Friday, 16 November 2012

Who is Captain Europe?

For two years, Brussels has grappled with a mystery that has taken on a sort of legendary aura – who is Captain Europe? Tonight, I may finally discover the answer.

The caped crusader – pictured right – appears suddenly at various events around Brussels, dressed head to toe in euro-blue spandex. When the EU won the Nobel Peace prize last month, he was spotted at Place du Luxembourg (known affectionately by Eurocrats as ‘Plux’) shortly afterwards waving an EU flag and working the crowd into a frenzy of eurenthusiasm. Wherever euro-spirits are down, he suddenly appears to save the day. His tweets are a consistent source of amusement.

Thursday, 8 November 2012

A relief for Europe - but will gridlock persist?

Anxious Europeans have been able to breathe easier the past two days, after Tuesday’s reelection of US president Barack Obama. But the relief has much more to do with the defeat of Mitt Romney than with Obama himself.

Europe isn’t the only place feeling relieved because of a dislike for Romney. Outside Israel, there probably wasn’t one country on the globe that was excited about the prospect of a Romney presidency.

The Republican candidate's dangerous rhetoric seemed almost guaranteed to launch a war with Iran which no US allies would have been keen to sign up to. He had described Russia as America’s “greatest geopolitical foe” and had spoken of China as if it was the evil empire, promising to “get tough” with them in a way Obama hadn’t (although he never provided details about what that would mean). Latin America recoiled at his extreme anti-immigration rhetoric, and Africa was less than excited about his promises to cut US overseas aid.

In Brussels, there is a sense that long-stalled bilateral issues that were waiting until the resolution of the election can finally be taken off the back burner. There is (perhaps naïve) hope that a second-term Obama can show up to the UN climate summit in Doha next month with a reverse-course on the US intransigence in taking action to combat global warming. Negotiations on a US-EU free trade deal can now begin. Most importantly – fears that Europe was about to see a return to the trans-Atlantic tensions that marked the George W. Bush era have now been allayed.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The case for four more years? Look at the previous four

Rachel Maddow had an excellent review of Obama's first term last night. It's bizarre that anyone would say the American president "hasn't done anything" in his first term. Historic legislative actions were taken during the first two years. And even after the Republican takeover of the US Congress in 2010 ground all legislative activity to a halt, Obama still took important executive decisions over the following two years that could bypass the congress. Let's take a little stroll down memory lane, shall we?

Europeans are very anxious about the result of today's election in the US. It would appear that it is now up to 8 million people in Ohio to decide the fate of the world. Hopefully they will make the right decision.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Catalonia: on the precipice of secession?

I’m on a plane back to Brussels from Barcelona at the moment, still digesting the amusingly polarised reaction to Friday’s announcement that the EU has won the Nobel Peace Prize. The significance of the announcement was only heightened for me this weekend by the fact that, as the Nobel committee spoke of the achievement of the EU in keeping Europe together, I was in a country that may be about to tear itself apart.

Friday was Spanish National Day, but you wouldn’t have known it on the streets of Barcelona. The Catalans may have been happy to take the day off work, but they were clearly not in the mood to celebrate. There was no parade, no festivities and - most noticeably - not even any Spanish flags.

In fact the only way one would have known it was national day at all was that in the morning, the streets around Placa de Catalonia were filled with Police officers preparing for a planned march by secessionist demonstrators. Helicopters thundered above us, preparing for the possibility that the city would see a repeat of the massive secessionist demonstrations that took place on 11 September (Catalan National Day) that saw more than a million protestors flood the streets of Barcelona. However from what I saw, this time around the Catalans seemed to prefer ostentatious non-observance to demonstrations.

Though there were Catalan flags draped from nearly every window (perhaps left over from the 11 September celebrations), I did not see one Spanish flag except for those on government buildings.

Friday, 12 October 2012

Does the EU deserve the Nobel Peace Prize?

What a day to be away from Brussels! I'm in Barcelona this weekend, but awoke this morning to the news that the European Union has been awarded the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize. I'll admit, I had to do a double-take after reading that news.

This is another deliberately provocative move by the Nobel committee, following last year's selection of Barack Obama. Like last year's choice, this one is going to have its share of critics.

The Nobel committee seems to have adopted a strategy of trying to aid well-intentioned people/institutions at a time when they're down on their luck. When they chose Obama, he was in a weak position domestically, showing the scars of the healthcare fight. And obviously, it goes without saying, the EU is also in a difficult place right now. The awards seem to be almost like a pep talk - don't get discouraged, keep hope.

And yet many of the uncomfortable contradictions are still there. Many questioned how a US president currently waging a war in Afghanistan and a secret drone war in Pakistan could be awarded a prize for peace. Several EU member states are also participating in the Afghan war, including Britain and France (though France is about to pull out). Of course the Nobel Committee would likely argue that this is member states, not the EU itself.

Monday, 24 September 2012

Britain snubs Europe, goes to the dance with Canada

It shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone that UK foreign secretary William Hague has found a new way to annoy his European counterparts. But today he’s managed to bring a North American country into the fray, and for once is isn’t the one with whom he believes he has a “special relationship”.

During a visit to Canada today Hague announced that the UK is going to close some British embassies across the world and merge them with Canadian embassies. The two countries will establish joint diplomatic missions, sharing embassy offices and consular services.

The move, an attempt to save money in these cost-cutting times, might seem logical enough at first glance. But the more you delve into it the more you realize it is diplomatically and logistically bizarre. While the UK and Canada may have similar foreign policy (something irrelevant to the consular services they are merging), they are completely separate countries which share no unified visa system. The only thing they share is a queen.

Friday, 14 September 2012

EU citizens embrace the eurobots

Citizens of the European Union may have lost faith in their leaders, but they have not lost faith in robots. This according to a reassuring press release put out today by the European Commission, which boldly declares, “More than two-thirds of EU citizens (70%) have a positive view of robots.”

In fact Europeans are apparently ecstatic about these automatons, particularly those who have already had some personal experience with a robot. According to a survey conducted by the EU, 26% of Europeans would be comfortable with having a robot walk their dog. Bulgarians seem to especially love the robots, with 21% of them saying they would even trust the robots to look after their children or elderly parents.

But not all Europeans are willing to embrace the robots. The Greeks do not like these robots, not one bit. 46% of Greeks say they do not like robots, making it the most anti-robot country in the EU. Greek Cypriots are as wary as their mainland cousins, with 98% of them saying the robots need to be “carefully managed”.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

The peril and promise of a new treaty

European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso dared to use the ‘F word’ in his state of the union address here in Strasbourg today – federalism.

