When Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi goes on the offensive, great things happen for bloggers. He got worked up after a Spanish reporter asked whether he should resign for the rising scandal over his womanizing, including an escort who says she was paid to spend the night with him. Reuters reports Berlusconi's stunningly candid explanation for why he thinks he should stay:
"I sincerely believe I am by far the best prime minister Italy has had in its 150 year history (since unification in 1861)," Berlusconi said in televised news conference in Sardinia with Spanish Prime Minister Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero.
Now, though struggling with corruption, Italy is a democracy, but I'm pretty sure that's what Robert Mugabe says too. But back to Berlusconi, it gets better. He has never denied sleeping with the woman accusing him, but forcefully explained why he would never pay for sex:
"Never in my life, not even once, have I had to pay for a sexual encounter," Berlusconi said. "And I'll tell you why: for someone who loves to conquer, the greatest joy is the conquest, so I ask, 'if you pay, what joy can there be?'"
That must make his wife feel even better about her decision to start divorce proceedings. But the press conference still gets better:
When Berlusconi apologized to Zapatero for his lengthy answer, the Spanish leader said there was no need and it was "very interesting."
ANDREAS SOLARO/AFP/Getty Images
Today, FP's front page has an excellent article from Amjad Shuaib on the crimes and fall of former Pakistani president Pervez Musharraf. As Shuaib notes, the Pakistani Supreme Court's decision this past July to declare Musharraf's state of emergency proclamation unconstitutional means "he may be tried for treason -- and possibly executed."
With that threat hanging over his head, one might expect Musharraf to escape to a remote island hideaway, or at least somewhere where he couldn't easily be found. Not so: instead, according to the Guardian, he's holed up in "an unassuming three-bedroom flat behind the shisha bars and kebab joints of London's Arabic quarter." Unconstitutional seizure of power aside, the only controversy Musharraf is attracting in Britain is his taxpayer/Scotland Yard-provided security detail. And while he lives decently well, the apartment is a far cry from the "Park Lane penthouses" his rival Nawaz Sharif used to own.
Still, Londoners who don't want the dictator hanging around will get their wish after this week: "he starts a 40-day lecture tour of the US next Tuesday."
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In the Financial Times on Wednesday, Chris Cook argues that British immigration laws are giving an unfair edge to soccer clubs with more money.
Clubs with deep pockets hire the small number of local and foreign gifted players available, while poorer clubs must make do with the remaining, potentially much weaker, local journeymen.
Not only that, he says, but the protectionist measures of allowing non-European workers only if the fit certain high-skill benchmarks also inflate wages for less-skilled Europeans, raising ticket prices.
Cook contends tougher competition would boost the English national team:
The impact of more foreign players on the elite band of players who might conceivably play for the national team is that they need to play better to keep their places in their club teams. So, they improve. The English team has markedly improved since foreign footballers started pouring into the country’s top league.
Would some British and European soccer players be pushed out of work if rules were liberalized? Probably, but a more competitive league would be worth it Cook says.
Consumers of an increasing range of products will soon feel the pain in their wallets already endured by so many fans on a Saturday afternoon, who routinely complain that they pay ever-greater sums to watch a football league dominated by just four clubs. What English football needs is fewer English footballers.
Not knowing that much about the economics of the Premiere Leage, here's a question: If teams in the lower half of the standings became much more competitive, would it increase their revenues? Higher ticket sales? More advertising?
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While I would take any new reports about the hijacking of the Arctic Sea with a heaping barrelful of salt, some of the latest theories are at least interesting. In an interview with Time this week, the European Union's rapporteur on piracy said Israeli intelligence likely intercepted the ship, which was carrying a secret shipment weapons to the Middle East:
[H]e says only a shipment of missiles could account for Russia's bizarre behavior throughout the monthlong saga. "There is the idea that there were missiles aboard, and one can't explain this situation in any other way," he says. "As a sailor with years of experience, I can tell you that the official versions are not realistic."
Kouts says an Israeli interception of the cargo is the most likely explanation. But this theory, which some Russian analysts put forward in the days after the Arctic Sea was rescued and which Kouts agreed with in his interview with TIME, has been vehemently denied by Russia's envoy to NATO, Dmitri Rogozin, who says Kouts should stop "running his mouth."
The theory is supported by the fact that Israeli President Shimon Peres made a surpsie visit to Moscow the day after the ship was rescued.
Not so fast say repoters from Israel's YNet, who find the admiral's theory implausable. According to their anonymous sources, the Arctic Sea made a stop in Kaliningrad -- a Russian military outpost popular with arms dealers -- before picking up its stated cargo of timber in Finland:
Sources say the Arctic Sea docked in Kaliningrad in June to undergo various repairs. The same sources say a deal was previously struck between Russian and Middle Eastern businessmen, agreeing on the sale of some of the S-300 missiles located at the port.
Some sources claim the Russian military's weapons industry was implicated in the deal and transferred a number of new missiles, including the X-500, to the port to be included in the sale. However the Kremlin was uninvolved, and apparently the deal was carried out in secret between businessmen from the private sector.
After the deal was executed, an intelligence agency whose identity so far remains unexposed learned of the ship's departure with the weapons in tow towards Algeria, a country located on a regularly used route for the transfer of weapons to Iran and Syria. The intelligence agency then transferred an anonymous tip to the Russian authorities, according to the investigation.
