Monday, 30 May 2011

Malta says 'I do' to divorce

By a slim majority, the Maltese voted to legalise divorce in a referendum held Saturday in the tiny Mediterranean island nation. 52.6% of people voted 'yes' to make it legal to divorce your spouse, and the conservative prime minister, who campaigned for a 'no' vote, conceded that he will respect the will of the people and change the law. Malta is the only EU country in which divorce is illegal.

The referendum's result is being heralded as much more than a change in the country's marriage law. For many inside and outside of Malta the vote signals that the island, which for hundreds of years was run by a Catholic religious order with origins in the crusades, is ready to shed its identity as a 'Catholic state'. Apart from the Phillipines, the only other country in the world where divorce is illegal is Vatican City.

The country's Labour opposition leader called the vote, "the birth of a new Malta." The Malta Star wrote on Sunday, "The people haven’t just voted ‘Yes’ to divorce, they have signalled they are happy to embrace the modern age. The new Malta isn’t condemning and stifling, it is relaxed and open.” Saviour Balzan of Malta Today told the Associated Press that the vote will bring Malta closer to Europe culturally. "This is a conservative society, but Maltese still live like Europeans," he said. "This regularizes their lives."

Friday, 27 May 2011

Mladic arrest: Green light for Serbia in EU

Ratko Mladic, the Serbian general who orchestrated the largest mass murder in Europe since World War II in the 1990's, was arrested in Serbia yesterday. His continued freedom was the biggest issue blocking Serbia from being considered for entry into the EU. But the suspicious timing of the arrest, coming literally just as EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was arriving in Belgrade for a planned state visit, has some commentators saying Serbia has not adopted an attitude of contrition but is instead being dragged along unwillingly by the necessity of EU membership.

Mladic led the Bosnian Serb military force when that country was rocked by its religious civil war from 1992 to 1995 between the Catholic Croats, Muslim Bosniaks and Orthodox Serbs. He orchestrated not only the brutal three year siege of the capital Sarajevo but also the Srebrenica Massacre, where 8,000 Muslim men and boys were systematically slaughtered by Serb forces. He was indicted in asentia for crimes against humanity after the war, but he was harbored by the Serbs until 2002 when the country said it would cooperate with the international criminal court in The Hague. He then went into a sort of 'hiding in plain site'. He was spotted often at weddings and football games and even filmed at them. This despite a $5 million dollar reward for information leading to his capture.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

He likes us, he really likes us!

Barack Obama has just concluded an unprecedented address to both houses of the British Parliament in Westminster Hall, and the British press is already elated. He's the first US president to ever give a speech in this ancient coronation spot of kings and queens. From the adulation being heaped upon him by the British press, one might think Obama had a coronation of his own. But the reaction shows just how much the British, and Europe in general, needed to hear those three magic words from the US president- 'I like you'. After a series of snubs, Europe was beginning to doubt his affection.

Today's speech was the key communication of Obama's six-day, four-nation European fence-mending (and domestic politicking) tour. The centerpiece is tomorrow's G8 meeting in Deauville, France. But today's visit to the UK was all about reassuring the Brits that they still enjoy a 'relationship' with America - though the exact nature of that relationship seems to be being redefined.

The British press and political class spends an inordinate amount of time fretting about whether their country still has a "special relationship" with the United States. In the US, this term is virtually unheard of (which should answer their question). Earlier this year the British media was sent into a tizzy when Obama said during a state visit by French president Nicolas Sarkozy, “We don’t have a stronger friend and stronger ally than Nicolas Sarkozy and the French people.”

Music wars on the Brussels metro

If you've ever ridden the Brussels metro subway system you may have noticed that your journey is accompanied by catchy pop tunes. In fact this past Monday was 'Lady Gaga Day' on the metro, when the gaag was played all day long, non-stop. I've pretty much gotten used to the music and I barely notice it any more, but there's one aspect of it I never thought to question - the songs being played are almost always in English.

I never thought to question it because, as is the case in most European countries, the majority of songs on the radio are always in English as well. But I had never noticed before that despite the fact that this is a Francophone city, I have never heard a song in French. Nor have I ever heard a song in Dutch, the city's other official language (spoken as a primary language by 7% of the Brussels population).