“Let’s not be afraid of the word, we will need to move towards a federation of nation states,” he told the European Parliament. “Today, I call for a federation of nation states. Not a superstate.” This federation, he continued, will ultimately require a new treaty, as German Chancellor Angela Merkel had suggested last week. EU leaders, still traumatized by the painful experience of ratifying the Lisbon Treaty in the last decade, have been desperate to avoid this.

“Before the next European Parliament elections in 2014, the Commission will present its outline for the shape of the future European Union. And we will put forward explicit ideas for treaty change in time for a debate.”

Barroso has been hesitant to use the word federal in the past when describing the future direction of the European Union, aware of the images of a power-grab it can conjure up in member states. But in his state of the union addresses, a yearly tradition itself created by the Lisbon Treaty, Barroso has been keen to make the European Parliament happy. He clearly thought that by finally using the F-word, he could do it.

Monday, 3 September 2012

A long-distance relationship

There are many clichés used to describe Iceland’s position in the middle of the Atlantic. Torn between Europe and North America – quite literally sitting on the fault line separating the two continents geologically – the country’s location is the most frequently used metaphor. This has been particularly true now that the country is in the process of EU accession.

While in Iceland over the past four days – a stopover on my way back to Brussels from a visit home to New York – the question of EU accession was very much on my mind. In fact I made it a point to ask every Icelander I met how they plan to vote in the coming referendum (what can I say, I’m tons of fun at a party). I planned to write some kind of blog entry on the way back reflecting people’s opinions and concerns, and here I am on the plane writing it.

It’s tempting to start trying to explain Iceland’s reluctance to embrace Europe with an anecdote about geography, since it is so far the European mainland. I could describe the intense sense of isolation I felt while out in the uninhabited lava fields away from Reykjavik. Or I could muse about the feeling of being torn in two directions which I felt while standing in the gorge separating the two continents at Pingvellier Park.

Thursday, 16 August 2012

One car, one vote

The US presidential campaign switched into high gear this week with Mitt Romney’s selection of Wisconsin congressman Paul Ryan as a running mate. But with a raft of voter ID laws now going into effect in crucial swing states across the country, it’s looking increasingly likely that the result in November could be shaped more by who is allowed to vote than by who is on the ticket. Thanks to these new laws, if an American doesn’t drive, he or she may not get to vote.

Until 2003, no state in America required voters to show a photo ID in order to vote. For Europeans this may seem strange, since showing your national ID is often a requirement here for things as simple as using a solarium. But English-speaking countries tend to not have national IDs. For some reason I’ve never understood, there’s just some deep-rooted Anglo-Saxon distrust of them.

In the United States, this leaves drivers licenses as the only government-issued photo identification most people have. Because such a large proportion of adult Americans (85%) have a drivers license, this has more or less worked out. Many people obtain a drivers license even if they do not routinely drive, in order to have a photo ID.

But that leaves 10% of eligible American voters who do not have a drivers license or any other form of photo ID, according to NYU's Brennen Center for Social Justice. This group is overwhelmingly made up of African-Americans, Hispanics and college students. And these three groups are statistically the most likely to vote Democratic.

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Bank battle: New York vs London

Yesterday's news that US regulators are investigating yet another British bank for illegal activity has provoked a roar of indignation and incredulity from the City of London. Today a member of the British parliament accused the US government of launching the string of investigations in order to weaken the British banking sector.

“I think it's a concerted effort that's been organised at the top of the US government,” fumed Labour MP John Mann to British media. “I think this is Washington trying to win a commercial battle to have trading from London shifted to New York.”

This week the New York State regulator charged the British bank Standard Chartered of money laundering $250 billion in funds aimed for Iran. The US has a trade embargo against Iran, and under US law all companies publicly traded in the US, including Standard Chartered, must comply. The money laundering went on for nearly a decade, the regulator alleges.

The announcement comes just weeks after the US Congress held highly confrontational hearings of British-based HSBC executives over allegations that HSBC was laundering money for Mexican drug cartels. Earlier this summer London-based Barclays bank was discovered to have been manipulating libor rates – the rates at which banks lend to each other.

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Romney’s offend-a-thon comes to an end

If the aim of Mitt Romney’s ‘world tour’ over the past week was to demonstrate his ability to tactfully represent the United States on the world stage, it’s safe to say the trip had the opposite effect. Professing to be on a quest to ‘restore relations with America’s most important strategic allies’, Romney managed to cause grave offense in all three of the countries he visited.

It started badly and quickly went from bad to worse. Even before he touched down in London last Wednesday, his campaign had raised eyebrows when an advisor said that Barack Obama was unable to understand the “common Anglo-Saxon heritage” of the US and the UK. Given that in English this term only refers to the Germanic tribes of Southwest England (unlike the "free-market capitalism" meaning it has in France), it came off as shockingly racist – i.e., a black man cannot understand the common Germanic heritage of the English and their descendants.

Romney then managed to enrage the British public by casting doubt on their readiness to host the Olympic Games, telling a US journalist in London that the UK’s preparedness was “not encouraging.” This sent the British media into a frenzy of anti-Romney headlines, such as “Mitt the Twit” (The Sun, owned by Rupert Murdoch) and “Who invited Party-Pooper Romney?” (The ultra-conservative Daily Mail). He even managed to enrage Conservative British Prime Minister David Cameron, who quipped at a press conference, "Of course it's easier if you hold an Olympic Games in the middle of nowhere." (Romney ran the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City, Utah). Even London mayor Boris Johnson, himself a gaffe-magnet, used Mitt Romney’s name when speaking to crowds asif describing some kind of panto villain, quickly followed with boos from assembled Olympics-lovers.

Tuesday, 31 July 2012

The race for full marriage

As incredible as it may seem, Ireland may be about to adopt full gay marriage – before the United Kingdom has it.

Both countries already have civil unions, which confer all the rights of heterosexual marriage in everything but name. But the Conservative governments of both countries have come to the conclusion that this is not enough to guarantee equality under the law.

Across the channel, France – which also already has civil unions – is also preparing to make the switch to full marriage. The country’s new Socialist president Francois Hollande promised to enact gay marriage during his campaign. His rival, incumbent president Nicolas Sarkozy, only promised to upgrade the existing ‘PACS’ civil unions, which only confer a handful of the rights of full marriage.

So now the race is on between these ancient foes - who is the more progressive? The government of Ireland is planning to put the issue to a public referendum next year, and polls show that it would likely pass with 73% of Irish people supporting gay marriage. This is incredible considering that the country only adopted civil unions in 2010.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Romney's 'apology for the apology' tour

Mitt Romney has arrived in London today, the first stop on a three-country tour meant to shore up his foreign policy credentials. His tour opened with a remarkably tone-deaf gaffe by a campaign staffer, who told British newspaper The Telegraph that Barack Obama cannot understand the common “Anglo-Saxon heritage” of the US and the UK.

