Tag Archives: Europe

Europe on the Brink

30 Nov

The collapse of the eurozone would likely have a very negative affect on our economy, but would devastate Europe. The euro’s survival depends on large part on Germany, the EU’s largest economy. While founding members like Germany and France are quick to blame rapid expansion of the EU into developing countries of the former Eastern Bloc, but Polish Foreign Minister Radoslav Sikorski gave a speech to the German Society for Foreign Affairs in Berlin, basically imploring – and demanding – that Germany get off its ass and save the eurozone.

Excerpts of Sikorski’s blockbuster speech are summarized in this Financial Times op-ed (registration required).

To the always-Euroskeptic United Kingdom, Sikorski had this to say:

A critical issue is whether Britain, such an important member of the EU, can support reform. The eurozone’s collapse would hugely harm Britain’s economy. The UK’s total sovereign, corporate and household debt exceeds 400 per cent of gross domestic product. Can London be sure markets will always favour it? We would prefer Britain in, but if it can’t join, please allow us to forge ahead. And please start explaining to the British public that European decisions are not Brussels’ diktats but results of agreements in which you freely participate.

The two euro zone economies with the largest growth over the past four years have been Poland and Slovakia – relative EU newbies who are often blamed by the founding economies for being the root of all eco-social evil.

The EU has always been a sort of quasi-government – not even rising to the level of a confederation, its union has always been more about economics than politics. Sikorski believes it’s time to strengthen the EU into a “fiscal federation”.

What, as Poland’s foreign minister, do I regard as the biggest threat to the security and prosperity of Poland in the last week of November 2011? It is not terrorism, and it is certainly not German tanks. It is not even Russian missiles, which President Dmitry Medvedev has just threatened to deploy on the EU’s border. The biggest threat to the security of Poland would be the collapse of the eurozone.

I demand of Germany that, for its own sake and for ours, it help the eurozone survive and prosper. Nobody else can do it. I will probably be the first Polish foreign minister in history to say this, but here it is: I fear German power less than I am beginning to fear its inactivity. You have become Europe’s indispensable nation. You may not fail to lead: not dominate, but to lead in reform.

It’s created quite a stir throughout EU, which boasts 500 million residents and represents 20% of global GDP.

Pundit goes to Paris

10 May

An Antenna

About a week has gone by since my vacation. The four of us met my parents in Paris for their 50th wedding anniversary, and for my wife’s birthday. Both my wife and I had been to Paris before, but only once as kids in the late 1970s. One of the most incredible things about the human brain to me is how it will sometimes pull bits of information out of its own ass with very little prompting, given the right circumstances. I couldn’t recall, for instance, where we had stayed in 1977, but I remembered that we never made it to the top of the Eiffel Tower because it was being renovated, that we had flown on TWA out of the iconic Eero Saarinen-designed terminal at JFK, that TWA had given me a tote bag, that I remarked about the Louvre that it would have been funny if the king’s quarters were on one end of the sprawling palace, but his bathroom was all the way at the other end of the opposite wing. I remembered that we had taken a bus excursion to Versailles and Chartres to see the palace and the cathedral, respectively, and I think we may have also done Fontainebleau, but I wasn’t sure.

For instance, as we drove from Paris to Chartres our first day, I encountered a toll booth. I had anticipated this, but as I approached in a jet-lagged daze, I couldn’t figure out which pictogram meant, “use this lane and pay cash”. So I ended up at an unmanned booth that apparently took credit cards. Except it didn’t take Visa. Spat it right out. It also didn’t take Master Card. Spat it right out. It was at this point, the machine spat my card onto the ground. I tried to open my door to retrieve it, only to find that the door would open exactly 3 inches because I was up against a tall concrete curb. I hit the buzzer to ask for help, and pulled the words, “ma carte est tombe” right out of my ass, hoping the lady would take pity and just raise the gate. No dice.

Amex worked.

My connection to the world

When it came time to drive back to Paris, we avoided the toll road and enjoyed the rolling hills southwest of Paris on the routes Nationale instead.

It was our first trip across the Atlantic since 2005, when we went to London for a week. It was the first time ever for our youngest, and the first time since 2003 that we had gone to a country where English wasn’t on the list of official languages. Sights are easy, but it’s amazing how words, thoughts, and scents are so shoved into the back of your memory in your everyday life, that they pop out unexpectedly.

