Thursday, 30 November 2006

The idea of 'Europe'

Turkish attempts to join the EU stumbled this week as first on Wednesday the European Commission recommended freezing aspects of its accession talks and then on Thursday Cyprus threatened to veto them altogether. The dispute stems from 1974, when a Greek-coup on Cyprus precipitated a Turkish invasion of the island which ultimately split it into an internationally-recognised Greek south and a Turkish north which only Ankara continued to back. 32 years later neither Turkey, nor the EU to which Cyprus (technically the whole island) acceded in 2004, is backing down, and the impasse remains the single biggest threat to Turkey's EU ambitions.

It is the not the only one, however. Issues of free speech (the case against Turkish author and recent Nobel laureate Orhan Pamuk for declaring "30000 Kurds and a million Armenians were killed in these lands and nobody but me dares talk about it" was only dropped in January on a technicality) would be resolved as Turkey accepted and absorbed European norms and the acquis communautaire. Of greater import are the noises which periodically emanate from European capitals expressing doubt over Turkey's suitability as a member of the EU, and the souring of public opinion (both in the EU and Turkey itself) against any eventual accession. To have doubts over specific issues of compatibility is of course legitimate, responsible and healthy. But to declare, as the Bavarian minister-president Edmund Stoiber did last week, that "Turkey is not a European state", and to thus dismiss its bid for full membership on the grounds of its supposed 'extra-European' culture or geography, is both vacuous and naive.

What is Europe? It is an idea with competing and contested definitions. The European football’s governing body UEFA's competence has extended to Israel since 1994 and Kazakhstan since 2002. Morocco, as a member of the European Broadcasting Union, was able to compete in the Eurovision Song Contest as long ago as 1980, while Armenia first took part only this year. One oft-cited geographic definition bounds Europe by the Atlantic and Arctic Oceans, the Mediterranean, Caspian and Black Seas, and the Ural and Caucasian Mountains. But to define the 'European' in the 'European Union' in terms of such raw geography would be to ignore French, Spanish and Portuguese territories across the globe as well as those countries within 'Europe' which wish to remain beyond the EU, and grant undue weight to the historical but false ascription of 'continent' to what is merely a peninsula of a greater and much more clearly defined Eurasian or even Africa-Eurasian land mass. Cultural definitions are even more diffuse. One cannot delineate a 'European' culture that does not transude into other continents and countries: the UK has much more in common with liberal America than, say, Bulgaria. One could talk of a 'common heritage', but European history has been played out on a global stage since the renaissance, and the Mediterranean has been more often a naval highway of integration than a barrier - the writ of Rome ran to North Africa in the 2nd century BC as in the 20th AD. Of course, North Africa has, since the fall of Byzantine Carthage in 698, been a land of Islam, and the former president of the European Commission, Jacques Delors, famously once described the EU as a "Christian club". Yet to exclude the non-Christian world would omit Bosnia and Albania, mainly Muslim countries at the heart of the Balkans, and ignore the 15 million Muslims who already reside within the EU.

Article O of the Treaty on European Union (or Maastricht Treaty) stipulates that "Any European State may apply to become a member of the Union", without giving any clearer indication of how to define the key term 'European'. In practice, however, this has been worked out on a case by case basis by the European Council. In 1987 Morocco applied to join the then Communities, but was rejected on the grounds that it was not a European State. It has also been suggested that Israel too is not 'European' enough for full membership. Turkey, by contrast, has been promised the prospect of eventual accession since the Association Agreement it signed with the Communities in 1963, and has since had its eligibility confirmed by the European Parliament, Council and Commission. Yet 97% of Turkey lies beyond the Bosporus in Asia; the term 'European State' is above all a criterion based upon political assessment.

It is thus obtuse to cling to a geographical definition of 'Europe' when discussing the EU. If we turn to the 'Copenhagen criteria' drawn up a year after Maastricht, we find no mention of geography or culture. The key section of the Copenhagen Presidency's conclusions reads:

"Membership requires that candidate country has achieved stability of institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and, protection of minorities, the existence of a functioning market economy as well as the capacity to cope with competitive pressure and market forces within the Union."

