26 June 2007

Choose your Brown's Cabinet

Though Brown's Cabinet will have to do without some "talents", the new prime minister has a lot to choose from on his own benches.

Don't think so? Try to put together your own Cabinet; the comments from the experts from the Fisburn Hedges consultancy are rather spot on!

I bet Iain Dale is pretty close with his predictions.

25 June 2007

Support Sir Salman - now is the time!

The petition to back Tony Blair's decision to honour Salman Rushdie with a knighthood is finally on the 10 Downing Street website. It was submitted by Daniel Finkelstein, The Times chief comment editor; I wrote about it few days ago.

Here is the wording of the petition again:
"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to accept our congratulations for recommending to the Queen that Salman Rushdie receive a knighthood."
I was very proud to become the 13th signatory today; I urge you to sign too (if you are a UK citizen/resident). Otherwise register your support for Sir Salman in the comments!

It is more important than ever that we do use this tool of direct democracy to express our support for Rushdie and free speech. Why? Because Minhal Master, a communications secretary of the World Federation of Khoja Shi'a Ithna-asheri Muslim Communities, has started a counter-petition to revoke Rushdie's knighthood. Bad enough that we are losing to the Islamists in southern Afghanistan. But we can never let them win in our own backyard. We are all Salmans now!

23 June 2007

Lil' Bush: Resident of the United States

Lil' Bush: Resident of the United States is a new cartoon on the US Comedy Central channel. Essential viewing for anyone who cannot kick back without politics.

Wikipedia provides a good review of the programme:
"Lil' Bush takes place in an alternate reality version of modern times, where George H.W. Bush is president and George W. Bush ("Lil' Bush" on the show) as well as other major modern politicians (many of them members of real-life George W. Bush's staff) are all children attending Beltway Elementary School. Issues the current Bush Administration is involved in---for example, the Iraq War---are transferred to the elder Bush, but feature the younger Bush interacting with them in various ways. Also, just as George Bush's father is president, the parents of the other kids (Lil' Condi's mother, Lil' Rummy's father and Lil' Cheney's father, who is represented by Darth Vader) are members of the elder Bush's cabinet."
Are you tempted? Then check out the rest of the episodes and extras in here.

The inconvenient truth about Václav Klaus

The Economist's Edward Lucas complains about the dullness of political leaders in the post-communist space (again). The Czech president Václav Klaus is anything but dull, though admittedly he does not make a good listener:

"Vaclav Klaus of the Czech Republic, by contrast, is exactly the same whether you have known him for ten minutes or 20 years: abrasive, forceful,well-informed and magnificently dismissive of views other than his own. If you have a Nobel prize for economics, he may give your views a marginally more polite hearing. Otherwise, thicken your skin."

To be fair, only a week before Lucas's article came out, Klaus, who is often called "Professor" by his supporters (he holds a Professorhip in Economics at the Prague University of Economics and is a prolific writer), conducted what would qualify as a "listening excercise": he answered to the reactions on his article from the Financial Times, "Global warming: truth or propaganda?" The centrepiece of Klaus's argument is that any imposed action designed to slow down global warming is restricting one's freedom and is therefore undemocratic:

"As someone who lived under communism for most of his life, I feel obliged to say that I see the biggest threat to freedom, democracy, the market economy and prosperity now in ambitious environmentalism, not in communism. This ideology wants to replace the free and spontaneous evolution of mankind by a sort of central (now global) planning."

Klaus has certainly a lot to say on the subject: his new book called "Blue, not Green, Planet: What is Endagered - Climate or Freedom" has just been published. He makes some interesting points - for example that it is hard to put a cost on the damage the climate change will have caused, as the Stern Report did, because the changing economic parametres will make the today's number illusory in just a couple of years. A good review of his book is in Reflex magazine, unfortunately in Czech. I will restrain from making any further comments myself, because I am not an expert on the climate change (even less of an expert than Klaus, who called himself an "informed layman").

