Greece: Time for tough decisions and some slack…

Yahsue dear readers!

As you may have guessed that is Greek (in the English alphabet anyways!) for hello. I hope my Greek readers can forgive me for this laziness!

Today is the day I turn to Greece. I have been meaning to head into the southeast corner of our beautiful European continent for a while.

Greece has for a long time been in the headlines for its tough and seemingly never ending economic crisis. We are now in the seventh year of the crisis by my reckoning. For the merchants of doom (read Eurosceptics!) they have made numerous pronouncements that this is the end of the road for Greece as part of the European Union and Eurozone. With great steel and resolve it has survived.

On top of this crisis Greece last year found itself at the forefront of a massive refugee influx, one it had been struggling with before 2015, but which finally hit the headlines a year ago. Greece has shown remarkable heroism in handling the large numbers, with generosity and individual acts of extraordinary compassion, such as hosting refugees for free in their houses and providing food and washing facilities. Only Germany showed such care. An important mention must go out to the heroes on the Greek islands who have swum out to sea to rescue those refugees whose flimsy boasts capsized in the Mediterranean waters as they made their difficult way to Europe. It is important to note that this deep seated humanitarian streak was in stark contrast to the Hungarian and other Eastern European responses of closing borders and patrolling them with attack dogs.

Let us first turn to the economic crisis though. In 2015 the Greek people suffered the trauma of seeing two general elections, nail biting parliamentary votes, a tight referendum, closed banks and a colossal refugee crisis. In August 2015 the Greek government, led by Alexis Tspiras, managed to secure financial assistance with a bailout programme worth €86 billion over three years via a troika of creditors, including the IMF and European Central Bank. Whilst these loans provide a temporary bridge to cover outstanding  debts the burden has fallen sharply on Greek households. Under the terms of the bailout  there is a clause specifying a €35 billion ‘Jobs and Growth Plan’ to invest in people and businesses, the European Commission outlines, but only by 2020 once obligations have been fulfilled.

Greece has endured one of the harshest austerity programmes in history. According to the OECD, Greek household income has fallen by almost 33% since 2008, and youth unemployment has reached almost 50%. A ‘brain drain’ of well educated and creative young Greeks has taken place as they head to the UK, Germany, USA or Australia. I am no critic of austerity in principle but it is now time to ask some big questions. Granted other Eurozone states, such as Ireland and Cyprus, had both needed bailing out but they have since recovered and have exited their plans.

Massive cuts in government spending and sharp tax rises in Greece have taken their toll and having initially supported the austerity measures I think it is now time to invest back into the Greek economy, much sooner and much deeper than 2020! This is now Greece’s third bailout programme since 2010 and differing interpretations of what the responsibilities of the Greeks and creditors are has led to deadlines being postponed over crucial reforms and debt repayments. This July should see a reassessment and a crucial decision taken to further integrate fiscal policy in the Eurozone and a politically difficult but maybe necessary substantial debt relief or ‘haircut’ measure adopted.

This is the argument put forward by Mr Tspiras in a recent interview with pan-European Euronews television channel. He argued that in 2016 we might start to see the end of negative GDP growth rates (the World Bank recorded -3.3% in 2013!) and stressed the Greek economy is one step away from recovery if agreement can be reached with the ‘troika’ over this. Certainly Eurostat, the EU’s data collection and analysis organisation, has shown that government revenues were up by 0.7%, unemployment fell by 1.5% and in spite of refugees arriving on the beaches and in hotels, tourism – a core earner for the Greek economy, remained stable. The left wing leader has a strong case to argue but whether it will be enough to satisfy the creditors remains to be seen. A special mention should go to Chancellor Angela Merkel, who despite being made a scapegoat for anger over austerity, defied some European leaders calls for the forced expulsion of Greece from the Eurozone and helped forge a deal when the odds were so heavily stacked against her. In the biography about her written by Stefan Kornelius, it is mentioned that, alongside the USA, Greece is Ms Merkel’s favourite country and she used to backpack across the country as a young girl.

With regard to the refugee crisis, Greece saw over a million enter last year and mercifully the chaotic ‘Balkans route’ has shut down and Greece, with EU assistance, managed to get four out of five refugee processing centres built in record time (causing chagrin among those who bear the Greeks no goodwill) to coincide with the ‘one in one out’ EU-Turkey deal. In spite of historic differences and hostilities Greece and Turkey have so far managed to co-ordinate and implement the deal, again defying the doom merchants, and this high level of communication might actually help to ease tension over divided Cyprus.  The Greeks have overwhelmingly and touchingly responded compassionately to the newcomers but as the Greek Human Rights Commission noted  there were 273 incidents of racial attacks last year, up from 81 in 2014. This is still relatively low given the numbers of refugees involved and the numbers may have increased due to better data collection methods. We must continue to be vigilant though, and a hearty congratulations and practical support should be extended to the Greeks in this difficult time.

Alexis Tspiras, leader of the Syriza left wing party and current Prime Minister, is vulnerable and has a lot riding on the flexibility of his creditors. The well regarded , English language Greek Reporter news website reported a poll showing that if general elections were held today the government in Athens could fall and revert back to the conservative New Democracy Party which governed from 2012-2015. Polls indicate Syriza (16.5%) is eight percentage points behind New Democracy (24.5% – credit goes to their new leadership) and thankfully the fascists of Golden Dawn (whose leadership is currently on trial for running a criminal organisation) are on only 6.5%, at the same level as the Greek Communist Party. The once ruling PASOK socialist party is decimated at a measly 4%.

Greece has drawn on huge reserves of resilience and come out of the other side. Tricky reforms will be necessary further along the line, in the areas of pension pots and tackling red tape and corruption, but what is now needed is a show of courage by the troika to relieve some of the burden on the Greek nation, to show the sacrifices of seven years have not been in vain and restore much needed confidence to Greece. The refugee crisis has altered the equation and ( like I have done) it is now time for decisionmakers to take stock, cut the Greeks some slack and return them back to the centre of the European project, where they rightfully belong.

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Austria: the sharp lurch rightwards?

Guten Abend dear readers!

We are visiting Vienna, capital of Austria, today.

Over the weekend, Austria held a Presidential election. Generally regarded as fairly sober, sleepy affair the election results sent alarm bells ringing. The far right, FPO candidate, Norbert Hofer, exceeded expectations and secured first place in the first round of the Presidential elections.

Austria, before the refugee crisis last year thrust it into the maelstrom of international analysis, had been in difficulties. I will come back to the refuge crisis but since the Second World War Austria has been largely governed by a combination of Social Democrat and People’s Party politicians. Their vote has been steadily eroded and in the last 2013 elections they only just managed to form a government of national unity. To answer where the primary difficulty lies we must look to the economy.

