friend noted last night, "The UK has refused to help solve the crisis because it wants to help the banks who started the crisis." Because the other 26 members walked away and went ahead without Britain, it means the financial transaction tax is still on the table, and the situation on that issue is unchanged from what it was before the summit. Cameron walks away with nothing.

Putting the global economy at risk in order to protect London City traders may not be the most popular stance given the current economic crisis. And Sarkozy emerged from the meeting this morning eager to exploit this. “You cannot have an opt-out and then ask to participate in all the discussion about the euro that you did not want to have, and which you also criticised,” Sarkozy declared to the press after emerging from the meeting at 5:30 this morning. It took Cameron a full half-hour after Sarkozy spoke to comport himself and figure out what he was going to say in his own press conference.

Thursday, 8 December 2011

Cameron's choice tonight: will UK be inside or outside the room?

The degree to which the Left has become irrelevant in Europe was in evidence today as the European People’s Party (EPP), the EU grouping of Europe’s centre-right conservative parties, met in Marseille. The annual meeting of centre-right leaders, which coincidentally is this year a day before the final European Council, has toda become a first round in the treaty change talks. US Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner has been there meeting with Europe's Conservative leaders, helping them to devise a strategy to save the Euro. Every leader who is important in this process was there today.

But it is not only the Left that is noticeable in their absence today in Marseille. Despite being a centre-right conservative leader, David Cameron is not there either. That’s because in 2009 Cameron took the decision to take his Tory party out of the EPP group and create a new, europsceptic grouping called ‘European Conservatives and Reformists’. That group is essentially just the British Conservatives, with a few hard right parties from Eastern Europe thrown in for good measure.

That decision, which was the fulfilment of a promise he made to the Eurosceptic wing of the Tory party in 2005 in order to be appointed party leader, may well be weighing heavily on the British leader’s mind today. He has already been locked out of the discussions amongst Eurozone leaders to devise a strategy to end the euro crisis. Now he is also locked out of the pre-summit meeting today in Marseille where so much of the strategy is being formulated. The later is a self-inflicted wound, and must be particularly hard to take considering it’s hard to see how creating a new EU group has benefitted the Tories in any way.

Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Kicking them while they’re down

It wouldn’t have taken much to make the US-based ratings agencies less popular in Europe. But Standard & Poor’s decision last night to put all 17 countries that use the euro on review for a possible downgrade has left European leaders seething with anger. Just two days before the make-or-break European Summit that was supposed to save the euro, the markets seem to have decided that whatever the European heads of government decide will not be enough.

Just hours before the S&P news broke, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy had emerged from an emergency meeting in Paris outlining a plan for rapid and fundamental treaty change in order to stem the crisis – to be agreed on Friday. That, combined with Italy’s unveiling of drastic austerity cuts over the weekend, caused European markets to rally and Italy’s long-term borrowing rate to fall below 6% on Monday afternoon – the lowest it’s been since October. But S&P soon put an end to the party by announcing that the AAA ratings of the FANG countries (Finland, Austria, Netherlands and Germany) are in jeopardy. Without that AAA rating these countries can’t hope to bail out the collapsed economies of the PIGS (Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain).

It’s not hard to see what influenced S&P's decision. Merkozy - I mean, Merkel and Sarkozy - had emerged from their meeting at the Elysee Palace in almost lock step. Sarkozy, who has been pleading with his German counterpart for months to embrace the idea of ‘Eurobonds’ that would collectivise European debt, suddenly did an about-face.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Customs, security and immigration - learn it, live it, love it

I have many irrational pet peeves, and many seem to involve air travel. One of the most silly may be my disproportional irritation when people use the word 'customs' when they really mean immigration or airport security. But as silly as this little hang-up is, it actually does make a big difference not only to public policy but also to your rights and plans as a traveler. And yet I hear people confuse these three things very often when they're telling their travel stories, even frequent travelers. I'm in Switzerland this weekend visiting my father, himself a very frequent traveler, and I was just explaining the difference to him. So I thought it might be helpful to write a blog post about it.

Customs, immigration and airport security checks are three distinct processes you may encounter at an airport or border crossing. Sometimes you may have to go through all three, other times you just encounter one or two and other times you won't go through any. It all depends on which countries you're traveling between. For instance, when you travel between Belgium and the UK you go through immigration, but not customs. When you travel between Belgium and Switzerland you go through customs, but not immigration. If you're flying between Belgium and Finland you would only go through security, the same as you would if you were flying between Florida and California. Confused yet? Here's a quick guide.

Thursday, 1 December 2011

After 18 months, Belgium will have a government again

Belgium will make history this weekend in two ways. When a new government is finally formed on Sunday it will end the longest period that any country has gone without a government in modern history. And when Elio di Rupo is appointed prime minister, Belgium will become the first country in the world to have an openly gay male head of government.

I've specified 'male' because Iceland actually beat Belgium to the punch for the first gay leader of any sex – their openly lesbian Socialist Prime Minister Johanna Sigurdardottir was elected in 2009. In both countries the leader’s sexual orientation has been of little concern to the public or the media. In Belgium it is rarely ever mentioned, and in Iceland people were actually confused in 2009 when their PM’s sexual orientation received worldwide attention.

The sexual orientation of Di Rupo, also a Socialist, isn’t the only thing that makes him a different sort of politician. He is the son of Italian immigrants – a sizable population in Belgium’s Wallonia region who are descendants of the Italians who came to work in the mines in the early 20th century. This fact prompted one Belgian politician to say Di Rupo was evidence that the “American dream” is possible in Belgium.

Wednesday, 30 November 2011

Brussels – enter at your own risk

Fontainas, a cafe in central Brussels that could best be described as the headquarters of the city’s gay community, is shut down this week. Its doors have been closed since an incident Sunday night that sent a man to the hospital with severe stab wounds.

News of the attack, which has been spreading like wildfire through social media all week, seems to have left the city’s gay community shocked yet unsurprised at the same time. The storyline has become a familiar one in Brussels. Three drunk men entered the café, began hurling homophobic abuse at the people inside, and before long a violent altercation ensued. The details of what took place are still unclear, but the incident was serious enough to shut the doors of this Brussels landmark since Sunday. And although homophobic attacks are unfortunately common in Brussels city centre - an area of the city that is known for its crime and grime - this incident has still caused huge shock because the establishment is so well-known. Even the soon-to-be Belgian prime minister, who is openly gay, can often be seen there.

