Punish Putin – really

Over the past two weeks, I spent six days doing work experience at the Week. The magazine aims to give readers a summary of the week’s news and what the national and foreign media had to say on it, and so I spent many hours scouring the web’s top blogs for any interesting editorial content. So I watched, almost in real time, the world’s reaction to the MH17 disaster.

By Monday, the editorial columns were all spewing the same message: the West had to stand up to Putin. (Russia Today, meanwhile, kept insisting that Ukraine had designed the tragedy to turn the West against Russia – a story which became increasingly convoluted as more and more evidence to the contrary emerged). And yet for all the moral outrage, which felt more than a little self-righteous, none of the editorials really promoted any solid policies. “Punish him,” they crooned, “but we can’t tell you how”. And all gave politicians room for inaction – “whatever you do, don’t jeopardise the gas supply” could have been the headline on every broadsheet.

Nevertheless, pressure did grow, and the politicians predictably fell over themselves rushing to look tough on Putin. Cameron wrote a cringe-worthy letter to the Times, vowing to lead Europe in imposing punitive sanctions against the Russian President and his numerous cronies. Yet Germany, the EU’s diplomatic heavyweight, fretted about all that gas, and France went ahead with the sale of a new warships to Russia’s army.

It was a poor showing, where economic self-interest won over any sense of moral duty. It was also a depressing example of short-termism; Cameron was actually right when he raised the spectre of appeasement. Putin is no Hitler, obviously, but the same logic applies – the more he is allowed to do, the more he will do. It was the same in Syria, where the bloodshed hasn’t stopped since last year’s chemical weapons attack went unpunished by the West. As many warned, the rebel’s resentment of their neglect grew, and out of the chaos came ISIS – which is now presenting the biggest threat to Western security since al-Qaeda in its early-2000s heyday. Inaction has unintended consequences too.

The last few years have proved the West weak and divided. Where once it stood for decisive action, it is now a mass of dithering. So what, really, could the West do about Putin?

Sanctions. At the moment, Western sanctions only affect a dozen or so of Putin’s cronies. They basically don’t do anything. Instead, trade with Russia should be wound down, putting its economy under some serious strain. Russia should be unceremoniously thrown out of the G8 and G20; and NATO should make its remaining power felt by beefing up its forces  in Eastern Europe. This isn’t about threatening a new Cold War, but making it clear that the current world order will be protected – and that there are consequences to shooting a civilian airliner out of the sky.

Putin’s main concern has always been his domestic support. Causing the already anti-Putin Muscovite middle-class some economic pain will force him to make concessions in order to remain powerful at home; not least reeling in the Eastern rebels in Ukraine and stopping transfers of weapons across the border. This may take a few weeks as he seems to have lost his control of the situation, so in the immediate future he needs to secure access to the crash site for international observers and stop the rebels tampering with the evidence.

There comes a time when a sense of right and wrong should take priority over economic calculation. 298 people were shot from the sky, they deserve justice – gas supply or not.

Another Europhillic post

Against all my predictions, Sunday’s elections in Greece were not an unmitigated disaster. While Europe winced in fretful anticipation, the Greek people handed victory to New Democracy, a centre-right, pro-bail out party.

I’m not going to start hypothesising about what this means for the future of the euro, because I have not got a clue and ‘renegotiation’ is an almost comically vague idea. But let us consider the purely political ramifications of this somewhat unforeseen result.

Domestically, the result shows that Greece does not really want to go for extremism. It rejected the far-left (albeit by a small margin), because the people saw through the empty promises and meaningless rhetoric. Instead they chose the party which they felt was being open and honest with them. They also rejected the far-right, which normally does well in this kind of climate. What does that say about modern politics in times of crisis?

Internationally, Greece gave Europe a thumbs-up. By recognising the need to stay in the euro, the country also effectively reinforced its consent for European integration. They believe that they are stronger within the Union than not, which is probably true. The Greek economy is dependent on European tourism, although leaving the euro may have given the country the options of devaluation. It is improbable that Europeans will want to travel to Greece when they hold it responsible for a financial disaster, so maybe the argument is mute.

