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Archive for the ‘Europe’ Category

A Collection of Thoughts

In Economy, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Home Affairs, Party politics, The Media, Uncategorized on December 17, 2011 at 7:14 pm

By polarii for the Daily Soapbox – @polar_ii

So here’s time for a big apology to any regular readers – between us all at the Daily Soapbox, we haven’t had any time to put down some ideas for a blog post. That’s not for want of things to say (and how much we have wanted to say!), but for lack of time. So it’s our fault for not finding time. Sorry.

If you want the blog to be fuller, and you enjoy what you read, and maybe even reckon you could do better, why not join us? Email: dingdongalistic@gmail.com and we’ll set you up as the latest Soapbox contributor.

So to kick us back off, here’s a couple of thoughts from my ice cave in the Arctic… or Germany, as everyone outside the BBC calls it.

Euroscepticism

Why has everyone forgotten Cameron is a bona fide Eurosceptic in his own right? Sure, he doesn’t foam at the mouth with quite the aplomb of Daniel Hannan, but this is a good thing. In the Conservative leadership election (in the heady days of 2005), he was elected on and later delivered a promise to take the Conservative party out of the EPP and form a soft-eurosceptic bloc, which was further than David Davis (who is more ‘right-wing’) was prepared to go. While ConHome and others have been whingeing about the lack of a referendum, Cameron has managed to a) move the European issue to a more central stage while b) uniting his historically divided party behind a moderate Eurosceptic stance and c) not banging on about it. Clever or what?

A further thought: Labour wouldn’t have signed up to these agreements either, but that’s not half the fun of it. These agreements will enforce a statutory deficit-limit stricter than the ones in the Maastricht Treaties. The Maastricht Limit is 3% of GDP, so presumably the Merkozy limit will be 2% or 2.5%. But Labour’s ‘Darling Plan’, even on their own (overly optimistic) reckoning, will only halve the deficit over four years. Our deficit is currently about 10% of GDP. In the event that Britain was bound by the Maastricht or Merkozy Treaties, Labour would have no plan to bring the deficit within the legal limits. Brussels would throw Labour’s budget back in their faces, impose hefty fines, and tell them to follow Osborne’s plan. Now who thinks Merkozy’s scheme is in our national interest?

Euro

The charge levelled against Cameron is that he has left Britain without allies. This is, of course, untrue, because most every country outside the EU is taking a position very similar to Britain’s, especially the United States.

But even within Europe, he isn’t as isolated as some claim. Mads Persson correctly notes that the Irish, French, Swedes, Finns, Czechs, Hungarians and Poles all have not insignificant problems with the agreement as posed (see also this surprisingly excellent Indy graphic). But then, let’s look at some other countries, particularly Italy and Greece. There have been close votes in both parliaments on European issues, and it is not an unreasonable parliamentarian who, having been subjected to EU budget targets for the next ten years, objects to handing over control of their country’s budgets over to the EU for the rest of history. Rebellious parliaments can rebel again, and it’s hard not to imagine Eurosceptic parties like LAOS (Greece) and Lega Nord (Italy) doing quite well in upcoming elections. Of course, I could be completely wrong. But I wouldn’t write anything off either.

BBC

In case you missed the gratuitous sideswipe at the BBC in the preamble, it’s coming again. If you didn’t miss it in the preamble, I am actually going to make a point. The BBC is getting into the habit of presenting things out of context. I’m normally annoyed that the BBC displays institutional (but not conscious) bias against Conservatives and Christians, but others complain about biases in other directions, which I assume means the BBC is doing a decent job (since it’s clearly not doing an atrocious one).

However, there were two glaring errors in this week’s programming. The first was coverage of Cameron’s veto. The one report suggested that the EU was suggesting the UK was separate and even inferior because Cameron was the last to sign Croatia’s accession agreement. The context: all countries sign in alphabetical order. The United Kingdom, being the last country alphabetically in the EU, signed it last. Snub? Hardly.

The other error caused me less apoplexy, but the public more. David Attenborough juxtaposed an Arctic female polar bear making an ice-den (in which polar bears give birth to their cubs) with some polar bear cubs in a den in a zoo in Germany. The seamless transition implied to many people that the BBC was actually filming wild polar bear births. Which is stupid because the cameraman would certainly have his head bitten off if that were the case. Nonetheless, in both cases, the BBC failed to properly explain the context of what was going on, and in each case, their coverage suffered because of it. The BBC is slowly metamorphosing into an institution that doesn’t care about the truth, rather sensationalism.

Leveson

Did you know who Neville Thurlbeck was before the Leveson inquiry? If you did, you read the News of the World regularly. Shame on you (unless you were his colleague or his relative).

On a serious note though, I’ve come to the conclusion that the public doesn’t care. This was evident because, although Ed Miliband made hay with it during the summer, the polls didn’t budge. And neither BBC Parliament nor Sky News is broadcasting Leveson live. It’s a Westminster Village thing.

Miliband

Ed Miliband is a completely unsuitable leader of the Labour party. Everyone who wasn’t in the Labour party knew this as soon as he was elected, yet only now have the socialists collectivised their brain cells enough to realise it. Read around, with people like Dan Hodges getting incredibly close to calling for him to go, if you still think Milibland is cutting the mustard.

However, who is going to run against him? If Ed Balls runs, everyone will laugh. If Yvette Cooper (aka Mrs Balls) runs, she cannot dispose of Labour’s least helpful asset, her husband. If David Miliband runs, Cameron can drag out the feuding brother story indefinitely – a back-to-backstab if you like. The only plausible candidate is Jim Murphy. “Who?” I hear you cry. “Precisely”, say I. Labour don’t have the talent or the policies to win the next election.

Osborne

So now let’s do the same for the Tories. Boris will win London 2012 (somehow), and will step down in 2016. He will win a by-election by 2017, which will give him time enough to be well positioned enough when Cameron goes sometime between 2019-2022. After a term and a half of Boris (for all I admire him, I don’t think he has a sufficiently grand vision to drive the country), the natural choice is Jeremy Hunt, a man of such impeccable composure that it is truly inconceivable he should never be leader of the Conservative Party. For all they seem worlds apart, both BoJo and Hunt are suitably amicably placed with George Osborne and William Hague to mean that they can come in without wholesale change of the top table. Osborne’s best bet is not to run himself, but pick the winner, keep the political strategy as a sideline, and go down in history as the kingmaker and the chancellor who fixed Gordon Brown’s mess.

