A life on the ocean waves!

Welcome dear reader, today the topic will be piracy. Now I want you to wipe the board clean when you think of pirates. They are no longer the 17th century image of Captain Jack Sparrow or at the other end of the spectrum, Captain Pugwash!

Increasingly, they are ruthless hostage takers who go not only for small yachts but oil tankers and freighters. Like 21st century terrorists and smugglers they make full use of the most up to date technology, like GPS systems and smartphones.

To keep this piece relatively short (you know what I am like by now dear reader, I can never keep things too short!) I am going to look at two particular areas where pirates are active and that is off the coast of war torn Somalia and the Malacca Straits.

In the warm, picturesque waters of the Gulf of Aden, China recently held joint anti-piracy exercises with NATO naval forces according to Reuters news agency. For China, keeping this passage clear for much needed oil supplies is integral to its economic security. The article from Reuters went on to note that China, even though it is averse to maintaining overseas military bases has been active in building up facilities in Djibouti, a strategically positioned state on the Gulf of Aden, in case it is ever needed.

Significant investments in naval patrols, by the EU in particular, which launched Operation Atalanta in 2008 has resulted in a sizable reduction in incidents of hijacking of boats. A list of the numerous succesess of Atalanta can be seen on the website of the EU’s External Action Service page concerning the EUNAVFOR operation.However, as a recent article in the UK’s Guardian newspaper noted the causes of the piracy, the overfishing by major powers in fish rich Somali waters, has yet to be adequately tackled. Most pirates in this part of the world were once fishermen driven to the lucrative piracy trade. At the height of the crisis, in 2011/2012 the Economist magazine estimated that the average ransom for a ship was $2.7 million.

Pity poor China here though dear reader, because my attention is now going to turn to the Malacca Straits, located off the coast of Malaysia and the archipelago of Indonesia. Already having to send its navy off to Africa it is having to step up responsibility for the waterways in its own backyard! China’s thirst for oil to power its gargantuan economy has seen the Straits become the one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, carrying one third of all the world’s most traded goods, according to the Baltic and International Maritime Council (BIMCO).

What is different to the incidents of ‘ship-napping’ (I have just made up the term by the way, not sure if ship-napping is strictly correct!) off the Somali coast is the discerning nature of the pirates in Asia. Here, they are essentially targeting the smaller vessels, ones which carry diesel and marine oil in particular. Whilst it may sound less ‘sexy’ the rewards come in the form of money with one hijacked tanker carrying almost four million litres of diesel, which was worth $2 million, as reported by the German new service, Deutsche Welle.

Another big difference is the sophistication involved in these attacks in the region. Unlike Somalia, there have been no reports of kidnappings of crew members let alone anybody being injured or killed. The pirates merely steal the cargo and then leave with their loot of ‘black gold.’

This does not mean that the attacks have been any less disruptive, according to the UN’s Global Report on Maritime Piracy 2013, the number of attacks has risen from 80 in 2008 to over 150 four years later. Now in 2015, the International Maritime Bureau has logged SE Asia as having 55% of the world’s recorded piracy incidents.

Like the EU’s Operation Atalanta mission, ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations) organisation has clubbed its members’ naval resources together to set up MALSINDO (the Malacca Straits Coordinated Patrol) to eliminate the occurrences of piracy. Made up of battleships from Malaysia, Indonesia and Singapore, little progress has been recorded by these patrols, as the Diplomat magazine notes, because (out of respect for the sovereignty of each others’ waters) no naval ship is allowed to pursue pirates outside of it’s own territorial waters, thus limiting the room for high speed pursuit!

In conclusion, the actions off the coast of Somalia appear to have been pretty effective but that is because of the extraordinary level and trust that suprantional organisations, like the EU, have managed. ASEAN meanwhile still has to shake of the perception that it is a mere ‘talking shop.’ Until this flaw in ASEAN is addressed the pirates will continue their lucrative voyages across the Straits!


Iran vs Saudi: Understanding the world…

Good evening dear reader (at least it is evening here right now in the UK!) and writing my last article I thought I would elaborate on a point I made and analyse the topic in more detail.

