From Russia (or rather Istanbul!) with love!

Hello and welcome back, thank you for gracing me with your presence dear reader.

Today, I am going to channel my Turkish roots. On both sides of my family I have Turkish ancestry and I have always felt a great affinity with this enchanting country. A unique land which straddles two continents, embracing the best of Europe and Asia, Turkey has seen many past glories and is still standing much as Kemal Ataturk, the founder of the Turkish Republic, would have envisaged it.

Tomorrow, brings the second election this year and it is a make or break poll for President Recip Tayip Erdogan and his AK Party who have dominated Turkish politics for the past thirteen years. First elected in 2002, anybody who knew Turkey in the 1990s would have a hard time denying that the AK Party has transformed society and the economy for the better. The rights of women to wear a headscarf or divorce were severely restricted under preceding administrations. During the Cold War period the state was beset by unstable, corrupt and incompetent governments and had the ignominious label of ‘the sick man of Europe’ due its poorly performing economy and virtually worthless currency. I can recall on a trip to Turkey in the early 2000s’ carting around what felt like a brick but was in actual fact the necessary funds for a short taxi ride!

In 2002, following a severe economic crisis AK was elected headed up by the former footballer and firebrand, Recip Tayip Erdogan, who then set about reforming the economy and achieving, on average, a 4% GDP annual growth rate between 1999 and 2015 according to Trading Economics, a global economics consultancy.  Turkey became a respected middle income country, made significant progress on its long stalled plans to EU membership and built new alliances in the Middle East and Asia. The world had come to Turkey and life was as sweet as a box of Turkish delight!

Nowadays, Turkey is at the centre of a global storm. With its neighbour, Syria, in a state of civil war Turkey has seen an estimated 2 million refugees (a figure provided by UNHCR) stream through its borders and continued flows of migration from the ongoing conflict in Iraq. European leaders have now put aside concerns over press freedom and alleged human rights abuses to get down to some realpolitik with President Erdogan. Like him or loathe him (and it is one of the two believe me!) he is central to a resolution of the refugee crisis which has seen many dispossessed peoples hurry to European shores to escape the turmoil in the Middle East. Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, were recent visitors to President Erdogan’s sumptuous palace in Ankara, the Turkish capital. Russian President Vladimir Putin also has geostrategic interests in keeping Turkey on side as his navy needs access to the warm waters of the Mediterranean via the Turkish held Bosphorous Straits.

The election in June resulted in a loss of the overall Parliamentary majority of the AK Party in over a decade as liberals and ethnic minorities coalesced around opposition parties. Following on from violent street demonstrations in Istanbul and Ankara in 2013 and a recent bomb attack at an opposition election rally in October, President Erdogan is not universally popular and as his economy has slowed many Turks are looking for worthy alternatives. Unfortunately, the opposition parties are largely untested, inexperienced and beset by scandal.

Tomorrow’s election, according to the Turkish Daily Sabah newspaper, could result in another coalition government but what it urges is a majority AK Party as the best option to revive a Turkish economy under pressure and to deal with the myriad of foreign policy challenges on its doorstep. Certainly for Europe, a strong Turkish government in Ankara will be much better to tackle the refugee crisis and help find a political solution to the twin crises in Syria and Iraq.  It is in all our interests to ensure that Turkey remains stable and well run and for that there is at this moment in time not much alternative to President Erdogan and the AK Party. Roll on Sunday’s election day!

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A message of hope for the people of Europe!

Hello, so today I’m cheerful, therefore I want to look at the success of the European Union (EU) and try and spread a little optimism in the world. In this effort I will focus attention on the emergency which swept Europe this summer.

First off, what success I hear you cry!? Well, I want to start with a quote from Jean Monnet, a Frenchman widely seen as the ‘George Washington’ of the European Union. He said “Make men work together to show them that beyond their differences and geographical boundaries there lies a common interest.” Stirring stuff but not much in evidence as we look around us. According to Eurobarometer, European citizens’ trust in the EU is currently running at a not so whopping 40%. Many of our leaders today match these popularity levels in their own countries. Our Presidents’ and Prime Ministers’  are driven by the polls, right wing media barons and narrowly defined special interests, and this has led to timid and wavering commitments when faced with pan-national emergencies, such as over the Eurozone or refugee crises. So, I want to celebrate the achievements of the people of Europe who have shown far more courage and generosity of spirit.