But climate change is just one of the Klaus's crusades: he is a prominent critic of the European integration stretching beyond inter-governmental cooperation. He also coined the term "NGOism": unhealthy meddling of the civil society groups in politics. All three issues - climate change, Europe and proliferation of pressure groups - have a common denominator: they are undemocratic in Klaus's opinion.

Strangely, these excesses haven't hurt his public approval ratings too much. They remain consistenly high (around 75%), largely as a result of his populist stunts. Recently he headed the opposition against the modernist design of the new National Library building. The President, who resides at the Prague Castle, also cashed in on the court dispute between the state and the Catholic Church over St Vitus Cathedral, the Prague Castle's landmark.

Perhaps it would be better if our president was dull. No embarrassing news would come out, because there wouldn't be any. Then again, it is the government headed by the prime minister, not the president, who determines the actual policy. So the president is a mere prominent participant in the public debate. Moreover, with the Kaczyńskis in the neighbouring Poland on roll, one doesn't even have to feel embarrassed anymore.

But who knows, Klaus may win the climate change debate in the end. All he has to do is to change his strategy: stop blaming the socialists, blame the Martians! Expose what a menace Al Gore is. Frank Luntz, the GOP pollster, spotted that Gore was born exactly nine months after the alleged UFO landings in Roswell, New Mexico, in July 1947. Is this the ultimate Inconvenient Truth?

22 June 2007

Whatever happened to the single market?

The French delegation apparently managed to had changed the Reform Treaty's draft without anyone noticing, even though the document was circulated by the German Presidency on Tuesday. The clause "The Union shall establish an internal market where competition is free and undistorted", which was in the original Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe (Article I-3 (2)), was replaced by "The Union shall establish an internal market".

That could be interpreted as a sop to the French voters, who are believed to have rejected the Constitution mainly on the grounds that it was paving a way for a liberal, "Anglo-Saxon" Europe. However, it could also be that Sarkozy wants to change the EU law so the Commission couldn't take the French government to the European Court of Justice over its pursuit of subsidising national industrial champions and protecting them from "hostile" mergers.

While the French amendment remains in place, the British are keen to explain that it will have no effect. If it will have no effect, why not change it back?

The EU desperately needs a much clearer commitment to creating a real common market. The "four freedoms"- free movement of goods, free movement of labour, free movement of services and free movement of capital - are not being upheld at the moment.

Not only there is restricted access to labour markets for the citizens from the new member states, but there are also plentiful barriers to an effective common market in services. The watered-down services directive is a good example of politicians' unwillingness to live up to the promise made by signing the Single European Act in the Hague 20 years ago: to create a single market.

Who is Javier Solano?

Number 10 Downing Street refers to the "EU Commission President Javier Solano" in a news item on its website. Just how did that happen?

(For those who don't happen to be EU geeks: Javier Solana is the EU's High Representative for the Common Foreign and Security Policy and the Commission President is José Manuel Durão Barroso.)

There is some excellent reporting on the ongoing European Council summit by Ben Brogan on his blog. Mind you, what he writes needs to be taken with a pinch of salt as The Daily Mail, his employer, is staunchly Europhobic. Mark Mardell, the BBC's EU correspondent, is equally brilliant.

The issue surrounded by most controversy so far (except of the Kaczyński's faux pas) is Sarkozy's half-spoilt attempt to change the EU's competetion law. I will write a post on it later.

21 June 2007

Support Sir Salman

Salman Rushdie was awarded a knighthood on Saturday. Britain's decision to honour Rushdie enraged the Islamic world; the harshest disapproval came from Pakistan and Iran.

The Muslim protests reminded the world of the storm which followed after the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini of Iran pronounced a fatwa (death sentence) on Rushdie over alleged blasphemies against Islam in his iconic 1988 novel The Satanic Verses. Rushdie has had to live under police protection ever since.

Pakistan's religious affairs minister Ejaz ul-Haq endorsed retaliatory measures on the offenders (Queen?, Britain?, all Westerners?) yesterday: "If somebody has to attack by strapping bombs to his body to protect the honour of the Prophet then it is justified."

