Monthly Archives: July 2011

This video posted from a Fukushima town-hall meeting on YouTube was brought to my attention by a colleague. It is remarkable on many levels. It shows a group of citizens listening to bureaucrats from Tokyo with less than the usual deference shown to the mandarins who have run Japan since the war.

The audience is made up of citizens who live far enough from the crippled Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant not to have been evacuated by the government, but close enough to have genuine concerns about elevated levels of radiation. Read more

Normally, if I write something critical about a country, I brace myself for a flood of cross e-mails. I was certainly expecting something of the sort when I wrote a column on Greece last Tuesday, suggesting that the country suffers from a culture of corruption. In fact, one of my most cherished abusive e-mails came from Greece many years ago, when had I written something about Cyprus that had displeased a reader. It was addressed to “you British snake”. Read more

Norway, Gaddafi, and high speed trains in China

In this week’s podcast: Terror in Norway: a lone attack or a signal that the far right is rising? Libya – what next for Gaddafi? And, China’s ambitions for high speed rail are dealt a blow. Read more

George Osborne

George Osborne. Image by PA.

George Osborne has a history degree, so perhaps the UK chancellor felt the hand of history on his shoulder, when he made an apparently casual remark to the FT in an interview last week. What Osborne said was:


I think we have to accept that greater eurozone integration is necessary to make the single currency work and that is very much in our national interest. We should be prepared to let that happen.”

On one level, this is no more than common-sense. But it is also a reversal of centuries of British policy, which has always opposed the idea of a single, unified power arising on the other side of the Channel. A classic statement of this doctrine was made by Sir Edward Grey, the foreign secretary in 1914, when he explained to the House of Commons why Britain was entering the first world war. The goal, he said was “to prevent the whole of the west of Europe opposite from us falling under the domination of a single power.” Read more

There are not many luxury hotels that allow stray dogs to lie sprawled across their entrance. So I was charmed last week to come across the “Greek riot dog”, sheltering from the summer heat, on the steps of the Grande Bretagne, the smartest hotel in Athens. The yellow pooch has become famous on YouTube because of the enthusiasm with which he participates in anti-government demonstrations. He may soon be back in action.

Saturday’s high-speed train accident in China is above all a tragedy. At least 35 people have died and more than 200 people have been injured.

The number of casualties may yet rise. But the accident also has a broader meaning. It will strengthen the case of those who have accused Chinese authorities of building a high-speed network too quickly and of cutting corners in the interests of leapfrogging other nations and, possibly, generating kickbacks for corrupt officialsRead more

Greece bailout, Cameron, US/China relations

In this week’s podcast: Have European leaders done enough to save Greece and the eurozone? UK prime minister David Cameron struggles to keep a lid on the News of the World phone hacking scandal; And, has Obama’s meeting with the Dali Lama endangered US/China relations? Read more

There must be enormous relief in Athens right now. The anxiety and tension amongst bankers and senior politicians, in the early part of the week, was palpable. Many feared that if the euro-summit went badly on Thursday, you could have a bank-run in Greece by the end of the week. “Friday could be a very difficult day”, said one Greek financier to me, sighing deeply. Well, Friday has come and everybody is still standing – for now. Read more


Josef Ackermann, CEO of Deutsche Bank

European leaders have begun gathering in Brussels for their emergency summit to solve the Greek debt crisis, and though the formal session does not begin until after noon local time, several meetings-before-the-meeting are already underway.

One of the most closely watched is a session between European negotiators and the International Institute of Finance, the consortium that represents the eurozone’s major banks. According to a senior European official, German and French government negotiators are meeting with IIF officials, including Josef Ackermann, the chief executive of Deutsche Bank who also serves as IIF chairman.

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Herewith an amateur sociological-political-cultural explanation for the eurozone policy shambles.