I concluded my last post by mentioning the tense relationship between Iran and Saudi Arabia. It is for more analysis about this relationship that I have scoured the media for  but I have met with little success. There are also scant up to date academic analyses available so I am going to rely less on other sources and more on my own international relations skills! Wish me luck! So dear reader, here we go!

First let me start off by highlighting some similarities about the two, both Saudi Arabia and Iran are major oil producers and large nations with a hefty presence amongst Islamic states. There the similarities effectively end. Short but sweet!

Saudi Arabia, is a Sunni Muslim nation, and since the fall of Saddam Hussein in neighbouring Iraq it has felt that its particular sphere of influence  has spiralled out of its control. The then Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, Abdullah, reportedly warned visiting US officials, who were eager at the time to win Saudi backing for the 2003 invasion of Iraq, that he would rather keep the ‘wolf’ i.e. Saddam next door than risk a hostile regime on his doorstep. Since then it is this fear that has led Saudi Arabia, much like a bull in a china shop as the old English saying goes, to interfere and fund numerous nasty organisations and regimes across the Middle East, South Asia and Africa. In Syria, the topic of the moment, it initially poured money and weapons in to any group that claimed to be fighting the pro-Iranian and non-Sunni Bashar Al Assad. This includes Daesh/ISIL. It adopted the same policy in Afghanistan and left the mopping up to the West and Pakistan. Now in Syria, these rebels who Saudi Arabia funded were non-democratic and had to subscribe to the Saudis’ version of Islam. Any moderates of the Muslim Brotherhood type (such as in Turkey and Egypt) were anathema to the autocratic Saudis.

For Iran, the Iraq war gave it opportunity to spread its version of Shia Islam and prop up friendly regimes, in not just Iraq but Syria and down into Yemen. Now with the US and EU led nuclear deal, it is coming in from the cold and eager than ever to protect its allies across the Middle East and Asia. This has included sending arms and cash to Hezbollah, who are active in Palestinian Territories, Syria and Lebanon. Iran’s regime as a theocratic, nationalist state is dependent on military victories and war like situations to shore up its foundations and rally the people to its cause. Iranians have long chafed at the sometimes pointless restrictions on their daily lives and the dire management of their economy by successive leaders, and so a success or two abroad helps keep the restive populace at bay.

What is less well known is that Iran and Saudi Arabia have taken their rivalry to OPEC (the Oil Producing and Exporting Countries international forum which regulates the price of oil) where the Saudis, eager to undermine the Iranians have kept prices artificially low in a bid to deny Iranians much needed earnings. Had you noticed the low price of gasoline at the pumps? This is why.

In Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries, and Iran, young and brash hardliners who for their own purposes are interested in perpetuating this conflict, need to be reined in as a matter of urgency.

So dysfunctional and entrenched has the bitter enmity between Iran and Saudi Arabia become that it will require strong pressure from Western governments, China and Russia to bring these two to the negotiating table. Both, like naughty schoolchildren, need to be locked in a room and told to negotiate with one another. I do not believe that this will bring instantaneous peace to the Middle East but we would be overlooking a significant contributing factor to this deep crisis, which has indirectly led to bombings in Paris, Beirut, Ankara, Tunis and others if we did not attempt to resolve it. Both countries are culpable and both need to be held account before the matchbox that is the Middle East sets more regions alight.

Yemen: The quagmire in the corner…

Ahlan wa sahlan (Arabic), or Welcome in plain old English!

Today I am going to be taking you to the hot desert sands of Yemen. A land that was once mystical and loaded with UNESCO world heritage sights. According to UNESCO, the old city district of the capital, Sanaa, has been inhabited for over 2,500 years. It is a country which has long fascinated me and I have family connections to it as well.

Unfortunately, recent news headlines have been concerned with terrorism and the civil war which erupted earlier this year. A state that was the poorest on the Arabian peninsula and largely forgotten in a corner was violently destabilised following a comparatively smooth democratic transition during the Arab Spring.

