Friday 23 November 2012

23 November 2012

It’s just possible that this weekend, one of Europe’s most important nations will start to break apart.

The people of Catalonia, the richest region of Spain, will be voting on Sunday in an election which may – and I repeat, may – set them on a path to independence.

Just like Scotland, you may think. Well, no, not really. First because the central government in Madrid is most unlikely to give its approval for the holding of a referendum on Catalan independence, and second because, if the opinion polls are right, there is in Catalonia, unlike in Scotland, a pro-independence majority.

And that’s something new. Last September, on Catalonia’s national day, huge crowds took to the streets of Barcelona – some estimates put the number as high as two million – to call for independence in an unprecedented demonstration of fury at what is seen here as Madrid’s contemptuous, even insulting, attitude towards the people of this immensely proud nation.

In part, this nationalist fervour is a by-product of the European economic crisis. Catalans contribute substantially more to Madrid’s coffers than they get back, and, they claim, are being asked to make far bigger financial sacrifices than the central government to meet the demands of Spain’s creditors.

Last night, I stood in a magnificent square in the heart of old Barcelona, gazing up at an eternal flame flickering at the top of a soaring metal sculpture. It’s a memorial to the Catalan fighters who died fighting to defend the city in 1714, against the besieging Spanish and French armies. Catalan nationalists will tell you that today, nearly 300 years later, they’re still fighting for the same cause.

Like their Scottish nationalist equivalents, Catalan independence campaigners insist that their new nation would remain a member of the EU and would be a good neighbour to the country from which it had broken away.

One businessman here told me the relationship between Madrid and Barcelona is like a marriage that has irretrievably failed. But when I asked him if divorce is really the only answer, he replied that unfortunately one of the parties to the marriage is refusing to consider one. Madrid, he said, is simply unable to accept the reality of a partnership that has broken down.

The reason all this matters far beyond Spain’s borders is that the Catalans are not the only Europeans itching to form their own independent state. Quite apart from those Scots who favour independence, what about the Corsicans of France, or the Padanians of northern Italy? They will all be watching closely on Sunday.

It’s not as if the EU isn’t facing enough troubles as it is. There’s the new budget to be agreed, and of course there’s still a very real prospect of more financial turbulence over Greece’s debts and, yes, Spain’s too.

The last thing the Spanish government wants is to be thrown into a major constitutional crisis following this weekend’s election. Catalan leaders insist they’re not spoiling for a fight, but they are insisting on being heard.

If the election results in a clear majority in the regional parliament for parties that favour either full independence or substantially enhanced autonomy – and that’s what the opinion polls are suggesting – the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, will be faced with a stark choice.

Either he starts negotiating with the Catalans to see how many of their demands he can meet, or he faces them down and dares them to do their worst.

Right across Europe, many of his fellow EU leaders will be watching anxiously to see which way he jumps.

I’ll be on air tonight, Friday, from Barcelona, with an extended report looking ahead to the election and analysing the likely repercussions for the rest of the EU. I hope you’ll be able to tune in, or catch up later via iPlayer.

Friday 16 November 2012

16 November 2012

Perhaps you remember the time, long, long ago, when we used to talk of something called the Middle East peace process.

It was a time when Israeli and Palestinian officials would sit down and negotiate, not very successfully, admittedly, but in the hope that they might be able to find a way to resolve their many deep-seated differences about how to share the bit of the Levant that they both call their homeland.

Last night, in the Gaza Strip and southern Israel, many thousands of people, Palestinians and Israelis, lay awake in their beds, listening for -- and dreading -- the sound of an incoming missile or rocket. There is no peace process any more, nor has there been for several years; in its place there is either a vacuum, or war.

Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the signing of the Oslo peace accords, a moment when, just briefly, many Israelis and Palestinians believed there might be a chance of coming up with a way to live in peace, side by side.

The Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (together with Israelis Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin) and took up residence in the West Bank city of Ramallah. He died eight years ago, and now they're digging up his body to see if he was poisoned by the Israelis.

Why did the Palestinian group Hamas, which has controlled the Gaza Strip for the past five years, unleash a barrage of more than 100 rockets against Israel last weekend? Why did Israel choose to respond with its most violent military onslaught since its war in Gaza four years ago?

