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Tag Archive for David Cameron

David Cameron’s referendum pledge has already strengthened the Conservatives’ hand in Europe

Over the past two decades, it has become de rigueur for British Prime Ministers to deliver speeches about the importance of European reform.  Such speeches have been packed with buzzwords about “flexibility”, “accountability” and “subsidiary”, yet utterly devoid of specific policies or proposals.

John Major’s government made much of their defence of the British national interest in securing an opt-out from the Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty, yet ultimately threw Britain’s weight behind the creation of the Euro and a pathway to the introduction of cross-border justice policies the Home Secretary is now seeking Britain’s withdrawal from.

Many market-oriented Eurosceptics were delighted by Tony Blair’s speech to the European Parliament in 2005 when he called for an EU designed to “enhance our ability to compete, to help our people cope with globalisation, to let them embrace its opportunities and avoid its dangers”.  Of course, as was so often with Tony Blair, his rhetoric did not match the reality of his deeds.

Finally, while he should be commended for resisting Mandelsonian demands for Britain to join the Euro, it is Gordon Brown’s signature that brought the wretched Lisbon Treaty into force – and with it the surrender of the British veto in more than forty policy areas.

Talk, however, is cheap.  Actions are what matter.

The crucial difference between the Prime Minister’s speech in January and the mealy-mouthed declarations of his predecessors was that it offered not simply a restatement of the vague aspiration of “renegotiation” but an explicit warning to the rest of Europe that Britain was no longer willing to accept European Union membership at any cost.  Finally, European leaders have been forced to listen to British leaders as opposed to ignoring them.

For the first time, a British Conservative Prime Minister outlined in realistic terms the possibility of Britain leaving the EU if renegotiation and reforms were not secured.  The Prime Minister has put EU governments on notice that Britain is no longer willing to accept a settlement with the European Union.

It’s now six months since the Prime Minister’s “big speech” and, while not all Eurosceptics will be satisfied with the progress that has been made, evidence already exists that it has made a demonstrable and beneficial difference to the UK’s bargaining position in Europe.  This is particularly noticeable in relation to budget negotiations.

Three weeks after the “big speech”, an agreement was reached at the European Council to cut the European Union’s operational budget for the period from 2014 to 2020 – the first time in EU history that a real terms budget cut had been secured.  While the French Government and European Parliament had sought increases to the budget, it was noticeable that Angela Merkel rowed in behind the British position, partly in an attempt to demonstrate concessions to the UK.

From next year, spending will be cut from €144.5 billion to €135.9 billion next year, a cut of 5.8%.  For the full seven year period, savings will amount to roughly €60 billion.  This amounts to a saving for British taxpayers of roughly £500 a year.

This is an unquestionably solid start, even with vast amounts of waste remaining – particularly in relation to the bloated Common Agricultural Policy.  Trimming this fat must be the Conservative Government’s top priority in the coming years.

When it comes to the negotiation of the EU-US Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (read: Free Trade Agreement), French demands for talks on the proposal to be suspended in light of Edward Snowden’s PRISM allegations has met with deaf ears.

The previous, knee-jerk Franco-German axis has, at least temporarily, given way to a more pragmatic, trade and deregulation-focussed approach led by London.

The process of securing desperately-needed reforms to the European Union is only just beginning.  It still remains far from clear that it is in Britain’s interests to remain a member of the organisation.

What is clear, however, is that David Cameron’s referendum pledge has put Britain on the front-foot – and sent a warning to Europe that the UK is no longer willing to be steamrollered, side-lined and sneered at.

Assessing David Cameron’s EU speech: “in Europe, not run by Europe”

Yesterday, France and Germany celebrated the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Elysee Treaty. While rarely mentioned today, the signing of the Treaty was hugely symbolic, formally ending hundreds of years of enmity between the two states and committing them to pursuing a “shared vision” for the future of Europe.

My heart is overflowing, and my soul is grateful,” said an emotional President Charles de Gaulle in perfect German, after he and Chancellor Konrad Adenauer signed the document at the heart of the relationship that has guided European integration for the past five decades. After a symbolic silence and a solemn hug, Adenauer spoke only to splutter “I have nothing to add.”

The then British Prime Minister Sir Alec Douglas-Home neither sought nor was granted an invitation to the historic proceedings.

