Belgian bust-up

•September 29, 2007 • 1 Comment

The words crisis and Belgium don’t jingle along together very naturally, but with the country still in limbo 110 days after its general election, the media are starting to take the issue of Belgium and its possible (but unlikely) separation seriously.

The leader of the Flemish Christian Democrat Party and President-in-waiting, Yves Leterme, who has said that Belgium’s two main linguistic communities are only held together by “the King, the football team and some beers,” is pushing for more autonomy for the three regions (Francophone Wallonia in the south, Flemish-speaking Flanders in the north and predominantly-Francophone Brussels, which is an enclave within Flanders). And this is the problem – none of the parties in Wallonia want to take Leterme up on this option and form a government, preferring to maintain themselves as closely linked to a united Belgium as possible and rejecting further autonomy, which many see as a thinly-veiled separatist agenda from the north. With parties from Flanders banned from fielding candidates in Wallonia and vice versa, finding a coalition partner in the other linguistic community is vital.   

Whilst there are linguistic and cultural niggles (Flemings love nothing better than putting down their Gallic cousins in the south for their failure to master the guttural tones of Flemish, and Leterme once famously questioned whether the unfortunately-named Walloons were intellectually up to the task of learning Flemish), money plays a part as well. Whilst Wallonia used to be richer and more populous than Flanders, the tables have now been turned. Unemployment in Wallonia is nudging 15% and is twice that of Flanders, and wages in the south are significantly lower; and there’s a popular conception that southern Belgium is full of dole scroungers living off Flanders’ wealth. If Belgium were to take the Czechoslovakia option, Flanders would be one of the richest countries in the EU and Wallonia one of the poorest.

Belgian pragmatism will likely win the day, as the issue of who gets to keep Brussels makes separation too complicated and risky even for Flanders. The option of turning Brussels into a city state (Brussels D.C.) has been touted, but neither Walloons nor Flemings want to lose their link to the city. 

Obviously, Planet Churro doesn’t support the idea of countries trying to offload poorer regions, but if political progress is impossible due to the myriad differences between the more Anglo-Saxon-leaning Flemings and the more Latin Walloons, then maybe separation is the best option, as long as a formula can be found that suits everybody. This would require Wallonia to be financially compensated for the income it would lose due to spearation, and Flanders to foot the bill for ditching poorer Belgians. And all this could be brokered and managed by the EU, which has a direct stake in the future of Brussels and which could call the shots to the potential new-member States through its adhesion talks. But, of course, Flemish independence fervour might wane if the cash advantages were taken out of the equation.   

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A feather in the EU’s CAP

•September 19, 2007 • 1 Comment

Whilst giving the front room its six-monthly mop, the BBC’s World Service has kindly informed me that the EU will be ploughing surplus money from the frankly wasteful Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) into its Galileo satellite navigation system.

In simple terms the CAP doles out money to European farmers and agrobusiness because, erm, the French managed to wangle it into EU policy years ago to protect a powerful interest group and to keep the French’s rather soppy relationship with the countryside alive. Yes, Pierre, driving through the compiegne and romping round well-kept meadows is pleasant, but hardly what you’d call a priority as far as EU funding goes, wouldn’t you say?

The CAP ensures that every European cow recieves subsidies to the tune of 700€ a year and takes up 40% of the EU budget. On top of this, artificially lowering production costs for hairy-arsed cousin-chasers has meant that third-world farmers have not been able to compete with EU products either at home or on the EU market, thereby holding back development and keeping a dependency culture going. Yes, égalité, only not for the darkies, if you don’t mind. What’s more, the beneficiaries of this bizarre policy are often large landowners – one of the largest recipients in Spain, for example, is the publicity-courting Duquesa de Alba, one of the richest people in the country.  

The move has been possible due to rising market prices for agricultural products, so EU taxpayers’ money isn’t quite as necessary to ensure that farm-dwellers can shell out on fleece-lined lumberjack shirts and 4x4s, leaving a surplus to be invested elsewhere. So farmers won’t actually be any worse off, but will doubtlessly complain anyway. The EU is possibly getting an early dig in to take advantage of new French president Nicolas Sarkozy’s modernising streak. 