The advisor was likely using the term in the continental European context, which refers to the free-market economic heritage of English-speaking countries. He was likely trying to make some 'Obama as Socialist' characterisation. But this definition is unknown in the English-speaking countries themselves, where the term is a seldom-used ethnic description of English descent (ie, from the Germanic tribes who settled in Southwest England). So it ended up just coming off as shockingly racist. Stephen Colbert hilariously summed up the bemused reaction of Americans to the comment.

It’s a bad start to what is a very important foreign tour for Romney. Over the next few days he will be meeting with virtually every high level politician in the UK. On Friday he will attend the Olympics opening ceremony, surely excited about the prospects for his horse-dancer in the dressage competition.

The Republican presidential candidate’s choice of three countries for this visit is highly significant. After his visit to the UK he will fly to Israel, where he will make a series of high-profile appearances. He will then finish his tour in Poland. All three are countries which the Romney campaign has accused the Obama administration of at best ignoring, and at worst insulting.

Thursday, 28 June 2012

The showdown: Germany v. Italy

The centre of political gravity may be in Brussels today as EU leaders meet for yet another “make-or-break” summit, but all eyes in Europe will tonight be on Warsaw. The German and Italian football teams will be battling it out to see who will go on to the European Championship final on Sunday.

Like the Germany-Greece game last week, tonight’s game will be fraught with political tension. Thankfully, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will not be at the match tonight to humiliate her Southern neighbours, as she did at the match with Greece. Instead she will be here in Brussels, perhaps watching the match with Italian prime minister Mario Monti. And as the Germans and Italians battle it out on the field in Poland, their leaders will be battling it out here in Brussels.

Monti, the ‘technocrat’ prime minister put into place by EU leaders after they forced disgraced former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi to resign, is coming to Brussels today with a list of demands. He wants the EU to take immediate measures to save the Italian and Spanish economies, which are teetering on the brink of collapse. Specifically, he wants the EU to collectivise debt by issuing ‘eurobonds’ – a joint bond guaranteed by all countries using the euro.

Tuesday, 26 June 2012

Yet another tone-deaf video from the EU

A familiar pattern is emerging for the European Commission’s promotional videos: Commission pays six-digit figure for a promotional video, video is released, video causes uproar, video is pulled. Whether its racism, sexism or neocolonialism, the private consultancies who make videos for the Commission seem to have developed a talent for causing offense.

The latest offender is a video promoting the launch of the Commission’s ‘Science: It’s a Girl Thing’ campaign last week. The campaign is meant to attract young women to careers in the sciences. Apparently the makers of the video decided that the best way to do that was to depict science as an episode of Sex in the City.

The video starts with a serious man peering into a microscope. He is suddenly confronted by three skinny, fashionable girls wearing three-inch high heels. They strut on the catwalk as shots of lipstick and make-up are interspersed with the chemical processes that made them.

Monday, 25 June 2012

As US awaits "Obamacare" court ruling, some US-EU comparisons

This week the US Supreme Court will issue a landmark ruling on the constitutionality of “Obamacare”. It is still a mystery what the conservative-dominated court will decide.

There is speculation that the court may rule that just parts of the legislation are unconstitutional. The main provision everyone is watching is the requirement for all people to get health insurance or face fines. Republicans are arguing that it is illegal to force people to buy health insurance. But Democrats say that throwing out even just this one piece of the legislation will make the whole thing fall apart.

The healthcare reform changed the law to make it illegal for insurance companies to deny someone coverage because they are sick. Experience has shown that such a requirement has to be coupled with a requirement for everyone to have health insurance – otherwise healthy people would wait until they get sick to buy coverage. Eliminating the requirement to purchase insurance could send the whole system into the so-called “insurance death spiral” – where sick people suddenly flood the insurance market and send costs soaring.

Wednesday, 20 June 2012

In Cypriot hands

When Cyprus was admitted to the European Union in 2004, it was hoped that membership would help unify the divided island into a single state once again. But in an ironic twist of fate, the EU itself may be divided while it is under the leadership of Cyprus over the next six months.

On 1 July Cyprus will take over the rotating 6-month presidency of the European Union from Denmark. It is almost the perfect storm of fragility – the union is set to be led by one of its weakest members at a time when its own weakness threatens to tear it apart.

The Greek Cypriot government, which is the one that will be taking over the presidency, rules over just 800,000 people - fewer than live in the EU’s ‘capital city’ Brussels. This of course excludes the 300,000 Turkish-speaking people in Northern Cyprus, a self-governing break-away territory that has been separate since the country’s civil war in 1974. But as the EU does not recognise the existence of Northern Cyprus, nominally the entire island is taking over the presidency.

Turkey, whose military still occupies Northern Cyprus, is the only country that recognises it as a country. The Greek Cypriot government considers itself to be the ruler of the whole island, as does the EU. But they are effectively two separate countries in an open state of war, but with a cease-fire.

Wednesday, 13 June 2012

Is this the Élysée or Melrose Place?

The French papers can hardly contain their excitement this morning over the catty details of the first scandal to come out of the Élysée Palace since the election of Socialist François Hollande – the self-styled “Mr. Normal”.

Journalist Valerie Trierweiler, Hollande’s partner (Americans – ‘partner’ is French for ‘unmarried fornicator’) made the faux pas of endorsing a rebel challenger to Socialist party standardbearer Segolene Royal in this Sunday’s elections for the French Parliament. This might seem fairly uninteresting, until you add the fact that Royale, herself the 2007 presidential candidate for the Socialists, is the former partner of Hollande and they have four children together.

The offending endorsement of challenger Olivier Falorni from the French first lady was made in a tweet posted by Trierweiler yesterday. The reaction from Hollande’s fellow Socialists has been furious. They have pointed out that not only has the tweet exacerbated the inter-party tensions and in a way that could cost the Socialists seats on Sunday, it also seems grotesque on a personal level. For the first lady to go out of her way to publicly insult and humiliate the mother of her partner’s four children seems exceptionally cruel, French politician Daniel Cohn Bennett said. But it seems entirely consistent with her previous behaviour toward Royal (more on that later).

Monday, 11 June 2012

Super size drink ban – the view from Europe

As an American living in Europe I am obviously confronted with frequent differences from my homeland. One of the most typical is the very profound difference in the way that Europeans and Americans view the state and its role in people’s daily lives.