Nothing much has changed since. The united front displayed by the leaders of France and Germany that cold January morning in 1963 has, at least as far as matters of European integration are concerned, remained impregnable and unshakable.

Excluded from the talks surrounding the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community in 1952, negotiations over the Treaty of Rome in 1957, and the Elysee Treaty in 1963, the European Economic Community the United Kingdom entered in 1972 was already fashioned in the mould of twenty years of Franco-German cooperation.

Winston Churchill once said that, as a people, the British are “with Europe, but not of it”. The same logic could be applied to the European Union. While the United Kingdom has long been a member, its foundations, structures and processes have long appeared remote – even alien – to the British way of doing things.

As the process of European integration has developed through the signing of the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon, the answer to the problems of the day has always been the same: “more Europe.”

With the exception of the early days of the Blair government when the Prime Minister was keen to demonstrate his evangelical devotion to the European project, the British position on each of these Treaties has been almost identical. The public have protested (in ever-increasing numbers) and Parliament has voiced its disquiet.

Yet, for all its huff and puff, Britain has always signed on the dotted line. The United Kingdom has, with some carping, consistently gone along with the consensus of “ever closer union” first enshrined in the Franco-German-led Treaty of Rome.

David Cameron’s speech today was the most significant given by a British Prime Minister on the topic of Europe since Margaret Thatcher’s address to the College of Europe in Bruges in 1988. Curiously, many of the challenges identified in that speech are as relevant today as they were twenty-five years ago.

To be more specific, Mrs Thatcher called for “Community policies which encourage enterprise” and a Europe that was not “protectionist.” “It would be a betrayal,” she said “if, while breaking down constraints on trade within Europe, the Community were to erect greater external protections”. “To supress nationhood and concentrate power at the centre of a Europe conglomerate,” she argued, “would be highly damaging”.

Regrettably, that is precisely what the overwhelming majority of the British public think the European Union has spent the following quarter of a century doing.

The EU’s own internal market remains incomplete and riddled with protectionist measures that cost businesses and members of the public billions of pounds a year while, when it comes to international trade, protectionism and the concept of “fortress Europe” is seen as increasingly attractive by many in Paris, Athens and Berlin.

This stands in stark contrast to the internationalist foreign policy pursued by the Coalition Government in the United Kingdom which has tended to emphasise building links with emerging markets in South America and the Far East, as well as rejuvenating the Commonwealth as a forum for trade promotion.

The European Union’s democratic structures are seen as aloof, remote and even corrupt by a British people who were sold the benefits of a EU membership on the basis of trade but have instead been buffeted by directives mandating the weights greengrocers may sell their products in, the number of hours workers are allowed to remain on duty, and the type of light bulbs they may buy. While the political parlance in the United Kingdom has shifted towards localised accountability decision making, the EU appears more remote than ever.

The Prime Minister’s speech today was an effort to outline the kind of Europe the people of Britain could learn to at least live with, if not love. It stressed the importance of economic competiveness, an end to protectionism, and increased transparency in governance and budgetary processes.

There was nothing fresh or unsurprising about this rhetoric. Comments from British Prime Ministers for European reform are nothing new. Indeed, on Tony Blair’s visit to the European Parliament in 2005 he called for an EU designed to “enhance our ability to compete, to help our people cope with globalisation, to let them embrace its opportunities and avoid its dangers”.

What was different about this speech, however, is that it wasn’t simply a restatement of the vague aspiration of “renegotiation” but an explicit warning to the rest of Europe that Britain was no longer willing to accept European Union membership at any cost. For the first time, a British Prime Minister spoke in realistic terms about the possibility of Britain leaving the EU if renegotiation and reforms were not secured.

The Prime Minister has put EU governments on notice: Britain is no longer willing to accept a settlement with the European Union.

The Prime Minister’s speech will have disappointed those who wished to see an immediate “in/out” referendum but it was broadly aligned with the British public’s view that they wish to be “in Europe, not run by Europe”.

In reality, it’s too soon to say if Britain will leave the European Union. Opinion polls show that the public is divided on the issue on outright departure but overwhelmingly supportive of British membership of a pared down, reformed European Union in the image of that outlined by the Prime Minister today.

The challenge for the Prime Minister in the coming months will be to prove that he is willing to match today’s rhetoric with real action. Unless he does, this speech will be remembered as just another call for “reform” which ultimately came to nothing.

