GCHQ suffers from a shortage of Arabic, Mandarin and Russian speakers
The decline in knowledge of foreign languages in Britain is a familiar tale, but an extremely important one nonetheless. I want to draw the attention of readers to a Cambridge university report, “The Value of Languages”. It is the most concise, up-to- date survey of the problem that I have come across.
All too often the status of English as the world’s lingua franca leads people in Britain to the complacent conclusion that there is no need to bother with foreign languages. As the Cambridge report observes, however, a shortage of foreign language speakers is bad for British businesses, is potentially harmful to national security and carries risks for the criminal justice and healthcare systems.
Companies with global operations recruit globally, the report notes. “UK graduates must be aware that the asset value of English diminishes commensurate to the number of international graduates entering the global labour market with fluent English and other languages,” it says. “Too often [employers] report that British graduates have very limited experience of life outside the UK.” Read more
The abrupt cancellation of the latest round of negotiations aimed at ending the Cyprus dispute is the latest indication that the prospects for a comprehensive peace settlement, seemingly bright at the start of the year, may be dimming again. Who now would be brave enough to put money on a Cyprus deal by the end of 2016, the target date everyone was talking about in January?
This time, the problem concerns gourmet food and diplomatic protocol. Nicos Anastasiades, president of the internationally recognised, Greek Cypriot-controlled state of Cyprus, was due to hold talks on Friday with Mustafa Akinci, head of the Turkish Cypriot entity in the island’s north.
But on Tuesday the Greek Cypriot leader called off the talks. Mr Akinci, you see, had attended a banquet on Monday evening that the Turkish government gave for heads of state gathered in Istanbul for a UN summit. Read more
Campaign posters in Vienna for Freedom party presidential candidate, Norbert Hofer
Slowly but surely, the political tides are turning in favour of Austria’s rightwing populist Freedom party. Thanks to the impact of Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis, and thanks to declining public confidence in the two mainstream parties that have dominated Austrian politics since the second world war, the Freedom party is top of the opinion polls, consistently attracting more than 30 per cent of public support.
Now the Freedom party, unashamedly playing its anti-immigrant, anti-Islam cards, wants to upset the apple cart in Austria’s presidential election, to be held on Sunday. The top two candidates will go through to a second round on May 22. According to the latest polls, these will be Alexander Van der Bellen of the Greens and either Irmgard Griss, an independent, or Norbert Hofer of the Freedom party. Read more
Frauke Petry, AfD leader, suggested that it ought to be acceptable for police to shoot refugees to stop them entering Germany.
A new chapter was written this week in the long and often tortured relationship of Britain’s ruling Conservative party with the European Parliament. This chapter comes with a twist. For once, something positive and sensible happened, though admittedly on a fairly small scale.
On Tuesday, British Conservative members of the assembly severed formal ties with Germany’s rightwing populist Alternative für Deutschland party. The two parties had been part of the same parliamentary group, the European Conservatives and Reformists, since the May 2014 elections to the EU legislature.
If you are in an unforgiving mood, you may think that the Conservatives in Strasbourg should have had nothing to do with AfD from the start. This was certainly the view of the Conservative party leadership in London. Prime Minister David Cameron and his advisers were well aware that Angela Merkel, the centre-right German chancellor, would take a dim view of Conservative flirting with AfD. Read more
Under what circumstances might Russia cut off gas deliveries to Europe for a prolonged period of time, and what might be the consequences? Such a scenario may seem too absurd to contemplate. Russia depends heavily on energy exports to Europe and likes to be known as a reliable supplier. Even in the gas crises of 2006 and 2009, the Russians did not go so far. Why would Moscow do something that, on the face of things, would harm its own interests more than it would advance them? Read more
I found myself mesmerised on Monday looking at the Italy page of a website called National Debt Clocks.org. A 13-digit figure, representing Italy’s outstanding national debt, goes up by a couple of thousand euros every second. Now the debt is just under €2.2tn, or about 133 per cent of Italy’s annual economic output.