In 2014 the economy grew at a paltry 0.8% and last year at 1.25% according to the Austrian Central Bank’s data. The manufacturers or Mittelstand, of Austria, have failed to keep their exports competitive and the sharp slowdown of the Russian and Central European economies has hit the country and investor confidence has dipped as a result, says the WKO, Austria’s Chambers of Commerce. Hence the rattled Social Democrat Chancellor, Werner Feymann, has railed against EU sanctions against Russia.

Competitiveness is another key weakness. In spite of numerous innovative start-ups and successful brands such as Red Bull, the energy drink producer, the tax burden (income tax and social security contributions particularly) are weighing business investment down. The OECD says these tax contributions make up a staggering 49% of GDP, well above the average for the Eurozone. Otherwise, young Austrians are highly educated, multilingual, outward looking and tech savvy, very few strikes and a flexible labour market gives young people the best opportunities in life as well. Even the government is lavishing money on supporting science and research projects, with the fifth highest rate of subsidies in this sector says the European Commission.

However, this largesse has resulted in a very large and potentially dangerous public debt. Austria’s banks are in trouble, in a similar fashion to their southern European neighbours, and the grand coalition under Chancellor Feymann has procrastinated over much needed reforms. During the height of the Greek economic crisis in 2014 he flew to Athens and vociferously lambasted the European Commission, Germany and the IMF for promoting austerity in the country. The IMF has warned that the bank liabilities and ageing population in Austria will drain the country’s coffers and only store problems for the future if they are not tackled forcefully right now.

In terms of the banks, the burden the state had to bear following the 2008 financial crisis is still pressing down on public finances. It centres primarily on the Hypo Alpe Adria Bank, which ironically was supported by the FPO regional government in the province of Carinthia where the bank has its headquarters, and €25 billion worth of credit was extended to the bank to expand into the Balkans during the 2000s. When the crash came in 2008 the bank had to be bailed out by the taxpayers. The Ministry of Finance estimated that in 2015 the budget deficit at the federal level reached 2.8%, nearly half of which entailed underwriting the bad debts of Hypo. In all bank liabilities are costing the state the equivalent of 86% of its GDP says the UK’s Financial Times newspaper. The European Commission has already warned Austria about it exceeding the EU’s tough budget deficit rules this year, not that Mr Feymann has paid any attention at all!

Which brings us on to the refugee crisis. The Chancellor, to his credit initially anyway, adopted the same position as his German counterpart, Angela Merkel, by opening the borders to refugees streaming out of the Middle East, and Austria even granted 30,000 asylum places in 2015 and many Austrians met refugees at Vienna’s Hauptbahnhof with cakes and toys mirroring the scenes of welcome at Munich Hauptbahnhof in neighbouring Germany. Then after losses in regional and Vienna Mayoral elections, Mr Feymann promptly shut the doors and erected a fence along the southern borders. Whilst he avoided the xenophobic rhetoric of some Eastern European states he frustrated the left wing and liberal voters who had supported him in his humanitarian actions. He has recently sent patrols down to the border with Italy, anticipating a summer influx from Italy, causing clashes at the border and consternation in Brussels.

The results on Sunday showed that Mr Feymann’s Presidential candidate lost votes to the second place ex-Green leader, Alexander von der Bellen. What is even more troubling for Mr Feymann is that Mr Hofer has threatened to use never before used powers to dismiss the government over its handling of the refugee crisis if he is elected to the Presidency. Mr von der Bellen has in turn refused to ever appoint an FPO Chancellor if elected. The situation has left the usually placid world of Austrian politics bitterly divided between progressives and right wing regressives. On the streets of Vienna, one sophisticated café, Fett and Zucker, courageously barred the 35% who voted for the FPO from entering and started the hashtag #rightwingNOTwelcome reported the Local Austria online news service. The Osterreich newspaper meanwhile reported that the chief of police had warned women to steer clear of foreigners in case they fall prey to sex crimes, sparking outrage among women’s rights orgnisations.

Europe is now relying on Mr von der Bellen to rally the supporters on the left and centre behind him for the next and final round of the poll in May. Nobody can be sure how this will play out, a low turnout always favours the extremists, but facing a situation similar to one in France in 2002 between a voice of reason and a explicit racist my hope is the Austrian voters will fulfil their democratic duty and elect Mr von der Bellen. This result should not be ignored however, and I hope lessons will be learned (albeit belatedly) by Mr Feymann before his time with voters in 2018 is upon him.

 

Germany: The Jan Bohmermann affair

Guten Tag dear readers!

We are turning to one of, if not the most, interesting country for me in Europe – Germany.

So you may have heard about a German television comedian, called Jan Bohmermann, who got himself into a bit of hot water. He apparently, very crudely mocked, the Turkish President, Recip Tayip Erdogan, who has assiduously built a strongman image a la Vladimir Putin.

To understand the root of the problem it is important to look at recent developments in Turkey. When he took over in 2003 Turkey was a laughing stock with chronic economic problems, widespread corruption and unstable governments. Mr Erdogan turned the country around, with the World Bank recording a 10% annual GDP economic growth rate in 2009 and noted the Erdogan government’s provision of much needed development to long forgotten rural towns and villages. The fact he managed to do all this whilst allowing a free press, freedom of protest and strong international partnerships in the Muslim world and Western world (such as helping to create the UN’s Alliance of Civilisations with Spain’s then PM Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero) inspired many Muslim and non-Muslim commentators.

Fast forward to more recent times and we can see a Turkey which is facing the strain of economic problems, a civil war on its doorstep in Syria, which has led to a huge refugee influx and the designation by the UNHCR (responsible for refugee management) of Turkey as the host with largest, recorded number of refugees in the world, at a staggering 1.6 million. This is particularly heavy going for a country that is still, for all its progress, a middle income state. Against this backdrop the rattled President has resorted to harsher political methods and rash outbursts.

It is important to give President Erdogan credit where it is due but his elevation to the Presidency in 2014, and his failed attempts to turn it into an powerful executive post, has hurt Turkey. When Mr Erdogan’s respected predecessor as President and co-founder of the ruling AKP Party, Abdullah Gul, stepped down in 2014 he offered counsel advising against deviating from the democratic path and urged a more pragmatic foreign policy, according to a book published by his former adviser. Mr Gul has since been sidelined reports the Turkish daily newspaper, the Daily Sabah. This lack of check on the President, aided by a complaint Prime Minister, Ahmet Davotoglu, has only exacerbated the slide to authoritarianism. This can be seen most prominently in 2013, when Turkey’s government began a crackdown on environmental protesters in Istanbul and has since then pursued hostile media outlets and taken them over. In the 2016 edition of Reporters without Borders Press Freedom Index, Turkey was rated at 151 out of 180 (a slip of 6 points down from 2015).

