Monday, 28 February 2011

UK ends ban on TV product placement

Starting today television viewers in the UK are going to start noticing a lot more Coke cans, Sony TVs and Motorola phones in their favourite television programmes – as the ban on product placement is officially lifted in the UK. But it won't be the anything-goes system now prevalent in America - product placement for a wide variety of products including unhealthy foods will still not be allowed and viewers will be alerted by a 'P' logo on their screen when they are watching a show with product placement.

The change in policy follows years of lobbying from Britain's private broadcasters, who said they needed the revenue from product placement to ensure their long-term survival. Product placement has been allowed in the European Union since the Broadcasting Directive was passed in 2007. At that time, most EU states that had bans ended them. But the UK opted to maintain their ban, with Labour's Culture Secretary Andy Burnham saying at the time that the UK needed to "maintain levels of trust between audiences and broadcasters, and protect the standards of broadcasting for which Britain is known worldwide."

Wednesday, 23 February 2011

American labour fights back

As the Middle East continues to be rocked by protests, in America the Middle West is experiencing its own protest movement spreading like prairie fire. It started in Wisconsin last week, where the newly-elected Republican governor is trying to pass a union-busting bill that would strip collective bargaining rights from public employees. Union public employees - teachers, prison guards, firefighters - took over the Wisconsin state capital building in Madison and haven't left the area since. And the 14 Democratic senators in the state's senate have left the state so that a quorum can't be reached to vote on the bill.

Since then the protests have spread to other states where Republican governors are trying to push through anti-union bills. Democratic lawmakers in Indiana fled their state yesterday to prevent a vote on a similar bill. Also yesterday thousands of protesters converged on the statehouse in Ohio to protest an anti-union bill there. And in Michigan protests broke out in the state capital of Lansing against that state's union-busting bill.

This isn't all part of a coordinated nation-wide union movement. Rather, it is captal-by-capital rection to a coordinated effort by Republican governors and state representatives to introduce bills which they say are needed to balance the state budgets. But these bills also contain, in the fine print, provisions to strip union organising rights from state public employees. They say the state governments, which are largely broke due to the economic crisis, can no longer afford to pay out the benefits the labor unions have spent decades negotiating for. And in large part, they're right. But in addition to proposing to cut salaries and benefits for public employees, the Republican governors and legislators are also pursuing a secondary tactic: strip the unions of their right to collectively bargain, or their ability to even exist at all. And that is what has attracted the protests.

Tuesday, 22 February 2011

Chaos in EU backyard causing panic

The situation in Libya continues to spiral out of control, and EU foreign ministers are scrambling to figure out what to do about it. After the bloc spent days hemming and hawing about whether it would organise an evacuation of EU citizens, Libyan airspace was closed yesterday trapping thousands of EU nationals in the country.

Now there are fears that the country's erratic and defiant leader Colonel Gaddafi will use the trapped Western foreigners as hostages in what is developing into a tense stand-off with the EU. Over the weekend Gaddafi threatened that if the EU criticised his crackdown on protests he would "unleash a flood" of refugees across the Mediterranean to Italy.

The past few days have seen incredible bloodshed in Libya, where Gaddafi's forces have killed as many as 519 protestors. The Libyan air force is even reportedly bombing the protestors from the skies. Yesterday two Libyan pilots landed in Malta seeking asylum, saying they had been ordered to bomb civilians in the protests.

Thursday, 17 February 2011

Who punched whom? Brussels transit hangs in the balance

There are many expressions that expats have come up with to describe life in Belgium, but perhaps my favourite is this: "It's as if someone made surreal a country." No expression seemed more appropriate on Tuesday when the Brussels transit union suddenly called an immediate strike to protest the fact that a metro conductors had been punched by a passenger. But after a day of chaos with the city's entire transit system shut down, it emerged that in fact it was the conductor who had punched the passenger, not the other way around.

On Monday night the conductor got into an argument with a passenger and then throttled him. Afterward, fearing he would get in trouble, he lied and said the passenger had punched him. Upon hearing this, the transit workers union immediately rallied to his defence and that night, just two hours after the incident occurred, called an immediate strike. Every transit worker walked off the job, and did not come back the next morning.

So when I and everyone else went to the metro station Tuesday morning we found it shut - with no explanation. There was no sign, no people telling us what was going on, nothing. I had to go all the way back to my apartment and go online to find out what was going on. All metro trains, trams and buses didn't run the entire day. And with every cab taken, I had no choice but to work from home.

Wednesday, 16 February 2011

European airports to end restrictions on liquids in 2013

If Europeans were just starting to accept as a permanent part of reality the fact that you can't bring liquids onto a plane, they're going to feel like they've stepped back in time come April 2013 when the restrictions on liquids in airplanes is lifted in Europe.