Unemployment

Once again, I find myself in a statistical quandary. ONS says unemployment went up 128.000 people in November. Yet it says only 3,000 people signed on to Jobseekers’ Allowance. Which gap have those 125,000 people fallen into? They are either a) retiring early, b) decided not to work for the next few years and make home instead, c) in receipt of a sufficiently generous redundancy package to make claiming JSA unnecessary, or d) moving their labour into the ‘black market’ – taking cash payment and not declaring it to the Exchequer. Now, most people won’t be doing a) given how poorly pensions pots are performing. The general move of our culture has been away from b) for some time; there can’t be too many people who worked for long enough at a high enough wage to be in position c), so thousands of people are in position d). Really? Or are the unemployment figures inflated by people who otherwise wouldn’t be reckoned as part of the workforce (e.g. students) taking part-time jobs and then losing them?

I’ve come to the conclusion that the more important figure is the JSA claimant count, which is about 1.60 million. So hardly as bad as the 2.64 million Labour like to moan about. Incidentally, in 1992, pretty much everyone who was unemployed according to the statistics was also a JSA/Unemployment benefit claimant. By 2001, the gap between unemployed and claimants was 0.5 million, and now it is now over 1 million. I’ve had no brainwaves about why this gap is increasing so quickly. Any ideas?

Up the Greek Without a Paddle

In Europe, Foreign Affairs on July 1, 2011 at 1:39 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Amid cheers inside the Greek Parliament building, and near-riots outside it, Greek legislators voted through a tough packet of austerity measures, which enabled them to receive billions of Euros to pay off their next installation on their debts. The broad consensus is that this will buy time for a “haircut” – as it less-euphemistically known, a partial default. Standard and Poor’s, the credit ratings agency, has now reduced Greece’s credit rating to CCC, four notches away from listing Greek debt as a certain default; Greece’s previous rating of B stood for roughly a 50% chance of default.

Meanwhile, in Greece itself, the austerity is curtailing growth. Raising taxes hurt business, cutting public sector funding to so great an extent risks undercutting the 40% of GDP the public sector provides. Increasing taxes have meant that increasing numbers of Greeks have begun to find ways to avoid paying their taxes. Increasing numbers are leaving the country altogether. The public mood is so opposed to the government that, when elections come round next year or the year after, the ruling Pan-Hellenic Socialist Movement is sure to lose. With debt now topping 150% of GDP, Greece needs a bail-out; there is no way it can continue paying its debts. However, it also needs to address more structural issues – an over-dependence on small business and lack of industrial diversification, state overspending and ‘brain drain’; losing too many educated graduates (and their tax) overseas.

Firstly, there are several areas where Greece can cut, and is not cutting greatly, without any major consequences for the economy. The Greek government currently salaries the clergy (both priests and monks) of the Orthodox Church in Greece. While the public are against it, disestablishing the Orthodox Church would save Greece many hundreds of millions. The Orthodox Church has a considerable number of congregants, estates, and works of art that can be used to fund its activities in the event that Greek government funding is withdrawn.

Greece suffers from chronic complications in its tax code, which also enables abundant tax evasion and deters investment. Greece ranks 109th on the ‘ease of doing business’ index, putting it below powerhouses such as Zambia and Yemen, and has the lowest level of economic freedom in the EU apart from Poland. It suffers from widespread tax evasion and corruption, being more corrupt, according to indices published by Transparency International, than Saudi Arabia and Namibia. Tax code simplification and cuts in rates of business taxes are not silver bullets for these issues, but they will go some way to helping Greece score higher on the indices and attract more investment. This will also enable Greece to cut down on its stiflingly inefficient and corrupt bureaucracy.

Another area for cutting is defence. Greece currently spends 4.3% of GDP on defence, whereas its NATO commitments only require 2% of spending. Since Greece does not have much of a defence industry, much of the money spent on defence – mostly planes and tanks – goes abroad. Consequently a cut, mostly achieved by selling off hardware, can find upwards of 1% of GDP to go towards the government’s debts. The reason that Greece maintains such a large force is due to the instability of the Balkans and traditionally difficult relations with Turkey, which disputes several Aegean islands, and, most importantly, Cyprus. A bold government would sit down and thrash out as many issues as possible with the Turks. While selling off islands to Turkey would be so impolitic as to be impossible, accords could be reached that Turkey will renounce some of its claims if Greece will support (tacitly) its EU membership bid. This is a distant enough possibility, given German opposition, to take a calculated risk. While they’re at cutting the military, they could also abolish the compulsory nine months national service, and establish a professional army, usually considerably more efficient and cheaper to maintain. While this would create further youth unemployment, monies saved could be redirected to investing in business to counter that.

Greece ‘sends’ 60,000 students per year to foreign universities, compared to 100,000 from China, which has over 100 times the population. The root of this is the constitution, which forbids private providers of universities to establish themselves in Greece. Aside from the obvious conflict with EU competition law, it means that Greek students must go abroad for the best education. Once they have left, they tend to stay in the country of their tertiary education, get a job and pay taxes there. New Democracy, the opposition party, attempted to amend the constitution at the start of this decade, but was blocked by the Socialists. Immediate reform in this area, to allow private tertiary education, is required to enable Greece to retain more of its graduates, making Greece’s economy more attractive to investment.

If Greece were to be bold, it would leave the Euro. This would give the government additional levers over the economy, and would allow it to pursue quantitative easing, which it currently cannot do because the Euro serves however many other countries who do not need it to the extent that Greece does. The problem with this move would be that all Greek debts are currently denominated in Euro. A change back to the drachma would be incredibly complicated, and may amount to a total default on all debt. But, given how low Greece’s credit rating is, a total default may remove the burden of debt repayment without significant increase in the rate of interest that future loans would incur. It may also scupper the Euro project, and trigger fears, if it works, that Ireland might do the same, and, if it doesn’t work, that Ireland can’t do the same.

A brief flick through recent Greek politics will reveal that few of these solutions are new. In fact, most of them are about ten years old and proposed by Kostas Karamanlis, the former leader of New Democracy. They are all sensible solutions, and will help address some of Greece’s structural problems. Karamanlis was unable to pursue them because of opposition from the public and from the left parties – the Socialists and an influential coalition of Communists and Greens. But even these reforms, even on a very generous reckoning, account for only around 4% of GDP, when the current deficit runs at 10%. These are comparatively painless reforms; whatever happens, Greece will have to stomach a lot of austerity.

The Greeks are known for being innovators, not least the Athenians. In the late 500s BC, they could not choose between various types of aristocrats, and so invented democracy. A similar thing – a new party, or a minor party coming to the fore – could happen. But if it doesn’t, Greece needs to begin to take its debt problems seriously. The option the Ancient Greeks tended to pursue in such circumstances – a brief war against some rich yet weak city or kingdom – is not open to the modern Greeks. The politicians and public have to start taking bold decisions. The EU and IMF, after all, are not unlimited pots of money.

UKIP Waiting In The Wings…

In Europe, Home Affairs, Party politics on April 17, 2011 at 2:53 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

For sure the most interesting element of upcoming local elections will be to what extent (or not) the Liberal Democrats are wiped off the electoral map. But that’s not what the Tory bloggers and Conservative strategists are worried about. In the (very) unlikely event that Labour takes every single Liberal Democrat local council seat, the Conservatives will still be the largest party in local government. And the Tories might even be hopeful of picking up a load of Liberal seats in the South-West, where Labour, for the most part, doesn’t really offer effective opposition.

