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25 may 2011, the 28th state of the union

I have many fond memories of croatia, and still friends there. When briefing on enlargement was part of my job I kept a close eye on its progression to accession (see so much further yet to march), hanging many a potentially tricky treaty revision on the changes that each new country triggers. Such was the inevitability of the enthusiastic croats joining, that when france changed its constitution to block any further enlargement without a referendum (later dropped), croatia was exempt. Years later, talks are dragging, with still only 30 of the 35 "chapters" of the acquis closed. Not so turkey, which started the negotiations on the same day: ankara has managed just one. Whilst croatia is on course to enter in 2013, turkey is still a lifetime away. Croatia though has recently been seized by a bout of anti eu sentiment, as the hague war crimes tribunal gave long prison terms to two hero generals, seen now as victims of the bosnian war (see from dayton to brussels). Tens of thousands took to the streets chanting "go away eu", and a poll showed 60% opposed. This will surely ebb though, as have many other problems. July looks increasingly like an end date for talks, although the vogue for closer inspection may lead to a monitoring period before the eu actually numbers 28. Not so turkey though, as unless the uk does eventually peel away to anchor a looser "outer core", the moment for turkey to join has surely passed and the question is really how to diplomatically wind down the process.

21 may 2011, after dsk

Though not yet in proven guilty of anything, dominique has left the imf, making choosing its next head a vital & immediate task. Though flawed in so many ways, the importance of the institution grew tremendously during dsk's time, from one dwindling into irrelevance into both intellectual anchor of the global economic crisis and saviour of the euro zone. This latter role turned europe from imf creditor to debtor: just its outstanding loans to greece and ireland now total more than its other 20 programmes combined; and it has just agreed another for portugal. This is a fundamental shift that has given a whole new aura to the challenge to us-eu dominance in the imf that was anyway building from the rest of the world. The decision on its head though is still going to be europe and america's, as despite several small shifts, they still hold the greatest quota (meaning votes), and the G7 a plurality. To date, europe has always used this to appoint, though never in such a polarised situation where the eu wants a european, and the rest of the non-us world a non-european. Washington, the largest single shareholder, is the swing vote. I would be amazed if it was not indeed a european that quickly emerges, and now that the best candidate (super mario) is headed to the ecb, la garde looks a strong favourite, the advantage of womanhood probably outweighing the disadvantage of being french. America though will extract a price for all this. As an optimist, I hope it will be rather more significant reform towards the imf better reflecting real global economic power, and, as votes come with a bill, reward china in return for weighing it down with rather more responsibility for the global economic architecture everyone needs to buy into if it is going to work better going forward.

11 may 2011, luck of the draw

One more quick election story, from bury, in a corner of which I was brought up. With 25 seats of the 51-seat council, the labour party were on the verge of an unlikely breakthrough in this previously conservative seat, and had polled very well in ramsbottom. After three recounts, the two leading candidates both had 1,822 votes, and so they drew straws (or actually cable ties). The labour candidate won, giving labour both the seat and the council, alongside seven others in greater manchester, including jim mcmahon in oldham, the youngest council leader in the uk. Last year in stockport, where I now live, there was also a tie, which was decided by the chief executive picking a voting slip. I am reminded of a chat with a good friend in frankfurt, who worked in the development part of the german government, going around young democracies with help and experience. His particular area was the annual budget, where he stressed the importance of explaining things in advance, being clear and transparent, and rolling things out in a regular cycle over the year and so forth - except for britain, for which he had huge admiration, "you just stick 1,001 surprises in an old briefcase and throw everything into one afternoon - but it seems to work".

