Monthly Archives: April 2010

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

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. Read more

Was this the night when the Conservative Party saw the chance of an overall majority slip away, ensuring that Britain is heading for a hung parliament? My impressions of the first ever leaders’ debate seems to be the same as that of the great British public. Nick Clegg won.

Snap polls after the debate showed the Lib Dem leader as the clear victor. More significantly, the first poll of post-debate voting intentions that I’ve seen – just broadcast on Sky News – showed a big jump in those saying that they intend to vote for the Lib Dems. They went up from 19% in the polls to 26%, just behind Labour. Of course, there are still three weeks and two debates to go. But, if that trend holds, we’re definitely going to end up with a hung parliament – with the Lib Dems holding the balance of power. Read more

Until today, I was feeling pretty sympathetic towards plucky little Iceland, with its brave fight against the ruinous claims made against the country by the British and Dutch treasuries. But now it seems Iceland is having its revenge – and I have fallen victim to the cloud of volcanic dust emanating from the country. 

My flight back to London this morning was half-way home – just over Bulgaria – when the pilot announced that we were having to return to Israel because Heathrow is closed. Now I am cooling my heels in a hotel in Tel Aviv. My mood has not been improved by the news that flights to Britain look like they will be grounded for all of Friday, as well.

I cannot repress the dark suspicion that the Icelanders have planned this. Their own airport is apparently unaffected. But all air traffic over Britain and the Netherlands is suspended until further notice. Fiendish.  Read more

Talking to Nasser Kidweh in Ramallah yesterday was like chatting to somebody who had been asked to act out the phrase “world-weary” in a game of charades: lots of long pauses, shrugs and despairing laughter, from beneath hooded eyelids. Kidweh is Palestinian aristocracy – a former ambassador to the UN, a member of the Fathah central committee who is tipped as a possible future president, partly because he is also a nephew of Yasser Arafat.

I think anybody who has lived through more than 20 years of “peace talks” and observes the steady progress of Israeli settlements on the West Bank – and Hamas’s grip on Gaza – has some reason to be a little world weary. But, actually, beneath the gloomy manner, some of what Kidweh had to say was surprisingly cheery. He was surprisingly open in his enthusiasm for the Obama administration and is delighted by the idea that the US may soon present its own peace plan. (The Israelis hate this idea.) He thinks that the US has finally understood that settlements are the main block to a peace deal. Read more

An impressive array of world leaders has assembled in the US to discuss nuclear security and the threat of nuclear terrorism – but Bibi Netanyahu is not among them. In some ways this is odd, since the Israeli prime minister has made the threat of an Iranian bomb his signature tune for years. Surely, he would have relished the chance to use the Washington summit to make a high-profile speech. Instead, Bibi is cowering here in Jerusalem, apparently for fear that Israel might have been put on the spot about its own nuclear weapons.

Many of the Israelis I have spoken to regard this as further evidence of Netanyahu’s diplomatic ineptitude – following his high-profile rows with the Obama administration. More broadly, there is an uneasy feeling here that Israel is losing control of events in the never-ending “peace process”. Specifically, there is a fear that the US may soon present its own peace plan. Or that next year, the Palestinian Authority will make a unilateral declaration of an independent Palestinian state. Read more

I was kicking myself earlier today about the fact that I will be abroad for much of the British general election. Later this afternoon, I’m off to the Middle East for a few days; and then I’m away again for the last week of April. British election campaigns don’t happen that often, and they only last a few weeks, so it seems a shame to miss so much of it.

Then again, the campaign so far seems quite exceptionally dull. The economy is in deep doo-doo and we will probably get a change of governing party for the first time since 1997, so it should be exciting – but I can barely stay awake through the evening news. I thought it was just me being jaded, but I was interested to hear Anthony Howard, the veteran political commentator, say on the radio this morning that so far this was the most boring election campaign he can remember of the seventeen that he has covered as a journalist. Read more

The radio headline this morning that the president of Poland had been killed in a plane crash was shocking enough. It was doubly chilling to hear that it had happened over Russia. But almost nobody is suggesting foul play. It simply seems that the pilot of President Kaczynski’s plance tried to land (several times) in desperately dangerous circumstances, with tragic results.

Still, there is a horrible irony in the fact that so many members of the Polish governing elite, in particular, the armed forces, were killed en route to a commemoration service for the Katyn massacre of 1940, in which over 20,000 members of the Polish armed forces, as well as leading intellectuals and civil servants, were killed – probably on the direct orders of Stalin. Read more

As one South African bogeyman is buried, another is born. The funeral of Eugene Terre’Blanche, the white supremacist, took place yesterday against the background of growing controversy about the views and future role of Julius Malema, the leader of the ruling ANC’s Youth Wing.

In some people’s minds, there is a direct connection between the two events, since the rather unyouthful looking Malema has become a rabble-rouser, indulging in open race-baiting of the sort that the ANC leaders have scrupulously avoided since the end of apartheid. Malema has even been indirectly blamed for Terre’Blanche’s death, since he has taken to singing the revolutionary ditty – “Kill the Boer” in public. This has been denounced as grossly irresponsible – although, on the face of it, is not obviously worse than President Jacob Zuma’s fondness for the song, “Bring me my machine gun.”

Terre’Blanche was an appalling man – part buffoon, part racist thug. But his death has crystallised the fears of rural Afrikaners, and focussed attention on the fact that 3,000 white farmers have been killed in a rural crime wave. Read more

If David Cameron is elected prime minister of Britain next month he will be, in some ways, a very familiar sort of Conservative prime minister: sensible, pragmatic, intelligent in an un-flashy sort of way. But the Tory party that he leads will find itself oddly isolated from mainstream conservatism in both the US and Europe.

Continue reading “Cameron’s Tories point to isolation”

I am heading for the frozen north for a week’s holiday – and will probably not blog over the next week. No promises, obviously.

The news that the Chinese may be coming on board for a new package of sanctions on Iran has been greeted as evidence of a thaw in US-Chinese relations. There is an interesting piece to this effect in today’s Guardian – although the article itself is actually rather more cautious than the headline.

I am not at all surprised that the Chinese are making some conciliatory gestures to the US, ahead of the crucial American decision about whether to designate China as a “currency manipulator” on April 15th. Stopping the US from taking that path – which could lead to trade sanctions – is now the major goal of Chinese policy to America.

So, expect plenty of warm words and conciliatory gestures from Beijing in the next couple of weeks. But, beneath the surface, I think there still are structural forces pushing the two nations towards a much more adverserial relationship. Read more