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Friday, 20 April 2012

20 April 2012

It's beginning to look as if something quite profound is about to happen in European politics.

A socialist is about to be elected as president of one of the two most important members of the European Union. It hasn't happened since 1988, when François Mitterrand was re-elected for a second term as president of France -- and it could quite dramatically change the way European politics operate.

This time it's another François -- François Hollande, written off until recently as just too boring to win. He is, by all accounts, pleasant, competent -- but, most importantly, he's not Nicolas Sarkozy.

Think of him, perhaps, as France's answer to John Major. If Sarkozy is, as the French media like to call him, Monsieur Bling, then Hollande is Monsieur anti-bling. And it seems that's just what substantial numbers of French voters want.

But just as importantly, he has had the great good fortune not to have been in office when the whirlwind of the global financial crisis struck, and EU economies shuddered to a standstill. To have been a European politician in office over the past four years is to have been swept aside by the combined force of voter fury and market melt-down.

Just look at the list: among the fallen leaders are Gordon Brown (defeated in May 2010); Brian Cowen of Ireland (January 2011); José Socrates of Portugal (June 2011); Lars Løkke Rasmussen of Denmark (October 2011); Silvio Berlusconi of Italy (replaced by the technocrat Mario Monti in November 2011); George Papandreou of Greece (replaced by another technocrat Lucas Papademos); and José Luis Zapatero of Spain (defeated in December 2011).

It's quite a roll-call. And, unless there's a major electoral upset in the offing, the name of Nicolas Sarkozy will soon be added to it.

No one, I suspect, will be pondering the implications more anxiously than the German chancellor, Angela Merkel. She and Monsieur Bling were never natural soul-mates, but they did eventually find a way to work together, and between them they managed to steer some sort of path through the euro crisis. Hence the emergence of the Berlin-Paris consensus that came to be known as Merkozy.

Chancellor Merkel and M Hollande will have some tricky re-positioning to do if he does move into the Élysée Palace next month. The French socialist is committed to renegotiating the "fiscal stability pact" which was meant to save the euro from disaster -- and even if he finds some way to row back from his campaign rhetoric, he will need something to wave in triumph for the voters back home.

Sarkozy has been warning darkly about how the financial markets will react if François Hollande does win. It's a perfectly understandable campaign tactic, but there may well be a renewed outbreak of the jitters if there's a changing of the guard in Paris.

Add to the French uncertainty the upcoming elections in Greece, with neither of the major parties there looking as if they'll be in a position to form a stable coalition -- oh yes, and factor in the growing fears about the Spanish debt crisis -- and you have, I'm afraid, pretty much everything you need for another round of "euro melt-down" headlines.

That's why the outcome of the French election matters, even if you don't have any plans to cross the Channel this summer. With the UK economy still teetering precariously between recession and stagnation, the last thing we want is for euroland to plunge back into crisis.

That's not to say that an election victory for M Hollande will be a good thing or a bad thing -- French voters are well able to make up their own minds about that -- but there seems to be a view in some quarters that French politics don't much matter to us. I doubt that it was ever true (how could it be as long as the EU was driven by the Franco-German partnership?), but even if it was, I seriously doubt that it's a claim you'd want to make now.

So do tune in for the last of Ritula's extended reports from France on tonight's (Friday's) programme. (If you miss it, it'll still be available as a podcast or via iPlayer in the usual way.)

Friday, 13 April 2012

13 April 2012

Suppose you are an opposition activist in Syria. You live in Hama or Homs, Idlib or Deraa, one of the cities that has been under relentless attack by government forces for months.

You have seen friends and relatives killed. Neighbours have vanished; some into jail, others have fled, across the border into Turkey, Jordan or Lebanon, anywhere out of range of Bashar al-Assad's tanks, artillery, and rooftop snipers.

Yesterday morning, you woke up and it was quiet. Perhaps you heard the occasional chatter of an automatic weapon, the thump of an artillery shell or a mortar. Nevertheless, it was -- relatively -- quiet. The ceasefire seemed to be real. The guns were silent.

But then you remembered. For more than a year, you have risked life and limb for a single, simple cause: Assad must go. You were ready to die for that cause, because you hated him, and his regime, so much.

Yet when the guns fell silent yesterday morning, Bashar al-Assad was still president. His tanks and trucks still roamed the streets. The eyes and ears of his secret police, the mukhabarat, were still everywhere. The snipers, probably, were still on the rooftops.

So today, tomorrow, the next day, what will you do? How will you continue your fight without firing a gun? Yes, the Annan peace plan says a "Syrian-led political process" must follow the ceasefire. But you don't want a "process"; you want victory.

You want to see Assad gone -- exiled like ex-President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali of Tunisia; or jailed like ex-President Hosni Mubarak of Egypt; or dead, like Colonel Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Yes, of course, a ceasefire is a good start -- it means fewer innocent people will die -- but it is only a start.

I am writing this early on Friday morning. Within a couple of hours, tens of thousands of Syrians will flock to the mosques for Friday prayers. Among them will be thousands of opposition supporters and activists. And I suspect they will want to show the world that their fight is far from over.