It is not the Liberal Democrats that are vexing the Tories, but UKIP. Since the Conservative party’s formation in the 1830s, it has had exclusive or strong claim from the centre (Social and Economic or Classical Liberalism) through the centre-right (Red, Wet or One-Nation Conservatism) to the right (Thatcherite, Dry or Social Conservatism) of British politics, which has always ensured it is in the running for government. It has taken left parties, notably in Labour’s case, Blair, to move to the right in order to inhabit the centre. Cameron is the first Tory leader for a long while to bring his party to the left in order to win an election – no other leader since WW2 readily comes to mind. But now this seemingly natural position, encapsulating the right-leaning centre and the out-and-out right (NB not the far-right, which is fascistic, and rarely has ‘right-wing’ economic policies) is under threat from UKIP.

UKIP was initially founded as an anti-EU movement. However, Nigel Farage, who has entered and left and entered again through the revolving door of his party’s leadership, has sought to broaden the party beyond Euroscepticism; UKIP submitted a full manifesto at the previous general election. Stuart Wheeler, who, it is calculated, gave £5 million to the Conservatives, jumped ship to UKIP in 2009. UKIP came second in the European elections, taking 12 seats in the EU Parliament. At the last general election, it took more votes than the Green party, polling at 3.1%.

However, the popularity that these European results suggest is not mirrored elsewhere: it has far fewer local government representatives than the Greens. It has previously enjoyed the backing of one Tory defector in the commons and a few more in the Lords, but it has never won a Westminster seat through the ballot box. At the general election, the eloquent Farage failed to beat the Speaker and an independent, coming third. The party has struggled to shake off allegations of racism and has fallen foul of normal rules of decency in the European Parliament.

Why then are Conservative party supporters worried about UKIP? On a general level, UKIP takes a position to the right of the Conservative party. While the strains of coalition are being widely felt and reported in the Liberal Party, the right of the Tory Party is not terribly happy cuddling up to a party that wants to abolish nuclear weapons, pervert the voting system, make the Lords elected, introduce copious quantities of business regulation, raise taxes, become European, and generally be lefties. While the Conservative party is remarkably solid despite its breadth, its electorate needn’t be – and UKIP is an attractive proposition, with promises to charge a flat rate of income tax, abolish National Insurance, hugely deregulate, and invest heavily in defence, aside from the flagship policy of leaving the expensive and invasive EU.

There are, however, more contingent factors. In a recent by-election in Barnsley, UKIP came second, polling more votes than both coalition parties combined. There should be a caveat – this was a by-election in a safe Labour seat; the Tories had never done well, and the tuition fees u-turn was still fresh in Liberal minds. But it made people think, and the UKIP people began to chatter about making a proper emergence onto the political scene. In addition, a large number of EU issues have come up during this Parliament – the UK having to contribute to bail out debt-laden Eurozone economies, the European Court on Human Rights handing down verdicts on allowing prisoners to vote, and not allowing people to be permanently kept on a sex offenders register. Cameron may rightly claim that has no legal wriggle-room – and the reality is he probably doesn’t have political wriggle-room either, since he depends on the Liberal Democrats – but there will be an impression in the body politic that the Conservatives are failing to defend British sovereignty from the encroaching EU. Resentment also lingers about Cameron’s decision not to offer a referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon (and those of you going ‘how could he offer one once it had passed?’ will not be heard by a significant section of grassroots Tories).

However, several factors mitigate against a sudden UKIP surge. Firstly, most people can’t name three UKIP politicians; Farage is the only one with any profile of note. Secondly, there is still the perception that UKIP is a single-issue party about the EU. Thirdly, UKIP has not attracted any important defections from the Conservative party – the loss of a donor, admittedly a generous one, did not really matter to Cameron, and nor did the defection of Bob Spink MP. Who he? Exactly. He was thrown out by his electorate at the next opportunity, and most Tory MPs will not be keen to follow his example. Fourthly, most UKIP voters would rather like a Conservative government; and they may be reluctant to vote after UKIP after their previous leader told them to back Eurosceptic Tories in 2010’s general election, and the swing to UKIP seems to have cost Cameron an outright majority. A similar potential UKIP nadir arose in 2004, but was blown out of the water by the singularity that was Robert Kilroy-Silk. While Farage seems more level-headed, it is important that UKIP has failed to convert from this position before.

And Cameron can kill UKIP’s electoral prospects at any point he wants. All he has to do is wait until UKIP claims a major victory (say, is the first party at the European elections) and say he is listening to the will of the people, and will give them a referendum on EU membership. He will have the Liberal Democrats over a barrel, seeing as they supported an in-out referendum when the Treaty of Lisbon was being ratified. There should also be enough Labour Eurosceptics to ease it through should Clegg take exception – after all, every time Miliband gets up to oppose it, Cameron will just say ‘Lisbon’ and he’ll retire in shame and embarrassment that the cabinet of which he was a part truckled so readily to the Eurocrats.

So don’t pay too much attention to the comment strings on Conservative Home blogs, or to the ramblings of UKIP members. A nadir of right-wing politics may be on the horizon for the UK, but UKIP will not be how it comes about; more likely, it seems, to come from Murdoch’s favourite Daniel Hannan, or a dyed-in-the-wool neo-conservative like Michael Gove. Cameron has nothing to fear from UKIP. Yet.

Libya: Winners and Losers

In America, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Government Spotlight, Parliamentary Spotlight on March 23, 2011 at 7:40 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

The no-fly zone is up-and-running after a tense few weeks of events in Libya and tough diplomacy. The events that have led up to UN Resolution 1973/2011 have been complicated, and they have had political impacts on both individuals and nations. This isn’t as complete or detailed as it could be, but it includes some of the major movers, particularly in the UK. This was written shortly after the no fly zone was implemented, and the flow of events may have altered some of the analysis here.

Col. Moammar Gaddafi: Has fared badly in international eyes, most recently breaking a promise of ceasefire, but generally sounding rather detached from events, and indeed reality. However, in Libya, the picture is split; he’s managed to maintain popular support in the capital, and defections from his cause have not damaged his capacity to deploy aircraft and heavy weaponry. He still retains some loyalty, or some visage of terror, or both among the Libyan people. Anti-Imperialist rhetoric may play well to the people of Libya, but in rebel-controlled areas, there seems no evidence of this. He may take some pleasure from the fact that no-one in the English world knows quite how to spell his name.