In case I forget to mention it, Yemen was also one of the countries, such as Germany and Korea, which was split between a Communist controlled half and a pro-Western half during the Cold War. The country was finally reunified in 1994 but progress in reconciliation has met with mixed success.

This explains some of the background to the current unrest. Now it gets even more complex! For decades, just the Northern non-Communist half of the country was ruled by an ex-colonel in the army, Ali Abdullah Saleh, and after 1994 ruling all of Yemen, Mr Saleh ran what was effectively a dictatorship. Then the Arab Spring in 2011/2012 toppled him after over 30 years of rule. His successor, Abd Rabbu Mansour Al Hadi, tried to run the country, which was infamously described by Mr Saleh as akin to ‘dancing on the heads of snakes!’

By 2015, Mr Hadi’s luck had run out (or in other words  the snakes heads’ were now thrashing around too violently for him to remain upright!) the Houthis, a Northern based tribespeople swept down through the country, seized the capital and forced President Hadi to flee to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. Ostensibly, the Houthis forced Mr Hadi out for allegedly reneging on previous pledges but it soon came out that the Houthi rebels were financed by Mr Saleh and possibly Iran. Iran being a prominent regional rival to the Saudis.

There then followed what can only be described as a truly pointless war, following numerous missed diplomatic opportunities to resolve the conflict. With Saudi Arabia and Iran, with differing religious and economic ideologies, playing out a proxy war, much like Syria, the two had shown little interest in peacefully resolving the matter. Both sides have been accused of human rights abuses, such as the Saudi airstrikes on a hospital resulting in civilian deaths, and the blocking of humanitarian aid to desperate people by the Houthis. These and other apparent crimes are well documented in the recent Amnesty International report entitled ‘Yemen: The Forgotten War.’ Do check it up because it is a very comprehensive and balanced report.

The Gulf News, a regional newspaper based in Dubai, outlined the current fighting raging around the central city of Taiz where the infrastructure has been decimated and both sides of the conflict are bogged down. With increasing numbers of soldiers killed and worsening economies Iran and Saudi Arabia might be forced to the negotiating table. Already rumors abound of the Saudis reaching out to Iran’s ally, Russia, reports Al Arabiya, the online news channel.

This has now left Yemen, with a horrific 82% of its population needing humanitarian assistance and 2.3 million displaced, the UN calculates. Whilst Syria has grabbed the headlines, partly because of the refugee crisis and its geostrategic location, Yemen, sitting on the exit point of the Suez Canal must be attended to much more urgently. I have even heard it speculated that refugees could travel across the Red Sea and up through Africa to lawless Libya and attempt the hazardous sea crossings to Europe. Not as far fetched as you may think given the desperate plight of these people.

The infrastructure is shattered in Yemen, with roads, hospitals, housing and electricity and water supplies virtually non existent. The international community has not organised any big donor conferences or international summits for a long time and whilst the European Commission has pledged almost €50 million in aid to help with reconstruction this is a drop in the ocean I’m afraid.

What is required here is not so much a diplomatic resolution between the warring Yemeni factions, which might be part of a short term settlement, but a wider peace treaty or at least cessation of hostilities between Iran and Saudi Arabia which is exacerbating conflict in the Middle East. This may also go some way to a political agreement in Syria too. It may not be a silver bullet as the saying goes but it is well worth a try in my humble opinion!




To the snowy slopes of Sweden!

Let me start of by saying ‘Tack sa mycket Sweden!’ That is for the more than generous attitude towards refugees that Sweden has displayed, showing true commitment to the humanitarian principles for which it it has a well deserved reputation.

A big ‘Valkomna!’ to you dear reader as we head to the gorgeous land of Sweden. Famed for breathtaking scenery, good looking people, humanitarianism, cleanliness and well known brands such as IKEA and Volvos it is with good reason that Stockholm , Sweden’s capital, is known as the ‘Venice of the North.’