Daniel Finkelstein, the chief comments editor of The Times newspaper, submitted a petition for the Number 10 Downing Street website that reads:
We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to accept our congratulations for recommending to the Queen that Salman Rushdie receive a knighthood.
The e-petition will appear here as soon as it is approved by Number 10. I will sign. It is important that we all show our solidarity with Sir Salman, who is not only an excellent writer but also a symbol of free speech. We must show the Islamists that the West will not surrender to blackmail and compromise its values.

Failed States Index 2007

Foreign Policy has published its annual Failed States Index. Sudan tops the list, closely followed by Iraq, Somalia, Zimbabwe and Chad.

There are three European countries in top 60: Moldova (48th place), Belarus (51st) and Bosnia (54th). The aspiring NATO member Georgia is on 58th place.

By the way, my friend Ecaterina Sanalatii has just started blogging for Transitions Online on Moldova, check it out.

18 June 2007

Labour Party deputy leadership candidates' views on Europe

The British Labour Party (now with its own channel on YouTube) is in the process of choosing the new party leadership. Gordon Brown is to become the new party leader unchallenged, as the Blairites did not manage to persuade David Miliband to run.

Brown is now touring the country with his "Gordon Brown for Britain" campaign, trying to build up a momentum before the start of his premiership. Interestingly, his campaign blog is written by Oona King. King used to be a Labour MP for Bethnal Green, an East London constituency predominantly inhabited by Bangladeshi Muslims. At the last general election in 2005, she got ousted from her seat by George Galloway, a former Labour MP and a founder of the Respect party. The whole affair was seen as particularly nasty because King, who is black and Jewish, had a little chance to shield herself from Galloway's attacks pandering to radical Islam. Nevertheless, George Galloway MP now works as a presenter for Channel 4's Big Brother, having previously been one of the contestants on the celebrity version of the show.

Paradoxically, Brown seems to have a clearer vision for Africa then for Britain. It was rather amusing to watch his last speech, where he got all worked up about providing free education for children in developing countries. Yet the banner "Gordon Brown for Britain" rather begged for outlining Brown's reforms of the British malfunctioning state education system. His policies on Europe are also a subject of much speculation among the commentators. A good analysis of Brown's probable strategy for the upcoming European Council summit is on Benedict Brogan's blog, but noone can effectively read the Chancellor's mind.

Thanks to a pamphlet produced by the resurgent Labour Movement for Europe, the deputy leadership candidates' positions on the European Union are somewhat less mysterious. The electoral process is rather complicated, with three different colleges (members, MPs and MEPs, trade unions) selecting the deputy leader and voters required to rank all the candidates according to preference.

The front runner Alan Johnson calls for a "social Europe"; so does the backbench surprise Hilary Benn (no, he is not a woman) who acknowledges that "only by working across Europe we can tackle international crime". Does that mean he supports the controversial data-sharing deal which would enable the national police forces to search the DNA databases of other EU states? Harriet Harman believes "we need improvements to internal decision making procedures to agree better priorities quicker" and Peter Hain, the former Europe Minister, welcomes the institutional reform. Hazel Blears, condemned to damnation for her consistent support of Tony Blair, reiterates her support for Turkey's membership bid and demands a more efficient common foreign policy.

Harman is happy to see the EU rebranded as an Environmental Union, a term first used by the Environment Secretary David Miliband; all other candidates also play up the EU's environmental credentials. The chief purpose of that is to bash the Conservatives, still not at ease with Europe.

Alan Johnson picks up on William Hague's efforts to create an alternative to the European People's Party-European Democrats in the European Parliament. He accuses Cameron's Conservatives of allying with "a rag bag of deranged right wingers from Eastern Europe". A rather unfair accusation if you ask me. (The Conservatives' newly launched Movement for European Reform consists of the British Conservatives, the Czech ruling Civic Democratic Party and the Bulgarian Union of Democratic Forces, which failed to get a single MEP in the last month's European elections in Bulgaria).