According to Russian sources the "hijackers", who in actuality were Russian intelligence officers, remained on the ship and reported to their superiors that they had found the missiles on board. On August 12 Russia announced it had sent naval officers to rescue the vessel and its crew.
The sources say the period of time between the hijacking and the Russian rescue mission was due to the Kremlin's desire to capture the ship away from the eyes of the media, in order to avoid an embarrassing incident that may have harmed its relations with Iran and Algeria.
Again, I'm not endorsing any of these theories, but the story just gets more fascinating.
Ricky LOPEZ/AFP/Getty Images
In 2007, the London Review of Books published a piece entitled "Inconvenient Truths" about the conviction and subsequent appeals of Libyan intelligence agent Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi for the bombing of Pan-Am flight 103. The article, written by Hugh Miles, explained that even at the time of the conviction there were many questions, and that al-Megrahi's appeal (which he withdrew in order to be released on medical grounds last week) had a chance of succeeding.
Lawyers, politicians, diplomats and relatives of Lockerbie victims now believe that the former Libyan intelligence officer is innocent. Robert Black QC, an emeritus professor of Scottish law at Edinburgh University, was one of the architects of the original trial in Holland. He has closely followed developments since the disaster happened and in 2000 devised the non-jury trial system for the al-Megrahi case.
Evenbefore the trial he was so sure the evidence against al-Megrahi would not stand up in court that he is on record as saying that a convictio nwould be impossible. When I asked how he feels about this remark now, Black replied: ‘I am still absolutely convinced that I am right. No reasonable tribunal, on the evidence heard at the original trial, should or could have convicted him and it is an absolute disgrace and outrage what the Scottish court did.’
In this context the outrage over al-Megrahi's release by Scotland last week--because he has terminal cancer --might need to be reevaluated. The same goes for resultant anger over Libyan leader Muammar al-Qaddafi's visit to the U.N. and New York in September. Following up on the London Review of Books' blog this week, Glen Newey makes the astute, if impolitic point that the release, and drop of al-Megrahi's appeal, was likely best for the political fortunes of everyone involved:
It served nobody’s interests to have the Lockerbie bombing conviction debated in open court. Hence the great good fortune of al-Megrahi’s terminal prostate cancer, which sped his release from Greenock. With a ‘compassionate’ wave of the biro, the SNP administration has rid itselfof a high-profile prisoner with an unsafe conviction and enhanced, orcreated, its international profile. The UK government can keep in withthe Libyans and protect its commercial contracts, on the plea ofrespecting devolved powers. Meanwhile, in a rerun of the Cold War great game, we need to oil our way into the Colonel’s tent ahead of the Bear: recently Russia has been angling for a naval base in Benghazi. So even the Obama administration has reason to mute its complaints. It’s almost enough to make one believe in divine providence.
None of this, of course, is any consolation to the families of the bombing victims, but it gives a very plausible explanation for what might be going on behind the scenes.
To be clear, it is unlikely officials could fake the cancer diagnosis and Al-Megrahi does not look very well in the photos of his departure from Scotland. But well, who knows? Maybe he'll make a miraculous recovery at home in Libya.
DANNY LAWSON/AFP/Getty Images
German Judge Albert Bartz has taken issue with laws that ban drivers from talking on handsets while driving but do not address many other potentially more distracting activities, including sexual activity.
"The police have no legal basis for taking action against a driver who is, for example, letting their left hand dangle out of the open car window while they use their right hand to work on a laptop that's sitting on the passenger's seat and steer the car with their thighs," Bartz said. "In my opinion, the current legislation is outdated."
The judge considered the law while handling the case of a man who appealed his fine for talking while driving. Bartz insists however that he does not have personal motivation for his legal position.
Bartz emphasized that he has never been caught using his mobile phone in the car and that he also avoids other risky activities while driving. As he told the mass circulation daily Bild: "Sex at the steering wheel is strictly off-limits for me."
Bartz forwarded the statute on to Germany's highest court, the Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe, for further review.
Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images
The Moscow Times reports that Russia has issued new guidlelines to law enforcement officials about how to define extremism:
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Winnie the Pooh share a dubious honor: Anyone who depicts either of them with a swastika can be punished under the law.
The Justice Ministry published the latest — and biggest — update to its list of extremist materials on its web site this week, and many of the 414 new entries are so vague or controversial that analysts say they threaten to discredit the list all together.
The list is important because police officers and other law enforcement officials use it in street checks, apartment searches and criminal cases.
Among the new entries, extremist material is identified as “a picture of Winnie the Pooh wearing a swastika,” “a self-made template for a future newspaper, comic or other print materials,” and “a flag with a cross.”
And just when you thought that was all:
A closer look at the list brings other surprises. For example, item No. 402 is the LiveJournal blog Reinform.livejournal.com.
The blog has not been suspended by LiveJournal’s abuse team and is being updated almost daily. Its owner wrote on its front page that he had opened the blog after seeing prosecutors mistakenly name the then-nonexistent blog as extremist.
MJ Kim/Getty Images
Officials flicked on the switch at two of Germany's most important new solar energy sites on Thursday. In the eastern state of Brandenburg, the world's second-largest solar energy project went online. And halfway across the country, in North Rhine-Westphalia, a smaller scale but perhaps equally important facility launched -- Germany's first solar-thermal power plant.