We flew non-stop on Air Canada from Toronto. The new Terminal 1 is massive, and wonderfully modern and efficient. We had checked in online, so our selected seats were guaranteed. It was only a question of doing a baggage drop at the terminal. We had parked at the discount long term garage on Viscount, and took Pearson’s new LINK monorail to the terminal. It was quite easy and efficient, saving us money and stress. The only problem was that, upon arrival in Toronto at the conclusion of our trip, there was not one single, solitary sign directing travelers to get to the LINK train. Not one.

Here’s a pro tip: do you have a NEXUS card? By now you may already know that the NEXUS card is fantastic because it lets you cut the line at the Canadian border crossings and provides you with your own dedicated bridge (Whirlpool Bridge) to ease cross-border travel during even the busiest times of the year (i.e., summertime when the other bridges have wait times of over an hour). But NEXUS holders can also opt to have their retinas scanned and use those cards at airports throughout North America. At Pearson, it enabled us to cut the security line, and went through more speedily because we’re pre-screened “trusted travelers”. Upon arrival to Pearson from Europe, we cut the entire (quite lengthy) passport control line and went to what looked like ATM machines to have our retinas scanned. Once the machine verified who we were, we made our way directly to the baggage carousel. It saved probably 20 minutes’ worth of queuing at passport control.

Patient people patiently waiting

This isn’t a travelogue, so I won’t go into what we did and what we saw. Suffice it to say we saw all the regular stuff you’re pretty much supposed to see when in Paris. The only big things we missed were the Centre Pompidou and Sainte Chapelle. We had dinner at two memorable places – Frenchie, which had been highlighted on Anthony Bourdain’s 100th episode of No Reservations, and Le Hangar, a tiny neighborhood place near our hotel that featured wonderful food in a homey atmosphere.

Here are some things I learned, though.

1. Chip-and-pin: We don’t do chip and pin credit or debit cards in the US yet. Some machines are set up for them, but domestic banks don’t issue them. They enable you to make a credit card purchase by using a smart card and a pin, rather than a swipe-and-sign. If you hand your American card over to a store clerk or a waiter, you’ll still be able to swipe and sign without a problem. Beware that some department stores will give you a chance to press 1 to pay in Euro, or press 2 to pay in dollars. Always opt for Euros, because the interbank exchange rate will inevitably be better than what Galeries Lafayette or BHV decide to give you. The only time we needed a chip and pin card (I have one issued by a Canadian bank) was when we had entered the Metro at an entrance with no booth and had to use the ticket machine, and when we bought RER tickets to Versailles. In that case, attempts to use an American magnetic strip card were met with failure. I understand that this is also an issue when buying gas at the pump. Some American banks have announced that they may start issuing hybrid swipe/chip-and-pin cards this year. Note that it may be an issue in some circumstances when abroad.

Finding stuff

2. Exchanging cash: We thought it’d be fun for the kids to exchange some cash to get that experience. What a colossal pain in the ass that was. Put simply, it’s just not done anymore. I can remember Europe before the Euro, every bank and post office would do a reasonably fair exchange of cash with a reasonably small commission (1 – 5%). With the Euro, and cross-border banking among Europeans being a relatively seamless thing (no ATM fees!), literally not one bank branch in Paris that I walked into would do an exchange – all of them sent me either to the shyster exchange huts or, more reasonably, to the Post Office Bank. When I tried the Banque Postale near one museum, though, they said that only the main branch on Rue du Louvre would do an exchange. So we went on Thursday. The exchange desk was closed on Thursday. We went on Friday. They did the exchange. The interbank rate that day was about $1.45 = EUR1.00. They charged us $1.55. They also charged us a EUR5.00 commission. An absolute rip-off as bad as any shyster desk. So next time, it’s credit and ATM only, at least in western Europe.

