I am grateful to Alan Beattie for drawing my attention to this fantastic exchange a few weeks ago in the House of Lords on pest control. It quite restores my faith in Parliament. The debate about the best way of dealing with mice in the Palace of Westminster is so beautifully droll that it is hard to believe that it was not scripted. It is certainly England at its finest, combining elements of Pinter and Monty Python.
I particularly like the discussion of the utility and indeed existence of “hypoallergenic cats”. I am pretty sure that they do exist. But I would warn their noble lords that cats that do not provoke allergies tend to be almost hairless, and therefore not very easy on the eye. I was also struck by the incredible claims made for the hit-rate of the last House of Lords cat. Baroness Finlay of Llandaff says – “Miss Wilson, when she was a resident superintendent in this Palace, had a cat that apparently caught up to 60 mice a night. The corpses were then swept up in the morning.” Personally, I find this hard to believe. Sixty a night? Talk about no rest for the wicked.
Somewhere in the attic I have a home-made poster of 12 old European currencies that I assembled, in a fit of nostalgia, just before they were all made obsolete by the appearance of the euro at the stroke of midnight on December 31 2001.
Continue reading “The euro’s big fat failed wedding”
I saw Cathy Ashton perform live for the first time over the weekend. And I must say I was pleasantly surprised. Partly, this was because my expectations were so low. Ever since she was appointed as the new EU foreign-policy supremo, back in November, Ashton’s publicity has been relentlessly negative. Commentators (including me, I must admit) dismissed her as hopelessly unqualified for the job. Friends of mine in Brussels had told me that her performances in private sessions were hesitant and unimpressive.
So I was eagerly expecting a bit of a train-wreck when Ashton took to the stage for a public discussion of Transatlantic Relations at the German Marshall Fund’s annual Brussels forum. But, in fact, Ashton did fine. She was fluent, articulate, poised. She had to talk about a range of issues from arms control to Georgia to missile defence, and there was no moment where I thought – “Oh my God, she’s out of her depth. ” True, she said nothing that was interesting or memorable. But, I’m afraid, that just shows she is doing her job well.
At European summits, it is easy to get the mistaken impression that the arguments are all about finding the correct policies or defending national interests. I suppose, sometimes, that is the case. But more often that not, it seems to come down to personality politics. I was struggling earlier today to understand why the French had been so reluctant to involve the IMF in the putative rescue of Greece. In my innocence, I thought it might have something to do with a French preference for a “European solution”. But then a French colleague explained to me. It’s simply that Nicolas Sarkozy sees Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the head of the IMF, as a potential rival in the next French presidential election. So he doesn’t want to agree to anything that might make Strauss-Kahn look good.
This poll would be frightening, if it wasn’t so funny. Or possibly funny, if it wasn’t so frightening.
A Harris poll of 2,320 American adults finds that 14% of Americans believe that Obama “may be the Anti-Christ”. Among Republicans, this figure rises to 24%. Some 32% think he is a Muslim – and 57% of Republicans think this. One in four Americans (25%) think that Obama was not born in America and is therefore ineligible to be president (45% for Republicans.) And 20% of Americans think their president is “doing many of the things that Hitler did” – 38% of Republicans think this. (Technically true, I suppose, Hitler ate, slept and went to the loo; and so does Obama.)
When the euro was launched in 1999, the British were constantly being warned that if they refused to join the European single currency, they would eventually find themselves marginalised within the European Union. The Brits scoffed at this notion. But it seems to be true. A desperate deal to extricate the euro-zone from the Greek crisis is currently being hammered out, a few floors above where I’m sitting, here in the gloomy Justus Lipsius building in Brussels. But the British are essentially irrelevant to the negotiations. And happy to be.
Gordon Brown, still our prime minister, was on my train to Brussels this afternoon. (He was sitting in the next door carriage, guarded by some burly looking security men.) The train only got in a little after 4pm, by which time the French and German leaders had already hammered out the basics of the deal in Brussels. The agreement looks like a classic bit of euro-fudge – there might be loans to Greece, with Europe taking the lead and the IMF serving as back-up. Or possibly, the other way around. The text will be revised further this evening at a special meeting just for the 16 countries that are members of the euro-zone. By this time the other eleven EU countries – including the British – will have been ushered out of the room.
An interesting story in today’s FT on the Turkish reaction to the congressional decision to label the Ottoman-era killing of the Turks as “genocide”. Professional diplomats in the US have been quietly opposed to the genocide resolution for years, since they knew how furiously the Turks would react. Phillip Gordon, who is Obama’s Assistant Secretary of State for Europe, had his confirmation held up for months in Congress because the Armenian lobby deemed him to be unsound on the genocide issue. The Obama administration has, in fact, worked very hard on promoting Turkish-Armenian reconciliation and made some headway. The hope was that this would be enough to cool Congress down. But it didn’t work. The Congressional vote has put Turkish-US relations into the deep freeze – which will make it much harder for America to enlist Turkish support on top American priorities, in particular Iran. (Turkey currently has a seat on the UN Security Council).
President Barack Obama has leapt out of his political sick-bed, ripped out his feeding tubes and is ready to dance a jig around the Oval office. The Congressional approval of healthcare reform has reinvigorated the Obama presidency in a way that has implications not just for Americans, but for the world.
Continue reading “Obama’s bounce changes the world”
Hillary Clinton’s speech to Aipac (the American Israel lobby, essentially) went as well as can be expected – better, probably. There were some people who were worried that she might actually be booed or heckled, after the harsh things that Obama administration officials had to say about plans to build further Israeli housing in East Jerusalem (an insult, etc). In fact, Hillary got several standing ovations. And this was not at the price of watering down her message. Although she made several reassuring statements about the enduring nature of America’s committment to Israeli security, the secretary of state also reiterated American opposition to further settlements and said that America would push back “unequivocally” when it disagreed with Israeli policy.
I met Anwar Ibrahim, the leader of the Malaysian opposition, in the ornate surroundings of the Landmark Hotel in London this morning. He was remarkably relaxed for a man who is due to be put on trial, on charges of sodomy next week – which is a crime in Malaysia punishable with a long jail term. If convicted, this would be a return to a prison cell for Anwar. He was arrested in the late 1990s and served six years in solitary confinement on previous charges of sodomy (later over-turned) and corruption.
Yet for a man who is about to undergo a humiliating and dangerous ordeal, Anwar seemed in remarkably good form - relaxed, cracking jokes and outwardly convinced that he will beat the rap. I asked him how he could be so laid-back, given the trial that he is about to undergo. He replied cooly – “It’s not that I’m oblivious to it, or unaffected by it, but you have to just get on with life.” He knows that he can survive prison and he has the support of a staunch and politically-engaged wife and six daughters.