Friday 25 May 2018

Why I wouldn't bet on the EU's survival

If you want to know what's going to happen to the European Union, all you have to do is look at what's happening to Italy.

What do we see? A populist coalition that is broken-backed even before it takes office. Voter anger at a stagnating economy and a failed political elite. Growing social stresses as a result of a sudden influx of migrants from Africa and the Middle East.

Perhaps you think Italy doesn't matter that much. It's always been a bit of a basket case, hasn't it? Always teetering on the brink of chaos and collapse, but somehow always managing to survive.

Believe me, Italy matters. It is, after all, the country that gave us Europe's own Donald Trump a full twenty years before the American version sent shudders around the world. His name was Silvio Berlusconi, and his slogan was Forza Italia, originally a football chant which translates roughly as Let's Go, Italy. Or, in American, Let's Make America Great Again.

He was a controversial business tycoon who had originally made his money as a property developer; he was alleged to have some decidedly dodgy connections to the world of organised crime; and he was an unapologetic womaniser with a penchant for making deeply offensive remarks about women. (He once told an opposition politician that she was 'more beautiful than intelligent' -- and a hundred thousand people signed a protest petition in response.)

Italians used to be among the EU's most passionate enthusiasts. As an Italian journalist once explained to me: 'When you look at the record of our national governments, you'll understand why we have no problem with giving more power to Brussels.'

Not any more. The financial crash of 2007-8 hit Italy particularly hard and it has still not recovered: it is the only one of the EU's major economies in which GDP growth per capita is still lower than it was at the time of the crash. Debt as a percentage of GDP is the second highest in the EU after Greece, and in some parts of southern Italy, the unemployment rate is close to thirty per cent.

As if all that wasn't enough, Italy's EU partners have utterly failed to help offer sanctuary to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who have risked their lives to escape from war, famine and grinding poverty. An estimated 700,000 people have arrived in Italy by sea from Libya over the past five years, yet all attempts to persuade other EU countries to offer some of them homes have come to nothing.

No wonder Italian voters are now a lot less enthusiastic about Brussels. In last March's elections, the two parties that did best were both populist: the centre-right alliance dominated by the League, a formerly separatist party based in the north, and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement, founded by the former comedian Beppe Grillo.

So now they will try to govern together. Their respective leaders, Matteo Salvini and Luigi Di Maio, cordially detest each other and have little in common other than their ability to tap into Italian voters' deep disaffection with traditional politics. It is as if, said one commentator, Nigel Farage and Billy Connolly were to try to form a coalition in Westminster.

If they make a go of it, they will try to introduce economic policies that will induce apoplexy or worse in Brussels and Frankfurt. If they succeed -- and the ifs do start piling up at this point --  the EU could soon face a crisis that would make the post-crash Greek debt crisis look like a minor hiccup.

This isn't the first time that Italy's partners have had cause for alarm. Silvio Berlusconi was regarded in his heyday much as Trump is regarded now: unreliable, corrupt, and worryingly close to Moscow. Going back even further, to when I was a correspondent in Rome in the 1970s, Italy often seemed on the brink of acquiring a government coalition in which the Communist party would be included. At the height of the Cold War, that gave Italy's NATO allies -- and especially Washington -- nightmares.

The election last year of Emmanuel Macron in France and the re-election (just) of Angela Merkel in Germany may have given the impression that Europe's anti-Brussels populist wave had been halted. It hasn't.  Just take a look at Hungary or Poland -- and if you want to look beyond Europe, how about Narendra Modi in India, Vladimir Putin in Russia, or Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey?

Look at it this way: the UK, which is the EU's second biggest economy in GDP terms, is negotiating its exit; Italy, its fourth biggest economy, is about to be governed by a ramshackle coalition that opposes just about all EU economic orthodoxies -- and Germany, the EU's biggest economy, is ruled by a much-weakened chancellor with the far-right, anti-Brussels Alternative für Deutschland party now the third largest in parliament.

Back in September 2015, as the EU's problems began to mount, I suggested a new mathematical formula: Greek debt crisis + EU migration crisis + Brexit = end of EU.

And now there's Italy to add to the equation. Would you bet on the EU still being with us in ten years' time? I'm not sure I would.  

By the way, if you missed the first programme in my four-part documentary series The Future of English, you can still hear or download it by clicking here. The second programme will be broadcast on the BBC World Service next Wednesday. 

Monday 21 May 2018

My San Francisco Diary

It was the most perfect über echt experience imaginable. There I was, on the campus of Stanford university, just south of San Francisco, waiting for an Uber car to take me to the town of San Mateo, in the heart of Silicon Valley. The car that turned up was an all-electric Tesla Model X, as cutting edge as it gets, with its gull-wing doors and gadgetry galore. As I strapped myself in and we headed up the highway, I remarked to my travelling companions that, Silicon Valley or not, I still wasn’t quite ready to embrace the brave new world of driverless cars.

‘You’re not?’ said our driver over his shoulder. ‘We’re in driverless mode now.’ I gulped. ‘OK,’ I said. ‘That’s cool.’ (I had been trying to learn Californian and welcomed the opportunity to use it.)