Let me begin in Germany, for which I have a soft spot (have you been able to tell!?). Long before this situation hit the headlines, Jonas Kakoschke, Mareike Geiling and Golde Ebding, three inspirational young people in Berlin set up the website ‘Fluchtlinge Wilkommen’ or ‘Refugees Welcome’ to match up those people willing to house or flatshare with the newcomers. For the refugees this is ideal because they have better chances of integrating, more opportunities to improve their language skills and find work. For the hosts they learn about a new culture and get to help those in need. As of September 2015, 780 Germans had signed up and 26 refugees had been assigned to new homes. Similar websites have since been launched in Austria and France and more are set to follow. European leaders were shamed into following suit and the Finnish Prime Minister offered a room in his residence and an ex-Premier of Hungary (a country which has not exactly been a shining example throughout this crisis!) opened his doors to a group of refugees.

European nations have found that while leaders squabbled at summits in Brussels, suspended cross-European rail lines and erected walls, volunteers hurried down to railways stations in Milan, Munich and Vienna or the holiday resorts of Lesbos in Greece and Sicilian beaches in Italy to donate a variety of supplies, such as baby milk, SIM cards for mobile phones, clothes, toys, bottles of water and other goods. Train of Hope, a charity set up to provide assistance at Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof had 3,000 volunteers on hand to cope with the volume of new arrivals during the height of the situation.

The mainstream media has spared no effort in highlighting and too often reveling in the potential diseases or threat of violence which could be brought to European shores. Not to mention the attacks on the temporary accommodation of refugees in Germany and Sweden for example, which they says shows the public’s growing anxiety about foreigners. This has been echoed by many of the worst right wing politicians/demagogues in Europe who say our societies are now disintegrating and that our civilisation is going to be destroyed. In spite of this we still see large numbers of ordinary citizens, made up of young and old, professional and manual workers, male and female, taking to autumnal streets in their thousands to show solidarity with refugees and counter the messages of the intolerant and doom-mongerers. This could be seen most recently in multicultural Cologne, Germany, where 20,000 people rallied last weekend and Europe wide rallies last month which saw 30,000 citizens gather at Copenhagen Station in the Danish capital in support of refugees, and similar protests in London, Madrid, The Hague and Dublin, according to  Al Jazeera, the international news channel.

When railway links between European states were arbitrarily suspended by panicked national authorities, ordinary Germans, Greeks, Austrians and Italians came back from work in the evening and drove refugees across borders so the dispossessed could continue their journey across the European continent.

What I have striven to show dear reader, is that while the institutions and even some of the leaders of Europe show little sign of statesmanship and grit in the face of truly global challenges, we should not forget the ‘silent majority’ (I hate using this Nixon inspired quote but for want of a better phrase!) who live out the virtues of the EU through their messages of tolerance, equality, solidarity and understanding which were borne out no more clearly than this summer. I think Jean Monnet would still see reasons for hope in our European future, as long as he looked beyond the glass and steel buildings of the European Quarter in Brussels.

Poland’s rightwingers dumped for even more rightwingers!

Hello, good morning/afternoon or evening (delete as necessary wherever you happen to be!). Today it is Warsaw calling (actually that sounds too much like something out of the Eurovision Song Contest so I’ll rephrase!) Topic for today’s post is Poland.

Nestling at the heart of Europe it is part of what Donald Rumsfeld, former US Defence Secretary called ‘New Europe.’ The choice it has made in elections this weekend has not shown anything new though. Poland has chosen to end the eight year long rule of the centre right, Civic Platform, initially led by Donald Tusk (who now heads up the European Council in Brussels) from 2007-2014 and now Eva Kopacz, an emergency doctor, who was not really needed at the helm of the country, as far as emergencies go anyway. What I mean by that is that under Civic Platform, the economy in Poland had actually shown great promise and steadiness, the economy expanded by 3.4% in the first half of this year according to the World Bank. It may not be an outstanding rate of expansion but it is indicative of the fact that Poland avoided a recession that has engulfed large swathes of other European Union (EU) states. Although, GDP per capita still remains at only 67% of the EU average and according to the Politico.eu website, average monthly salaries (post-tax) are at 2,940 zlotys (€700), a third of the level in Germany. (Phew, that will be enough with the stats for now I promise!) It may be for this latter reason of growing inequality that Poland lurched ever further rightwards.