After all, it's only a couple of weeks since the Gulf states promised to pay the salaries of Syrian rebel fighters. In Riyadh and Doha, they too are committed to seeing the downfall of the Assad dynasty. What better way to weaken the influence of feared Iran than to defeat its main Arab ally?

In other words, even if as you read these words the ceasefire is still holding, the fight goes on. And remember, the ceasefire was only one element in the Annan plan.
Have Syrian government forces withdrawn from population centres (paragraph 2)? Not yet.

Have they ensured the timely provision of humanitarian assistance to all areas affected by the fighting (paragraph 3)? No.

Have they intensified the pace and scale of release of arbitrarily detained persons; ensured freedom of movement for journalists; respected freedom of association and the right to demonstrate peacefully (paragraphs 4, 5 and 6)? Er, no.

It's not only journalists and analysts -- paid sceptics -- who doubt whether this ceasefire represents a real fresh start for Syria. Even the notoriously cautious UN secretary-general, Ban Ki-moon, who rarely utters a critical remark if he can help it, commented yesterday that "the world is watching … with sceptical eyes since many promises previously made by the government of Syria had not been kept."

It's possible that, behind the scenes, President Assad's allies in Moscow and Beijing have read him the riot act. In public, both have urged him to implement the Annan plan in its entirety. He may well have been warned that the patience of Russian and Chinese leaders is not infinite -- as one former pro-Putin MP told me a couple of nights ago: "Moscow does not want to be seen always to be backing dictators."

So yes, the Syrian crisis may be entering a new phase (if, that is, the ceasefire hasn't already collapsed by the time you read these words).

But it can't be over, because the root cause of the violence remains: Bashar al-Assad is determined to stay in office, and millions of his fellow countrymen are equally determined to see him go.

Friday, 6 April 2012

6 April 2012

If you've already done your shopping for the holiday weekend, did you flinch as you saw the total cost at the supermarket check-out?

If you've filled up the car with petrol ahead of a weekend away, did you gasp as you saw the numbers on the pump climb ever closer to the £100 mark?

Food prices and fuel prices: both rising, not just in the UK but globally, and both with the potential to cause serious political, economic and social ructions in the months to come.

As you know, I'm just back from a reporting trip to southern Africa -- and one of the things that struck me most forcibly was how large the price of food and fuel loomed in the minds of everyone I met.

Every month, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation publishes a tracker index of global food prices. The March figures, which were published yesterday, show prices largely unchanged from the previous month, but still five points higher than at the end of last year.

Figures for the UK, on the other hand, showed a big jump last month. According to the British Retail Consortium, food prices rose by 5.4 per cent in March compared to a year earlier -- and that came, of course, as most people's incomes barely rose at all.

Pick just about any conflict anywhere in the world, and I promise you that access to food and water will come very near the top of the list of reasons why.

To take just one recent example: are you puzzled about why there's been a coup in Mali, leading to what some are now calling a potential humanitarian catastrophe? Did you know that 3.5 million people there are facing food shortages after a prolonged drought?

According to a local official of the relief agency Christian Aid: "The food situation was … desperate, with the price of staple foods having already risen by 100 per cent over the last few months."

So let's try to track back a bit. Why are food prices rising? It's complicated (isn't everything these days?). But put together repeated crop failures in sub-Saharan Africa (and yes, climate change is a factor); rising oil prices caused by political instability in the Middle East (especially over Iran), which mean that fertilisers become more expensive, as does transport and agricultural machinery use; plus growing, and wealthier, populations in India and China, leading to more demand for food, and especially more demand for meat, which is resource intensive -- well, you begin to get the picture.

Some analysts argue that slowing population growth is essential to dealing with the food crisis. Others say that improving agricultural efficiency, and encouraging more small-scale farming aimed at meeting local needs, would be far more effective.

In December 2010, we broadcast an entire programme devoted to examining the development of agriculture in Africa -- it's still available via the "Special Reports" button on our website. Our reporter Charlotte Ashton won a Diageo Africa Business Reporting Award for her reports from Malawi and Ghana -- and I remember one of our contributors remarking that an enormous difference could be made if only a few more decent roads were built, to enable farmers to get their produce to market. Too often, the problem isn't so much growing the stuff as getting it to where people can buy it.

So perhaps, instead of those goats that charities encourage us to give as Christmas presents to help African farmers, we should buy a few metres of tarmac to help construct a few more roads …

The overall global food price picture is not yet as critical as it was a year ago. But the experts are predicting further price rises in the coming months, largely as a result of rising oil prices.

According to one analyst: "The food price index has an extremely high correlation to oil prices, and with oil prices up it's going to be difficult for food prices not to follow suit."

Which brings us back to the dispute over Iran's uranium enrichment programme, the single biggest factor in current oil price instability. It may seem a bit of a stretch -- but it could just be that resolving the Iran issue could have a real and direct impact on whether millions of hungry children get enough to eat.