Ray Fleming

Ray Fleming

Annan's last year

KOFI Annan has been under tremendous pressure over the past year as Secretary General of the United Nations. Generally, in his public appearances, he is calm and measured almost to a fault, but yesterday in his year-end press conference in New York he allowed his feeling to get the better of him and lashed out at one of his most persistent critics, James Bone of The Times. Bone asked a question about a Mercedes-Benz which Mr Annan's son Kojo had imported into Ghana, allegedly using his father's diplomatic status to avoid taxes and duties. “Listen, James Bone,” said the Secretary General, “You've been behaving like an overgrown schoolboy in this room for many months and years. You are an embarrassment to your colleagues and to your profession. Please stop misbehaving.” I have myself sometimes thought that Mr Bone's reporting on the UN was less than objective; on the other hand he has pursued the oil-for-food story with admirable tenacity and has rightly questioned some of the evasive answers which Mr Annan has given about it, especially in relation to his son's activities.

The precise nature of Kojo Annan's involvement with a company which secured a valuable contract under the oil-for-food programme was never quite clear and on one occasion the Secretary General admitted that his son had not given him a sufficiently full account of it. This was another of those conflict of interest issues in which appearance is as important as reality. Mr Annan's outburst was a serious mistake. At the end of the news conference the president of the UN Correspondent's Association told the Secretary General that James Bone had a right to ask a question and was not an embarrassment to his colleagues. Kofi Annan now has just one year left as Secretary General and it is inevitable that his authority will diminish as the year proceeds and specuation begins about his successor. There is a tradition of rotating the job among regions and Asia, which has not had a Secretary General since U Thant in the 1960s, therefore has a strong case. In a sense, of course, the United States has an even stronger case since it has never held the post. Bill Clinton?

Only the good news

THE revelation that the US Army in Iraq is writing favourable articles about the country's progress towards peace and democracy and placing them with well-disposed local journalists, some of whom are receiving a monthly backhander, has caused a great stir in Washington. I cannot think why. After all, it was only a year or so ago that the Bush administration was found to be producing short television films about some of its domestic policies and placing them with friendly US TV stations without attribution. But now Pentagon officials have been summoned in front of Senate committees to explain what is going on in Iraq where communications experts are supposed to be training journalists in the principles of a free and independent press. Senator Edward Kennedy has talked about illegal covert operations and said they speak volumes about the president's credibility gap. Actually, I think there is a very simple explanation of what lies behind these articles. They are not being written primarily for newspapers in Iraq but for President Bush to read. From them he will learn what remarkable progress the Iraqi security forces are making towards the day when they can take over from the US troops, who can then go home. This must explain how Mr Bush was able to make the speech he did the other day which was regarded by most informed people as sheer wishful thinking.

For instance, the President's account of an engagement at Tal Afar in which “the assault was primarily led by Iraq security forces” was immediately described as “completely wrong” by Time magazine's Baghdad bureau chief, Michael Ware, who was embedded with the US military and told CNN, “The Iraqis were not leading”. He added, for good measure, “I have had a very senior officer here in Baghdad say to me that there's never going to be a point where these guys will be able to stand up against the insurgency on their own.” There is increasing evidence that Mr Bush is isolated from anyone who will tell him what is really happening in Iraq and that he wants to hear only the good news, even if it's more fiction than fact.

Looking forward

LORD Taylor's report on UK pension reform published yesterday had been widely trailed in advance so there were not many surprises in it. Even so, younger people reading it may have been shocked to realise that under its provisions their entitlement to a state pension will be delayed to at least age 67 within twenty-four years. Scanning the recommendations of the report it is not difficult to understand why Gordon Brown was annoyed by its prescriptive character when he got a sneak preview of it last week. Lord Turner's Commission was asked to provide food for thought for an informed debate about pension reform but its report goes much further than that and actually makes a number of quite specific proposals for change which ultimately will be matters falling within the responsibility of the government of the day. So it was interesting that Tony Blair's references to the report in the House of Commons yesterday were moderate in tone and that he accepted its basic premise that in future the state pension should be more generous and simpler in character.

The proposal that people should work longer than at present before becoming eligible for the state pension has naturally attracted the greatest attention. It may make sense actuarily speaking but it has to be set against the background that few employers want older workers and that manual workers, who may most need the pension, are the least able to carry on working as they grow older. A proposal that will get wide support is that people with caring responsibilities and interrupted work records should not automatically be disadvantaged as they are by the present system. Women, in particular, will benefit from any change of this kind. The bottom line, of course, is that with an ageing population reform to state pension provision is essential if more and more people are not to find themselves with inadequate state support when their working life is over. The debate on how the necessary reform can be financed and administered will be long and complex with one of the key issues being Gordon Brown's preference for means-tested pension credits which Lord Turner believes are a disincentive to individual saving.