However, I’m a natural Europhile and I genuinely believe that Europe will help solve Greece’s problems. An exportation of the German economic model will no doubt raise living standards, although that will obviously take decades and the Mediterranean way of life may be hard to change. But the ring of debt-ridden countries need to change, full stop. Just look at the banks in Spain, or Italy’s bizarre labour laws, and you will see why.

But my real question is this – why does political integration require the economic kind? Now that the euro exists it must be preserved, but most people would probably now agree that it was a flawed idea. Many have now taken this to mean that Europe itself is unworkable and should be avoided like the plague. This simply isn’t true. Taken generally, the EU has done nothing but good – it limits members’ carbon emissions, protects human rights and funds research into drug development, while being a much more efficient implementer of sanctions than the Russia/China dominated UN.

Admittedly, it could do more. While fostering democracy in individual states, it has yet to democratise itself. It has not taken actions against the dodgy regime in Belarus, or managed to improve the state of civil liberties in Turkey – once a potential member. But these problems are not due to complete incompetence. The EU simply hasn’t got enough power. As anethemic as the prospect is to the British right-wing press or the French isolationist instinct, if we want Europe to be successful, we are going to have to allow it to be so.

2012 – another year of change?

Welcome to my 2012 predictions post, where I’m going to detail how and why I think things are going to go this year. I’d love to get some debate going, so please comment to tell me why I am wrong – there’s nothing better than an argument.

The Arab spring
I think 2012 will see a divide emerge in the Arab spring countries, with some moving ahead whilst others struggle and still others beginningh the process. There seems to be general agreement that Syria is heading towards civil war, which I think is likely. The Assad regime is in no mood to go, whilst most of the population is against it. Add to this the religious tensions – the Assad regime is comprised of members of the small Alawite sect, while 80% of the population is Sunni – and strife indeed appears inevitable, especially as more and more armed men defect from the army. Who will win any civil war is hard to say, but it is unlikely that it would be Mr Assad. By 2013, Syria will have a new leader. Howeverr, those most likely to suffer under a new government are Christians and women, because Islamism will definitely flourish. This means the West is being cautious in what it wishes for. Sadly I think 2012 is going to see a lot of bloodshed on the streets of Hama, Homs and Damascus.
Although Lybia has already toppled (and killed) its dictator, 2012 is not going to be an easy year here either. The country is critically divided into tribes, who, without a strongman’s military control, are not likely to get on with each other. The civil war has resulted in a large number of guns being in civilians hands, which is not really a recipe for stability. And no one has a clue how to deal with the large numbers of Gadaffi loyalists who are very annoyed with life. However there is some hope that the National Transitional Council will draft a half-decent constitution and hold some fully-decent elections, providing the country does not erupt again. Even in this case, the road ahead is rocky. The NTC is by no means a legitimate body, and that makes criticism of its ideas legitimate. Islamism will grow here too, because there are not any other political parties. The different tribes are likely to start bickering about representation and oil interests. There is hope, but it’ll take hard work to fulfil it.

In Tunisia and Egypt, however, democracy is making slow but steady process. Elections have just been held in both countries – although the process in Egypt was slightly dubious. I predict that the new Constituent Assembly in Tunisia will actually get its job done, and that we will see proper elections under a good constitution sometime this year. Of course, Islamists will do well, but Tunisians are naturally moderate and I can’t see them putting up with extremism. It also helps that Tunisia is a very homogeneous country, which promotes secularism. Egypt is not extremely fractious either, but it does face more problems than its neighbour. The main one is the army – which has entrenched itself into the workings of political power and is loathe to back out and make room for civilians. It had a crucial role in Mubarak’s regime and has run the country since he fell, which means it has the power to do what it wants. When the election results are worked out, it is doubtful that the army will simply go away. Therefore I think Egyptians will spend most, if not all, of 2012 trying to get its generals back into their barracks. Once they have succeeded in this, I see no reason why they should not follow their Tunisian counterparts to democracy.

