Friday, 29 July 2011

Where does the Norway shooting leave Europe’s conservatives?

Last week’s far right terrorist attack in Norway has prompted a lot of questions in European capitals, and many of the hardest questions are being asked inside the party headquarters of Europe’s center-right. Many of Europe's conservative parties have spent the last few years courting the far right vote, by co-opting some of their messages on immigration and cultural identity issues. In several countries including Denmark, Italy and the Netherlands the mainstream conservative parties have even allied themselves with the far right and invited them into governing coalitions. After the Norway attack, are those days over?

To answer this question, one must understand the current political balance in Europe, and why it has come about. Conservative parties now dominate the national governments of Europe as well as the EU institutions, relegating the left to just a few Southern countries. The Guardian put out a great interactive map today where you can trace Europe’s left-right balance over the past 50 years. Contrast the map just ten years ago in 2001 on the left with today’s situation in 2011 on the right (left-of-center in red and right-of-center, including Liberal parties, in blue). Considering that Spain and Greece now have their policies dictated to them by their conservative Northern European creditors, the left has effectively disappeared from Europe.

So why has Europe veered rightward at a time of economic crisis? There are probably many contributing factors – but the biggest cause is the complete disarray of the European left. From Scandinavia to Germany to France to Italy, European Social Democrats are in complete chaos, torn by infighting, a lack of enthusiasm and confusion over ideology. Europeans have voted conservative not because of some great ideological shift toward economic liberalism and laissez-faire capitalism. They have done so because the parties of the left have not offered any credible alternative for governance.

Wednesday, 27 July 2011

Ireland's dramatic fallout with the Catholic Church

The Vatican took the unprecedented step of recalling its ambassador to Ireland on Monday following a fiery speech from the country's prime minister denouncing the church for covering up cases of child sex abuse. The row is an indication of just how much Ireland, once a loyal foot soldier for the pope, has changed over the past two decades.

The fiery speech on the floor of the Irish Parliament by Prime Minister Enda Kenny last week was in reaction to the government's latest report on sex abuse in the Irish church. The report found that the Vatican had deliberately tried to downplay and cover up the rape and torture of children by priests in Ireland, and found that it was doing so as recently as 2009. It also found that the Vatican was trying to interfere with the Irish government's investigation into the matter. This was apparently all too much for Kenny. Denouncing the "dysfunction, disconnection, elitism and narcissism" of the Vatican, Kenny told the parliament:
"This is not Rome. Nor is it industrial-school or Magdalene Ireland, where the swish of a soutane smothered conscience and humanity and the swing of a thurible ruled the Irish-Catholic world. This is the Republic of Ireland 2011. A republic of laws, of rights and responsibilities; of proper civic order; where the delinquency and arrogance of a particular version, of a particular kind of 'morality,' will no longer be tolerated or ignored."

Monday, 25 July 2011

Political games are exacerbating both Atlantic debt crises

These are not exactly inspiring times for leadership in the Western world. On both sides of the Atlantic, a potential catastrophic default is looming largely as a result of short-sighted political manoeuvring. This is leading some to question whether the 20th century democratic institutions we have built our societies around are adequate to handle the challenges of this century.

In the United States, Republicans are holding hostage an authorisation to raise the amount of money the US is authorised to borrow – normally a routine housekeeping operation done by every congress – until the Obama administration agrees to massive cuts in government spending. The Democrats have offered to give them those cuts, but only if they are accompanied by an increase in taxes on the wealthiest Americans and the closure of corporate tax loop holes. The Republican leadership, terrified of the reaction of their base voters to any tax increase (even if it will have no effect on 98% of Americans) have refused the offer.

If the United States does not raise the debt ceiling by 2 August, it will go into default. This would almost surely have a disastrous effect on the worldwide economy. This weekend UK Business Secretary Vince Cable said that the "rightwing nutters" who are holding the debt ceiling authorisation hostage for their short-term political gain are a bigger threat to the world economy than the problems in the eurozone.

But conservatives in America aren't the only ones playing with fire in order to reap short-term political gain. The same kind of thinking seems to be guiding Cable's coalition boss. Over the past week UK Prime Minister David Cameron and his ministers have been saying that the UK intends to exploit the current eurozone crisis in order to "maximise what we want in terms of our engagement in Europe."

