Category Archives: Europe

Lib Dems & Coalition: Final Thoughts

Approval ratings, image courtesy The Economist (http://www.economist.com/node/16700180)

By Nikita Lalwani

NEW YORK—Although Parliament was officially in recess, my last week working in Westminster was one of the most exciting for my office. On Friday, Prime Minister David Cameron announced that he wanted to introduce term limits for those who live in council homes. Liberal Democrat voters – many of whom live in council homes – were furious, and everyone wondered how Liberal Democrat Deputy Leader Simon Hughes (the MP for whom I work) would react. Would he go along with Cameron’s proposal and risk alienating thousands of voters? Or would he criticize the prime minister and risk creating a rift in the coalition? Eventually, he made a statement that was calm and firm. While he said he would support further discussion on council home terms in government, he made it clear that fixed term housing was neither a Liberal Democrat policy nor one he favored.

From Twitter feeds and media headlines, it quickly became clear that Simon Hughes’s statement resonated with Liberal Democrat voters, who were happy to see one of their politicians standing up to Conservative policy. This support came at the right time.

As the above graph indicates, Liberal Democrats are the only party to have suffered a loss in popularity after this year’s general election. This trend is likely the result of two factors. First, as is the case with any opposition party who has become part of government, the Liberal Democrats have had to make some tough policy compromises. This is especially tough for a third party such as the Liberal Democrats, who have been in opposition for the better part of a century and whose constituents therefore are far less willing to tolerate even slight policy adjustments. Second, the nature of the coalition alliance has also alienated Liberal Democrat voters, who do not understand why their party has had to ally with long-time opponent Conservatives. Additionally, Labour and the media have successfully portrayed Liberal Democrats as the weaker half of government. It is no surprise, then, that many Lib Dem voters wonder what their party is doing for them, particularly in light of harsh governmental public spending cuts that – as I have said previously – affect Lib Dem and Labour constituencies the most.

What, then, can still save the Liberal Democrats?

First, as Simon Hughes did last week, Liberal Democrats should not be afraid to stand up for core values whilst in the coalition. Of course, compromise – especially in a coalition – is necessary and often preferable. But Liberal Democrat politicians must take care to highlight their role in shaping policy. Otherwise, they risk losing more voters than they already have.

Second – and perhaps more importantly – Liberal Democrats are hoping that next year’s referendum on voting reforms will be successful. Liberal Democrats hope to implement the Alternative Vote system, in which voters rank candidates in order of preference and the candidate with a majority of first-preference votes wins. If no candidate secures a majority of first-preference votes, second-preference votes – and later, if necessary, third-preference votes – are taken into account until someone obtains a majority. The proposed reform will not only make elections more democratic by taking into account everyone’s preferences, but it will also give Liberal Democrats a larger share of the vote. Under the current system, Liberal Democrats are severely disadvantaged. As the New York Times reported after the general election, Liberal Democrats received nearly 25% of the popular vote but less than 10% of the seats in the Commons. A successful referendum on AV could very well make up for the pains Liberal Democrats have felt thus far.

In the end, although Liberal Democrats walk a difficult road in the years ahead, they also have a chance to effect real change. For although being in government invites criticism and blame, it offers something else opposition does not: real power. And while I am now back home in New York, I know I will follow the next five years of British politics with great interest.

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Our Town

by Sarah Armitage

I have recently been exploring the development of an area in southwest Copenhagen that was once home to the manufacturing facilities of Carlsberg Breweries, one of the world’s largest brewery groups.  The master plan for this site employs many of the latest ideas in the field of urban planning, seeming to serve as a model, at least on paper, for how the development of former industrial sites should proceed.