Apparently there is method to this madness. According to an article today in FlandersNews, the Brussels public transport company STIB has a policy of only playing English songs on the metro, with a smattering of Spanish and Italian songs thrown in for good measure. French and Dutch songs have not been played for fear of aggravating tensions between the two sides of the language divide here.

Tuesday, 24 May 2011

Berlusconi: Milan will be 'full of Muslims and Gypsies' if Left takes power

Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi may have outdone even himself with his latest inflammatory comments. Rallying supporters in Milan ahead of local elections later this month, he warned people that if the centre-Left candidate for mayor wins, the city will be handed over to Muslims and Gypsies. According to Italian news agency AKI he told the Milanese,
"Milan can't become, on the eve of the Expo 2015, an Islamic city, a city of Gypsies, full of Roma camps and swamped by foreigners, a city that gives voting rights to immigrants in municipal elections."
The comments, which were not an off-the-cuff remark but rather part of a prepared speech that was also posted on the website of Berlusconi's conservative People of Freedom party, were met with open-mouthed disbelief by the leader of Italy's largest centre-left opposition Democratic Party. "Your words are're going to need to wear a burqa to avoid people recognising you in the street," he told the Italian leader.

Monday, 23 May 2011

Germany still punching below its weight

Europe hasn't wasted any time in getting its ducks in a row for the upcoming battle over naming a new IMF chief, with capitals across the continent voicing support over the weekend for French finance minister Christine Lagarde. That Europe so quickly agreed the monetary fund leadership should yet again go to someone from France reflects the political realities of Europe today. Britain can't be bothered, and Germany is too timid to take a leadership role.

Lagarde, who would be the first woman running the fund, received the backing of the British, German and Italian finance ministers over the weekend - with Luxembourg and Austria following suit. Chancellor Angela Merkel has yet to make her feelings known, but her finance minister would likely not have made the comments of support without her blessing.

The fund has been run since 2007 by Frenchman Dominique Strauss-Kahn, who has made it a mission of the fund to save Europe's faltering common currency. But following Strauss-Kahn's arrest on rape charges in the United States last week, countries like China and Brazil have signalled they intend to pressure the fund to take on a new leader from the developing world.

Thursday, 19 May 2011

US focus on French sex attitudes echoes Lewinsky saga

Something is very wrong with France, if we are to believe the Anglophone media commentary this week. The arrest of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the International Monetary Fund and contender for the French presidency, has provoked some soul-searching in France about whether the media was right to have kept quiet about his history of unwanted sexual advances toward women. This soul-searching has been reported on with fascination by the American and British media. But for many in France, the Anglo-Saxon attention to their national trauma is bordering on smugness.

Back in the late 1990's, the French were quite vocal in their confusion and disgust with the impeachment proceedings against US President Bill Clinton. France has long had an expectation that politician's private lives are just that – private – and should have no relevance to their office. 'What kind of a society would impeach their president because he had an affair?' they asked. In fact the period during the Monica Lewinsky saga was probably the only one in which the French openly talked about their history of philandering presidents – from Mitterand to Chirac – if only to demonstrate how different their society was to America. If their politicians were oversexed "séducteurs" it was none of their business. Indeed, sometimes it was celebrated as a good thing, a sign of a healthy libido.

But what goes around comes around, and it seems that now it’s the Americans' turn to look derisively across the Atlantic, shake their heads and say, 'if only they were more like us.'

Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Merkel to Southern Europe: work more, play less

Workers in Southern Europe shouldn't enjoy more vacation and earlier retirement ages than their Northern European counterparts, German Chancellor Angela Merkel told a meeting of her Christian Democratic Union party last night. The comments, highly surprising coming from this usually cautious and analytical politician, have been greeted by applause from the right-leaning papers in Germany today.
"People in countries like Greece, Spain and Portugal should not retire earlier than in Germany. We should all make the same efforts, this is important," German press agency DPA quotes Merkel as saying. "We cannot have a common currency where some get lots of vacation time and others very little. That won't work in the long term."
The notoriously early retirement ages in Southern Europe have been a cause of serious griping in Germany since the country was forced to foot most of the bill to bail out Greece and Portugal over the past year.  In Greece and Italy, a person can retire as early as 57. In Germany a person can't retire earlier than 65, and Merkel's government has voted to raise that to 67 over the next three years. Part of the conditions of Greece receiving its EU-IMF bailout was that it introduce reforms to raise the retirement age to 63.