I’ve been encountering this difference this week in the very different reactions to the news that New York mayor Mike Bloomberg wants to ban supersize soft drinks from being sold in restaurants and movie theaters. I have a number of friends here, mostly in the UK, who regularly watch the Daily Show. And they were perplexed by Jon Stewart’s rant last week against the proposal.

“I don’t understand, isn’t he on the left?” one Irish friend asked me. Given the obesity epidemic in the United States, he was confused as to why anyone would oppose the measure. This is generally the reaction I've heard from European friends. Of course this goes hand in hand with Europeans’ general impression that food sizes in the US are obscenely large.

Friday, 8 June 2012

All eyes on Angela

These have been anxious times here in Europe, but this month tensions have risen to a whole new level. The world may be just weeks away from financial collapse. There is an increasing consensus that there is only one person who can prevent the catastrophe – Angela Merkel.

Next Sunday Greeks will return to the polls in a do-over election that is likely to yield the same unacceptable result – a majority in parliament who refuse to abide by the austerity conditions attached to their financial bailout. This means they can no longer receive the bailout, which means they will have to leave the euro, which economists say is very likely to spark a domino effect for other countries like Spain and Italy dropping out. Panic would ensue.

But the world may not have the luxury to wait until the 14th. There are rumours circulating today that Spain is going to have to ask the EU for a bail-out tomorrow. This could set off a financial earthquake globally, as it would be the first large EU country to have to be bailed out (so far only Greece, Ireland and Portugal have received bail-outs).

There is a lot that is uncertain about the way the next three weeks will play out. But there is one thing is certain - only Germany can pull Europe back from the brink. It is the largest European financial power by far, and it is the only one with the heft - and the resources - to stun the debt markets into submission. So far it has resisted every entreaty to do so. But time is running out.

Monday, 4 June 2012

Burqa ban leads to rioting in Brussels

The area of Molenbeek in Brussels was the scene of low-level rioting at the end of last week following the arrest of a woman for wearing a full face-covering niqab. It is the largest and most violent incident of resistance since France and Belgium enacted bans on face-covering in 2010 and 2011.

For those who oppose the burqa ban, the rioting is evidence that it is causing more problems than it solves and giving the garment more power as a symbol of resistance. For those who support the ban, the rioting is evidence that the state was right to take a stand against the increasing radicalisation they say is taking place among Belgium’s sizable Muslim minority of mainly North Africa immigrants.

On Thursday, Brussels police arrested a 23-year-old woman in Molenbeek – one of the neighborhoods of Brussels with a very high Muslim population at over 50% - for refusing to take off her face covering. That night, police say about 100 people surrounded the Molenbeek police station where she was being held, throwing stones at officers. A large number of riot police were deployed, giving the area the feeling of a city under siege. After Muslim prayers on Friday afternoon additional skirmishes broke out in the area, forcing the authorities to shut down some metro stations. The police say the violent demonstrations were organised by the group Shariah4Belgium

Friday, 18 May 2012

Eurovision under attack…by Iran

Azerbaijan’s close historical and ethnic relationship with Iran is causing discomfort in the lead-up to the Eurovision Song Contest final next weekend, hosted in Baku. Last week angry Iranian demonstrators, probably government-organised, surrounded the Azerbaijani consulate in Tabriz condemning the country for hosting a ‘gay contest’. 

This week a Eurovision news website was attacked by Azeri hackers in protest of Eurovision, which they said was a “gay pride event”. It is not yet known whether these were Azeris in Azerbaijan or Iran - but the later is more likely.

The contest organisers have appeared unsure of how to respond to the protests. Eurovision is, after all, not actually a “gay event” as the Iranians have claimed. But it is true that it has a large gay following, and there has been concern about the safety of the many gay fans who will be converging on Baku this week for the show.

Azerbaijan, as is evident from its flag, is a Muslim country. But given that the former Soviet Socialist Republic is largely secular, it has been a matter of speculation whether this would cause problems for gay fans (homosexuality was decriminalised in the country in 2000, in order to join the Council of Europe). Turkey, another Muslim but nominally secular country, hosted the contest in 2004 without incident.

But interestingly, much of the religious-based resistance to the hosting of the conference has come from neighbouring Iran, where the majority (3/4) of the Azerbaijani people live. Iran’s population is 30% Azerbaijani.  

Obama gets tough with Merkel, but is it too late?

Now that German Chancellor Angela Merkel has been hobbled by the loss of her key ally in France, it seems the Obama administration is wasting no time in pressuring her into a course correction. The chorus of anti-austerity (and by extension anti-Merkel) voices is growing louder by the minute.

At next week’s G8 summit at Camp David, Barack Obama is reportedly going to put pressure on Germany to drop its insistence on the Eurozone economies adopting a severe austerity regime. He will ask Merkel to instead pursue a policy of stimulus and growth. He will apparently do so in no uncertain terms – warning Merkel that if she does not change course quickly she risks plunging the world into another deep recession that would be even worse than the Lehman Bros collapse in 2008.

The Guardian reports that the Obama administration is expected to try to forge close ties with new French President Francois Hollande at the first meeting of the two leaders on Tuesday. They are keen to rapidly establish Hollande as an ally in exerting pressure on Merkel to change course.

Obama already has the support of UK Prime Minister David Cameron, who while unwavering in his demand for austerity at home, publicly chastised the German chancellor in a speech yesterday for her lack of flexibility. Saying that the eurozone either had to “make up…or break up”, he said urgent steps are needed quickly to prevent an economic implosion of epic proportions in the coming weeks. He will reportedly tell Merkel this weekend to use Germany's wealth to rescue Southern Europe before it is too late.

Wednesday, 9 May 2012

Angela vs. the growth

As predicted, Socialist Francois Hollande ousted the centre-right Nicolas Sarkozy in French elections on Sunday after a campaign in which he railed against the German-led austerity drive in Europe. He has insisted that Europe needs to end its obsession with austerity to dig its way out of the debt crisis, and instead focus on growth.

Coming as it did on the same day that anti-austerity parties in Greece took a majority of the vote, Sunday has been interpreted as a Europe-wide rejection of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and her insistence on austerity and budget cuts. The markets have certainly interpreted it as such. Stock exchanges across the world have taken a dive the last three days, particularly in Europe, over fears that the delicately crafted ‘fiscal union pact’ worked out over the past several months is now about to fall apart.

Whether that actually comes to pass may depend less on Hollande than on how his victory is interpreted in other European capitals. All eyes will be on the new French president’s first meeting with Merkel next week, a day after he is sworn in on 15 May. It is in both of their interests that the meeting goes well. Hollande needs to walk away with something to say that he “renegotiated” the fiscal compact, while Angela needs to reassure the German people that Eurozone countries will still have to adhere to strict budgetary rule while at the same time reassuring the markets that there will be no Franco-German rift.