Designed by Entasis Architects, a relatively small Copenhagen-based firm that won Carlsberg’s international ideas competition for the site’s development, the plan aims to transform this 74-acre site in extraordinary ways. The new city district will be compact, characterized by a variety of users and a variety of functions. Development will be transit-oriented, with plans to renovate and even relocate the nearest train station and with provisions for plenty of bicyclists and pedestrians (planners anticipate a transportation modal split somewhere around one-third motor vehicles, one-third public transport, and one-third cyclists and pedestrians). Public gathering spots and other shared areas will abound, and the spaces between buildings will receive more attention than will the buildings themselves. And the site’s beautiful historic buildings, many of which are legally protected by Denmark’s Heritage Agency, will be preserved and integrated almost seamlessly with the new construction.  The site plan will modernize the medieval European-style compact city that has become so popular in today’s urban planning world.

Of course, the development of the Carlsberg site has enjoyed incalculable advantages that have helped to make such a remarkable master plan possible.  For one, rather than allowing the area surrounding its former manufacturing facilities to grow derelict, Carlsberg Breweries has played an active role in determining the future of the site.  Plans for redevelopment began even before Carlsberg had transferred production to its new facilities, ensuring as smooth a transition as possible between industrial area and new city district.  The site will continue to use the Carlsberg brand, ensuring not only the continued involvement of Carlsberg Breweries but also imbuing the area with 160 years of industrial history.  And the site’s location in Copenhagen, a place where progressive planning ideas have become mainstream and where citizens tend to engage constructively in planning processes, certainly did not hurt.

Perhaps most notably, Carlsberg has launched another ideas competition, this time to find suitable temporary public spaces to create and maintain vibrant city life during the interim period between industrial area and city district.  Carlsberg’s developers have evidently realized that well-designed buildings and well-planned city blocks are worthless without people.  The temporary public spaces are intended to inject life in the Carlsberg area from the beginning of the development process, to ensure that the district will have a long tradition of public life and social integration. Three proposals have been awarded a total of 7 million DKK (about $1.2 million USD) to construct 25,000 square meters of outdoor public facilities; the first of these spaces opened in June, and Carlsberg has already begun to promote a number of public events in the area.

If the site’s master plan represents a “revolution” in modern city planning for its ability to translate age-old ideas into modern language, then the site’s temporary public spaces represent a revolution in the battle against urban decay.  This initiative, combined with Carlsberg’s early involvement in the redevelopment process, suggests that it is possible to prevent industrial decay through masterful master planning and intelligent urban design.

Yet the tragedy of the Carlsberg site is that it too may become another reminder that in the field of urban planning, as with so much else, money rules all. Construction has been stalled indefinitely, as developers recover from the financial crisis and recognize that their investment horizon may be much longer than initially anticipated. Developers have already begun to reevaluate whether relocating the nearby train station, once an integral component of the transportation plan for the area, is worth the enormous expense. It is unclear what will happen with the Carlsberg site, but it now seems unlikely that the master plan will be realized in its entirety.

And so the Carlsberg project affords hard lessons about the reality of urban redevelopment projects. Even with all of the advantages in this case, Carlsberg’s developers have been unable to transition from master plan to on-the-ground reality. I do sincerely hope that they will manage to create something resembling Entasis’ plan; I would like to believe that it is possible to plan such an appealing, vibrant, magical urban space.

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For Lib Dems, Tough Road Ahead

By Nikita Lalwani

LONDON – As I am nearing the end of my time here in Parliament, I thought it fitting to reflect on the state of the coalition thus far. In an astute article for The Economist – aptly titled ‘The Liberal Democrats dig in for three years of pain’ – the new Bagehot columnist pointed out that Britain’s third party has been the biggest target for coalition critics. In debates, I rarely hear Labour members criticizing Conservatives; instead, they insult and pressure Liberal Democrats, urging them to see the error of their ways. Labour has vilified the LibDems, portraying them as unprincipled and power-hungry politicians.