MICHAEL GOTTSCHALK/AFP/Getty Images
It's a bad Friday morning for UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon.
Mona Juul, Norway's second-in-command at the United Nations in New York, wrote a confidential internal report for her country's foreign ministry, which is a major UN funder. In a memo, she castigates Ban for his lack of vision and leadership. She describes him as "spineless," a "passive observer" to the Myanmar situation, his work as "fruitless," and questions the damage he's done.
The memo leaked.
Back in June, Jacob Heibrunn made a forceful argument to the same effect for Foreign Policy. Seems prescient, huh?
Full text of the Juul memo below.
Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon's fruitless visit to Burma in the beginning of July is indicative of a Secretary-General and an organization who are struggling to show leadership. In a time when the UN and the need for multilateral solutions to global crises are more needed than ever, Ban and the UN are conspicuous by their absence. During the last six months, where the follow-up to the many crises that left their imprint on the General Assembly during the fall should have brought the Secretary-General and the UN into play at full force, the opposite seems to have happened.
In relation to the financial crisis , neither the Secretary-General nor the General Assembly - despite the summit on the financial crisis during the end of June - have shown themselves to be the most important arena, and the vacuum is being filled by the G-20 and other actors. Ban's voice on behalf of the G-172 and the poor is barely being registered. And at times an invisible Secretary-General, in combination with a rather special president of the General Assembly, has to a large extent placed the UN on the sidelines and the organisation has not known when to act. In the environment/energy area the UN also struggles to be relevant, despite the planned climate summit at the opening of the General Assembly in the fall. Even though the Secretary-General repeats ad nauseam that Copenhagen must "seal the deal", there is widespread concern that the UN summit will not contribute anything worth mentioning in the process towards Copenhagen.
In the many political/security-related crises around the world the Secretary-General's leadership and ability to deliver on behalf of the international organization are also found wanting. Burma is a shining example. There was no shortage of warnings that the Secretary-General should not go at this time. The Americans were among the most sceptical of him going, while the British believed he should. Special Envoy Gambari was also sceptical at the outset, but Ban insisted. Gambari noted that recent negative press (with headlines such as "Whereabouts unknown" in The Times and "Nowhere Man" in Foreign Policy) had made Ban even more determined to visit Burma. After a seemingly fruitless visit by the Secretary-General, the UN's "good offices" will be made even more difficult. Special Envoy Gambari will have major problems during the aftermath, after "the top man" has failed and the generals in Yangoon no longer want to meet with him.
Another example of weak handling by the Secretary-General is the war in Sri Lanka . The Secretary-General was a powerless observer to thousands of civilians losing their lives and becoming displaced from their homes. The authorities in Colombo refused to see the Secretary-General while the war was ongoing, but he was heartily invited - and accepted an invitation - as soon as the war was "won". Even though the UN's humanitarian effort has been active and honest enough, the moral voice and authority of the Secretary-General has been missing.
In other "crises areas" such as Darfur, Somalia, Pakistan, Zimbabwe and not least the Congo , the Secretary-General's appeals, often irresolute and lacking in dedication, seem to fall on deaf ears. Many would also claim that the handling of the investigative committee, following the war in Gaza , ended with an unstable and overly careful follow up.
More surprising, and all the more disappointing, is that Ban Ki-moon has been almost absent on the issue of disarmament and non-proliferation. This was an issue he himself held forward as a principal area of focus before he took over his post. The re-organisation of the department for disarmament into an office directly under the Secretary-General, run by a High Representative, signalled a major focus on this area, also given the Secretary-General's background on the Korean peninsula. With discussions of a new non-proliferation agreement in 2010 and a U.S. administration that have put the theme much higher on the agenda, it is discouraging that the Secretary-General is not to a larger degree involved.
What all these examples have in common is that a spineless and charmless Secretary-General , has not compensated this by appointing high profile and visible coworkers. Ban has systematically appointed Special Representatives and top officals in the Secretariat who have not been visibly outstanding - with the exception of Afghanistan. In addition he seems to prefer to be in the center without competition from his coworkers and has implied quite clearly that press statements are for him exclusively. The result is that the UN is a less visible and relevant actor in various areas where it would have been natural and necessary for the UN to be engaged. An honorable exception is the appointment of Helen Clark as the new leader of UNDP . She has in a short time, done good things. It will be interesting to see if she will be given space to give the UN a profile in the area of development. As a woman from this side of the world, Clark could soon turn into a candidate for Ban´s second term.
It is common knowledge that it was a deliberate choice of the former US administration not to prefer an activist Secretary-General. The current American Administration has not yet signalled any changes in its postition towards Ban, however, there are rumours that in certain quarters in Washington Ban is refered to as a "one term SG." It is understood that people in the circles of Susan Rice and Hillary Clinton are very negative to Ban, but neither of them has given any declarations. China is also quite positive to him and it is primarily China who holds the key to Ban´s second mandate. Russia has for a long time been dissatisfied with the Secretary-General´s handling of both Kosovo and Georgia but also the lack of appointments of Russians to leading position at the UN. At the same time the Russians, however, have no problems with a not too-interventionist Secretary-General.