The new PM of Poland is set to be Beata Szydlo, an unknown miner’s daughter, but the person who is essentially in the driving seat is Jaroslaw Kaczynski. Mr Kaczynski is an ex-PM but one whose rule was pretty incompetent and divisive last time round. Hence he had to nominate his deputy as candidate for PM so as not to turn off potential voters! He only lasted a year in office and by the time he fell Poland had cheesed off almost all of Europe with outlandish policies, such as demanding extra voting rights at EU meetings as a form of war reparation from WWII. He is likely to try and emulate Sonia Gandhi in India, and attempt to steer from behind the scenes, this Mr Kaczynski also tried last time round in 2006, only for him to grow impatient and take the helm formally himself. History may repeat itself, in which case don’t worry about learning anything further about Mrs Szydlo!

Mr Kaczynski, is worth a bit of time however. A recent Financial Times article entitled ‘the power behind the Polish throne’ it paints a picture of a Bond-esque villain type of schemer. A sure fired Machiavelli, who is unmarried, lived with his mother till he was 60, did not have a bank account or driving licence till he became PM in 2006, and an avid reader of politics and history. OK, so he doesn’t sound Bond-esque villain like as such, but he does own a cat and is an ardent feline lover!

He won this election by promising everything to everybody, including increased welfare spending, a lower retirement age and new taxes on foreign banks. He has also offered to tuck a protective, paternalistic hand around Poland’s borders and block any talk or alleged encroachment of shared ‘secular European values’ in favour of traditional ‘Catholic family values’. For the rest of us this means there is going to be a combative role played against the EU, picking fights with Mr Tusk (who despite being a fellow Pole is still the man who deposed Mr Kaczynski from power last time round) and over the issue of refugees this is going to be stark. Whereas, Ms Kopacz had reluctantly accepted about 7,000 Middle Eastern and Asian refugees, the xenophobic Mr Kaczynski will not tolerate that and has warned that they will bring “cholera to the Greek islands and dysentery to Vienna.” Not sure that many Greeks or Austrians would agree with that and it is deeply ironic that Mr Kaczynski has raised such concerns for his European neighbours given his regular rants at them! Ms Kopacz, in one of her wittier frames of mind quipped that he is happy enough to own cats given the diseases they can carry!

On a serious note, Poland is too large to ignore and I fear that a new alliance of extremist right wingers will form an alliance of sorts in Central and Eastern Europe. Many analysts have pointed out that Mr Kaczynski’s party now holds both the Parliament and Presidency in its hands and could take Poland down an authoritarian path. This would be an emulation of Hungary’s nationalistic PM Viktor Orban, who has already made himself and his country notorious for authoritarian and intolerant behaviour. Let us wait and see if Mr Kaczynski learnt anything from his last, rather disastrous stint in power.

Venice a reform not a reform?

So welcome dear reader, benvenuto, as I take you (merely metaphorically I’m afraid – budget cuts and all that!) to the land of leaning towers, scenes of Shakespearean drama, Da Vinci, Prada, gondolas, pizza and gelato. Yes, it is Italy!

Reforms are in the air in this boot shaped land of rolling hills and stunning Mediterranean vistas as, alas, beneath the surface not much has been going right for this country recently. Since 2014, Italy has watched the hyper activity of its’ Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, to size up whether his reformist zeal is finally going to lift this nation from the malaise it has been in for an indefinable number of years. In 2011, during the height of the Eurozone crisis, Italy’s longest serving PM since Mussolini, the larger than life Silvio Berlusconi, was forced out of office to chants of ‘buffone’ (which I don’t think needs translating!) as Italy’s economy and pride hit rock bottom.

Since then, an air of confidence has returned to la Bella Italia under Mr Renzi and he has, to give him his credit, identified the obstacles to Italy’s progress and tried to address them. Now there is no stone left unturned as he tries to reform the Senate, education system, judiciary and the labour market amongst others. Many commentators, such as Alex Roe, respected blogger and editor of Italy Chronicles, are undecided as to how effective these reforms will be and the haste with which they are being pushed through. Some are even suggesting it is ‘window dressing’ in the most inimitable of Italian ways!

No sharper example of this ‘window dressing’ is the recently proposed budget. Since the crisis of confidence in 2011, Italy has been under the watchful eye of Brussels and Berlin and all had been ticking along quite nicely until this latest budget plan of Mr Renzi’s (which bizarrely came out in a series of Tweets) was put to Brussels. After several years of belt tightening to try and tackle the mountain of debt Italy is drowning in, Mr Renzi has put forward plans to cut taxes and increase spending. Not a recipe for long term success, especially given that the PM has mooted a cut to the easily enforceable and highly profitable property tax. In a touch of bravado and Brussels bashing (which is always a popular pastime) he has said he will merely send the budget plans unchanged again if it is rejected. Now why exactly is he doing this and picking this particular fight? Well the cynic in me would like to point out that 2016 will be a decisive year for Matt (actually I’ll go back to Mr Renzi as we aren’t exactly on first name terms yet!), with Rome and Milan both holding city wide elections and a referendum due on the changes to the Senate in the middle of the year. Poor performances in any of those electoral tests could seriously jeopardise his position.