Many cultures from across the globe now call this land home after a long and justifiably proud tradition of open door immigration. Unfortunately, despite being the only EU country, aside from Germany, to have stepped up to the plate and shouldered it’s responsibilities to the worlds’ most vulnerable the Swedish government was forced to request that anymore refugees from Syria and other troubled lands should turn back.This decision was taken with a heavy heart by the Social Demcoratic Prime Minister, Stefan Lofven, and his Green Party coalition partners, led by the elegant Asa Romson, who were actually tearful whilst making the announcement. As can be seen in Nordstjernan (the English language Swedish newspaper) this was not because, as xenophobic right wingers will rant and rave about, they had wanted to close the doors but because the burden was too great to bear when all other EU states (barring Germany of course) refused to help. That is shame on those others I say! A poll in the Svenska Dagbladet newspaper, still shows 42% of Swedes in favour of maintaining the favorable attitude towards refugees. Similar to Germany and ahead of many Eastern European states and the UK.

The Prime Minister presides over a minority coalition government and faces pressure from right wing outfits, like the Sweden Democrats, who are busy discouraging refugees from coming in (even by reportedly distributing flyers saying the burka is banned in Sweden!). Still in a very welcome November poll by Ipsos and TNS Sifo, the noted polling agencies, eight in ten voters still support mainstream parties and the Sweden Democrats would only get 17% if polls were held today. Racist attacks, despite being gleefully reported by some racist media outlets, are still mercifully few in number and are thankfully, isolated occurrences. Also, on a related note, if you fancy checking out a heartwarming video I can recommend one entitled ‘Blind Muslim Trust Experiment-Stockholm’ by the kind and smart guys at STHLM Panda on YouTube. While you are there (and if you are a fan of social experiment videos) do take a look at the ‘Racism Social Experiment’ filmed on the streets of Stockholm by NormelTV. Both are excellent videos produced by innovative teams!

Rather than being seen as losers, Sweden and Germany could actually benefit in the long term from the increase in refugees. How I hear you ask dear reader? Well, Nordea, a well known Swedish bank, released a report stating that in 2016 the arrival of the refugees could contribute to GDP growth rates reaching 0.5% as the construction of accommodation and employment of extra teachers to aid newcomers will actually be of benefit to the Nordic state. Obviously, government spending in the short term may increase but an influx of well educated immigrants, as the Syrians and Iraqis are, will bring a long term benefit it is hoped. However, concerns were raised recently by the European Central Bank about a mild uptick in inflation and it  pointed out the lack of policies to address the large amount of household debt many Swedes have accumulated over the years.

Sweden has also returned to it’s traditional values of speaking out on principled foreign policy issues, such as arms deals with Saudi Arabia, which were outspokenly and bravely attacked by the feisty Foreign Minister Margaret Wallstrom and resulted in the cancellation of a big contract with the Saudis. Ironically Sweden has also become one of the world’s largest arms exporters and in 2013 it was noted by SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute) the respected think tank, that it contributed almost $1.5 billion to the economy. Ms Wallstrom has been similarly outspoken with regard to Israeli policies in the Palestinian Territories too. This  is very different to the previous centre right government which was led by Frederik Reinfeldt of the Moderates Party.

I have a softspot for Sweden, and it is not because of the ‘Scandi-cool’ cop dramas (although some are pretty cool I must admit!) but because it has always stood as a proud and tolerant nation, and has the well earned economic success it truly deserves. One way or the other Sweden can justifiably hold its head high among the nations of the world and serve as an example to others!

Homeless: 100 million and rising….

Welcome dear reader, once again the pleasure is all mine and I thank you for gracing my humble blog with your illustrious presence.

The topic I want to look at today is homelessness. The title of this piece is ‘100 million….’ and this is how many people worldwide today are homeless as calculated by the United Nations Commission for Human Rights (UNHCR). It’s a shocking statistic in today’s world when you think about all the technological progress and glittering skyscrapers which sneak into even the most isolated of urbanisations.

Take the USA for example, where several cities, such as Los Angeles and Seattle, have declared a state of emergency because of their homelessness crises. The US Department for Housing this month released a report stating that 564,708 people are registered homeless and 23% of these people are under 18 years of age. Imagine that the most powerful country in the world has so many children sleeping on dangerous and unkempt streets.

