Monday, October 15, 2012

The EU's Nobel

The European Union won the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize a few days ago, and the mockery and anger that followed were as vehement as they were predictable. For what it's worth, I'm not a big fan of giving such awards to institutions rather than individuals. But does the EU deserve such an honor as much as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (2007), the International Atomic Energy Agency (2005), or the United Nations (2001)? Sure.

Yes, the United States and NATO and the Cold War framework helped prevent war in Europe. But they did not guarantee the productive cooperation between former enemies and rivals which has changed the continent and made war in Western Europe unthinkable. The founding fathers of the European Community were far-sighted men, and their project of European integration helped create an enormously prosperous continent for hundreds of millions of people. Earlier hold-outs like the Sweden, Finland and Austria joined in the 1990s precisely because the European Union was a roaring success, and Europe and the EU were starting to mean the same thing in the eyes of many. For Greece, Spain, and Portugal, and then for the 10 countries of Central and Eastern Europe that joined in 2004 and 2007, and for those in the Western Balkans and further east who continue to look to the EU, it means something even more important - an anchoring in a community of democratic values for people who had lived under dictatorships in the decades after World War II, and feared its return.

So why the moaning? Yes, European governments and the bureaucrats who make the EU run don't seem as heroic as activists facing authoritarian governments or fighting for development and rights for the world's poorest. And yes, there are hordes of British and American commentators who have always hated the EU, and those keen to further debase the prize to further embarrass the controversial 2009 winner, President of-then-less-than-a-year Barack Obama. But much of the complaints are because of the timing. The committee of Norweigans have given the EU the prize when it looks like it might be in its dying throes. Or else in the birth pangs of a more integrated polity which would be constructed against the will of a Euroskeptic movement that has never been larger or noisier. The EU has utterly failed to handle its crisis of confidence, with Angela Merkel's Germany imposing austerity on the troubled states at a level that is self-defeating in terms of calming the crisis. Elections cannot fundamentally change policy in countries like Greece. Even if a "Grexit" looks less likely in the short term than it recently did, a Spanish bailout looks in the cards. Merkel and her finance minister Wolfgang Schaeuble poo-poo any talk of a fundamental change in their policy. European Central Bank President Mario Draghi helps, but makes clear he can't save the euro by himself. Europe lives in a state of permanent economic crisis. The European Union's future is, bluntly, bleak. And the Nobel Committee is obviously hoping to spur greater Brussels and European capitals to save their union, whatever it takes.

The late Wangari Maathai was a Kenyan environmental and political activist. She was the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2004. I see her as among the more interesting and more deserving of the recent award winners, and there is no doubt at all in my mind that she was morally superior to the likes of Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroeder and Tony Blair. But on some level I wish the EU had received this award in October 2004.

In 2004, membership of the European Union increased from 15 to 25, as the countries of Central Europe "returned to Europe." That was an accomplishment worth awarding in and of itself, on top of all that the EU had done over the decades to cement Franco-German friendship and southern European democracy and to spread prosperity across the continent. The EU was also wrapped up in its constitutional debate - before it had become a constitutional crisis which was only put on ice in 2009, only to be reopened months later by the Greek debt crisis. Would such an elite recognition of an elite project have helped the "Yes" vote in France and the Netherlands in 2005? Maybe not, but one could hope. Would a European Union that had moved forward with deepening as well as widening as its shapers had always intended, currency union before true political union but ultimately requiring that as it was, have been able to avert the crisis before the wave of Euroskepticism left it half-finished? Maybe not, but one could hope.

In 2012, though, the euro looks like a half-baked idea and the European Union's consensus-based decision-making combined with angry publics and scared governments have turned the common currency into an infernal machine to undo the political gains of European integration. Thomas Risse, in his book A Community of Europeans? Transnational Identities and Public Spheres, notes that bad news about the European Union in public spheres is bad for the construction of European identity. That doesn't bode well for today's EU of headlines about bailouts and anarchy in Athens. If there's a counter-balancing "we're all in the same boat" feeling, as I believe there is, it still weaker than the feeling many appear to have that this whole European integration thing might have been a dreadful mistake.