From Buenos Aires to Rio de Janeiro

It has actually been a few days since I arrived back in Rio de Janeiro from Buenos Aires but a combination of spending a couple of days in Terespolis in the hills outside Rio and Christmas has dealt a blow to my good intention of keeping this blog relatively up to date.  Nevertheless, I hope you find my account of visiting Buenos Aires of interest…

After a painless 90 minute boat journey across from the Uruguayan town of Colonia on the other side of the Argentina-Uruguay river plate, I arrived in the early evening in Puerto Madero, the main port in Buenos Aires.  After hailing a taxi, I headed across to my hotel (the affordable, hospitable and comfortable Aldeano II) a stone’s throw from the Argentine National Congress to dump my bags and relax for a while.

Given that Uruguayan cash machines only appear to dispense bank notes of relatively high worth, I was unwilling to take any more money out at the port in Colonia to buy a substantial lunch.  The result of this meant that the residual coins I was able to scrabble together were only enough to buy a measly bottle of water and a rather forlorn-looking croissant.  As such, after a quick rest at the hotel, I was ready to go in search of good.  Having had such a glut of steak while in Montevideo, however, I couldn’t cope with yet another identikit red meat dinner – however delicious they might be.

My mind turned to conversation I’d had with a friend in the summer where he mentioned that Argentina was home to a large community of diaspora Armenians who are hugely influential in economic, political and cultural circles in Buenos Aires.  As such, I concluded, there must be a number of Armenian restaurants in the city.

A quick scan of Google threw up a restaurant called ‘Sarkis’ in Villa Crespo, close to the fashionable Palermo Viejo district.  It was a fairly drab evening outside with some light rain so I thought it safe to ignore the warnings about long queues to get a table and chance it.  Arriving at the restaurant and walking past the fifty or so people queuing patiently to get a table, I walked up to the waiter guarding the front door and greeted him in Armenian (“barev!”), hoping that this brazen approach would be enough to help me skip the huge line.  For whatever reason, it appeared to work and I was ushered to a table in the corner of the restaurant within the next ten minutes.  I muttered a hearty “shnorhakalutyun” (thank you) to the manager.

Having secured a table I was, for want of a better term, hoist by my own petard in that I was handed an Armenian language copy of the menu.  They were either attempting to call my bluff or assumed I was actually Armenian!  Either way, my Armenian menu was quickly swapped for an English version.

In short, the food was exceptional and the service brilliant.  The basturma had a great smoky taste, the lavash was light and fresh and the lamb khorovadz was as good as any I’ve had this side of the South Caucasus.  Eating Armenian food in Argentina might seem like a strange thing to do but I couldn’t possibly recommend ‘Sarkis’ any more.

Free walking tour

There’s no more appealing word than “free” in the English dictionary so, when I noticed that there was a free walking tour around Buenos Aires, I immediately marked it down as something I would like to do.  (If you want to read no further than this, you can find details of this excellent and highly commendable tour here).

I arrived, as advertised, at the Plaza Italia close to the centre of the city as advertised at 11am the next morning and joined a diverse group of other tourists from the United States, Canada and Australia under the statue of Garibaldi on his horse.  We were soon joined by the English tour guide Jonathan who has been based in Buenos Aires for a number of years and conducts a free tour each day, asking only that those who take part are generous in their tips at the end.

While I’d had the chance to explore the city a bit before, it was a terrific way of getting to know the “real” Buenos Aires beyond simply seeing the main squares, boulevards and tourist attractions.

Given that taxi prices are ridiculously low in much of South America (apart from Brazil where, like everything else, they’ve become a rip-off), I’m often adverse to using public transport when a taxi can get you from “A” to “B” for only a couple of pounds.  It was therefore quite an experience to be taken on the British-built Buenos Aires metro system, riding along in the wooden tube carriages and dodging a litany of pick-pockets along the way.

Another highlight of the tour was visiting the Abasto neighbourhood where the famous tango singer Carlos Gardel has lived and where an entire industry has grown up around his memory, including bustling theatres and shops selling tango outfits, as well as the numerous street murals commemorating his life.

In Abasto we also learned about the legend of Gaucho Gil, a legendary figure in the country’s popular culture who has come to be regarded as a saint by many Argentines.