If we turn to Europe, which has been battered by recession and a refugee crisis we find a similar scenario. The European Commission has stated that it reckons there are roughly 410,000 homeless people across Europe spending a night in housing shelters. This implies that just over 4 million people every year face periods of homelessness for a certain length of time. Now these figures are likely to be very fluid given the difficulty in calculating such situations but it is a fair assessment. Give the varying economic circumstances of each EU Member State we have a wide range of reasons for such figures. Reasons such  as chronic underinvestment by successive governments in providing affordable housing, falling income levels, the encouragement of foreign investors into buying properties, and lack of rent controls for example. Ireland, Spain and Greece were particularly hit when the speculations on the property bubble burst!

FEANTSA, an organisation I am familiar with from my time in Brussels, tackles homelessness and housing issues and does a stellar job. It released a report earlier this month which starkly showed that the long term trend, even in prosperous EU economies like Germany, is for households to spend more of their budgets’ on housing than ever before. In the EU’s worst hit economy we find that poor Greeks now spend 71% of their incomes on meeting housing needs. Germany has 50.1% of lower income households forking out for housing costs and at best poor Maltese people ‘only’ have to spend 20.8% of their incomes on putting a roof over their heads.

Last year the Guardian newspaper outlined that there were 11 million properties lying vacant across Europe, enough to house all the homeless people twice over. Shocking! Italy had an estimated 2-2.7 million homes empty, France 2.4 million and Ireland 400,000. In some places it is even reported that almost complete houses are being demolished to ensure existing property owners continue to see a ‘high return’ on their property investment. Now I’m no socialist but this continued perversion of our housing markets is only going to exacerbate tension in communities.

Now, I haven’t even begun to address the problems in the poorer parts of the world yet! In Mali, following the civil war in 2012/2013 around 260,000 were left homeless including 4,348 children in the capital, Bamako, alone. This data was compiled by the UNDP agency. War, drought, urbanisation and economic strife have all combined to make this African country particularly unforgiving for the homeless.

Even in countries which have been touted as up and coming on the global block, such as Brazil, there are still an estimated 7-30 million street children trapped in a vicious cycle of violence and exploitation, so says the UN. How did that happen? Well it is no wonder in a country which until recently had a non existent welfare system to even give the poor a chance and had the unfortunate title of being one of the most unequal countries in the world when looking at income levels.

Similarly, India, also held up as a poster child of economic development still has a vast underclass, where 78 million remain homeless (including 11 million children). Here, the brutal caste system continues to consign these millions to a life of poverty as some wealthier Indians merely ignore their plight or at worst believe they are being punished for misdeeds in a previous life.

So as I conclude my dear reader, you may be wondering how do we resolve this serious and offensive blight on our world!? Well, I don’t have the answer and my aim here has been to highlight the seriousness of the matter. There are a multitude of reasons, and each state has it’s own unique circumstances but we must look and properly consider these sobering statistics, especially the ones concerning the children, if we are to ensure a sustainable future for our world and our young.

Ukraine battles on!

Hello dear reader, wherever you are, and it is a pleasure to have you back and reading my thoughts on the world.

Today, I am taking you beyond the headlines and to an issue that was a major headline a year or two ago but has since been overtaken by events. That is Ukraine.

Everybody can remember the dramatic toppling of the corrupt former President, Viktor Yanukovych, and the brave souls who stood in Maidan Square in Kiev, braving the bullets and chilly air to bring down the government. Unfortunately, the Revolution turned sour, much like the Arab Spring, and Russia sent its troops to Ukraine, albeit in unmarked insignia, and took Crimea and (through a proxy army) large chunks of eastern Ukraine, which have since declared ‘independence.’

That was back in 2014 and the EU and USA slapped economic and travel sanctions on Russia and Russian officials. Following the signing of the Minsk Agreement (which was meant to help reunify the country and bring peace and democracy to the region) Western leaders took their eyes’ off the ball. Violence was meant to be reduced and then eliminated completely. This was always a tall order and ominously it wasn’t until Russia needed resources in Syria back in September that the guns finally went quiet. Now, violence has flared up again in recent days and Ukraine, despite goodwill from creditors, is floundering economically, especially on the fight against corruption, says Qimiao Fan, World Bank Director for Ukraine, in an interview with Ukraine Today. GDP growth is -40% and inflation is at 46% according to a June report from the IMF.