Having sounded a note of caution, Mr Renzi remains by far the most popular politician in Italy at the moment. Yet, in the space of his, so far brief, tenure his popularity has almost halved from 60% in 2014 to 33% now according to ANSA, the Italian news agency. Brussels is not unsympathetic to the Premier, given his generous response to the refugee crisis this summer, and the fact that both France and Spain are not exactly adhering to the letter of the EU’s Growth and Stability Pact either, means he has some leeway. He is still reliant on the goodwill of his European counterparts however, and needs to pick his battles very carefully.

The biggest current threat to the energetic Prime Minister’s occupation of the Palazzo Chigi, the PM’s official residence in Rome, is not the discredited Mr Silvio ‘Bunga Bunga’ Berlusconi but the upstart party called the Five Star Movement. Led by comic Beppe Grillo they have surged up the polls with their attacks on corruption and are now gearing up for the elections next year. Rome would be the biggest prize. Long beset with scandalous goings-on involving Mafiosi and corrupt bureaucrats the surgeon from the US, Mayor Ignazio Marino, had come in promising to clean the city up. However, nefarious individuals have been out to embarrass the Mayor and after a flamboyant Mafia don’s funeral which brought Rome’s city centre to a standstill during the holiday season, those higher up the greasy political pole have forced him out and even his membership of the PM’s own PD Party has not saved him (he may not go quietly but that is a separate story for another day). Since then, the Prime Minister has been in need of a ‘game changer’ (as the parlance goes!)

As winter sets in and 2016 busies its way towards us, Italy is at a crossroads. Cliché of the century I know but bear with me! For a brief period ordinary Italians felt their dynamic PM would get the country moving again and he may, certainly the Milanese bankers and merchants of Rome, still retain their trust in him. However, Italy’s biggest export still seems to be her youngest and brightest, who go on to achieve great things in London, New York, Berlin and elsewhere. We can have confidence in Italy and her prospects when this process goes into reverse but time is no longer on Matteo Renzi’s side and the patience of Italians, young and old, is running out.

IAEA or not to IAEA? That is the question!

So my second post in the space of an hour! Aren’t you the lucky ones!

As the title suggests the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) is my topic for this particular article. OK, no groaning now, a little bit of background. Established in 1957, the IAEA is packed with probably more PhDs than you can shake a stick at! The mission of the IAEA is the promotion of ‘atoms for peace.’  It is the international body responsible for the safe promotion of nuclear energy and research, and has more often than not, found itself at the centre of decisions concerning war and peace, for example over Iraq in 2003.

In terms of resources the IAEA employs over 2,500 people from more than 100 different countries and with its headquarters in Vienna, Austria, it also operates laboratories in Austria, and Monaco. In addition it has liaison offices in New York and Geneva. The personnel of these sites come from all walks of life and range from scientists and technicians to accountants and publishers.

It’s current Director General is Yukio Amano and the biggest file to land on his desk this year has been the Iran-USA deal. For the IAEA this means it must monitor the implementation of the deal by the Iranians,  inspect nuclear facilities and report back to the rest of the world on progress made. Another flashpoint it has to keep an eye on is North Korea, which has kicked out IAEA inspectors and made developing its nuclear weapons arsenal a national priority. On top of this the organisation also has less headline grabbing areas of work, such as providing technical assistance to states on the handling of radioactive materials or support on procurement of safe nuclear materials for nations who want to add nuclear to their energy mix. The IAEA has recently been most active in Africa, helping countries such as South Africa and Egypt on such matters. Other African leaders, including in Morocco, Kenya and Niger, have also now begun to contemplate a nuclear powered future.

The nuclear energy industry is once again on the up. In 2011, the accident at Fukushima, Japan, where an earthquake and tsunami triggered a nuclear meltdown led governments around the world to shy away from nuclear power. Indeed, most prominently of all, Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, made a swift policy change and promised to close down all the nuclear power stations in Germany. Meanwhile, in the aftermath of Fukushima, the IAEA created an action plan to cope with such disasters in the future and member states started to implement the recommendations of the IAEA.

