Thursday, 27 January 2011

"Yes, but is it art?" EU says no

The art world is all aflutter this month after word got around that the European Commission has decided that a light installation by Dan Flavin that was on display in a London museum cannot be considered "art".

Back in 2006, an oddly-named London modern art gallery called Haunch of Venison decided to display Flavin's 1973 work Six Alternating Cool White/Warm White Fluorescent Lights Vertical and Centred along with Bill Viola's 1995 work Hall of Whispers. Both of these works had to be imported from the United States. They were shipped with the customs classification of 'works of art,' which benefit from a special EU value-added (sales) tax of 3.7%.

But when the works arrived at the UK border, Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs decided that the assortment of fluorescent lights and projectors that made up the installations were not art but rather light fittings and audiovisual equipment. They were charged the normal tax rate of 17.5%. But bizarrely, while classifying the materials as 'not art' for the purpose of their tax rate, they decided to assess the value of the components based not on their worth as light fittings and video equipment but on their market value as works of art - a huge amount of money.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Irish government falls

Ireland is set to be the first country to see a government fall as a result of the eurozone crisis, following yesterday's announcement by the Green Party that it is deserting the governing coalition. The news has thrown Ireland into political turmoil as politicians tussle to set the date for an election whose result will be anything but certain.

In a hastily arranged press conference yesterday the leader of Ireland's Greens, an environmental party, said there had been a "breakdown in trust" between the two parties and the Greens patience had reached an end. The ruling Fianna Fail party, which has governed Ireland almost continuously since 1987, failed to get an outright majority at the last general election in 2007 and so formed a coalition government with the Green Party to put them over the edge.

But the government has been under fire over the past year because of its handling of the debt crisis. The Irish public largely blames Fianna Fail not only for presiding over the boom period of heavy borrowing and the housing bubble, but also for its decision to bail out the Irish banks by guaranteeing their holdings and for accepting an EU bailout fund with strict conditions attached. The pressure became so acute that on Saturday Prime Minister Brian Cowen (pictured above) resigned as leader of the party, though without resigning as the prime minister - a situation highly unusual in a parliamentary democracy. Apparently this was all too much for the Green Party, which announced it was bolting just 24 hours later.

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Belgian shame rally: can ideology be fought with neutrality?

Today more than 34,000 Belgians marched in a demonstration across Brussels demanding that the country's bickering politicians reach a compromise in the ongoing talks to form a government. Belgium has been without a government for 224 days now, the longest government-less period for any European country since the end of the Second World War. As the political crisis continues with no end in sight, there are increasing worries that this could finally be the end of the line for this country, which may be on the verge of splitting into separate Dutch-speaking and French-speaking halves.

I was out at the "Shame Belgium" march today and I was impressed by the very large turnout. It was particularly notable because the demonstration was not organised by unions or political parties, as is usually the case, but rather by a group of five young people via Facebook. The demonstration had no political or regional allegiance - organisers even said it didn't even have an official unionist or separatist stance. In fact the organisers even discouraged people from bringing Belgian flags, though clearly everyone chose to ignore that advice. The stated purpose of the rally was simply to demand that the politicians urgently get on with their negotiations to prevent the country descending into crisis.

Friday, 21 January 2011

Germany ends the draft

This month, with little fanfare, Germany saw the end of the military draft that has been in place since the end of the second world war. German commentators seem to be having a mixed reaction - with some saying it will end an era of shared service that will be replaced by an army where only the poorest and least educated serve. On the other hand others have said the change was long overdue, and that such a draft, particularly in modern pacifist Germany, was an antiquated idea and a perverse violation of individual freedom.

Conscription was introduced in West Germany in 1957 in an effort to ensure that the military could never again become an elitist 'state within a state' with its own political power, as existed during the Nazi period. If the military was made up of all different types of citizens – regardless of social class, ethnicity or political affiliation – it would become an extension of the state that couldn't be turned against the state (or any segment of its population).

Thursday, 20 January 2011

EU targets Europe's last dictatorship

The EU is threatening to cut off relations with its Eastern neighbour Belarus and impose a travel ban on its leaders following a brutal crackdown on dissidents in the country during a rigged election last month.

It is perhaps the most crucial test of will yet for the EU's first foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton, who is expected to issue an ultimatum to 'Europe's last dictatorship': release the political prisoners arrested during the election or fact a travel ban in the West. She will push EU foreign ministers to adopt the travel ban on 31 January, and all indications are that they will all comply. The US may then follow the EU's lead with joint sanctions.

Today the European Parliament adopted a resolution calling for the EU to impose a travel ban and asset freeze on all Belarusian officials, judges and security officers involved in the violent crackdown. They are demanding that Belarus re-run the elections in accordance with international standards before the sanctions can be lifted.

Is David Cameron forming an Anti-European Union?