And how appropriate, that as I write a diary about my experiences researching a documentary series on the future of the English language, I should reach for words like über and echt.


I was heading to San Mateo to interview the CEO of a Chinese company who have developed a highly successful app to enable Chinese speakers to improve their English. He was in Shanghai, but in these days of online video calls, that was no obstacle. Just six years after it was founded, the company claims to have more than 50 million registered users in 379 Chinese cities and more than a hundred countries around the world.

I tried the app for myself, filling in the missing words in simple English sentences, and trying to improve my pronunciation. I could choose either a British or an American pronunciation model; fortunately, given my background as a professional broadcaster, I scored pretty well at the British version, although I was stupidly proud to be awarded over eighty per cent in American as well. I reckon that makes me virtually bilingual.

But why do so many people still want to learn English in a world that already boasts a dizzying array of machine translation tools to enable anyone to translate anything at the click of a computer mouse? Some of the cleverest minds in Silicon Valley are already developing software that (I quote) 'feeds on brain wave energy, absorbing all unconscious frequencies and then excreting telepathically a matrix formed from the conscious frequencies and nerve signals picked up from the speech centres of the brain, the practical upshot of which is that if you stick one in your ear, you can instantly understand anything said to you in any form of language: the speech you hear decodes the brain wave matrix.'

Well, almost. In fact, as you will instantly have recognised if you are a fan of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, that is Douglas Adams's definition of a babel fish, 'small, yellow, leech-like, and probably the oddest thing in the universe.' It may have seemed odd when he dreamt it up forty years ago,  but in Silicon Valley, it now simply qualifies as work in progress.


San Francisco combines the highest of high tech with the wackiest of low tech. The Teslas share road space with kickboard scooters (some of them equipped with electric motors), skateboards and monowheels, as well as bicycles, bendy buses, trolley buses, trams and cable cars. In the home of one of our interviewees, we were offered Assam tea in pint mugs, heated in a microwave. And at a poetry-reading in a bookshop in the city's Mission district, a sort of Californian Brixton, with a reputation to match, the clientele seemed to have been browsing the shelves ever since those heady, hippie days in Haight Ashbury circa 1966.


The city also hosts a distressingly high number of homeless people, many of whom display signs of mental illness or addiction. They are young and old, black and white, disabled and non-disabled. As a Londoner, I am used to seeing people trying to survive on the streets, but San Francisco’s crisis is on an entirely different scale. Whatever safety net might exist for those made homeless by gentrification, soaring property prices and inadequate health care, it is woefully unable to catch enough people who desperately need help. It is hard to love a city, however scenic and charming, if it fails so many of its own citizens.


Josiah Luis Alderete is not one of those who lost his home, but he did lose his business, a much-loved taco restaurant called Casa Mañana in ultra-liberal Fairfax, Marin County, just across the Golden Gate Bridge from San Francisco and the only town in the US where the Green party has a majority on the town council.

Having been forced to shut up shop when his landlord evicted him to redevelop the site, Alderete is now making a name for himself as a self-styled pocho poet (pocho was originally a derogatory term for Americanised Mexicans who had lost sight of their cultural traditions, but it is now increasingly used by Mexican-Americans themselves in the same way as some African-Americans use the N-word). He writes fierce, angry verse in Spanglish, using Spanish and English words often in the same sentence.

He was born in the US to Mexican parents, so why not write in English? ‘Spanglish is the language of resistance,’ he tells me. But does he dream in Spanglish as well? He bursts out laughing. ‘As a matter of fact, I did dream in Spanglish just last night.’


Spanglish and Konglish (a Korean-English hybrid) are both flourishing in California, as is Hinglish (Hindi-English) in India, and Singlish (Singaporean-English) in Singapore. So is the future of English to be a splintering into mutually unintelligible hybrids?  I doubt it, simply because of a continuing global recognition that English in its standard, internationally-recognised form is an invaluable aid to career advancement and prosperity.  In Uganda, for example, I met children whose mothers had insisted on speaking only English to them from the moment of their births. (But that won't stop them lapsing into Uglish once they become teenagers.)

To me, the joy of English is not only its incomparable history, from Chaucer to Shakespeare, Milton and Dylan Thomas, but also its glorious variety and adaptability, the way it absorbs words and phrases from around the world and makes them its own. My late father, who learned his English as a schoolboy in Berlin in the 1920s and 30s, insisted to his dying day that the rules he had been taught then should be set in stone for all time. But even he didn't ask: 'With whom were you out last night?'

My four-part documentary series, The Future of English, produced by Julia Johnson and Mohini Patel, will be broadcast on the BBC World Service, starting on Wednesday, 23 May. It will also be available online, on the BBC Radio iPlayer, and to download onto your computer, tablet or smartphone.

Friday 11 May 2018

Staggering and stumbling towards war

And so it begins.

Donald Trump makes a speech in Washington. Israel and Iran trade missile attacks on and from Syria. The blue touchpaper has been lit. Thank you, Mr President.

