Wednesday, 30 March 2011

The EU is not going to 'ban cars'

The credulousness of the UK public when it comes to all things EU-related was on full display Monday in the British media's coverage of the EU's much-awaited policy paper on transport.

Contrary to what you may have read in The TelegraphThe Daily Mail or the Evening Standard, the European Commission has not unveiled a plan to ban all cars from cities in 2050. This is just wrong. No journalist who actually looked at this policy paper could have reasonably come to the conclusion that the EU is banning cars. But the British tabloids never let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially one that fits their pre-defined narrative of how the EU oppresses the beleaguered British public.

The transport policy paper is a non-legislative roadmap that outlines a plan to reduce transport emissions while at the same time seeing an increase in transport over the next 40 years. It sets a goal of eliminating petrol-fueled combustion engines from vehicles meant for city driving by 2050. So, vehicles used for short-haul journeys within cities should either be electric or use alternative fuel in 40 years.

Tuesday, 29 March 2011

Cloned meat headed for EU menus as talks break down

Three years of negotiations over banning the use of cloned animals for food in the EU broke down early this morning after member states and the European Parliament could not come to an agreement. The parliament wanted to ban meat from both cloned animals and their offspring, while the national governments insisted the ban should only apply to the cloned animals themselves.

Health campaigners have said enacting a ban just on cloned animals is useless because a cloned animal is so expensive to produce it would never be used for meat. The main purpose of cloned animals is to produce genetically superior babies, and it is the offspring that would be intended to end up in your sandwich. During negotiations the parliament offered a compromise to just have labelling of meat that comes from cloned animals or their offspring, but member states said they could only agree to such labels for beef. Beef is already heavily labelled and tracked because of previous mad cow scares. The parliament negotiators said no deal.

Thursday, 24 March 2011

Anti-austerity protests shut down EU Quarter

As one of the last remaining Socialist governments in Europe collapses today, the left is taking to the streets in Brussels in what seems like a last-ditch effort to stop the massive austerity cuts to government spending taking place across Europe.

This morning I had the arduous task of trying to make my way to work through the massive union demonstrations by the European Trade Union Confederation that have closed off the EU Quarter. While some parts of the protests seemed relatively peaceful and good-natured, I could already observe danger signs. The security forces are wearing body armour, riot gear and gas masks. Youths with bandanas around their faces were everywhere, particularly on the side streets. Many of the older demonstrators are already intoxicated. I saw eggs being pelted at the windows of buildings on Rue de la Loi. Firecrackers were exploding all over the place (my suitcase got hit by one in fact!). My friend tells me a window in her office was smashed by a rock. It's going to be a fun day…

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Europe leads on Libya, but divisions persist

We are only in day four of the Libya War, but it doesn't seem to have taken long for confusion to settle in over where we go next and who is in charge. As the aerial bombardment tapers off and the skies clear into a no-fly zone over the Libyan desert, questions are now being asked that are not only causing disunity within the European Union but also between Europe and the United States.

"In most of the foreign policy issues we've talked about for decades, the US has been the lead player," conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks noted on PBS Newshour a few days ago. "Here we're clearly not the lead player, it's the UK and France and we're following along on the caboose. Now we feel like the UK often feels, as the secondary player. So the question is how much is the president really supporting this and how much is he being dragged along?"

So far the Obama administration has seemed disinterested in the Libya situation, and this wasn't helped by the fact that at the time military action was launched the US president was on a trip to South America and had to give comments on the war's launch from a shared podium in Brazil. Over the past few days US politicians haven't even made an effort to try to convince the American public that this war is in America's strategic interest.

Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Belgium adopts full smoking ban

Starting 1 July Belgium will no longer be the last 'smoking island' in Western Europe, as the country adopts a full smoking ban for all public places including bars. Up until now, only establishments serving food faced a smoking ban while bars and clubs remained as smoky as ever. Following a court ruling today, Belgium will join its neighbours France, Netherlands, UK, and most states of Germany in making bars smoke-free.

