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.   

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.