Thursday, 27 October 2011

Just Lips service?

So the Euro is saved, for now. At 4am European leaders finally emerged from their talks to tell the fatigued journalists that after hours of very difficult negotiations, they had come to an agreement that will give the markets what they are demanding.

Perhaps it was the late hour, or the fact that the Polish presidency had closed the press bar at 11pm, but the journalists covering the summit initially greeted the announcement with scepticism. Many questioned whether the "bazooka" just unveiled really had the firepower to shield Spain and Italy from collapse. After all, this was not the first time the press had been held captive until late into the night in the Justus Lipsius building - or 'Just Lips' as I like to call it - to be told at the break of dawn that the euro would be saved. So in the end, was this just lip service? Or was this the decisive action the markets needed to see?

The agreement has three prongs:
  • Private banks holding Greek debt will accept a loss of 50% on their Greek bonds
  • The eurozone's main bailout fund (the European financial stability facility or EFSF) will be leveraged to €1 trillion.
  • Italy will implement reforms to bring down the country's staggering debt, including a lowering of the retirement age.

Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Will Europe be saved tonight?

I'm here at the big EU summit in Brussels, the D-day event that is being billed as the last chance to save the Euro and prevent a collapse of the European economy. Even if the leaders emerge from those fortified doors having done everything the markets are asking, there will still be a long road ahead in this crisis. But this could be the moment they were finally able to turn the tide and appear in control.

Or it could be remembered as the moment where the entire European project collapsed. The tension in the press room is palpable. It's hard to say if it's coming from the stressed-out journalists or seeping in from the inner chambers where the European leaders are meeting. Either way, I would venture to say the Justus Lipsius building (or 'Just Lips' as I like to call it) is one of the most tense places on earth at the moment.

The markets need the leaders to come out of those doors and tell the press room two things: First, that they have amassed a trillion euro war chest to protect all of the Southern European economies, including Italy and Spain, from collapse. Second, that Italy has agreed to put in place a drastic austerity plan in line with what is being imposed on Greece.

US-EU trade war looming over airline emissions

This week the US House of Representatives passed a bill that would ban US airlines from participating in the EU's emissions cap-and-trade scheme. It is just the opening shot in what is likely to be a nasty trade war between the two blocs over the coming months. The winner will determine whether 72 million tonnes of CO2 are emitted into the Earth's atmosphere over the next eight years.

While international climate talks have stalled the EU has pushed ahead with its own unilateral action on climate change, the keystone of which is the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). Under the scheme industries with heavy emissions are capped on the amount of greenhouse gases they can produce, and if they want to emit more they must buy credits from others who are using less than their cap. The scheme is already up and running, but starting in January airlines will be included. The decision to include airlines in the scheme was taken back in 2008.

This will mean all airlines that fly in or out of the EU must purchase carbon permits. The plan has not met with significant resistance from the European airline industry, but it has met ferocious resistance from American, Indian and Chinese airlines. US Airlines have challenged the law at the European Court of Justice, but the court has already indicated it will rule against them. So the airlines have now turned to the US Congress, and they have found a receptive ear.

Monday, 24 October 2011

UK sidelined as Cameron faces attack from Sarko and his own MPs

David Cameron's quest for influence at this week's Eurozone crisis meetings is meeting headwinds, to say the least. First French president Nicolas Sarkozy tells him to 'shut up' at yesterday's summit, and now he is facing a rebellion his back-bench Eurosceptic MPs.

Tonight the rebels will try to force a vote in the parliament to set a public referendum in the UK on its EU membership. Cameron opposes such a referendum and has instructed his party to vote against it, as have the leaders of his coalition partners the Liberal Democrats and the opposition Labour. But 70 Conservative MPs are expected to defy him and vote for a referendum.

Of course, the measure has no hope of passing. But commentators and the markets,will be focused on the message that the rebellion will send at this precarious and sensitive time. British foreign secretary William Hague, who is himself quite eurosceptic, told the BBC that the vote being forced by the back-benchers is "the wrong question at the wrong time" and has likened it to "a piece of graffiti". The vote will "create additional economic uncertainty in this country at a difficult economic time," he said.

