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Nicolas Sarkozy

Composite satellite picture of Europe. <em>Picture: Albertane</em>

Composite satellite picture of Europe. Picture: Albertane

In vetoing changes to the EU, the Prime Minister has torpedoed the UK’s relationship with Europe. And he has done it to protect the City of London from the kind of sensible regulation that would have prevented the global financial crisis.

Don’t be led astray by the bulldog-breed guff from Eurosceptics. This is not about protecting Britain’s interests. It’s about shielding the institutions of the Square Mile from scrutiny.

The French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, made this clear: “We consider … that a very large and substantial amount of the problems we are facing around the world are a result of lack of regulation of financial services and therefore can’t have a waiver for the United Kingdom,”

Alex Salmond’s “arc of prosperity” has often been mocked since the financial crisis broke. Well, thanks to David Cameron, the UK is now part of a “hypotenuse of irrelevance” along with the only other country to veto the proposed treaty changes, Hungary.

Beyond the familiar vista of little Englander Conservatives warring over Europe, there are real implications here for Scotland’s relationship with the continent.

It has long been claimed that an independent Scotland would be somehow kicked out of the EU, with a stramash about exactly what the legal position of the country would be. This misses the point. Whether or not an independent Scotland remains in the EU or not will be a political decision much more than a legal one. That choice will be made by governments and governments are run by politicians, not lawyers.

In their zeal to protect Mammon, Cameron et al have jeopardised Europe’s attempts at weathering the global financial storm. The Eurosceptic government in Westminster is dragging the UK down a path that could lead to the UK leaving the EU. At this rate, Scotland may find itself outside of Europe even if it remains within the Union.

That would be disastrous for our country, which has always shown itself to be more politically pro-Europe than England. One reason for this might be that Westminster politicians are terrified of being ruled by an arcane bureaucracy hundreds of miles away that does not understand or care about solving their problems. Scots are used to that.

In light of that, can anyone seriously believe that the EU would kick out six million citizens for exercising self-determination? Would Ireland vote to expel an independent Scotland? Would Denmark, Holland, Belgium – or the countries that rediscovered their national identities after the fall of the Berlin Wall? Would France and Germany glance askance at our distancing ourselves from Westminster after what has been wrought by the ConDems?

Another myth has been torpedoed today: the idea that small, independent Scotland would be an irrelevance at the European table without the weight of Westminster behind us. After what has happened, the First Minister could dress up as one of Santa’s elves, clamber into a rowing boat, anchor himself in the middle of the Atlantic and still have more political influence in Europe than the Prime Minister does this morning.

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<em>Picture: fdecomite</em>

Picture: fdecomite

By John Knox

The project at this week’s European summit is to rebuild the economies of the entire continent. And Britain, as one of the big four, should be right in there – signing up to the new rules, helping to rescue our fallen comrades and securing the single market we all need in Europe.

The fact is that nearly everyone has broken the fiscal rules that they all agreed to at Maastricht in 1991 – especially over recent years, as they struggled to contain the banking meltdown and the world recession.

The rules insist that budget deficits be less than 3 per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) and that government debt be less than 60 per cent of GDP. According to the European Union’s latest figures (2009–10), only Germany of the big four has stuck to the 3 per cent rule. France had a budget deficit of 7.5 per cent, Italy 5.3 per cent and the UK 11.5 per cent.

On the size of the national debt, the figures reveal that Germany had a debt of 83 per cent of GDP, France 82 per cent, Italy 118 per cent and the UK 79 per cent.

So none of us is perfect. Well, none of the big boys. Some of the smaller countries have behaved themselves – Poland, Sweden, Croatia, the Czech Republic. Others, like Greece, Iceland and Ireland, have not.

It may be that the golden rules are too strict, as golden rules often are. And it looks like they will be interpreted gently, even under the new measures to be agreed in Brussels on Friday. But, looking over the wasteland of the European economies over the last three years, we are now rueing the days we ignored the golden rules entirely.

It brings us back to what the European Union – and its euro currency – is for. It is to try to make life better for ordinary citizens across the continent. They all want much the same things: peace, a job, a decent standard of living, a good home, good schools, a public health service and a fair society. A common market and good government can help them achieve these fine aims.

No one wants a Europe that is unstable, has a poverty-stricken southern fringe, where countries race each other to the bottom with devaluations, low wages, poor public services and where only corrupt officials and the super-rich flourish.

So far, so good – but then a troublesome concept enters, stage right, like the bear in A Winter’s Tale. Sovereignty. David Cameron does not want to hand sovereignty over to Brussels. Like an ancient king, he appears to believe it is his, or at least the Tory party’s. I thought the modern world had finally established that sovereignty belongs to the people and can be pooled, to our advantage.