Now we come to Germany, which has always had close ties to Turkey. Allies during the First World War and cordial for most of the Second, the bond is also strong through expatriate communities in Germany and Turkey. They forged a strong but respectful friendship when Chancellor Angela Merkel came to office in 2005 and both are smart and experienced political leaders. The aloofness in relations dramatically changed during the refugee crisis in 2015 when, undermined by a distinct lack of European solidarity over the fair allocation of refugee numbers, the Chancellor was forced to rely on Mr Erdogan to stem the flow via his country of the migrants and refugees.

The sheer pluckiness of Ms Merkel in even securing a deal, much like her problem solving expertise over the Eurozone debt crisis, in spite of the odds stacked against her, has shown how important she is not just to Germany but Europe as a whole. Hence why visiting American President Obama chose to make Germany a prominent part of his itinerary, on his final bilateral tour of Europe, and where he extolled the admirable and courageous qualities of the Chancellor, in an interview to the German magazine, Bild. He referred to his friend ‘Angela’ and called Germany a ‘strategic partner’ for the USA. This is pretty impressive given the cool, sometimes detached relations President Obama has had with other unreliable, self centred, career oriented politicians in Europe.

I apologise for the detour onto other issues dear reader but bear with me!

It now brings us to the recent fly in the ointment over young Jan Bohmermann. He hosts a comedy programme on ARD Television, which is often crude and not to the taste of many but has a moderate number of viewers. Even Mr Bohmermann described his own sexually explicit lyrics in his comedic poem about Mr Erdogan as distasteful and not particularly funny, says the Deutsche Welle (DW) German news service.

Mr Erdogan, with ill judged hot headedness, sued Mr Bohmermann via a Bismarckian, 19th century era law in Germany which forbids the insulting of foreign leaders. Ms Merkel obliged to act referred the case to court but swiftly proposed measures to abolish the outdated legislation allowing this. ZDF, the parent company to the comedian’s programme has agreed to Herr Bohmermann’s request for a sabbatical but the controversy has dented the Chancellor’s image, in a land where freedom of expression is widely cherished and enshrined in the revered Grundgesetz or Basic Law (the German Constitution). Freedom House, the US based NGO, gave Germany a ranking of 1, the highest possible, in 2015, in terms of its human rights record. However, in spite of the furore, Ms Merkel, according to the German Der Spiegel news magazine, has seen only a moderate fall in her party’s fortunes, by roughly 2%, but this is not critical and she is likely to weather the storm deftly, especially if (as expected) the courts dismiss the charges against the satirist. The Eurozone and refugee crises remain her overriding priorities for the time being.

Perversely, Mr Erdogan’s rash act turned the situation into an widely publicised international affair, whereas if he had left well alone I doubt very much if it would have garnered such attention, I certainly would not have felt the need to write a piece about it!

Coupled with this though, was the deportation order served to a German journalist from ARD upon his arrival in Istanbul. This is alarming and not the way an ally’s citizens should be treated but again the bigger picture must be looked at with regard to Turkey. The German leader has raised the issue in her recent visit to Ankara, the Turkish capital, and I hope that is the last time this arises but alas I don’t bet on it!

In conclusion, the Bohmermann controversy has ruffled feathers, as has the expulsion of German journalists, and justifiably so, freedom of the press and expression is what makes Europe attractive to many refugees and the abolition of this unpopular law is long overdue and to be welcomed, but at the same time it is important to balance this with the need to keep the refugee deal sustainable, intelligence data sharing with Turks at proper levels and keep the Eurozone area solvent.

 

 

YouTube pranksters: bringing a smile and a cheer!

 

Hello dear reader and a hearty welcome. Sit back and relax because today I am going to write something a little different to my usual articles.

I have what can best be described as a ‘lively sense of humor’ and so to relax and take my mind off rather heavy political issues I watch a few YouTube prank videos to brighten my mood and provide me with some much needed uplift! The Internet is full of many YouTubers (they are a very modern millennial generation of entrepreneurs if you are not sure of what I’m talking about) and so in the twilight of my youth I find it reassuring to watch some of these creative talents and the eight I am about to list below all make me bellow out with laughter! Many YouTubers have become millionaires and made it a full time job, such as PewDiePie, a Swedish vlogger whose real name is Felix Kjellberg. Justin Bieber, the Canadian singer, has achieved fame and riches after being discovered on YouTube making his own music videos.  Forbes even compiled a list for 2015 of its richest YouTubers!

I like to watch a selection from across the globe, and for me personally even if the videos are in a different language the awesome visual imagery can often transcend borders. Subtitles are pretty helpful though in providing a context and broadening the base to a wider, largely English speaking audience.

YouTubers can often act as great ambassadors for their respective countries as they spread a more tolerant and peaceful philosophy to the world.  So now I have decided to share with you some of my favourites. Many of them do not deal solely with pranks but with social experiments, vox-pox interviews on the streets, opinion pieces, self help videos etc. but for me they are an important form of therapy and levity! So in no particular order here goes:

Leon Machere: A German YouTuber, he has an infectious smile and conducts his pranks on his friends and the unsuspecting public. My personal favourite is the popcorn prank where he walks around a library causing mayhem with just a large bag of popcorn! His other naughty escapades include eating a banana rather suggestively in public, hiding a sack of money in the street and seeing how people react. Innovative and very funny! In addition he also carried out a racism social experiment called Nazi vs. Refugee which highlighted how people react when they see racism dished out on the streets. Spoiler alert! – it is a largely positive response I am pleased to say!

YouTube channel: https://youtube.com/LeonMachere

Twitter: https://twitter.com/LeonMachere

Facebook: https://fb.com/LeonMachere1

CrazyTsach: A Greek YouTuber, by the name of Konstantinos Tsachalos, he creates the most innovative and comedic videos I have seen. Well edited with good music in the background his videos show him entertaining the crowds with sudden outbursts of singing in public, with his repertoire including Blue by Eiffel 65 (whilst dancing across the streets sporting a blue face!) and Daddy by Psy (dressed only in a Borat style mankini in downtown Athens!), and when he is not doing that he is chatting up the girls with hilarious lines or taking dares of all sorts from the public (some of them get pretty messy is all I can say)! Guaranteed laughter lines on those cheeks of yours’ dear reader. So go on check him out – you will not be disappointed!

YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/user/CrazyTsach

Twitter: https://twitter.com/CrazyTsach

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/KostasTsachalos

DumboTvYouTube: A sharply dressed Belgian YouTuber, Jaryd Haelwaeters, who conducts a series of pranks on the public in beautiful Brussels. When he is not impersonating Borat or crying awkwardly on the shoulders of strangers (plenty of bewildered Belgians guaranteed!) he provides a range of services and videos to help overcome individual challenges, such as how to create strong willpower, reducing alcohol intake and extolling the benefits of a cold shower. His knowledge, shared amidst the scenic backdrop of trees and woodland in the stunning countryside, provides meaningful and soothing advice. You’ll feel a better man or woman after watching even a couple of his videos!

YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/DumboTV

Twitter: https://twitter.com/DumboTvYoutube

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/dumbotvyoutube

theShow: Two jovial Italian YouTubers, they have a prolific number of videos which includes social experiments, there are particularly poignant ones about disability, racism and homophobia, which serve to inform and educate. However, there is a much lighter side to the bulk of their videos. They brighten up the scene in Milan by pretending to be tourists and asking questions in some embarrassingly tight lycra shorts, messing around with Scotch tape (head to toe covering in one of the scenarios!) and causing some raised eyebrows whilst out and about with a raw chicken! If you understand Italian its a bonus but if not, do just sit back and watch!

YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/theshowisyou

Twitter: http://www.twitter.com/theshowisyou

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/theshowisyou

BigDawsTV: An American YouTuber, he performs most of his antics on the students at several university campuses. His pranks include a ‘nerd’ character who tries to pick up girls with a puppy, giving awkward compliments to random strangers, presenting bizarre gifts to people and eating junk food at the gym! There are a good selection of videos to choose from and like many of the other YouTubers I have mentioned he also carries out heart warming experiments – such as giving food to the homeless. His mission statement on his channel states that he wants ‘to make the world a happier place and bring out the best in people.’ Mission accomplished I’d say sir!

YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/BigDawsTV

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/BigDawsTv

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/BigDawsTv

ViktorCrazy: A Russian Youtuber who has made the journey to the USA he obviously loves his life in the sunny climes of Miami and LA. Interestingly, he is also a TV presenter for a US based Russian TV channel and he provides curious insights into his life in the States. His pranks on YouTube are bold and include videos of him putting a fake ‘ViktorCrazy’ star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and asking the public to take some odd pictures of him on it, attempting to buy girls with bars of chocolate and asking strangers the way to American “beaches” with a distinctive Russian accent. These are videos to watch and will provide much mirth for all who do!

YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/c/ViktorCrazy

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/ViktorcrazyTV

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ViktorCrazyTV

NormelTV: Two Russian Swedish guys, Daniel and Vlad (who are best friends) they produce some highly entertaining stuff. As well as some eye opening social experiments on child abuse, rape and racism, they play pranks on one another and on the Swedish citizens. On one another they have spiked the other’s food with hot chilli sauce and tricked the other into having his hair dyed emo-style green! On the poor denizens of Sweden they have run up and down the street dressed as Batman, teased the police with a fake bag of weed and scared people in a car park with a pretend killer dog! Bizarre maybe but the results are something to behold and something for everybody to enjoy I’m sure!

YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/normelttv

Twitter: https://twitter.com/normeltvyt

Facebook: http://www.facebook.com/normeltv

PrankNation: An Australian YouTuber, Brooke Roberts, he has hit the news headlines in his locale for his stunts but he has some priceless videos to offer! He has played the annoying young golfer on the golf course, ridden naked on a hoverboard around his local branch of IKEA (the furniture store) and also proposed to a visibly perplexed masseur! His content is inspired and before you know it five or ten minutes will have just disappeared as you laugh away! Like a lot of the others he has also produced some brilliant social experiments to do with racism, sexism and underage smoking. You will enjoy his videos I am confident dear reader!

YouTube channel: http://www.youtube.com/user/AussieTuberss

Twitter: https://www.twitter.com/PrankNati0n

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/pages/PrankNati0n

Conclusion: I hope you enjoyed my reviews and all of the ones listed above are unique in style and content but I emphasise they are all stellar people, with individually amazing talents for comedy and entertainment. They are young people who just have a fantastic gift for what they do and like superheroes with a secret power they exercise their wit with compassion and a laudable social conscience. I hope you enjoy and highly recommend you check them out! Enjoy dear friends and till the next time!

 

France: Hollande – a former President already?

Bonjour dear reader!

Welcome, spring is definitely in the air and what a welcome relief it is too. Not all is spring like sunshine in France I’m sorry to say though.

Today I’m talking about France and the unfortunate Socialist President Francois Hollande. I’ll tell you why exactly I am calling him unfortunate but maybe hapless should be attached as the wounds to his political career are mostly self inflicted. A prime example is the removal of a picture from Instagram, the social media site, from a visit to Kazakhstan where the French leader was photographed in traditional attire. He was unflatteringly compared to Borat, the infamous comic character and it prompted the President’s allies to cringingly urge the media and public to ‘maintain the dignity’ of the office of President!

This month marks exactly a year until the next French Presidential Election in 2017. To say Mr Hollande is unpopular and France is in trouble would be understatements.

There is the prospect of Mr Hollande losing an unprecedented primary election in his own Socialist Party, his popularity has hit 15% (said an Ipsos Mori poll conducted in March), France’s economy is still locked in poor growth rates (0.4% GDP growth rate for 2016 says the Bank of France), and there are nightly protests (sometimes violent) on the streets of towns and cities. I’m now gasping for breath much like you dear reader!

Let us now turn to the most recent trouble spot, that is the so called ‘Nuit Debout’ movement, which is similar to the Occupy Wall Street movement in the USA or the Indignados demonstrations in Spain. Essentially, the young student protesters (articulate and passionate) have been showing their opposition to proposed labour market reforms; which they fear will only increase job insecurity as managers gain the right to fire with greater ease. However, these young people have broadened their message out and the banners flying at these midnight gatherings include ones calling for compassion towards refugees and a call to action on climate change, amongst other concerns. Talk in the left of centre Le Monde newspaper spoke of a return to the spirit of 1968 and a possible ‘French Spring’ as the frustration released by the youth movement is similarly shared by the older generations.

The French government has been panicked and held talks with student representatives and promptly offered a €500 million package of employment and training subsidies for young people looking to enter the still highly protected labour market. Funnily enough the Government tried initially to sell the contentious labour market reforms as a way to reduce the atrociously high youth unemployment rate, which is running at over 25% says Eurostat (the EU’s data collection body) compared to a 6% rate in neighbouring Germany. As well as the carrot approach, the French Prime Minister, Manuel Valls, also wielded the stick and sent in the police to dismantle the camp set up by the participants in the protests, only to see them defiantly and promptly return the following night.

At the beginning of 2016 the French Socialist administration proposed new anti terrorism legislation which would have included the right to strip dual nationality French citizens convicted of terrorism offences of their French citizenship. This caused deep discomfort in some quarters of the Socialist Party, this was after all something only the far right had called for in the past, and the respected Justice Minister resigned in protest. The President in the end watered down the measures but even then the French Senate effectively stalled the plans and efforts to push it through were all but abandoned.

For a President who vowed to be judged on his record, especially on jobs, when he was elected in 2012, he is already failing his own test. In a recent prime time TV ‘citizen dialogue’ with the public he said he would make up his mind at the end of the year whether to run for office again in 2017. It was not always like this though dear reader!