Half way through his term, one feels that the member states are increasingly negative towards Ban. Many considered that Ban should be given time and he would improve as he gained experience and any comparison with his charismatic predecessor was unfair. Among those, however, the tone has changed, and now the argument of his learning-potential has expired and the lack of charisma has become a burden. The Secretary-General seems to function quite well when he sticks to a script and performs at larger meetings and arrangements. The problem arises when he is "on his own" and is incapable of setting the agenda, inspiring enthousiasm and show leadership- not even internally. The consequence of Ban´s lack of engagement and interest in studying well enough the problems, is that he fails to be an effective actor or negotiator in the many negotiation processes he is supposed to handle.
The atmosphere in the "house" is described as being less than motivating. The decision making structure is hampered by the fact that all information both up and down is filtered by the omni-present chef de cabinet, Kim. After the latest round of negative media coverage, it is understood that the atmosphere on the 38th floor is rather tense . Ban has constant outbreaks of rage which even the most cautious and experienced staff find hard to tackle. The relations with the Deputy-Secretary-General Migiro are also tense and her marge de manouvre seems - if possible- to have decreased. There are constant rumours of replacements and reshuffling. In addition to constant rumours about Migiro leaving, there are rumours that the overwhelmingly well liked OCHA chief John Holmes will be promoted to chef de cabinet and that Nambiar will leave. Same goes with the head of DPA, Pascoe - Holmes is also tipped as a candidate for his succession. The Brits are understood to want that position "back". These are, however, only rumours and most likely Ban will continue with the same staff - at least until the end of the year. If that is enough to secure him another term, only time can tell.
Good news for cash-strapped Londoners: If you happen to catch a stealth hand reaching for your purse, it doesn't necessarily mean you're being robbed; it could be a ‘putpocket' instead.
A new scheme by British broadband provider TalkTalk is giving away £100,000 by slipping it into, rather than out of, the pockets of unsuspecting passers-by. By recruiting a team of 20 highly skilled former pickpockets to sneak between £5 and £20 notes into unguarded bags across the city, the company hopes to brighten up people's lives in unusual ways. The initiative will run until the end of August in London before the ‘putpockets' venture out to the rest of the country.
Said Chris Fitch, a reformed pickpocket who now heads the project:
It feels good to give something back for a change -- and Britons certainly need it in the current economic climate. Every time I put money back in someone's pocket, I feel less guilty about the fact I spent many years taking it out.
Spanish Health Minister Trinidad Jimenez launched a new
health campaign with recommendations to guard against the spread of swine
flu by encouraging people to wash hands frequently, avoid sharing glasses and
to refrain from kissing where possible. But just moments before she made her
statement, the minister was caught kissing news conference assistants twice on
the cheek. Though a common social custom, local media wasted no time in
capturing the irony, as weekend papers splashed pictures of Jimenez failing to
practice what she preached. To date, Spain has accredited 11
deaths to the virus, giving it the second highest fatality rate in Europe.
PHILIPPE DESMAZES/AFP/Getty Images
The new U.S. ambassador to Britain, Louis Susman, has indicated he will not pay the 3.5 million pounds ($5.7 million!) in congestion charges the embassy owes the City of London.
Drivers pay 8 pounds a day for the privilege of driving in a central zone at peak hours -- but the U.S. embassy has refused to pay. The argument? The congestion charge is a tax, not a service fee. And embassies don't pay taxes.
The mayor's office and Transport for London, which administers the program, argue that around three-quarters of embassies pay the charge -- a service, not a tax -- and that the United States should do better than to rely on semantics to wiggle out of it.
I tend to think of congestion charges as taxes. They're designed to encourage certain behaviors and to make money for local governments. London spends the program's surplus (around a third of revenue, or nearly 90 million pounds, in 2007) on transport investment, for instance. But this still seems a little unseemly. What do you think?
European coast guards are currently investigating the hijacking and disappearance of a ship in what could be the first case of piracy in modern European history. The Independent reports:
The Arctic Sea, a Maltese registered, Latvian-owned ship with a 15-strong Russian crew, vanished with its £1m cargo at the end of July on its way from Finland to Algeria.
British coastguards were the last people known to communicate with the ship on 29 July as it passed along the Channel but it wasn't realised at the time that anything was wrong.
It is now thought that when the UK's Maritime and Coastguard Agency (MCA) was in radio contact with the ship that the person speaking to them was either a hijacker or a member of the crew with a gun pointed at his head.
The circumstances surrounding its likely hijacking are as puzzling as its current whereabouts. Swedish authorities were told by the Finnish shipping line operating the vessel that on 24 July the Arctic Sea had been boarded by eight to 10 heavily-armed men while it sailed through the Baltic Sea. The crew, three of whom were injured, were tied up and the black-clad and masked men, who purported to be narcotics police, searched the ship.
After 12 hours the intruders left and, supposedly, allowed the vessel to continue on its journey having damaged the communications equipment. But after reaching the Portuguese coast, having sailed along the Channel to get to the Atlantic, the Arctic Sea disappeared from the radar and hasn't been seen since. Its destination had been the Algerian port of Bejaia which it was scheduled to reach on 4 August with its valuable cargo of timber.
No one is exactly sure when was the last time a hijacked ship managed to slip through the English Channel. The Swedish, Finnish and Russian coast guard's are all investigating the Arctic Sea's disappearace.
