Archive for March, 2008

Radio Netherlands grabbing chance Danes ignored?

23 March 2008

When the Danish cartoon row began around the end of 2005, it took several months before the Danish government embarked on a counter propaganda offensive. It was not until February 2006 that Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen appeared on Al Arabiya in order to explain the position of his government to a worldwide Arab-speaking audience.

Although it was a good thing that he did this in the end (and initially no one, except for the Arab regimes that instigated the rows, could have foreseen that it would become such a big thing), I was rather critical at the time because Fogh Rasmussen did not take the opportunity to explain what free speech was really about:

What Fogh should have done instead of saying that free speech is important, was explain why it is important. Instead of appearing as a weak leader not worthy of much respect, by saying that as a Danish PM he is used to being criticised and that he accepts that, he would have come across as a good leader by explaining that the constant criticism actually helps him to do a better job. He could have said that because people in Denmark have been allowed to say what they think about their leaders for a long time, and can even get rid of them if the leaders don’t listen, Denmark is such a wealthy country with so little inequality and suffering. The hint would not have been missed on a region still predominantly ruled by dictators.

Today, the Netherlands is holding its breath for a similar row to erupt, this time about a Quran-critical film that has been made by a Dutch MP and which should come out before the end of this month. Over at A Fistful of Euros, Guy described how the issue is being hyped in Dutch media before the film is even published. Hype or not however, the Danish case shows how easy it is to turn the positive reputation of a country into one of evil anti-muslim crusaders (that is, if you are an Arab regime with a motive and complete control over what appears in your own media). So it is only right that, in an attempt to avoid the Danish mistakes, the Dutch government has been working for months through its embassies in the muslim world to at least try to get its own message across to government and media in the predominant muslim parts of the world.

As part of the pre-emptive strike, Radio Netherlands Worldwide, the world service of the Dutch public radio, has now produced its own documentary (and a website ‘about Fitna, the movie’) in which it tries to explain the Dutch position on the MP’s film and its relation to free speech:

Has it succeeded better than Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the Al Arabiya interview? Well, yes, a little. What is good in the RNW film, is that it underlines that even the Dutch government is bound to obey the law, just like any ordinary citizen. It is not government, but the majority of the population through its representatives which makes the law. This is an important point to make. What the film also seems to be doing better than the Danish PM, is to make clear the importance of free speech for an open public debate. Even though a large majority of the population does not agree with the MP’s film, they still accept it is published because they realise that if they would ban opinions like these, next time it is one of their own opinions that is banned from being published. The giving and taking of free speech becomes a little clearer, and even more so because of most of the people explaining this in the documentary are Dutch muslims.

If the RNW film turns out to be convincing enough for a critical audience remains to be seen. What I am still missing, for instance, is a clear(-er) explanation of the connection between free speech, the state of law and democracy on the one hand, and having a government that is not corrupt, does not torture its citizens and governs effectively on the other. But it is an attempt, and anyway, if people turn to the streets over this film in Saudi Arabia, Syria or Egypt, we know that this is because their governments wanted them to, not because they have watched some film on the internet.

** update 27 March 2008: ** The film was published today. What an anticlimax! I mean, it is still the modern equivalent of Der ewige Jude, but not a lot of Dutch flags are going to be burnt over this. And it is badly made at that…

** update 28 March 2008: ** More on A Fistful of Euros.

Link of the day: EU should support Turkish democracy and membership

19 March 2008
True words from the FT’s Tony Barber about the foolishness of EU Member States’ lukewarm (if any) support for Turkish EU membership.

The sputtering Franco-German engine

18 March 2008

Good analysis by FT correspondents Ben Hall and Bertrand Benoit of recent developments in the Franco-German relations. Sarkozy’s original proposal for a Mediterranean Union consisting of only the countries around the Mediterranean Sea was in their view a French attempt at Alleingang: a breach of the Franco-German axis that the Germans interpreted as a return to pre-WWI spheres of influence politics in Europe. It would certainly have jeopardised the French EU presidency and the debate about the future of EU policies for the coming 20 years that has just started.

After the European Council the authors seem optimistic that Europe Minister Jouyet and other French officials have succeeded in bringing the President back on more traditional track. After the municipal elections of last Sunday I am less sure about that, as I wrote yesterday.

Link of the day: Parti Québécois abandons separatism

17 March 2008
Interesting developments in the wider Europeosphere: News just came in that the members of the Parti Québécois yesterday voted overwhelmingly in favour of dropping the obligation to hold a referendum on Québec independence from the party manifesto.

The PQ had a majority of the seats in the Québec parliament a number of times in the 80s and 90s of last century. Referendums on independence have been organised in 1980 and 1995 but failed to get majorities in favour (60% and 51% voted non, respectively). The vote is a victory for new party leader Pauline Marois who favours a more centrist course.

Municipal elections in France: Le Président a perdu, vive le Président !

17 March 2008

The second round of the municipal elections in France took place today. As I am writing this, France 3 is the only TV channel still broadcasting live results and discussion. French blogger Versac has been live-blogging about it. It looks like voters gave the party of president Sarkozy a severe beating.

Although we are “only” talking about municipal elections here, make no mistake about their importance: be it for French voters (turn-out figures in the first round were around 66%), for the French government (a number of senior politicians including ministers were candidates in the elections), or even for Europe. The results are widely seen as indicative for the seriousness of President Sarkozy’s slide in popularity, and will, as a result, have a strong influence on the President’s behaviour and stance on national and European issues.