Nicolas Sarkozy's plans for a "Mediterranean Union" may be floundering, but at the other end of Europe British Prime Minister David Cameron is just getting started with plans to form a 'Northern European Union.'

The leaders of Britain, Sweden, Denmark, Norway, Finland, Iceland, Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia are all meeting in London today to discuss the potential for a grouping which Cameron is calling an "alliance of common interests". He wants to boost trade between the UK and the Nordic and Baltic countries, but also to increase the flow of ideas. These include ideas on technology and economic and social policy, areas in which Northern Europe has similarities and expertise that are not necessarily shared by many countries in other parts of Europe.

Cameron insinuated as much yesterday when he said a northern grouping could become an "avant garde" for economic growth in Europe. And of course, Northern European countries have deep historical ties as most were ruled by Denmark at one time or another. And before the EU came along the Nordics had their own attempted intergovernmental union, the Nordic Council.

Wednesday, 19 January 2011

Hungary refuses to budge as EU condemns media crackdown

Hungary has come out swinging in defence of its new media law which critics say curtails press freedom and seeks to stifle dissent. The country's new combative conservative prime minister Victor Orban delivered an icy rebuke today to the European Parliament assembled in Strasbourg, following two weeks in which MEPs and national governments have been strongly critical of the new law.

Even before he started his address, several MEPs covered their mouths with gags and held large banners that read 'censorship'. But Orban warned the assembled EU lawmakers that they were insulting the Hungarian people. "We lived under a dictatorship for 40 years," he chided. "I will not stand for you contesting the democratic aspirations of Hungarians."

Orban has maintained that the media law contains similar measures to what has technically existed (but has not been enforced) in many Western European countries for decades. He says the liberal media laws set up as the country transitioned to democracy after the collapse of communism were far too loose, allowing the press to say anything they want with impugnity. His new government has had to take action to rectify the problem, he says.

Monday, 17 January 2011

Britain hurt over Obama's warm words to France

A compliment from President Barack Obama used for his French counterpart Nicolas Sarkozy during a state visit in Washington last week has raised more than a few eyebrows in the UK.

Speaking after his meeting with Sarkozy, Obama told assembled journalists that, “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people.” Almost immediately the British press went ballistic. After all, the UK is supposed to be America's number one ally in the world through their so-called "special relationship" (a term used ad nauseum in Britain, but one I've never once heard in the US). The Daily Mirror wrote, "It shatters the idea that Britain still has a special relationship with the US." The Daily Mail wrote that the words are "evidence that Mr Obama does not cherish the special relationship." An editorial in The Telegraph wrote that the statement, "represents an extraordinary sea change in US foreign policy," adding that "such a remark is not only factually wrong but also insulting to Britain, not least coming just a few years after the French famously knifed Washington in the back over the war in Iraq."

By contrast, in France the statement barely registered with the media. The only thing the French media reported about the comments was that Obama called France an "exceptional partner". Any gloating about France supposedly overtaking its long-time rival as America's best friend was absent from the French press.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Chaos around the Mediterranean

The explosion of violence this week in Tunisia, the smallest and most affluent country of North Africa, is just the latest unrest to affect the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. From East to West and North to South, the region seems to be on the brink of becoming a hot zone for political crisis.

Rolling riots have broken out against Tunisia's authoritarian president, and the government has cracked down on the protests in such a violent way that the country appears to be headed for political collapse. Across the sea, the government of Lebanon collapsed on Wednesday, and the situation threatens to descend into violence as the various factions vie for control.

Not too far away in Greece, the country is still reeling from massive protests against the government's austerity cuts that have been forced by the debt crisis that has plunged the country into political and financial chaos. And at the western end of the sea, Spain continues to face protests over its own austerity cuts in response to its debt crisis, and the country hangs by a thread as it desperately tries to avoid financial collapse.

Wednesday, 12 January 2011

UK throws a spanner into EU integration

British prime minister David Cameron survived a potential party revolt last night after successfully guiding his "European Union Bill" through a key vote in parliament. The bill, which honours a campaign promise to require every EU Treaty change be put to a public referendum in Britain, has been derided by the Conservative Party's hardcore Eurosceptic wing as being a soft touch.

The hardcore Eurosceptics are furious that the bill would make an exception for "minor" treaty changes, such as the upcoming establishment of a permanent financial rescue mechanism to aid faltering Eurozone states. The Tory leadership has insisted any designation of a treaty change as "minor" would be open to challenge by citizens, but the Eurosceptics counter that the final decision would be made by a judge and therefor the bill is not really "putting power back in the hands of the people" as Cameron claims. The rebel MPs say that what Cameron promised during the campaign was to submit every change, no matter how small, to public vote. They are alleging that the bill has been watered-down to appease the pro-European Liberal Democrats, who the Conservatives are now in coalition with.

But in a showdown vote last night the Eurosceptic rebels were only able to convince 39 coalition MPs to vote against the bill. The opposition Labour Party also voted against it, though they weren't exactly profiles in euro-defending courage in doing it - saying only that it was a 'distraction' from more pressing issues. The bill sailed through this stage of the process and looks set for passage.