Nuclear safety and the threat of nuclear terrorism are the more obvious responsibilities of the IAEA but because of its extensive scientific research in nuclear techniques it has also particular expertise in healthcare, food safety, coastal pollution and animal disease control. For example, according to the IAEA Bulletin September 2015, it has developed a cancer control strategy entitled Program of Action for Cancer Therapy (PACT) to assist lower income countries in utilising radiotherapy services to fight cancer. These sorts of programmes give the IAEA significant clout when it comes to issues of international development.

Like the FAO, which I wrote about previously, experts at the IAEA are gearing up for the crucial climate change talks in Paris, scheduled for six weeks time. The IAEA has presented a report entitled ‘Climate Change and Nuclear Power 2015’ which highlights the role nuclear power could play in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This could place nuclear power centre stage  of energy policymaking once again.

It will be interesting to see how these talks develop but the object of this article has been to underline the vital work of the IAEA, in not just keeping us safe but also helping us to meet global development goals. It is important that in a world which faces an array of challenges that the achievements of those at the IAEA are recognised, and crucially that the organisation is provided with all the resources it needs to meet those future international challenges.

Ein Schwieriges Jahr (A difficult year!)

Wilkommen! Pretty obvious which country I’m going to talk about? Yes, you guessed it’s Germany but before you, dear reader, start to groan and complain that I have already written a post on Germany I want to address some glaring issues that I did not address previously.

I want to look at 2015 and assess (don’t worry I’ll attempt to be brief!) the tumultuous year it has been for brand ‘Germany.’

Approaching the close of 2015, as the pile of autumnal leaves on my doorstep indicates is just around the corner, some big names in Germany have had their reputations damaged to varying degrees. Whilst, much of Europe has seen the decline of many of its larger brand names or long ago sold them off to the highest bidder, the Germans have assiduously promoted policies that put their biggest names at the forefront of decision-making. It is for this reason that Germany is the top European trade partner of emerging markets like China, India and Brazil to name a handful.

First, there is the scandal at Volkswagen, where it was revealed that it had been selling cars with fiddled emissions standards. Volkswagen is more than just a brand name though, it is literally part of the geography of modern Germany with its own manufacturing town, called Wolfsburg, reportedly the size of Gibraltar. Same goes for other German auto-makers such as BMW, which looms large over Munich with sponsorship of Bayern Munich Football Club and the Bavarian State Opera, not omitting its skyline topping headquarters/museum. Back to Volkswagen though, according to reports, VW may not be the only company using so called ‘defeat devices’ on its vehicles and it is not the first time car companies have been found cheating environmental standards. Scandals in the 1990’s hit General Motors, Ford and Honda. All resulted in sackings, recalls, fines and promises to change. So, my point is that VW should not be singled out at this stage and it is just the one that (unhappily for it) got caught. Like the banks in 2008, what is needed now is a toughening and clean up of the regulatory system of the automobile industry, at both national and European levels.

Now, I’m going to move on to planes. To be precise, Lufthansa. That eagle of the air. It has not been a happy year for this brand either. In March, there was the truly terrible tragedy of the Germanwings crash in the Alps (Germanwings being a subsidiary of Lufthansa). It was established that the co-pilot was to blame but it raised several questions about safety. Lufthansa has also been hit by a wave of pilot strikes over pay and retirement benefits. By September, the stoppage had registered as the thirteenth stoppage in eighteen months. That may sound pretty awful but Lufthansa is still a favoured airline by many; it reported profits of €529 million and an 8.9% increase in total revenue from the second quarter of 2014.

Another German brand that had a tough 2015, was Deutsche Bank. Hit with a hefty multibillion Euro fine at the beginning of this year, for its part in that nasty Libor fixing affair, it has seen a net loss in profits and falls in its stock price. However, the winds of change have blown in and led to changes in management and rigorous cost cutting, not to mention a dressing down by a chief executive to subordinates in the investment banking division telling them not to be ‘boastful, indiscreet and vulgar.’ Which for many City bankers is tantamount to stripping them of their character!

As I write investigations have been launched into allegations reported by Der Spiegel, a German investigative news magazine, of bribe taking in the murky depths of the footballing world. Controversy surrounds the German World Cup bid committee who successfully brought the World Cup to Germany in 2006. It is alleged that top officials used a slush fund to secure the votes of the top brass at FIFA, the football world’s governing body. Again, another potential chink in the German brand juggernaut but when we consider the number of countries alleged to have been involved in paying bribes, including South Africa who were runner up in their 2006 bid and who now face questions over their successful 2010 application the whole thing looks less focused on Germany.