Paradoxically, however, Bagehot argues that Labour’s vilification of Liberal Democrats is neither productive nor strategic:

[One] Tory notes that his Lib Dem colleagues are “taking much more flak than we are” from the press and the Labour party, when it comes to cuts. The same Conservative argues that the coalition is strengthened not weakened by this asymmetric pounding. Labour were behaving as if the LibDems belonged to them, he suggested, and the LibDems have noticed this. Labour’s rage was rather inept, he felt: it would be more clever for Labour to criticise the LibDems more in sorrow than in anger.

He’s right. It is common sense: if you want someone to join forces with you, you should court – not snub – them. Labour’s strategy has united the coalition because it has unwittingly transformed Labour into the common enemy of Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Working in a Liberal Democrat office and having heard countless Labour MPs attack Liberal Democrats, I feel much more sympathetic towards the Conservatives than I do Labour, and I suspect my colleagues feel the same.

Yet Labour may end up on top in the end. Liberal Democrats and Conservatives appear to agree that much hinges on the state of the economy over the next five years. Should cuts and austerity lead to a deeper recession, both parties will suffer hard losses in the next election. On the other hand, if austerity leads to growth and balances the budget, voters may yet forgive them. Concerns over the economy, Bagehot notes, may even strengthen the coalition, as both parties have a common stake in the next five years.

But again, Liberal Democrats – whose electorate will be among the hardest hit by public spending cuts – appear to have the most to lose. Disgruntled voters may not forget, as one letter to my office put it, that they “voted Lib Dem but got Tories instead.” Liberal Democrats must rely on forgiving voters to realize that coalition requires compromise, and no compromise comes without tough trade-offs.

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 7: Madrid

Spanish fans watch the World Cup Final at the Plaza de Cibeles, where three giant screens were set up to show the game. (Bruner/TYG)

By Raisa Bruner

MADRID – Never underestimate La Furia Roja.

I can’t make any comments about the style, skill, or success of the Spanish national soccer team on the field in the World Cup final Sunday night against the Netherlands – I am neither an expert in soccer nor someone who was able to watch the game in full. I can’t tell you if Spain deserved to win, or if it was a fitting end to the month-long tournament, or even if the Netherlands played an honorable game. No, I’m not qualified to discuss any of that – because instead of watching the game and the athletes on the screen, I was gazing mesmerized at the crowd of crazed fans at Plaza de Cibeles in downtown Madrid.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to excite.

Sangria funneled down plastic vuvuzuelas into the open mouths of strangers? Sí. An army of red-and-yellow jerseyed fans, Spanish and Australian and American and any other nationality? Sí. Every face, arm, chest, and scalp striped with the red and yellow of the Spanish flag? Sí. Fist-pumping? Absolutamente. At Yale, we get into the spirit of The Game (Yale-Harvard football) and throw on a jersey for our favorite team’s turn in a championship. But in comparison to this experience, whatever sports fanaticism we have back home looks like little league. This much enthusiasm – however drunken – isn’t found every day. Spain’s supporters breathe, sweat, and bleed La Furia Roja.

Never underestimate the power of soccer to focus.

The crowd – which spread in a riotous, rowdy mass for miles throughout the center of Madrid – roared, chanted, vuvuzuela-ed, cheered, booed, sang, yelled, became borracho in unison. And that’s a big deal. To have the cultural power to take all of that energy and send it directly towards one event happening at the other end of the world is a pretty splendid feat. But soccer can do that for Spain. Soccer can take the Catalonians (a million of whom attended a separatist rally on Saturday, the day before the final) and the Basque (who also rallied in support of the Catalonians on Saturday) and the Andalusians and the Galicians and the countless other nationalities, ethnicities, and visitors living in and loving this land and bring them together in one very boisterous, very united movement towards victory. Impressive.

Definitely don’t underestimate the power of winning.