According to the analyst Hussein Ibish, of the American Task Force for Palestine, whom I interviewed on the programme last night, Hamas hardliners needed to prove that they still have the stomach for a fight, even after five years of trying to be a quasi government, looking after sewers, and power supplies, and health and education. And perhaps they also wanted to force their Muslim Brotherhood patrons in Cairo to come off the fence and back them as the legitimate representatives of their people.

As for the Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, according to Daniel Levy of the European Council on Foreign Relations, who was also on last night's programme, with an election coming in January, Mr Netanyahu may well have caculated that a short, sharp military adventure would do him no harm at all at the polls. It will certainly divert voters' attention from Israel's deep religious-secular divide, which has been a dominant political theme for the past year.

If this all sounds cynical, well, I'm sorry, but there's more to come. The Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz says the Hamas military commander whom the Israelis killed on Wednesday, Ahmed al-Jaabari, had been for several years Israel's go-to man in Gaza. Apparently, he was the man who kept the rockets on their launchers, who kept the captured Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit alive, and who eventually, just over a year ago, negotiated Shalit's return to Israel in exchange for more than 1,000 Palestinian prisoners.

According to Ha'aretz, Israel eventually decided that Jaabari was no longer fulfilling his side of the bargain: too many rockets were once again being fired from Gaza into Israel. The message, said Ha'aretz, was simple and clear: "You failed -- you're dead."

So now what? Well, we know the script, unfortunately, because we've watched this drama many times before. Over the next few days -- maybe a week, maybe two -- more people on both sides will die. More people will live in fear, and more will have reason to hate their adversaries.

Eventually, a ceasefire will be agreed. Israel will say it has largely destroyed the Hamas arsenal of rockets and has seriously weakened its military capacity. Hamas will say it has withstood yet another onslaught by its far more powerful enemy, and will salute the resolve and steadfastness of the Palestinian people.

I remember asking a senior Israeli peace negotiator many years ago if he thought the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians would ever end. "Oh yes," he said. "It will end when we grow tired of killing each other's children."

That time, it seems, has not yet come.

Friday 9 November 2012

9 November 2012

So was it "los Latinos que lo ganó por Obama"? (trans: the Latinos who won it for Obama)

Or was it the African-Americans? Or the young voters? Or the women? As always in elections, the numbers tell the story. Barack Obama won 71 per cent of the Latino vote, 93 per cent of the black vote, 60 per cent of the youth vote, and 55 per cent of the women's vote (67 per cent of unmarried women).

Mitt Romney got most of the white votes, and did best among older, white males. The problem for the Republicans, though, is crystal clear: there aren't enough white voters any more to bring them victory -- they now make up just 73 per cent of the total electorate, down from 77 per cent eight years ago, and the numbers are falling further year by year.

Ten per cent of American voters are Hispanic; 13 per cent are black; 20 per cent are under the age of 30. No party can win without their support. As one Republican strategist put it after the results were in: "Demography is destiny."

But here's another statistic that I found particularly telling: 81 per cent of voters who said they were backing the candidate who "cares about people like me" went for Obama. In other words, to win an election, you have to be able to persuade voters that you understand them, their problems and their worries.

They don't have to like you -- Margaret Thatcher, for example, never did well in the "likeability" polls, but she did speak a language that resonated with large numbers of British voters. That's why she won three consecutive elections. And that, the numbers suggest, was a major factor in Barack Obama's re-election victory on Tuesday night.

By the way, while we're on the subject of numbers, I would urge you to take with a large pinch of salt all the stuff that's been written this week about America being more deeply split down the middle than ever before. The numbers tell a different story.

Barack Obama won 50.4 per cent of the popular vote on Tuesday. Compare that to the 50.7 per cent George Bush won in 2004, the same proportion that Ronald Reagan won in 1980, or the pencil-thin 50.08 per cent majority that Jimmy Carter won in 1976.

The truth is that the US has been split down the middle for decades. Which means that you need only a small number of voters to shift allegiance -- or for the country's demographic make-up to change (see above) -- for the White House to change hands.

So is it all over for the Republican party? I doubt it -- after all, just eight years ago, George W Bush won 40 per cent of the Hispanic vote, and with a number of rising Hispanic stars in their ranks, there would appear to be no real reason why Republicans can't start working to rebuild some of that support between now and the next Presidential election in 2016.