3. Smartphones: I’m pretty dependent on my iPhone for lots of stuff beyond just checking emails and posting crap to Facebook. I also use it to look for restaurants on the fly using the Zagat app or Yelp, I use it for quick mapping via Google Maps, for researching the opening times for stores and attractions, and I had downloaded apps to help us get around Paris on the buses and subway. The problem is AT&T’s ridiculous data roaming charges. Before leaving, I had tried to extrapolate from past bills how much data I used on the phone on an average week in regular usage. It wasn’t clear whether the data was being displayed in KB, MB, GB, or what, so I called AT&T and asked them. By the time I had figured out that it was given in megabytes, the woman on the phone was through telling me it was in kilobytes. In order to buy 200 MB of data roaming from AT&T, you pay $199. At that rate, in regular usage I’d be paying about $600 between our two phones. That’s when I found XCom Global. For a flat $18/day, they Fedexed me a little WiFi device which contained an SIM card to connect to the Orange 3G network throughout France. The MiFi they sent me came with plug adapters, an extra battery, and an instruction manual. It will accept up to 4 or 5 devices, which means that my 3G signal could be used on my iPad, my laptop, and the iPhones carried by my dad, my wife, and me all at the same time. Queuing up for the Eiffel Tower? Fire up the MiFi to kill time. Looking for someplace to eat? Fire up the MiFi and check Zagat’s. The data usage was completely unlimited, so we could even afford to do dumb crap like Foursquare check-ins, and smart stuff like having our home phone forwarded to a Google Voice account, and using Google Voice to call the states and other parts of Europe at a steep discount over AT&T’s rates. XCom Global, incidentally, will be lowering its rates soon. I cannot stress enough what a great service this was, and how helpful it was to keep us connected and informed while away.

The Cathedral at Chartres

4. Queuing: Yes, we stood in a lot of lines. We could have avoided this by buying the Museum Pass, but it’s quite expensive and you have to use it in consecutive days. We bought most tickets a la carte at the time of entry. The only exceptions were the Musee d’Orsay, where we bought museum and exhibition tickets (Manet) in advance at the box office, and Versailles, which we bought in advance at FNAC. FNAC is a technology store similar to Virgin Megastore or Best Buy. There’s one on the Champs-Elysees and there was another near our hotel in the Les Halles underground mall (there are others, but I don’t know where). Each one has a ticket window, where you can buy not only the Museum Pass, but also a la carte tickets to just about every museum and show in town, and it lets you cut the lines. At Versailles, we walked right in with our FNAC-bought tickets. If you’re planning a side excursion to Parc Asterix or Disney, you can buy your tickets there, too. It was quite a time-saver. The Eiffel Tower lets you buy reserved tickets/times in advance. The first weekend we were there (Easter weekend), it was so crowded that the lines didn’t move, and the very top of the tower was closed due to how crowded it was. We went the following Saturday first thing (windows open at 9:30), and only waited an hour to go right to the very top.

Ticket from FNAC

5. Eating: For every hyper-convenient tourist trap is a little joint on a side street that also wants to cater to tourists, but doesn’t have the budget to sustain a terasse on the Champs-Elysees. Because there were six of us, one of whom is 4 years old, meals generally came about as-needed, and only a very few meals were given much thought or pre-planning. What we ended up doing, though, is not going to the very first place you see after 3 hours of walking through the crowds at the Musee d’Orsay and it’s 1pm, but the second or third place. We found a tiny Italian place around the corner that was had great, homemade food, an owner/waiter who resembled Ricky Gervais and his David Brent character, right down to his vocal bickering with the kitchen staff, right down to the exaggerated hand gestures.

Worst Airport Ever

6. Charles de Gaulle Airport: We flew in and out of terminal 2A. I understand that some newer terminals are somewhat tolerable, but terminal 2 is an absolute disgrace. Its soviet-style concrete design is matched only by the soviet-style bureaucratic efficiencies displayed by the people who work there. Terminal 2 in this section obviously has to separate out several distinct populations. Both landside and airside, it has to separate arriving passengers and departing passengers. This means that, airside, upon arrival, you exit the jetway and then wait in a long line, more-or-less single-file to reach passport control. Meanwhile, you can see on the opposite side of a pane of glass the people waiting to depart on flights, and in order for them to get down their jetway to their aircraft, they have to cut you off. A few times, our line was stopped to enable just that to happen. Upon making that 90-degree turn and waiting in a serpentine line to have your passport stamped, you wait for your baggage in a dank, dark concrete bunker none of which makes you feel like you’ve just arrived in the first world, much less a world-class city. The customs desk was unmanned. The first day, we rented a car from Sixt to take us to Chartres overnight. Terminal 2A is rather narrow – all of these people have places to get to in a relatively thin piece of real estate. That means lots of confusion and congestion. Reaching the rental car desks in the basement of an adjacent terminal was somewhat inconvenient. Similarly, when departing we did alright with baggage drop-off, but at the security line, they don’t tell you to take your shoes off. They don’t tell you to take your laptop out of its bag. So we didn’t. So, they made us go back through three times to do that. It was quite poorly organized. Furthermore, in order to reach our gate (A40) from where we passed through security, we had to go up and down a flight of stairs twice. That’s gotta go over well with the disabled people who have the misfortune of using that airport. When we handed our boarding passes over, we had to wait a while while the passengers from an arriving flight passed through the narrow corridor past us to get to passport control. Organization/design fail. Avoid this airport at all costs. I’d rather fly into Heathrow and connect. I’d rather fly into Brussels and take the TGV or Thalys. CDG is a depressing nightmare.