The President, Petro Poroshenko, is also in difficulty, not just because of the economy but because of his lack of political capital. Having overcome his distrust of President Putin of Russia and sitting down with him at the negotiating table, he has little progress to show for it and he is unable to call those who committed crimes during the 2013/2014 Euromaidan Revolution, to account as Parliament stalls on passing the necessary laws. All this and the Government’s reported fall in popularity were highlighted in the local Kyiv Post, which also noted a social analysis conference had stressed that 70% of Ukrainians believe their nation is heading in the wrong direction and there were rumblings of a Revolution Mark III if issues were not tackled.

The reason the world should not shift attention from Ukraine, is that Ukraine is the key in Western-Russian relations. Already, important NATO allies, Lithuania and Estonia, have warned they could not join an anti-Daesh alliance (due to Russian moves in the East), as President Hollande of France and President Putin, have called for. This is reported in a recent Bloomberg report.

Only this week, the EU foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, was visiting Kiev and signed an EU free trade agreement with Ukraine, to come into force in January 2016, and indicated that sanctions on Russia would not be lifted. Fighting emanating from the eastern provinces in Ukraine’s Donetsk and Luhansk resumed, food imports from Russia to Ukraine were blocked and nine Ukrainian soldiers were killed, states the Washington Post.

This can only cast a shadow over the anti-Daesh alliance and store trouble for Europe and the USA in the future. It is important that while the tragedy in Paris is still fresh that we think long and hard and take all NATO and EU partners along in decision making.

Renzi’s or Italy’s world ambitions?

Welcome dear reader, it is always a pleasure to have your company.

Today, it came to my attention (for Italians this may have happened a long time ago but bear with me please!) that Italy’s Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, has been engaging in a fair bit of globe trotting of late.

Fresh back from a Latin American tour, which included rehabilitated Cuba, he was in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (blink and you’d miss him!) and is soon to play host to the first visit of an Iranian leader for a decade.

On his visits Mr Renzi has been with a delegation of Ministers and business people and has been enjoying the inking in of fresh and lucrative deals. All this is nothing objectionable of course, and as a G7 founding member, leading EU state and a NATO member Italy has a certain position to uphold. Except it never really upheld this role consistently and Italian foreign policy has certainly in recent years been of secondary importance.

Not since the 1970s when Italy was a key interlocutor in the Arab world and Middle East under Bettino Craxi in particular, has an Italian leader expended such efforts in clocking up the old air miles. Silvio Berlusconi was certainly high profile (for few good reasons alas!), especially over aligning Italy with the controversial 2003 US led invasion of Iraq which (according to a recent biography by the American journalist, Alan Friedman) he was always opposed to and fought strenuously to dissuade American President Bush from going ahead with.

Which begs the question, why all this dashing around? Economically it makes sense of course but the old cynic in me wonders whether it is to burnish the youthful PM’s credentials as a statesman should the often volatile politics in Rome see him booted out unceremoniously. It is the oldest trick in the politicians’ book and if we compare him to his role model, UK ex-PM Tony Blair, who left office at a relatively young age, there are plenty of ‘opportunities’ on the world stage for a politico who isn’t quite ready to tend to his petunias and roses.

These sorts of travels also serve as a useful distraction during times of political trouble at home. Premier Renzi certainly has these, with the upstart Five Star Movement snapping at his heels in the popularity stakes and corruption scandals erupting around the Central Bank Governor and some of his regional Governors’ his position is starting to look a lot less secure. Fresh from picking a populist fight with Brussels over his latest budget plans for 2016 and defections from his ruling party, you can begin to understand why Mr Renzi may be making plans for the future and looking for some good news abroad.