A movement has been growing to try to pressure the city authorities to do more to keep the city centre safe since a gay-bashing attack in June that many saw as the straw that broke the camel's back. A man was beaten by a group of young men near the Bourse (stock exchange), just next to Grand Place, because he was gay and behaving in an effeminate manner.

Monday, 21 November 2011

Europe's left has vanished from the map

It's a process that's been long in the making, but this weekend's election in Spain seemed to be the final nail in the coffin for European Democratic Socialism - at least for the moment. With the fall of the Socialist government of Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero in Spain, following on the heels of the fall of Socialist prime minister George Papandreou in Greece two weeks ago, the EU is now left with only two centre-left governments - Denmark and Austria.

The already dwindling left was already not in a good position, with just five centre-left governments out of the 27 EU states at the beginning of the year. Four of those governments have since fallen, including the collapse of the Slovenian government in September (new elections, which the Left is certain to lose, will be held next month). Only the Austrian government has survived, and they were joined by the Danish social democrats who won a trend-defying election in September. Cyprus, which has a communist (but in truth more nationalist) government, does not sit with the centre-right grouping in Europe.

At the same time, five governments now have provisional or technocratic governments - effectively under the control of the markets and the dominant centre-right governments of Europe. The presidencies of the three institutions of EU governance - the commission, the parliament and the council - are all held by the centre-right. The situation is unprecedented. The irony is, at this time of crisis when Europe seems to be tearing itself apart, the governments of Europe have never been so ideologically united - at least in terms of the left-right divide.

Friday, 18 November 2011

The new Italy: this is what technocracy looks like

Former EU commissioner Mario Monti, appointed as Italian prime minister on Sunday after Silvio Berlusconi was forced by the markets and EU leaders to resign, had his ‘technocrat government’ approved by the Italian parliament today.

Neither Monti nor the members of his cabinet have been elected by the Italian people. They are not politicians but instead experts in their respective fields. The 'government of experts' has been brought in because, it was thought, both within and outside Italy, the Italian political system is so broken that only unelected non-politicians could be trusted to implement the reforms EU leaders say are necessary to prevent the country’s economic collapse.

American readers may be wondering how on earth a national leader in a democracy could come into power without having been elected. It has to do with a quirk in parliamentary democracy. Members of the upper houses of many of Europe’s parliaments (their equivalents of the US Senate) are appointed rather than elected. A prime minister can come from either house, so if the parliament wishes to appoint a leader who has not been elected they simply have the president appoint that person to the senate.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Angela and Dave fight it out over EU's future

It’s the fundamental question facing the EU today: should the union integrate, or disintegrate? In two duelling speeches yesterday the British prime minister and the German chancellor took polar opposite positions on the answer.

David Cameron’s speech, delivered just hours after Angela Merkel delivered a speech to her conservative CDU party conference calling for further European integration, appeared to be a direct response to the German chancellor. Describing himself as a Eurosceptic, Cameron said the EU had overreached in its ambitions and that the euro crisis is "an opportunity, in Britain's case, for powers to ebb back instead of flow away and for the European Union to focus on what really matters".

Merkel’s speech hours earlier had delivered the opposite message. Telling the audience that Europe faced its greatest challenge since the second world war, she said, “The task of our generation is to complete economic and monetary union and build political union in Europe step by step…that does not mean less Europe, it means more Europe.”

Considering the influence of the UK in Europe compared with the influence of Germany, it was a bit like a pygmy picking a fight with a giant. Cameron’s argument may find a sympathetic audience with the British press, but among national governments – even those in his ‘Northern bloc’ – the idea that the crisis is an opportunity to pull Europe apart is not very alluring. But whether or not the UK actually has the influence to sell Europe on the idea of downgrading the EU to merely a free trade zone, the fact is this may happen anyway. But few outside Britain would describe this as a desirable outcome.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Are we done with democracy?

It has been a dramatic week for Southern Europe, with the elected leaders of both Greece and Italy falling as a result of pressure from the markets. Both are to be replaced by unelected technocrat governments, with former EU economists being appointed to replace them. It would appear that the democratic political systems in both countries were incapable of delivering a solution to the debt crisis. The unprecedented situation has prompted uncomfortable questions. Given the North Atlantic crisis the West has found itself in and seems to be incapable of extracting itself from, is democracy failing?

This was the question being asked on the BBC's Newsnight programme Wednesday night. Italian economist Vito Tanzi said during the interview that a government of unelected technocrats can do what elected politicians cannot - tell people the truth and push through unpopular but necessary reforms. "It can do a better job of informing people what needs to be done. I think that is the problem that the Italians were told for many years that there were no problems, that nothing needed to be done when the situation was progressively getting worse. If you have this kind of government, then sooner or later you get in trouble. The technical people would know better and would tell people what the consequences are of continuing with current policies"

He was of course speaking of his friend Mario Monti, the former EU Competition Commissioner who is set to be appointed new Italian prime minister.

In Greece, it was announced yesterday that another EU official, former European Central Bank vice president Lucas Papademos, will be appointed prime minister of Greece. Neither of these men has ever been elected to any office in their home countries. But both were appointed by their countries to their EU positions, and both earned praise for their performance in those positions. Greece and Italy are joining the two EU countries which already have provisional unelected governments - Slovakia (whose government collapsed after the parliament refused to back the Greece bail-out) and Belgium.

Tuesday, 8 November 2011

Berlusconi is finished - for real this time

This blog has predicted the imminent resignation of Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi many times. In fact I counted, and in the past six years the blog claimed on five separate occasions that his sex and corruption scandals were about to topple him. After all it was hard to believe that a leader facing the kind of allegations he has faced could have held on to power. But this is Italy, and the normal rules don't apply.

But now it seems that the markets have accomplished what common decency couldn't - they have forced Silvio Berlusconi out of power. Tonight the Italian leader announced he will step down.

Rumours to this effect were swirling yesterday, causing European markets to rally and the euro's value to shoot up. But then Berlusoni issued a denial of the rumours on his Facebook page (where else?) and the markets tumbled. This was a clear sign: the markets had lost any shred of faith in Berlusconi to implement the reforms he promised European leaders last month. Berlusconi has survived many things, but when it came to the all-powerful markets that seem to be calling the shots these days, he was no match.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Who is the villain in the eurocrisis movie?