What will likely be worked out is the addition of a paragraph about stimulating the economy into the compact – something that wouldn’t require new ratifications by national parliaments.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Sarko presents a Latin/Germanic choice to France

Someone tuning in to last night’s presidential debate in France might have thought Nicolas Sarkozy was running for president of Germany. Praising the economic model of France’s eastern neighbour, he continually stressed that Germany is more competitive and an easier place to do business.

Even his Socialist challenger Francois Hollande had to agree with him. “Germany in all fields is better than us,” Hollande conceded, with a tone that seemed to imply, ‘if you love it so much, why don’t you go there.’

Germany and its chancellor Angela Merkel loomed large over this debate, although she was never mentioned by name. Sarkozy continually returned to a theme of defending his close partnership with the chancellor and her austerity regime for Europe. He has been accused, both in Germany and France, of being Merkel’s poodle. “We avoided the implosion of the euro,” he spat at Hollande incredulously after he questioned the austerity strategy. “It was hard work, which was founded on the Franco-German partnership. It is irresponsible to want to question it.”

And thus the lines were drawn in precisely the way Sarkozy wanted them. “For me, the example to follow, it is that of Germany rather than that of Greece or Spain,” said the president. He stressed that it was the Socialists who have been in power in Spain during the economic crisis, and today Spain’s economy is on the verge of collapse. Contrast that, he said, with Germany where his fellow conservatives have been in power. Germany has the most successful economy in the EU. Hollande, he warned, would make France like Spain.

Tuesday, 1 May 2012

The battle for the May Day voter

The first of May is always a big deal in France. This year it’s taken on an even more politically charged tone, with groups of far-left and far-right demonstrators possibly coming into conflict during the course of today. But it might be hard today to differentiate between the two groups based on their rhetoric alone.

May Day, originally a pagan spring festival, became an international workers day in the late 19th century. Ironically this Socialist holiday is unknown in the United States, despite the fact that it actually commemorates the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago. An American ‘Labor Day’ was instead set in September so that it wouldn’t coincide with international workers demonstrations. The day has long since lost any association with workers rights in the US.

But in continental Europe, the 1st of May is still a public workers holiday during which labour unions and activists demonstrate in the streets. It is also known for anti-capitalist violence, particularly in Southern Europe.

In recent years, the increasingly mainstream far right in Europe has challenged the idea that May Day is the sole domain of the left. The National Front party in France has begun to stage May day marches to the Place de l’Opera in Paris. There they hold a rally in front of a statue of Joan of Arc, who they have adopted as a symbol. This year, following the record 18% showing of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in last Sunday’s first round of presidential elections, it is predicted that they will garner the largest turnout ever.

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Are Europe's conservatives now dependent on the far right?

Yesterday’s news that the government of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte had collapsed sent almost immediate shock waves through the world’s financial markets.

Investors, who were already feeling skittish about the first-round victory of French Socialist presidential candidate Francois Hollande on Sunday, found themselves with something much more serious to worry about. The government of the Netherlands, one of the core austerity-pushing states of the Eurozone, couldn’t even pass the tough medicine they helped design for Europe.

Holland and the three other euro-using countries that still have triple A ratings (Germany, Finland and Austria) have pushed for every eurozone country to make massive cuts by the end of the month. But yesterday Rutte was forced to tender his resignation after it became clear he could not get his own parliament to approve the tough medicine he had helped design for all of Europe.

But perhaps more interesting from a political perspective is who it was that precipitated this crisis – the infamous far right leader GeertWilders. Rutte was only able to form his governing coalition in 2010 by relying on the backing of Wilders and his far right Party of Freedom group, which had polled at 15.5% in that year's election. Wilders has been tried in the Netherlands for hate speech against Muslims, and has been banned from entering the UK in the past.

Monday, 23 April 2012

Is Europe set for a Socialist comeback?

Yesterday’s first round of presidential elections in France delivered a humiliating defeat for president Nicolas Sarkozy, who trailed over one percentage point below his Socialist Party challenger Francois Hollande - the ex-partner of Sarkozy's 2007 rival for the presidency Segolene Royal. It is the first time in the history of the fifth republic that a sitting president has not won the first round of elections.

Public polling had predicted a Sarkozy win in the first round, in which all candidates compete, followed by a Hollande victory in the final round on 6 May, where the two leading candidates face off against each other. The low showing for Sarkozy already has papers predicting that, barring a miracle, Sarkozy is finished.

Much of Sarkozy’s trouble has come from Marine Le Pen, the leader of the far right National Front party. She came in at 18%, far higher than the previous leader of the party, her father Jean-Marie Le Pen, scored in 2002 when a split Left meant he came in second in the first round. Sarkozy has been desperately trying to win over the far right vote in France, telling French television that the country has “too many immigrants,” joining a crusade against halal meat, and saying the EU’s passport-free Schengen Area should be renegotiated. But it apparently wasn’t enough to convince the far right voters to vote for him.

Sarkozy now has two weeks to convince Le Pen’s followers to support him in the final round, but it will be a difficult task. National Front voters, aside from being xenophobic, racist and anti-EU, also have a strong anti-establishment impulse. This was reflected in Le Pen’s ecstatic victory speech last night, as she declared with a clenched fist in the air, “We have blown apart the monopoly of the two parties of banking, finance and multinationals. Nothing will ever be the same.”

Sunday, 22 April 2012

End of the Swiss chapter

I’m flying back to Brussels from Zurich at the moment, watching the snow-capped Alps to my left fade into the distance as we turn to follow the Rhine to the sea. This weekend was an emotional one, as I spent it helping my dad move out of his Swiss home.
He is moving back to the US this week, his company has transferred him back there. And with that, a very significant chapter of his life – and mine – has come to a close.
Switzerland was where I began this European adventure six years ago, so it was a bit jarring to see my dad’s empty house today and walk out the door for the last time.

Tuesday, 10 April 2012

Brussels, the broken city

Public transport has been shut down in Brussels for four days now, a state of affairs we learned this morning will likely continue until Thursday. The entire situation has seemed to put people here in a more pronounced state of cynicism and disgust than normal, given both the circumstances of the incident which sparked the strike and the behaviour of the transit workers.

Early on Saturday morning, a city bus was involved in a traffic accident with a drunk driver. When a supervisor from Brussels’ public transport agency STIB came to investigate the accident and accused the car driver of being drunk, he became offended and called some friends to defend him. Those friends attacked the STIB supervisorand killed him.