My good friend at Italy Chronicles, the eagle eyed Alex Roe, has also noted the increased activity of the jet setting PM and the political headaches he is facing back in Rome. He also noted that the Italian PM has recently hosted the ‘bogeyman’ of current international politics, Vladimir Putin, the Russian President (whose country is under EU sanctions for its’ actions in Ukraine) which indicates to me, in spite of the tough talk, that the Italian leader is keen to keep his door open to Mr Putin. Maybe the intention is good, or else it is about a steady supply of cheap Russian gas, but Mr Putin is a sharp operator so the Italians had better watch out!

As I’ve pointed out in my previous Italian articles 2016 could be a real dealmaker or dealbreaker for the young Italian leader and the mists might just begin to clear on whether this current foreign policy stance is to Mr Renzi’s or Italy’s benefit.






Portugal’s soft coup

Things are heating up in Lisbon, the Portuguese capital, and I don’t mean temperature wise! (Although I hear Lisbon and the Algarve can be pretty pleasant at this time of year!)

The centre right government of Prime Minister Pedros Passos Coelho,  had believed it had won the election in October which resulted in it getting the most votes but no outright majority. The left was divided until earlier this month when it united to vote down the Government’s programme.

Mr Coelho had for several years pushed through austerity measures which had restored some confidence to the markets and made tentative steps to balancing the books and creating jobs. The years of austerity have exacted a painful toll though, not just in Portugal but across southern Europe, and that has resulted in dramatic falls in family income and a battered middle and lower class.

The Socialist Party candidate for PM, Antonio Costa, has now asked the President, Anibal Cavaco Silva, to ask him to form a government backed by the Communists and left wing parties. President Silva, himself a conservative, has demurred and has several options, including the above to consider, but Mr Coelho is urging changes to the constitution and a return to the ballot box.

There are strains already starting to affect on the markets and bond yields of Portugal reports Bloomberg news service, and Mr Costa has been quick to reassure investors and creditors that he will not jeopardise Portugal’s membership of the Euro. President Silva, he is due to step down in January, is an experienced hand in Portuguese politics, and has a deep suspicion of the far left, anti-EU and anti-NATO bloc. He has already warned about the risks they pose to Portugal (views echoed by Moody’s credit ratings agency according to the English language Portugal News) but may not have much of a choice but to appoint Mr Costa. The current Parliament cannot be dissolved according to the constitution so a period of unwanted limbo may await Portugal.

The EU, which has to monitor the budget plans for those countries which had sought bailouts, has already expressed concerns that a budget outline for 2016 has not been sent to it and the EU Commission has already expressed serious concerns. This is the first time a budget plan has not been submitted by a Euro member state and the Commission has stated that it will consider its options, according to Euro Insight Magazine.

On another note, if Mr Costa is appointed PM he would be the first European leader of Indian origin to take the helm of a country. A rather interesting development I’d say.

For Europe’s centrists it does not bode well and certainly Iberian neighbour, Spain, will be observing closely as it prepares to hold elections next month.




No tango in Argentina

Hello, and welcome. We are now to head to the land of rolling pampas and the tango. It is a tango with many twists I must add!

On November 22nd, Argentina will go to the unprecedented second round of a Presidential Election. It was a close first round and now the Argentinians will be electing a successor to the Kirchner dynasty, in particular Cristina Fernandez Kirchner (CFK as she is widely known) who has been President for 8 years and must stand down constitutionally. Few political leaders have their own ideology but Mrs Kirchner, ‘Kirchnerism’, which is a blend of popular economic nationalism, human rights (particularly accountability for the abuses committed under military dictatorship) and anti-imperialist (read mild anti-Americanism!) foreign policy. This ideology, whether liked or not, is a potent force and draws on the legacy of ‘Peronism’ (similarly fashioned from an ex-military ruler).

Mrs Kirchner has an ally, in this last round of the Presidential race, called Daniel Scioli, who has had an up and down relationship with the outgoing President, and according to Sebastian Lacunza, Editor of the Buenos Aires Herald, he had relied on votes from candidates knocked out in earlier primary races to swing behind him. This did not materialise and it left his opponent, Mauricio Macri, with a fighting chance. Mr Scioli, has tried to be ambiguous about whether and if how far he would break with Kirchernism, but CFK has done her homework and key civil service, ambassadorial, judicial and military appointments have been made by her up to the end of her term this December. Her key social welfare and economic policies have been set into law and key foreign policy decisions, characteristic of the nationalistic Kirchner era, such as the signing of a $6 billion nuclear power agreement with China (as reported by Fox News Latino), are still ongoing.