Barack Obama actually did a great job with his Nobel acceptance speech. Selected for peace, but elected by the American people as commander in chief, he laid out an eloquent case for just war. That the troop surge in Afghanistan might have been a mistake (though not unjust) does not invalidate the correctness of Obama's argument. The European Union also needs to take this opportunity and use it to build momentum towards a solution of the crisis. The sight of Herman Van Rompuy, Jose Manuel Barroso, and Martin Schulz, of the European Council, Commission, and Parliament, squabbling over who gets to accept the award will not make the EU look good. Everyone can go to Oslo, but there should be one speaker and one damn good speech. Out of those three, Van Rompuy, as representative of the member states, who are indeed the actors which actually created the European Union, has the best case for primacy. He is the President of Europe that everyone was talking about before the quiet Belgian was actually selected. But you might find a better speaker, or a louder voice. Would Angela Merkel be appropriate? She would be if she laid out a serious, doable path forward that actually stabilizes the European Union, which she would then take to the German people in her re-election campaign over the following year. If not, maybe Schulz. He's German, and he represents both the most democratic of the European institutions, the Parliament, as well as the Social Democrats, the political party that could change Merkel's counterproductive policies if she won't change them herself.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Trivializing the Olympics

Due to a combination of factors - having studied international affairs, having lots of free time, living at a house with a TV, semi-favorable time zone - I believe I have paid closer attention to this Summer Olympics than any since Atlanta in 1996. In winter the Olympics are a nice distraction to help you get through the season, and there's hockey. But four years ago I was in the first month of graduate school, intensively making friends and learning microeconomics. My dominant memory of the Beijing Olympics was George W. Bush and Vladimir Putin's awkward meeting after Russia went to war with Georgia.

This time I'm watching the Games every night on NBC, despite disapproving of the much-derided way the Peacock is tape-delaying and reshuffling and editing it (hardly alone there), as well as keeping track during the day. I love not only watching the athletics, but also constantly checking the results and their effect on the medal count. Of course I'm rooting for America in the U.S.-China duel for most overall medals (prioritized in the U.S.) and most golds (seemingly prioritized everywhere else), but even more than that I want as many countries as possible to win, I root for countries to win their first medals ever (as Guatemala, Cyprus, and Grenada have at these Olympics), I enjoy statistics likemedals per capita and learning trivia - like which is the smallest country, or to be specific IOC (International Olympic Committee), to win a medal (at the Summer Games it's Bermuda, current population 69,000, followed by Tonga and Grenada and the Virgin Islands; but Liechtenstein has nine Winter medals, six of them won by sibling skiers from 1976 to 1984). I was hugely disappointed when San Marino, my favorite of the world's microstates (having lived nearby in Bologna, I've actually been there twice), just missed winning its first medal as Alessandra Perilli finished a close fourth in a shooting event called the women's trap.

The geopolitics of the Games are unavoidable, and can be fun. Ian Johnson pours scorn on the "destructive public policy" behind the medal counts of contenders from China to Great Britain in an article which is a bit of a downer. Johnson points out that the British and the Germans are adapting the old strategy, which China currently masters, of picking events where you can win medals efficiently and investing heavily. He even criticizes the U.S. for spending so much private money on sports - though I would prefer the government to spend at least a bit more on athletics so the families of the Ryan Lochtes and Gabby Douglases of America don't face bankruptcy or foreclosures. Johnson's article is hardly in the spirit of the Games but it's worth a read. When you look at the list of 77 countries which have never won a medal, it's not only made up of tiny island countries and British, American and Dutch colonial possessions (although there are plenty of them), but also of populous countries like Bangladesh, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Myanmar, Nepal and Yemen, which are desperately poor. On a related note, Pakistan, Nigeria, the Philippines and Vietnam, the world's sixth, seventh, twelfth and fourteenth largest countries respectively, have not won a medal in these Olympics. Success in the Olympics seems to rest on being at least a middle-income country, or in the case of Ethiopia, Jamaica and Kenya, having really fast runners.

Another take-home is that communist athletic programs have a strong legacy. The U.S. managed to beat the Soviet Union in total medals only twice after 1952 - when the Games were held in Mexico in 1968, an when the Soviets didn't compete in 1984. East Germany still has the eighth highest overall medal total, and they did it in only five Summer and six Winter Games. Former Eastern Bloc countries have kept competitive, too. Romania's gymnastics program remains a worldbeater. Hungary has more than 10 medals, one of the few countries with more than one medal per million people. Belarus and Ukraine have had fine Olympics. (Only one former Soviet country has never won a medal, hermetic Turkmenistan - although a boxing referee from the country was expelled from the London Games in a match-fixing scandal). 

