The Vatican, and the rest of Italy, are recruiting new CEOs

This month’s news has been distinctly foggy – everything has been caught up in the horse meat ‘scandal’ which isn’t a scandal at all and the mind-boggling fall of an idol, Oscar Pistorius. Although I have much to say on the latter subject, I can’t seem, try as I might, to put my conflicting thoughts into decent prose. So, instead, I’ll summarise my feelings with the question I keep asking myself: was the man who sprinted past the disability divide a violent, angry individual who hid behind his story? Please, for the sake of the little boys and girls for whom he has epitomised hope, no. It would just be too sad.

Other, normally headline-grabbing, events have been relegated to the fourth and fifth pages of the nation’s collective mental newspaper. For crying out loud, the Pope resigned and we barely batted and eyelid. The last time this happened was 1415 – this is a pretty rare event. And it does have major ramifications. Benedict XI has been caught up in two separate scandals during his time as Pontiff – one surrounding his apparent willingness to ignore clerical abuse of boys when he was a senior cardinal, and a supposed Dan Brown-esque conspiracy involving allegations of fraud issued by his own butler. Both these stories have left unanswered questions. The conclave electing the next Pope may want to consider the histories of the candidates. There is also a feeling that the papacy needs a younger, non-European face. I would agree, but offer a word of caution. Europe is still the spiritual heartland of Catholicism, and among Europeans there seems to be consensus that the Church needs to modernise. On other continents, traditionalists are stronger. A balance must be met, but the Church can’t afford the public relations catastrophe of a Pope spouting views many would regard as bigoted.

Outside the lofty world of the Vatican, Italy is voting today in a general election that will decide the Euro’s fate just as much as the country’s. The markets and Angela Merkel are hoping for a split vote which will allow the outgoing technocratic Prime Minister, Mario Monti, to resume his post at the head of a new coalition and keep Italy’s debt reduction plan on track. But this is far from guaranteed. The left, led by the ex-communist Pier Luigi Bersani, has soared in popularity as the spending cuts they oppose have begun to take a toll. If Bersani wins, expect another Euro crisis.

Then, of course, there is Silvio Berlusconi – what would Italy be without him? Although it is now highly unlikely that he will come close to winning (after a breif scare where it looked like he actually might), he will probably have a stake in whatever coalition is formed. So, once again, the man who caused the problem in the first place will be partly responsible for fixing it. One can only hope that the Italian’s will today vote to end their love affair with maverick politicians.

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.

The Euro, Hollande and a strange British fixation

The euro has been in turmoil, on and off, for two years. We have become accustomed to doom-saying headlines, citing bond yields and sovereign debt, interest rates and double-dip recessions. At the beginning of these multiple crises, Europe was united. ‘Merkozy’ – the unfortunate Merkel-Sarkozy duo – expressed oodles of solidarity. Austerity was imposed – the banks took no notice.
The situation yo-yoed for some time. There were bail-outs in Ireland and Portugal – and multiple ones for Greece. We saw Italy loose it’s elected (if sleazy) government, which – along with Greece’s – was replaced with technocrats. In Spain a right-wing government came to power. Cuts in public spending became the order of the day.

But then things began to change. In Greece and Spain, people began to protest against the austerity programs enforced by Germany in return for cheap money. Anti-Europe sentiment has risen, as the solution has become more and more about integration. In Greece’s recent elections, no party won enough seats to form a government – but those who did well were those who pledged to renegotiate the terms of the bail-out agreement, and a neo-Nazi party did scarily well. A new election is now scheduled for mid-June, and the markets remain jumpy. Many hope that Greeks have now expressed their anger and will vote for pro-bail-out parties, but this is not guaranteed.

Meanwhile, in France Mr Sarkozy lost power to Francois Hollande – a Socialist. He was inaugurated with a promise for growth. He intends to achieve this by instigating a ‘growth pact’ to run alongside the euro-zone’s fiscal compact, comprising of measures to boost output and create jobs. The two agreements, on the face of it, will have to contradict each other. I feel inclined to explain the concept of aggregate demand here, but I’d be terrible at doing so and it would be very dull. Suffice to say, boosting output while keeping one’s fiscal situation on the right path is a tough call. Growth is needed to rectify the deficit, but more spending is needed if we are to grow. I can only wish Mr Hollande luck, especially as Mrs Merkel remains stone-faced and intransigent. With the Merkozy partnership gone, it will indeed be interesting to see what happens. A disagreement between Germany and France, who have so far acted together as Europe’s bank, could be what really ends the era of the single currency.

Along with all the hoo-haing in Europe, we in the UK have been subjected to David Cameron. Let’s ignore the shenanigans about the Levison Enquiry (it really is about time that ended) and the pasty tax. What has really got up my nose recently is the PM’s insistence that the UK is somehow not in Europe. And as ridiculous as that is, it is only symptomatic of a wider feeling prevalent in a majority of the public that ‘we’ do not belong to the Continent. I mean, come on – if we are not European, what in God’s name are we? It is about time that the British accepted that we are not important enough anymore to do without belonging somewhere. The Channel is a paltry fifty-odd miles wide – it hardly constitutes an ocean.

Now I’ve expressed my Europhillic views, I’ll sign off to go and check the euro is still in one piece. I have a feeling that its days are numbered and its impossible to tell if the final moments are indeed upon us or if the politicians have put off the day of reckoning a bit longer.

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.

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.

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.

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.