Since I moved here I've told Belgians it was only a matter of time until their smoky bars went the way of the dodo. After all, when I move somewhere, smoking bans seem to follow. I was living in New York City when the smoking ban went into effect there in the summer of 2003. Then I moved to Chicago and saw a smoking ban take effect there. The same pattern was repeated when I moved to Washington shortly after. I was living in London when the smoking ban began in England in 2007, and I was living in Paris in 2008, the year France's ban on smoking in bars began. So it's been a great eight years for night-before-the-smoking-ban parties!

Tuesday, 15 March 2011

Will Japan disaster force nuclear rethink in Europe?

Europe is on edge today as the world waits for the outcome of the Japanese nuclear accidents following Friday's earthquake. EU Energy Commissioner Gunther Oettinger is today holding emergency closed-door meetings with national nuclear safety regulators. Meanwhile across Europe countries are falling over themselves to reassure a jittery public over the safety of nuclear power plants. In Germany Angela Merkel has ordered safety checks of all of the country's plants. Austria called for such checks to be carried out across the EU, and the two main political groups in the European parliament backed that call. Spain and Portugal, both under Socialist governments, yesterday called for the phase-out of nuclear energy in Europe.

All of this is in response to the unfolding crisis revolving around several nuclear power plants in Japan that were damaged during the devastating earthquake and tsunami there on Friday. Yesterday a third explosion was seen at the Fukushima power plant, the most serious one so far. The government says to date the amount of radiation leaked into the atmosphere is not dangerous to humans outside of the evacuated 20km radius. But right now everyone is waiting to see if this ends up being a minor Three Mile Island type incident or, in the worst case scenario, another Chernobyl.

Friday, 11 March 2011

IRA-supporting US congressman launches terrorism hearings

In order to not be considered a terrorist, Muslims in America don't just have to not participate in terrorist activities – they need to actively renounce terrorism and fight to end it. So says Republican Congressman Peter King, the new head of the Homeland Security Committee in the House of Representatives. King is leading hearings this week investigating the "radicalisation of the American Muslim community," calling Muslim religious and business leaders before congress to test their loyalty to the United States.

The hearings, which to many are reminiscent of the anti-communist hearings conducted in the 1950's by Senator Joseph McCarthy, are proving enormously controversial in the United States. Democratic Congressman Mike Honda, who was interned in Japanese internment camps in California during World War II as a little boy, wrote in an editorial this week that King's intent is, "to cast suspicion upon all Muslim Americans and to stoke the fires of anti-Muslim prejudice and Islamophobia."

Keith Ellison, who is on the homeland security committee and is one of two Muslims in congress, shed tears on the opening day of the hearings as he said the hearings may "increase suspicion of the Muslim American community, ultimately making us all a little less safe." But King has been outspoken in his defence of the hearings, saying they are completely necessary as more and more American Muslims become radicalised. He has asserted that the "vast majority" of mosques in the US are run by radicals.

Thursday, 10 March 2011

Can the EU rebuild the Arab world like the US rebuilt Europe?

Spanish prime minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero has called on the West to create a new 'Marshall Plan for Arab states' in response to the current unrest. Such a plan, modeled on the wildly successful scheme launched by the United States in 1947 to rebuild war-ravaged Europe, would be designed to give new Arab governments the financial support they need to build stable democracies. More implicitly, it would provide a bulwark against Islamism in the same way that the Marshall Plan successfully provided a bulwark against Communism in Western Europe.

Europe is still still haunted by its failure to do anything to prevent the chaos that unfolded in its own backyard in the 1990s during the Balkan Wars. The calls for quick decisive action are coming from every corner. Most politicians now acknowledge that financial support is going to be needed, but there is disagreement about who should supply it. These thorny issues will be discussed tomorrow at a special summit of EU leaders in Brussels to discuss the crisis in Libya.