Back in November, in the wake of France’s own 9/11 like tragedy at the Bataclan concert hall and the Stade de France stadium in Paris, the President saw his popularity rise to a comparatively dizzying 33% (a peak for Monsieur Hollande!) in a France 24 poll just days after the horrific terrorist attacks. The next month he saw off a strong challenge in regional elections from Marine Le Pen, the far right nationalist leader and chief of the xenophobic and thuggish National Front. Although, the credit for this defeat of Ms Le Pen’s tribe goes largely to the conservative centre right Republican Party.

Speaking of which, Mr Hollande’s mainstream conservative opponent, Nicholas Sarkozy, the ex-President and chief of the Republicans is trying to fight off his own internal party challengers and depending on who comes out on top it could seal Mr Hollande’s fate. Alain Juppe, the more popular candidate with the public at large, could be a formidable foe come 2017, despite a past criminal conviction for embezzlement!

The President is also facing a challenge from his reformist Economy Minister, Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who set up his own ‘Advance Movement’ drawing support from left and right to push for far reaching reforms to the French economy and society. Although Monsiuer Macron denies this is a political push for the Presidency next year!

France used to be spoken of in unison with Germany as ‘the motor of Europe’ but Mr Hollande in spite of action in Syria and Ukraine has largely left the diplomatic ‘big table’ and only grudgingly accepted an allocation of 30,000 refugees from the conflict in Syria, which is woefully inadequate for a such a large country with a still high international profile. This is certainly what the humanitarian NGO, France Terre d’Asile, has said. The Prime Minister has instead tried to pander to nationalist sentiment about Muslims during a period of notable hate crime in France,  and spoke of a ban on the Muslim hijab or head covering in universities, which was a clearly naked political ploy to the far right, but which Mr Hollande wisely slapped down.

The fundamental problem in all this has been the lack of personality from Francois Hollande. France is used to a strong and statesman like leader in the typical Mitterand, De Gaulle or Chirac mould. Even Mr Sarkozy took this part of his job seriously! But who is Mr Hollande and what does he stand for? This is still a question on many lips in France and abroad four years after he was first elected. In his bid to appear ‘normal’ and keep his leftist base in the Socialist Party content he has zig zagged and watered down proposals, such as a high income tax rate of 75%, terrorism laws and economic reforms and this has meant that he has kept nobody happy, either on the left or right of the spectrum. His cabinet is even making plans for a future beyond his leadership!  My advice to the Gallic leader would be to not run for re-election for the unity of his Party and maybe in the future he could make a comeback. Time will tell if this is advice Mr Hollande wants to hear!

 

Nigeria: Buhari’s one year landmark

Hello dear reader and welcome,

Thank you for joining me today!

The topic I’m keen to look at in this article is Africa’s most populous country with one of the largest youth populations in the world, at a colossal 33,650,000 people! It is made up of over 500 different ethnic groups and roughly split 50/50 between a Muslim north and a Christian south. It also happens to be the 20th largest economy in the world, at $500 billion in terms of nominal GDP says the OECD. Enough with the stats for the time being though dear reader!

This month marks the one year anniversary of the election to the Presidency of Muhammadu Buhari, a retired general who once briefly ruled in the 1980s as a dictator. As a candidate in the elections he ran on his credentials as a tough, uncompromising individual who would finally sort out Nigeria’s post independence problems of rapacious corruption, gross mismanagement and chronic insecurity. These issues were especially entrenched during the inept rule of his predecessor, Goodluck Jonathan.  Mr Jonathan’s own Central Bank Governor stated that $20 billion in oil revenue, Nigeria’s biggest and by far most dominant industry,had just ‘disappeared’ says Al Jazeera. It can reasonably be argued that President Jonathan’s one service to the nation was handing over power peacefully to his successor!

The past is the past though and we move on to the present and future. President Buhari pledged transparency when he assumed the office of President and promptly declared his assets and income tax returns, which was a promising start. He began vigorously pursuing some of the most venal politicians in the land, including Sambo Dasuki, a former national security adviser, who had allegedly embezzled $2 billion worth of aid destined for the fight against the terrorist group, Boko Haram, says the Daily Times (a Nigerian national newspaper).

Boko Haram, is the infamous group behind the Chibok abduction of over 200 schoolgirls in 2014 which sparked an international outcry under the hashtag #bringbackourgirls. Mr Buhari has also pledged to push back the outfit from its northern territories and eradicate the numerous suicide bombings, and oil pipeline attacks which have swept across the country. According to the American based Institute for Economics and Peace (IEP) think tank, since Boko Haram came to prominence it has killed more than 20,000 people and displaced more than 2.3 million Nigerians from their homes. Most of those suffering it is important to note are Muslim Nigerians, putting paid to rumors among extremist Christian pastors that this is a ‘war of religions.’ Boko Haram was subsequently ranked above Al Qaeda and ISIS in the IEP’s Global Terrorism Index. In 2015 the African Union, formed what it describes as a ‘taskforce’ of Nigerian, Chad, Cameroon, Niger and Benin military forces to tackle the trouble as rumors of desertions and corruption were levelled at Nigerian forces. However, reports have surfaced of a taskforce which, like the Somalian expedition to root out Al Shabaab in the early 2000s, is getting bogged down in a fight against an enemy that has changed tactics to focus less on hand to hand combat and more on suicide bombings says the Vangaurd News, Nigeria’s most widely read newspaper.

Whilst it can be argued that Boko Haram is finally on the backfoot, in terms of its control of territory at least, an older militancy problem is arising in the south which could have even more profound consequences for the country. Since deciding to end costly generous pay and benefits packets for former militants and the arrest of militant leaders’ in the southern Niger Delta province a wave of bombings has hit the critical pipeline network causing long power outages and hitting the oil export facilities of the state. Italy’s ENI oil company was the latest to be hit and three of its workers were killed in the explosion says Nigeria’s News24 TV channel. The online news service, The Cable Nigeria, estimated that from one blast on the large Forcados crude oil terminal over 250,000 barrels of petroleum exports were lost and repair work would now last until at least June and cost over $10 billion. The growing unrest in the south (by mainly Christian and animist militants) has regional ramifications too, as the new West Africa Gas Pipeline Company’s network was also targeted by the ‘pipeline vandals’ leading to power shortages in neighbouring Ghana as well as for long suffering Nigerians! Ghana has since decided to look elsewhere for its energy supply, says the AllAfrica.com website.

The military has been deployed to guard and repair the collapsing power grid to prevent acts of sabotage but the question is whether overstretched army reservists have the capacity to halt the haemorrhaging loss of vital export earnings. Nigeria’s government has already vowed to smash the insurgency like it did Boko Haram it claims! Time will tell but with little sign of a political discussion about this this prospect looks highly unlikely.

Muhammdu Buhari, after one year, has already earned the unflattering nickname of ‘Baba Go Slow’ from some of his countrymen. This refers to his earlier lack of haste in appointing cabinet ministers, it took him over six months to name an interior and defence minister alarmingly given the obvious security challenges in the country. To be fair he wanted to pick the right people before making them endure a raucous confirmation hearing in the Senate!