What recession? What unemployment? What sobriety? As we were swept up along with the partying crowd from Plaza de Cibeles toward Puerta del Sol, everything was in a jubilant uproar. Communist protests and workers’ strikes often stride the same route that we paraded down, yet instead of fighting against the concept of Spain, we were marching for it. At Sol, people clambered on top of statues, scaffolding, fountains, even the metro station’s glass roofing in hopes of surveying the scene. Swarming with people in all states of consciousness, the crowd only began to clear at around 5:00am when a man fell off the top of a monument and the police and ambulances arrived to deal with the consequences.

That morning I walked home, blowing my vuvuzuela the whole way. Each car that passed us cheered, even when the birds began to chirp. And now, a full workweek later? Spain isn’t going to sleep anytime soon. The players have arrived home in a wave of glory, the sun is out, the moon is bright, and the sangria is still cheap and flowing.

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Historic Preservation Meets Sustainable Development

Copenhagen's oldest buildings are an essential part of the city's character and charm (Armitage/TYG).

By Sarah Armitage

COPENHAGEN – In this city, I am trying to learn about the intersection between historic preservation and sustainable urban development, a niche issue that nevertheless touches on many contemporary issues in city planning.  Three conclusions that I have reached thus far:

1.  Europe really is further along than the United States when it comes to creating sustainable communities.  I held this idea intuitively at the outset of my trip to Denmark, but I did not feel its force until I had experienced the world of European city planning first-hand.

I expected to return from Copenhagen inspired by the city’s imaginative approaches to adaptive reuse, the practice of renovating and retrofitting old buildings to serve new purposes.  Under the leadership of the historic preservation crowd, many of the most progressive voices in the sustainable urban development movement in the United States are calling for city planners to renovate the nation’s existing building stock instead of focusing only on “green” new construction.  They cite statistics such as the 65 years necessary for an energy efficient new building to make up for the “embodied energy” lost in tearing down an old building.  And they point to Europe, where adaptive reuse has become a common way of integrating old and new buildings.

I certainly have found these imaginative approaches to adaptive reuse in Copenhagen.  I have learned through hearsay, for example, that some of the most expensive real estate in Copenhagen can be found in a former silo tower converted into apartments-with-views.  But I have also seen that in Copenhagen, the progressive voices have moved beyond adaptive reuse to recognize that even the most advanced retrofits cannot compete with the energy efficiency technologies possible in new structures.  Thus in the long term, if cities such as Copenhagen are to achieve ambitious goals like carbon neutrality by 2025, they will need to offset old buildings that are worth saving with truly efficient new construction.  While it may exist in places, I have never seen this holistic thinking on such an advanced level in the United States.

2.  At the same time, however, the existing built environment is going to provide an important interim solution.  While I have seen an ultimate goal that is more sophisticated than adaptive reuse while in Copenhagen, I think that American cities could make enormous progress by learning a lesson that Danish planners have already internalized: retrofits and renovations may not seem glamorous or spectacular, but they are essential.  And when we do permit new construction, we must be sure that it will last longer than, say, 65 years.

3.  While historic city spaces may seem dull when compared to flashy new architecture or urban districts, they actually are worth preserving.  Trying to reconcile historic preservation with sustainable urban development does matter.

For one, preserving historic city plans is often a wise decision for urban designers trying to create the dense, mixed-use urban environment so in vogue right now.  In a number of Middle Eastern cities, for example, the preservation of centuries-old city plans could create exactly the kind of city that many of today’s leading urban planners would want.

Second, history sells and can make buildings more attractive spaces in which to live, work, or play.  I recently learned about the development of a former industrial area in Copenhagen where the district’s history was used as a marketable asset.  The site was once home to the Royal Porcelain company, a producer of luxury china.  Developers have embraced the site’s former use, retaining the name “Porcelaenshaven” (a rough translation would be “porcelain garden”) and preserving architectural reminders that many of the area’s buildings were once working factories.  On my site visit, I noticed the classic Royal Porcelain floral pattern gracing the apartments’ doorways.  After all, who wouldn’t want to live in a building that once produced teacups and saucers for the queen?