Pooling sovereignty in the European Union has brought us great advantages: peace, prosperity undreamed of in the 1950s, a common market, a common currency which 60 per cent our exporters use, and a set of minimum standards for business, labour, agriculture, the environment, etc. There are some things you cannot do in these days of globalisation without a larger union: establish a minimum wage, levy tax on aircraft fuel, introduce a transactions tax, stamp down on tax havens, tackle climate change.

At the same time, there have been some efforts to balance this centralising force with the principle of “subsidiary” – passing decisions down to as local a level as possible. Hence devolution. (Admittedly, there is an unsettled will over how far that should go.)

For all these reasons, I don’t think standing back from the European project is a wise option. Making the euro zone strong again is in Britain’s interest because it is such a huge market for around a third of our economy. We may, after all, have to join the euro one day. The speculators may come for us next. Our economy is not exactly flourishing, with 8 per cent unemployment, 5 per cent inflation, growth almost non-existent, the public services being cut, and manufacturing and exports flatlining (despite the devaluation of the pound).

And as for a rewriting of the treaty and the threat of referendums across Europe, what is being proposed by Chancellor Merkel and President Sarkozy is not so much a rewrite as a re-emphasis of the agreements already reached at Lisbon and Maastricht. The new Brussels deal is simply a calling-to-order of Europe’s political leaders who have so far shambled their way through the bankers’ recession and let their peoples down.

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B-2 Spirit stealth bomber returning from Libya <em>Picture: USAF/Kenny Holston</em>

B-2 Spirit stealth bomber returning from Libya Picture: USAF/Kenny Holston

By John Knox

I may be in a minority – according to the opinion polls – but I am proud of what the UN and Britain have done in Libya. The allied warplanes have prevented a massacre of the innocent in Benghazi. And we have shown a dictator that he cannot trample over human rights without a reaction from the rest of the world.

Here was an example of leadership from David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. Liberal interventionism is back on the world’s agenda after its setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court are showing a welcome determination to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Gaddafi and his regime will, hopefully, be brought to justice for their attacks on civilian populations.

Of course many people are reluctant to release the dogs of war because it’s never clear where they will lead us. Thus public opinion is lagging behind our political leaders, particularly when we are still involved in Afghanistan and still suffering from the disillusionment of Iraq.

But MPs have overwhelmingly approved of the Libyan air raids. Only 15 voted against, not because they disapproved of the raids themselves but on the grounds that we are not taking action against other unpleasant dictators. This is rather like arguing that the police should not arrest one criminal until they can arrest them all.

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Some other countries, such as Russia and China, are sitting on the fence, fearful perhaps that questions about human rights may be asked of their own regimes. Still others, such as Germany and Turkey, are cautious, because they feel they may have a mediating role to play in post-Gaddafi Libya.

But the point about human rights is that they are absolute. They need defending, no matter what the political or economic consequences and no matter in which country they happen to be under attack. The Declaration says that “life, liberty and security of person” … should be guaranteed to every individual and that … “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs.”

I, for one, am glad that this universal law exists. It was forged in the aftermath of two terrible world wars and it sets us on a new road to happiness. It makes it clear that there is no longer any divine right of kings or princes or dictators or tribal leaders or military commanders to abuse their citizens or to rob them of their liberty or their property or their right to peacefully assemble.

Since 2002, we have had a permanent International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, which has slowly been bringing military commanders to justice from trouble-spots such as the former Yugoslavia, the Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. Let’s hope Gaddafi ends up in the dock there. In Scotland, we have known what he is capable of since that dreadful December night at Lockerbie in 1988.

But in our rage against this man, it’s worth remembering what the air-strikes against his planes and tanks are not about. They are not designed to help one fighting faction against another in Libya. They are not to bring about western-style democracy – though that would be a great step forward for the Libyan people, at least I like to think so.

They are not to secure oil supplies. They are not to further British interests. They are not to punish Gaddafi for being a left-wing revolutionary and gadfly of the west. They are only to protect civilians from military attack and secure their basic human rights.

We need to go carefully into this quagmire. We need to set limits to our intervention. And we need to plan a way out. Having intervened, we have a duty to leave things better than we found them and to support the transition to a new constitution. We made many mistakes in post-invasion Iraq and things are proving difficult in Afghanistan, but we should not be put off defending ordinary innocent populations.

To arm the rebel forces is, in my view, too dangerous a tactic. We don’t quite know who they are. One American intelligence report says they may contain “flickers” of al-Qaeda. We certainly know they are not a well trained and disciplined army, and who is to say they may not turn their rockets on civilians in Tripoli in their desperation to get Gaddafi?