This, along with the acceptance of the acquis communautaire, is the only meaningful definition of 'European' the EU needs. If Turkey, or Morocco, or indeed any other state beyond the EU wishes to embrace 'Europe' - i.e. democratic institutions, the rule of law, human rights and a robust market economy - there is no reason why the EU should not embrace such states in turn. It was after all the prospect of eventual EU membership that led the 8 former Communist countries which joined the bloc in 2004 to pursue the reforms and 'Europeanise' as they have. Why should geographical chauvinism deny others, from North Africa to Central Asia and beyond, the carrot of EU membership to encourage the adoption of 'European' rights and political and economic norms?

The issues currently holding up Turkish negotiations are not, at least officially, rooted in any supposed extra-European character - they result instead from the intractable fallout of the partition of Cyprus. It is to be hoped, nevertheless, that European capitals do not seek to exploit the hiatus to dash Turkey's hopes of accession, in order to protect spurious notions of the idea of Europe.

Wednesday, 29 November 2006

The potpourri of the DRC

The wars and strife which beset Congo in the decade up to the fragile peace of 2003 was the world's bloodiest period of conflict since 1945, which makes it all the more remarkable that this years elections, if far from peaceful, were nevertheless successful in producing a clear cut winner. That man was transitional president Joseph Kabila, who defeated his rival former warlord Jean-Pierre Bemba in the run-off of 29th October 52%-42%. It is the latter who now deserves praise for giving Congo's embryonic democracy a real chance of life, however, by swallowing his doubts over the conduct of the election and accepting the Kabila victory, vowing to forge a "strong republican opposition in the interests of the nation". It is vital that Kabila, flush with his successes and dominating Congo's National Assembly with around 300 of its 500 representatives (against Bemba's 100), allows him to do so by granting positions on parliamentary committees and effective government oversight. Congo remains a divided nation, with factions routed in once held territory as most Congolese voted against their former masters, and little evidence of the 'state' away from Kinshasa and the major cities. A return to the one party system of Mobutu Sese Seko would do nothing to mend a broken country. Political pluralism is vital if Africa's heart is to beat to a lighter tune.

Tuesday, 28 November 2006

Scotland's gain, Gordon's bain

This month saw an explosion of interest in Scotland's constitutional position within the union, sparked by an ICM-Scotsman poll of 27th-30th October which showed that 51% of Scots favoured independence and that the Scottish National Party was leading Labour in the race to become the biggest party in Holyrood in May's Scottish Assembly elections, a lead which had grown to 5% by the more recent ICM-Scotsman poll of 22nd-23rd November. Cue the emanation of increasingly shrill noises from senior Labour figures seriously concerned about a rout north of the border. In speeches over the past week, Gordon Brown has warned of the economic and cultural damage - and even the passports - that independence would supposedly entail, John Reid has sought to paint the SNP as helpless "in the face of the environment, international crime and terrorism, and mass migration", while Tony Blair has urged Labour activists to redouble their efforts to avoid the "constitutional nightmare" of "narrow" Scottish nationalism in power. All of which suggests that Labour itself believes it is set for a mauling in May, and that Westminster's highest echelons are terrified of what an SNP-dominated Holyrood might mean.

Whatever happens in the coming months, full Scottish independence is still a long way off. Anything shy of what remains an unlikely majority would force SNP leader Alex Salmond into a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, a condition of which looks certain to be the stymieing of the proposed independence-referendum. Even if the SNP were to secure such a plebiscite and then go on to win it, it would take years to renegotiate and untangle 300 years of union. Nevertheless, a good result puts question marks over the medium term future of a united Britain, and this in turn inevitably puts question marks over the British premiership of a Scottish politician. Just as Gordon Brown ascends to the long-coveted post of Prime Minister - which few now doubt he will - he would indeed be faced with a nightmare, not so much over the constitution, but over his own credibility in power.

As Scotland decides it would really rather not send MPs to London, does the most powerful of those it currently does send seek to re-convince the Scottish electorate of the merits of union and risk alienating so-called 'middle' England? Does he appoint an English-dominated Cabinet, to hide from the inevitable efflorescence of the West Lothian Question? Or does Brown continue with his promotion of ‘Britishness’, a strategy which looks ever more impotent in the face of even higher English than Scottish support for the partial dissolution of Britain in the above-quoted November ICM poll. It would be a deeply destabilising situation for the Chancellor-cum-Prime Minister to endure, which of course explains the terror projected SNP gains engender among a Labour elite which has all but reconciled itself to an annointed succession in the Labour leadership. The prospect of SNP probing at the fundamental weakness of a Brown premiership has the potential to crucially buttress a credible Stop-Gordon candidate's support. But then no such candidate seems to exist.