Cannes has seen its fair share of cinematic flops over the years. But this red carpet-laden city on France's south coast has never seen a political flop like the one it witnessed over the past two days. It had all the elements of an edge-of-your-seat political thriller: high stakes, sudden plot twists, personal rivalries and looming global disaster. But who is the villain in this particular script? Today there was plenty of finger-pointing to go around.

The leaders of the world's 20 richest countries intended to come to Cannes to come up with a solution to global economic crisis which is quickly spiraling out of control. But a shock announcement Tuesday from the Greek prime minister that he would hold a referendum on Greece's acceptance of the bailout package worked out last week changed all that. The resulting outcry threw the Greek government into disarray, putting it near collapse - which could have precipitated a global emergency. The leaders of the 20 richest countries in the world ended up working out nothing, spending the entire summit glued to their blackberries waiting for news from a tiny country in the Mediterranean.

The leaders left Cannes tonight with nothing to show for their meeting. No plan to save the eurozone, no funding, and no consensus. Indeed the G20 summit has ended with the world in a worse state than it was in when it started. Europe, and the world, could be just days away from economic collapse if the Greek government collapses tonight in a no-confidence vote scheduled for midnight.

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Was it all for nought?

Greek Prime Minister George Papandreou is getting an earful today at the G20 summit in Cannes from world leaders furious at his shocking and sudden call for a referendum on the Greek bailout on Tuesday. The surprise announcement sent markets into a tailspin and seemed to, in an instant, eviscerate the deal painstakingly crafted last week by European leaders to save the euro. Now for the first time EU leaders are today openly talking about Greece leaving the Euro. Was last week's all-night negotiating session all for nothing?

Papandreou is facing the same level of fury at home, much of it coming from within his own party. His own finance minister broke ranks shortly after the announcement and reacted with incredulity to the idea of calling a referendum. Papandreou's Socialist government is now hanging by a thread as it looks like he will have to step down or face an imminent vote of no confidence.

Reports coming out of the G20 meeting this afternoon indicate that Papandreou may have been convinced to cancel his call for a referendum. But whether he cancels the referendum or his soon-to-come replacement does, it will only serve to enrage the Greek public further. Promising them a referendum and then snatching it away is undoubtedly worse than having never promised a referendum at all.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

'Occupy London' pits bishop against bishop in Church of England

Today I paid a visit to the 'Occupy the London Stock Exchange' protestors who have camped out outside St. Paul's Cathedral in central London. It was a fascinating visit, I sat in on a 'general assembly' and also observed a conversation between an occupier and a banker that was being filmed for a British TV station. But what is perhaps the most interesting to me about the Occupy movement in London is the strange standoff it's not found itself in with the Church of England.

The 'occupy movement' has spread from its initial manifestation in August at Wall Street in New York to cities around the globe. On 15 October activists in London decided to stage their own version in the city's financial quarter ("the city"), the second most important financial centre in the world after Wall Street. They initially tried to occupy Paternoster Square, which is where the London Stock Exchange sits. But because the UK courts had already granted an injunction against public access to that particular square, police blocked their access to it.

So the 3,000 protestors moved to the nearby small open space next to St. Paul's Cathedral, the massive domed city landmark in the city built by Christopher Wren in 1697. The police surrounded the protestors in order to protect the cathedral. But the canon of St. Paul's told the police to leave. He said the church had decided to allow the protestors to protest peacefully on their land.

Thursday, 27 October 2011

Just Lips service?

So the Euro is saved, for now. At 4am European leaders finally emerged from their talks to tell the fatigued journalists that after hours of very difficult negotiations, they had come to an agreement that will give the markets what they are demanding.

Perhaps it was the late hour, or the fact that the Polish presidency had closed the press bar at 11pm, but the journalists covering the summit initially greeted the announcement with scepticism. Many questioned whether the "bazooka" just unveiled really had the firepower to shield Spain and Italy from collapse. After all, this was not the first time the press had been held captive until late into the night in the Justus Lipsius building - or 'Just Lips' as I like to call it - to be told at the break of dawn that the euro would be saved. So in the end, was this just lip service? Or was this the decisive action the markets needed to see?

The agreement has three prongs:
  • Private banks holding Greek debt will accept a loss of 50% on their Greek bonds
  • The eurozone's main bailout fund (the European financial stability facility or EFSF) will be leveraged to €1 trillion.
  • Italy will implement reforms to bring down the country's staggering debt, including a lowering of the retirement age.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Will Europe be saved tonight?

I'm here at the big EU summit in Brussels, the D-day event that is being billed as the last chance to save the Euro and prevent a collapse of the European economy. Even if the leaders emerge from those fortified doors having done everything the markets are asking, there will still be a long road ahead in this crisis. But this could be the moment they were finally able to turn the tide and appear in control.

Or it could be remembered as the moment where the entire European project collapsed. The tension in the press room is palpable. It's hard to say if it's coming from the stressed-out journalists or seeping in from the inner chambers where the European leaders are meeting. Either way, I would venture to say the Justus Lipsius building (or 'Just Lips' as I like to call it) is one of the most tense places on earth at the moment.

The markets need the leaders to come out of those doors and tell the press room two things: First, that they have amassed a trillion euro war chest to protect all of the Southern European economies, including Italy and Spain, from collapse. Second, that Italy has agreed to put in place a drastic austerity plan in line with what is being imposed on Greece.

US-EU trade war looming over airline emissions

This week the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban US airlines from participating in the EU's emissions cap-and-trade scheme. It is just the opening shot in what is likely to be a nasty trade war between the two blocs over the coming months. The winner will determine whether 72 million tonnes of CO2 are emitted into the Earth's atmosphere over the next eight years.

While international climate talks have stalled the EU has pushed ahead with its own unilateral action on climate change, the keystone of which is the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Under the scheme industries with heavy emissions are capped on the amount of greenhouse gases they can produce, and if they want to emit more they must buy credits from others who are using less than their cap. The scheme is already up and running, but starting in January airlines will be included. The decision to include airlines in the scheme was taken back in 2008.

This will mean all airlines that fly in or out of the EU must purchase carbon permits. The plan has not met with significant resistance from the European airline industry, but it has met ferocious resistance from American, Indian and Chinese airlines. US Airlines have challenged the law at the European Court of Justice, but the court has already indicated it will rule against them. So the airlines have now turned to the US Congress, and they have found a receptive ear.