Modern piracy is typically thought of as a crime associated with failed states like Somalia that don't have the resources to patrol their own coasts. It now appears that half a dozen wealthy, stable European countries -- most of whom actively participate in anti-pirate operations in the Gulf of Aden -- allowed a major act of maritime piracy to happen right under their noses.
While campaigns organized violence, no matter how ineffectual should never be dismissed or ignored, there is something sort of quaint about Basque separatist groups ETA's latest campaign of terror, in honor of its fiftieth anniversary. Most recently, the group detonated three small bombs on the Spanish holiday island Majorca yeterday.
Thankfully no one was hurt, but police are currently investigating whether the attackers are still on the island or if the devices were set off by remote control. King Juan Carlos, currently vacationing in Spain, has this to say:
"That band of murderers and scoundrels will neither alter Spanish democratic life nor normality on the island."
This is a boilerplate response from a head of state to a terrorist attack, but in this case, his majesty is probably right. I don't mean to sound insensitive to the victims and the killing of two Civil Guard officers in an ETA bombing last month was indeed a tragedy, but realistically, the current level of violence is nothing that should upset the daily routine of the Spanish public.
In some sense, it's a degree to which times have changed since European radical groups like ETA, the IRA, and the Baader-Meinhoff faction were the face of international terrorism.
The remnants of these nationalist and politically motivated groups -- who despite their appetite for destruction are still interested in preserving their own lives and those of innocent bystanders -- simply can't match the ability of religiously-motivated terrorists. The brutal terror of the 2004 Madrid train bombings rattled Spanish citizens and provoked more change in government policy than 50 years of ETA attacks.
Velupillai Prabakharan's great gift to humanity -- the suicide bombing -- also dramtically changed the equation of the impact terrorists could have, but requires a level of single-minded fanaticism that's beyond groups like ETA.
One could argue that this unwillingness to die for their cause or kill civilians makes groups like ETA more rational than groups like Al Qaeda or the Taliban. But as a long term strategy it actually makes much less sense. It's certainly not outside the realm of possibility that Taliban and al Qaeda attacks might force a U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan and Iraq. Hezbollah and Hamas may never eliminate Israel but they've proven quite adept at provoking the Israeli state into actions that damage its standing abroad. The Madrid bombings can be considered a success in that they pushed Spain into pulling its troops out of Iraq.
Compared to these campaigns, ETA's goals seem unbelievably quixotic. Is there any possible way that attacks like Sunday's will ever lead to the formation of an independent Basque state? This is probably the reason why despite the fact that while 24 percent of Basques support independence, less than 1 percent now support ETA's methods. As one former member put it:
"Eta has not had the lucidity or courage to realise that times have changed," he told the El Pais newspaper recently. "I realised that violence achieves nothing, but others lacked the balls to admit it."
At this point, the motivations of ETA's irreconcilables are probably a better topic for psychological, rather than political analysis.
CESAR MANSO/AFP/Getty Images
Over the last six months, more than 170 luxury cars have been set on fire in Berlin. Authorities are blaming the mysterious crime spree on left-wing radicals. But this is Google-age radicalism, as Australia's The Age explains:
A mysterious, single page website, brennende-autos.de (Burning Cars of Berlin), shows the number of cars set alight and where the crimes occurred, revealing clusters in ‘‘richer’’ areas, or in suburbs where gentrification and redevelopment are changing the demographic of local neighbourhoods.
Here a link to the page. Weird stuff.
Hat tip: Boing Boing
Silvio Berlusconi's summer continues to get worse. Alleged paramour Patrizia D'Addario looks to have every intent of cashing in on her newfound fame, his poll numbers have dipped below 50 percent for the first time since taking power, and even his daughter has (gently) criticized him.
It's enough to get even the most macho of world-leaders down. To combat his rising stress levels, Berlusconi has started his three-week summer vacation by bringing in three medical experts to relieve his stress levels. Among the methods is "Kneipp therapy, which promotes a strict diet, physical exercise and hydrotherapy to relieve stress, boost metabolism and restore the “natural harmony” of the body."
Oli Scarff/Getty Images
In Britain, the battle over assisted suicide and right-to-die laws has been heating up over the past few weeks.
The country has no intention of making assisted suicide legal. But, in the past decade, hundreds of Britons have traveled to Switzerland, where clinics offer doctor-assisted suicides for the terminally ill. And thus far, the country has been reticent to prosecute and punish their family members for going with them or aiding them in the process, although assisting a suicide is a felony in Britain.
The gray area led to numerous calls -- from doctors, citizens, and members of Parliament -- for a clarification of the law. This month, a famous couple chose to end their lives in Switzerland, and a woman with multiple sclerosis appealed to Parliament as well.
And today, the House of Lords instructed the director of public prosecutions to do just that.
A few weeks ago, I wrote a post arguing for the clarification of the law on class grounds. (See a rebuttal to my point from Felix Salmon here. Though I disagree with Felix -- the terminally ill are probably not capable of getting loans worth thousands of dollars and the process is expensive.) Assisted suicide in a foreign country is an expensive thing for Britons -- today, one doctor said he gave a third of the cost, 1500 pounds, to a terminally ill man who could not afford the trip to Switzerland without it.