UN: Despite questions whether a UN resolution was needed to impose a no-fly zone, all the countries involved chose to go through the UN. This will raise its damaged status as a body, and also encourage further interventions to be cleared through it. Resolution 1973 has been called a watershed for what the UN could hope to achieve in further crisis, as and when they arise in the Middle East and around the world. There are, however, questions as to what actions the UN will be forced to take in other countries this year, such as Bahrain.

USA: Has remained aloof and silent for much of the crisis, but eventually fell on the side of those calling for a no-fly zone, which added much weight to the case for intervention. The rebel faction in Libya seems well pleased with the decision to intervene, and some of this goodwill will rub off on America. The surreptitious transport of weapons across the Egyptian border to the rebels, quite probably at US instigation, will also have improved America’s image. However, in the broader international community, the country’s slow and cautious action will contrast with its previous history of reckless and large-scale intervention, and this has vastly improved its standing.

Barack Obama: Has taken a cautious approach, and has seen little change in his standing. Many in America would have wanted action more quickly; however, he secured a UN mandate and eventually delivered action. Prolonged silence had previously risked undermining the influence and leadership the President of the USA is expected to wield, but the silence and the risk was ended by his forthright support of UN Resolution 1973.

John McCain and John Kerry: Both these former American presidential candidates were vocal and early advocates of a no-fly zone, and now that it has come about, their gravitas has been augmented as they have been seen to give the right policy advice to the White House, which was eventually taken. Although this represents a coalition of opinion between a leading Republican and a leading Democrat, their influence is unlikely to secure a more consensual Congress for the rest of the Presidential term.

UK: Negative reports were abound concerning the previous government’s close relationship with Libya and the poor contingencies put in place to evacuate British nationals. These were compounded by what seems to be one of the worst special operations missions in recent history. However, international leadership on the no-fly zone will have regained some of the nation’s democratic capability. A broader debate regarding whether the UK has the requisite military capacity to sustain a lead role in the no-fly zone has died down, but will weigh heavily on the minds of MoD staff.

David Cameron: Despite all the above, he has risen to the challenge of mobilising many reluctant countries to support a no-fly zone, and many in his own party and country. His campaign has been high-profile and high-minded, avoiding some of the dissent said to be at work in his cabinet. The no-fly zone will reflect well upon him.

William Hague: Blunder has followed blunder, from ill-advised comments that Gaddafi was on his way to Venezuela to poor management of aircraft and special forces. Although many from his party gave him plaudits for his work with UN delegates, his position is more precarious than it was, his aura of competence rather tarnished.

Douglas Alexander: Hague’s shadow sensed opportunity in his blunders and attacked him at every turn. However, if Hague now has egg on his face, Alexander now has boiled eggs on his face; his opposition to a no fly zone has led to an embarrassing and high-profile U-turn; though the damage to Labour does not seem to be too great, Alexander’s almost impeccable reputation is now bathing in the mud.

Michael Gove, George Osborne and Liam Fox: The most vocal advocates of intervention, along with William Hague, have won over the government and the Commons. Their standing in Cabinet will be increased at the expense of those opposed to intervention. In particular, Liam Fox is well placed to argue for fewer cuts in his budget, and since Osborne is on his side, it would not surprise me to see more money channelled towards defence at the budget after next, particularly if there is a windfall.

Bob Stewart: This mostly unknown Conservative MP (Beckenham) has become increasingly prominent due to his experience as a military commander in Bosnia, where a previous no-fly zone has been implemented. His expertise in this area has undoubtedly swayed government and international opinion, and he is likely to receive a ministerial portfolio before long, especially if he continues to sound so authoritative during interviews.

France: The Republic suffered embarrassing revelations about its foreign minister in the Tunisia crisis, but a quick sacking, a trial of a former President, and a well-managed evacuation managed to submerge most of the opprobrium. Meanwhile, vocal support for a no-fly zone will have won it kudos in diplomatic circles, however, undermining the EU’s nascent diplomatic efforts may in turn undermine attempts to centralise defence and foreign policy at the EU level.

Nicholas Sarkozy: Has had a good crisis, being seen to lead the world, and actually leading it. French fighter jets were the first to enforce 1973, and this show of strength will strengthen his upcoming election campaign. His name is, according to reports, being chanted on the streets of Benghazi, and the Guardian suggests that his handling of the crisis has saved him from electoral ruin.

EU: Has had quite possibly its worst crisis since the former Yugoslavia broke up. Two of its three major members have argued with the third, and it has been unable to build consensus among a Europe strongly divided on the issue. Its failure to secure the support of Malta and Cyprus for intervention will cost the coalition enforcing 1973 dearly. Any diplomatic efforts it made were largely or completely ignored, which will underline an impression of disunity and impotence; the UK and France will pursue their foreign policy almost without heed to the opinion of the EU.

Angela Merkel: Has had to balance the German public’s desire not to get involved in any foreign war with EU and US alliances. Due to an impending election, she has favoured the people’s view, and Germany abstained at the UN. Whether this will gain her many votes (coupled with withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan, she may convince the German people that she is indeed a pacifist) is yet to be seen. A good call – no permanent damage seems to have been done to bilateral relations, though any chances of diplomacy through the EU seem to be wrecked.

Lebanon: Tabled resolution 1973 at the UN, and had it carried by the necessary number of votes. A potentially clever move as it re-entrenches European (especially French) support for the embattled democracy. And the Lebanese public do not seem to mind their country inviting the US to bomb fellow Arabs.

Saif Al-Islam Gaddafi: Previously the hope of reform in Libya for the West, he has shown a ruthless streak, both handling the media with some guile and promising destruction to Libya’s enemies. Nonetheless, his political capital in the West has decreased. With his assets now frozen in most countries, he will struggle to find a way in life if the West does not make an accord with Gaddafi. His standing in Libya itself has also been harmed, as he is one of the few Gaddafi males not to be in command of a military unit, and his vision of a Libya reconciled with the West seems to have collapsed completely.

The London School of Economics: Was badly damaged when it was found that it had accepted large donations from the Gaddafi clan. Previously an institution with a reputation of spreading enlightenment throughout the developing world, it has pledged to return all the donation it can to the Libyan people, and made grovelling apologies to the government. There has already been one resignation, and another could shortly come from Shami Chakrabati, director of Liberty UK, who sat on its governing board. Harrowed appearances suggest that the folks at Liberty do not take kindly to her approving donations from sponsors of terrorism, though she denies the connection.

The Scottish National Party and the Labour Party: Both these parties curried favourable relationships with Libya during their terms in office at Holyrood and Westminster respectively. However, despite some cheap shots from some ministers, both seem to have emerged relatively unscathed from such a potentially toxic friendship. That said, Scottish voters have yet to have the opportunity to punish the Holyrood government at the polls, although it is unlikely that foreign policy will be a major factor at the elections in May.