My conclusion, which has probably come through loud and clear at the end of each paragraph, is that while undoubtedly a tough year for Germany and the strong brand it has created in modern times, we should not write off Germany and nor should anyone (Europeans in particular!) aim to do so. After all, ask yourself is it Germany’s fault that it remained the only country to continue making things and actually investing in its manufacturing sector?

Getting a good deal for our stomachs in Paris!

Welcome back brave reader and I hope you are well nourished! I know a slightly odd thing to say but I have food on the agenda for today’s blog post (and I’m not talking about a mouth watering fish and chips luncheon which I am about to devour!) More specifically I want to look at food security.

Last week (16th October) marked World Food Day, a dedicated day to eradicate hunger in our lifetimes, and it also celebrated the establishment of the Rome-based Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) in 1945, which is the organisation tasked with helping us to achieve this goal. For 70 years now it has toiled at trying to achieve this laudable mission.

Here comes the maths bit! According to the FAO almost 800 million people suffer from chronic hunger. Amongst children under five years old, 161 million are chronically malnourished. Yet, we also have an estimated 500 million people in the world who are classified clinically obese. How we address this is where the matter becomes very complex, it is not a question of just producing more food for the world’s poorest. It requires action on our healthcare services, agricultural sector and the food supply chain, resource allocations and climate change.

Now, I realise this post could turn into a long thesis, and there are people far better qualified than me to provide a thorough analysis, and whilst I don’t want to diminish the challenges of the first two I want to direct my focus onto my last couple of points because we have a critical summit about climate change coming up this December in Paris.

Climate change is happening that’s a fact, and its evidence can be most clearly seen in the extreme weather patterns we are seeing across the globe, from severe droughts in California to catastrophic floods in China. If there is one sector of our economies, where even a subtle change in our environment has the biggest impact, it is the farming industry. Crops can overnight be ruined and farmers bankrupted due to failures in the monsoons arriving. You only have to look at the increasing number of farmer suicides in India, where that country’s National Crime Records Bureau registered 5,650 farmer suicides in 2014 (and this may be an underestimate). Unfortunately, these numbers are only rising.  It may be presumptuous to attribute climate change as the reason in all cases but it is evident that it has played at least a contributing factor in many.

For those fortunate enough to be living in wealthier states, it is imperative we continue to apply pressure to our governments and the European Union (EU) in highlighting food security at this UN sponsored conference in Paris.

In 2008, we saw in stark terms what even a temporary spike in food prices could do to the world economy, especially in economically vulnerable states in Africa, Asia and the Caribbean. The prices of staple food items in developing countries, such as rice increased by 180%, and the World Bank also estimated that 105 million people were either kept or pushed into poverty in low income countries by the crisis. Since then global food prices have remained very volatile and it is expected that this will be the case for a long time to come.

The world received a sharp wake up call in 2008 and the response of governments and international organisations have been mixed. The EU responded in the immediate aftermath of the crisis with a €1 billion Food Facility Fund (FFF) which channelled money via the UN and NGO relief agencies on the ground across some of the world’s most troubled spots. The European Commission states that it provided €42.9 million to Ethiopia and €31 million to Kenya over the two year course of the FFF and this was invested in improving the efficiency of agricultural production, providing seeds and fertilisers for farms and food research programmes. It also provided funding for other such schemes across the globe. This Fund was effective and empowering for communities in the countries where it operated but it was only established as a short term measure.

This is the key to resolving the issue, money and long term planning. There is no dearth of reports and assessments, widely available on the Internet, which underline the lack of funding and resources provided to institutions such as the FAO, EU and charities to really get to grips with this problem. Only last week the UK’s Guardian newspaper reported that apart from some initial aid from the EU, the world still hasn’t come good on promises made four years ago to fund a global drought information system to monitor and issue warnings of such climatic occurrences. It is welcome, that Bernie Sanders, a Democratic Senator in the USA, mentioned the big threat of climate change to future national security but this needs to be backed up with proper investment. Appropriate funding by Member States for the FAO and EU to put initiatives such as the FFF on a more sustainable footing would be a step in the right direction. Placing food security centre stage at the December jamboree would be progress for sure. However, it should begin in Paris and not end there.

Guten Abend aus Osterreich! Kuchen und Kaffee!

Actually, I’m not in Austria (more’s the pity as I’ve always wanted to have coffee and Sachertorte in a Viennese café!), but I am currently ensconced in my apartment in the UK.