And, today, the general practitioner called on Britain to prosecute him for doing so. The Guardian reported:
A former GP said today he hoped to be prosecuted for helping a terminally ill man to have an assisted suicide. Dr Michael Irwin, 78, said he wanted to highlight the "hypocrisy" of a system where the wealthy could pay to travel to Switzerland's Dignitas clinic for euthanasia but the poor could not. He will be questioned by police today after writing a cheque...
I don't want to make a point about whether assisted suicide itself should be legal. But this Irwin's case does make me realize I was imagining families -- not sponsors -- when I thought of those who might benefit from a clarification of the laws.
Five years before actually getting in trouble with the law for the first time, Michael Jackson was the most popular of a series of musicians doing gigs in and around Cold War Berlin. And as the most popular, and therefore most likely to turn East Germans on to "rock'n'roll and all the Western decadence it implied" (mostly amps that go to 11, I assume) the East German secret police decided they had no choice but to spy on Michael Jackson.
In a note from the Stasi, found in files revealed by German mass circulation newspaper Bild this week, the secret police were worried that the "youths will do anything they can to experience this concert, in the area around the Brandenburg Gate." And, they noted, "certain youths are planning to (use the occasion) to provoke a confrontation with police."
To be fair, the role of rock-and-roll in democratic movements was already well documented, such as after the Prague Spring in Czechoslovakia. More recently, East German musicophiles had already clashed with police a year earlier while trying to hear the loudspeakers on the other side of the wall during concerts by David Bowie and Genesis. And when given the powers of the moonwalk, who knows what these youths could have done? Why, they might even tear down the Berlin Wa...oh, wait.
Jackson, by the way, was not finished with Berlin: 14 years later, on a Berlin hotel balcony, Jackson confirmed once and for all that, yes, he was completely nuts.
Although Britain's expenses scandal hurt politicians on both sides of the aisle, the Labour Party did bear the brunt of the blow, with several cabinet ministers resigning in the aftermath. The opposite may happen in Germany: Chancellor Angela Merkel's health minister is under fire after her official car was stolen, but, fortunately for Merkel, the health minister is from the opposition.
The German health minister, Ulla Schmidt, has been criticised after her official car was stolen in Spain, where she was using it during her vacation.
The 90,000 euro (£78,000) Mercedes S-class was stolen in Alicante.
Mrs. Schmidt flew there at her own expense. Her chauffeur drove 2,400km (1,500 miles) to meet her so she could carry out some official business.
But opposition politicians want to know why she needed her car in Spain, when embassy vehicles are available.
Schmidt has filled the role of Health Minister since 2005, when Merkel's Christian Democrats formed a grand coalition with the opposition Social Democrats. Schmidt's scandal comes at a particularly poor time for her party, as Merkel's party has increased its lead in the polls to 12 points only two months before a new round of elections.
Also, German ministers get a Mercedes S-class for official business? Snazzy.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images
The audiotape of Italian Prime Minister talking with a professional escort who alleges he paid her for sex are embarrassing enough. But now it appears Berlusconi may have committed an archaeological crime:
In one of the transcripts of his purported conversations with Patrizia D'Addario posted on an Italian website, Berlusconi boasts to her about his sprawling villa in Sardinia -- complete with an ice cream parlor and artificial lakes.
"Here we found 30 Phoenician tombs from (around) 300 BC," the voice is heard to say.
The latest audio clip was posted on the website of L'Espresso weekly on Thursday and immediately raised the interest of the opposition and the archaeological community.
Under Italian law archaeological discoveries made on private property must be reported to authorities for inspection, cataloguing and possible excavation.
Archaeologists say that if Berlusconi's boasts are true, he may have stumbled onto a major find.
Elizabeth II has joined the ranks of the credit crunched.
Recent figures reveal that the Queen's estate, the Duchy of Lancaster, has lost £75 million as a result of the recession. Her private portfolio of land and property assets lost a fifth of its value and is now down to a paltry £322 million.
This is further bad news for her Highness, who has had her many, many requests for increases to the royal budget rejected by parliament in the last year. The monarchy's annual expenses currently run at £41.5 million, excluding an estimated £50 million in security costs. Nonetheless, Palace officials continue to engage in talks with the Treasury to elicit more funding for the Crown for, amongst others, planned household refurbishment and the 2012 diamond jubilee celebrations.
The Queen recently dipped into her now-dwindling private funds to pay for a few royal expenses, including Prince Harry's latest trip to New York.
Chris Jackson/Getty images
This past Sunday, the New York Times profiled British Conservative party leader (and, if the polls are to be believed, the next Prime Minister) David Cameron, and his attempts to make "conservatism more widely appealing and marketable." But events in the European Parliament are not helping him:
A controversial right-wing Polish MEP became the main voice of the Conservative Party in Europe yesterday, a further embarrassment for David Cameron’s new group of eurosceptics.
The key role of leader of the European Conservatives and Reformists went to Michal Kaminski, a former spin-doctor for President Kaczynski, even though the Tories are by far the largest party in the eight-nation group[...]
The choice of Mr Kaminski, 37, for leader raised eyebrows because of his firebrand past. In 1999 he attracted headlines in Poland when, as an MP, he travelled to London to pay homage to General Augusto Pinochet.
As a young man he not only associated with the far-right National Revival of Poland but also a hardline Catholic organisation, the Christian-National Union. He is understood to remain an anti-abortionist and opposed to gay rights.