Protests greet Queen's first visit to Ireland

Queen Elizabeth II is making a historic visit to the Republic of Ireland this week, the first time a British monarch has visited Ireland in 100 years. That the visit is even happening is a sign of how much relations between the republic and its former imperial master have healed in recent times. But there are still people on the island, including both Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland, who are quite upset about the visit. And those people were out in force yesterday to greet the British monarch with insults and epithets.

The Queen's 'reconciliation visit' to Dublin, where she will be protected by more than 8,500 police officers backed by the army, has virtually shut down the city centre. Her visit, during which she will be dressed in all green, has been meticulously planned out to the last detail, carefully choreographed around every diplomatic sensitivity. She has been making a tour of memorial sights where Irish republican fighters died fighting against British rule. Today she will visit Croke Park stadium, the site of a notorious massacre where 14 Irish civilians were killed by British troops in 1920. She also spent this morning visiting the Guiness Storehouse, where amusingly she was offered a pint of Guiness at 9:30 in the morning. According to the AP she smiled but politely declined.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011

Is Italy the worst place in Western Europe to be gay?

Today is the International Day Against Homophobia (IDAHO), and a European gay rights group has taken the opportunity to publish an updated map of the human rights situation for gays, lesbians and transgendered people in Europe. Italy has clocked in at the bottom of the league, scoring worst than every EU country except Cyprus and Latvia. Meanwhile the UK scored highest, moving up from sixth place the previous year.

This year's map (pictured right) from the International Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Trans and Intersex Association (ILGA) gives countries a dark green for being progressive on gay rights, lighter green for being somewhat progressive and grey for being poor on gay rights. Countries in the 'red zone' are accused of "gross violations of human rights and discrimination". The factors used to determine the rankings included whether the country has anti-discrimination legislation, gay marriage, parenting rights, hate crime laws and whether the country has allowed pride demonstrations to take place.

Monday, 16 May 2011

IMF arrest rocks French politics

He could have been the next president of France, but instead Dominique Strauss-Kahn sits tonight in a New York City jail. Yesterday's news that the International Monetary Fund head was arrested for attempted rape has sent shock waves throughout Europe. DSK, as he is known in his native France, was set to become the Socialist candidate to challenge French president Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's election. Opinion polls had indicated that he could defeat the French president. Now with DSK out of the picture, France looks set for another five years of Sarkozy.

The French Socialist party has been in disarray for years now, without a clear leader who could defeat Sarkozy. Strauss-Kahn ran for president in 2007, but lost his party's nomination to Segolene Royal (who eventually lost to Sarkozy). After Sarkozy won he nominated Strauss-Kahn to head the IMF, undoubtedly to remove a formidable political enemy from the country. DSK's time at the IMF has been considered successful, as he has navigated the fund through a difficult period of economic crisis and debt bailouts in Europe.

The French media today has been all DSK all the time. It's a political earthquake that has sent the entire country spinning. Some of the media coverage has conjured up conspiracy theories, while others are blaming the "Anglo-Saxon world" for persecuting their poor misunderstood Gallic hero. Some die-hard Socialists are convinced that the whole thing is a set-up by Sarkozy's UMP. The fires of their conspiracy theories have been fanned by the fact that apparently the news was tweeted by a young UMP activist even before the arrest took place. Many have suggested that the maid making the accusation was set up as a honey trap. A poll this week found that 57% of French people believe Strauss-Kahn was set up, and the figure shoots up to 70% among Socialists.

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Eurovision leaves Europe

After two years in Western Europe, Eurovision will return to the East next year – as far East as it could possibly go. Azerbaijan was the surprise winner of the Eurovision Song Contest Saturday night, meaning next year the contest will be held in the Caspian Sea coast city of Baku. It is located just 150km (93 miles) from the Iranian border.