The UN mission now is to keep on eye on things from the air, destroy tanks and rocket positions which are firing on, or threatening, civilian populations, and await developments. The rebels may take Tripoli, there may be further defections from the Gaddafi camp, the country may split in two. These political upheavals are a matter for the Libyan people. The UN is there simply to protect basic human rights and to provide humanitarian help to refugees and those who have lost their homes in the fighting.

The Libyan crisis remind us of the need to keep our armed forces up to scratch. Britain should be prepared to play its part in supporting UN operations and making the world a safer place. To continue doing this we will need the two aircraft carriers being assembled at Rosyth and the RAF bases at Leuchars and Lossiemouth and the aircraft that go with them.

Libya also reminds us of Edmund Burke’s old saying – “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

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A US B-2 Stealth bomber returns from a raid on Libya <em>Picture: US Air Force/Kenny Holston</em>

A US B-2 Stealth bomber returns from a raid on Libya Picture: US Air Force/Kenny Holston

After three days of bombing, the UN/NATO/Arab League “coalition” fighting Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi is showing signs of fatigue, frustration, confusion and possible collapse.

It’s not hard to see why. There is broad disagreement over whether Gaddafi is a target, whether his troops can be attacked in a no-fly zone, and whether under UN Resolution 1973 ground troops can be introduced to hasten the regime’s demise and prop up a rebel leadership of which we know very little.

If President Barack Obama wants to reduce the US role in the attacks on Libya, he is on solid ground: it was, after all, Britain and France that pushed for military action. The buck stops in London and Paris, rather than in Washington, this time around.

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Arab League support for the Libyan mission has been lukewarm at best, devious at worst: there are reports that it came at a price, namely a guarantee that the West turn a blind eye to the excesses of other despotic Middle East regimes even as it bombed the Libyan dictator. David Cameron suggested as much when he said Libya was a special case, and Britain had to consider its strategic interests elsewhere.

Beyond the West’s present preoccupation with Libya, however, chaos is threatening to engulf the Middle East as a whole, posing further questions for the “international community” that are going to be very hard to answer:

Yemen, a hotbed of al-Qaeda activity, is on the verge of civil war, according to the country’s president, Ali Abdullah Saleh. He was deserted by senior army commanders who now back pro-democracy activists. Saleh’s position was made untenable after the gunning-down of around 50 protesters by his security forces last week.

Saleh is seeking reassurances from neighbouring Saudi Arabia (which built a concrete wall along the border as a precaution against terrorist activity spilling over) that he can join ousted Tunisian president Zine al-Abidinej Ben Ali in exile in Riyadh. Like Gaddafi, Saleh’s time seems to be up, but whither Yemen after his departure? Saleh has been, to all intents and purposes, “our man” in Sanaa. Will we find “another man”?

Saudi Arabia’s troops still occupy Bahrain in a misguided attempt to prop up the beleaguered Khalifa royal family who face their own uprising. If the occupation of Bahrain by the most powerful dictatorship in the region was carried out with Western acquiescence, then it will have weakened the West’s case for attacks on Libya.

Western double standards in the region, even without the question of Palestinian statehood (which may not weigh as heavily on the minds of the Arab man in the street as one might think – “It’s the economy, stupid”), are grist to the mill for terrorists in their propaganda war against the West.

Though he recently claimed to be “out of this” in the sense that “we are not Tunisians and we are not Egyptians”, Syria’s Bashar al-Assad is facing his own uprising in Deraa and Jassem. Opposition leaders say Syrians are sick of government corruption and abuses by security forces.

Assad is not as bloody a dictator as his father, Hafez, who killed 30,000 in crushing a Muslim Brotherhood uprising in 1983, but there are fears of an Islamic backlash if the Baathist regime falls, and this would have implications for Israel.

There is deep concern over the Arab democratic revolutions in Israel, which has long boasted that it is the only true democracy in the region. Now it seems to have lapsed into a “better the devil you know” stance. The prime minister, Binyamin Netanyahu, claims Israel is taking the “realistic” view, because he fears “new Irans”, rather than Western-style democracies, might emerge from the Arab uprisings.

Israel’s defence minister, Ehud Barak, a former prime minister and “dove” turned “hawk”, suggested in an interview with the BBC that Israel might at last move on the Palestinian question, but only in return for £30 billion in additional military aid. This would suggest Israel sees itself as closer to a new war with its Arab neighbours, rather than taking heart from the pro-democracy movements across the Arab world.