Now we watch and wait. And we hope that as future historians look back in years to come, they will not say, as Lloyd George did in 1920, after the First World War, that the world had 'glided, or rather staggered and stumbled' into war.

In Israel and Iran -- and, of course, in Syria and Yemen, and throughout the Middle East -- millions of people live in fear of what will happen next. Their political leaders insist they do not want war, yet everywhere they are preparing for it.

It is important to be clear about exactly what happened this week. The Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (hereinafter to be called the Iran nuclear deal), which was signed in 2015 by seven nations -- China, France, Germany, Iran, Russia, the UK, and the United States -- was summarily abrogated by one of them, the US. As a result, it will almost certainly unravel.

Under the agreement, Iran undertook, among other things, to get rid of its entire stock of medium-enriched uranium, to reduce its stock of low-enriched uranium by 98%, and to reduce the number of its gas centrifuges by two-thirds.

Guess what. Iran stuck to the deal. If it had been developing nuclear weapons, which it has always denied, it stopped.

Says who? Says the International Atomic Energy Agency, which under the terms of the deal, has been subjecting Iran to what it calls 'the world’s most robust nuclear verification regime.' In a statement published after President Trump ripped up the agreement on Tuesday, the agency's director-general, Yukiya Amano, said: 'As of today, the IAEA can confirm that the nuclear-related commitments are being implemented by Iran.'

Has Iran been secretly developing a nuclear weapons programme since it signed the deal? No. Has it reneged on a painfully-negotiated, multi-lateral disarmament agreement? No. On the other hand, has it been buttressing the foul regime of President Assad of Syria, torturing its opponents at home, and funding and arming organisations like Hamas and Hizbollah that the West calls terrorist organisations (we can discuss the meaning of 'terrorist' another time)? Yes.

Does Mr Trump's defence secretary, Jim Mattis, agree with his boss that the Iran agreement was 'a horrible, one-sided deal that should have never, ever have been made?' No. Does the chairman of the US joint chiefs of staff, General Joseph Dunford? No. Does the chairman of the US army's central command, General Joseph Votel? No again. Do any of the other six signatories to the deal? Another no.

According to the highly-respected US security analyst Fred Kaplan of, the president's decision 'can only be attributed to one or more of three motives: a misunderstanding of the deal’s terms, a need to torpedo yet another one of President Obama’s accomplishments, or a desire to weaken or destroy the government of Iran.'

It is all horribly, scarily reminiscent of President George W Bush's decision to invade Iraq in 2003. Ignore the advice of the experts. Press ahead regardless of the warnings. Take it upon yourself to encourage regime change, heedless of the likely consequences.

It is sheer madness. And it's not even as if we don't know what happens next. Look at Afghanistan, Iraq, or Libya. That's what happens next.

The hardliners in Iran can't believe their luck. Millions of Iranians had put their faith in the moderate (by Iranian standards) president, Hassan Rouhani, who promised that their living standards would improve once economic sanctions were lifted after he signed the nuclear deal.

Donald Trump has told them they were fools. He has cut the ground from under Rouhani's feet and made it almost impossible for him to hold back his internal critics. If I were an Israeli, living under the hugely increased threat of renewed Iranian missile attacks from Syria, Hizbollah attacks from Lebanon, and Hamas attacks from Gaza, I would not be thinking kindly of Mr Trump.

If as a result of his disastrous decision, Iran resumes its nuclear programme, it won't be long before its main regional rivals -- Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Egypt and Turkey -- are tempted to join in. Great: a Middle East nuclear arms race. Thank you again, Mr President.

The Iran nuclear deal was far from perfect. But back in the days of the Cold War, when the US and the Soviet Union negotiated imperfect, partial arms reduction agreements, they built steadily, year after year, on what had gone before. First came the Partial Test Ban Treaty of 1963, then the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty of 1968, followed by the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) and the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty of 1972, and then SALT II in 1979.

Washington and Moscow worked together to make the world just a bit less dangerous. Implacable enemies they may have been, but they were not blindly reckless. If Donald Trump knew anything about his own country's history -- or if he had even a modicum of understanding about the world in which we all live -- he could have done the same thing: build on the Iran nuclear deal, strengthen the hand of the moderates, give the people of Iran real hope for a better future.

I wrote in November 2016, just after he was elected: 'There is no point trying to deny it any longer: the election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place ... What scares me most ... is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead.'

Fred Kaplan wrote this week: 'Trump has wrecked one of the most successful arms-control deals in modern history, destroyed any possible leverage to negotiate a new one, further disrupted unity with our allies, further damaged U.S. credibility, strengthened hard-line factions in Iran, exacerbated instability in the Middle East, and possibly boosted the chance of war—which some of Trump’s abettors desire. Quite the deal-maker.'

I dread the day, if I live that long, when my grandchildren, learning about these events in their history lessons, will ask me: 'Grandpa, why did no one see what was happening back then? Why did no one stop it?'

I hope the members of the US Congress will have a decent answer for their grandchildren. Because I know I won't.