It will be an awkward host city given that the country is in an ongoing conflict with its neighbour Armenia which has sometimes spilled over into the contest, most notably in 2009 when people in Azerbaijan who had voted for Armenia were interrogated by the police. Azerbaijan was almost banned from the contest as a result, but the European Broadcasting Union decided to only give them a fine.

Many people were left scratching their heads Saturday night asking, "Erm, where is Azerbaijan again?". Depending on which definition you use, this will be just the third time that the Eurovision Song Contest will not be hosted outside Europe, following the contests in Israel in 1979 and 1999. The border between Europe and Asia is generally taken to be the Caucasus Mountains, which Baku is technically just South of. It will be the first time the ESC will go to a region with several active military conflicts - the Caucasus is home to disputed territories and ongoing military conflicts in Chechnya, South Ossetia and Nagorno-Karabakh just to name a few. It will be the second time an ESC will be held in a Muslim country, following the final in Istanbul in 2004. That contest, incidentally, was hosted in the European side of that city, west of the Bosphorus Strait.

Friday, 13 May 2011

A return to walls in Europe

There's something rotten in the state of Denmark, and the rot is spreading fast throughout the European Union. Brussels is in shock today following yesterday's announcement by Denmark that it will reintroduce border controls with neighbouring Sweden and Germany.

The move is a violation of the bloc's Schengen passport-free rules and a worrying sign as EU ministers meet in Brussels today to discuss possible changes to the Schengen rules. The plan would set up the first border control between Sweden and Denmark in more than 50 years.

The move is no doubt intended as a pre-emptive strike ahead of today's negotiations, a message to the EU that if the ban on internal border controls isn't loosened member states are going to ignore it and unilaterally re-impose passport checks. Denmark likely feels confident enough to take this bold unilateral move because of the letter sent to the European Commission by Nicolas Sarkozy and Silvio Berlusconi two weeks ago.

The letter demanded that member states be allowed to reimpose internal EU borders in "exceptional circumstances." They believe that the current increase in migrants trying to come to Europe from North Africa qualifies as one of these circumstances. Denmark clearly feels that this letter from two large member states gives them cover to unilaterally impose their own border control. It is the first country ever to reimpose permanent border checks in the history of the Schengen Zone, and there is now fear of a 'chain reaction' that would see the reintroduction of controls at all internal borders.

Wednesday, 11 May 2011

Taxi drivers blockade Brussels Airport

In this land of the surreal, nothing surprises me any more. So it hardly phased me this morning when I read in the local paper that last night 200 taxi drivers blockaded Brussels Airport because an unlicensed taxi driver had been grazed by a bullet during a high-speed police chase. 'Still, something isn't right about this story,' I thought. But I figured I must have been not understanding the French article correctly.

But no, it turns out the story really is that bizarre. Last night police were making routine checks for unlicensed taxi drivers near the airport (who are notorious for swindling tourists by charging them three times the normal fare when they pull up to their hotel). According to the local paper La Derniere Heure, when the police signalled for one 28-year-old driver to stop he instead accelerated to speed away. The police officer jumped on the hood of his car, but the driver still didn't stop.

The police officer was then carried 2km (1.2 miles) along the road, clinging to the car for dear life. He fired into the car toward the dashboard, smashing the screen and forcing the driver to stop. A fight erupted and the police officer fired a shot that grazed the driver's shoulder. They then took him into custody.

Lost in translation?

Portugal's Eurovision performance last night at the first semi-final in Dusseldorf raised more than a few eyebrows. In the midst of what many see as a German-imposed austerity drive forced on Portugal after they had to take a €78 billion bailout from the EU and IMF, their Eurovision entry performed a song dressed as protestors and chanting slogans, right in the belly of the beast. It was a bit of an awkward moment, especially considering political messages are supposed to be banned from the Eurovision Song Contest.