Monday, 24 October 2011

UK sidelined as Cameron faces attack from Sarko and his own MPs

David Cameron's quest for influence at this week's Eurozone crisis meetings is meeting headwinds, to say the least. First French president Nicolas Sarkozy tells him to 'shut up' at yesterday's summit, and now he is facing a rebellion his back-bench Eurosceptic MPs.

Tonight the rebels will try to force a vote in the parliament to set a public referendum in the UK on its EU membership. Cameron opposes such a referendum and has instructed his party to vote against it, as have the leaders of his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour. But 70 Conservative MPs are expected to defy him and vote for a referendum.

Of course, the measure has no hope of passing. But commentators and the markets,will be focused on the message that the rebellion will send at this precarious and sensitive time. British foreign secretary William Hague, who is himself quite eurosceptic, told the BBC that the vote being forced by the back-benchers is "the wrong question at the wrong time" and has likened it to "a piece of graffiti". The vote will "create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time," he said.

Cameron has imposed a 'three-line whip' on his party to vote against the measure, which is the most serious whip a party can issue. Any MPs who disobey will be expected to resign from government jobs. Cameron has said the preceding Labour Party should have held a public referendum on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, and he has pledged to hold a referendum on any future treaty changes. But he says an 'in-out' referendum would be counter-productive. This is likely because he knows such a referendum could easily yield an 'out' result, plunging the UK into a diplomatic and economic crisis.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Indignant occupiers and the EU’s ‘sink or swim’ moment

The past few weeks have witnessed a remarkable coalescence between the months-old ‘Indignados’ movement that started in Spain and spread to other European capitals with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement that started in New York and spread to other American cities. Coordinated demonstrations and unrest took place this weekend in from London and Paris to Brussels and Frankfurt.

I was in Italy on Saturday when Rome saw the worst of the violence outside Greece, and the news coverage was clearly unnerved in tone. Everyone is now wondering – where is this all going?

The protests on both sides of the Atlantic are expressing the same frustration: people feel powerless and confused by a North Atlantic economic crisis where solutions seem to be dictated by the all-powerful 'markets'. It's reminiscient of how the Pope in Rome excersised ultimate authority over kings and queens in midieval Europe. Now European and American leaders follow the dictates of 'the markets'. In 2008 following the Lehman Brothers collapse, the US congress was told that it must immediately pass a rescue package for the banks or 'the markets' would panic, causing economic catastrophe. Now European leaders are being told that they must immediately inject an enormous amount of cash into the struggling Southern European economies to prevent 'the markets' from panicing.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Two different animals

If you needed evidence of just how different the British Conservative Party is from the American Republican Party, this week's party conference provided two particularly illuminating illustrations.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron stood before the yearly gathering of Conservative Party members – similar to the 'national conventions' in the US – and said he wholeheartedly supports gay marriage and will work to enact it in the UK next year (to replace the current civil unions). This was met with thundering applause in the hall. Try to imagine the reaction if a presidential candidate said this to the Republican National Convention!

In the second example, a huge row has developed after the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May used an incorrect fact in her speech to the conference. Explaining why she wants to dismantle the Human Rights Act, which is the British transposition of the European Convention on Human Rights, she listed as an example a case where the act's requirements meant that there was an "illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat."

As it turns out, she was making this up. As the decision shows, the actual verdict against deportation had nothing to do with a pet cat, the decision was instead due to a mistake made by the Home Office's prosecution. A pet cat, which had been mentioned in the appellant's brief along with his partner as reasons why he has a home life in the UK, was merely mentioned by the judge in his verdict as an attempt at humour. It was later revealed that May had taken the cat story from a speech made by UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Knox verdict: another humiliation for Italy

These are embarrassing times to be Italian. The country is in a financial mess, on the precipice of becoming the latest victim of the debt crisis. The prime minister is now regarded even by most Italians to be a national embarrassment, yet he still clings to power. The waste crisis in Naples has spiralled out of control, and Italy's handling of migrants from North Africa during the Arab Spring has drawn condemnation from human rights groups and European leaders alike. Even their prime minister has heaped scorn upon Italy, calling it a "shitty country". The last thing Italians needed was another embarrassment.

As I write this, Amanda Knox is boarding a plane in Rome, heading back to her home in the US after four years in an Italian jail for a crime the judiciary now says she did not commit. Yesterday's verdict of innocence, the conclusion of the most closely-watched Italian court case in decades, brought jeers and condemnation not just from the crowd of Italians outside but also from the Italian media. Many in Italy see the verdict as the judiciary bending to American pressure. But other Italians agree with the sentiment felt abroad - particularly in the US – that the Italian judiciary and police system are so flawed there was no way Ms Knox could be convicted without significant doubt about her guilt.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

What would the world look like without the EU?

They used to say that when America sneezes, Europe catches a cold. That’s certainly what they (and I) were saying during the 2008 economic crisis, when misadventures on Wall Street and the subsequent collapse of Lehman Brothers created a disaster that quickly spread to Europe. How the tables have turned. Now the US is waiting helplessly to see if Europe can avoid a disaster that would eclipse Lehman Brothers in scale and could throw the US back into recession.

It’s a testament to just how important Europe has become to the global economy that it is now Europe’s sneeze that can give the world a cold. The EU is now a larger market than the United States, and over the past twenty years it has literally become the world’s regulator. Is it conceivable that this entire project could now collapse?

This is the question that is now being asked in the United States. When I was home last weekend I was asked by friends, “Is the EU going to fall apart?” Trying to show a bit of false confidence, I assured them that it is not. Germany is in the end going to suck it up and do what needs to be done to save the euro, I insisted, because the alternative is complete economic meltdown. The vote for the increased bailout fund today in the German parliament seems to go some way in justifying that optimism. The truth is that Europe’s problems are not insurmountable.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

EU banker tax? UK says no

"In the last three years member states - I should say taxpayers - have granted aid and provided guarantees of €4.6 trillion to the financial sector. It is time for the financial sector to make a contribution back to society. That is why I am very proud to say that today, the Commission adopted a proposal for the Financial Transaction Tax."