Sunday, 24 July 2011

Europe's Timothy McVeigh

Europe is in shock this weekend after Friday's horrifying act of terrorism in Norway that killed 76 people. Because of the stated aims of the perpetrator, it is already prompting questions over whether Europe has been looking the other way as the far right has grown in numbers and power.

When the news first broke on Friday that a car bomb had gone off outside the prime minister's office in Norway, many people assumed it was an act of Islamic terrorism. But soon after, news broke that the bombing had been followed by a shooting spree at a political youth retreat for the country's ruling Labour party. Then it was clear that this was unlikely to be an act of Islamic terrorism, since it seemed to fit the modus operandi of either a deranged lone gunman or an act of far-right domestic terrorism. In the end, it turned out to be the latter.

The man accused of orchestrating the attack, Anders Behring Breivik, reportedly carried out the attack on the ruling Labour party because he felt that their tolerant attitude toward Islam was destroying the country. It was an anti-government, far-right, fundamentalist Christian act of terrorism - similar to the Oklahoma City bombing in the US in 1995 committed by far-right extremist Timothy McVeigh.

Friday, 22 July 2011

Eurozone agrees second bailout for Greece

Stocks are rising today as the markets digest the news that Europe has taken a step back from the brink of economic disaster. Eurozone leaders yesterday agreed on a second €109bn bailout for Greece, something economists said had to come in the next few days to avoid calamity. Once again, Europe's leaders have taken a small step to narrowly avert disaster. But without a big step to reform the Eurozone, is there any end to the debt crisis in sight?

Greece's private lenders will be forced to participate in the bailout and take an estimated 21% loss on their loans to the country, in what is being called a 'selective default'. But it is still unclear whether the ratings agencies will decide this qualifies as a default or not. The private lender participation was something German Chancellor Angela Merkel wanted, but French President Nicolas Sarkozy and the European Central Bank had been resisting.

Wednesday, 20 July 2011

North Atlantic crisis: US, Europe edge toward economic disaster

Normally at this time of year, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic would be preparing for their August break. But there will be no relaxing getaways this year, in what is turning into probably the most anxiety-packed summer of my lifetime.

Both Europe and the US may be just days away from serious financial troubles. And if situations on either continent spin out of control, a worldwide economic panic could be ahead.

On both sides, there are obvious and straightforward solutions that could avert disaster. But in the US, the recent electoral success of a Tea Party movement that wants to see the US default on its debts has rendered the political process incapable of taking action. In Europe, the recent surge toward nationalism and a lack of political courage has rendered the EU incapable of confronting the debt crisis head on. It is a massive failure of the political systems of the Western world.

Thursday, 14 July 2011

Will NotW shock force rethink of British press accuracy?

Another day, another euromyth batted about by the British tabloids. Today's little page seven gem, repeated in several papers including the Express and the Telegraph, is that Brussels is planning to force all sports players to wear the EU flag on their uniforms. And like most of the euromyths the British press peddles, this is complete nonsense.

Of course this little piece of news can't hope to compete with the big story this week, the News of the World hacking scandal and the implosion of the Rupert Murdoch media empire in Britain. Commentators are saying that this scandal will erode the public's confidence in the British media. I can't help but think – looking at stories like this EU unform nonsense – that that's probably not such a bad thing. But will this scandal really force the British public to be more sceptical toward the claims made by their printed press, particularly regarding the EU?

As I wrote about in a related post today, the current scandal is not centred around the accuracy of British journalists but rather the methodology used by them in gathering news. The allegations being made may be shocking and sleazy, but not one of them involve false reporting. Will there be a connection, in the public perception, between Murdoch's manipulation of the British political class and his manipulation of the British public? Will people start to think about how their own attitude toward things, for instance the EU, is shaped by the stories they read in the tabloid press? And will they stop being so credulous when reading these things? As I read the comments on this Daily Express article from today, I'm inclined to think little in this respect is going to change.

Why the NewsCorp scandal won't resonate with Americans

The News of the World hacking scandal has progressed with shocking speed in the UK. Yesterday it seemed to reach a fevered climax when Rupert Murdoch withdrew his bid for satellite operator BSkyB after he was ceremoniously denounced by the entire British Parliament in an unprecedented session. It marks an incredible end of an era. Murdoch is effectively being banished from Britain after having held sway over the island's media, government and even police for decades.