Like North Korea without the efficiency

Good morning, Paris

Finally, I took a bunch of pictures of cars and license plates.

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Upheaval in the East, 20 Years On

10 Nov

I’m not 100% sure about this, but I think 1989 was the summer my parents and I did a grand tour of Bosnia-Hercegovina, visiting Sarajevo and Mostar before ending up on the shores of the Adriatic not far from Dubrovnik.  We traveled to our native then-Yugoslavia often enough, and it was a pretty easygoing place, as communist dictatorships go.  It was not free by any stretch, but the terror and oppression was, at least, homegrown.  There was no Soviet specter behind state action.  Tito broke with Stalin in 1948, and got away with it.

I highly recommend the ćevapi u somunu on Sarajevo’s Baščaršija.

It was the last time I visited a communist country.  (Bosnia, and the rest of Yugoslavia blew up all to shit not 2 years later).

Soon after Gorbachev came to power in the Soviet Union, he instituted his liberalizing policies of political glasnost and economic perestroika. Central planning had failed, and people behind the iron curtain were becoming acutely aware of how far behind the rest of the world they had become.  In 1989, Gorbachev gently hinted to the Warsaw Pact countries that the Soviet Union wouldn’t react (as it had in Hungary 1956, Czechoslovakia 1968, and Poland 1980) if they chose to liberalize further.

Even in April 1989, Poland had re-legalized Solidarity and begun reforming its political landscape. While we were still on the continent in August, there were reports coming out that Hungary had opened its borders with the west.  Hungary had always been the most economically liberal and advanced Soviet bloc country, so this didn’t come as much of a surprise.  What was interesting, however, was that because travel by eastern bloc citizens to other eastern bloc countries was relatively easy, plenty of East Germans vacationing in Hungary took advantage of the new border reality and slipped across to Austria and West Germany.

The dominoes were falling.

The unique situation of Germany meant that the entire population of communist East Germany had a common language and culture with its next door neighbor, and the West Berlin exclave essentially guaranteed that, for instance, almost all East Germans had no problems seeing western TV stations, and since there was no language barrier, they were acutely aware of how far behind their western brethren they were.  Throughout the autumn after Hungary’s liberalization, East Germans began demonstrating for greater freedom, and the marches got bigger and bigger.  By November 9th, the Berlin Wall was open – not only an actual liberalization, but a symbolic lifting of the murderous barrier between peoples.  Germany was unified within a couple of years.

Today, the path of the Berlin Wall is marked throughout that city with a narrow strip of cobblestones, reminding people of recent, brutal history.

Soon thereafter, the Bulgarian politburo was ousted. Later that November, Czechoslovakia had its Velvet Revolution.  But most amazing were the images from the Romanian revolution, where brutal dictator and narcissist-in-chief Nicolae Ceausescu and his wife led with an iron fist and really bought all their propagandistic bullshit.

Returning from a state visit to Iran, Ceausescu ordered that there be a mass demonstration in support of him and Romanian socialism on the main square in Bucharest.  Things didn’t go exactly as he planned.

And when I think of the events of 1989, this video is more significant and more memorable than the video of people dancing on the Berlin Wall or driving Trabants through checkpoints.

Here, the people rose up not just against their system, but directly against their oppressor.  To his face.

When they start shouting slogans at him, instead of with him, you can see the shock on his face.  He was dead within days, caught during his escape and hastily tried and executed. (English translation here).