Bye bye Putin
It is not often that one witnesses 80,000 people chanting ‘Russia without Putin’ throng the streets of Moscow. Twice. It just doesn’t happen. Nor do people boo the Prime Minister when he appears at over-staged sports fixtures. Apart from now – they do. That’s why I say that Mr Putin’s days are numbered. He brought all this on himself, by taking natural Russian apathy towards politics for granted and treating his people like idiots. They are used to him fiddling elections – but he was so blatant about it that they felt that he was laughing at them (probably). They are used to him bending the rules of the constitution, but his use of Dimitri Medvedev as a pawn in his games was just too ridiculous. Patience snapped. It’s not only his fault though – it’s hardly been a good twelve months for corrupt rulers. It seems that the Arab spring has slapped Russians round the face and forced them to ask ‘why are we putting up with what they’ve succeeding in bringing down?’ And found no answer. Now Putin needs to realise that his people aren’t sheep. Theoretically, he has every chance of surviving 2012. But I don’t think he will. He is so self-assured that he is probably yet to realise how much trouble he’s in and therefore won’t make the liberalising changes that could save him. That will be his downfall. How a Russia without Putin functions will be interesting too see. In a way, it will be harder for Russia to achieve democracy than Arab countries. This is because Russia technically already has a democratic system, but it’s completely corrupted. It will have to take this structure apart before it can start building a new one.

China
Now this is not something backed by anything I’ve read, but I think the Communist Party of China is in line for a shock. I’m not saying that ‘Communism’ is going to fall in 2012, far from it. What I am saying is that it will become a lot harder for the Party to control dissent. We’re already seeing protests in Mongolian areas of the country and international anger at the plight of Nepal, and the internet is causing a stir. Not only can people from these areas post evidence of confrontation online, they can also debate and form ideas with people on the other side of the world. The government is trying to limit and control the internet, but its very nature mean that they can’t keep up. Liberalism is (maybe) coming to China.

The US Republican race and elections
It was a good day for liberalism and sanity when Michelle Bachmann bowed out of the race to become the Republican presidential candidate having come sixth in the Iowa caucus, and I for one breathed a sigh of relief. Looking forwards, I think Mitt Romney, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum will be the people to watch. Mr Romney has been a favourite for a while and is vaguely normal. He has the most moderate social views, which is why Republicans might settle for him – he might be able to appeal to voters who would normally be Democrats, but are disappointed with Mr Obama. The right of the party don’t like him, but the more strategic may convince them. Mr Perry is the only darling of the mainstream right left in the race and therefore has a fair chance, because he can appeal in some way to most Americans. But he is a worrying figure. He would not only ban gay marriage, but even gay relationships. Under his presidency, abortion would be illegal. He is, quite frankly, very scary. Mr Santorum is even more conservative, and reading his website makes me actually angry. So what do I think will happen? Mr Santorum won’t make it, because moderates will balk. So it’ll end as a race between Romney and Perry, which is likely to be very close. Mr Romney is most likely to win but Perry’s right-wingers might pull their weight. And then what? If Perry wins, Obama has more hope than if Romney does. But Mr Obama is not popular – the unemployment rate is stubbornly above the 9% mark, he has not been as revolutionary as his most die-hard fans hoped, and many of his promises have not been fulfilled. Against Romney, he will have a fight on his hands. For that, I almost hope Perry wins the nomination.

Europe
Undoubtedly, Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel will be seeing a lot of each other this year. Against the will of Sarkozy’s own globalisation-hating citizens, the pair will have to implement a strict regime of fiscal integration in order for the markets to give any credit to the Euro. They will get there eventually, but it will take some fighting for. As Cameron has dug himself into a hole, it is likely that Britain will become isolated and will be unable to affect EU policy. This will cause a shift of power to the East, where France and Germany will find themselves confronted with the autocratic President of Belarus, Alexander Lukahenko, whose policies are threatening the democratic values of the Union. The powers of Europe will have to decide what measures should and can be taken against on of their own members. However, I think it sadly likely that the Euro crisis will blur matters of politics and morality into the background.

Happy New Year! 2011 in review

It’s been quite the year. Let me take you back in time and show you how the world changed – mostly for the better.