With these words European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso put forward what is bound to be an enormously controversial piece of EU legislation, a transaction tax on bankers and investors who invest in stocks, bonds and derivatives. Speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg today for his annual 'state of the union' address, Barroso said the tax would bring in €55 billion per year, starting from 2014.

The language used by the president was clearly populist in nature, emphasising a sense of fairness and responding to a public feeling that the bankers who caused the economic crisis of 2008 have never been called to account and have not been asked to contribute to the recovery from the pain they caused. Stock markets and investment firms have made remarkable recoveries over the past few years, and executive pay has steadily risen. But at the same time the economy as a whole has suffered enormously and continues to suffer.

Monday, 26 September 2011

Sakozy loses French Senate to the Left

Small signs of hopes for the European left continue to mount. In a vote over the weekend the French Senate changed hands from Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right UMP party to the Socialists. It is the first time that the Senate has ever been out of the centre-right's control since the creation of the current French state in 1958, and it is a stunning setback for the French president just seven months ahead of France's general election.

So is this outcome a harbinger of a wider reascendance to power for the left, not only in France but also in Europe as a whole? Like the recent centre-left victories in Latvia and Denmark, this news comes with some important caveats. For starters, French Senators are not directly elected by the French people. They are instead chosen by 150,000 local officials throughout the country. These include mayors, city councelors and regional councelors as well as members of the lower house, the National Assembly.

In terms of power the French senate is much more similiar to its British cousin the House of Lords than to its American counterpart. The real power in France, after the presidency, lies with the National Assembly. The Senate can propose law and it must sign off on law, but like in the UK with the House of Lords, they can be easily overridden by the lower house and the president. Like with the House of Lords the French senate is often considered a refuge for people who used to be important, such as former assembly members or cabinet officials.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Palestinian UN bid divides Europe

I'm at JFK about to fly back to Brussels, and all around the airport you can see signs of this week's general assembly at the United Nations. I saw several pro-Israel and pro-Palestine demonstrations scattered around the city over the past few days, mostly outside hotels where I assume diplomats and leaders were staying.

Despite the best efforts of the United States and her allies to convince him not to, Palestinian National Authority President Mahmoud Abbas went ahead on Friday with his request to have the UN recognise Palestine as a 'non-voting observer' member. The machinations around this have been described as a slow-motion "diplomatic car crash" by diplomats. Coming as it does in the middle of the 'Arab spring', the United States knows it will look bad if they use their veto in the security council to deny the request. On the other hand, their close alliance with Israel means that the US government believes it has no choice but to veto the move.

But will the US be the only one to issue the veto? And which US allies will support the bid in a full assembly vote? Europe is showing characteristic disunity on the issue. France, which also holds veto power on the security council, is supporting the Palestinian bid. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Belgium and Luxembourg have joined France with their support.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Bike sharing coming to New York?

I’m in New York City today, I’ve come home again for a baptism that was rescheduled due to last month’s hurricane.  It’s just a short trip for the weekend, so I’ve only brought a carry-on bag. Because I’m traveling light, I was able to take a bike to the train station this morning, which is always nicer than taking the tram.

I use the Brussels bike-share scheme every day actually, it’s quite nice to have in a city with not very comprehensive public transportation. It’s quite simple really. For €30 a year I can check out a bike from any the stations scattered around Brussels and return it to a different station at my destination. It’s free as long as I return it to another station within a half hour. If I want to take it out for longer, it’s €1 for every 30 minutes. It’s particularly nice because my apartment is downhill from my office, so I take the metro to work and check out a bike to coast home.

Today I’ve learned that New York is considering implementing a similar scheme. But will it work in New York as well as it’s worked in European cities?

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

DADT repeal: US joins the Western world

Yesterday America's infamous Don't Ask, Don't Tell ban on gays in the military was officially repealed. It was a hard-fought battle for the Democratic Party, and the Obama administration was keen to publicize the fulfillment of one of the president's key campaign promises. It wasn't easy, and the past three years have been met with opposition and setbacks.

The level of jubilation from Democrats was incredible, but understandable considering how long they have fought to end this ban. But looking at the situation in a global context, the excitement over a rather small policy change might seem strange. After all, until Tuesday the United States was the only country in the developed world that still had a ban on gays serving in the military.

Barring gays from military service is illegal under European law, and no such ban exists in any EU state - even in ultra-Catholic Poland or Italy. In fact the only country in all of Europe to have a ban on gays in the military is Serbia. In Latin America, the only countries to have bans on gays in the military are Cuba and Venezuela. As can be seen in the map above, the divide between gay bans (in red) and no gay bans (in blue and gray) mirrors the divide between the developed and developing world. Gay service bans are common in Africa and the Middle East.

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

Lib Dems declare 'rhetoric war' on Conservative allies

This week's Liberal Democrat party conference in the UK has been generating big headlines in the British press as each successive speaker tries to outdo the previous one in denouncing the party's coalition allies. But do the harsh words signal an impending divorce with the Conservative Party, or are they merely a move to stop the freefall in Lib Dem support.

According to opinions polls the party has lost more than half of its supporters since its decision to join with the Conservatives to form a coalition government last year. A subsequent u-turn on tuition fees and the loss of the alternative votereferendum – the prize they had been awarded for allying with the Conservatives – has sent the party to what some think could be their lowest popularity ever. This despite the fact that they are now in government for the first time.

The language being used at this week's conference shows the party is going to try a drastic change of tact in order to stop the haemorrhaging of support. Though they have been restrained in showing major disagreement with their coalition partners over the past year, after this week the honeymoon is clearly over - rhetorically at least.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Another small victory for Europe's Left - or is it?

Saturday's general election in Latvia yielded a victory for the country's centre-left coalition Harmony Centre. The coalition won the largest amount of seats in the parliament. But though this may seem like yet another promising victory for Europe's left following Thursday's election in Denmark, the facts on the ground are a bit more complicated than that.

Harmony Centre is a coalition between the Social Democratic Party and the Socialist Party (the communists). The SP is essentially an ethnic Russian party, formed in 1991 to replace the Communist party after the country achieved independence from the USSR. Though the new state was formed around the Latvian ethnic and linguistic identify, in fact less than 60% of people in Latvia are ethnically Latvian. Almost 30% of the country is made up of ethnic Russians, some of whom moved there during the Soviet period but others of whom have lived there hundreds of years. The majority of the ethnic Russians cannot speak Latvian. In some of latvia's largest cities they constitute the majority of residents by far.