Yesterday EU transport commissioner Siim Kallas confirmed to MEPs in Strasbourg that the EU will begin the transition back to the era of cruising the skies with as much liquid as you want in two months. The first phase will begin on 29 April this year, when travellers coming from outside the EU but connecting flights within the union will be able to keep liquids purchased at the original airport of their departure in their carry-on luggage. This should end the confusing situation where travellers were being told in countries outside the EU that they could carry their purchased liquids all the way to their final destination, only to have it confiscated at the EU airport they were transferring through. This is only the first step toward an eventual complete end to the ban two years later.

Tuesday, 15 February 2011

Angela, David and Nicolas agree: multiculturalism has failed

European leaders don't seem to be able to agree on much these days, but it seems one idea they can all get behind is that 'multiculturalism' has failed in European societies.

Over the past few months there's been a torrent of speeches from Europe's most high-profile leaders declaring the European 50-year experiment a failure. It started with Germany's chancellor Angela Merkel, who declared in October in a much-anticipated speech that the country's efforts to create a multicultural society where immigrant groups maintained their own identity and culture had "utterly failed". Weeks later, Belgian prime minister Yves Leterme said he agreed with her and the experience in Belgium has been the same.

At the start of this month British prime minister David Cameron picked up the theme while speaking at a security conference in Munich, announcing in a headline speech that "state multiculturalism" in the UK had failed, and that a stronger British identity needed to be forged and passed on to immigrants. Five days later French President Nicolas Sarkozy, responding to a question during a television interview, also condemned multiculturalism. "We have been too concerned about the identity of the person who was arriving and not enough about the identity of the country that was receiving him," he said.

Yesterday the Netherlands became the latest country to join the anti-multiculturalism club, with the leader of the ruling Christian Democrats telling a TV show that the Dutch model of a multicultural society has failed.

Monday, 14 February 2011

Tunisian refugees overwhelming Italy

Egypt may have stolen the spotlight from the revolution in Tunisia, but the situation there is still in chaos. Since the uprising that overthrew long-time President/Dictator Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali there have been strikes and clashes on the streets and a state of lawlessness still exists as many police officers have abandoned their posts.

Amid all of this Italy said this weekend a flood of Tunisian refugees coming across the Mediterranean Sea have overwhelmed the tiny Italian island of Lampedusa, just off the Tunisian coast. More Tunisian immigrants have arrived on the island in the past week there are residents of the island, they say.

But the situation seems to be mired in confusion and perhaps not a small amount of exaggeration. Though the Italian foreign minister claims that he asked for EU help in stemming the flow of migrants on Saturday, today a European Commission spokesperson said there has been no such request from Italy. In fact, he said, the EU offered Italy assistance but the Italian government refused it. So they were "surprised" by the foreign minister's comments, he said.

Thursday, 10 February 2011

Is the EU getting too excited over the common phone charger?

Within a year almost any type of data-enabled mobile phone you buy, anywhere in the world, is going to come with one common mobile phone charger – thanks to the EU. This week the 14 main mobile phone companies signed a binding agreement to all use a common Micro-USB charger port standardised by Brussels. And because the EU is the Western world's largest common market, this will mean all data phones worldwide will likely have this standard. Who says the EU doesn't have global influence?

The companies - which include Apple, Nokia, Samsung, Sony, Motorola and Qualcomm – were issued an ultimatum by the EU in 2009: voluntarily adopt a common charging system or be forced to do so by EU legislation. The companies agreed to go with the voluntary root. The common Micro-USB port standards were finalised in December, and the first phones with this port are expected to hit the market within months. According to the agreement, none of these manufacturers can market a new phone in the EU that does not have this common charging port.

I have to admit I've been a bit confused by this policy, and the unrestrained exuberance with which the European Commission has been celebrating it, since it started. After all, isn't Micro-USB the syncing/charging format most smartphones were moving to anyway? Is this just a case of the EU mandating something that was going to happen on its own?

Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Switzerland buries its head in the sand

Switzerland's foreign minister was in Brussels yesterday for some awkward discussions with EU leaders, and despite the beaming smiles following her meetings it was clear that by this point Brussels and Bern are operating on two different wavelengths.

The visit was arranged following a serious souring in relations between Switzerland and the EU after a resolution from EU foreign ministers in December warned that the relationship between the two had become incoherent and unwieldy. While Switzerland is not a member of the EU, it is a sort of "pseudo-member" and is allowed to participate in the EU single market thanks to a series of bilateral agreements. These 120 agreements were negotiated in two rounds in 1999 and 2004. In exchange for allowing Switzerland the benefits of access to the common market, the EU expects certain things in return - such as the right for any EU citizen to live and work in Switzerland (and vice versa). But in return, the EU position is that if Switzerland violates any of these accords, all 120 of them will be torn up.