January and February saw most of Europe glued to its television screens as people in the Arab world joined together in open rebellion against the despots who have ruled the Magreb for decades. At the very beginning of the year we watched first Tunisians and then Egyptians throng the streets of their capitals in huge and unprecedented numbers. We watched in awe. By the 14th January, Tunisia’s President Ben Ali had resigned and he quickly fled to Saudi Arabia. The Arab spring had been born. Within a month Hosni Mubarak, Egypt’s long-serving strongman had suffered the same fate. Millions of people leaped up the ladder to democracy. What I think captivated the West so much was the sheer power of people. We hadn’t seen popular anger erupt like that since the end of the Soviet Union in 1989, long before I was born. We were fascinated by so much change.

As Winter turned to Spring, Japan was hit by an immense earthquake and tsunami – the strongest on record. Supply lines were destroyed and thousands of homes were destroyed when whole villages were washed away. As if that was not enough, it was not long before a new disaster unfolded. The tsunami had critically damaged the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear power plant, which soon began to leak radiation. Fears of meltdown and comparisons to Chernobyl resonated. Thousands more people were evacuated and, as other nuclear power-plants were shut-down due to public pressure, northern Japan started to suffer power cuts. Obviously, the disaster was awful for those whose lives were destroyed, but the real tragedy for the wider world might be the political shift away from nuclear power. This is sad, considering well-managed nuclear power production is one of the cleanest and greenest forms of energy. It’s bad name – which it had nearly lost – has now been reinforced by natural disaster and political failure.

In the same month, NATO launched its mission to protect civilians in Libya by creating a no-fly zone. Many warned that the problem was similar to that of Iraq in 2003 and that intervention would lead to the same disasterous consequences, which caused America to take a back-seat. Operations continued throughout the Summer, with NATO strikers disabling Colonel Gaddafi’s military capabilities in a bid to help the rebel fighters. Libya sunk into a deadly civil war.

April was gobbled up by the royal wedding – which rendered BBC News unbearable. Along side such important news the battles in Libya rumbled on. It seemed that the advantage switched sides almost daily – but the deathtoll mounted swiftly and steadily. As anger mounted against Gaddafi, Syria’s President Bashar Assad also saw increasing dissent on his streets. The military were sent in to cities, and have been engaged in running battles with peaceful protesters ever since.

May saw the Liberal Democrats destroyed by a referendum on the Alternative Vote, which also exposed the worst of British political campaigning. It also saw the arrest, after 15 years on the run, of Ratko Mladic – the Bosnian Serb general who was responsible for the Srebrenicia Massacre of 1990 in which 8,000 died. He went to trial in the Hague, raising the possibility of some justice finally being served. Then there was the big one – the death of Osama bin Laden, the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks of 2001. He was killed by US marines in a raid on his compound in a military town in Pakistan. The location of the West’s most wanted man raised some eyebrows and the once forced-cosiness of American-Pakistani relations has completely disappeared, with the US doubting the loyalty of its key ally in the so-called War on Terror. News of the death spread a somewhatd disturbing joy in America and scenes of people partying at Ground Zero raised fears of revenge attacks. Even if the press and politicians mismanaged the event, Osama bin Laden is unlikely to be missed.

The Summer was dominated by a few major stories. Fighting in Libya and Syria continued, as NATO dropped more bombs and Gaddafi looked weaker and weaker. The quick and relatively peaceful ends of Tunisia and Egypt’s regimes seemed from a different age. Closer to home, the phone hacking scandal put an end to Britain’s most-read rag, The News of the World, whose reporters had hacked the voicemail messages of – well – everyone, but things really came to a head when it emerged that they had access the messages of Milly Dowler, a murdered teenager. Public outrage gave the paper’s proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, no choice but to close the paper. It also lead to a review of the relationship between media moguls and politicians, the police’s relationship with journalists, and the standards of the press industry as a whole. The Leviston Inquiry into all this is ongoing. The media will never be the same again.