According to the group, the song was apparently supposed to be a sort of celebration of Portugal despite all of its bad news. Entitled "A Luta é Alegria" (The Struggle is Joy), it calls on the Portuguese to not give in to feelings of despair or rage at the restrictions being imposed on them. The message, I imagine, was intended to be like the old expression 'keep calm and carry on' used by the British during World War II. "There’s no point in tightening the belt, there’s no point in complaining," they sang. "There’s no point in frowning and rage is pointless, it won’t help you. Many people wish to silence you. Many people want you to feel resentful. Many people want to sell you the air itself."

Friday, 6 May 2011

Europe uncomfortable with US Bin Laden celebrations

I've had a rather surreal experience this week watching reaction to the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed by American forces. On Monday morning I woke up and opened Facebook (before anything else, naturally), and saw a string of cryptic statuses chanting things like "USA! USA!" or "I'm so proud to be American today". But for whatever reason none of them said what had actually happened. So I had to open up Google News to learn what had inspired these rather unlikely chants from my "liberal elitist" friends in New York City.

The news was, of course, that Osama Bin Laden had been killed. The announcement by President Obama Sunday night prompted sudden exuberant celebrations in cities across America, the biggest outside the White House and in Times Square. It was reminiscent of the Victory Day celebrations at the end of World War II, a cathartic celebration unleashing a decade of angst Americans had felt since the 9/11 attacks. I found the magnitude of the celebrations a little surprising, but perhaps I had underestimated the effect that America's inability to capture Osama Bin Laden has had on the US psyche. A profound sense of anxiety and humiliation seems to have been lifted from Americans' minds with this killing. And both the left and right are jubilant over it. The American media seems to have regarded these celebrations as a universal good, heralding the way they have brought left and right together and united Americans in the same way that they were united after 9/11. The question does not seem to be asked whether Americans can be 'unified' in a counter-productive instinct.

Thursday, 5 May 2011

Today Britain votes on how to vote

Today's the big day in the UK – the nation goes to the polls for a referendum on whether the country's voting system should be changed from a US-style first-past-the-post method to something closert to a European-style proportional system.

Polls going into the voting today indicate that the likely result will be a 'no', which would be a crushing blow for the Liberal Democrats who made this referendum their central demand for entering into a governing coalition with the Conservatives. Then again, so much about this referendum depends on who actually turns out, and voter interest in this referendum is incredibly low. No matter how people have been responding to the pollsters, it may only be the people who are enthusiastic about switching to a new system that turn out today.

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

From Jedward to Dana: the best and worst of Eurovision 2011

It may be that there was no contest more appropriate for reality star twins John and Edward than Eurovision. The Irish duo, who became famous in the UK after enjoying inexplicable success on the TV singing competition X Factor, will be competing for Ireland in this year's Eurovision Song Contest next week. They are just one act in a year marked by astonishing comebacks, pleas to stop climate change and even – most intriguing of all – France's entry singing entirely in a language other than French!

Much like the Sanjaya phenomenon on American Idol in the US, the public support for 'Jedward', as they came to be dubbed by the British press (and they are now competing under that name in Eurovision), seemed to be driven by Simon Cowell's clear distaste for them. The identical twins are undoubtedly horrible dancers and singers, but their hammy gimmick act won the hearts of the British public. But can they win the hearts of Europe? The UK is most likely to vote for them, and there will be some in continental Europe already familiar with them from watching British X-Factor. The song is actually quite catchy, but in order to win they would need to majorly polish their dance moves and I'm not sure I see that happening. Still, they've got something. But their main gimmick is going to be seriously undercut by the fact that Slovakia's entry this year also features identical twins. Here's the video of the Jedward song which, for some reason, was shot at the Eiffel Tower in Paris (trying to woo those continental votes?)

Monday, 2 May 2011

A royal weekend of symbolism

Wow, what a weekend – a royal wedding, beatification of a saint and now a martyrdom. What century are we living in again?

Last night's news that after a decade of efforts the United States has at long last killed Osama Bin Laden is just about the only news story people are talking about today. This is to be expected for such a symbolically important event – regardless of its actual real-world impact. The news finished off a weekend when the US was paying more attention than normal to events going on abroad, with the royal wedding in London and the huge mass in Rome that declared Pope John Paul II ready to be a saint. All three of these events were short on real-world impact but high on symbolic value.