British Party Leaders Debate

Tonight ITV hosted the first televised debate between the leaders of Britain’s three major parties in the run-up to next month’s parliamentary elections. Prime Minister Gordon Brown and his foremost contender, Conservative foreman David Cameron attacked each other repeatedly while Liberal Democrat Nick Clegg tried to present himself as a fresh alternative to the traditional powers, promising to put “people before politics.”

As the politicians answered questions from the audience, the economy quickly emerged as a major point of contention with Brown defending his government’s policies and Cameron leading the charge against them. The Labour leader opined that it would be wholly irresponsible to cut on expenditures this year. “Private investment can’t do it alone,” he warned. “Pull out the money and you will have less growth, less jobs and less businesses.”

The Conservatives have more faith in the private sector of course and Cameron properly sided with businessowners who are struggling to keep their companies afloat in difficult times. If entrepreneurs can cut on expenses, he wondered, why can’t the government?

As Brown and Cameron continued to blame one another for supposedly not sharing all of the facts, Clegg bluntly opined that the Treasury is running out of money and that certain measures are unavoidable. He argued for a tax on banks and declared that Britain should not be replacing its Trident nuclear system any time soon.

Earlier this week, over at Kings of War, Rob Dover dissected the parties’ manifestos, describing the Liberal Democrats’ as both “sensible” and “distinctive” on defense. They rule out the “like-for-like replacement” of the Trident system; support multilateral nuclear disarmament and intend to cancel the Eurofighter Tranche 3B, which is an upgrade of the Typhoon design. Yet according to Clegg tonight, the military is also “underpaid and under equipped” and the government must do better.

Brown boasted in response that under Labour rule, military expenditures have risen dramatically. Cameron was not convinced. “I think it’s madness,” he said, “when you’ve got soldiers deployed overseas not to invest in your territorial army.” He called for a fundamental defense review to determine “the shape of our army, our navy, our air force” in the face of twenty-first century challenges. As Clegg put it, “the threats to this country are changing.”

But Brown nor Cameron agreed with him on not upgrading the Trident system. The latter wished not to surrender Britain’s nuclear deterrent while Iran may be developing a nuclear weapon. The former added the threat of North Korea while both their parties have found other ways to reduce costs.

The Conservatives want to cut defense spending with 25 percent and have a system of procurement that runs to time and budget. Labour seems mostly proud of past accomplishments which leaves its manifesto, in Dover’s words, “disappointing for the paucity of new ideas within it.”

The debate concluded with a discussion about health care. Again, Clegg seemed the only one to realize that drastic changes may be necessary although he refrained from elaborating on how exactly may be saved on the enormous expense that is the National Health Service. Brown and Cameron on the other hand both favored expanding it with the prime minister announcing specific proposals to improve care and Cameron priding himself on excluding the NHS from his many budget cuts. Brown begged to differ of course. “You can’t cut the deficits, cut taxes and provide extra money for the NHS,” he told him.

In his final remarks, Cameron advised voters not to accept what he described as the “repeated attempts to try to frighten you about the Conservative government.” He urged people to “chose hope over fear” and reiterated his commitment to “a bigger society.” After Brown threatened once more that the government can’t stop spending now lest the recession rage on, Cameron said that “the idea you have to go on wasting money to secure the recovery is simply wrong.”

As the country is likely to return a “hung parliament” in May, the role of the Liberal Democrats has suddenly become pivotal. Although Clegg leans more toward the right himself, his party appears to favor a coalition with Labour instead. He tried mainly to undermine Cameron therefore although the Liberal Democrats, he stressed, are a viable alternative to both major parties. Brown doesn’t seem to think that there are many voters to be won from the center for he almost exclusively targeted Cameron who, in turn, blamed Labour for today’s problems, leaving Clegg as an obvious outsider which is a status that may well turn out to appeal to Britons from across the political spectrum.

Cold Response

Between February 17 and March 4, Norway hosted the Cold Response 2010 military exercise in Troms county, above the Arctic Circle. More than 8,500 troops as well as 1,000 special forces from fourteen different nations participated, including soldiers from Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom and the United States.

The exercise, the first of its kind to take place exclusively in the minus thirty degree Celsius temperatures above the Arctic Circle, tested cold weather amphibious operations as well as interoperability between expeditionary forces. Ground operations ranged from company-sized maneuvering to a brigade-sized beach assault. Both American and Royal Marines hit the beaches in landing craft, with air and naval support, responding to the “invasion” of fictitious Northland by the enemy from Eastland. Read more “Cold Response”

Europe’s Crisis of Confidence

Old Europe is in something of an identity crisis. The specter of European federalism coupled with a widespread unease about Muslim immigration has many Europeans wondering about their nationhood and what it means to be “European” anyway. The financial meltdown and subsequent recession further fractured an already fragile self-image.