Friday, 16 September 2011

Denmark's election: is the Left clawing its way back?

The centre-left Social Democratic Party scored a victory in yesterday's closely-watched general election in Denmark, ending the 10-year reign of a conservative coalition that had been moving steadily further and further to the right.

The campaign of the centre-left coalition, called the 'Red Bloc', was centred around a promise to raise taxes on the country's investment banks and wealthiest citizens, reversing a trend of decreasing corporate taxes led by the previous government. The victory for this message is a stinging rebuke to the current austerity crusade dominating the governments of Europe. The Social Democrats, led by Helle Thorning-Schmidt (pictured above), promised to actually expand Denmark's welfare system, which is already one of Europe's largest. They have also promised to use the proceeds from increasing taxes on investment banks and the wealthy to improve roads, schools and hospitals.

So is this a sign that Europe's hobbled left may be on it's way back? Are voters across Europe growing tired with the messages of the right and ready to turn to a new direction? Or are the circumstances of this change in direction limited to Denmark?

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Will Europe federate, or separate?

People here in Brussels have cautiously started to use the F word again. Though it has long been banned from people's vocabulary after the traumatic experience of trying to ratify the EU constitution and Lisbon Treaty, ‘federalism’ is again being heard in the corridors of power. The federalist idea – to create a "United States of Europe" – back.

European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso signalled as much in an impassioned speech to the European Parliament this week in Strasbourg. "What we need now is a new, unifying impulse – a new federalist moment," he told MEPs. "Let’s not be afraid of the word – a federalist moment is indispensable.” Federalist parliamentarians rejoiced. The people may have rejected the idea of a European superstate, but now the markets are stepping in and demanding one. Could it be that the fulfilment of the 'European dream' could be triggered not by Europeans themselves, but by the markets they've created?

The federalist rejoicing may be premature. All that is clear right now is that the EU cannot continue operating the way it has. Europe is at a crossroads, and it is being pulled in two different directions. On one hand, the public has grown weary of the European project and the mood of the day is calling for more local control. There is an increasingly vocal minority in Europe who want to see the EU project walked back for the institutions Brussels has built up to be dismantled. On the other hand, the economic circumstances and the euro crisis are pushing Europe toward greater federalisation in order to avert a catastrophe. The markets are calling for more integration, and European leaders agree with them.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

US tells Europe to act quickly on euro crisis

Barack Obama delivered some sobering words to Europe this week, saying the world economy will remain weak and destabilised unless EU leaders take action to stem the Euro crisis. It's not the first time the US has expressed frustration with what they say is a slow and inadequate European response to the situation, but the president's words were the most stark to date.

Obama said he will put the issue at the top of the agenda for the G20 meeting in France in November. "[European leaders] are taking some steps to slow the crisis but not solve the crisis," the president told a group of journalists at the White House. "The bigger problem is what happens in Spain and Italy if the markets keep making a run at those very big countries?" Few would disagree with the president on these sentiments, but it might be hard to take from a country which almost deliberately drove itself to default because of its broken political system.

Friday, 9 September 2011

War of words between PIGS and FANGs

The European Commissioner from Spain delivered a surprising attack yesterday on the Northern European countries pushing Southern Europe to adopt painful austerity measures. The comments follow a controversial proposal from the Dutch prime minister earlier this week which called for EU member states struggling with debt to be put under the 'guardianship' of the European Commission, surrendering their ability to make their own financial decisions.

"There are member states, in particular some of the most powerful -- Germany, Netherlands, Finland, Austria -- who feel that they don't have this kind of problem," Almunia told a group of business executives in New York. "[They believe] they don't need to make an additional effort to compensate the lack of resources of the countries who have the most difficulties to reduce imbalances."

The rhetoric was then ratcheted up to an even more dramatic level today when the European Commissioner from Germany told the tabloid Bild that if indebted (read: Southern) EU countries refuse to comply with new rules on debts and deficits, their flags should be flown at half mast outside institutional buildings. Mourning the loss of fiscal prudence, perhaps?

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Could Strasbourg battle pit country against country?

The long-running battle between the European Parliament and France over where the institution's permanent seat should be located has reached boiling point in recent months, following the parliament's vote in March to combine two of its mandated Strasbourg sessions into one. The fight has now been taken to the European Court of Justice, and following a call from Dutch parliamentarians today, the war could for the first time pit member state against member state.

The official headquarters of the European Parliament, as mandated by the EU treaties, is Strasbourg, France. The EU treaties require the parliament to meet there twelve times a year. But for well over a decade the working offices of the parliament have been in Brussels, where the other EU institutions are based (they surreptitiously built a giant parliament building there by telling France it was going to be a "conference center"). So once a month the entire European Parliament is made to make a five hour trek from Brussels to Strasbourg to hold three-day sessions. It would be like the US Congress uprooting itself once a month to hold sessions in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

The majority of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) hate the monthly "traveling circus". A 2007 survey by Liberal MEP Alexander Nuno Alvaro showed that 89% of MEPs want to end the Strasbourg sessions. MEPs have tried to force the issue several times, but changing the treaties to end the Strasbourg requirement would need the unanimous approval of all member states – and France has always promised to veto such a move. They are insistent that one of the EU capitals should remain in France – even if no actual work is done there and it is merely a place where things already agreed are rubber-stamped.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Germany backs bailouts – for now

The markets are breathing a sigh of relief today after Germany's constitutional court ruled that it is legal and in line with the EU treaties for the country to be bailing out its struggling Eurozone neighbors. But the jubilation may be short-lived, because in its ruling the court sewed a minefield of potential future obstacles that will have to be dealt with in the coming months.

The ruling was in response to a lawsuit from Eurosceptic German citizens who said the bail-outs of Portugal, Ireland and Greece to stem the European debt crisis are unconstitutional because the German parliament should have control over taxpayer money, rather than the European Central Bank. The court rejected that argument, saying Germany's participation did not amount to an excessive burden on the country's budget, nor did it constitute a significant transfer of power away from Berlin.