So far this arrangement has suited the Swiss just fine - probably because most Swiss citizens are unaware of the extent of the accords and think their country remains completely independent and separate from the EU. But Brussels has grown frustrated with the unwieldy and complicated arrangement, and now they are saying Switzerland needs to move over to a more defined relationship as exists in the other pseudo-EU countries - Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.

Tuesday, 8 February 2011

Hungary caves in to EU pressure on media law

After a month of skirmishes between Budapest and Brussels over the new Hungarian government's controversial media law, it looks like the country's defiant prime minister Viktor Orban might be ready to throw in the towel.

Yesterday the country's communication minister announced that the government had agreed to change the wording of the law following concerns from the European Commission that it restricts press freedom. The minister didn't specify what the change in wording would be, but he told the BBC it will be submitted on Thursday and that Budapest and Brussels are "very, very close" to resolving the issue.

The media law took effect at the start of this year, on the same day that Hungary assumed the rotating EU presidency. The law will create a new agency called the Media Council that will monitor news reports for "balance" and "human dignity". Offending news outlets who are found to have not been "balanced" would face large fines and possible deaccreditation in the country. The law would require all journalists, even video bloggers, to be accredited by the state. The word "balanced" had particularly alarmed the commission because the Media Council was to be packed with people from Orban's governing conservative party, Fidesz. So it is likely that this is one of the words that will be changed in the new text.

Friday, 4 February 2011

An embarrassing day for Ashton and Van Rompuy

Today's summit of European leaders is winding down, and now everyone is waiting for the prime ministers and presidents to emerge to announce what they have decided for the stability of the Eurozone. Between the euro crisis and the turmoil in Egypt, this council has turned out to bear little resemblance to the gathering it was supposed to be – a special summit on European energy issues.

This is actually the first European Council (the summits of European heads of government) that I've covered. Since my beat is environment, there hasn't been an occasion so far where the leaders have had an environmental issue on the agenda important enough for me to spend the day here. Today was supposed to be different. European Council President Herman Van Rompuy, now one year into his newly created position, called for this summit dedicated to energy last year. But as the European debt crisis has raged on, in the past two months it became clear that the seemingly non-pressing issue of energy security and sustainability was going to take a back seat to the crisis. And now that a revolution is underway in Egypt, by yesterday few were expecting to see anything significant come out of this council in the way of energy - even though that was still purportedly the main subject behind today's meeting.

Sure enough, at noon today we received a very short list of conclusions on energy by the council - and there was little to really sink your teeth into. I'm told the leaders spent just an hour talking about energy before moving on to the Egypt issue. Essentially they just looked over the pre-agreed conclusions and signed off on it. Ah well, it did mean I could file my story earlier and be done with it!

Thursday, 3 February 2011

Brussels gets a press club

Are press clubs - those storied oak-paneled dens where an elite cadre of journalists meet to smoke cigars and swap gossip - a relic of the past? I found myself wondering this last night at the launch party for the new 'Brussels Press Club' here in the EU Quarter.

For years, long-time Brussels journalists have bemoaned the fact that Brussels has no press club for the many international journalists based here. Though other world capitals like Washington, London or Paris have famous press clubs that have been around for over 100 years, Brussels had nothing. But now the International Press Association (API) has been able to get the backing of the Brussels regional government to establish a club, located just next to the European Council and European Commission headquarters.

Tuesday, 1 February 2011

Better the devil you know

Both Europe and the United States have been put in an awkward position this month by the unfolding political revolt in Egypt. On one hand, they want to be consistent in encouraging democratic values and they don't want to be seen to be propping up dictatorships. On the other hand, they are terrified of the instability that could be set off by a political meltdown in the Middle East's most populous country. This is not helped by the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood is the second most powerful political force in Egypt after the regime of president-for-life Hosni Mubarak.

As the saying goes, better the devil you know than the devil you don't. Thus, the statements coming out of Brussels and Washington this week have been tepid and non-committal, stressing the need for stability over any ideological talk of overthrowing tyrants. The west is no great fan of Mubarak, but his semi-dictatorial rule has kept Egypt's strong Islamist movement in check and kept the country at peace with Israel. If he goes, there's no telling who might replace him.

The EU has come under particular criticism, as political violence has unfolded around the Mediterranean, for its slow reaction to events in its own backyard. This has been a particular embarrassment for the EU because its new diplomatic arm, the EEAS, was supposed to make Europe more decisive and reactive to foreign policy issues. And yet as one riot after the other has unfolded across the Mediterranean over the past weeks, the EU has been very restrained in its reaction.