8 may 2011, scotland the brave

Several reactions to my blog yesterday, under the impression that the scottish national party was of the far-right; forgiveable because of its name and that I have a strong opinion about such parties (see 26 march 2011). I was under the same impression an era ago when I remember a scottish friend of mine saying he'd voted for them, and I, and indeed the whole crowd, reacted incredulously. In fact, the snp is very much leftist, though it is the other part of its ethos that seems to dominate, namely nationalism. That is why it's european parliament affiliation is the ineffectual ragbag of the european free alliance and it's magazine called independence. That is the issue that has always fired up its activists, until recently when many seem to have come along for running a better, scottish, government. Until now they could always, justifiably, say we can't pull off a referendum. Now, with a parliamentary majority, they have no excuse and have already now committed. However charismatic their leader though, my guess is that more people voted for a better government than independence, and the referendum is unlikely to break out of the solid 30% or so of the population that has always supported it. This will, I suspect, go down the road of quebec, where for a decade or two there were several referenda, but no yes vote. There's a lesson there for the snp, because finally, a decade after it lost its initial raison d'etre, this week the bloc québécois was virtually wiped out. The snp are at the start of their dominant period: they need to use it well.

7 may 2011, a parliament of elections to analyse

I do admit to being a junkie, anorak, or whatever other pejorative term people use, about elections and indeed electoral systems, and so the uk this week was an interesting time. Firstly, scotland's still new electoral system came of age, delivering exactly what it was designed to confound: a majority for the scottish national party. This is a government decidedly to the left of london's, that will fight them on the beaches and in the fields defending scotland against cuts and other horrible "english" things, and now getting round to independence, the snp's founding idea, but the issue that dare not speak its name. This will now move slowly from theological debate to live political issue. Secondly, and noting that whilst scotland's part proportional system delivered a clear winner, england's "first past the post" gave us a hung parliament and a coalition, there was a half-hearted attempt at a referendum on the "miserable little compromise" of the alternative vote system, which was resoundingly lost. Surely no-one in the uk will touch electoral reform with a barge pole now for a generation. The evidence suggests that is good news for the two main parties, and the centre right conservatives in particular, who had a rather good day and, as jonny freedland says, saw another step forward for david cameron's hopes of dominating the decade. As for the centre left labour, their day was decidedly mixed. Although they certainly mopped up the weighty anti-coalition vote in the north, largely at the liberal democrats' expense, their inroads in the south were measured, and they were resoundingly beaten in scotland, as was ed milliband, leader of the referendum campaign if there was one, who proved hesitant, unpersuasive and no match for cameron. As personalities matter so much in our ever-increasing presidential politics (above all the snp's victory was alex salmond's), this raising of cameron's stock, and the lowering of milliband's, is perhaps the most lasting effect of a beguiling set of elections we anoraks will be poring over for months.

30 april 2011, another step to parastine

Amidst other middle east events for once making the headlines, surprising news on the palestinian front, as fatah and hamas emerge from years of stalemate to take a tentative but huge stride towards reconciliation. This is a process rather than an agreement, but it marks a striking turning of the super-tanker in the journey towards the palestinian unity necessary to bring about september's declaration of a palestinian state (see 16 april 2011). The dangers for israel are clear, as depressingly-quickly pointed out by netanyahu, already ringing the pavlovian bell of hamas takeover of the west bank and iranian missiles raining down on tel aviv to generate a sense of siege and emergency that the israeli public generally reacts to by backing the government. There is though another israeli view to this hasty sourness towards every arab initiative, and tzipi livni again emerges as the sensible voice of the centre in saying that we must wait for any new government's actions, and invoking the quartet's help; it would be good indeed if this moribund initiative was somehow resuscitated. However, the key response is from within israel, and the key question there whether over time livni's kadima party can hold out against joining a rejectionist national unity government, and instead thread a way through to support a government that involves hamas tying itself into a fatah consensus to bend over backwards to establish a state in the pre-67 borders only: the basis of the two-state solution the centre has supported in theory for decades. The time for the peace process as cover for business as has become usual is drawing to a close, it's time for the real thing.

28 april 2011, two narrow for too kings

Although likely to be the year's most watched television event, I shall be resolutely not watching the royal wedding. This will be hard, as my mother, an ardent royalist despite her befuddled state, will be in the lounge. I've nothing against queen lizzy and her clan, and I could even be convinced that the much-complained-about taxpayers' millions they get every year do actually yield a positive cost-benefit ratio in terms of tourism and the paraphernalia of the pomp that will be so much on show. It's just that my son made a wish. He wants to be king. Yes, he could still be prime minister, and yes our latest little princess skipped two classes in two generations, but that's not the point. We need a world where merit has opportunity, yet my son could be a genius and will never be king, whereas william could be thick as a brick and still be britain's most important global ambassador. And this is just the tip of the iceberg of talent lost in poverty and opportunity borne on a silver spoon. Many a crown covers a bald forehead, as whilst ten of the poor can sleep in peace on one straw heap, the biggest empire is two narrow for too kings.