I don't love the Olympics as much as the World Cup or UEFA Euro Cup, but international competitions always have an appeal to someone who loves global politics and geographical trivia as much as me. London has been a thoroughly enjoyable Olympics, from Romneyshambles to Danny Boyle's opening ceremony to the sports and the statistics. So far 76 countries have won medals, here's hoping another 11 join them to break Beijing's record. Even better, let's get some more first-timers up on the podium. Go Montenegrin men's water polo team! 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012


One month ago, I celebrated the 197th anniversary of Napoleon's defeat at Waterloo by waking up early on a Sunday morning and taking the commuter train about 15 kilometers south of Brussels and walking another 5 kilometers down road and muddy path to watch a reenactment of the battle. The Napoleonic Bivouac is a big production, although not quite real battle-sized - that would require 190,000 re-enactors. You can wander through the camp and eat period meals with the battle re-enactors. I went for the cheaper option, devoting just a couple hours to Waterloo and checking out the free battle at Plancenoit.

Thanks to my Belgium and Luxembourg Lonely Planet which I grabbed before heading out, I realized that the battle being staged that morning was in a town 6 km from the Braine-l'Alleud train station. Plancenoit was actually a side battle. Napoleon needed to defeat the Prussians before they met up with the British and outnumbered his French troops. He succeeded, except they regrouped and he had to send a detachment to fight them on during the main battle on June 18. Unfortunately the local bus to Plancenoit was only running every two hours on Sunday. We got on the bus back to Brussels with everyone else and got off at the Butte du Lion, a huge grass pyramid visible from the train and highway which marks the spot where the Prince of Orange, William II, was knocked off his horse by a musket ball during the battle (William was OK and took the Dutch throne in 1840 - but the Dutch had the prerogative to build the biggest monument as Waterloo was on Dutch territory during the battle and during the 1820s when they built the hill, before Belgium declared independence in 1830). At the Waterloo museum by the lion, we were told to take a right at the traffic light and walk 5 kilometers.

Our reward was a great view of the battle, standing on a hillside and watching the movements of infantry and cavalry on the other side of a ditch. It's all far more orderly than modern warfare, or even the wilder Yankee style that I saw on display at Saratoga, New York in a re-enactment of the 1777 key battle of the Revolutionary War. I didn't see many Prussians at Plancenoit either, re-enacting seems to be more popular with the British who weren't involved in the actual side battle. They showed off some of Wellington's tactics, including his patented hedgehog formations (soldiers bunched up with bayonets out to ward off attacks by cavalry).

Volunteer history buff soldiers don't particularly like to play dead, of course, and occasionally you see a supposed casualty get up and rejoin the fight (one guy seemed to have trouble getting up, however - and his comrades just checked in on him periodically). But all in all it was good fun, and we even got to experience the mud that changed the course of history on our walk. Plus I made it home for lunch. I figured the museums and restaurant weren't worth it with the crowds. 

The museums might be worth a visit sometime, except I'm back in the USA now. But seeing the battle adds some flavor. The trip to Waterloo should be particularly interesting for the 200th anniversary in 2015.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Cat Tossing and Witch Burning, or Sunday Evening in West Flanders

Belgium is home to some strange festivals. The one that really caught my eye, though, was the Kattenstoet of Ieper/Ypres, a city best known for the muddy slaughter that occurred in the surrounding fields in the Great War (I wrote about this last year). Ieper, like Brugge/Bruges, was a cloth town back in the Middle Ages; the huge, beautiful Lakenhalle (Cloth Hall) still dominates the Grote Markt, although it needed to be repaired after burning in the war. The Lakenhalle had a mouse problem, so cats were deployed, but eventually this resulted in "a plague of cats," as this year's program dramatically describes. The wise townspeople tried to solve this problem with an annual ritual hurling of living cats from the belfry of the Lakenhalle. In 1817, the last real cats were thrown - an early victory of the Dutch animal rights movement, perhaps, as Belgium was part of the Netherlands for 15 years after the fall of Napoleon.

Today, the town puts on a Cat Parade every three years - most recently Sunday, May 13. It's a stunning production of thousands of actors and elaborate floats and costumes, including giant cats from Ieper's "ambassadors" Mr. Cieper and Minneke Poes to Garfield, representations of cat worship from Egypt to Ireland, scenes from the town's history including a 16th Century Iconoclasm, and illustrations of Dutch sayings featuring felines, such as "the cat is in the clock" (domestic violence again) and "squeezing kittens in the dark" (seducing young girls at night). Hello Kitty through a cookie at me when I was trying to take his (her?its?) picture (on that note, the festival is apparently known in Japan - I saw more Asian tourists here than in a year in Brussels).