Foreign immigration and decades of post-colonial guilt and self-delusion in the name of cultural relativism cast doubt upon European values of equality. It is not-done to speak of Western civilization as superior today for there is supposedly no objective standard according to which cultures may be judged. Not everyone agrees which unfortunately leaves the great political divide in many parts of Europe between the cosmopolitan left that threatens to undermine the very foundations of Western prosperity and the nationalists on the right who speak of Western tradition to justify their fears of the future and the unknown.

The economic downturn has shaken Europe’s welfare states to the core meanwhile, forcing governments all over the continent to severely cut on social security programs. Poverty is on the rise while decades of government caretaking have undermined peoples’ sense of personal responsibility.

Jean-Paul Delevoye, France’s national ombudsman, is weary of people who think of themselves not as citizens but increasingly as consumers of the state. France, he said in mid-February, “is a fragmenting society, where an attitude of everybody-out-for-themselves is replacing the desire to live together.”

Although the country is the most socialist of EU member states with individual liberties greatly curtailed by the pervasive presence of the state in nearly all economic activity, the French people, apparently, still refuse to sympathize with state-imposed solidarity. Instead, massive government expenditures and welfare spending have given rise to an entitlement mentality with people expecting the government to address any perceived ill in their lives or in society at large.

Such a situation, according to German Foreign Minister Guide Westerwelle, is unsustainable. “Whoever promises the people the good life without effort,” he warned, “is making an invitation to late-Roman decadence.”

Unfortunately, in many countries, policymakers remain convinced that the solution is just a little more government control. In spite of mounting deficits and rampant unemployment, Spain insists on continuing to flirt with socialism. In Greece, Italy, Ireland and Portugal, the state has gone on spending well beyond its means in spite of the financial crisis, leaving all of Europe to worry about record debts. But in France, President Nicholas Sarkozy blissfully attacks what he calls the “freewheeling Anglo-Saxon” model of recent years. He hopes to demonstrate the success of the European approach which, according to Sarkozy, “has nothing to do with the excesses of financial capitalism.”

Oh, good.

Capitalism, in fact, is at the heart of European culture. It was capitalism that elevated parts of the continent from centuries of backwardness and depravity to allow growth and progress to take shape. It was capitalism, with its emphasis on individual accomplishment, freedom of enterprise and the protection of property rights, that gave rise to an age of abundance of wealth and wellbeing.

Notions of racial superiority unfortunately took hold of Europe as it established itself as the dominant force on Earth. In more recent years, such bigotry has been proven false but with it, too often, the very values that made Europe supreme are denied as well.

Compromise on the Greek Question

The compromise which European leaders reached last week on aiding Greece may struck many foreign observers as evidence of the EU’s ineffectiveness at settling its internal discord, but it was in fact a minor victory for “President” Herman Van Rompuy and his campaign for greater economic governance from Brussels.

Van Rompuy, former prime minister of Belgium, became the first permanent president of the European Council last year, which is the regular conference of EU government leaders. The election of a relative unknown from one of Europe’s smallest of member states wasn’t particularly hailed as a great step forward for the union. Van Rompuy, critics dreaded, would allow himself and the EU presidency to be overshadowed by more powerful figures, including France’s Nicolas Sarkozy and Germany’s Angela Merkel.

Newsweek‘s Anita Kirpalani was quick to point out that the cautious choice for Van Rompuy was also a wise one, for he had actually a chance at fostering consensus. “What looks like timidity might just lead to a stronger Europe after all,” she predicted last November.

The Belgian’s ability to balance French and German interests was revealed in recent weeks. France, along with Italy, vehemently resisted the notion that withering Greece should seek support with the International Monetary Fund, believing that such a move post an embarressment to Europe’s economic integration. Germany on the other hand had no desire to bail out a member state that had repeatedly violated European budget rules and argued for tougher sanctions instead to punish eurozone members that made a mess of their finances. Chancellor Merkel even suggested that violators should eventually be denied the common currency.

Both parties compromised on Friday, agreeing that a Greek rescue plan should include the IMF. That Sarkozy was forced to give in is something of a personal victory for the Fund’s managing director, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, writes The Wall Street Journal. He might be running for the French presidency in 2012.