All joking aside though dear reader, it is the economy primarily which has also led to Mr Buhari’s unfortunate tag. The President’s misfortune was to come to power just when the oil price, which the Oil Producing Export Countries (OPEC) estimates makes up over 90% of total export revenue and forms 35% of GDP growth for Nigeria, collapsed from $100 per barrel in June 2014 to just $30 by June 2015. It has since fallen below even that level!

The Africa Center of the respected Atlantic Council, has in a recent report said that to plug an estimated budget deficit of $11 billion the government will have to push through unpopular expenditure cuts and/or increase taxes. Mr Buhari’s singular refusal to unpeg the Nigerian currency, the naira, from the dollar is also hurting the economy, which economists say hampers the competitiveness of  Nigerian exports in the global marketplace. The Nigerian administration counters that any lowering would hurt household incomes and fuel inflation. Economic growth according to the IMF, will be a lacklustre 2.3% with a 9.6% inflation rate. The added infrequency of a reliable power supply has also led to a drop in foreign direct investment with key investors such as Virgin Atlantic, Mobil, Unilever, Cadbury’s, Dunlop and Michelin recently pulling out or moving production plants to Ghana and South Africa.

The Nigerian Parliament has exacerbated the problems by holding up the approval of the 2016 Budget. Given the diversity of the various states which make up the Federal Republic of Nigeria agreeing a budget is always a fraught affair  but this year has seen a protracted blame game arise between the executive and legislature and minor disagreements over key infrastructure projects, such as the Calabar-Lagos railway line reports the Daily Post in Nigeria. Again compromise appears to be lacking by all players.

In spite of these problems Nigeria is still a promising country, with a large untapped consumer orientated middle class, and it is also too early to judge President Buhari. He has made progress in defeating Boko Haram, cracked down on the corrupt and on a recent visit to China secured a $6 billion loan to help the country during this financial crisis. However, running modern Nigeria requires compromise and efficiency but not to the extent of compromising development or endangering democracy!

e-Estonia: A positive story to sing about…

Tere, or hello in Estonian!

Welcome dear reader as we journey to a country I’ve been meaning to draw your attention to for a while- Estonia.

This Baltic state with a population of just shy of 1.5 million and a land mass of 17,460 square miles, has overcome a tortuous history of war and famines to emerge a prosperous, outward looking and tolerant country since its independence from the crumbling Soviet Union in 1991. It is an active member of NATO, the EU, the UN and the OECD.

In terms of its economy, Estonia did take a hit during the 2008 global economic crisis, in particular due to its interconnected links with Finland, Russia and other neighbouring states. However, according to the OECD, average household income is $15,167 per annum and the paid employment rate for those aged between 15-64 is at 65%. Not bad, but more progress can be made on reducing income inequalities between urban and poor and pay disadvantages for women compared to men. GDP economic growth has remained slow but steady, at 1.1% last year, says Statistics Estonia (the national data collection bureau), mainly due to adverse export conditions outside the country.

Why the world should sit up and take notice is Estonia’s exceptional progress in innovation and wholehearted embrace of the digital age. I didn’t make a typo when I titled my article ‘e-Estonia’ because that is the successful marketing brand Estonia has presented when it has introduced itself to the rest of the world. Thanks to a digitally top of the range Electronic ID card, which acts like a ‘smart online passport’ Estonians have a decent start in life where every citizen can vote online, set up a business in minutes from their PC, file their social security and tax returns. The government now offers 600 e-services to residents and 2,400 to business. For Americans, and many Europeans, cutting out the sometimes pesky bureaucracy that can hamper business development has them seriously considering the systems put in place by what is arguably the first fully digital country in the world. Even President Obama, on a visit in 2014 stated he should have visited this tech savvy Baltic State before implementing his tricky healthcare reform plans, reported USA Today, the American newspaper.

Skype is the most famous and innovative digital enterprise to come out of Estonia but this is a growing market across the country. Euronews, the Europe wide TV broadcaster, highlighted Fortumo, led by entrepreneur, Martin Koppel, who has developed a successful SME into a smartphone payment system which allows online shoppers to make purchases without credit cards. Fortumo, is now a global company with interest being expressed from Mozambique to Lebanon in its products. Mr Koppel says it is now opening up offices in India, Singapore and Vietnam to cope with demand.

Taavi Roivas, the cool and telegenic Prime Minister of Estonia, is a great salesman for this particular brand. He is married to a well known pop singer, speaks 4 languages and is the youngest leader in the European Union.

He recently visited the USA and appeared on the popular liberal TV show, the Daily Show, and stated that ‘all of those people who are running from war and terror who are refugees, should not be blamed for those who are the terrorists. The terrorists want us to build walls between European countries. They want us to close the Schengen Area. But if we do that, they have won.’ Pretty eloquent I think you will agree dear reader!

Last week, to much media coverage,  the Estonian Broadcasting Service (ERR) reported that the first 5 individuals of the 550 refugees due to arrive in Estonia landed in Tallinn, the picturesque capital of Estonia. For a country that has not been used to seeing foreigners coming to settle it is understandable why the Interior Minister has reassured his countrymen and women that the refugees have been vetted by the security services and wish to be allowed to rebuild their shattered lives in privacy. The liberal Reform Party government has taken an enlightened and pragmatic approach to helping the EU alleviate the impact of such an influx and it helps that the Reform Party has guided the country through most of its 25 years of independence and secured a prosperous future for its people. This has given the Party creditability in the eyes of Estonians which other EU states might envy! The Baltic states as a whole have certainly shown far more willingness than Hungary, Slovakia or others who have used explicitly xenophobic arguments to oppose the resettlement of refugees fleeing terrorism.

It is not just refugees who can seize the opportunity to become citizens because since 2014 the government has amended legislation to allow anyone in the world t apply for ‘e-residence’ in the land. This gives them similar rights to Estonian citizens to use Estonian private and public e-services and gives potential investors the advantage of utilising Estonia’s extensive e-business market without needing to be physically present. The e-Residency Programme is aiming to reach 10 million by 2025, says the programme website. A neat idea I think you’ll agree!

Visit Estonia, the official tourism agency, has outlined how this is all possible. From day 1 of its freedom in 1991 Estonia warmly embraced technology to overcome decades of centrally planned rule, and basically embraced the Internet and technology as a fundamental human right. This has meant that wifi is almost always free and available anywhere, including in locations such as public parks, squares, cafes, railway stations or even the beaches or forests. By 2018 the Estonian government hopes to have rolled out the next generation broadband network with transmission speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s.