In response, the STIB immediately shut down the network. This was done well before the facts of the incident were clear and before the employee had died (he didn’t die until later in the day at the hospital). Initial reports on the STIB’s web site said the trains weren’t running because of a “lightning strike”. Later it was a stabbing, until eventually it just said a “serious incident with dramatic consequences”.

The STIB employees said they wouldn’t go back to work until they had a meeting with the Belgian government about improving their safety on Monday night (this being Easter weekend, Monday was a public holiday). But last night, without providing much explanation, the STIB workers union said whatever had been offered them was not enough, and they would continue to stay home.

Tuesday, 3 April 2012

Are we entering the fact-free century?

America appears to have a lying problem. It’s hard to come to any other conclusion when looking at the string of easily disprovable untruths that have come out of the mouths of mainstream politicians during this season's Republican presidential primary.

The fact that these untruths have mostly gone unchallenged is an alarming reflection on American society. When you look at both the amount and the sheer audacity of the lies told on the campaign trail, and the fact that little to none of it has been challenged, it's truly bewildering. It would appear some kind of pseudo-reality is gaining an increasing foothold in the United States. And it leads to a disturbing question - is this a phenomenon that is unavoidable for the world at large in the internet age?

This week US presidential candidate Rick Santorum, polling second in the race to become the Republican nominee, told an audience, “I was just reading something last night from the state of California. The California universities – I think it’s seven or eight of the California system of universities - don’t even teach an American history course. It’s not even available to be taught. Just to tell you how bad it’s gotten in this country, that we’re trying to disconnect the American people from the routes of who we are.”

Just a five minute search on the University of California website reveals that this is completely untrue. It’s not even a little bit true. Not only does every university in the California system offer American history courses, but all UC bachelors programs actually require students to take one.

Dutch killing machines

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

EU internet roaming charges to be slashed

From 1 July this year using a mobile phone to surf the web in another EU country will be about 70% cheaper, following an agreement on rate caps reached today by European Parliament and member state negotiators.

For the first time, the EU roaming caps will limit the rates phone companies can charge you for using the internet in a different EU country. The cost per downloaded megabyte will be capped at 70 cents as of 1 July 2012, 45 cents in 2013 and 20 cents as of 1 July 2014. The current average cost of roaming within the EU is €2.23 per megabyte.

The EU first started limiting the rates EU carriers could charge for roaming within the EU back in 2009, limiting the charge for making calls to 45 cents a minute. That cap has steadily decreased over the past three years, and today's agreement will lower them a further 20% from the current 35 cents to 29 cents, dropping to 19 cents in 2014. Before then, it used to cost an average of €1.50 per minute to make a call elsewhere in the EU. Now, for the first time, internet usage will be capped as well.

Of course this only applies to people with an EU phone carrier. So if you're travelling to Europe from the United States, you'll still pay the high fees.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Don’t mention the Gaza

EU foreign policy chief Catherine Ashton was the object of fury in Israel this week - with the press, the pundits and even the prime minister all calling for her immediate sacking. Her crime? Mentioning the fact that children have been killed in Gaza.

Ashton was attending a Brussels conference on the subject of Palestinian children refugees on Monday when news came that three children had been shot and killed at a Jewish school in Toulouse, France. When she took to the podium to address the conference, Ashton broke the news. She then talked about how sad it is when a child loses a life, bringing up last week’s bus accident in Switzerland where 22 Belgian children were killed.
“The Belgian children have lost their lives in a terrible tragedy. And when we think of what happened in Toulouse today, when we remember what happened in Norway a year ago, when we know what is happening in Syria, when we see what is happening in Gaza and Sderot [Israel], in different parts of the world — we remember young people and children who lose their lives,” she told the audience (video here).
 When news of her comments reached Israel, the reactions were swift and furious. Israeli papers said her comparison of the shooting of innocent Jewish children with the deaths of Palestinian children during Israeli shelling of Gaza was “grotesque”. They labelled Ashton as anti-Semitic, people compared her to a Nazi, and the papers demanded her immediate removal from office.

Thursday, 8 March 2012

Eurovision controversy starts early as Armenia pulls out

As predicted, this is going to be one tumultuous year for Eurovision, the yearly singing competition where European countries compete with original songs (for Americans, it's a bit like American Idol and Miss America combined). News this week that Armenia has pulled out of the competition after Azerbaijan's president described Armenians as the country's "main enemies" has noticably rattled the competition's organisers.

The song contest, which has been held since 1956, is hosted each year by the country which one the previous year. Last year the contest was won by Azerbaijan, the Muslim former Soviet republic in the Caucasus on the border with Iran. The definition of 'Europe' has been stretched over the past decades to encorporate new countries such as Turkey, Israel and even one year Morocco.

But this year's contest in Baku is going to be an awkward one, given that Azerbaijan is still in an active conflict with its neighbor Armenia, which also participates in Eurovision and takes it very seriously. Having the warring countries both participating in Eurovision has caused problems in the past. In 2009 a number of Azerbaijanis who had voted for Armenia's entry Anush and Inga (pictured below) during the contest that year were reportedly summoned for questioning by the Ministry of National Security.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Carnivals around the world

Today is Ash Wednesday, a day when Roman Catholic areas can witness in equal number people with ashes on their forehead and those with bags under their eyes. It is the first day of lent – the 40-day fasting period leading up to Easter. But it is also the day after Mardi Gras and the carnival week, a period of revelry which can lead to some serious hangovers at the finish.

This year I went to the carnival celebrations in Cologne, Germany – the largest street festival in Europe (pictured above). I think I’m going for a record at this point – I’ve now been to carnivals in six cities on three continents (I’m not sure if that’s a brag or an embarrassing confession). The carnivals that I’ve seen in Rio de Janeiro, Salvador, New Orleans, Venice, Binche, Maastricht and Cologne have all been remarkably different – reflecting the diversity of the global Catholic community.

An American asked me yesterday if Europeans celebrate the “American holiday of Mardi Gras.” In fact it’s Americans who are celebrating the European tradition of carnival, with Mardi Gras just being a local New Orleans variant. Carnivals have been celebrated in Europe in the days before Lent begins for 1,000 years. The term comes from the Latin carne vale, which means “goodbye to meat”. Traditionally during Lent Catholics were supposed to refrain from drinking or eating rich foods such as meat, dairy, fats and sugar. They were also not to engage in any partying or celebrations, to mark the 40 days that Jesus spent in the wilderness. So in the days before Lent, all rich food and drink had to be disposed of.

Friday, 10 February 2012

UK court ends prayer in town councils - but on technicality

A UK court issued an interesting ruling today – finding that it is not lawful for town councils to say prayers before meetings. What makes it an interesting case is that the UK, unlike the US, does not have a legal separation between church and state.