Today the British media are heralding a victory for Cameron over the hardcore Eurosceptics who were unable to intimidate the prime minister into enacting a harsher bill. So hooray hoorah, on to the next subject. Brussels must be elated to have been spared this harsh retribution, right?

Monday, 10 January 2011

Mexico on the Aegean

Is there anything more controversial than a wall? From Berlin to Palestine to Mexico, border walls have often proven to be as incendiary as they are ineffective. Recently, Greece signaled to the European Union that it wants to build a wall along its border with Turkey similar to the wall that has been partially built along the US-Mexico border. But the European Commission was quick to shoot down the idea last week, saying walls and barriers are merely short-term measures that cannot solve the EU's immigration problems.

Greece has been struggling to deal with a huge influx of illegal migrants trying to cross its land border with Turkey after the EU cracked down on illegal sea crossings from Africa to Europe via the Mediterranean over the past two years. According to the Greek government, 200 illegal migrants are crossing its land border with Turkey every day. These migrants aren't Turkish, instead they have crossed through Turkey from countries further afield in Central Asia and Africa. And since Greece is in the passport-free Schengen Zone, once the migrants get in they can travel to almost all other EU countries (with the notable exception of the UK and Ireland who have opted out of Schengen) without having to show identification.

America unhinged

Perhaps the only thing more depressing than this weekend's assassination shooting of US Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords was the fact that it was so utterly unsurprising. The shooting, which for the moment remains an attempted assassination as its intended target fights for her life in hospital, so far has a death toll of six out of 20 people shot. For many observers in the US, the shooting is the culmination of two years of incendiary rhetoric from the right, an episode of far-right violence that people have been warning was coming soon. When you have mainstream American politicians telling people that the government is trying to establish "death panels" in its healthcare legislation and that there has been a "Socialist takeover" of the government that can only be brought to an end using "second amendment remedies", it was only a matter of time before some unhinged person on the far right acted out in violence.

The motives of the shooter, Jared Lee Loughner, are not yet clear. In fact authorities are looking into the possibility of a second shooter. It is not yet known whether Loughner had any specific ties to the Tea Party movement, whether he was an admirer of Sarah Palin, or whether he was a fan of incendiary Fox News hosts such as Glenn Beck and Bill O'Reilly. But from his online postings and notes, it already seems clear that Loughner subscribed to far right ideology. His online postings and YouTube videos rant against government tyranny, using language that is eerily reminiscent of the language the mainstream right has been increasingly using. In one of his postings, Loughner refers disparagingly to 'currency that's not backed by gold or silver' - an idea that is the subject of regular rants on Mr. Beck's show (right before his commercials for gold investment). This idea that a non-gold-backed currency is unconstitutional was also a main focus of the anti-government 'patriot movement' of the 1990's that was responsible for violence in the middle part of that decade. Loughner also went on long rants about immigration, particularly Hispanic immigrants in Arizona.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Belgium's 'invisible' EU presidency comes to an end

As the clock struck midnight last Friday, it wasn't just 2010 that was coming to an end. Here in Brussels, the new year also meant the end of Belgium's six-month period at the helm of the EU, as the country handed over the baton to Hungary. It was an interesting period for the rotating presidency, held for the entire six months by a country with no government. Yet despite the domestic political chaos, the presidency actually seemed to run fairly smoothly - or at least there weren't any noticable disasters. In fact if you weren't looking for it, you might have missed the Belgian presidency alltogether. It was a low-key, almost invisible affair.

Perhaps this was exactly the type of presidency that the EU needed at this time. After all, the Lisbon Treaty's creation of the new posts of President of the European Council and High Representative for Foreign Affairs was meant to downgrade the role of the rotating presidency to that of just a coordinator. Spain was the first country to take over the presidency after the treaty's adoption 13 months ago, and for those first six months of 2010 there seemed to be some confusion about the rotating presidency's new role. The Spanish foreign minister got in hot water a few times for appearing to speak for EU states when that role is meant to now be held by the new EU foreign affairs chief Catherine Ashton. And Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Zapatero, effectively the last Socialist leader left in power in Europe, seemed to be pushing for high-profile agenda items in a way that overlapped with the role of the new European Council president Herman Van Rompuy.

Contrast this with Yves Leterme, who is temporarily holding the Belgium prime minister position as a caretaker while the country continues to struggle forming a government. Leterme was pretty much invisable during the entirety of the Belgian presidency. At the European Councils he was happy to hand the reigns over to Van Rompuy, who as luck would have it is not only a fellow Belgian but also a member of Leterme's own political party. And I'm not even aware of the name of the Belgian caretaker foreign minister, I never heard from him or her at all last year. Given that the caretaker government is not authorised to propose new policy, perhaps this is unsurprising.