Third, respecting a city’s history means respecting the intangible elements of a city–the poetry of the urban spaces–all that helps to create attachments between places and people.  I recently learned about two new developments in Copenhagen, one only planned and the other already executed.  In the former, planners have envisioned an environment in which new buildings compliment and celebrate old ones, in which the roughness and unpredictability that come from generations of use are embraced and even deliberately intensified.  In the latter, by contrast, buildings are spaced far apart in a rational manner, and the area is full of spectacular new architecture.  There is far more smoothness than roughness.  The former seems like a space for real people; the latter does not.

And while my conclusions about the importance of historic preservation in contemporary city planning may seem a separate issue from my first two points about Copenhagen as a model of sustainable urban development, I think that they are actually inseparable.  After all, preserving a city’s heritage is, in a way, just a nicer way of looking at the need to plan future city development within the constraints of the existing built environment.

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Culture and the Cup, Dispatch 4: Paris

algerian flag

One of France's spirited supporters of the Algerian team is interviewed after France loses to South Africa on June 22. (Parker/TYG)

By Charlotte Parker

PARIS — “Defeated by chaos,” “Disaster,” “Journey to hell and back.”

The headlines would be funny if their meaning didn’t carry real implications for France. They reference, of course, the country’s humiliating first-round elimination from the World Cup, an outcome caused by a Molotov cocktail of big egos, large salaries, and lack of national pride on the part of the players. World Cup fever still reigns in France, but alas it’s not the delirium of dreams. Instead, it’s a frenzy built of disillusionment and vituperative bitterness. Newspapers are just the beginning; even President Sarkozy called a special meeting to discuss the situation.

The flop potential of Les Bleus was first hinted at in their third preparatory match before the actual Cup began, when they lost to China. My host father turned off the match in disgust and said something along the lines of, “this doesn’t bode well.” Indeed, France went on to tie Uruguay, and then lost to Mexico.

I watched that match on a giant screen at the “FIFA FanFest” area set up under the Eiffel Tower (nice view). The place was absolutely packed, but among the rowdy crowd there almost seemed to be more Mexican that French supporters. Even more surprising was the number of Algerian flags, knotted around young men’s necks like capes. Here they were, in Paris, presumably born in France, watching France — and yet they didn’t root for France.

By the time les Bleus faced off against South Africa on the 22nd, most people had already lost interest and pride. I don’t totally blame them — the team had imploded, refusing to practice as protest against the expulsion, by Coach Raymond Domenech, of one of its players (I won’t go into much detail here, as the story is all over the media). The captain refused to sing the national anthem.

Nonetheless, I found it rather upsetting that the public at the FanFest arena booed when the camera panned to Domenech. When South Africa won, most of our fellow match-watchers erupted in joy.

What happened? In 1998, the team was fondly referred to as “Black-blanc-beur,” or “black-white-arab,” a nod to its diverse makeup. When they won the Cup, it seemed a victory for the new, ethnically varied French identity. A friend’s host mother said she couldn’t go out into the streets for weeks without being hugged by her joyful countrymen. Now, the comportment of the players — 13 out of 22 of whom are from immigrant backgrounds — brings into question how strong that national identity actually is. I suppose it remains to be seen if the lack of patriotism belonged simply to one group of bratty football players, or if it is an indicator of the situation of immigration and society in France in general.

Since the Cup started, I’ve been fascinated by the “Algeria Factor.” As I’ve mentioned, Algeria fans (until Algeria’s elimination — thanks to a last-minute defeat by the US!) were by far the most visible fans of any team, arriving at the FanFest arena hours before matches, faces painted and flag capes waving. Of the 5 or 6 Algerian men I talked to, all barmen at various cafes where I watched a few matches, every one — whether born in France or Algeria — supported Algeria. My friend’s host brother, born in France of a French mother and Tunisian father, and calling himself French, was also supporting Algeria. I’m sorry Algeria is out of the running because I would have loved to see how an Algerian victory was greeted by people here; it would have made an interesting contrast, I think, to the utter failure of France.