Germany is by far the largest contributor to the bailout funds. If the judges had sided with the challengers in this ruling today it would cast Germany's ability to participate in those bailouts into question, which in turn would have thrown the markets into turmoil. Instead, the announcement this morning sent European stocks shooting up. Amongst the German public, who are growing weary of what many perceive as Germans being on the hook for the profligate spending of their Southern neighbors.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

EU still terrified of treaty change

During today's midday briefing a European Commission spokesperson emphatically insisted that any tightening of economic integration in the Eurozone will not require treaty change. Reporters in the room didn't seem to be buying it. It's not hard to see why, after the president of the European Central Bank said yesterday that such a change would require such a treaty change.

It's an uncomfortable situation for the EU, which only recently was able to pass the long-stalled Lisbon Treaty after a painful and embarrassing six year saga. There is now a consensus that the only way to save the euro from the contagion of the debt crisis is to establish a tighter economic union between the countries that use the currency, essentially establishing a single finance ministry instead of having separate economic policies for the different states.

But there is fear that doing so will require yet another treaty change, and Brussels is worried that another round of treaty change approval by member states would be a disaster. There is still uncertainty over whether such changes would meet the threshold for UK Prime Minister David Cameron's 'cast-iron guarantee' to hold a public referendum on every treaty change. Because of the widespread antipathy toward the EU in Britain, it is guaranteed that any referendum on an EU question would fail – even if it is on a question that doesn't directly concern Britain, such as the eurozone (the UK does not use the euro and would therefore keep its own finance ministry).

Monday, 5 September 2011

Conservative Party may disband in Scotland

In an attempt to shed its image as an 'English party', members of the Conservative Party in Scotland are considering splintering off from the Tories and forming a new Scottish centre-right party. The move, which would not be the result of any policy disagreement with the Tory leadership but rather for identification issues, reflects just how strong regionalism has become in Europe in recent years.

The change is being proposed by Murdo Frasier, a candidate in the current race for a new leader of the Conservatives in Scotland. The Tories have been pretty much banished from power by Scottish voters for over a decade now, ever since a massive defeat in 1997. They currently hold only 15 of the 129 seats in the Scottish Parliament and only one of Scotland's 59 seats in the British Parliament. Since 2007 the largest party in the Scottish Parliament has been the Scottish National Party, which wants to seceed from the UK.

Frasier has centred his leadership campaign around a promise to break this trend by dissolving the party, which he says has become a "toxic brand" in Scotland because people see it as representing the interests of Westminster over Edinburgh. The new party would likely not even have the words "conservative" or "tory" in its name.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Berlusconi: Italy is a "shitty country"

He's survived sex scandals, corruption investigations and insurrections – but can Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi survive in his post even after insulting the country he rules? Considering the shocking vulgarities he has been caught using while referring to Italy in a secret recording, this may be too much for even the Teflon Prime Minister to fend off.

The recording, made in July but released this week, catches Berlusconi saying he wished he could leave Italy – saying it is a "shitty country" that "sickened" him. The recording was made by Italian police, who were investigating allegations that Berlusconi was paying a man to corroborate his story that he was unaware the women supplied to him for his infamous "bunga bunga parties" were prostitutes.

The transcript of the recorded conversation came to light after police arrested a wealthy Rome businessman and his wife in a raid at dawn on Thursday, charging them with blackmailing Berlusconi. They allegedly demanded payment from Berlusconi in order to keep quiet about arranging the prostitutes for him. Berlusconi has admitted paying them but says he wasn't blackmailed and did it voluntarily.

Tuesday, 30 August 2011

As US recovers from Irene, GOP may hold relief funding hostage

I've just returned to Brussels after a weekend of trying to navigate the hurricane-hit Northeast US. It was a bit of an adventure trying to get from Connecticut to JFK airport yesterday, navigating around floods and downed trees. As I flew out on Monday I had the feeling I was being airlifted out of a disaster zone.

Though Hurricane Irene itself may have packed less of a punch than the worst-case-scenario predictions, the aftermath of inland flooding and power outages is creating a mess from New Jersey to Vermont. And according to reports, funding for the recovery effort may be the subject of political brinksmanship in Washington over the coming weeks and possibly months.

I had gone to New York for two weeks for my grandparents' 60th wedding anniversary and my new nephew's baptism, both of which were scheduled for this past weekend. Needless to say, both were cancelled. I had to quickly make adjustments to my plans on Friday as predictions for the hurricane got progressively worse and the New York City mayor announced all public transport would be suspended from noon on Saturday.

Tuesday, 16 August 2011

British police don't want American supercop

David Cameron's announcement last week that he is appointing former New York City police chief Bill Bratton to guide the UK through its response to the riots has been met with a barrage of criticism from the country's police chiefs. The war of words over the appointment of the controversial 'supercop', who implemented New York's "zero tolerance" approach to policing in the 1990's, has exposed a deep rift between Westminster and Scotland Yard, and the atmosphere is only getting more heated.

Bratton gained fame as New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's right-hand man in implementing the "broken windows theory" of policing in the city. The theory states that petty crime leads to serious crime, so the 1990's led to a serious crackdown on minor offenses. It turned New York from one of the most crime-ridden cities in the Western world to the safest large city in the United States. But on the flip side, many say it has turned New York into a virtual police state, where officers can arrest you for anything.

The original plan was reportedly to appoint Bratton as London's police commissioner, but this was shot down because he is not a British citizen. So instead he has been appointed as a government adviser. But even this has angered Britain's police chiefs, who say Bratton's 'zero tolerance' approach to policing in America is not appropriate for the UK.

Friday, 12 August 2011

Can the odd couple save Europe?

The European debt crisis has spread to France, with new concerns that the country is about to get its credit rating downgraded sparking fresh panic in the markets this week. In charistaristic style French president Nicolas Sarkozy has sprung into hyperaction, running around Paris giving speech after speech to reassure the markets he is taking drastic austerity steps. But his announcement yesterday that he and German chancellor Angela Merkel will hold a crisis meeting in Berlin has confused his German counterpart. "What meeting?" was her response.

Apparently this "crisis meeting" Sarkozy was referring to had already been planned before the rumours of a French downgrade started. Now senior figures in the German government are reportedly annoyed with Sarkozy's urgent tone this week, as Merkel has preferred to project a calm, level-headed response. She is reportedly unnerved by Sarkozy's extreme reaction and thinks it will spook the markets even further. next week's meeting, the Germans think, should not be portrayed as a "crisis" meeting.

The incident is typical of the relationship between the two leaders. Sarkozy is brash and impetuous, Merkel is reserved and thoughtful. As often as Merkel is accused of inaction, Sarkozy is accused of overaction.