Now commentators are speculating that the trouble for Murdoch's media empire News Corp, which also own many papers and Fox News in the US, is spreading across the Atlantic. The shares in News Corp on the New York Stock Exchange came crashing down even before Murdoch's BSkyB bid was withdrawn, and the billionaire himself had to buy up the shares to keep the price from collapsing.

Now there are concerns that the bribery allegations in the UK could get the company into legal trouble in the US, because it is illegal for a company publicly traded in America to pay bribes to foreign officials – which includes police officers. That, combined with new allegations that Murdoch's British papers also hacked into the phones of American 9/11 victims has prompted some Democrats in congress to call for an investigation into the matter. But will the public at large share their outrage?

Wednesday, 13 July 2011

Eurozone in panic: Is Italy next domino to fall?

The Eurozone is looking at several doomsday scenarios this week after Italy emerged as the latest EU state to face serious and sudden attack by international bond and security markets. After a very public spat between Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and his finance minister, and with the continued political uncertainty over Berlusconi's position, the markets have decided Italy may not be safe to lend to any longer.

With the paralysis in the country's government likely to prevent decisive action to confront the crisis, some are saying Italy is perhaps days away from becoming an economic failed state. And unfortunately it is not too big to fail, but it is too big for the EU to bail out.

Such extreme rhetoric may or may not be justified, depending on who you talk to. But the risk is extreme. The countries that have so far fallen victim to the debt crisis and required an EU bailout – Portugal, Ireland and Greece – are relatively tiny and their debt makes up less than 5% of overall eurozone public debt. If worse came to worse, France and Germany could afford to buy back all of their debt combined.

Friday, 8 July 2011

Is Murdoch's influence in British politics coming to an end?

The News of the World phone hacking scandal in the UK has literally exploded this week, with fresh allegations that the Rupert Murdoch-owned paper hacked into the phones of murder victims, victims of the 7/7 terrorism attacks, relatives of dead soldiers and detectives investigating cases. Late yesterday it was announced that the 160-year-old paper will shut down as a result of the scandal, news that sent shock waves through Britain.

The allegations of bribing police officials and hacking into phones began several years ago, but the latest revelations are so distasteful that it seems to have given British politicians the resolve to publicly denounce Murdoch, something they never dared to do before. At the centre of the scandal is Rebekah Brooks, who was editor of News of the World at the time of the phone hacking but has since risen to become chief executive of Rupert Murdoch's global media empire News Corp. The company, which also owns Fox News and papers such as the New York Post in the US, controls a vast array of British tabloid papers and has long been known in the UK as a political power broker. Murdoch controls British politics, it is claimed, by threatening to use his papers to destroy any politician that doesn't give in to his demands.

But Murdopch's influence over British politics seemed to come to a climactic end this week, as one after another members of the British Parliament took to the floor and denounced not only News Corp, but also the fact that the parliament for so long has been bullied by the company. Conservative MP Zac Goldsmith said News Corp has "systematically corrupted the police and in my view has gelded this Parliament, to our shame.” Labour MP Chris Bryant said the hacking was symptomatic of the way News Corp operates around the world.

Thursday, 7 July 2011

Poland fires warning shot over Denmark's 'nationalist' moves

Poland is not usually known as a very pro-EU country. In fact, it has gotten the reputation as the most Eurosceptic of the new member states. But yesterday Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk lambasted recent moves by Denmark, France and Italy to undermine the European project. He signalled he intends to halt the current slide, led by those Western countries, toward reintroducing border controls at internal EU borders.

Tusk was speaking to the European Parliament in Strasbourg to mark the start of Poland's presidency of the EU, which will last the next six months. "The answer to the crisis is more Europe," he said, not less. He indicated that he will fight against efforts to further erode EU principles, and suggested he was unhappy with the deal reached among member states last month to allow temporary internal border patrols to deal with increased immigration.
"I am against any barriers to internal free movement under the pretext of dealing with migration problems. What Denmark is doing is a concern for anybody who thinks that free movement is going to be restricted even further," he told the parliament. "Europe, with its institutions, its budget and its objectives, is not the source of this crisis. And following those who say the opposite would be a fatal mistake. Undoing the European construction at this time and turning to nationalism as an answer to the crisis would be a very big mistake."
It was a fairly unusual move for the incoming presidency to take such a political stance against what other member states are doing, because the presidency is supposed to be a neutral negotiator in the council. But Poland has always marched to the beat of its own drummer when it comes to the EU.