However, it is unlikely that Europe will play a big role in the deputy leadership election. The hottest topic seems to be re-connecting with the disenchanted and demoralised party base.

15 June 2007

Obama Girl

Don't expect any serious analysis of the 2008 presidential race. The excuse for posting this music video featuring a hot girl "who's got a crush on Obama" is that it's already been viewed by over half a million people on YouTube. Compare that to the popularity of an average broadcast on Obama's official YouTube channel, usually seen by mere 3000 people. The voters simply prefer to hear it from someone else; over 3 million have watched another YouTube video where Hillary Clinton is depicted as a Big Brother from Apple's famous ad. No reason to think that Team Obama may be behind this...

Hat tip: Guido Fawkes.

14 June 2007

Fifty ideas for Brown's Britain

The Charlemagne column in last week's edition of The Economist complained about the static intellectual debate in Brussels. The think tanks there are apparently too dependent on the Commission's funding to come up with bold, challenging ideas. That certainly isn't true about London, where think tanks churn out radical proposals which often make it to parties' election manifestos.

New Statesman magazine asked five influential left-wing institutions to put down 10 policy suggestions for Gordon Brown to pursue during his premiership. It is certainly worth a read.

Let me just list some of the most interesting ideas mentioned. Demos believes that retirees should be used as teaching assistants. This system is already being used in the USA, and I am personally a big fan. Not only it helps contain the unruly pupils, but it also gives the elderly a sense of participation and inclusion in the society. The Fabian Society (finally with a new website) urges Brown to sign up to the EU mini-treaty and to scrap the ID cards scheme. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) calls for making voting compulsory. That would have to be accompanied by the introduction of proportional representation: "make citizens vote, but make votes count". Compass, a grass-roots Labour "renewal" movement, would solve Britain's housing crisis by taxing the land. It would also ban advertising to under-12s (how?) and "control media ownership" (how?). The Social Market Foundation would give up the British rebate in return for the abolition of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Talking about the think tanks, some more have gone blogging. The Brussels-based Centre for Economic Policy Research has just started its Vox blog, which is looking really good. Then there is the World Security Institute, Brussels blog and the blog of the Centre for European Politics at the Royal Holloway university in London. A new think tank the Atlantic Community encourages the readers to participate in the debate and shape the think tank's research.

13 June 2007

The Daily Telegraph goes pro-European

I almost choked on my cornflakes when I read the paper this morning. Except I didn't because I read news online. And as I am sure my readers are dying to know, I don't usually have cornflakes for breakfast! But it just sounded as such a cool way to start a post with. I am a fast learner.

Anyway, to the point. The Daily Telegraph, a staunchly Eurosceptical outlet, published a comment piece yesterday entitled "Surely we don't want to be run by Malta". The article makes a case for replacing the current rotational presidency of the European Council with a permanent president, a provision included in the original EU Constitution. I never thought that such a "blasphemous" article would appear in The Telegraph, even though it doesn't represent the paper's official position. Perhaps I am getting too old:)

The author of the piece is Roland Rudd, the chairman of the Business for New Europe (BNE). Rudd founded the BNE in March 2006, after the failure of the Britain in Europe coalition, in which the European Movement UK was much engaged. The BNE supports "positive and constructive engagement with the EU as the only sensible approach and as vital to our national interests." It has lobbied for easing entry restrictions on migrants from Bulgaria and Romania, as well as for relaxing red tape measures and introducing the EU services directive. The details of the BNE's position are described in a policy brief jointly published with the Centre for European Reform think tank.

Finally someone to counter the charges of the Eurosceptical Open Europe think thank that the EU is anti-business.

12 June 2007

Did Albanians steal Bush's watch?

Yet another soon-to-be-famous YouTube moment. 300 000 people so far have watched George Bush being stripped off his watch by the crowd of cheering Albanians in the village of Fushe Kruja.