At the European Union level, there has now been begrudging admittance that the union's approach to its Southern neighbours has until this point been a misguided failure. Valuing stability and protection of Israel above all else has led to the European Union and the United States ploughing billions of dollars into despotic regimes over the past decades, earning them the enmity of the Arab street. For the EU, most of this aid was distributed through the European Neighbourhood Policy (ENP), which gives financial and political assistance to the EU's neighbours.

€2.8bn in assistance has already been pledged to the Middle East and North Africa over the next three years through the ENP. Now that it is clear that a much larger amount than this is going to be needed to support budding Democracy movements, there are questions over whether the ENP is the best tool to use. Southern European countries have long complained that the ENP was always more focused on the EU's Eastern neighbours than those to the South. Why not give the Southern Mediterranean its own new, dedicated assistance vehicle?

Wednesday, 9 March 2011

'One down, eleven to go' in Strasbourg battle

Travel-weary members of the European Parliament issued an aggressive challenge to France today, voting to skirt the requirement that they meet in Strasbourg twelve times a year by combining two of the 'Strasbourg sessions' into one. It remains to be seen whether member states, who are the only ones who can decide where the institutions meet, are going to challenge this.

Every month the entire European Parliament is made to trek from Brussels to Strasbourg, France - which lies on the German-French border not far from Switzerland. This is because the original European Treaties designated Strasbourg as the headquarters of the parliament. Over time, the real work of the parliament has moved to Brussels in order to be closer to the other two EU institutions as well as lobbyists and NGOs. But the founding treaties still require the parliament to meet in Strasbourg twelve times a year, and all binding votes must take place there. The majority of members of the European Parliament (MEPs) hate the monthly "traveling circus" which requires them to go to Strasbourg for five days every month. A 2007 survey by Liberal MEP Alexander Nuno Alvaro showed that 89% of MEPs want to end the Strasbourg sessions.

But MEPs don't have a say in where they meet. Changing the Strasbourg requirement in the treaties would need the unanimous support of all member states, and France has always refused to support moving the parliament permanently to Brussels. In 1999 France built a massive new building for the parliament in Strasbourg, despite objections from MEPs who said they didn't want it. Now France points to the expense of the building to justify maintaining the Strasbourg seat.

Monday, 7 March 2011

Germany still world's most popular country

The figures are in, and Germany has again taken the top spot in the BBC's annual poll of nations' popularity - with 62% of those surveyed ranking its influence as positive for the world. The UK was the next most-loved country, rising to second place in its highest ever placing in the annual poll.

But while Germany and the UK sit at the cool kids' table in the world lunchroom, over in the losers corner sit Iran, North Korea, Pakistan and Israel, all ranked as the most unpopular countries. The United States was ranked seventh in popularity out of the 16 countries respondents had to choose from, polling behind Canada, France, Japan and Brazil.

Friday, 4 March 2011

While the right leads in Helsinki, the left is sidelined in Athens

Europe's two main political groupings – the center-right European People's Party (EPP) and the center-left Party of European Socialists (PES) – are today holding dueling summits in Helsinki and Athens, respectively. The simultaneous timing of the two-day events, a bit like the party conferences in the UK or US – is highly unusual. But they are coinciding because they are both meant to get each side singing from the same hymn sheet at next Friday's incredibly important European Council summit. And given Europe's current political reality, the choice of a Northern capital for the right's meeting and a Southern capital for the left's meeting seems entirely appropriate.

But despite the fact that these are nominally meetings of Europe's two main political groups, the reality is that the Helsinki summit will effectively be a meeting of those running Europe while Athens will be an ignored meeting of those sitting on the sidelines. Because the European left has been pushed to Europe's geographic fringes and marginalized by the debt crisis, the Athens meeting will be a meeting of politicians "in opposition". In Helsinki, German chancellor Angela Merkel will lead a meeting of representatives of the governments of 17 of the 27 EU member states. At the Socialist conference in Athens only five governments will be represented.