David Cameron's 'Katrina moment'

Members of the British parliament were called back from their vacations for an emergency session yesterday to deal with the country's riots earlier this week. The past two nights have been quiet - a combination of bad weather and a surge in police forces seems to have done the trick. But now the political storm begins, with the public demanding to know how the situation could have gotten so out of control.

The focus of much of the public's ire has been prime minister David Cameron. He was seen to be back-footed during the crisis, spending the first few days of the rioting insisting he would not cut short his vacation in Italy, and only returning to the country after the riots got very serious Monday night. The media has been referring to it as his "Katrina moment", referencing the back-footed response of US president George W. Bush to Hurricane Katrina in 2005. The incident is being seen as a defining moment of his premiership, and he has been much maligned for it. The above gag photo of his speech on Tuesday from photoshoplooter illustrates the public's perception of his response.

Cameron has been working overtime to dispel that image over the past few days. In yesterday's emergency session he aggressively denounced the riots, saying the behavior of this bad element of society could not be excused by social factors or circumstances. And though his party often criticised the opposition Labour party for introducing "knee-jerk legislation" after crises during their time in government, he floated no fewer than six new policies. These include a ban on face masks in public, increased curfew powers, allowing courts to ban children from gathering in certain places and, most controversially, he said he is considering allowing temporary bans on social media during times of social unrest.

Thursday, 11 August 2011

Switzerland considers pegging to the euro

With the world's main currencies in crisis, the historically stable Swiss Franc has exploded in value over the past year. This has had a disastrous effect on the Swiss economy, as its exports and tourism industries struggle under the effects of a drastically overvalued franc.

This was in clear evidence earlier this month when I took a trip on the Glacier Express train across the Swiss Alps with my father. Ordinarily this scenic tourist train would be packed in August, having sold out months in advanced. But our train was nearly empty. When we finished our journey in Zermatt, home of the Matterhorn, the city was dead quiet. It looked like three-quarters of the rooms in our hotel were vacant.

It makes sense. After all, who can afford a vacation in Switzerland these days? It was already an incredibly expensive country, and the current exchange rate close to one euro to one franc (three years ago it was 60 cents to one franc) makes it unaffordable for most tourists from France, Germany and Italy. When my father moved from the US to Zurich in 2006 the exchange rate was 80 US cents to one franc. Today it's $1.37 to one franc. Given that a value meal at McDonalds costs 15 francs ($20), it's a difficult place to be if you don't make a Swiss salary.

Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Britain's teenage riot

London was ablaze last night as an unprecedented wave of violence and looting spread throughout the city, spreading to other cities in England. It was the third day of rioting in London, initially sparked by the police shooting of a young black man in Tottenham last week. But last night saw the situation explode and quickly spread after the government and the police appeared to lose control of the situation.

The rioters carrying out the violence were mostly children, teenagers in hooded sweatshirts covering their faces, bashing in store windows and setting cars on fire. I've written before about how Britain is terrified of its own children. Last night was a shocking manifestation of that problem. A 2008 poll showed that more than half of British adults are afraid of British children, believing they behave like animals and pose an increasing danger to themselves and others.

The images from last night are truly shocking, particularly the fires. It was the largest number of simultaneous fires London has seen since the blitz. There were reportedly children as young as seven taking part in the violence. What precipitated the violence was the fatal police shooting of a young black man last week in Tottenham. The police say he had a gun and was shooting at them, but his family says he was unarmed. The facts surrounding the case are still unclear.

Monday, 8 August 2011

Europe's choice: anger voters, or drop the euro

The Eurozone's finance chiefs took the extraordinary decision last night to "actively" buy up Italian and Spanish bonds, in a last-ditch attempt to try to stop the market freefall that is spiralling out of control. Following the downgrading of the United State's credit rating for the first time in history over the weekend, everyone is waiting this morning with baited breath to see whether the good news of the European bond buy-up will be enough to outweigh the bad news of the American downgrade.

The decision to have the European Central Bank buy up Italian and Spanish bonds is a huge step toward  fiscal union in Europe, and it did not come easily. Last week it looked like Europe's leaders were intending to reject any such move when they announced Thursday that they would buy only Irish and Portuguese bonds. This was effectively pointless because both of these countries are already getting EU bail-outs, and the markets took it as a sign that the ECB would not buy the Italian and Spanish bonds. This caused a panic, the bond yields of those countries plummeted even faster than they were earlier in the week.

The heart of the problem is this: the markets are demanding that the EU rapidly establish stronger fiscal union so that individual states don't collapse under the debt crisis and bring the common currency down with them. Essentially, the European Central Bank needs to take on the debt of the struggling economies. But European leaders are resisting doing so because the public mood for further European integration is so low right now. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Is America too old to function?

One of the most frequent clichés I hear as an American living in Europe is that the US is a 'new country' while nations on this continent are 'old'. It is usually used to explain away American peculiarities, as if the US is a naïve child who just hasn't had the time to attain the wisdom of the more mature, centuries-old European states.

But however often it's repeated, this common wisdom is patently false. As a country, the United States is older than the vast majority of European states. At the time of the US declaration of independence in 1776, the states of Belgium, Norway, Germany, Italy, Finland, Romania, Slovakia, Greece and Latvia had all never existed yet in any form. And that's just to name a few. The fact is that European nations are actually quite young - and that is what makes them more agile in the face of modern problems than the United States.

Even the European countries which did exist in some form in 1776 - such as Spain, Portugal, the Netherlands and France - today barely resemble what they were at that time. The Kingdoms of France and Portugal in 1776 are now republics with completely different systems of government. And going in the other direction, the Dutch Republic in 1776 - a loose confederation of provinces - bears little resemblance to today's Kingdom of the Netherlands.

The US has had the same governing structure since 1789, the date that marks the founding of the current American republic with the adoption of the US constitution (which replaced the previous Articles of Confederation in place since 1776). The US has used the same government system since then. Contrast this with France - whose current republic has only been in place since 1958 – or the Federal Republic of Germany, which dates from 1949. Other founding dates of current European government systems include: Italy – 1947, Spain – 1978 and Poland – 1997.

In fact the only European governments that could legitimately claim to be older than the US government system are the constitutional monarchies of Britain, Denmark and Sweden – but even this is arguable since they have had significant constitutional changes over the past 200 years.