July and August were stressful months for Northern Europe, which was having a bad time of it anyway (see below). In July a far-right extremist, Anders Behring Brievik, set off a bomb in Oslo, the capital of Norway, before going on the rampage at a youth camp for young members of the Norwegian Labour Party. He killed 77 people. Amongst the horror, grief and anger, another emotion was present – surprise. The ‘War on Terror’ lead by America and Europe has concentrated so much on Islamic jihad that people could not believe that a European country had been attacked by a Christian native. It later emerged that Brievik had been protesting against the adoption of a multicultural society in Norway, and particularly the tolerance of Islam. This shocked the country, which prides itself on its acceptance and peacefulness. August saw violence erupt again, this time when several English cities witnessed mass riots and looting, reminding on lookers of the 1980s. The riots started as a protest in Tottenham, London against the police shooting of Mark Duggan in mysterious circumstances. Anger broke out into violence and the looting started. The police reacted poorly, and with a sense of hopelessness. It seems that people took this as an allowance to break the law, and over the next few days riots erupted all over London, as well as Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol and Birmingham. Although community leaders continued to blame the shooting, most of the rioters were just out to get free stuff and enjoy breaking the law. The Labour Party took the opportunity to do some cuts-bashing – blaming the lack of youth centres and job opportunities. The Tories responded by putting their tough-on-crime hats on, and got down to the business of putting people in prison. The political fall out was almost entertaining, but the violence was not. For four days the authorities had no control of the streets, and communities suffered arson and looting that destroyed homes and businesses. Whatever your political views, no one can disagree that these were sorry days for England.

Over the latter half of the year we were repeatedly shown the uselessness of the European Union as well as the incredible and unnerving power of the financial markets. European leaders repeatedly failed to reach an agreement to sort out the continent’s sovereign debt problems and save the Euro, but did manage to prevent complete collapse. Summit after summit ended in bitter political wrangling. Eventually the EU managed to force out the Greek Prime Minister, whose country’s debt was threatening to bring down the Euro. Many worried that the Union was showing too much control over the domestic politics of its member states, but the markets calmed. Not long after, the crisis claimed the premiership of Silvio Berlusconi, Italy’s maverick Prime Minister. The failings of the Euro had a silver lining after all. Both countries now have technocratic governments which are working to reduce their deficits. Although this state of affairs is democratically questionable, the markets seem a little happier. A deal to write-down some of Greece’s debt has also been reached, finally. However, the Euro is not safe. Talk of increasing fiscal unity and even a ‘two-speed’ Europe is both pleasing to the markets and terrifying to politicians. The Euro will (probably) survive 2012, but whether it is recognisable in a year’s time is anybody’s guess.

In Autumn the Arab spring was renewed. After the fall of Tripoli (Libya’s capital) into rebel control in August, the country was nearly free. However, Gadaffi loyalists continued to put up a bloody fight, especially from his stronghold of Bani Walid and his hometown of Sirte. It became clear that, to get anything resembling peace, Gadaffi had to be caught. Questions bounced around the streets of Benghazi and Tripoli: would he be found? would he be tried in Libya or at the Hague? was he even in the country. It was widely known that members of his family had fled into neighbouring Nigera, but no one knew if he had been among  them. However, in late October these questions proved futile. Sirte and Bani Walid fell, and Gadaffi was found by rebels hidng in a gutter in his hometown. He was killed in the chaos of his arrest (according to the rebels, although supporters say he was shot on purpose). The political arm of the rebel movement, the National Transitional Council (NTC) now had full control of the country. There is now a long road ahead – first to reconciliation and then to democracy. This may be harder for Libya than for other Arab countries, as it is deeply divided along tribal lines and because the civil war has brought a lot of guns onto the streets. However, the dictator is dead, and that is no bad thing. In Syria, on the other hand, things are still very grim. The army is still fighting with defiant protesters and the Assad regime is showing no intention of relaxing its grip. Thousands have been killed, with tens of thousands more arrested. As international sanctions begin to bite and the violence gets ever worse, it looks as if Syria is heading towards civil war. Because it is such a big regional power, such a conflict will have untold consequences. However, the Arab spring has also seen some successes recently. Tunisia held its first elections in four decades, which were said to be free and fair by international observers. The event passed without violence and all parties accepted the results. They will now begin to draft a constitution. The West will take heart that although an Islamic party secured the most votes, it is of a mild nature and did not win a majority. It has pledged to work with secular parties. Democracy in the Middle East does work.