Overall, the no-fly zone has been well-received in the international community. The first military Arab League involvement will shortly come through Qatari air jets; meanwhile, the normally pacifist Norway has also committed jets. The no-fly zone doesn’t seem to have stopped the civil war from either rebel or Gaddafi’s side, but it seems to have the desired effect of reducing the damage to civilians, particularly from Gaddafi’s aircraft and heavy armour. The issues that seem to be arising next are whether Resolution 1973 allows UN-affiliated forces to target Gaddafi himself, and, more broadly, what the exit strategy might be. Polling suggests strong division among the British public regarding whether this intervention is the right policy, and this may create political problems further down the line. The situation is still in flux, and the political consequences are still not settled.

Better than Nothing

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs on December 15, 2010 at 12:16 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Amid much chearing in the Italian Chamber and Senate, Silvio Berlusconi managed to survive a vote of confidence in his leadership. Though the margin – reports at this stage suggest – was only three votes, he nonetheless won. The knife-edge vote is a triumph for Berlusconi, but also represents sensible concerns about Italy’s position in the world.

First off, Berlusconi is the most high profile Italian leader there has been since WW2. This, it has been argued, is not because of any merit, but because he is particularly adept at being seen in the company of young girls and making crass remarks. But similar things could be said of Boris Johnson and Prince Philip too – and we are, by and large, content that they should hold senior positions. In fact, Berlusconi’s flamboyance allows him to create a different image of Italy, and raise its profile. Many more people know who he is than, say, the Prime Minister of Spain or Portugal or the Czech Republic. It has been noted that, since Berlusconi controls much of the media in Italy, certain scandals have not been given as much exposure as they have in the UK. This is probably true; but there is no censorship in Italy – there is nothing to stop people loading up CNN or BBC News if they want a different take. It seems that the people of Italy are not actually that fussed by Silvio’s antics. After all, this is the country of Cassanova. As for his alleged homophobia, we must also remember that Italy is the home of the Roman Catholic Church; a fair number of Italians are probably also of that opinion.

It also seems that Berlusconi is a competent operator within the government; during his time in office, significant progress has been made against the Mafia and Italy remains the most stable of the Southern Mediterranean economies. Berlusconi has achieved much of this by providing stability; Italy has had 62 changes of government since 1945 (65 years), but Berlusconi is midway through his third term. He has been able to weather the changing winds of Italian politics with some gusto. This most recent crisis of confidence came in typically Italian fashion, with the motion being spear-headed mot by prominent opposition leaders, but by a former ally of Berlusconi, Gianfranco Fini. Fini, who has been connected with neo-fascist groups in Italy, led a revolt from the right of Berlusconi’s party on issues of corruption and moral indecency. It had very little to do with actual policy, beyond the general: ‘we could do your job better’.

The newer allegations of corruption (he has already faced down some) will have to be dealt with by Berlusconi at some later date; his position as Prime Minister grants him immunity from prosecution. However, we have not learnt of any names ready to bring him to court upon the resignation that would have followed the vote of no confidence. But Berlusconi’s argument for keeping him was unrelated to these charges.

He argued that Italy could not afford to have a dithering government in these tough times. Italy is already implementing harsh austerity measures – which led to student protests on the day of the no confidence vote – in order to avoid becoming the next Eurozone economy to go grovelling to the IMF. Though more secure than Spain or Portugal, Berlusconi argued that this was a real danger. And given that it would have taken around 2 months to get an election going, and then probably many more to form a viable coalition, directionless government might have ensued. Belgium is already struggling to resolve its debt crisis without a government, and Italy’s task would be somewhat harder than Belgium’s; it has a higher percentage of debt to GDP, incredibly wide income disparity between North and South, and only enjoyed sluggish growth in the last decade.

One other thing Berlusconi did not mention explicitly was his experience. The longest-serving Italian PM in recent memory, he is also the longest serving leader of the west. Compared to him, Obama, Cameron, Merkel and Sarkozy are all relatively new. He has experience of dealing with ‘rogue states’ in the form of Libya, with whom he deals out of geographical necessity. Being Italian, he also has a good understanding of coalition, something that defines European politics generally (France and UK being notable exceptions). He also offers an experienced hand, having been successful enough as a businessman to buy AC Milan. He is well placed among Italian politicians to lead Italy through this current financial crisis, and the rocky political waters austerity entails.

The way this crisis arose – brought on suddenly by (former) members of his own party – indicates that Italy is broadly happy with the way Berlusconi is taking the country. Gianfranco Fini, I think, was posturing for a run at PM himself, leading a breakaway group. He has spent his political career moving between left, right and Berlusconi. It is significant that members of his party were happy to cross the floor to vote for Berlusconi when presented with policy arguments. Fini has misjudged the Italy’s problems, and Italy’s mood. The public, by and large, deem it more important to have a steady business-minded man at the helm than someone who chops and changes. Berlusconi must have been reasonably confident of carrying either the vote of no confidence or the election to offer so few concessions under pressure.

All in all then, Berlusconi continuing is a good thing for Italy – not only is it putting aside (albeit slowly) rancid political opportunism on the part of its parliamentarians and thinking about what is best for the country, but it is also committed to taking measures to deal with its sovereign debt and organised crime crises. For sure Berlusconi isn’t perfect. But he’s better than nothing.

Blooming Stupid

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Ideology, Parliamentary Spotlight, Party politics on December 10, 2010 at 4:25 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Calling anyone a Nazi is a serious allegation. When it is unfounded, it is also extremely offensive. Particularly when you are a German. Such thoughts did not perhaps pass through the mind of UKIP MEP Godfrey Bloom, when he made such a remark in the chamber of the European Parliament. Or maybe they did, and he meant to cause grave offense. In either case, he was forthwith ejected by a vote of members, and had to be escorted out. The incident raises strong questions of what people can and cannot say in a democracy which guarantees free speech.

I’ll just make my position absolutely clear – the comments Bloom made were completely wrong and inappropriate. But that’s tackling it from quite a staid dignified British view; as well as one that respects the targeted MEP, Martin Schultz (SPD). But that, to a certain extent, is beside the point. The question is whether Bloom has the right to say such things whether I approve or agree with such sayings or not.

We must first consider that Bloom is a UKIP MEP for Yorkshire – one of the regions that elected a BNP representative. Given that it has also elected a UKIP member and two Conservatives, we can infer that it’s a pretty Eurosceptic constituency. Moreover, those voters that voted UKIP want to see the EU brought down as soon as possible; consequently, if Bloom believed that making such comments as he did would accelerate that process, he might argue he had a democratic mandate to make them. However, I somehow doubt that most Yorkshiremen would even wish to hear those comments, much less associate themselves with them. While they might distrust the EU, and resent its level of control, that does not mean they see Europhiles as Nazis.