The IMF isn’t likely to act immediately. Both Europe and the Fund prefer to wait to see whether the aid announcement on itself will suffice to reduce Greece’s borrowing costs.

Russian Bombers Penetrate British Airspace

Two weeks ago, two British Tornado F3 fighter aircraft were scrambled from the Royal Air Force base Leuchars, the United Kingdom’s most northerly air defense station, to pursue two Russian Tupolev 160 bombers which were approximately one hundred nautical miles to the west of Stornaway on the northwest coast of Scotland.

More than twenty of such incident have occured over the last year, the Ministry of Defense revealed on Wednesday. In scenes that harken back to Cold War era saber rattling, Moscow has been issuing planes to probe British air defenses in what largely appear to be a shows of strength.

In the last incursion, the Tornadoes shadowed the Russian aircraft for four hours as they progressed south before the Blackjacks, as the Tupolevs are known in NATO jargon, turned north, short of the Northern Irish coast, exiting British airspace. Read more “Russian Bombers Penetrate British Airspace”

Greece Continues to Divide Europe

German chancellor Angela Merkel met head on with the European Commission on the Greece question over the weekend. Chairman José Barroso is pushing European governments to commit to a Greek bailout this Thursday when member states convene in Brussels. Merkel is having none of it.

The chancellor declared on German radio on Sunday that no bailout is being considered. The Greeks themselves, after all, haven’t asked for help, she said. Barroso responded in today’s Handelsblatt, urging European states to find a solution, regardless of their internal politics. Read more “Greece Continues to Divide Europe”

Gordon Brown’s Chance at Victory

Just a few months ago, the British Conservatives had this year’s parliamentary election in their pockets. After more than ten years of Labour rule, Britons were tired with Gordon Brown while opposition foreman David Cameron lured as a fresh, “green right” alternative who promised to restore fiscal responsibility and British pride altogether.

The Conservatives polled at their best two years ago, scoring a 20 percent lead over Labour at the time. Since the end of last year however, their popularity has been on the decline.

While still set to win the elections, it appears unlikely that the Conservatives will manage to gain a majority. In the event of such a “hung parliament,” there is a good chance, writes Peter Oborne for the Daily Mail, that the Liberal Democrats, Britain’s third party, will end up keeping Labour in power.

The Liberal Democrats’ Nick Clegg has promised that if neither of his opponents win an overall majority in the House of Commons, he will support whichever collects the highest number of seats.

Most Liberal Democrats aren’t too enthusiastic about letting the Conservatives govern however. They oppose their intention to balance the budget through massive cuts in spending. Gordon Brown on the other hand has quietly suggested that he might be willing to consider electoral reform. Proportional representation is something the Liberal Democrats have long been dreaming of for it would undoubtedly allow them greaten their base of support.

All this talk of an alliance with Labour is something of a personal setback for Clegg. Under his leadership, the party has moved to the right and he would probably prefer to work alongside David Cameron instead Brown even as the rest of his party disagrees.

Political Uncertainty in the Netherlands

Local elections in the Netherlands in March already forecast the tangled political landscape the country now finds itself in facing parliamentary elections in June.

The Labor Party, which pulled out of its coalition with Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende’s Christian Democrats because it wouldn’t consider a continued military presence in Afghanistan, did well in the polls but no viable three-party majority has emerged yet. Party leader Wouter Bos announced his resignation on Friday, naming Amsterdam mayor Job Cohen as his successor. Unlike Bos, Cohen is seen as prime ministerial candidate and more of a traditional socialist who can regain the party’s support from low-income voters.

After the election, the participation of the liberal party could be critical. It previously governed with the Christian Democrats in the wake of the murder of right-wing politician Pim Fortuyn in 2002. Their popularity has taken a beating since Geert Wilders left the party in 2004 to run on his own ticket. But it is still difficult to imagine a government without them.

Wilders appeals to a segment of the population with his attacks on Islam and the multicultural society. His Freedom Party blames Labor for the country’s integration problems which would make a coalition between the two problematic.

But Wilders is projected to lead the Netherlands’ second political force. In spite of left-wing attempts to exclude him from power, the Christian Democrats, at least, are willing to work with him.

If Wilders won’t govern, the alternatives include a full left-wing coalition under Labor, a center-right alliance of multiple parties likely dominated by the Christian Democrats and liberals and a centrist goverment of Labor and liberals, possibly joined by the progressive liberal Democrats. Such a three-party “purple” coalition governed the country from 1994 to 2002.