There are plenty of critics of the Galileo project, which is due to be operational by 2012. Many claim that simply copying something that already exists (the US NAVSTAR GPS system) is hardly where EU high-tech investments should be directed. But it’s predicted that satellite navigation will be a money-spinner in the future and that earnings will go straight back into EU coffers. Efforts to get private capital on board have failed dismally.

Whichever way you look at it, a shift in focus from agriculture, which can be carried out in developing countries, to technology has to be viewed as positive, and this move fits in well with the philosophy of an institution which is trying to get away from the past rather than cling on to it.

The views of General Dave

•September 11, 2007 • Leave a Comment

For anyone at a loose end today (especially here in Catalonia, where nationalist overkill is ratcheted up to new levels for the celebration of the Diada), it’s worth taking a peep at the articles on pages 2 and 3 of El País on Iraq. After four years of repeatedly fucking up on various fronts as far as Iraq is concerned, and with the messianic Neocons now firmly off the scene, the world’s military and political superpower seems to have finally hit on the right formula.

The Petraeus Report seems measured and faintly optimistic, and General Dave has apparently drawn it up without pressure from either the Pentagon or White House. Though the 30,000 soldiers forming the surge will be gradually sent home, there are no immediate plans for troop withdrawals, which makes sense, as until gains in reduced violence are capitialised on with advances in the establishment of institutions and the training-up of national security forces, pulling out troops runs the risk of returning to square one. Indeed, one of the key reasons for the failure to maintain the peace after toppling Saddam was troop shortages. With a PhD from Princeton, Petraeus has a clear understanding of the importance of state-building, which, as the neglected Phase 4 part of the invasion strategey, has arguably been the key to the failure of the US-led mission in Iraq.

The other star of the day is the US ambassador in Bagdhad, Ryan Crocker, the Farsi- and Arabic-speakng diplomat who’s affectionately known as ‘our Lawrence of Arabia’. When the invasion of Iraq was in the offing, Colin Powell asked for Crocker’s advice and was told that an invasion would bring ethnic divisions, sectarian conflict, a transition to democracy plagued with problems and the risk of Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia taking advantage of the chaos to boost themselves as regional powers. But he wasn’t cool back then and nobody listened to him. Like Petraeus, Crocker sees clear advances in regions such as al-Anbar, but sees drastic troop reductions as potentially catastrophic.

Unfortunately this has panned out in such a way that as soon as competent people are on the job, public opinion in the US is clamouring for troop reductions and Congress is more opposed to the occupation than ever. Whilst the whole exercise up to now has appeared to have been conducted by a group of Risk afficionados jacked up on party drinks, for there to be any chance of salvaging things and getting the country on course in some form, the US has to stay the distance; it’s clear that viewing Iraq as a quick in and out job was an error right from the start. 

Success in Iraq is also crucial for the US if it’s to continue in its self-appointed role as promoter of democracy and saviour of the oppressed. If it can pull it off in Iraq, then promoting liberal democracy in other (oil-producing) regions of the world will be feasible. If it pulls out and lets Iraq deteriorate even further into a failed state, then intervention in any form other than air strikes will be off the cards for a while to come.    

Withdrawal method

•August 30, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Having just returned from ten days of rank weather and top-rate beer in Britain, it was interesting to see that the main international talking point on Newsnight was the withdrawal of British forces from Iraq. The 5,500 British troops in Iraq are now concentrated at Basra airport, having handed over control of the areas they previously patrolled to Iraqi security forces, which was the aim all along. British government and army sources claim that the areas they’ve handed over had been pacified and that the Iraqis are up to the job, though there is plenty of doubt surrounding this assertion.

US general Jack Keane has laid into the disengagement of British forces, who he claims have given up on enforcing security in an increasingly violent region to focus on training up Iraquis to do the job. Security concerns have also been voiced by the more impartial International Crisis Group, and credibility-seeking Lib-Dem leader, Ming Campbell, has predictably piled in with his own list of grievances.