Monday, 27 November 2006

Premature Presidents

Awoke this morning to find that leftist Ecuadorian presidential hopeful Rafael Correa had declared victory after taking 66% of the counted votes in his run-off with Álvaro Noboa. But this claim came after a bare 20% of cast ballots had been counted, continuing a worrying trend particularly in Latin American countries of premature declarations which have the potential to undermine often fragile democracies. In July of this year, after 25% of votes had been counted in the Mexican presidential elections, the left-wing Party of the Democratic Revolution candidate Andrés Manuel López Obrador held a lead of over 3.5% from the governing National Action Party candidate Felipe Calderón Hinojosa. It was not until 97.70% of polling stations had declared, nearly 24 hours after the first declarations had been given, that Calderón took the lead, going on to open up a margin of victory of 244000 in over 40 million votes cast. Both candidates had however already claimed victory on the basis of an earlier quick count and private exit polls all of which had lain within margins of error, and while Calderón has since been vindicated López Obrador has refused to concede, bringing Mexico City to a standstill for much of the past four months and threatening further instability.

A Correa victory in Ecuador is clearly the most likely outcome of yesterday's poll; at the time of writing with nearly half the votes counted Noboa trailed by a massive 35%. But this only heightens the dangers of an unexpected but decisive late Noboa surge; the Banana magnate is after all yet to concede defeat, and should he ultimately claim legitimate victory, we will again end up with two self-proclaimed presidents. As López Obrador and his supporters found, once victory has been declared accepting defeat is an incredibly bitter pill to swallow. Yet the temptations to declare premature victory are obvious, when street protests have had the power to bring down governments across Latin America (most recently that of Bolivia's Carlos Mesa in 2005). A failure to declare could lose a candidate the initiative, look ineffectual and appear to tacitly concede the race.

Part of the blame, therefore, has to lie with electoral systems that release partial results to the public and press long before all the votes have been considered. In elections with a clear winner, as appears to be the case in Ecuador, this has the benefit of swifting curtailing the political uncertainty which inevitably follows an election. This is obviously important in a country of endemic political turbulence where three presidents have been extra-constitutionally forced from power in the past decade, and Rafael Correa has indeed begun naming ministers and pronouncing policy. Moreover, poor communications can indeed render full counts in rural areas protracted affairs; in Peru's presidential election first round of April 9th Lourdes Flores Nano was not forced to concede defeat to Alan García Pérez for the final run-off spot behind Ollanta Humala until a full 24 days after Peruvians actually went to the polls. Yet in such closer contests, by obliging candidates to second guess the ultimate outcome, partial counts run the dangerous risk of prolonging the uncertainty long after all the full results are actually in. Announcing provisional results does little to further aid transparency so long as election monitors are given adequate oversight of counting procedures, and it perversely allows candidates such as López Obrador to spuriously paint the thwarting of their ambitions before the eyes of electorate as fundamental electoral fraud. In an ideal world candidates would not declare until victory truly was assured, but it is naive to expect politicians not to do so while partial results continue to be released. It thus falls to election officials to hold back from announcing provisional results, and strive harder still to minimise the time it takes for fully definitive results to come in.

Sunday, 26 November 2006

Look What My Tory Did!

After recent moves to reposition themselves on the issue of poverty, it is hard to see what the latest Conservative online gimmick Sort-It, following on from the infamous WebCameron, is supposed to achieve. Describing the impulse to spend on credit as 'the tosser inside' manages to offend both traditional Conservative supporters who find the language repulsive, and younger voters to whom the message is supposed to appeal and persuade. They may have had considerable success in beginning to shake off the image of being the 'nasty' party, but they still have much further to go before their advice, which indeed addresses a very important issue in contemporary British society, looks anything other than opportunistic and patronising. Employing a Silvio Berlusconi look-alike to prance about in garish garb does not 'do something about' the problem of debt as Conservative Leader David Cameron claims - it is hard to see nearly enough young people first finding and then being persuaded by it to make anything but the tiniest of dents in the short-term debt which holds them back - but rather succeeds in recasting the Tories in the image of paternalistic 19th Century politicians lecturing the working classes on the evils of drink.