Innovation is the name of the game here but security is also key. Estonia is leading the way in helping start-ups in the field of cybersecurity to help protect the privacy and data of individuals in this advanced, technologically sophisticated country. With Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014, rightly or wrongly Estonia felt like it was next and at the 2014 NATO summit in Wales it lobbied for allied air, naval and army reinforcements, which it promptly received.

This is still a work in progress though, and the upcoming Warsaw NATO summit in July will see the still very real threat on NATO’s so called ‘eastern flank’ being underlined to recalcitrant international partners, says the respected Estonian World Magazine. This is additionally important given that almost a quarter of the population is ethnic Russian and they remain admirers of Russia and the Russian President Vladimir Putin.  Indeed, given its reliance on technology Estonia has been subjected to intensive cyber-hacking attacks, making the government prioritise funds for cybersecurity research projects.

In conclusion, this ‘e-Estonia’, or Estonia as it appears on the map, has definitely been worth the effort of an article and it is not to be underestimated. It has shown tenacity, dynamism, a level headed competitive streak and an energy to embrace the outside world which the EU, America and others should seek to emulate. Estonia has something to teach us about the future!

Serbia: A decisive election is needed!

Zdravo, hello in Serbian, and welcome dear reader as we embark on our maiden foray into Balkan politics. Today, I am going to talk about Serbia.

Once a land synonymous with war crimes and ethnic cleansing it is now seeking to put that unfortunate past behind it and move towards reconciliation with its neighbours and a promising European future. At least it is striving to do so under its current leadership!

For many of its neighbours, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Croatia, Kosovo and Slovenia, Serbia has a lot of ground to cover after its responsibility for the worst atrocities committed in Europe since World War II. As Germany found after 1945 it is not easy and required much humility. A nice gesture was attempted by Alexander Vucic, the Serbian Prime Minister by visiting the sight of the worst massacre of Bosnian Muslim men and boys at Srebrenica and laying a wreath last year, but he was driven out by angry relatives of the victims. Nevertheless, more attempts should be made in spite of this.

It is welcome that Serbia has co-operated with the Hague-based International Criminal Tribunal for Former Yugoslavia (ICTY) and handed over its former political and military leaders, such as Slobodan Milosevic, Ratko Mladic and Radovan Karadzic, for trial, whatever the motivations behind the decisions may be. Many sceptics suggested the extraditions were designed to attract the attention of investment from wealthy Gulf Arabs or merely a ploy to satisfy the European Union (EU) which Serbia has filed an application to join after 2020, and they remain distinctly cynical about the motives of a Serbia led by President Tomislav Nikolic and Prime Minister Alexander Vucic, who are both former nationalists.

Accession to the EU brings me neatly onto latest developments in Serbia. Prime Minister Vucic has called early elections in Serbia as it approaches a critical stage in it negotiations for entry into the EU. Several chapters on various policy areas, such as the economy and human rights, have been opened in discussions with Brussels, but the thorny status of Kosovo (which declared its independence in 2008) is proving tricky to resolve. In the upcoming elections, due to be held in 20 days time on the 24th of April, none of the main political parties has pledged to recognise an independent state of Kosovo. According to Balkan Insight, a respected online newspaper, the PM of Serbia has said that he called the elections 2 years early in order ‘to seek validation for the next phase of reforms’ which would involve tough economic restructuring and an overhaul of the lethargic judiciary.

Latest polls indicated by the Faktor Plus (FP) polling agency, suggested the now pro-Western and pro-EU Mr Vucic and his Serbia Wins coalition of parties had seemed set to maintain their comfortable majority in parliament, at 52.6% of the vote. However, the recent release of rabble rousing ultra-nationalist Vojislav Seselij, head of the pro-Russian and anti-western Serbian Radical Party, has complicated matters and with his equally hardline allies runs on a combined 25% or so and rising in the FP polls. Alexander Vucic has publicly mused that the release of this man from jail imperils his predicted election win. The liberal parties, led by the once dominant and inspiring Democratic Party, have been in disarray since they surprisingly lost elections in 2014 and could muster at best 15% of the vote under current conditions say the pundits.

This complex picture can be explained as thus. Serbia has often found itself at the crossroads of history between its Orthodox Christian kin in Russia and a desire to be a fully accepted modern European state. This has eluded it at times in its past, especially the latter, but last year presented an opportunity. During the height of the refugee crisis, where an estimated 1.1. million Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Afghans traversed through Serbia to try and seek better lives in Germany, Denmark and Sweden, new arrivals were taken aback by the comparative warm welcome they received in Belgrade, the historic and populous capital city, and other towns compared to the often racist treatment in other Eastern European countries. The next time they would see a similar warm welcome would not be until they reached Germany with its citizens handing out sweets and teddy bears to kids at Munich Central Station!

The Serbian NGO, CANVAS, (which seeks non-violent resistance to conflict and whose members were involved in OTPOR, the student movement which toppled Slobodan Milosevic from the Presidential Palace in Belgrade) outlined how ordinary men and women came out to help whether with donations of food or a place to sleep and provided basic counselling or language translation to migrants. When asked to explain why they assisted they explained how the Milosevic inspired Yugoslav wars had impacted every family in Serbia and that it was all barely 20 years ago. At that time 750,000 Serbs crossed to Belgrade, a city many newcomers had never visited before in their lives. However, in spite of the more recent hospitality some received many Asian and Middle Eastern refugees still had their eyes set on northern Europe where they hoped to claim asylum. At the height of the crisis over the summer Serbia received praise from the European Commission for its ‘competent and resilient management of the influx’ in spite of economic challenges.

Flowing neatly on to the economy of Serbia, it is still recovering from the effects of sanctions, war and corruption and rampant crime. However, the IMF in its recent assessment report said it expects a modest but steady GDP growth rate of 1.75% in 2016.  Foreign investment from Siemens, Fiat, Microsoft and others has resulted in an average 16.4% year on year Foreign Direct Investment rate since 2012 says the United Nations, creating over 10,000 jobs in each year.

However, Mr Vucic did warn of tough decisions and to meet strict budgetary and deficit requirements set by the IMF and EU Serbia is putting some sensitive projects, such as a large steel mill, coal and copper mines up for privatisation. Job losses could ensue and the sale to private investors, especially if they are foreign, of what are considered symbols of national industrial pride in many countries (including Serbia) could raise the hackles of the far right. All this against a backdrop of a creeping increase in the unemployment rate, which has now reached a two year high of 18%, according to the National Statistics Office of Serbia, is heaping pressure on the country’s leaders and helps to explain the Prime Minister’s call for a snap election.

The political and economic atmosphere in Belgrade has turned suddenly combustible at a critical time (quite literally as a grenade was this week thrown at the PM as he campaigned, fortunately enough it missed!) and it is important for the EU and USA to see Alexander Vucic re-elected in upcoming polls, inspite of any flaws he may have, as the westward or eastward fate of the nation might be at stake here. This is doubly crucial for Serbia’s neighbours who have felt the full force of toxic Serbian nationalism unmuzzled. The clock is ticking, 20 days and counting!