Labor has refused to commit to a “red” accord, wary that a pledge to govern on the left would hurt its chances with moderate voters. It may even prefer a broad coalition with the Christian Democrats and liberals. It has partnered both before, if separately.

One way or another, the liberals will have to be included and they are bound to demand a high price for their kingmaking. The party has been critical of the outgoing government, particularly of its response to the economic downturn. The liberals form the only faction in parliament that has proposed massive and specific budget cuts while they continue to champion free markets. In coalition with the Christian Democrats, they deregulated business and privatized health care. Whether smaller parties in the center, let alone Labor, would go along with such policies is doubtful.

A minority government, deemed undesirable by most parties, may be the only alternative but the country hasn’t had one since the end of World War II.

Long Road Ahead for Spain

Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain speaks at the European Parliament, Brussels, July 6, 2010 (Pietro Naj-Oleari)
Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain speaks at the European Parliament, Brussels, July 6, 2010 (Pietro Naj-Oleari)

Spain is the last major economy of Europe still mired in recession as its government remained committed to socialist doctrine throughout 2009. Massive deficit spending has only worsened the country’s predicament however, forcing Prime Minister José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero to finally start reining in Spain’s mounting debt.

Last month, Professor Niall Ferguson of Harvard University warned that “the contagion” currently rocking Greece would spread to other eurozone members, Spain foremost among them. The markets had woken up, he announced, realizing that the fiscal policies of countries as Spain had not been “credible”.

In the wake of the economic turndown, the Spanish government maintained a deficit on its budget of so much as 10 percent, refusing to cut on expenditures. The country’s pre-crisis growth has largely been carried by a boom in real estate. When construction came to a standstill, nearly 20 percent of Spanish workers lost their jobs. The country as a whole continues to face an enormous trade deficit on top of that.

The government simply has got to start spending less. According Bob Holderith, CEO of Emerging Global Shares who appeared on the Fox Business Network on Tuesday, “They’re going to have to get their economy under control.”

Holderith’s solution is investment, which is exactly what Prime Minister Zapatero has been hoping for. But with literally millions of people out of a job and millions of homes unoccupied there is little incentive to invest in Spain right now. Holderith admitted that the road to recovery for Spain will be a long one.

There have been some encouraging signs from domestic demand and exports recently and the country’s economy minister is supposed to be working out an austerity package that will bring the deficit down to the European maximum of 3 percent by 2013. Zapatero said that his government is “committed to these projects,” although conservative opposition leader Mariano Rajoy suggested that both the prime minister and his proposals lack credibility.

“It’s not Spain that inspires lack of confidence,” Rajoy told Zapatero in parliament last month, “it’s you and your government’s way of handling the economy.”

The conservatives are especially resistant to a proposed increase in value-added taxes which will only diminish the slight surge in consumer demand, they warn. Household consumption was up by 0.3 percent in the quarter of last year — pretty much the only good news there has been for the Spanish economy in some time now.

Right Wing on the Rise in Dutch Elections

Dutch voters went to the polls on Wednesday to elect city councils in almost four hundred municipalities. In the wake of the government’s collapse two weeks ago, the local elections were closely watched as an indicator of which way the country will swing this summer.

Both of the resigning ruling parties, the Christian Democrats and Labor, suffered in the polls although the latter has managed to improve its poll numbers somewhat compared to when it was in government.

The opposition is emerging with vigor. Nationwide, both the anti-immigration Freedom Party of Geert Wilders and his nemesis, Alexander Pechtold, of the center-left Democrats are on the rise. Locally, the right-wing liberal party is expected to come out with most support.

The liberals, in part, have Wilders to thank for their comeback. His party competes in only two major cities. Many of his supporters in other parts of the country opt for the liberals because their immigration and security policy is similar to his, if less Islamophobic.

The progressive Democrats are also indebted to Wilders. Pechtold has positioned himself as the right-wing foreman’s staunchest critic in parliament, emphasizing the Netherlands’ traditionally open and cosmopolitan character as opposed to the nationalism of Wilders and his party.

Since he ran and won on his own ticket in 2006, Wilders has made a series of dramatic proposals to curb what he calls the Islamization of the Netherlands, including banning of the Quran and taxing Muslim women for wearing headscarfs. Wilders is awaiting trail for accusations of hate speech.

According to the polls, the Socialist Party will have to give up over half of its seats. The more moderate Green Party instead would nearly double its support.