The excited villagers tried to shake Bush's hand or at least touch him, while chanting "Bushie, Bushie". As Bush re-emerged from the crowd, it was clearly visible that his watch was missing. According to the Albanian authorities, the watch fell off and was returned to one of Bush's bodyguards.

The American version sounded more believable: "He took it off," said the White House spokesperson. Certainly didn't look like that on YouTube, or did it? "I'm not going to change what I'm saying. I was told that he took it off about the one-minute mark."

Noone would have expected the White House to admit what really happened just five years ago. But with the arrival of YouTube it seems almost counter-productive to lie in order not to embarrass one's ally. YouTube is a new power in politics.

Will China overtake America?

There is a superb debate on this perennial issue on Gideon Rachman's brilliant blog. Rachman is the chief foreign affairs commentator of The Financial Times and served as the Asia correspondent in the early 90s, so he has got a firm grip of the subject.

"The reason that China will eventually be the world's largest economy is that its population is roughly four times that of the United States. Predictions that Japan would over-take the US, popular in the late 1980s, were always implausible. The difference in population size would have meant that the average Japanese would have had to become more than twice as rich as the average American for Japan to surpass America – and that was never going to happen.

By contrast, if you want to argue that China will never overtake the US, you would have to believe that China cannot achieve a GDP-per-capita of just 25% of American levels. And yet there are several examples of Asian “tiger economies” that have already got to that level and well past it – Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Singapore (the latter, admittedly a micro-state) - some of them managing tricky transitions from authoritarianism to democracy, without stopping growth.

My colleague Martin Wolf points out that if China were to achieve the GDP-per-capita levels of Portugal – the poorest country in western Europe – its overall GDP will be larger than that of the US and the European Union combined."

So it looks inevitable that the West will cease to dominate the world; in economic and consequently in military terms (in line with Niall Ferguson's empire theory). The real question is how much it will matter to an ordinary European or American. How much will the Chinese regime and society have changed by that time? How much will the Chinese attitude towards Taiwan have changed by the time the US will no longer be able (or willing) to guarantee its independence?

11 June 2007

UNSC Resolution 1244 on Kosovo: conveniently forgotten

George Bush visited Albania yesterday. His visit was an apparent gesture aimed at boosting the Albanian confidence prior to concluding the final deal on the future status of Kosovo.

He outlined his "strategy" for resolving the stalemate: "One, that we need to get moving. And two, that the end result is independence. And we spent a lot of time talking about this issue, here." Bush said he does not support the idea of "endless dialogue on a subject that we've already made up our mind on. " Perhaps someone should inform Mr Bush that a genuine dialogue is led by two sides and it is not enough for only one of them to make up its mind to reach the conclusion.

Let me remind Mr Bush of this clause from the United Nations Security Council Resolution 1244 on Kosovo, which was adopted on 10 June 1999:
"Reaffirming the commitment of all Member States to the sovereignty and territorial integrity of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia and the other States of the region, as set out in the Helsinki Final Act and annex 2,"
The resolution placed Kosovo in hands of the United Nations Interim Administration Mission in Kosovo (UNMIK), and stationed the NATO-led KFOR troops in the province. The resolution was supported by all veto-wielding countries in the UN Security Council - including the USA, Britain and France.

One would expect them to keep their word. But perhaps that would be too foolish knowing that they had bombed Serbia without the UN approval. The USA was trying hard to secure the Russian and Chinese support for the intervention, but without success. Yet the attack on Serbia went on anyway; the UN blessing suddenly wasn't "needed." Quite strange - why would anyone make so much effort to get something one did not need anyway? Why had the USA even bothered to attempt to win over Russia and China when the USA had made up their mind already?!
Footnote: The Chinese Embassy in Belgrade was hit during a NATO air strike. The odds are that it was deliberate, or so claims The Guardian.