The Panama Papers: Death and taxes?

Hello dear reader and welcome!

Wow, what an illuminating and interesting 24 hours. The biggest leak in history by all accounts has just taken place. Kudos to the German newspaper, Suddeutsche Zeitung!

There used to be a famous saying in English (maybe an equivalent in your native language too dear reader if it is not English) which said there are two things in life you cannot avoid, death and taxes. The latter is now looking exceptionally optional for some!

The leaking of almost 12 million documents concerning the dodgy, aggressive tax avoidance schemes, held by the equally shady Panamian law firm, Mossack Fonesca, has shed an uncomfortable light on something we have long suspected dear reader, that is that there is now an uncomfortable and record breaking divide between the lifestyle and behaviour of the richest and poorest, which has not been seen since the 19th century. We are living in a thoroughly unequal society in spite of our supposed technology and global institutions. These are not my words but the words of Thomas Piketty, a noted French economist, whose masterwork Capital in the Twenthieth Century, has eloquently outlined that we are living in a new ‘gilded age’ which is ominously like the 1920s. We live in an era of ‘super managers’ who get paid astronomical amounts, which bears no reflection to their success, and once they have failed at one institution they usually deftly move on to the next corporate prey.

Now, I am no socialist but I speak as a candid friend to modern day free market society. It has been a collective failure by many western politicians to hold the bankers to account for the 2008 financial crisis (this is from where we should look for the beginnings of this crisis) which has contributed significantly to the feeling of antipathy and loathing many feel towards the mainstream body politic. Bernie Sanders in the USA, speaks to many with his calls for revolution. Whilst American and European politicians have taken some steps to make sure the taxpayer isn’t liable for bank bailouts anymore the job is far from done and few of the major culprits of these white collar and Ponzi style frauds have been sent to jail. Indeed, the UK’s Financial Times reports, that the European Union (EU) has created a more powerful Single Resolution Board to handle any future financial crisis centred on the banks, with wider regulation powers to hold wrongdoers to account. This is good as a start.

Back to the actual Panama Papers for a moment though, which has implicated serving and former politicians, dictators, athletes, lawyers, celebrities and business people, we now know what has long been suspected about the gross inequality which has set in our societies. Question is where do we go from here? The Icelandic Prime Minister is facing calls to quit over his wife’s aggressive tax avoidance and embarrassment has been caused to many friends of Russia’s strongman leader Vladimir Putin.

Politically, these revelations are uncomfortable, but we need a serious change in our culture. It is one of those knotty problems where we know the questions that need to be asked, and even sometimes the answers are already known, but action has yet to be put to good effect as the wealthy and influential flex their muscles on supine politicians until the next round of leaks and exposes. My hope is that this leak may aid investigators across Africa and the Middle East in clawing back the billions of Euros worth of assets squirrelled away by their kleptocratic dictators and phony democrats. The Panama Papers have brought to light the many shell companies used by Hosni Mubarak and  Bashar Al Assad, among many others, to store their ill gotten gains. In Britain, UK authorities have been virtually obstructing the seizure of many prime London properties (London being a favourite haunt of corrupt dictators with cash to burn) owned by the fallen dictator of Egypt and waited a full month after the revolution before freezing his bank accounts. This foot dragging often hindered the recovery of millions in assets which could have really helped the fledgling authorities in Egypt. Switzerland, long notorious in this matter, actually acted fairly promptly and froze several accounts which contained $65 million in the name of the Mubarak family, says the World Bank Asset Recovery Division.

However, we also need to look beyond individuals to corporations too. I can recall the issue of corporate tax avoidance cropping up in the agendas of several of G7 and G20 summits in recent years and yet scant progress has been made from what I can see. Notably, the G8 shingdig in 2013 prioritised the crackdown on tax evasion by big business and agreement was reached to exchange information between member states on the matter, but foolishly leaders snatched defeat from the jaws of victory by allowing this information to be shielded from public declaration, said the United Nations at the time.

Before yesterday, the EU’s Financial Commisioner, Pierre Moscovici, had to respond to the European Parliament’s findings that over €70 billion a year is lost through multinationals not declaring tax on their profits in their home countries. Instead they funnel this money offshore to zero tax states like the Cayman Islands or Liechtenstein, and declare it there. Mr Moscovici underlined the fact that the European Commission has drafted a directive to close this loophole but funnily enough it is stuck with the heads of European governments in the Council, waiting their approval.

Mercifully, whilst I  was working at the European Parliament, significant achievement resulted in legislation which has forced transparency on the secretive mining and extractives industry to get them to publish their profits in their home country. This has been important to ensure that warlords and disingenuous energy firms cannot trade in the so called ‘blood diamonds’ which funded so many deadly conflicts across the African continent, otherwise they risk severe fines. Similar legislation on the banks and financial industry has remained stubbornly elusive however.

Now, I do not want to point fingers or appear unpatriotic but unfortunately the British have a very poor track record in the EU for blocking anything that they feel will endanger the City of London financiers and their inflated egos. This has been exacerbated during the toxic Brexit debate raging in the UK. A Conservative government run by the richest and most privileged cabinet in decades in the UK has successfully blocked Europe wide initiatives to prosecute financial wrong doers and impose a punitive so called 1% ‘Robin Hood’ tax on financial transactions which would have generated millions if not billions for European treasuries.

Now we see the rise of opportunistic right wing populists, like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Frauke Petry, to fill the void as many centre right, and sometimes centre left, leaders in the USA and Europe swiftly moved onto other issues and failed to grasp the way this cruel injustice of the bailouts etc. continued to rankle with the poor and battered middle classes. Wages for these classes failed to rise in a time where we were told GDP growth rates and better employment rates had led to a successful economic recovery from disaster. We see the results in increasing fragmentation in the parliaments of Ireland, Spain, Slovakia and Portugal, where messy elections have led to political stalemate.

In summary, first things first we need to make sure that this whistleblower is protected and we are not misdirected to prosecuting this brave individual who exposed these documents held by an obscure law firm in Panama. On the policy front we need to make progress with haste in returning laundered money to Arab and African states to help them build their democracies (where of course we must be sure that they are actually building a democracy!), fulfill our commitments to hold bankers and crooked financiers to account and pressure our recalcitrant governments (this goes for citizens in the UK particularly!) to support European level measures to get the financial industry to pull its weight, and knuckle down on the hitherto unaccountable shifting of cash by big companies such as Google, Starbucks and Amazon to name a few. Very importantly we must also do what the respected Berlin based NGO, Transparency International, has said in a press release on the issue and ban these secret companies. A proper, independent global regulatory regime is now needed practising full transparency and information exchange to keep an eye on progress.

Who knows enacting even some of these proposals might restore much needed lustre to a tarnished political class and take the wind out of these dangerous demagogues who are now on the scene! We can but hope!