The reason I have chosen Austria for my topic today is because last week there were some interesting city wide elections in the Austrian capital, Vienna. Before I come to that though a little background story awaits you lucky people!

Austria, as many of you may be aware, has been at the receiving end of many, many refugees in this European ‘Fluchtslingekrise’ as it is called in German. It is important to note that many refugees do not appear to have applied for asylum in Austria itself and the vast majority are making a beeline for Germany and the Scandinavian countries. During this crisis, many opportunistic right wing outfits across Europe have made stirring up hatred and fear among the populace a national sport. Only today, news came through that a candidate for Mayor in Cologne, Germany, has been stabbed for being supportive of refugees. Austria is also, unfortunately, no stranger to vocal and nasty xenophobes. It is important to note here that like a lot of other decent minded Europeans in Germany and elsewhere, many Austrians have been out helping new arrivals with supplies of water, SIM cards for smartphones, nappies, clothes, food etc. so I would like it known that I am not writing an anti-Austrian article here.

The Chancellor of Austria, Werner Feymann, a Social Democrat, has like Angela Merkel in neighbouring Germany, been very generous and supportive of the newcomers crossing his borders. Austria is a much smaller country though, and whilst cosmopolitan Vienna is used to seeing various nationalities wondering its’ fair streets, rural Austria is not. In 2000, the country made the headlines when it elected into power the nationalist Freedom Party (FPO), a xenophobic right wing party with a history of naked Islamophobia and anti-Semitism. This was mainly on the back of rural votes and the charismatic but noxious late Jorg Haider. Whilst the FPO swiftly fell from grace, and has since had a patchy record it is now finding its voice again under Heinz Christian-Strache, a deeply unpleasant dental assistant, who has written many virulent tomes, one entitled ‘Native Austrians not Islam’. In so called ‘Red Vienna’, he recently managed to make gains to achieve 31% of the vote in municipal elections and ran the long dominant Social Democrats (who polled 40%) fairly close. However, the incumbent and popular long serving Mayor, Michael Haeupl, supported by the Greens (who also put in a strong showing at 12% of the vote share) had defied the polls, which had predicted a triumph for the FPO. At the celebration party, Mr Haeupl’s supporters proclaimed it a victory over fear and scaremongering.

This result portends well for the Federal Presidential election next year and the Federal Parliamentary election in 2018 when Werner Feymann and his Social Democrat coalition face re-election. However, there are ill winds swirling with continued economic instability in the Eurozone (which is already starting to pressure an up until now relatively sound Austrian economy) and the continuing record numbers of immigrants travelling via Austria unwittingly providing fodder for the diet of anti-foreigner diatribes of the far right. Still not all is doom and gloom and the Viennese have ensured that theirs’ is a city that continues to remain open for business. Bravo to the Austrians, who a century ago, found a place in their capital for exiles such as Hitler, Stalin, Lenin and Freud at the same time. Now if you can tolerate them in your capital city you can tolerate anyone surely!

Grits vs ‘old stock’ Canadians? Canada’s big day!

Welcome and bonjour! This is slightly misleading as an introduction because I am not actually going to be talking about France, but I’m venturing across the Atlantic to multilingual, cosmopolitan (and slightly European!) Canada.

Next week Canada votes in elections to decide whether it will end almost a decade of Conservative rule under PM Stephen Harper. The election next Monday will bring to a close a marathon 70/80 odd day campaign period (I know pity the poor Canadians for enduring this!) the longest in Canadian history.

At the start of the campaign in August, PM Harper was all set to take advantage of his healthy bank balance and utilise sharp, sustained campaign attack ads against the young leader of the once titanic Liberal Party, Justin Trudeau, to sink his ship. Mr Trudeau, a photogenic son of late Premier Pierre Trudeau, has shot this fox (I’m trying to get away from the maritime metaphors so forgive this slightly crude phrasing!) by having what commentators would say is a slick campaign and, importantly, put in a solid performance during the debates. In fact, to this layman, Mr Trudeau has offered what I’d say is a positive vision for Canada, especially on infrastructure and refugees. I know this because whilst writing I am watching The Globe and Mail TV debate (Pretty sad I know!) Personally, I think he stands a good chance come the 19th given his debate performance but let’s hold our horses till the election day!

With the economy in trouble after years of living off the commodity prices boom, Mr Harper has adopted the tactics of his shadowy political adviser, Lynton Crosby, (who has been accused by critics of his use of ‘dead cat on a table’ methods of winning) to distract Canadians from this critical issue. This has led to a rather odd and lengthy debate about the place of the niqab in Canadian public life, and if you look at the numbers involved it looks even less relevant to the challenges Canada faces today.