In fact England has an official state religion – the Church of England. So having local government say Anglican prayers before a government meeting might not seem so unusual. But an atheist counsellor in a town called Bideford in Southwest England decided to challenge his council’s practice of saying a prayer before meetings. The legal challenge, brought by the National Secular Society, said that prayers have no place in "a secular environment concerned with civic business".

Because the UK has no formal constitution, and no domestic legal guarantee of religious freedom, the NSS cited the European Convention on Human Rights - which protects an individual's right to “freedom of conscience” and protects against discrimination. The ECHR (transposed into British law through the 1998 Human Rights Act)  is often cited in British cases involving human rights because there is no British constitution to appeal to. This lack of a legal code for human rights often means that Britain is more subject to the non-binding verdicts of the European Court of Human Rights (which guarantees the convention) than other countries.

Friday, 3 February 2012

UK gets ready for ‘American’ mayors

In three months, on 3 May, citizens of some of England’s largest cities will hold a referendum on whether or not they want their cities to be run by mayors. Though it may not seem like a revolution-in-the-making, it would represent a big change. American-style ‘mayors’ are an new concept in the UK.

London was the first British city to adopt the concept, creating an elected mayor position for the first time in 2000, a position now held by Boris Johnson. Before a devolution referendum was approved by Londoners in 1998 the city was ruled by 32 local boroughs with drastically less power than the current mayor enjoys. The referendum essentially created ‘London’ as an entity that had never existed before – a ‘Greater London Authority’ with its own government controlling the entire London area.

The ‘City of London’, the historic city where the financial centre now is, has had, and still has, a ceremonial ‘Lord Mayor” – a position which has existed since 1189. But actual elected mayors with powers have been unknown, largely because the UK is such a unitary state. It's one of the reasons some posit the British are so hostile to federalism at the European level. Given they have one of the lowest levels of local government in the western world, the concept of federal entitites sharing power rather than having it "dictated" to them from Brussels might be hard for them to understand.

As opposed to a federal state like the US, most decisions in the UK are taken centrally by the British Parliament – even painfully local things like new building authorisations or roads. But atr the turn of the century the government of Tony Blair made a huge decision - devolving powers to four regions through a process called devolution. Scotland and Wales were ‘devolved’ and given their own parliaments to make local decisions in 1999 (Northern Ireland has had a devolved government off and on since 1921, but a new one was established in 1999). London – which could be considered a ‘region’ in its own respect considering it has a larger population than Scotland and Wales put together – was also given devolved powers at the same time.

Monday, 30 January 2012

What’s wrong with a transfer union?

The eurocrisis has introduced a plethora of strange words into our everyday vocabulary: ‘Contagion’, ‘technocrats’, ‘moral hazard’, ‘austerity’ and of course the derisive description, ‘transfer union’. This last term is used by those in Northern Europe who warn that bailing out the economies of Southern Europe will lead to a European Union where money steadily flows from rich states to poor states and the North loses out. Many argue that, in fact, this is what the EU has always been.

Such feelings are at the core of the German public’s resistance to the Greek bail-outs – emotions that have turned what is normally one of Europe’s most pro-EU countries into a relatively more eurosceptic place these days. “Why should we work hard just to see our money flow to lazy people in the south?” some Germans are asking.

Their resentment is fueled by charts like the interactive diagram below, found in the Guardian newspaper’s new ‘Europa’ section (a truly fantastic project with five other papers that I’m very excited about). It shows which countries are net ‘payers’ into the EU, and which are net ‘receivers’. The statistics are familiar and often brought up when people talk about the European Union – the biggest recipients of EU funds are in Southern and Eastern Europe while the biggest contributors are in Northern Europe.

Thursday, 26 January 2012

Europe’s SOPA?

The European Parliament’s website has been shut down by hackers today, allegedly in a denial-of-service attack from Anonymous in protest of imminent anti-piracy legislation restricting internet freedom. But as the IT folks in parliament scramble to fix the problem, the functionaries are sitting around scratching their heads in confusion. Did we pass internet piracy legislation?

Their confusion is warranted. By all accounts the EU has been on the internet-freedom-lovers side during this debate. During the fallout from the Wikipedia ‘blackout’ last week, US politicians weren’t the only ones beating a path to the door to distance themselves from the now toxic SOPA legislation on internet piracy. On Friday the EU’s Digital Agenda Commissioner Neelie Kroes tweeted that she was “glad the tide is turning on #SOPA,” adding “speeding is illegal too: but you don't put speed bumps on the motorway”.

Home Affairs Commissioner Cecilia Malmström also tweeted against the US legislation, noting that ‘sopa’ in Swedish means garbage. Notably, no public statements about the US anti-piracy bills had been made before the Wikipedia blackout. It’s quite unusual for the EU to make comments about US legislation. But such was the effect of the blackout – which was, after all, global (Eurocrats felt quite helpless without Wikipedia last week!), that even politicians not involved in US lawmaking felt the need to make a statement about it.

Monday, 23 January 2012

Croatians vote to join EU

Amidst all the bad news, the EU can feel at least a bit reassured following the strong endorsement given by Croatians this weekend to their country joining the European Union. Though you'd be forgiven for getting the impression from the English-speaking media that the EU is now a toxic project that few want to be associated with, 67% of Croatians voted on Sunday to join the union.

An accession agreement was already signed by the country's government in December, and they are set to become the 28th member state at the end of this year. But the accession required a public referendum to go through. There were some rumblings of concern last year that the eurozone crisis could deliver a surprise no from the Croatian people. Brussels received a pleasant surprise last night when news came that the referendum had not only passed, it had passed by a large majority.

The vote comes a year after Estonia's decision to join the euro currency. Both decisions show that even in the midst of the eurozone crisis, the European project continues to move forward - not backward. Of course, both of these things were planned and in motion before the eurozone crisis hit. The real test may come next year when the people of Iceland vote on whether to move from their status as a pseudo-member-state in the EEA to a full member state of the EU. Opinion polls are already showing that referendum could have a hard time passing, particularly as the Icelandic economy recovers from their crisis as the eurozone slips further into its much larger crisis.

Friday, 20 January 2012

The biggest American political story Europeans haven't heard of

The US presidential primary race has attracted its usual amount of fascination here in Europe, and yesterday’s developments - with the Iowa race being re-called for Santorum and Rick Perry dropping out - were front page material. But behind the spectacle of the drawn-out US primaries, there is a far more interesting story going on in the state capitals.