But on a broader level – Bloom has been elected by the people of Yorkshire to represent them how he deems best; and he is accountable through the ballot box whenever there is a European election. By having him barred from the chamber for a period of time, the EU Parliament implicitly denies the people of Yorkshire to receive their full representation for a time. The converse is that the people of Yorkshire should also have to accept the consequences for electing an offensive idiot, and the European community generally is condemning a most malicious attitude. In the multi-member constituencies of the EU, the people of Yorkshire also have other representatives, to whom they could turn should they be unable to wait the brief period of time until Bloom returns. But, if they were single-member constituencies, the problem would be exacerbated. And it may be that the people of Yorkshire have particularly strong views on an issue that comes up while Bloom is suspended, and their MEP is unable to cast his vote.

The balance here is between rights and duties, freedoms and consequences. Bloom has the right to speak howsoever he wishes – but, as an elected MEP, he has a duty to speak in accordance with acknowledged norms of the European Parliament. He has the freedom to be racist in the chamber, but he must also accept its consequence – suspension. Similarly the people of Yorkshire – they have the right to elect their representative, and the duty to choose him wisely. And even if they supported their representative to the hilt, the rest of the Parliament feels they have sufficient support in their constituencies to vote for his suspension.

But I think it is unreasonable to exclude him from voting; it is his speech that has earnt him this suspension, not his voting. To suspend people from debate is one thing; denying people the right to be democratically represented is another. If he could still vote, the Parliament could maintain its decorum, and the people of Yorkshire could maintain their voice in it, albeit in truncated form.

Some justify this course of events using the notion of a free market of ideas, and saying that this sort of speech doesn’t contribute new ideas, and merely tarnishes the ideas already in the market. While this has merits from a certain viewpoint, it nonetheless reduces someone’s inalienable right. It says that there is only value in free speech insofar as one uses it to contribute, rather than it simply being of immense value itself. This, for a while, muddled the issue in my thinking. Bloom has the right to say what he will, and he must accept the consequences of what he says. His ‘contribution to the free market of ideas’ is neither here or there. It may be of consequence to whatever debate was going on at the time, but, insofar as his right to speech is concerned, it is incidental.

One point that Nigel Farage made in the debate about whether to suspend Bloom is that several people in the European Parliament regularly label members of his group as Nazis with relative impunity. No-one bothered answering that point in the debate, and, to my knowledge, no-one has bothered since. If that is the case, there is an imbalance that Farage is right to complain about. But otherwise, the right thing seems to have been done.

One last thought – Bloom was twice offered the opportunity to apologise. If he had done this, he could have retained both his seat and whatever point he had happened to be making at the time. Instead, he lost both. While it takes guts for a politician to apologise, over such an unimportant thing, it surely here must have been the right thing to do. I don’t think there is any credit to be had anywhere on this issue. Better not to call people Nazis.

£7bn, 1 Province and 13 Miles of Sea

In Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs on December 6, 2010 at 7:46 pm

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

George Osborne has made the incredible announcement that he will provide a £7bn direct loan to the Irish Republic, to support its struggling economy. Incredible because it belies a surprisingly good relationship between the Kingdom and Republic. Which we might not have assumed given the history between the two countries. That Osborne has chosen to do this by means of a direct loan rather than through the EU, or the IMF is explicit and public affirmation of this close relationship. However, there is a fair degree of self-interest at work as well.

The primary cause of concern is that Britain’s banks are now exposed to the tune of £50bn in the event of the Irish economy collapsing. Obviously, this would be a near-fatal blow for the economic recovery we are now beginning to see, but, on a more immediate level, the government is guaranteeing a sum of the deposits in British banks, some of which rest upon the debt held by Irish banks. When we consider that a collapse in the Irish economy may well lead to a crisis of confidence in the Spanish economy, where Santander is based, the ramifications of not supporting Ireland are actually quite staggering for the British economy.

In another area, the Northern Ireland economy has been hit particularly hard by the recession, and, of all regions in the UK, unemployment runs highest here. The collapse of the Irish economy would hit this area particularly hard, as it is estimated that 40% of NI exports work their way into the Republic. This is also true of most of Britain’s agricultural output; but the situation is at its most accute in Northern Ireland. The relative stability in recent times in Northern Ireland is, in part, due to an period of economic prosperity, which could well be undermined by spending cuts, and would certainly be undermined if the Republic also collapsed as an export market. To see this loan as a massive bung to Northern Ireland may be a slightly cynical viewpoint, but it goes some way towards justifying George Osborne’s decision.

Perhaps there is further political machination going on here: if the UK supports the Eurozone, though not a member, it gives further bargaining power to Cameron around any future European table; it also allows him to say to Europhiliacs that he is supportive of the European ideal, in general terms. The Euroskeptics in the Conservative party have turned round and asked whether this is prudent; Cameron can justify it amply on grounds of national self-interest too.

The one objection is that £7bn is more or less the figure that will be saved by public spending cuts this year. The British public, who may not fully grasp the potential problems that beset Northern Ireland, the Eurozone, or the banks, may, understandably, feel a bit peeved. But, as we have seen, the loan is firmly in Britain’s interest, and moreover, unlike loans to mega-banks, we actually have a legal and diplomatic apparatus to eventually get it back – the Irish Republic can’t move its accounts offshore. Plus Ireland’s credit ratings will be absolutely shot if they refuse to pay it back. Though it would ultimately be financed by yet more borrowing, it would be a really stable and sensible investment rather than an injection into the less certain realm of public service; at any rate, saying we can borrow more so we should spend it on services is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place. This money is being spent on keeping us out of another one.

And here’s where we can take the discussion in all sorts of interesting directions. We could discuss whether the Euro has helped or hindered Ireland. We could discuss whether the free market or state ownership should be the answer to the underlying problem. We could also discuss if there is an underlying ironic narrative that Ireland is being bailed out by an Ascendancy aristocrat, the likes of whom it was so eager to get rid of.

But I want to take it in an historical direction. For at least 800 years, the English have been interfering in Ireland. By the early 1800s, Britain and Ireland unified into one state. About 100 years later, most of the groundwork was in place for the two countries to split. During WW2, Ireland did not join Britain against the Nazis, not because it was secretly fascist, but because it did not want to be seen on the same side as the English. Hostility continued right up into the 1980s and 1990s, until the Northern Ireland problem became so serious that Major had to involve the Republic in sorting it out. Since the Good Friday agreement, The Kingdom and the Republic have been not merely on speaking terms, but positively friendly – quite probably the best ever sate of Anglo-Irish relations. Hence the loan.

But the loan, for me, begs a much broader historical question. To what extent is Ireland viable without being intimately intertwined with the UK? At which point does Ireland become so intertwined that we’ll have to unite again? And is it better for Ireland to be united with the UK anyway? Of course, popular opinion in Ireland would probably not stomach such a union, but, when the UK decides to throw Ireland £7bn, when their economies are so inter-related,  with so much culture and history being shared, a union between these two seems a much more reasonable prospect than a united Europe. And perhaps here is the broader comment on the European project: if countries who share a land border, around 30% of trade, a language and much of their history can club together in times of need, then there is hope for Europe. But if 13 miles of sea and 1 province is a big enough gap to make union seem absolutely impossible, even when it seems really very logical and sensible that  the countries should join, then Europe should simply stick to a loose alliance, and not hope for anything greater.