First, a new expression with which to impress your friends, the “polder model” of politics: a Dutch term for an iterative process where everyone gets their say and a consensus solution is worked out gradually. My intensive researches (Wikipedia) tell me it derives from the fact that villages in the “polder” tracts of land, below sea level but enclosed by dikes, were forced to cooperate over time if they weren’t all to drown. Read more

Where lies the world’s biggest source of instability? For many, it is the “clash of civilizations”, an idea popularised by Samuel Huntington, whereby people’s cultural and religious identities will remain the main source of conflict in the post-Cold War World. “The clash of civilizations will dominate global politics. The fault lines between civilizations will be the battle lines of the future,” the political scientist wrote in 1993.

Certainly, Al-Qaeda’s terrorist attacks, the rise of China and wars in Afghanistan and Iraq seem to confirm this notion. Yet, as Moises Naim, the former editor of Foreign Policy Magazine points out in a recent article , most conflicts have lately been within civilizations than between them. Islamic terrorists have killed more innocent Moslems than anybody else. Ditto the fight between Shiites and Sunnis. And the source of the “Arab Spring” is homegrown. Indeed, the main source of global conflict, Mr Naim suggests, stems not from a clash between civilisations but  rather the changing fortunes of the world’s middle classes inside them. Read more

Beware anybody who believes that the answers to the problems of the world can be found in a single book. Marxists poring over Das Kapital, Maoists waving the Little Red Book, mullahs demanding fidelity to the Koran – it is never good news.

The idea that Colonel Gaddafi might go into “internal exile” in Libya sounds bizarre and unworkable. But I’m afraid it really is doing the rounds. And I gather it has actually been offered to Gaddafi as an option, by intermediaries, although so far he shows little sign of biting. Read more

Normally, it is the height of laziness for journalists to start quoting taxi-drivers. But I feel it is excusable, here in Athens. The latest manifestation of the Greek economic and social crisis is the taxi-drivers strike that has taken place here today – and which has ensured that I have had to acquaint myself with the excellent, EU-funded, Athens metro system. Read more

Gideon sent this picture from Athens, where there is a taxi strike and the city centre is blocked off.  Read more

Murdoch, Italy, India

In this week’s podcast: The Murdoch scandal goes international; the euro debt crisis reaches Italy; and, bombings in Mumbai – is the stage set for Rahul Gandhi to step up as prime minister? Read more

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. I have no idea whether Giulio Tremonti, the Italian finance minister, will be able to save his country or the eurozone from a truly dreadful fate. But I am nominating him for a prize for communication and services to journalism. Hitherto, this most dramatic of stories has generally been talked about in the deadest of language. It either gets wrapped up in finance-prattle (CDOs, debt-to-GDP ratios, sovereign risk etc); or smothered in the suffocating nonsense that fills up European Union communiques (“With this decisive step …” etc etc)

Now, at last, we have somebody with a gift for language. Over the past week, Tremonti has given the world three splendid soundbites. Read more

Earlier today European leaders renewed their calls for a new debt-rating agency, to challenge the current triumvarate of Moody’s, Standard & Poor’s and Fitch. The Polish government, which has just taken over the presidency of the EU, has taken up the cudgels. Anger with the agencies mounted, after Moody’s downgraded Irish debt to junk status earlier this week.

But surely one should expect capricious and ill-tempered decisions from an organisation that actually calls itself Moody? As for the other two, they might as well be called Sulky and Snitch. Read more

For a detailed account of how Syria’s uprising evolved, take a look at the twin reports of the International Crisis Group, the think-tank which has an analyst based in Damascus. The reports provide valuable insight into how the protest movement developed, with challenges to the regime starting even before the outbreak of demonstrations in the southern city of Deraa, which is usually considered the starting point of the uprising.

ICG’s analyst has been able to closely follow the conflict (most foreign journalists have been banned in Syria) and conduct wide-ranging interviews with opposition activists as well as government officials. Read more

Facundo Cabral

Image by AP

More tragic news from the frontline of Latin America’s “drugs war”: the murder of Argentine singer Facundo Cabral last weekend, at the hand of drugs gangs in Guatemala.

The death of the balladeer has not created much of a stir in the Anglo-Saxon world. In Latin America, however, it remains front page news. The closest equivalent is perhaps John Lennon’s murder in 1980: a man, with malice in his heart, shoots a singer known for advocating peace. Read more