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