Those of you with long memories may remember how during the 1980s and early 90s, after eight years of Reagan, followed by four years of Bush Senior, it became fashionable to say the Democrats would never win an election again. Then along came a man called Bill Clinton, younger, cooler, and saxophone-playing, who turned the Democrats into the New Democrats, and charmed his way to the White House.

Something remarkably similar happened in the UK -- Labour was frequently written off during the Thatcher years, but then along came a man called Tony Blair, younger, cooler, and guitar-playing, who turned Labour into New Labour, and charmed his way to Downing Street.

(A Clinton strategist at the time was reported to have told Labour what the secret of the Clinton makeover had been: "Keynesianism, plus the electric chair.")

History teaches us that parties can re-invent themselves to match changing social realities. So here's a mini-prediction for you: keep an eye on Spanish-speaking Republicans, men like Marco Rubio of Florida, who may very well play an increasingly visible role over the next couple of years.

And here's one other mini-prediction: I doubt the Republicans will ever again choose a multi-millionaire venture capitalist as their Presidential candidate.

I still remember the words of a retired factory worker in deepest rural Ohio, whom I met during my recent US road trip: "As long as rich men run this country, it'll be a rich man's country. And they won't do anything for people like me."

Friday 2 November 2012

2 November 2012

You may as well start thinking about it now, because it's beginning to look as if before too long, you're going to be asked to vote in a referendum on Britain and the EU.

Not this side of the next election, I admit, but my strong hunch is that all three major parties will have something in their manifestos come 2015 about being committed to a referendum. And that means, regardless of the election outcome, a referendum there will be.

Perhaps it's not before time. For the best part of 20 years, ever since the ructions over the Maastricht Treaty, British politics have been conducted in the full knowledge that an unspoken truth was lurking in the Westminster undergrowth: this country has still not made up its mind about what it wants its relationship to be with its neighbours across the Channel.

The trouble is that as soon as you start asking questions about it, more questions arise. Do you want the UK to remain in the EU? Well, you may respond, that rather depends on whether you mean the EU as it is now, or the EU as it may become over the next decade.

Would you like the UK to leave the EU but retain a close trading relationship with it? Well, that depends whether you have a Norway model in mind, or a Switzerland model. (Believe me, they're different …)

Last Wednesday's vote in the House of Commons, when the government was defeated on an amendment seeking a commitment to cut the total EU budget, was a wake-up call. Europe is back on the Westminster agenda, despite all David Cameron's efforts since he became Tory leader seven years ago to shove it in the back of the cupboard and close the door tight.

Every time voters are asked what issues matter most to them, Europe comes way down the list. The economy, immigration and the NHS are the issues they highlight -- Europe, according to one recent poll, was identified by only 15 per cent of voters as an important issue facing the country.

The UK's net contribution to the EU this year (ie what it pays in, minus what it gets back, minus the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher) comes to just a shade under 7 billion pounds. That compares to around £104 billion that's spent on the NHS.  

EU enthusiasts argue that the benefits the UK gets from membership are substantial compared to the relatively modest cost: a say in how the future shape of Europe will be decided; a whole raft of trade agreements with other nations, all of which would have to be separately negotiated if Britain were to leave; and a voice on the global diplomatic stage which would be much smaller were the UK to be operating alone.

Against which Euro-sceptics argue that the larger the EU becomes, the smaller the British voice becomes; that the pooling of sovereignty has taken key powers away from elected representatives at Westminster; and that EU rules and regulations are stifling British enterprise.

But perhaps the argument is about more than facts and figures: maybe it's also about how British voters think of themselves and their national identity, relative to our fellow-Europeans. Proud, separate, different -- and yes, let's be honest about it, better.

But back to that referendum. Party leaders know only too well that recent experience suggests that when governments ask voters a direct question about the EU, they don't get the answer they were hoping for. French and Dutch voters said No to a new constitution in 2005; and then a revised treaty, the Lisbon treaty, was thrown out by Irish voters in 2008.  (They eventually said Yes a year later after a number of concessions had been negotiated.)

So suppose there is a UK referendum some time after 2015 -- and suppose the question is something nice and simple, along the lines of: "Do you want the UK to remain in, or to withdraw from, the European Union?" When the question was asked in a referendum in 1975, two-thirds of voters said they wanted to stay in. Forty years on, I fancy the answer would be very different.

How would you vote?