However, in spite of all this, there is still much to play for. This is because I have not so far mentioned the leftist NDP and their pugnacious leader, Tom Mulcair. Mr Harper has successfully exploited this division on the left and during this debate Mr Harper looked like the cat which got the cream when he saw Mr Trudeau and Mr Mulcair tearing strips out of each other. I visibly saw him licking his lips during these points of the debate! The big breeze blocks back to the PM’s residence in Ottawa are there for all 3 party leaders and it will not be easy for any of them to mount these blocks (these are metaphoric blocks by the way as I don’t think there are physical blocks on the highway!). A period of coalition building may loom but a favourable wind is blowing in the left’s favour. Let’s see who gets their adulating supporters out on the day, as this is the key to election days in western democracies, not the polls.

A lot of Canadian progressives (which is a pretty sizeable number) have been waiting for a long, long time for an end to the Harper era but whether they can start bringing out the fanfares next week remains to be seen!

Wilkommen! Germany under the spotlight

Welcome (or should I say Wilkommen – this is an obvious clue to the topic of today’s post!) to article number 3 of my shiny new blog. I am very grateful for the attention!

So as you may already have guessed I am going to talk about Germany. The weekend just gone marks the 25th anniversary of the reunification of West and East Germany. A seismic political event which re-shaped Europe, and I personally recall it as my earliest political memory where I was sitting on the living room floor, engrossed in the unfolding events!

Fast forward 25 years and (I am no longer the cute child sitting on the living room floor, that’s for sure – but back to Germany!) we have a nation that has made great strides in economic development but is now a key (if not the pivotal) decisionmaker in European affairs. For example, President Obama (sitting in the Oval Office in Washington) when he wants a fellow analytical mind to advise on developments on the European continent he telephones the German Chancellor. According to the biography of Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, by Stefan Kornelius, they hold a video conference about once a week.

However, if modern Germany is still a relative newbie to international politics, it is certainly no pygmy on the economic field. It is a global leader, with an unrivalled financial and industrial base. Big household names, such as Mercedes, AEG, Siemens, Deutsche Bank and Allianz regularly hit the upper echelons of the commercial world and with good reason. I have an excellent AEG oven I hasten to add!

Politically speaking, Germany has taken a more interventionist foreign policy. For historical reasons, it had always kept a low profile internationally and contented itself with purely business matters. This formula worked for a while and neighbouring states were content to keep it that way. Then came the turn of the millennium and under the gregarious, cigar chomping Gerhard Schroeder, Germany embarked on its first overseas combat mission in Kosovo and then hot on its heels came the post 9/11 intervention in Afghanistan.  Under the conservative Angela Merkel, Germany, as the only country in Europe to have kept a tidy financial house, it found itself thrust into leading efforts to save the Eurozone single currency market as one by one other states (such as Portugal, Greece, Ireland and Italy) found their economies in serious peril during the 2008 downturn. Berlin is now an equal to Brussels as a go to capital city for any world leader seeking to do business or understand current European politics.

Affectionately known as ‘Mutti’ (or mother in German) she has now been forced to step up to the plate regarding the large volume of refugees from Syria and other parts of the world now descending on Europe. She took the courageous decision to accept refugees from war ravaged Syria but according to WDR (a German TV channel) 51% of Germans now feel worried about the sheer numbers involved. This is up from 38% in September and local councils and Parliamentarians are now questioning the decision to admit such numbers, especially given concerns about the infiltration of economic migrants from other, less desperate countries than Syria. Germans are a very generous bunch I have found but this situation has also been exacerbated by other European countries sloping out of their humanitarian duties and petulantly saying they will only accept Christians or their economies are too weak to support Europe at this time. This is lunacy (not to mention a slap in the face for international treaties) when you consider the position of small, recession hit multi ethnic Lebanon, which has been accepting wave after wave of refugees with little outside help. Anyway, I digress and have made this a long entry, but I feel Germany deserves it. It is at the centre of current European and international issues and given its’ own societal strains and challenges, such as building a modern, prosperous multicultural society, it should be applauded and supported for the very tough decisions it (and Frau Merkel) has had to take. After all very few have been willing to shoulder responsibilities the way Germany has, and as the Serbian PM, Alexander Vucic, said when referring to the equally enlightened attitude of Serbia to this refugee crisis, ‘we do not see the European Union as just an ATM.’