While he was spin-doctor for Mr Kaczynski, the President ran a campaign against the Lisbon Treaty which warned that it would force deeply conservative Poland to accept gay marriages under the EU’s Charter of Fundamental Rights."
Combined with the Brown government's failure to turn around Tony Blair's rapidly-declining bid for the EU presidency, British politicians are quickly learning just how difficult controlling events in Brussels will be in the future. The Poles, on the other hand, are having a pretty good week there.
GERARD CERLES/AFP/Getty Images
Also on board the President-Blair train is Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who described him as the "ideal personality" to be EU president. And, though he may now be looking elsewhere, French President Nicolas Sarkozy had at one time been a key proponent of both the creation of the presidency and Blair's bid in particular, saying:
He is intelligent, he is brave and he is a friend. We need him in Europe. How can we govern a continent of 450 million people if the president changes every six months and has to run his own country at the same time?
In past, British ministers have said that announcing a potential candidate is premature to the creation of the position itself. Unsurprisingly, it still is. The post of EU president is dependent on an October 2 referendum in Ireland on the Lisbon Treaty. 26 out of 27 EU member states have already approved ratification of the treaty, but Irish voters rejected it 53.4 to 46.6 percent in June 2008.
Blair is careful not to get ahead of himself. A spokesman for the current Middle East envoy later responded:
As we have said, time and again on this, there is nothing to be a candidate for since the job doesn't actually exist.
On Friday, Britons Lady Joan and Sir Edward Downes, a prominent orchestral conductor, committed suicide with barbituates provided by the Dignitas clinic in Switzerland. According to British newspapers, Joan, 74, was suffering from terminal pancreatic cancer and had but weeks to live; Edward, 85, was going blind and deaf and did not want to live without her. The couple had been together for 54 years.
The story has reignited the debate over assisted suicide in Britain -- where every family that makes that horrific trip to Zurich commits a political act.
Indeed, in a brief interview with the Evening Standard, the Downes' son said, "It is a very civilized way to end your life, and I don’t understand why the legal position in this country doesn’t allow it." He also mentioned that he and his sister rang the police themselves to inform them of the deaths.
British police are questioning them, as assisting a suicide is illegal in Britain. But the justice system is unlikely to do anything. At least 117 Britons have committed suicide in Switzerland, where it has been legal to help terminally ill people end their life since 1998. No members of their families have ever been prosecuted. Britain, in essence, turns a blind eye.
I don't have much to say about the validity of assisted suicide laws. But one thing about the story struck me.
It's an expensive way to die -- it costs 4,000 Euros for Dignitas' services, plus the cost of bringing out one's family. And, because it is so expensive, only the wealthy seem to choose to do it. The titled Downeses. Businesspeople. University professors. Doctors.
One can imagine other terminally ill patients, in extraordinary pain and with no quality of life, wishing to end their life in a manner of their choosing, but being unable to do so because of the cost.
Britain's laws, de facto, make it possible for the rich to die via assisted suicide, but impossible for the poor to do so.
It reminds me of one of the common arguments over abortion laws. Women in countries like Portugal (which has restrictive abortion laws) or states like South Dakota (where virtually no clinics provide the service) often need to travel far distances to obtain the service. Which means the rich are able, and the poor aren't.
And access to such services should be determined by law, not class.
I have an article up on ForeignPolicy.com today about a subject which is a bit hard to sex up but is vitally important to countries and governments and people: youth unemployment.
The point of the piece is that unemployment among under-25s has risen to frankly horrific levels in a number of European countries -- nearly 40 percent in Spain, 35 percent in parts of the Baltics, more than 20 percent in a dozen more.
Why's that so bad? Well, the obvious reason of financial hardship, for one. But there's also a plethora of economic research showing that young people suffer lasting damage from spells of joblessness -- in everything from weight gain to reduced earnings down the road. The effects aren't so pronounced or persistent in older workers.
I'll elaborate on the part of the article I found most interesting but unfortunately didn't get a chance to expand: a demographic phenomenon making the situation much worse in the ex-Soviet countries (now, emerging eastern Europe) which happen to be particularly hard-hit by the Great Recession.
These socialist governments used to encourage families to have children, keeping the birth rate and the population rising via social and economic policy. That ended when the Wall fell. Between 1989 and 1991, birth rates plummeted throughout eastern Europe, as economic uncertainty and political collapse and (in some countries) the easier availability of birth control options meant women started having smaller families.
So, say you visited a kindergarten classroom in Saint Petersburg in 1993 (so the children were born in 1988), and all its 20 desks were filled. If you returned in 1998 (for kids born in 1993), there would only be 12 kids there. That big of a phenomenon.
Fast forward to today. Those Saint Petersburgian kindergarteners from 1993 would be 21 -- in the work force or graduating from college this year. They represent a demographic peak, a blip, for the job market.
That is compounding the problem of youth unemployment -- which is happening for all sorts of reasons across Europe.
The upside? Starting soon, within a few years, as the recession lifts, there will be fewer and fewer school-leavers and other young workers in these eastern European countries, worst-hit by the recession. Which means the youth unemployment rate should drop as precipitously as it's risen.
To illustrate the point, I made a chart, above. It shows the 18-to-24 population of each country. Pretty crazy, huh?