A Strategically Defensible Review

In America, Europe, Events, Foreign Affairs, Party politics on October 22, 2010 at 3:42 pm

By Polarii for The Daily Soapbox

George Osborne has delivered with surprising gravitas his Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR). It was indeed comprehensive, incorporating almost every government department in the cost cutting measures. Whether such cuts are good or bad or necessary, and whether they fall in the right place or not, and what they will mean is a tangential theme to this article. Instead, we shall consider the Strategic Defence and Security Review (SDR). It was delivered by the Prime Minister to the Commons on the Tuesday, and almost – but only almost – snuck under the news radar. It is, in many ways, more important than the CSR, and so demands closer scrutiny. It is also more radical, believe it or not, and it should not go unmarked amidst the various cries of uproar that the CSR has triggered.

The SDR was a long-overdue document. Labour conducted the last defence review in 1998, and, for some incomprehensible reason, they did not think to have another after the world-changing event that was the 9/11 attacks. This changed the nature of warfare: previously, it had been thought that Britain would be the major contributor against legions of Soviet tanks rolling across the plains of Europe. By 2001, that threat had gone. In its place has arisen a guerilla effort in some of the most hostile environments known to man. And in this age of unipolarity (which will only last for another 20 years or so), other powers have turned to financing or supporting these guerilla groups, or, more intriguingly, using technology to undermine key computing services – case in point, the Estonian Cyberwar of 2007, widely alleged to have occurred with the blessing of the Kremlin. Piracy on the high seas has also been on the rise. All these threats would have been anticipated in a review in, say, 2002 or 2004.

Yet, we had to wait for a new government, and a time of cuts, to work out our defensive priorities. This left any new government in an awkward position: to cut defence under 1998 priorities would clearly be stupid; but to run a review alongside a programme of cuts would look vindictive. The Coalition wisely went for the latter. Though the SDR occurred in the context of cuts, it ensured the cuts were better directed at things that are no longer useful: accordingly, some 100 pieces of heavy equipment are to be discontinued (tanks, artillery, so forth) and there will be increased investment in more mobile units (helicopters, Humvees, etc). Anyone who knows anything about Afghanistan will tell you that this – at least for the medium term – is a sensible move.

However, the SDR makes a broad change of focus for Britain’s long-term strategic objectives. A military presence in Germany is to be discontinued. This is because two strategic threats – the Soviets, and the possibility of a re-emergent fascism in Europe – are now so distant as to be unthinkable. Plus, a number of former Soviet countries (Czech Republic, Estonia) are much more westward looking, and have joined NATO. There is now no longer a need for Britain to hold Europe on behalf of the Europeans. This has led to cuts of 7000 in the army. For the first time since WW2, Britain’s army will be smaller than Germany’s. Given the relative land held by each country, and the length of their borders, it seems that normality has been restored. Army forces can now concentrate on crisis points: Northern Ireland, Afghanistan, and wherever else may arise.

Now for the Navy. Britain’s strongest defence has historically been the Navy. That is entirely unsurprising for an island nation. It is an area in which Britain has traditionally excelled. But the Navy’s role has changed – it is now suffering cuts to its fleet of destroyers and frigates. It may well have suffered cuts to its aircraft carriers too, but the Labour government were stupid enough (or wise enough) to ensure that the contracts cost more to cancel than continue. This is a sound move: the countries that will most likely present a problem for Britain over the next 20 years are: Somalia, Iran, North Korea, Argentina (this last is tenuous). Against all these nations, having seaborne air power would be an eminently sensible move. Two carriers also keep Britain in the major leagues of military power: only the USA has more aircraft carriers. Furthermore, by fitting catapults for aircraft onto the aircraft, the Harrier jump-jet can be retired and French and US planes can use our carriers.

While it may not seem that UK-France relations are at their strongest ever, it is a sensible alliance to be forming. Up until WW1, Britain and France adopted a concerted naval policy, with France protecting the Mediterranean, and Britain the Atlantic – protecting both countries’ trade. A similar policy of naval co-operation seems to be forming between Cameron and Sarkozy, and not within an EU directorate. This will help retain the military influence of both countries within the world (though not to the level of the Imperial Age). It may also draw France away from the idea of an EU-Russia Defence force, which, as it is currently envisaged, is dangerously anti-Atlanticist; possibly leading to Europe becoming a plaything of Russia. We just have to hope that this sensible alliance outlives the two pragmatic politicians currently in office.

As for the airforce, the Harrier is being retired; the Tornado remains. Bases in Scotland could well close – not especially alarming, given the threat posed by military giants such as Norway and Iceland – retaining bases towards the South. Cuts of 5000 jobs are not unreasonable, and they will probably be regained once fiscal retrenchment has occurred. The RAF has managed to avoid being merged into the other branches, and it will proudly retain its identity of service and professionalism.

As for Trident, its renewal has (again) been deferred, to save money. This seems to have been driven by several factors: the nuclear threat to the UK is not terribly high for the next ten years (by which time, Iran will have nukes); it is cheaper to do it later and paying for it would mean cutting something else; the old system is not top-notch, but it still retains a good retaliatory capability; the Lib Dems don’t really want it. A combination of these views result in the decision, and I am too far removed from the decision-makers to analyse which combination. More pleasingly, budgets to GCHQ, SAS, MI5 and SIS will be increased – which is incredibly sensible given that the main threats over the next 10-20 years are terrorism and cyberwar; these are also areas in which Britain has traditionally excelled, even above major superpowers.

In short, I am loath to see cuts to defence spending, seeing as defense is the primary duty of the government. To paraphrase Lenin, without adequate defence spending, there will be no schools or hospitals. It also pleasing to see that the aid budget is now being diverted to genuinely poor areas, which are generally those areas where conflict may arise. Investment in backwater areas is the solution to extremism, rather than war. Further requirements for Afghanistan will be taken from the reserve, which prevents the troops suffering needlessly. The cuts prioritise certain areas – that is the Navy, Intelligence, and International co-operation, which are the areas Britain has most historical experience to bring to the table. It is, given the circumstances, given the potentially deep divisions in the Coalition about defence, a surprisingly elegant solution. It was right of Dr Fox to fight for the defence budget, and right of David Cameron to intervene to protect it from an extra 2% of cuts. It is a difficult pill to swallow, but it looks like life-saving medicine.

Introducing: Soapbox Radio

In Europe, Events, The Media on August 13, 2010 at 8:41 pm

David Weber & Stephen Wan

To the excitement, and probably embarrassment of not many at all, we’ve decided to start podcasting, not merely as a way of saving time from blogging. So with no further ado and certainly no pomp and circumstance we’re launching Soapbox Radio today, with the two trial podcasts we recorded in the last week or so.