Despite its astronomical debt burden, the Italian government succeeded last October in selling two-year bonds at a negative yield. In other words, investors paid Italy, one of the planet’s most indebted nations for the past quarter of a century, for the honour of buying its debt.
This is a topsy-turvy world that inspires me with something less than full confidence in financial markets. It leads me to the topical question of whether Italian banks own too much Italian government debt for their own good. On this issue Matteo Renzi, Italy’s prime minister, holds forthright views. Read more
North Mitrovica, in northern Kosovo, one of Europe's most desolate places
To understand why tensions are rising in Kosovo, it is not enough to know about poverty and high unemployment, organised crime and widespread official corruption, family memories of war and ethnic cleansing. You also need to know what it feels like to live as a second-class citizen – either of your own society, or of the world. Read more
Poland's rightwing PiS government is engaged in a ruthless campaign against its critics. One such critic is Lech Walesa
Probably only Lech Walesa really knows what went on between him and Poland’s communist-era secret police. But for the health of modern Polish democracy, for the image that Poles have of themselves and for Poland’s international reputation, it would be best to establish the truth, or as much of it as possible. Sad to say, this is a forlorn hope in today’s febrile Polish political atmosphere.
Walesa, now a white-haired 72-year-old, is a former Polish president. He founded Solidarity, the independent trade union and mass patriotic movement that overthrew communism by peaceful means in the 1980s. He won the Nobel peace prize in 1983.
He made an indelible contribution to the cause of democracy and human rights in central and eastern Europe. He deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Vaclav Havel and Andrei Sakharov, the brave Czech and Russian campaigners for freedom.
Was he also, as alleged on Thursday, a paid informant for the security services in the 1970s? I shall address this below. What is important is to underline that a proper perspective on Walesa requires placing his career in its full historical context. Read more
There is a wonderful passage in Jonathan Swift’s “Gulliver’s Travels” about the war between Little-Endians in Lilliput and Big-Endians in Blefuscu over how to open a hard-boiled egg.
It would be extremely rude of me to suggest that the uproar in France about the proper use of the circumflex is in any way comparable to the goings-on in Swift’s satire. Read more
The UK is a generous issuer of residence permits to Americans, Chinese and Indians
It is time to stop the panic-mongering and put Europe’s refugee and migrant crisis into a sensible perspective.
Across the 28-nation EU, some rabble-rousing politicians and hysterical media outlets are stoking public alarm that uncontrollable tides of migrants from non-white, often Muslim countries are swamping Europe. These migrants are depicted as instigators and perpetrators of terrorism, sex crimes, random murder and robbery.
Let me cite some data from an official EU report that throw a different light on the topic of migration into Europe. The data concern EU residence permits granted to non-Europeans. I confess that, when I saw the data for the first time, I was pretty startled. Readers may be surprised, too. Read more
Vladimir Putin at a regional security summit in Tajikistan in September
It emerged this month that Tajikistan’s authorities had forcibly shaved the beards of almost 13,000 men last year as part of their grim struggle to stamp out militant Islam. But the big problem for Tajikistan and the rest of Central Asia in 2016 will not be beards. If the predictions of various western and Russian specialists are accurate, it will be the contribution of Russia’s economic troubles to religious radicalisation in the region. Read more
Protesters pour into the Moldovan parliament
Take a moment to consider the events that unfolded on Wednesday inside the parliament building in Chisinau, capital of Moldova, a small, deprived, appallingly governed nation of 3.5m people.
All eyes were on Pavel Filip, a former sweets factory manager who was about to be appointed as Moldova’s sixth prime minister in less than a year. “We’re forming a last-chance government for Moldova,” he told legislators, in remarks that carried only a touch of exaggeration.
What happened next? First, Mr Filip won the parliamentary vote. Then a gang of protesters forced their way into the chamber and started a brawl. One political party leader had blood dripping down his face.
Meanwhile, outside parliament, several thousand demonstrators were chanting anti-establishment slogans on the street. They were still there on Thursday. Read more
A Scottish terrier – favourite of presidents
When I arrived on Wednesday at Cyprus’s presidential palace to interview President Nicos Anastasiades, the first occupant I encountered wasn’t the president but Leo. He was in the car park enjoying the sunniest day of 2016 so far in Nicosia.