2011 also saw the end of both American and Brittish military action in Iraq, nine years after the bombing of Baghdad and the end of the Saddam Hussein dictatorship. Since then, Iraq has been battered by sectarian violence, which the coalition troops have failed to stop. However, Iraq is now more stable than it has been since the invasion, so in some ways the mission has been a success. With the end of Labour governance in the UK, questions about the ethics of the Iraq war have become muted. One thing is clear, however, the Iraqis – for all the problems they face – are glad to see the end of foreign occupation. Politics in Iraq is still fractious. As the last US troops crossed the border into Kuwait, the main Shia faction pulled out of Parliament, leaving millions of Iraqis unrepresented and destabilising the government. A few days later, the Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki issued an arrest warrant on charges of terrorism for the Vice President, Tariq al-Hushemi, after he declared that bomb attacks on Baghdad were so organised that they must have been carried out by the government. Mr al-Maliki is a Shia, Mr Hushemi is a Sunni.

Many, many other events have shaped 2011 – from the start of the Republican nomination race in America, to the creation of South Sudan, to the threatening of Putin’s power in Russia, and finally the death of Kim Jong-il. These events will be changing the world for a long time – stay tuned for my predictions for 2012. Happy New Year.

When the spark fades

Nick Clegg and David Cameron have been remarkably chummy for more time than many of the media thought was possible. The coalition survived budget negotiations, the thrashing of the Lib Dems at local elections this year, even general clashes in ideology. However, Cameron’s appalling performance at the latest European summit (a whole other story of failing politicians) has finally exposed some rather deep cracks in the facade of political unanimity.

In my opinion, the fault lies squarely on Cameron’s too-well-fitted suit shoulders. The Euro has been lurching from crisis to crises without the European leaders deciding to carry out what was really needed, namely treaty change. This week, finally, it looked as if they might just attempt to rewrite the current Lisbon Treaty and secure the financial regulation that the markets are so desperate to see implemented. They may have saved the Euro by now, if Cameron had not been such a fool.

In recent years Cameron’s backbenchers have been getting more and more agitated about Europe (and, one could say, more and more delusional). They have no doubt been quietly waiting for a nice, juicy crisis to make themselves heard. This they did, when 81 of them defied a three-line whip and voted against Mr Cameron and in favour of an EU in-out referendum last month. Incidentally, this farcical idea did not, thank god, pass. However, Cameron found himself in the bizarre situation of not being able to negotiate at the summit, having pledged not to agree to anything before he even got there. At this point, I had my head in my hands, fully expecting him to leave the EU altogether and overturn the ECHR – you never know with these Tories. Ironically, Cameron himself is not that much of a Eurosceptic. What we have witnessed, then, is a party leader submitting to some old-fashioned, nagging and irresponsible men a few rows behind him.

Why does it matter, you may ask? Well, instead of a change to the Lisbon Treaty, about which Britain could have had a say, there will now be an ‘accord’. This will mean, possibly, that the 26 other EU countries will all come to an agreement by themselves while Britain is rightfully ignored. Oh, yes – well done Cameron! As a half-French, half-English girl I have one question – why do the Brits think that they are not really Europeans? I would advise a quick look at the map; we very clearly are in Europe. Accept it. Move on. Grow up.


No longer bons amis?
Having successfully enraged an entire continent (impressive really) Cameron probably returned to London for some light relief – and possibly to lap up some praise from the aforementioned old men. To start with, he seemed to be getting both, and happily played the darling of Little England. No one, apart from some pesky Labour supporters, made much of a fuss. Then, Nick Clegg himself broke coalition ranks. Not subtlely either – no, Clegg went on national television to express his disappointment in the summit’s conclusions.