To explain Gaucho Gil’s story in a nutshell, he was a farm-worker on the estate of an extremely wealthy widow with whom he gradually entered into a relationship.  The wealthy widow was said to be obsessed with Gil, much to the annoyance of both her brothers and the local police chief, who had designs on the said widow.  In a fit of anger, the police chief ordered Gil that he must leave the village and never come back or else he would pay with his life.  Gil then spent the subsequent twenty years living a nomadic existence in various parts of Argentina, performing various Robin Hood-style acts as he went.  Gil eventually grew bored of this existence and returned to the village.  When the police chief found out that he was in town, he immediately went to confront Gil and order his to leave.  In the meantime, Gil had heard on the grapevine that the police chief’s son had been taken violently ill that day.  Upon encountering the police chief on the road, Gil told him that if he were to say a prayer for him, the son’s life would be spared.   The police chief had not heard of his son’s illness, rubbished Gil’s suggestion and slit his throat, killing him.  Upon returning to the village, the police chief found out that Gil had been telling the truth and immediately said prayer, repenting for what he had done.  His son was then automatically resurrected and the police chief spent the rest of his days letting everyone know about Gil’s saintly credentials.

The Catholic Church has refused to beatify Gil, yet this has not stopped many Argentineans holding him in very high regard.  After having it pointed out to me, I noticed that a large number of cars and shops have red ribbons tied to them; the official mark of Gaucho Gil, modelled after his bandana.  There are many shrines (such as the one pictured) around the country and prayers can be offered to Gil for any reason, including calling upon him to heal a family member or bring you wealth or praying for bad fortune to fall upon your enemies.   If Gil was to be formally ‘adopted’ as a saint by the Catholic Church, his ability to conduct ‘dark’ acts would be muted.  As such, many are content to see his ‘saintly’ status remain in limbo.

Plaza do Mayo

As our tour guide Jonathan told us, no visit to Buenos Aires is complete without a visit to the Plaza do Mayo.  The square contains some of the most famous buildings in the city, not least the imposing Metropolitan Cathedral and Casa Rosada (“Pink House”), the seat of the Argentine Presidency.

The most interesting thing about the Plaza do Mayo from my point of view, though, is the ongoing presence of the ‘Mothers of the Plaza do Mayo’, a group which sprung up in the late 1970s in opposition to the military dictatorship to demand answers from the government about ‘disappeared’ loved ones.  The number of people murdered by the Argentine military junta that ruled until 1983 is a matter of some debate but estimates suggest the number may be as high as 30,000, of which 9,000 remain unaccounted for.

Each Thursday at 15:30 the ‘Mothers of Plaza do Mayo’ continue to gather in the square to demand action from the government of the day to do more to investigate the fate of their loved ones.  By pure coincidence I happened to be in the square at the time, so was able to witness the incredibly humbling spectacle of many, mainly elderly people marching and holding up pictures of loved ones whose fate remains unclear (read: whose bodies have never been recovered).  Given the age profile of the crowd, I can only conclude that many thousands more parents have gone to their grave never having received answers from the government.

While on the square, I also had the chance to hear about another group, the ‘Grandmothers of Plaza do Mayo’.  It is said that, under the military dictatorship, 400 pregnant women who opposed the regime were allowed to give birth to their children and murdered shortly after; their babies being handed to supporters of the regime.  Having constructed a DNA database of all 400 of these women, the group allows those who have doubts as to whether those claiming to be their mothers really did give birth to them to have tests to establish whether not they were the children of one of the 400.  If they are found to be, the people who raised them can face trial for the kidnapping of a child and being accessories to murder.  To date, a total of 107 cases have been identified.  I cannot think of a more chilling discovery to make than that of those you had always thought were your parents having been complicit in the murder of your birth mother.

San Telmo, Puerto Madero and Recoleta

Aside from the serious nature of Plaza do Mayo, Buenos Aires is a terrific place to socialise.

San Telmo is amongst the oldest neighbourhoods in the city and, along with Puerto Madero (of which more in a moment), my favourite part of Buenos Aires.  After stepping out of the crowded Plaza do Mayo, you are within seconds transported to quiet, shady streets lined with historic buildings housing bars, restaurants and artists studios.  To my mind, it’s one of the most European-feeling parts of the city with a distinctly colonial feel.  Walking around San Telmo, you get some insight into how it must have felt to live in Buenos Aires at the turn of the 20th century when Argentina was seemingly-irreversibly on the up and the country ranked 6th in the global league table of most prosperous nations.  It is one of the few parts of town where genuine thought and care appears to have been put into maintaining historic buildings, as opposed to letting them decay.