Mrs Kirchner is far from a spent force, her son, Maximo, is also running for a seat in Congress, and in spite of finding herself out of a public office for the first time in twenty years she shows no sign of slowing down. She is also an active ‘Tweeter’ and this is not expected to cease come December. During the campaign she has been active and there are rumors about a possible run again for the Casa Rosada (the Pink House Presidential Palace) in 2019.

Even if her centre opponent and non-anointed successor, Mr Macri wins, Kirchnerism will remain firmly interwoven in the fabric of Argentina for a long time to come.

In honour of Paris – Paris, Je t’aime

Hello, this blog piece is going to be slightly different in tone to my normal ones, following the very tragic events in Paris last week.

First what happened in Paris is to be condemned in it’s entirety. Full stop.

Many searching questions have been asked about this madness and the motivation of those who carried out these attacks. How we respond to it is going to be key and it involves working together in a way we have not done previously. I am not offering a fool proof or definitive plan here, I have neither the expertise and I do not expect everybody to agree with what I suggest. What I can say is there is no easy or short term solution to fixing these kind of attacks.

Part of the solution might be to resource intelligence agencies, such as Europol, which works across borders and targets the toxic nexus of drug trafficking, money laundering, gun running, mafia and terrorist networks which often work hand in glove together. The EU could also revisit proposals put forward by the European Commission and Guy Verhofstadt, the Chair of the liberal European Parliament Grouping, Alliance of Liberals and Democrats in Europe (ALDE), for a ‘CIA style’ pan-European intelligence agency complimented by European border and coast guard services.

It might also be worth consulting and sharing expertise with states that have successfully fought back the terrorists. This includes Pakistan and its well organised ISI intelligence services which have over many years and after sacrificing many young lives to fight back against the terrorists. This year Pakistan has seen a tentative economic recovery and  a 70% drop in terrorist attacks compared to a year ago, as reports the South Asia Terrorism Portal. If this hasn’t been happening it needs to start soon.

It is painfully clear that the web of the terrorist network extends beyond France to include Belgium, Germany and possibly others. Social media is also important and terrorists are not cave dwellers, they know the age they live in and know how to exploit Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and make the headlines in the most sensational and appalling way. Few Mosques are now the centres of influencing the young and most disillusioned and vulnerable youngsters look to the Internet for hate preachers rather than attend Mosque.

If anybody wishes to know more about Muslim thought, I can recommend Tariq Ramadan, a Swiss born Professor at Oxford University, who writes philosophically but realistically about Muslims and Europe.

Terrorism is not a new phenomenon and throughout much of the 20th century and possibly even earlier than that, man has used attacks on a breathtaking and inhumane scale to achieve their ends.

As a city Paris has a special place in peoples’ hearts, no matter what your outlook on life, and most people know somebody who has been, lived, studied or conducted business in Paris. I am no different and as somebody who has been to Paris on several occasions for pleasure and work, I have always felt a special love for it.

It is for the above collective reason that it occupied the headlines in such a horrible way last week, but if we are to truly appreciate the terror unleashed on the streets of Paris, it is worth noting that Muslim countries have paid a heavy price too. According to the Institute for Economics and Peace, in their Global Terrorism Index 2015, the states worst hit by terrorism were Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Pakistan and Syria. They measured not just the physical toll but the impact on their respective economies, in terms of lost investment and GDP growth rates, as well. This is not a condemnation for righteous indignation about what happened in Paris, after all it is natural to be shocked and upset when a close neighbour is hurt, it is merely to make people aware that what happens in the rest of the world is also worth understanding about, even if we do have very busy daily lives.

This is a global fight across borders and across races, religions and cultures. Our response needs to be suitably fitting.