Cameron has imposed a 'three-line whip' on his party to vote against the measure, which is the most serious whip a party can issue. Any MPs who disobey will be expected to resign from government jobs. Cameron has said the preceding Labour Party should have held a public referendum on the ratification of the Lisbon Treaty, and he has pledged to hold a referendum on any future treaty changes. But he says an 'in-out' referendum would be counter-productive. This is likely because he knows such a referendum could easily yield an 'out' result, plunging the UK into a diplomatic and economic crisis.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Indignant occupiers and the EU’s ‘sink or swim’ moment

The past few weeks have witnessed a remarkable coalescence between the months-old ‘Indignados’ movement that started in Spain and spread to other European capitals with the ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement that started in New York and spread to other American cities. Coordinated demonstrations and unrest took place this weekend in from London and Paris to Brussels and Frankfurt.

I was in Italy on Saturday when Rome saw the worst of the violence outside Greece, and the news coverage was clearly unnerved in tone. Everyone is now wondering – where is this all going?

The protests on both sides of the Atlantic are expressing the same frustration: people feel powerless and confused by a North Atlantic economic crisis where solutions seem to be dictated by the all-powerful 'markets'. It's reminiscient of how the Pope in Rome excersised ultimate authority over kings and queens in midieval Europe. Now European and American leaders follow the dictates of 'the markets'. In 2008 following the Lehman Brothers collapse, the US congress was told that it must immediately pass a rescue package for the banks or 'the markets' would panic, causing economic catastrophe. Now European leaders are being told that they must immediately inject an enormous amount of cash into the struggling Southern European economies to prevent 'the markets' from panicing.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Two different animals

If you needed evidence of just how different the British Conservative Party is from the American Republican Party, this week's party conference provided two particularly illuminating illustrations.

Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron stood before the yearly gathering of Conservative Party members – similar to the 'national conventions' in the US – and said he wholeheartedly supports gay marriage and will work to enact it in the UK next year (to replace the current civil unions). This was met with thundering applause in the hall. Try to imagine the reaction if a presidential candidate said this to the Republican National Convention!

In the second example, a huge row has developed after the Conservative Home Secretary Theresa May used an incorrect fact in her speech to the conference. Explaining why she wants to dismantle the Human Rights Act, which is the British transposition of the European Convention on Human Rights, she listed as an example a case where the act's requirements meant that there was an "illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat."

As it turns out, she was making this up. As the decision shows, the actual verdict against deportation had nothing to do with a pet cat, the decision was instead due to a mistake made by the Home Office's prosecution. A pet cat, which had been mentioned in the appellant's brief along with his partner as reasons why he has a home life in the UK, was merely mentioned by the judge in his verdict as an attempt at humour. It was later revealed that May had taken the cat story from a speech made by UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

The Knox verdict: another humiliation for Italy

These are embarrassing times to be Italian. The country is in a financial mess, on the precipice of becoming the latest victim of the debt crisis. The prime minister is now regarded even by most Italians to be a national embarrassment, yet he still clings to power. The waste crisis in Naples has spiralled out of control, and Italy's handling of migrants from North Africa during the Arab Spring has drawn condemnation from human rights groups and European leaders alike. Even their prime minister has heaped scorn upon Italy, calling it a "shitty country". The last thing Italians needed was another embarrassment.

As I write this, Amanda Knox is boarding a plane in Rome, heading back to her home in the US after four years in an Italian jail for a crime the judiciary now says she did not commit. Yesterday's verdict of innocence, the conclusion of the most closely-watched Italian court case in decades, brought jeers and condemnation not just from the crowd of Italians outside but also from the Italian media. Many in Italy see the verdict as the judiciary bending to American pressure. But other Italians agree with the sentiment felt abroad - particularly in the US – that the Italian judiciary and police system are so flawed there was no way Ms Knox could be convicted without significant doubt about her guilt.