I have just watched the last leaders’ debate, over a wobbly internet connection, in the FT’s Washington office. I think the consensus of the great minds assembled here was that this was easily Cameron’s strongest performance of the three; that Clegg was less effective than before and succumbed to ill-advised tetchiness; and that it is always a terrible mistake for Gordon Brown to smile.
Poor Brown has had an awful couple of days. I was over at the State Department this morning – and it seems that Brown’s hideously embarrassing clash with the “bigoted” voter is already the stuff of legends. Several officials had watched it over the internet, with a certain grim amusement. The snap polls after tonight’s debate have him losing again.
As the country that supplied the P in the acronym PIGS, Portugal has long had reason to be worried about investor sentiment. Now with the Greek crisis taking a new and unpleasant turn, there is an obvious danger that speculation about whether Portugal will be next risks becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.
The Portuguese have some solid points to make about why their problems are less severe than those of Greece. Their budget deficit is smaller as a percentage of GDP – its just under 10% in Portugal, whereas the Greek deficit is 12.7%. Portugal’s overall debt burden is well below 100% of GDP; Greece broke that particular milestone long ago. The Portuguese have been making good faith efforts to cut public spending for at least five years.
All true. But if market sentiment turns, it could also all be irrelevant. The current mood in Europe reminds me of the ERM crisis of 1992, when contagion spread from one country to another.
Israel’s alarm at the deterioration in its relations with the US is palpable. In Jerusalem recently, even a liberal commentator told me: “Barack Obama is a disaster for Israel. I don’t think the general public realise just how much of a disaster he is.” Government officials are more careful – but only a bit. Danny Ayalon, the deputy Israeli foreign minister, says that it would be a “grave mistake” for America to present its own Middle East peace plan, an idea that the US president’s people are known to be considering.
Continue reading “Israel’s fear and loathing of Obama”
Combining two fashionable themes of the moment – the rise of Nick Clegg and the travails of the euro – here is a link to a debate I did with Clegg for Prospect magazine, back in 2002, on whether Britain should join the euro. I was against, he was in favour.
Reading back over the copy, it seems to me that neither of us really anticipated the future course of events. Still, given the Greek imbroglio, I think I was closer to right than he was.
I thought George Papandreou’s statement conceding defeat and accepting an IMF programme for Greece was elegant and dignified. “We are on a difficult course, a new odyssey . . . but we have charted the waters and we will reach our destination safely,” said the Greek PM.
But I do wonder whether Greece is, in fact, pretty soon going to hit choppy water and rocks. I was in Latvia last summer – a country that had already had to submit to an IMF-EU programme, in return for emergency funding. The consequences are extremely severe. It’s like watching a whole country go through the economic equivalent of chemotherapy.
The Latvians had to put up with double-digit cuts in wages and pensions, all of which deepened an already bad recession. I was surprised and impressed by the stoicism with which the Latvians took their harsh medicine. But I fear that the Greeks will not be so accepting – and there could soon be trouble on the streets. Papandreou has already warned those who might want to drive the IMF out under a hail of bricks.
In the American presidential election, it is traditional to have one televised debate on domestic affairs and one on foreign affairs. The Brits like to think of themselves as more outward-looking than the Americans, but in this UK election there are going to be three televised debates and just half of one will be devoted to the rest of the world. That half took place tonight.
There were no particularly startling announcements or arguments, but I thought the debate did give an interesting snap-shot of what global issues matter in the British debate. There were five big questions raised: the European Union, Afghanistan, the war on terror, nuclear deterrence and climate change. Russia, China and India were barely mentioned – even though Britain has had a terrible relationship with Russia in recent years and the rise of China and India is the most important long-term global development. If this debate had taken place in the Bush years, you might have expected an agonised debate about Britain’s relationship with America. As it was, Gordon Brown made a half-hearted attempt to lable Nick Clegg, anti-American. And Clegg responded with a sprited defence of a more independent attitude to the US. But the argument over America never really caught fire.
I have returned to Britain to find the place in the grip of Clegg-mania. In some polls, the Lib Dems are now actually ahead. The Sunday Times has claimed that Clegg is now more popular than Churchill. Today’s Guardian compared him to Barack Obama. Now I know Nick Clegg, Nick Clegg is a friend of mine – and Nick Clegg is no Barack Obama. (That is a subtle reference to the Lloyd Bentsen-Dan Quayle debate, not an outrageous name-drop.) Mind you, I think even Barack Obama isn’t Barack Obama, if you know what I mean.
How to account for Clegg-mania? Well, the Brits have a stolid reputation. But actually the population is prone to bouts of contagious hysteria. Remember Diana mania? Clegg may be the beneficiary of a similar fickle, but powerful, public shift. He just has to hope that it lasts until the election.
Well, I finally made it home this morning – five days after my first attempt to leave Tel Aviv, last Thursday. I finally got out of Israel on Sunday morning, I think, so it’s taken roughly 48 hours to get back, via plane, mini-bus and train – with overnight stops in Genoa and Paris, and lunch in Geneva yesterday. The trip has had its moments. I’ve never driven through the Alps from the Italian side, and the scenery is astonishing.
I think my last update was posted from Geneva railway station, about this time yesterday. The rest of the journey was relatively straightforward. We got into Paris around nine at night. Found a pleasant little flop house near the Gare du Nord, had dinner (confit de canard, always a good stand-by, since it comes out of a tin) – then got up at 6am to check the Eurostar situation. It is always worth going in person, Although the electronic boards claimed that there were no places on trains available until next Saturday, it was easy enough to secure seats on stand-by. Lots of people have made reservations – and are not turning up, either because they have found some other way to get home, or because they haven’t yet made it to Paris.
There are loads of us all over the world. Volcano exiles. As I sat around in Tel Aviv over the weekend – gloomily surveying the dwindling options for getting back to Britain – I took a twisted sort of comfort from the stories of friends in similar or worse predicaments. My colleague Tim Harford sent a message from Helsinki. Other than waiting the ash-cloud out, his best option was “27-hour ferry to near Hamburg, standing-room only to Brussels, swim across the channel”. As Tim’s message arrived, I was checking out the rumour of a ferry from Haifa to Brindisi in Italy. It only takes three days.
Continue reading “Anger erupts for a volcanic exile”
An update on my journey back to the UK: Yesterday I managed to get a flight to Rome, so I finally got out of Israel. Anything in mainland Europe sounded good. My calculation was that there are two seas between Israel and Britain, and I would have crossed one of them.
The next part of the plan was to take a train to France from Rome. But at the airport they told us all international trains were booked until Wednesday – or possibly Friday. Oh, and there was a rail strike in southern France.