Teenagers are consuming more media, but in entirely different ways and are almost certainly not prepared to pay for it. They resent intrusive advertizing on billboards, TV and the Internet. They are happy to chase content and music across platforms and devices (iPods, mobiles, streaming sites). Print media (newspapers, directories) are viewed as irrelevant.
Texting is still key and use of new data services limited due to cost.
Teenagers listen to a lot of music, mostly whist doing something else (like travelling or using a computer). They are VERY reluctant to pay for it (most never having bought a CD) and a large majority (8/10) downloading it illegally from file sharing sites.
Conclusions? Teenagers don't have any money and they like free things. Also, eight out of ten of Robson's friends are downloading music illegally.
Derek Berwin/Getty images
Frenchmen from both sides of the political aisle are united in support of a day of rest, as President Nicolas Sarkozy's plan to open French shops on Sundays faces fierce opposition in the French parliament.
Parliament is due to pass a Bill tomorrow to ease France’s strict trading laws, but hostility to it is so widespread that some MPs in Mr Sarkozy’s own centre-right camp predict that it could unravel before becoming law.
The President’s plan to abolir le dimanche is being resisted by an unlikely coalition of interests, including the centre and left-wing Opposition, the Roman Catholic Church, the trade unions and small shopkeepers who fear losing their existing Sunday business to supermarkets. Up to 60 per cent of the public, according to polls, are also against a scheme that will reverse the century-old right to a day of rest.
The President has made Sunday shopping a personal crusade since he promised it in his 2007 election campaign under his slogan of “work more to earn more”. He pillories France as a backward exception to the rest of Europe and has said that he was ashamed when Michelle Obama wanted to take her daughters shopping in Paris on a Sunday last month — he had to arrange a special opening for her at a Left Bank boutique.
Interestingly, while Sarkozy claims France's laws to be backwards, Sunday shopping is still nonexistant or a novelty in many other European countries:
Although most shopping centres and non-food shops are closed, the French already work more on Sundays than most Europeans. Limited Sunday trading has been allowed in big French cities and tourist areas since 1993. Many other EU countries restrict Sunday shopping more or as much as France. Germany and Austria are only just getting used to the novelty of Saturday afternoon shopping. Belgium, which Mr Sarkozy has cited as a model, allows Sunday trading in only limited areas.
The only EU countries that allow unlimited Sunday opening are the Czech Republic, Sweden and Romania."
The Times of London could not resist adding, "Britain has restrictions but its citizens still manage to put in more work than in any other EU state." Thanks for letting everyone know.
BORIS HORVAT/AFP/Getty Images
Yesterday, several Web sites posted a photograph of U.S. President Barack Obama allegedly, erm, well, checking out a passing woman (a teenage junior delegate from Brazil) while at the G-8 conference in L'Aquila, Italy.
This meant Christmas in July for headline writers at the New York Post, among other publications. Some sample phrases from its article: "Tail to the chief," "Baby got Barack," and, most memorably, "Yankee Doodle randy." (A phrase previously deployed for baseball player Alex Rodriguez, naturally.)
But today, ABC News posted a video exonerating the commander-in-chief. He was, in fact, turning around to help another woman take place on a set of steps for a photograph. French President Nicolas Sarkozy, though, looks a bit suspect.
See it for yourself, here.
Last November, Sudhir Venkatesh over at the Freakonomics blog predicted that France was due for more youth riots. Somebody give him a prize:
French riot police firing teargas and plastic bullets have struggled to contain three nights of rioting and arson by youths on suburban estates in the Loire, amid protests over the death of a 21-year-old in police custody.
High-rises in Firminy, a small town bordering countryside on the outskirts of Saint-Étienne, saw running battles between police and youths in the early hours of this morning after Mohamed Benmouna, a local supermarket cashier, was taken from his police cell in a coma and died in hospital.
Benmouna, who had been arrested on extortion charges, died on Wednesday. Police said he attempted to hang himself in his cell and fell into a coma. His Algerian family, sceptical of the official story, have filed a lawsuit to establish the circumstances of his death and whether police violence was covered up[...]
For three nights, youths have taken to the streets of Firminy to riot over the death, burning local shops, torching dozens of cars and stoning police, despite repeated pleas for calm from the family. Last night the family and 200 locals staged a peaceful sit-down protest outside their block of flats. But later groups of youths began torching buildings and cars and stoning police. The local bakers, chemist, tobacconist and hairdressing salon were razed. Two hundred riot police were brought in to control rioters with teargas and plastic bullets. Six arrests were made.
As The Guardian says in the article, the riots are merely the latest clash in a long-running fight between urban minorities and the French police. Numerous reports in the last year have shown the police force using ethnic profiling and human rights violations against minorities, and racial problems are not just limited to law enforcement, either. As NPR noted in January,
Today, the French political, academic and media establishments are lily-white. In France, it is illegal to gather data according to race and ethnicity, so it's impossible to measure the minority population's exact size. It is estimated at between 10 percent and 15 percent of the total 63 million.
There are black parliamentarians from overseas territories, but only one from continental France and hardly any blacks or people of Arab origin among 36,000 mayors.
There are no minorities among the military brass, in the foreign service or judiciary."
It's a long walk backwards from when France was a haven for African-Americans.
FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images
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