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