Friday, 24 November 2006

The third postulate of special relativity

As expected, Conservative Leader David Cameron today highlighted the Tories' shifting attitude to poverty - now seen as relative rather than merely absolute - and even suggested some of the potential outlines for the relevant eventual Tory policies. Cameron argued that the Conservatives needed to 'stop treating poverty as an issue for government, and start treating it as an issue for society'. Borrowing the traditional language of Labour, he called for 'an element of redistribution' in economic policy, but his main emphasis was on tackling the issue at its supposed roots, such as mental health problems and drug addiction. This heralded the latest in a trend across the political spectrum to call on the 'Third Sector' - voluntary organisations and social enterprises which comprise that part of society which neither falls within the 'public' or 'private' sectors (and are supposedly better placed than either to meet some of society's needs) - to play a greater role in addressing these factors. But of course, the wait continues for what exactly such Tory policies will entail.

Thursday, 23 November 2006

Double Dutch

With the votes all but counted in the Dutch general election of 22 November 2006, a chaotic and confused situation has emerged in which no two parties are able to secure a parliamentary majority. The most likely outcome will be a 'monster' coalition of the Christian Democratic (CDA) and Labour (PvdA) parties (with at least a third coalition partner) - the Dutch equivalent of Germany's Grand Coalition of Christian and Social Democrats and a far from ideal situation with Labour leader Wouter Bos one of the harshest critics of Christian Democrat Premier Jan Peter Balkenende's four years of government. Dutch voters have granted defenders of Britain's 'first-past-the-post' electoral system yet another inconclusive European election result to point at to demonstrate the weaknesses of a proportional system, following similar recent ambiguous aftermaths to polls in Germany and the Czech Republic, as well as the inherent fragility of the ever-fragmented Italian system.

Should those in favour of electoral reform in Britain thus be questioning their beliefs? Far from it. The moderate centre's loss of ground to minor parties across Europe (and indeed in Britain, with yesterday's Guardian/ICM poll giving 'Others' (ie not Labour, the Conservatives or the Liberal Democrats) 9% of a projected popular vote) has indeed made forming governing majorities difficult, but this is no reason to disenfranchise those disillusioned with the centre ground. Including extreme parties on both left and right within the mainstream political process is a far healthier means of containing such currents than attempting to suppress them, which can result in disquieting backlashes such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's success in reaching the second round run-off of the 2002 French Presidential poll - France having a single-member-constituency National Assembly like Britain's House of Commons. Moreover, if an element of Single Transferable Voting is included within the electoral system, as the Electoral Reform Society proposes, British general elections could well result in larger majorities and hence more rather than less governablity, allowing voters to vote for a party of choice without losing the ability to vote 'tactically' to keep out undesired candidates. No system of government is without its flaws. But recent events on the Continent have not diminished the argument for fundamental reform at home.

Wednesday, 22 November 2006

Compassionate conservatism's finest hour

Just read today's Guardian, which leads with Conservative MP Greg Clark's calls to modernise the Tories' 'Churchillian' approach to the Welfare state. In a policy paper set to be endorsed by Tory Leader David Cameron on Friday, Clark, a shadow minister focusing on poverty within the Conservatives' comprehensive policy review, labels increases in relative poverty in the 1980s a 'terrible mistake'. By the early 1990s Britain's Gini coefficient, a measure of income inequality, stood at a record high of over 35%, having risen from under 28% in 1984. This mooted shift in Tory social policy is the latest attempt of the reinvigorated Conservative Party under Cameron to claim at least the language of the centre ground, following celebrated posturings as champions of the environment and the NHS.

Do such manoeuvrings merely signal the continued convergence of the main British political parties towards a supposed 'centre-ground'? If one looks at the purported goals of the parties, than perhaps the answer is yes - but that is no bad thing. For as Greg Clark himself said, 'poverty is too important an issue to leave to the Labour Party', and the same could be said of the environment or indeed the nation's health. That there is substantial agreement on what the goals of politics should be facilitates rather than hinders an active debate on how to achieve them. For now the Tories have woken up to the areas of social policy which left them looking an aloof elite, we can for the first time hear how an instictively small-government party would approach traditionally big-government topics. After all, the Gini coefficient rose during the present Labour government's first term in office before its recent fall. The appetite for concrete Conservative policy is whetted more than ever.