23 april 2011, where there be giants

With family and festivities behind us, we're heading up north in the morning, for a short camping trip. My other half, being of the "if you're not in new york, you're camping out" disposition, is none too pleased about the expedition, and will head home after one night. I'm more sanguine, as I camped pretty much every summer as a child - though with youth movement not parents, and so though it made the biggest of impressions on me, that perhaps was not the canvas. Meanwhile the kids, who we're doing it for, are so excited they can hardly speak, and I'm very much looking forward to some time away with them, especially as rather too often when we're at home, I'm terribly busy, and they're transfixed by the tv and computer. And they don't even know the highlight: we're off to hogwart's castle for the day, also known as alnwick. We'll be meandering sunday, stopping off in durham perhaps, where I've never been; pottering (harry) on monday, and then on tuesday, maybe newcastle highlights before the long drive home. Please, please, please let it be sunny...

16 april 2011, signing palestine’s birth certificate

30 years of negotiation between israel, the arabs (palestinians) and america (rest of the world) had two peaks: camp david 1977, successful; and sharm el sheikh 2000, less so. After that, israel turned from moderate to rightist, america from facilitator to observer, and the palestinians to authoritarianism and civil war. Progress became unilateralist, as israel withdrew from lebanon, and then from gaza. Unilateralism replaced land for peace. Both formulae originated on the left, and were then adopted by the right, the wall following the same pattern: it was originally a leftist attempt to nudge forward a palestinian state by drawing borders that no longer existed on a "good fences make good neighbours" basis. In 2000, yasser arafat sought to take a leaf out of the same text book, threatening to just announce a palestinian state, as israel did in 1947; he eventually backed down. Now, not rashly, but after years of patient international consensus-building, the palestinians are well set to declare, kosovo-style, this september. The jericho-based palestinian authority has a good claim to be capable and ready to function as an independent state. I myself worked a little on solidifying the particular institution of its central bank. This will all come down to very real negotiations at the un, with europe likely a strong supporter. The key question is whether obama will, as is usual, exercise an american veto. These are extremely unusual times: the middle east is in chaos; so too is israel at the un; us-israel relations are extremely strained; the broad brush of "terrorist" no longer sits well with the mainstream palestinian movement; and obama is in foreign-policy mould-breaking mood, taking an extraordinary nato back seat in libya. At the last moment of such israel weakness, ariel sharon pushed through the "painful concession" of the gaza withdrawal. What all this means is that the highly reasonable and transparent way the prime-minister salaam fayyad, formerly of the imf, has been going about his business sets the diplomatic price of an american veto unusually high, and so the odds lessen of a scenario where obama takes on the claim that this is bad for israel, and avoids a veto. Watch out for american positioning and some high profile israel alternative initiatives over the next few weeks. The first international soccer stadium in the west bank was inaugurated this week. Bigger things may be kicking off soon.

15 april 2011, the last call

I have just filled in what will probably be the last census ever in the uk. This decennial counting of the people dates back to 1801, when britain, then including all of ireland, had some 9.4m people. Today, we're around 62m, and the cost of counting them is some £500m, mainly accounted for by the 30, 000 people it takes to do it. In a world of highly-mobile people, where 500m voluntarily give more information to facebook, at virtually no cost, there is a general recognition that the system is mildly ludicrous. So, as the country's statistics office cuts costs all round, the probability is that this is the last exercise of its kind. Answering the census was pretty boring, but put me in mind of a security form I had to fill in when first going to work in the bank of england, which had the question - I am not making this up - "are you, or have you ever been, an active member of a terrorist organisation ?". As night falls, I am now going to award myself the prize of most boring blog ever. Watch me on the news, again; will try to do better next time.

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