Egyptians have approved constitutional amendments by a wide majority. These include the limiting of presidential terms from six years to four years and to two terms only. However, there are signs of a split in the pro-democracy movement as some want to get it right, fearing the changes do not go far enough and that elections, which could be held as early as September, will come too soon for political parties to prepare adequately.

President Obama says the Arab world should take its inspiration from Latin America, which in the 1980s and 1990s emerged from years of military dictatorships with relatively healthy democracies. There are differences, however, that Obama failed to mention: many countries in Latin America had a long-standing history of democratic institutions that survived the ravages of dictatorship, while democracy is a new concept in the Middle East.

A rocky road lies ahead, though it will be one worth travelling. It is clear that millions of Arabs simply want a better life. Unfortunately, they are still at the mercy of the powers that be, even after the departure of their immediate exploiters.

Geopolitics is a devious game, and few play by the rules. Russia appears to be hedging its bets, while refusing to play the role of bystander. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, condemned the Western attacks on Libya as another “mediaeval call to crusade”, though he must know religion has nothing to do with it – the Libyan conflict is a civil war.

Putin has been slapped down by President Dmitry Medvedev for his comments, but everyone knows who calls the shots in Russia. Medvedev says such talk might bring about a “clash of civilisations”, but one wonders if that is what Moscow, which has its own problems with Islamic terrorism, would really like to see.

Worries about Russian intentions are the last thing Barack Obama, David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy need now, but it may be something they will increasingly have to deal with in the future, when and if some semblance of order is restored to the Arab world.

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Dmitri Medvedev: Obama pal? <em>Picture: World Economic Forum</em>

Dmitri Medvedev: Obama pal? Picture: World Economic Forum

Since the invasion of Iraq many have wondered about the usefulness of the much vaunted US-UK “special relationship” – or whether it even exists anymore. President Barack Obama doesn’t seem to care all that much about striking up international friendships.

He has been accused of snubbing Prime Minister Gordon Brown and French President Nicolas Sarkozy (he once preferred to dine out in Paris with his wife Michelle rather than turn up for dinner at the Elysée Palace), while Israel’s Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu,  is most definitely not in his circle of friends. Mr Netanyahu, however, was asking for it, as was Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel for refusing an invitation to the White House early in his presidency.

There doesn’t seem to be much hope for David Cameron, either, should he become prime minister – he has been dismissed by Mr Obama as a “lightweight”.

So what’s going on? Does the US president like to keep everyone guessing? Is this what he means by “change”? Mr Obama seems to get on fairly well with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev, though we can’t be sure about that: is it that the president considers a relationship to be useful if it achieves something positive, like scrapping a few nuclear weapons? (And what’s wrong with that, one might ask the neo-cons?)

For old time’s sake, perhaps, Foreign Policy magazine seems to think Mr Obama needs a close pal on the international stage, and to nudge him into taking such a step it has lined up a photoshoot of American friends of past presidents.

It may have seemed a good idea to Foreign Policy, but it looks something like a rogue’s gallery to this particular observer. You can find it here.

<em>Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr</em>

Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr

The French electorate may have delivered a sharp rebuke to President Nicolas Sarkozy in Sunday’s second round of regional elections, but it is still too early to say whether the country is prepared to ditch the government’s reforms and swing Left.

Labour Minister Xavier Darcos was the first head to roll in the wake of the centre-right government’s disastrous performance, which saw Sarkozy’s UMP bloc winning 36 per cent of the vote, compared with the Socialists’ 54 per cent. It was the worst electoral performance by a centre-right party in over 50 years.

Darcos, whose position became untenable after he was defeated by a Socialist opponent in the ballot, was to have headed difficult negotiations with trade unions on reforming France’s costly pension system. With the next presidential election due in 2012 and his approval rating at an all-time low, Sarkozy was preparing to make further changes to his cabinet, though Prime Minister François Fillon – whom opinion polls suggest is more popular than Sarkozy – was expected to keep his post.

The Socialists have been cautious not to crow victory too loudly, however, bearing in mind that they won regional elections in 2004, only to lose the presidential election in 2007 after internal squabbling saw a lead by Socialist candidate Ségolène Royal’s in opinion polls wiped out in the dying weeks of the campaign. This time party leaders seemed content to describe the result as a vote of no confidence in Sarkozy.

They will also have noted a surge of support for Jean Marie-Le Pen’s National Front, which performed poorly in 2007 but is seen to have recovered ground partly because of Sarkozy’s policy of bringing leftists into his government. The National Front won 9 per cent of the vote, and Sarkozy will be disappointed that his hardline measures on immigration and other issues did not go far enough to lure the far right into the moderate fold. His other cabinet changes may now reflect his awareness of that message from right-wing voters, though it is likely to further polarise the country.