Tuesday, 21 November 2006

Iraqi freedom

Iraqi leaders are exploiting a new found freedom of manoeuvre to take the diplomatic initiative towards stability in their country: Iraq and Syria have restored diplomatic relations for the first time since 1982, and Iraq and Iran's Presidents Jalal Talabani and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad are to meet in Tehran for security talks. With British Prime Minister Tony Blair and American President George Bush's credibility weakened over recent months through Leadership strife within Labour and Republican defeats in the Mid-term elections, Baghdad has been able to operate with a much freer hand regarding its neighbours. These Iraqi moves have been aided by shift in emphasis in London and Washington towards increased regional co-operation, but it seems to be Iraq which is now setting the pace of diplomatic manoeuvring, beyond - and at a faster pace - than what the western powers expected. This is surely a positive development. American and British views and priorities in Iraq are inevitably distorted by distance and domestic concerns. Iraqi solutions to Iraqi problems will not only have the benefit of the clarity of proximity, but will reinforce the status of the Iraqi government as more than a front for the occupying powers. If some sort of stability is found for Iraq, it will primarily be the achievement of Iraqis, not their western allies.

Monday, 20 November 2006

Green blues

The Economist, a newspaper which only reletively recently came around to the idea of climate change as a significant global threat, leads this week with fears that 'the flood of money into clean energy is better news for society than it is for investors'. 'Displays of excessive enthusiasm for particular new technologies often end in tears', and the risks of boom turning to bust are especially acute with industries that will remain heavily dependant on government subsidy for much of the foreseeable future. Yet the idea that this will prove 'excellent news for society' as a whole should current rapid increases in investment (up from $500m in 2004 to over $2 billion this year thus far) in green technologies prove foolhardy for investors is woefully short term. Should many investors get burnt this will most likely be due to a political climate that has begun to chafe at the costs associated with containing global warming, which a collapse in the industry would no doubt reinforce, leaving cheaper clean energy and lower fossil-fuel consumption over the next few years more than offset by the subseqeunt loss of green momentum. It thus falls to governments, and perhaps of equal importance over the medium term the oppositions in the demoncratic world which hope to replace them, not to disappoint. It is vital that current momentum in countries such as Britain is not alowed to wane, and attempts are made to reach out to facilitate the distant dream of a global carbon tax.

Saturday, 18 November 2006

The Lib Dems cash in

Saw the Rt Hon Sir Menzies Campbell CBE QC MP in the latest Liberal Democrat TV broadcast on their website this morning, trying to make the most of the Tories' lack of concrete policy until their Policy Groups report back next year by presenting the Lib Dems as the only party with a coherent alternative plan for Britain. Its a pity that despite their best efforts Sir Ming still looks much, much too old to be Prime Minister in waiting. What caught my eye was the Lib Dems' reiterated promise to cut the basic rate of income tax by 2p, a proposal first announced in their Tax Commission's August report. This makes them the only one of the Big Three parties to explicitly favor a cut in income tax, arguably making shifting a party touted as 'left of Labour' for their largely Social Democratic manifesto at the last election to the 'right of the Tories'. Of course, shortfalls would be met by nice, fluffy, politically palatable Green Taxes, so the overall tax burden wouldn't be jeopardised, but the emphasis on tax cuts in their latest broadcast chimes in with Liberal attempts the re-position the post-Charles Kennedy party as firmly market-orientated in time to claim the centre ground for the Scottish and Welsh elections in May.

Consider the Lilley...

Went to a talk by the Rt Hon Peter Lilley MP (Hitchin & Harpenden; Con) last night in the Latimer Room, Clare College, entitled 'Why isn't poverty history (after $1 trillion of aid)?' As the recently appointed Chairman of the Conservative Party’s 'Globalisation and Global Poverty' policy group, Lilley delivered an informed and stimulating speach, if one which could have been delivered by any member of the Big Three British political parties. It got me thinking at any rate. If 'Making Poverty History' was the moral vogue of 2005, that of the moment, in the wake of the Stern report, seems to be 'Making Climate Change History'. Could these noble causes prove in conflict over the coming years?

The liberal chatterati should beware, because they could. Peter Lilley was keen to see commerce as the cornerstone of development, but I put it to him in subsequent discussion that efforts to increase the volume of trade and tourism between the developed and developing worlds would increasingly rub against a new emphasis on localism in production and a concern with 'food miles' and 'carbon footprints'. Save promising to defend the world's poor against the depradations of his counterpart John Gummer at the Tories' 'Quality of Life' policy group, and mouthing about the potentials of carbon trading, he had little response. Yet thus far, those preaching ecological catastrophe have seemed remarkably blinkered to the wider impact of winding down our imports from developing nations and cuting back our carbon-intensive flights. I am in no way doubting the vital threat of climate change: it is the single greatest challenge of the 21st century. But recognition of the potential conflict between development and environment is thus far an element largely missing from the debate.