PM Brown says there’s no timeline for withdrawal, but discreetly packing all troops into the airport compound does make the UK look a bit like a soon-to-abscond wife with a ready-packed suitcase under the bed. And the fact that military sources have been hyping up Afghanistan (not a vote-loser to the same extent as Iraq) as the main priority – for which they need the troops currently posted in Iraq – also raises suspicions.

Comparisons will be drawn with Zapatero’s pull-out of Spanish forces following his election victory in 2004, and ZP also compensated in international circles by upping troop levels in Afghanistan. Like ZP, Brown represents a country whose population opposed the intervention on a grand scale. However, unlike Brown, ZP had not voted in favour of the war, and the collateral damage of a pull-out was nothing like as high. If Brown wants Britain to continue punching above its weight he might want to bear in mind that a premature withdrawal could plonk Britain off the international stage as far as the US and others are concerned.

Domestic politics invariably influences international policy. Brown may be contemplating early elections in order to capitalise on the ‘Brown bounce’ and to consolidate himself as a democratically elected PM, rather than a party-appointed replacement for Blair, so an Iraq cut-and-run strategy may be a way of boosting his popularity, especially if smoothed over with a bit of job done rhetoric. However, the übermoralist and preacher’s son may find that shipping-out whilst things are hotting up in Basra has adverse effects, with Iraqi lives becoming tradeable currency in an election campaign.

The Kosovo question

•August 9, 2007 • 1 Comment

Albanian Kosovar leader, Veton Surroi, has warned that things could get nasty if Kosovo’s independence is held back any further. The territory (probably the best word under the circumstances) is currently under UN control, and looks likely to remain so after UN-led talks aimed at getting Kosovo a form of indepedence under EU supervision were knocked back by long-term Serbian ally Russia (Russia’s proclivity for throwing its hat in with Serbia was a key factor in triggering the First World War, just in case you’re interested).

Today the Contact Group (US, EU and Russia) is having talks before visiting Kosovo and Serbia. Serbia claims Kosovo as the cradle of Serb civilization, but the 90% Albanian-Kosovar population would rather go its own way after a short war with Serbia in 1998-1999. The war was ended with a NATO (read US) air campaign which bombed Milosevic’s men out of Kosovo, which incidentally, like Iraq, was not approved by a UN resolution.  

It’s a difficult one to call. For ninety percent of the population independence is the answer, but the remaining ten percent are seriously worried about their safety in the event that Kosovo does get its sought-after independence. And many claim that the granting of independence is simply rewarding ethnic cleansing (whilst media reports had the Serbs down as the undisputed bad guys – and Milosevic was certainly overstepping the mark, whilst the EU floundered around helplessly -, the Kosovan Liberation Army had been out looting and murdering its way through predominantly Serbian areas and driving  the locals from their villages – a fact which barely gets a mention in most news reports); and this would set a dangerous precedent, especially in other parts of the former Yugoslavia where divisions still exist within States.

Spain is dead-set against independence for Kosovo. Alberto Navarro, Spain’s Secretary of State for the EU, has expressed concern that outside powers are deciding on the fate of another country and that this will lead to another European State splitting up. But Albertito, we know that’s not what you’re really worried about. Any Spanish government support for Kosovan independence would fire up nationalists in Spain, who would charge their leaders with hypocrisy for supporting independence movements outside Spain whilst railing against them domestically. Of course, conditions in, say, Les Borges Blanques, bear little resemblance to Kosovo, and to attempt to apply the same criteria to both situations would be beyond puerile, but…

The EU could spice the deal with opening membership talks for Serbia, but there are a whole host of other issues which also block Serbian accession, such as turning over supposedly-difficult-to-find war criminals to the International Court of Justice at The Hague. In the meantime, Kosovo could unilaterally declare independence, possibly counting on the US for support, as well as several members of the EU, thereby highlighting another issue on which the EU can fail to reach a consensus on. 