One lesson learned from the approximately 14 hours of soccer I have watched over the past week: “football” really does have the power to both divide and to unite, to humiliate as well as to burnish national pride. I’m sad for France, and concerned by the cracks in what has seemed to me (from my Metro observations of cultural co-existence, at least) a society that welcomes immigrants, and in which those immigrants are happy to belong.

But I have also been made proud of my own country, which is not a feeling I have often experienced. The spark with which the US played these first two rounds of the Cup brought us a little closer to the rest of the football-obsessed world, I think. I will always remember the feeling of quiet satisfaction that passed over me when one of the Algerian men with whom we were watching the US-Algeria match began to root for the US towards the end of the game, when the determination to win on their part was just so gloriously evident.

If we can get them to root for us in soccer, maybe there’s hope…

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British Budget: Progressive or Regressive?

By Nikita Lalwani

LONDON — This past week has been an exciting one for British politics. On Tuesday, George Osborne – the youngest ever Chancellor of the Exchequer – unveiled the emergency budget to much media attention and public debate. As many expected, the budget responded to the economic crisis with fiscal austerity. From the New York Times article on the budget:

The steps outlined to the House of Commons by George Osborne, the chancellor of the Exchequer, would cut the annual government deficit by nearly $180 billion over the next five years, shrinking Britain’s public sector and instituting tough reductions in public housing benefits, disability allowances and other previously sacrosanct aspects of the country’s $285 billion welfare budget.

Only time will tell if these cuts will herald a new era of prosperity and smart spending or catalyze a double-dip recession. What was readily apparent from the post-budget debates, though, was the way in which the three parties interacted with each other and the strategic way each chose to portray the coalition.

Conservatives seem pleased with the budget. They argue that cuts were necessary, and they constantly remind Labour that they are at fault for Britain’s financial predicament. The numbers, they say, show results – the increase in value-added tax alone will raise $18 billion by 2012. Of course, the budget suits Conservatives ideologically as well, as it puts them on their way to small government and to a smaller public sector. To counteract this, Conservatives have highlighted Liberal Democrat contributions to the budget, emphasizing their commitment to protecting the most vulnerable in society.

Not surprisingly, Labour MPs have claimed just the opposite: they have criticized the extensive budget cuts, claiming that Tories are trying to bring back Thatcher-era reforms while harming society’s poorest and most vulnerable. They have criticized Liberal Democrats for compromising their ideals in support of a budget they perceive to be quintessentially conservative. Labour’s strategy seems to be to undermine the coalition at all costs. They constantly refer to the “Tory budget” – although the budget is a combination of Conservative and Liberal Democrat policy – to portray Liberal Democrats as an insignificant and ignored part of government.  Their rhetoric seems designed to create a rift between the two coalition parties. In Thursday’s budget debate, for instance, Labour MP Edward Miliband all but urged Liberal Democrats to unite against Conservatives in next week’s vote.

Liberal Democrats, by contrast, are quick to point out their contribution to the budget, which most seem ready to support. Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg, in a letter to the party, emphasized the more progressive elements of the budget. Liberal Democrats are right that their contribution is apparent, from an increase in Capital Gains Tax that will target the wealthy to an increase in state pensions that correlates to earnings and inflation. So far, Liberal Democrats have stuck to their line that the budget will result in a fairer Britain for all. Ultimately, Liberal Democrats are smart not to rock the boat. The coalition is still new, and the two parties are still learning how to work together. It is best for the success of the coalition if the two parties seem to be on the same side, at least for now. But how much compromise is too much? Many Lib Dem voters may feel betrayed, particularly when they start to feel the effects of the budget in the coming years (I have already opened several derogatory letters at the office). Britain’s third party must walk a fine line between sticking to their Liberal principles and effectively compromising with the Conservatives. It is a tough balance to strike.

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