Leo is to Mr Anastasiades what Fala was to President Franklin D. Roosevelt – the head of state’s dog, a much-loved mascot of his administration. Like Fala, Leo is a black Scottish terrier, and like Fala at the White House in the 1940s, Leo is given pretty much a free run of the presidential grounds. Read more
How is Mariano Rajoy, Spain’s centre-right prime minister, planning to win re-election when voters elect a new legislature on December 20? Read more
António Costa, the Socialist leader who toppled the Portuguese government
I have a confession to make. After Portugal’s October 4 parliamentary elections, I wrote that Pedro Passos Coelho, the centre-right prime minister, had broken the mould of eurozone crisis politics. He had shown that it was possible for a European government to carry out difficult economic reforms and win re-election. This misread what was about to happen in Portugal.
Mr Passos Coelho’s ruling coalition came first in the polls. President Anibal Cavaco Silva asked him to reconstitute his government. But no sooner was Mr Passos Coelho back in Lisbon’s São Bento palace – the seat of Portugal’s government – than he was, metaphorically speaking, out again. Read more
A protest in front of the parliament building in Moldova's capital, Chisinau
After President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, some feverish western politicians and commentators started to detect the Kremlin’s malign hand manipulating every event large and small across Russia’s former Soviet neighbourhood.
They drew particular attention to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, whose political classes contain vocal, westernised lobbies that rarely waste a chance to point their US and European interlocutors in an anti-Russian direction.
Yet the reality is not so black and white. Since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, it never has been. In important respects, the political, economic and social ills that afflict these states are home-grown. You can blame the Russians for a lot, but not for everything. Read more
Will Germany’s economy benefit from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to throw open the nation’s doors to enormous numbers of refugees from beyond Europe’s borders? What, if any, is the connection between this decision and the hunger of German business for new workers in a shrinking labour market?
On these questions there is a spectrum of opinions. At one end stands Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front. On her party’s website you can find a video and text of a speech she delivered in Marseilles on September 8.
Ms Le Pen said of Ms Merkel’s decision: “Germany is most likely thinking about its ageing population, and it is most likely seeking to lower wages and to continue recruiting slaves by means of massive immigration.”
You don’t have to like Ms Le Pen’s vicious language to appreciate that Germany has a demographic problem. According to David Folkerts-Landau, a Deutsche Bank economist, the German population – the EU’s largest, at close to 83m – is set to decline by 3.5m over the next decade unless net migration into Germany increases significantly. Without such migration, he forecasts that the German labour force will shrink by an even greater 4.5m workers. Read more
Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s re-elected prime minister, is finding the first few days back in government anything but plain sailing.
On Thursday this blog reported how Mr Tsipras had demanded the resignation of a deputy transport minister barely 24 hours after having appointed him. The minister, Dimitris Kammenos, was from the rightwing nationalist Independent Greeks party, the junior coalition partner to Mr Tsipras’s leftwing Syriza party. Embarrassingly, his social media accounts contained anti-Semitic content.
Now some curious details are emerging about another deputy minister, this time from inside Syriza itself. Read more
Questions are already being raised about the competence of Alexis Tsipras's government
Two days into the new Greek government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and tensions are already showing. They will probably be manageable, for the moment, but troubling questions about the competence of the ruling coalition are already being asked.
Late on Wednesday Mr Tsipras felt obliged to ask for the resignation of a deputy transport minister whom he had appointed only 24 hours earlier. The minister, Dimitris Kammenos, belongs to the rightwing nationalist Independent Greeks party, with which Syriza, the leftwing party led by Mr Tsipras, is in coalition. Read more
Portugal’s October 4 general election catches the eye for three reasons.
Firstly, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s centre-right government has overtaken the opposition Socialists in opinion polls. If he holds on to this lead, he will become the first prime minister to be re-elected among the five eurozone states that required emergency financial help between 2010 and 2013. Read more