Sarkozy’s flamboyant style of government has grated on many French as they saw unemployment rise to three million and the budget deficit soar. Though he insists he will not abandon his policies, with an eye on the 2012 election he may now put a brake on his reforms, which include raising the retirement age from 60, cutting taxes and slashing the public sector, including the much cherished national health system.

<em>Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr</em>

Nicolas Sarkozy. Picture: Wilson Dias/Abr

A Socialist victory in the first round of France’s regional polls yesterday has dealt a serious blow to President Nicolas Sarkozy, damaging his chances of re-election in the 2012 presidential election.

The result was a personal triumph for Socialist leader Martine Aubry, the daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors, who until recently was considered too staid a figure to pose any serious challenge to the dynamic and flamboyant Sarkozy.

Aubry, the mayor of Lille, was minister of social affairs under former Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin and is best known for introducing the 35-hour work week, which became known as the “Loi Aubry”.

Exit polls had the opposition Socialists ahead with around 30 per cent of the vote, with Sarkozy’s conservative UMP party on 27 per cent.

Ségolène Royal, the former Socialist presidential candidate who lost to Sarkozy in the 2007 election and leadership of the Socialist Party to Aubry in 2008, said the result was a vote of no confidence in Sarkozy’s government.

Sarkozy aides pointed to the record abstention rate of 52 per cent as a sign that the Socialist victory was not all that it seemed. Sarkozy had played down the regional poll, saying it was about local issues, but speculation has mounted that he may now be forced to reshuffle his cabinet, with Economy Minister Christine Lagarde and Prime Minister François Fillon reportedly in his sights.

The Socialists already control 20 of France’s 26 regions. A second round will be held on March 21, when the Socialists will be able to count on the support of the Greens, who were projected to win 13 per cent, and several smaller left-wing parties. Jean Marie Le Pen’s right-wing National Front also did surprisingly well, winning 11 per cent of the vote.

While British tabloids have been revelling in an apparently bogus tale of infidelity concerning Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni,
the president has had far more serious matters on his mind.

Sarkozy, though playing down the regional poll, had hoped that the French electorate would not turn it into a vote of no confidence, but, with unemployment running at 10 per cent, the fiscal deficit spiralling out of control and his approval already at an all time low, the French Left was beginning to crow victory even before the vote.

“Rarely has a regional election been so national,” the left-wing daily Libération said in an editorial. “The last vote before the presidential election in 2012. It can change the political landscape.”

France’s neighbours were watching carefully for any slowdown in French reforms, including a major overhaul of the pension system, which Sarkozy has pledged to pursue. Germany’s Der Spiegel said: “Companies are closing, farmers are reporting diminishing incomes and in the coming year up to 1 million French people who are currently drawing unemployment benefits threaten to fall into poverty as they are transferred over to the country’s welfare rolls.

“The administration is predicting growth of 1.4 percent in gross domestic product, but France’s central bank has downgraded its growth prediction to a mere 0.4 percent for the first quarter. Additionally, there is dissatisfaction among teachers, child care professionals and parents about Sarkozy’s job cuts in education.” Judge and lawyers were also demonstrating against reforms in the justice system, Der Spiegel added.

The burqaWhen the French get a bee in their bonnet about something, they rarely let it go. A cross-party commission of 32 legislators has been studying whether the burqa should be banned – and a ban could make it impossible for women who wear it to receive any public services, even a ride on a bus.

President Nicolas Sarkozy says the burqa is not a religious issue but that it is an issue about a woman’s right to freedom and dignity. Over half the French population agrees with Sarkozy. Unsurprisingly, al-Qaeda has threatened to seek revenge against the French by whatever means possible.

Of France’s Muslim population – estimates range from 3.5 to 5 million – fewer than 2,000 women are believed to wear the burqa, so what’s the problem?

It is this. France is a fiercely secular country, with the earliest efforts to separate the Catholic Church from the state dating back to the French Revolution. Laicité (from the Greek laikos – “of the people” or “layman”), introduced in 1905, is central to the French Constitution, where Article 1 declares France a secular republic (“La France est une République indivisible, laïque, démocratique et sociale”). While church weddings are accepted, a marriage is only legal if it is conducted before the mayor at the mairie. The state funds the maintenance of old churches, but will not fund the construction of new ones, or of mosques.

In en editorial titled The Taliban would Applaud The New York Times says: “People must be free to make these decisions for themselves, not have them imposed by governments or enforced by the police… With regional elections scheduled for March, Mr Sarkozy and his allies are desperately looking for ways to deflect public anger over high unemployment. It is hard to produce jobs and far too easy to fan anti-Muslim prejudices”.

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