So far, it is clear that the right (mainly consisting of Sarkozy’s UMP party) lost, and that the left (mainly the socialist PS of Ségolène Royal and François Hollande, but there are greens and communists in the game as well) won. An interesting role was played by the centrist MoDem party of François Bayrou, who was also the third candidate in the presidential elections. As a majoritarian election system is used, the expectation after the first round was that MoDem in many cities would end up in a position of “king-maker” (the rather complicated voting system is explained here). However, although it is still a little early to interpret the results, it looks like MoDem’s results are rather disappointing so their king-maker role will probably be limited. Even MoDem front-man Bayrou lost in his home city Pau with a 1% difference to the socialist contender.

In Strasbourg, UMP mayor Fabienne Keller, fierce defender of the European Parliament’s travelling circus, will have to hand her seat to the socialists. Unexpectedly, one must assume, two government ministers lose the local elections: Outspoken Human Rights Minister Rama Yade, third on the list in Colombes (Hauts-de-Seine), is not elected as councillor, whereas Education Minister Xavier Darcos loses his seat as mayor of Périgueux. Their colleague Rachida Dati, the law and order oriented Minister of Justice, however, is elected in Paris’ safe 6th arrondissement. Jean Tibéri, who succeeded Jacques Chirac as mayor of Paris and equally dodgy financially, is also elected in Paris’ 5th arrondissement. The current socialist mayor of Paris, Bertrand Delanoë, looks certain to remain in office with a comfortable majority in the city council.

All in all, the French left looks set to claim victory and demand a change of government policy, whereas the government’s stance will be to pretend that nothing really has happened because the elections were only local. Still, analysts expect a substantial “presidentialisation” of the President’s image, as his current bling-bling style clearly irritated voters. Gone therefore will be the Ray-Bans and the large watches, and Carla Sarkozy née Bruni will be pressurised to behave as first-ladylike as she can. The operation is likely to have an effect on Sarkozy’s European performance as well, as meetings with European leaders and foreign policy successes are seen as Très Présidentiel and therefore good for his image.

But whether this means France will take a more cooperative position than usual in European negotations remains to be seen. It is true that Sarkozy compromised on nearly everything last weekend in order to get the European Council to agree with his plan for a Mediterranean Union. But when it comes to issues that really matter to his voters, the President seems more, rather than less, likely to fight for his popularity ratings at home. My predictions: expect more protectionism and less willingness to reform the CAP, but also more environmentalism from France in the near future.

Norway gets gay marriage – Ja, vi elsker dette landet!

16 March 2008

Great news from Norway that seems to have escaped the major news media, including those from Norway itself: yesterday its government introduced a proposal to abolish discrimination against gays in the country’s marriage law. According to the press release, the new paragraph 1 of the law would read: “Two people of the same or opposite sex can get married”. After the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada, Spain, and South-Africa, this will take the number of countries in the world that allow homosexuals to get married to six.

People who want to get married in Norway will not be required to live in Norway or to have Norwegian citizenship. Such a requirement does not exist in the current law either.

The church law (Norway has a state church) is changed as well so the Norwegian Church gets the right to perform gay marriages without being obliged to do so.

The existing partnership law for gay couples is withdrawn, although existing partnerships will remain valid for those who want to.

Gay couples will also get the right to adoption under the same conditions as straight couples. Lesbian couples will get parenthood automatically over children born from one of them through IVF from a donor, just like this is the case for straight couples. The non-biological mother will then be called “medmor” (co-mother) under the law. If the father is not a donor, the other partner cannot become medmor but only adopt the child as a stepparent. The law does not foresee in parenthood for male couples.

**update** The family and culture committee of Stortinget, the Norwegian parliament, organises a hearing about the new proposal on 21 April 2008. See here for more information on the state of play in Stortinget. The text of the proposal itself can be found here (all in Norwegian).

EU presidency: the quiet candidates (II)

14 March 2008

Philip Stephens of the Financial Times writes in so many words that the new president of the EU (Council) should be Tony Blair after all, instead of one of the lesser known candidates. This is not a time for “faceless competence”, he says, for Europe needs someone who is taken seriously by McCain/Obama/Clinton, Medvedev/Putin and Hu Jintao.

This leaves one wondering when was the last time Tony Blair was taken seriously by the American president – the “Yo, Blair” incident perhaps?

Unbearably Blairite in its arrogance is also the following passage:

[Juncker, Fogh Rasmussen and Ahern] are bright people. Small countries can produce brilliant politicians. Putting aside a personal prejudice against EU institutions being forever run by Luxembourgers, I am not quarrelling with these candidates’ competence. But it is no disrespect to say that none is exactly a household name. Their candidacies seem to speak instead to a deliberate paucity of ambition about Europe’s global role. How seriously would they be taken by John McCain, Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton? Imagine the reception from Dmitry Medvedev when Mr Juncker turned up in Moscow to protest against his decision to turn off the gas. How much weight would these candidates carry even in Europe?

First of all, being unknown now is not exactly a problem that cannot be overcome: Hands up who (outside Illinois) knew Barack Obama before he decided to run for the US presidency.

Secondly, any future president meeting fellow world leaders will be speaking on behalf of the EU, not his home country. The size of the latter will not make much of a difference at this stage. Maybe it does during the appointment process or while EU countries are trying to forge a common position (which requires unanimity), but the precise point Stephens makes about Luxemburgers indicates that being from a small country may actually be an advantage then.

Of course Europe needs someone with stature, but what Stephens seems to forget is that it has to be the right kind of stature. Blair’s is tarnished not only by his handling of the Iraq war, but – more importantly – by his reputation of being all spin and no results for most except the first few of his ten years as Prime Minister. The British EU presidency in 2005 was, if not a failure (there was an agreement on the Financial Perspectives after all), at least a disappointment.

What matters in the end is that Europe’s future president has the personality, vision and above all the diplomatic skills to make a success of the job. I am afraid Tony Blair has proved to have none of these.