Then the jester scales the belfry and tosses stuffed cats to an energized mob below. The scrum gets fairly rough - as one poor American woman complained, a cat was falling into her arms and she was saying "kitty kitty kitty" and then it was "elbow elbow elbow." (The elaborate cat disposal might have worked historically by the way - I only saw one cat in the city, on the yard of an apartment block right before getting in the car to return to Brussels).

As a grand finale, the trial of a poor townswoman for witchcraft is reenacted, and she is burnt to death. Well, something in identical clothing is burnt atop a pile of branches, with the executioners anachronistically resorting to kerosene. It's a bit of a dark ending to the festivities, but just before the burning, cats made of balloons are released into the Flemish sky.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Socialism in One Country (At Least)

Yesterday's election results are quite troubling, in Greece. The extreme austerity program imposed by the euro zone and IMF is painful and may not be working, but the seven-way split of seats is going to make it very difficult to form a functional government at all. A racist fascist party that makes European far-right figures like Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders look good made it into parliament. The old-school Communist Party is still there. Many analysts expect the divided result to lead to new elections in weeks, after no one gets paid next month. The chance of a Greek exit from the euro zone, and all that entails, just went up.

France, on the other hand, had a result to welcome. I have never been a hater of Nicolas Sarkozy, but his strong points (a good partner to the United States, Germany, Britain and others, indisputable energy, a reform agenda) were matched by serious negatives (implacable opposition to Turkey's integration into Europe, anti-immigrant populist posturing, continued failure to follow through, political tone-deafness which led to his deep unpopularity in France). Not long ago, on some level, I worried that his impending defeat at the hands of Socialist Francois Holland would upset the markets, reignite the euro crisis, and damage Barack Obama's chances of re-election - the most important of a host of significant elections. But ultimately, I concluded that a jolt to the austerity mantra of Angela Merkel, the ECB and the IMF was exactly what Europe needed, and that was most important at the moment.

Though the European social welfare state needs reform, it does not deserve the blame for an economic crisis that was caused by deregulation and the irresponsible behavior of the financial sector. But with Greece launching a succession of sovereign debt crises two years ago, a crisis of globalized free market capitalism became a crisis of what was left of the state in Europe. Neoliberalism, a cause of the crisis, was triumphing in continental Europe, that bastion of social democracy. Germany is largely to blame. As her mentor Helmut Kohl complained, Merkel is destroying Europe. There is no political leadership on positive further European integration such as Eurobonds and ECB purchases of government debt coming from Berlin, despite this being the only way out of the euro crisis other than at least partially breaking up the euro zone. Just strict fiscal discipline, with no room for "crass Keynesianism." And Sarkozy was not providing a counterbalance. He was the junior partner of Merkozy. As society suffers under austerity, you get results like in the Greek elections yesterday. Or the 6.4 million French voting for Le Pen in April. And desperate center-right politicians accommodating the far right to stay in power.

Francois Hollande has changed the conversation, even before his victory yesterday. Merkel and Mario Draghi are talking about the importance of growth, even if they have different ideas. The way forward will be difficult. President Hollande's agenda is even more intimidating than President Obama's was in January 2009, given the weaknesses of the French economy compared with the power of Germany and the markets. But his election is a good thing.

But that's enough of the economics - I was in France for the election yesterday as the Socialists celebrated their first presidential victory since 1988, in the left-leaning northern city of Lille (where Parti Socialiste chief Martine Aubry is mayor), a 35-minute TGV ride from Brussels. The city was fairly quiet during the day, except for the lively Wazemmes market, near which we discovered a polling station. We stood in line checking out the scene until someone told us we needed our blue cards to vote, then left the election to explore an art museum, the book market in the old bourse, the citadel, and the zoo (I mused that if the zoo had been somewhere in America, two weeks prior, I might well have run into a Campaigning Newt).

Around 5, we stopped for a drink at a bar with a TV and watched commentary about a good turnout. At 8, we were walking by another bar when I spotted Hollande's picture flashed on the screen and heard cheers. We entered and caught Sarkozy's concession speech, where his raucous crowd of supporters reminded me of those at John McCain's concession four years ago. After a nasty final stretch of campaign, both Sarkozy and Hollande were very gracious once the result was announced.

On the Place du General de Gaulle, the party had started. A crowd of a few hundred people gathered, waving posters of Hollande and flags - of France, of the Parti Socialiste, of the Hollande campaign, of Algeria. A congo line weaved through the crowd as dance music pumped out of a balcony above. I caught the scent of weed. Socialism is back, in one leading European country at least, and if it's hardly going to be a party over the next months and years at least it could be one on Sunday night.