One question at the press conference in Tirana clearly baffled Bush: "Yesterday you called for a deadline for UN action on Kosovo. When would you like that deadline set?" Bush: "... First of all, I don't think I called for a deadline. I thought I said, time -- I did? What exactly did I say? I said, "deadline"? Okay, yes, then I meant what I said. (Laughter.) The question is whether or not there is going to be endless dialogue on a subject that we have made up our mind about. We believe Kosovo ought to be independent." I beg your pardon?

08 June 2007

Remembering Jerry Falwell: Tinky Winky is gay

Falwell, the outspoken leader of America's religious right, died last month. Now he is looking down from the heavenly heights and I bet he is pleased with the recent Polish authorities' decision to examine whether Tinky Winky, a character from the BBC's show for children, is not promoting homosexuality.

Falwell himself launched an attack on embattled Tinky Winky 8 years ago: "He is purple - the gay-pride colour; and his antenna is shaped like a triangle - the gay-pride symbol." Classic.

The Financial Times now gained access to a secret report compiled by the Polish Intelligence Agency (Agencja Wywiadu), which lays bare the moral decay among the animated TV's stars. Krteček (a popular Czech cartoon character) is apparently gay; so are the Smurfs. Winnie the Pooh stands accused of collaboration with the Communist secret services; his faithful if somewhat deviant friends come out much worse. Only Bob the Builder seems to be clear so far. The way to go, Poland.

07 June 2007

Amato Group gives the EU Constitution a facelift

A 16-strong Action Committee for European Democracy, the so called "Amato Group", published its draft of a new EU treaty on Monday 4 June. The Committee, which is not an official body and consisted of "private citizens", started its work in September 2006. The document's rationale is desribed here (3 pages); explanatory memorandum is available here (6 pages). The Committee's work is also summarised in the EUobserver or in more detail on Wikipedia.

The Committee included both vice-chairs of the Convention on the Future of Europe: Giuliano Amato and Jean-Luc Dehaene. They certainly deserve our admiration; not least because they managed to cut the size of the original text from 63 000 words to 12 800 and keep almost all substance in.

The European Commission was represented by the communications supremo Margot Wallström and Danuta Hübner who presides over the regional policy portfolio. Sandra Kalniete, their short-term colleague from Latvia, took part as well. From the Prodi Commission, there were Michel Barnier of France, António Vitorino of Portugal and Chris Patten of Britain. Three former prime ministers sat on the Committee: Wim Kok of the Netherlands, Costas Simitis of Greece and Paavo Lipponen of Finland. From the ex-ministerial rank, there were Germany's Otto Schilly, France's Dominique Strauss-Kahn and Hungary's János Martonyi. Íñigo Méndez de Vigo from the European People's Party was the only representative of the European Parliament and Stefan Collignon the only representative of the academia.

Hat tip: Samuele Pii of the European University Institute in Florence.

05 June 2007

Czech defence minister records a song for George Bush

Air Force One with George and Laura Bush aboard landed at the Prague Ruzyně airport yesterday. Bush has come to broker a deal on the controversial US radar base to be located in the Brdy mountains. But I don't intend to write about the radar and the relations with Russia. I will just say that I am in favour of hosting the base.

I am here to highlight the effort (still searching for a suitable adjective) made by our defence minister Vlasta Parkanová to make President Bush feel welcome. Together with Jan Vyčítal she recorded a song for Bush: "Good day, the Star-Spangled Banner". The melody is based on a legendary song by Jaromír Hnilička, "Good day, Major Gagarin". Vyčítal's text has also got a lot in common with Hnilička's iconic celebration of the Socialist bloc's victory in the space race.

Parkanová commented: "I wanted to lighten up the negative campaign, which is accompanying the radar debate. And I also wanted to give President Bush an unconvetional gift." Tick. Though the negative campaign - "The No to the Bases" initiative - only managed to muster 700 protesters today. I guess the rest have already gone backpacking to Rostock.

To listen to the song (artistically pretty good in my opinion) click here. The English version was apparently recorded too, so a lot to look forward to!