In addition to national leaders like Merkel, Berlusconi and Ireland's incoming prime minister Enda Kenny, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso and European Council President Herman Van Rompuy– both from the EPP – are also in Helsinki. The president of the European Parliament, EPP politician Jerzy Buzek, may come tomorrow. They will be discussing the Eurozone Competitiveness Pact drawn up by Merkel and Sarkozy as well as the debt relief fund. They will also discuss a united European response to the events in North Africa. In effect it will be a sort of mini European Council summit.

What will they talk about in Athens? Who knows. Who cares? Whatever is on the agenda, it will have little consequence for the direction of EU policy.

Thursday, 3 March 2011

Denmark may join the euro before the summer

It might seem counter-intuitive given the ongoing tremors within Europe's common currency, but believe it or not Denmark is considering holding a referendum on joining the euro in the next few months. Though Danes rejected joining the common currency in 2000, the country's prime minister said yesterday that they may give it another shot. And poll numbers indicate that this time it could succeed.

All EU countries are required to join the euro eventually, but Denmark and the UK have an opt-out from this requirement. But, as is the case with so many EU opt-outs, Denmark is actually a pseudo-member of the eurozone. Because Denmark is in the European Exchange Rate Mechanism, its currency is pegged to the euro. So essentially, Denmark is already on the euro, it just uses different pieces of paper. But because it doesn't technically use the euro, it can't take part in eurozone decisions. And now that Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are pushing for the creation of Eurozone decision-making body, the situation has become quite undesirable for Denmark. It will be affected by the decisions made in this new body, but it won't be able to join it. And that is why, despite the eurozone trouble, this might be exactly the right time for Denmark to join the euro.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Low taxation of company cars: a perverse incentive to pollute?

As residents of Brussels know all too well, this is a car city. Sure, there's an efficient metro system – but it has only two lines and doesn't cover large swathes of the city's more affluent areas, which are instead covered by glacially slow trams and buses. The city is small enough to be easily covered by bike, but the extremely poor quality of the roads, the hilly terrain and the lack of cycle lanes often make cycling here more of a nuisance than it's worth (take it from a cyclist). That leaves only driving by car, an activity I would say the vast majority of my friends here are engaged in.

I myself have never owned a car, having always lived in large cities with good public transport systems. I still don't own a car in Brussels, but after living here a year I can say I've never before felt such temptation to get one. Not necessarily because I have difficulty getting around here. Despite its flaws I find the public transport to be sufficient for my needs, and when it's not I go by bike. But I feel like a bit of an oddity sometimes for getting around the city by metro, tram and bike. Peer pressure? Car envy? I'm not sure, but the fact that most of my friends drive is making me suddenly want a set of wheels. By contrast, none of my friends in London or New York had cars.

But if the Brussels public transport system is sufficient, why do all of these white collar workers I'm friends with – many of whom are only in Brussels temporarily – have cars? The answer is simple – Belgium pays them to have one.

Tuesday, 1 March 2011

EU bans cheaper auto insurance rates for women

Female drivers in the EU will likely see their insurance premiums rise significantly next year following today's European Court of Justice ruling that charging lower rates for women than for men constitutes illegal gender discrimination. At the same time, men are about to see their insurance premiums drop.

Insurance companies across Europe as well as in North America generally charge women much less for auto insurance than their male counterparts. Statistics show they are less risky drivers and are therefore less likely to get into an accident. The difference in pricing is particularly large for people under the age of 30, where women typically pay half of what men pay.

Previously such a distinction in pricing was allowed through an exemption for insurers from having to follow national discrimination laws. But a Belgian consumer group challenged the exemption, saying that assuming men are dangerous drivers simply based on their gender constitutes unlawful discrimination. The court agreed, and insurers in the EU will have to end their systems of separate rates by December 2012.