Any politics student will tell you that this breaks the convention of collective responsibility. Any political analyst will tell you that the coalition looks rather shaky. Any Liberal Democrat will be at once elated and jibbering with fear (ponder that image, if you will). That is because Clegg has finally stood up to Cameron and defended Europe like a true Liberal. Here, surely, is reason to cheer. However, there is a flip-side. With the Lib Dems currently polling at a lowly 10%, should the coalition break up and an election be called, they would win nothing like the power they have now.

Luckily for them, the coalition may manage to squeeze some polyfilla into those cracks. Nick Clegg, having landed an important punch, will probably decide he has done enough for now and start mending fences. And even the Tories know that a general election now would freak out the very markets they are supposedly protecting from Europe. So, for now, the coalition will grit its teeth and carry on – maybe lacking the fake smiles and hearty back-slapping. We’ll miss it.

Arrivederci Berlusconi!

The old elite of European politics continues to self-implode (which may be no bad thing), as the Euro-crises blunders its way into November. I have not written about any of this before because, quite honestly, it’s boring and I don’t really understand it anyway. But when pressure from the EU fells two national leaders in a week, I have to say something, don’t I?

Let’s deal with Greece quickly – everyone knows the deal here; we’ve been hearing about it for months. But in case you’ve just returned from the Amazon rain forest: Greece has run out of money with which to pay its vast debts because the tax system is appalling and interest rates are sky high. Therefore, to prevent a nasty default that could bring down the Euro (maybe), the Euro-zone has been bailing the country out with sums of money that neither they nor we understand. Simple? No, the Euro-zone has taken this opportunity to force Greece to reform fiscally. The problem is that the Greeks don’t want to reform in the ways that they are being told to, so every loan deal takes an age to agree and then does not work. Great. By mid-October, however, we thought we’d had a breakthrough. A package of measures was agreed at the Euro-zone summit in Cannes that looked like it could finally save Greece and protect the Euro. Phew – even the markets (whoever they are, no one really knows) relaxed. And then, all hell broke loose. The then-Prime Minister of Greece, George Papandreou, called a referendum on whether or not to adopt the measures. Stunned silence resonated.
This little surprise may not have been as crazy as it appeared. The Greek people had been protesting all summer about EU-enforced austerity measures and Mr Papandreou must have known that harsher ones were not going to go down well. By asking the people to go to the polls, he was also making them accept what had to be done. This would have made the implementation of the measures much easier. But the Euro-zone and the markets did not see it that way. Panic resumed and reached such a pitch that Mr Papandreou had to cancel his referendum and not long after, having lost all credibility, resign his post. Over this weekend, the Greeks have been working to form a coalition government to help stabilise the country. During this palaver, the Euro-zone finally realised that a default, although by no means favourable, would not constitute Armageddon. Maybe this political mess had a silver lining after all?

When it began to be clear that Mr Papandreou would go and the austerity measures passed, the attention of the elusive market turned to Italy. Italy is bigger, more important to the Euro and more politically central to the EU than Greece – and therefore matters more. Italy could not default without bringing down the entire Euro (Angela Merkel also helpfully announced that a collapse of the single currency would soon lead to a European war, which was not really a necessary – or true – statement if you ask me). As panic spread across the Adriatic, Italy’s bond yields crossed the 7% threshold that had marked the beginning of bailouts for Ireland, Portugal and Greece. The problem, however, is that Italy is too big to be bailed out. There is not enough money. Full stop. And therefore Italy’s only option is to shrink its debts, or at least bring down its interest payments.
That is what Silvio Berlusconi, the Italian Prime Minister, tried to do. He tried again to get his Parliament to pass austerity measures, obviously smelling his own blood. When rumours circulated  that he was going to resign, the yeilds on Italien bonds fell, such was the global view of Mr Berlusconi’s leadership abilities. He clung on for a while until Thursday, when he tendered his conditional resignation to the President Giorgio Napolitano. This may, in fact, have been the best thing he ever did; Parliament was so desperate to get rid of him that they complied with his conditions and passed the austerity measures in record time. What a relief. Only now, there was some uncertainty over whether Berlusconi would actually go.
But go he did. Last night he headed to the Presidential Palace in Rome and formally resigned. The Berlusconi era, so often characterised by sex and sleaze, is over. Italians will be partying tonight.