Terrible twins teetering

•August 8, 2007 • 2 Comments

Following the decision of one of the members of the three-party coalition in government to pull out of the cosy conservative threesome, elections could be around the corner in Poland. The weirdly named Self Defence Party (do members stick rival MPs in a headlock and say “had enough yet, sonny?” if key votes don’t go their way?) has withdrawn its two ministers from cabinet after drawn-out wrangling with the major party in the coalition over a supposed corruption scandal. This leaves the tough-sounding Law and Justice party to govern with the not-quite-as-overtly-butch Polish League of Families, who between them have 189 seats in the 460-seat lower house. If a proposed vote of no confidence goes through and elections are called, few people outside the religious right in Poland wil be sad to see the back of a government whose more bizarre decisions have included launching an investigation into Tellytubby Tinky Winky’s lifestyle for alleged homosexual leanings and sending the police onto Polish beaches to fine topless sunbathers (even if they’re lying on their fronts).     

Whilst in Poland a couple of weeks ago just about everyone I spoke to saw the government of the terrible Kaczynski twins (of which Prime Minister Jaroslaw still lives with his mum) as a regrettable mistake; however, it was generally viewed as something transitory that would pass without holding back the country’s growth and transformation. As you might guess, I wasn’t collaring uberCatholics on their way out of Mass, so it’s fair to say that the views I got on the country’s government are not representative of the population at large, but even strong opponents regarded the whole thing as an unfortunate blip rather than a serious worry. 

For the EU this is excellent news, as the difficulty of negotiating with Poland on many issues is a serious drag. Though Poland did backfoot to a certain extent at the summit on a new EU charter in June, it is still very resistent to the EU, and more specifically, Germany’s power within the Union. The Polish public, however, is much more Eurofriendly than its conservative-nutter leaders, so it is to be hoped that if early elections are called, the twins, who were recently satirized hanging off Angela Merkel’s breasts on the front cover of Polish political weekly Wprost, will get more time to put into practice the family values which they hold so dear.  

The battle for Central Asia

•August 2, 2007 • Leave a Comment

Central Asia, with its oil and gas resources, is fast becoming more important in geopolitical terms and references to a rerun of Kipling’s Great Game are cropping up more and more in the media. The BBC has a piece about how China is influencing the vast state of Kazakhstan, which borders the western Chinese province of Xinjiang and from whose Kashagan and Tengiz oil fields China hopes to be able to at least partially quench its thirst for oil. 

In 2001 Russia and China signed up for the Shanghai Cooperation Organization – an economic and security pact with all Central Asian countries except Turkmenistan – and it’s these two powers which are most active in the region. The US also has a presence, through its oil companies and military bases in Uzbekistan which were established as a springboard for the invasion of Afghanistan. US oil companies are often forced to hold back, however, due to the diplomatic difficulties of getting the oil to markets from landlocked Central Asia; this is tricky because the most secure routes for oil and gas pipelines often go through Iran (under a US sanction regime), and ex-Soviet states are reluctant to go through Russia or regional rivals in many cases. 

So what’s the problem? Some say that all that matters is that the oil gets on to the market. If China snaps up all the oil in the region, this frees up oil from other sources, though this can create an overdependency on Middle-East oil for the US.

The problem with China

As far as the EU is concerned China is taking away any influence in the region that the Union might have had. Why? Basically because of China’s no-questions-asked attitude when setting up trade and aid deals. Whereas the EU will always make trade and aid conditional on improvements in human rights, democracy, institutions, press freedom etc., China just goes in and slaps the money on the table. Of course, China demanding democratic improvements is like Paris Hilton going around telling people to take it easy on the cocaine, and this is the problem for the EU.

Though China has finally got tough on Sudan over Darfur, this was largely a response to its own interests (the showcase 2008 Beijing Olympics taking a hit) and this is an extreme case; there is no moral element to China’s foreign policy and it doesn’t see itself as having a responsibility to change the behaviour of other States. The EU, on the other hand, has set out its stall as a defender of democracy and already gets enough stick over its relations with Russia. It’s thus unlikely to embark on relations with other states which have no interest in improving democratic accountability, and as China spreads its influence around the world, the EU is going to find itself ever more getting knocked back as it seeks to secure more influence.

Individual EU States can of course get involved in Central Asia, as Germany is doing, and France and the UK can still limit China’s global actions through their seats on the UN Security Council, but the EU as an organisation with international clout is still something of a bedroom fantacist.