Wednesday, 6 July 2011

EU sets goal to abolish roaming charges by 2015

European consumers will soon have the option to choose a separate mobile carrier for when they are in other EU countries, under a proposal put forward by the European Commission today. The goal is to stimulate competition in the market to make the phone companies stop charging the exorbitant rates for voice and data with which they sometimes make up to 99% profit.

The move is just the latest in a long-running battle between the mobile operators and the EU, but this is the most aggressive move yet. It is also an acknowledgement that the caps the EU set in 2007 and then extended in 2009 have not been successful in fixing the dysfunct in the market. Those caps lowered roaming rates to 45 eurocents (c) per minute within the EU. Previously the rate had been, on average, around 2 euros per minute.

Under the new plan, from July 2014 operators will be forced to open their networks to upstart competitors who can offer customers cut rate charges for roaming. They will also have to allow their customers to sign up to a seperate carrier for roaming if they so choose. The customer's phone would automatically switch to the other carrier when they go abroad, but they would keep the same number and sim card. They would then receive a separate bill from their 'roaming carrier'. Before it becomes law, the proposal must first be approved by the European Parliament and member states.

The new plan is intended as a long-term fix that will permanently alter the market. The commission hopes it will lead to a situation by the end of 2015 where the caps are no longer necessary. because healthy competition has made the large carriers offer their customers roaming rates that are the same as domestic rates. Opening the networks will also provide incentives for large mobile companies to operate across the EU. The long-term objective is to get to a situation where there is no longer 'roaming' within the EU, in the same way that there is no roaming charge when you go to a different state in the US (though when mobile phones first came out, there were such roaming charges within the US. Competition within the market eventually made those go away).

Tuesday, 5 July 2011

Tory Euro-MPs defy Cameron on climate change

British Conservatives in the European Parliament rebelled against the climate change policy of their party leader today and cast the deciding votes against a resolution calling for the EU to increase its commitment to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

By a margin of ten votes, the parliament voted today to remove the call for the EU to up its commitment in UN negotiations from 20% to 30% from a resolution, prompting the resolution's collapse. Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron could have swung the vote the other way if he had been able to convince even just a few of his 26 euro-MPs to support the call for 30%. But he was unable to do so, despite considerable effort. Cameron has made action on climate policy a cornerstone of his political platform and he took the lead among EU leaders in calling for the increased commitment.

Last week Cameron sent his energy minister to Brussels to tell the euro-MPs to vote for the measure, but they refused. It's an uncomfortable setback for the British leader and an indication of just how little control he has over his rebellious motley crew in Brussels. They are, as one London-based Tory told me, "completely beyond London's control". The political wild west in which Tory euro-MPs operate has caused problems for Cameron in the past, particularly when their actions seem to clash with the progressive social agenda Cameron has adopted in order to bring the party back into the British mainstream. He has been criticised in the past for allowing Tory euro-MPs to vote against pro gay rights resolutions in the European Parliament.

But the British Conservatives weren't the only ones bucking their party leadership on this issue. The centre-right leaders of Germany and France have also called for the EU to raise its commitment to 30%. But Merkel and Sarkozy's party members in Brussels also defied their party leaders' positions and voted with the centre-right grouping in the parliament to block the resolution. The seeming incongruity will be an awkward reality for those leaders as well. But neither of them have made the environment such a core issue of their political appeal like David Cameron has. And he is being heavily criticised by the left-leaning British press today as a result.

Monday, 4 July 2011

France rocked by new twist in DSK case

Revelations last week challenging the credibility of the New York chambermaid who says she was raped by former IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn have triggered a whirlwind of speculation, recrimination, and of course good old-fashioned America-bashing in France.

Even before the revelations on Friday and DSK's subsequent release from house arrest, there was already widespread doubt in France that he was guilty. Polling indicated that 57% of French people thought DSK, who was until his arrest the leading contender to challenge Nicolas Sarkozy in next year's presidential election, was set up. The French media was scandalised by the US media's coverage of the case, which they said seemed to be presuming DSK's guilt. They were particularly outraged by the so-called 'perp walk' of a handcuffed DSK in front of the news cameras, something that is illegal to show in France if someone has not been convicted of a crime.

The case against DSK now looks almost certain to be dropped after it emerged that the woman has allegedly worked as a prostitute in the past. It also came to light that she had changed her story to investigators. Rather than reporting the incident to the hotel right away, she actually cleaned another room after the alleged attack and then went back to Strauss-Kahn's room to finish cleaning it.