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I was in college at the time, studying political science and concentrating my studies on the political, economic, and social systems of the communist bloc.  I watched each one of my textbooks become obsolete, one after another, between September and January of 1989 – 1990.  I always imagined that the countries of eastern Europe would become free – I never thought it would happen so soon, so quickly, and with such popular enthusiasm and grassroots action.

It’s now been 20 years, and a lot of those countries are now members of the EU, having met stringent political and economic prerequisites.  Some are members of NATO.  Each of the non-USSR members of the Eastern Bloc is now a liberal democratic republic featuring pluralist elections, freedom of speech, expression, and assembly, and freedom to travel.  With the exception of the Baltic states, the ex-USSR is still far behind the curve on these points.

The joke at the time was that freedom took Poland 10 years, took Hungary 10 months, took Czechoslovakia and East Germany 10 weeks, and took Romania 10 days.

Now, an entire generation which has never lived under communism is coming to age in those countries, and will soon be running them.  And we should take a moment to remember unfinished business in places like Cuba, North Korea, and China.

The LMSU Channel

29 Jul

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It stands for “let’s make stuff up”.

Shock Horror

21 Jul

Read about the utter shock horror socialist failure that is socialized medicine in France when an American needed emergency laser retinal surgery.

Saturn Dealers Don’t Want to Close

19 Feb

Some Saturn dealers, upon hearing that GM wants to kill the brand, want to spin the marque off from GM. Recall that Saturn dealerships are singular and free-standing.

I would tend to agree with this notion, because it’s become quite evident that the domestic automakers’ attempts to compete with Japanese, Korean, and European cars have almost uniformly become a game of catch-up. So, if Chevy, GMC, Pontiac, Buick, and Cadillac can’t compete effectively with Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Acura, Lexus, BMW, Mercedes, or VW, it makes some sense to retain the Saturn dealership network and use it to try and compete.

Because Saturn was just getting interesting.

After a decade, give or take, of selling tinny crap with plastic doors that looked like it was designed in 1988, Saturn was starting to get good. The Aura, the new Vue, the Astra, the Outlook – these are not only good cars, a couple of them are cars I’ve actually considered buying because they’re well built and well designed.

Saturn is supposed to get the new Opel Insignia, which is about as close to BMW luxury as a domestic automaker would ever get for under $30,000. The Astra is built in Belgium. The Outlook is as good as the last-generation Honda Pilot.

So the Saturn dealers might be able to band together and keep the brand alive through a deal with Opel, GM’s European brand. Opel is the source of the Insignia (Vectra’s new name, and the 2011 Aura), the Astra, and could decide to bring the Meriva and the Zafira – its mini-MPVs – to the states to compete with the Mazda5 and the European Fords that are supposed to start being shipped over here soon. The Corsa could easily compete with the Toyota Yaris or Honda Fit. Opel offers an entire range of stylish and fuel-efficient vehicles. With some tweaking, its diesel engines could be adopted stateside.

On the other hand, if GM puts Saturn for sale, it might provide one of the Chinese automakers like Brilliance or BYD an entree into this market. On the other hand, there have been rumors that Renault might be looking to re-enter the US market, and a ready-made distribution and dealership network are just waiting to be gobbled up. (My personal preference would be to see Škoda come to the US. Their cars are more conservatively styled than VW’s, cheaper, and better-built.)

Even though the economy is in the tank right now, this is not going exist in perpetuity. Now is a good time for an ambitious company to strike on re-entering the US market to compete on the design and fuel-efficiency front.

Serbia Overreacts

21 Feb

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Let us all pause and permit Serb nationalists to have their temper tantrum over the newly declared independent Kosovo.

This will all subside, and soon Serbia will realize that it’s better off hitching its wagon to the EU, rather than Putin. The battered Serbian economy will be better off for not subsidizing a province that is hostile to it, and the Kosovars will be better off permitted to chart their own course, and not one directed from Belgrade.

If the union of the South Slavs was an artificial construct that was doomed to failure, the incorporation of a non-Slavic province was even more so.

The 90s were replete with wars and murders based on medieval hatreds. This final explosion of anachronistic Serbian nationalism will run its course.

(The header image shows Serbian President Vojislav Kostunica as a fictional contestant on “Who Wants to Be a Millionaire”. The question is “Kosovo is…” Mr. Kostunica has selected “Serbia”, echoing the protesters’ calls of “Kosovo je Srbija”. The correct answer, flashing green, is “independent”)