Not far from the colonial-style San Telmo is Puerto Madero, Argentina’s main port.  While it remains in active use as the main terminal through which people and goods enter and leave Argentina, the most historic part of the port has now been given over to tourism.  Speaking to friends who visited the city twenty years ago, they described how the port area was considered a squalid and dangerous area of the city.  Thankfully, the regeneration of the area means it is now home to the best hotels in the city and a string of upmarket restaurants catering for tourists and the elite of Buenos Aires society.  As the photos below show, it’s a fantastic place to go for a walk but, if you intend to eat, make sure you bring credit cards!

No trip to Buenos Aires would be complete without a visit to Recoleta, a historic part of the city which is home to the famous cemetery that provides a final resting place for Eva Peron.  If you haven’t been to a Catholic graveyard in South America before, then it’s quite an astonishing sight.  While in the UK we are used to seeing relatively simple gravestones, even for the most significant of historic figures, the mausoleums constructed to house the graves of the Argentina elite are on an unmatched scale of grandeur and pomposity.  Sadly, my camera ran out of battery half way through visiting the cemetery but I managed to capture a few shots which I hope underscore this observation:


Political pygmies and social inequality

For most part, Buenos Aires is a middle-class city with living standards that are comparable with most European cities.  I would say, however, that the feeling of gaping social inequalities is stronger in Argentina than any other country I’ve visited in South America with the exception of only Brazil.

The whole city has a slightly uneasy air about it.  Upon first glance, Buenos Aires has a sense of style, sophistication and self-confidence not seen elsewhere in South America with immaculately-maintained tree-lined avenues and expensive boutiques dominating the centre of the city.  Upon slightly deeper examination, it’s clear that the city is crumbling; architecturally and socially.

While repeated waves of Peronist Presidents have issued lofty pledges to address these problems, a quick visit to the square in front of the National Congress very clearly indicates the lack of progress they have made.  No more than fifty metres from the Congress, the square is home to semi-permanent tent city filled with homeless people are downtrodden to the point they don’t even bother pestering tourists and the prosperous Portitos who pass them by for money.

The conflict over the Falkland Islands is, in 2012, considered by many in the UK to be a long-ago fought conflict of little significance today.  In many respects, though, the combination of arrogance, aggression and petty nationalism demonstrated by General General Galtieri and his military junta in 1982 has characterised Argentine politics ever since.

Looking at the country’s most recent leaders, we’ve witnessed the Presidencies of the supposedly ‘reformist’ yet ultimately vainglorious Carlos Menem, the gombeenism of the late Nestor Kirchner and the ludicrous Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner who not only cooks the books to hide the country’s spiralling inflation rates yet resorts to demagogic nationalism to bolster her popularity.  Her ‘door-stepping’ of David Cameron in a corridor at the G20 to discuss the status of the Falkland Islands was not the actions of a respectable head of state but rather those of a 1980s union official.

While the stellar growth of the Brazilian economy has kept Argentina’s economy afloat for the past few years, international financial institutions steer resolutely clear of investments in the country as a result of its decision to default on its debt obligations in the late 1990s.  With Brazilian economic growth projected to fall to only 1% next year, tough times lie ahead for Argentina.

I pity the people of Argentina – a proud, educated and passionate people – that they have allowed themselves to be ruled by such pygmies.

Without prejudice

While Foz do Iguacu, Asuncion and Montevideo were all places I was visiting for the first time, I had the change to visit Buenos Aires three years ago and had already seen many of the city’s main tourist attractions.   I’m extremely glad I came again though as the trip was a great opportunity to get to know the city well and go beyond some of the more establish tourist trails.

One question I was repeatedly asked by friends when returning from Buenos Aires for the first time and expect to be asked again was whether or not there is any residual resentment towards the British with regards to the Falklands War.  While I’m sure there is the odd person out there who harbours a grudge, just as there are some dinosaurs in the UK who still spew hatred against Germans over the Second World War, I’ve never encountered anything other than generosity and kindness when in Argentina.  This is true for everyone else I’ve spoken to who has had the chance to spend time in the country, so don’t let any fears in this respect put you off.