Of course it’s not surprising that the European media is ignoring these huge developments at state level, because the Washington beltway media has also ignored them. They also ignored the unprecedented political revolution in 2010 that the recent events are a reaction to. While in Europe the media tends to ignore ‘federal’ (EU) politics and focus only on member state politics, in the US it is the opposite. The US media (even local state media) tends to focus on federal politics in Washington and there is little interest in what goes on in state capitals.

Thus, when the Republicans enjoyed an unprecedented victory in the 2010 midterm elections, the focus was almost entirely on the fact that they had taken control of the US House of Representatives. What was largely ignored was the fact that they had at the same time taken over state legislatures with unprecedented majorities – giving Republicans the most power in state governments they have had in decades. Republicans wrested six governorships from Democrats, giving them control of 30 of the 50 state executives. Five states saw both legislative chambers (state senate and state house) switch from Democrat to Republican majorities. In seven other states they gave themselves control of the entire legislature by picking up huge majorities in an additional chamber. The elections left Republicans controlling the entire government of half of US states, leaving them with Hungary-like majorities capable of passing whatever state legislation they like.

Wednesday, 11 January 2012

Would the EU allow a Scottish secession-accession?

Following the whirlwind events of this week, Scotland now appears to be closer to secession than it has ever been in the 300-year history of Great Britain. This week the first minister of the devolved Scottish Parliament set a date for the first referendum on Scottish independence in history. And according to polling, if the referendum were held today, Scots could very well vote to separate from the United Kingdom.

The discussion of secession has been hanging in the air for some time, ever since the secessionist Scottish National Party won a majority in the Scottish Parliament in 2007. But now with an independence referendum date set, discussion has turned for the first time toward the real practicalities of what a split would entail and the difficult questions it would present. Who does the oil in the UK's territorial North Sea waters belong to - Britain or Scotland? Who would be on the hook for the massive bailouts of Scotland's two banking giants in 2008? Would Scotland use the British pound, the euro, or a new Scottish pound?

Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond took the decision in response to a call from UK Prime Minster David Cameron to call a referendum, which the SNP had promised in their election, now. London knows that with the current economic crisis, Scots would be unlikely to be very brave at the polls. But Salmond balked, saying he would not take orders from London and setting a referendum date in 2014. 

EU complications

Though there have been a lot questions asked in the British media today about what secession would mean, as far as I can tell not a lot of thought has gone into the EU implications of all this. Everyone has been asking whether or not Scotland would choose to use the euro. But there's a leap being made there. In order to use the euro, Scotland would have to be part of the EU. That is not up to them, it is up to the 27 member states. And there are plenty of member states with good reason to block Scotland's entry.

Friday, 6 January 2012

Azerbaijan could make this an awkward year for Eurovision

It’s a new year, and of course this week everyone’s minds are on one thing – Eurovision 2012! Ok maybe not, but an interesting article in Der Speigel this week details the way in which Azerbaijan is already engaged in a public relations push ahead of their turn to host the world’s largest non-sporting television event in May of this year.

Azerbaijan will host the contest because they won last year. But there are concerns that this could be one the most problematic year in the show’s 56-year history because of the human rights record and military conflicts of the host country. Seemingly aware of this less-than-stellar reputation, the Azerbaijanis have reportedly stepped up a charm offensive in the core members of the European Broadcasting Union – Germany, France, Spain, Italy and the UK. Of course this is all part of a larger charm offensive by the oil-rich country, particularly as the Nabuco Pipeline project moves forward.

But could this year’s contest highlight the awkward relationship between the oil-hungry West and this autocratic regime? Or, as many argue, will an international event like this help to bring Azerbaijan more into line with the West and with Democratic principles? I suspect it may be the former. Even as Azerbaijan pursues its charm offensive, there are reports circulating that they are evicting Baku residents in order to build the 25,000-seat arena that will house the show this year.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Is Iowa the problem, or is it the primary system?

While I was home in the US over the past few weeks I witnessed the quadrennial spectacle of the Iowa caucuses - shivering reporters in front of the capital dome in Des Moines, candidates eating corn on the cob while clutching plump cord-fed babies, the usual fare. And I was also able to witness the quadrennial griping about why the United States allows “a few hundred farmers” to pick its president.

The complaining about the Iowa caucus, where the first nominating primary for both political parties’ presidential candidates is held, is both predictable and legitimate – even if the language used sometimes smacks of regional snobbery. The Iowa caucus makes or breaks politicians running for the presidency. Barack Obama owes his presidency to winning the Iowa Democratic caucus in 2008. This year, the result of the Republican caucus will force Michele Bachman and Rick Perry to drop out of the race. And the Iowans have elevated Rick Santorum from obscurity to be the main challenger to frontrunner Mitt Romney.

But the Iowa caucus is a big deal only because it is first. And being first means presidential candidates promise Iowa all sorts of lovely things (just look at the corn subsidies of the past four decades – and you wonder why Americans have corn syrup in most of their food for no reason?). The Iowans go through outrageous lengths to make sure they are first. When South Carolina and New Hampshire tried to move their primaries ahead of them this year, Iowa moved theirs to the earliest possible day in 2012 – 3 January.

This year the criticism went perhaps a little too far. A professor at the University of Iowa (himself a transplant from New Jersey) wrote a column for The Atlantic about a much-asked question – why should a state that is not ethnically or ideologically reflective of the country as a whole be given such a prominent role in selecting the nation’s president? But he asked it in a way that was incendiary to say the least, calling Iowa a place that's "culturally backward" and teeming with "slum towns”, where the 96% white population “clings to guns and religion.”

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Protest over Ikea meatballs - welcome back to Absurdistan

I’m back in Brussels after spending the Christmas break home in the US. It was yet another trip where I spent most of the time regaling people with the insane stories of the strange place I now find myself living in. I’m pretty sure most of my American friends think I’m making this stuff up. I only wish.

After describing the impromptu general strike three days before Christmas which forced me to pay $500 to rebook my flight home, I moved on to describing to my friends the other union strikes I have witnessed since moving here. From the impromptu metro driver strike that was called after a driver claimed he was punched by a passenger (it turned out the driver had punched the passenger) to the October garbage strike in which the garbagemen went around town lighting the trash bags on fire and throwing them into the street, there’s plenty to describe. And let's not forget the time the taxi drivers blockaded Brussels Airport because an unlicensed taxi driver had been grazed by a bullet while he fled from police during a high-speed chase.

Today I learned about a whole new anecdote of insanity I could have described to my perplexed American friends. According to this story by Belgian news station RTL, the restaurant owners association in Belgium (Horeca) is busing homeless people to Ikea as a protest against their low meatball prices. When I first saw this story I assumed it had to be a joke. Clearly I’ve been in the US too long! Because I forgot that when you hear about something this absurd happening in Belgium, it’s probably true.