  1. Pilot: “Little Red Blog”In this I am joined by Stephen Wan, co-editor of TDS, and Johan Lofving, a musical contact from Sweden. We cover the upcoming election in Sweden, whether the Coalition was right to propose anonymity for those accused of rape, Stephen’s proposal for a UBI on his little read blog, and our featured blog post*, Some Further Points on Benefits Reform by Hopi Sen.
  2. Episode 1: “Ban Smacking, not Smoking”Which, in the spirit of sheer diversity, features the same people as above. We kick off with the first edition of Dragon’s Corner, where one of us has sixty seconds to Make The World A Better Place, while other cynical dragons look on and breathe fire (or pour cold water, depending on which metaphor is the more appropriate). This week Johan gave us the eponymous proposition, which led to some debate, after which we tackled The State We’re In, and spent no small time talking about Eminem and the EU**.

If you’re interested in making as much a fool of yourself as we’ve done, email dingdongalistic (at) gmail (dot) com, or stephenwan91 (at) gmail (dot) com.

*Not to be confused with our naked publicity chase.

**Not together.

Belgian Elections Are Barmy

In Constitutional Spotlight, Europe, Events on June 21, 2010 at 10:40 am

By polarii for The Daily Soapbox

Let’s get something very obvious very clear before we launch into this idea. The recent Belgian elections were not interesting. Belgian elections are some of the blandest ‘events’ Europe has, thus far, invented. Nor, in fact, is Belgium very interesting. A few years ago, when the world still believed a fake Belgian news broadcaster’s fake report about the country splitting in two, it failed to make headline news. Herman van Rompuy is not interesting. In fact, the whole thing is entirely uninteresting. Why then write a blog post about it?

The Liberal Democrats might look at Belgium’s electoral system and smile. It uses a regional list system, it limits party spending during campaigns, it uses proportional representation and has an elected second chamber, mostly elected, but also with senators from ‘community parliaments’ (county councils to us UK folk) and other senators co-opted by a ballot of senators. They even do the voting on computers. They do use voter ID cards, but this might be the only thing the Lib Dems would object to in this system.

But the ID card might be necessary here. Belgians can vote in five different ways (yes five!). They can vote for one party’s list. They can spoil their ballot paper. They can rank the candidates within one party according to preference, but they needn’t rank all of them if they don’t want to. Or, they can rank the parties in order of preference. And if they’re feeling really bold, they can rank various candidates from different parties according to preference. I wonder how on earth anyone keeps a handle on what the people actually want. At least they kept their ID so they can go back and ask them what they actually wanted if it wasn’t abundantly clear from their ballot form. A turnout of 90% is impressive, but not when you consider that voting is compulsory; Australia, where voting is compulsory also, rarely receives a turnout below 95%. There is a signficant disenfranchisement and/or confusion among the Belgian electorate. And who can blame them?

It all sounds wonderful and very democratic. Of course, Belgium is on the verge of a constitutional crisis as well. Its parties are divided so strongly along sectarian lines that there is a Francophone Socialist party and a Dutch-speaking Socialist party. There are also nationalist Flemish parties, which put candidates up in the primarily Francophone Brussels, and a few small national Walloon parties. This creates a massive problem in that several major parties in Belgium are committed to secession from Belgium. And this might come to a head soon.

In this most recent election, the New Flemish Alliance (NVA) is apportioned with 27 seats in the 150 seat Chamber. Behind them is the Francophone Socialist party (PS), with 26, which can expect to be joined by the Flemish Socialist with 13 (SPA). The Flemish Christian Democrats (CDV), previously in coalition with N-VA, have 17 seats. The Francophone Reformist Movement (MR) has 18 seats, and will be joined by the Flemish Liberals and Democrats (VLD) with 13. The Francophone Humanist Democratic Centre (CDH) have historically aligned themselves with CDV and got 9 seats. The Flemish Interest party (VB) got 12 seats, the Green parties 13 between them, and the Belgian equivalent of the neo-cons got 2 seats. 4.84% of votes went to parties who got no representation. You still interested?

This gives the Flemish nationalists 39 seats, the Socialists 39, the Christian Democrats 26 seats, Liberals 31 seats, Greens 13, Conservatives 2. And we’re all confused about the likely government as lengthy coalition talks begin. The initial moves will be made by the NVA to the PS. Which is confusing, because they sit on opposite sides of the political spectrum, but it will give them 78 seats, a majority, assuming the Francophones bring their Flemish brothers. In short, a NVA-PS-SPA-VB coalition.

alternatively, the Christians could swing left and form an anti-secessionist coalition. With the Greens, that’s 78 seats and PS-CDV-SPA-CDH-E-G will become the governing string of letters.  If, however, those on the right of Belgian politics were to band together in a Flemish/Christian/Liberal/Conservative joint thing, we would have a 98 seat coalition, so they could afford some abstentions here and there, or not bring the Conservatives on board for 96 seats. This would be NVA-VB-CDV-CDH-MR-VLD-(LD-PP) coalition, and their mail will be delivered to a little-known address in Antwerp.

All this will take months to organise behind closed doors, and likely not last long, and certainly won’t do much, other than, if the NVA do manage to lead the government, move from a federalist model to a co-federalist model. Assuming the King doesn’t die in the meantime and the Senate arithmetic adds up.

My word, this sounds like a desperately productive way to go about democracy. It’s hardly open and accountable. It’s probably not want the Belgian people want. For all its flaws, First Past the Post generally produces stable government with a popular mandate, and does so quickly. It checks sectarianism and nationalism arising in the regions, and only lets it happen if the people do actually want it. It also incredibly simple to understand how it works, who you voted for and what they’re going to try to do. Ultimately, embracing the Liberal Democrats’ voting reforms will turn the UK into something like Belgium. Except the Scotts have a bigger axe to grind than the Flemish, and we don’t have so many ‘big’ parties. It would require the Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems to fragment to work, otherwise the BNP is set to do well. It would lead to governments worked out by backroom deals every time, not in exceptional circumstances. And remember, while Belgian politicians bicker, they have their own sovereign debt crisis to worry about; which is now being blithely ignored. Democracy requires that we ultimately swallow some of what we believe to come to some sort of consensus; the Belgian system, and Liberal Democrat ideas, make it so that people do not have to compromise any aspect of their ideals, while making the greyest of washes possible; this only happens because the way the Belgian system works, and ultimately, the way coalition and PR works, is not as democratic as it is marketed.

One last thing: the Belgian judiciary tried to intervene to rule this election unconstitutional. I for one am not a fan of a government seeking the support of its people being ruled criminally unconstitutional. It is truly a sick system that might allow an election to be called unconstitutional. Closer to Benin than Belgium. Happy voting.