Abbas meets Bush

PRESIDENT Bush is due to hold talks with Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian leader, in Washington today. The main item on the agenda will be the United States' insistence that candidates in the forthcoming Palestinian elections in January should be required to renounce violence and “unlawful or nondemocratic” means to achieve their ends. It is, of course, no coincidence that Ariel Sharon, the Israeli Prime Minister, has already made a similar demand and has cancelled a planned meeting with Mr Abbas because he did not get the undertaking he wanted. So actually, and not for the first time, Mr Bush is carrying a message for Mr Sharon. Mahmoud Abbas is in a difficult position. The militant group Hamas intends to field candidates in the January national elections, as it did quite successfully at the recent local elections, but it has refused to do more than observe a cease fire following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, insisting that any further limitation on its militancy must depend on Israel's response at the negotiating table. For his part Mr Abbas believes that to try to disarm Hamas would risk a civil war since the organisation has widespread support among the Palestinian people and that the better course is to encourage its involvement in the democratic process. His problem in persuading Hamas to disarm and become a purely political organisation is increased by the lack of progress in negotiations with Israel since the Gaza withdrawal.

Serious difficulties remain for Palestinians wanting to move in and out of Gaza and for the development of the commerce necessary for their economic viability to take a normal course. However, by far the greatest problem facing Mr Abbas is the hard evidence that Israel is using the delay in negotiations to take yet more Palestinian land and press forward with yet more settlement construction. The amount of occupied land given up in Gaza was approximately 19 square miles yet since the last settler left some 23 square miles of West Bank land has been expropriated; 8'500 settlers left Gaza while 14'000 have moved into the West Bank since the beginning of this year. Mr Abbas should try to make President Bush understand that these illegal and unscrupulous actions are just as much a threat to the peace process as the militancy of Hamas.

Merkel takes power

IMAGINE that the Conservatives had defeated Labour by four parliamentary seats at the last election and the two parties had agreed to form a coalition in the country's best interest, but with the condition that Tony Blair should be replaced by Michael Howard as prime minister while Labour took the lion's share of key ministerial posts. An unlikely scenario, perhaps, but it is more or less what has happened in Germany: the Christian Democrats (CDU), with a majority of four in the Bundestag, will form the government with Frau Angela Merkel as Chancellor in place of Gerhard Shroder while his Social Democrats (SPD) will take eight cabinet posts to the CDU's five. Most governments in post-war Germany, whether CDU or SPD, have been formed with coalition partners from one of the smaller parties, although there was a “Grand Coaltion” of the CDU and SPD in the 1960s. This time, with the leading parties so closely matched numerically, a coalition with just one minor party would not have been practical so the deal announced yesterday was done. It will not be popular with everyone in the two parties, especially among those in Frau Merkel's CDU who had expected ministerial preferment but now see the best posts going to the SPD.

But Frau Merkel was probably right when she said that there was “no alternative to a reform course in Germany”. The coalition agreement has to be approved by each of the parties and by the Bundestag, a process which may take as long as one month during which there is certain to be a great deal of infighting. It is in Germany's and Europe's interests that the new government can get down to work as soon as possible. The first task will to get the stagnant economy moving and unemployment reduced from the 11 per cent where it has been stuck for some time. Meanwhile there is speculation about Herr Schroder's future ranging from spending more time with his family to taking over one of Russia's recently re-nationalised companies for his friend Vladimir Putin. For her part, however tough the task she faces, Frau Merkel knows that she has already made history as her country's first woman, and first East German, Chancellor.

Levi's narrow victory

TZIPI Levi's election as leader of Israel's Kadima Party to succeed Ehud Olmert as Israeli prime minister was achieved by a one per cent lead over her principal opponent Shaul Mofaz.

Although as foreign minister Levi has supported Olmert's peace negotiations with the Palestinians and accepts the principle of a two-state solution, the narrowness of her victory over Mofaz, a former general with hawkish views on Iran and the Palestinians, suggests that she will have considerable difficulty in forming a coalition within the three months at her disposal.

If she fails, a general election will be called at which a return of Likud under Benjamin Netanyahu will be quite likely - when it was suggested to him the other day that Likud might join forces with Kadima he commented, “It would be tantamount to joining the board of Lehmann Brothers”.

President Bush's Annapolis initiative on an Israeli-Palestinian peace setttlement was never a very robust thing and it has been dying slowly ever since he launched it last November. The intermittent negotiations since then have produced little or nothing on the solution of the significant issues that divide the two sides and even if Tzipi Levi forms a government quickly it is unlikely that she and Mohammad Abbas, the Palestinian president, will be able to produce even an outline agreement to serve as Bush's legacy when he leaves the White House in January.

Incidentally, will a Democrat or Republican prove the better at handling the Israeli-Palestinian problem? Just the role for Sarah Palin?

Seven Days

By Ray Fleming

The World Outside.

As a general rule this page confines itself to events and issues of local Balearic and Majorcan interest.

However, from time to time the wider world intrudes and cannot be ignored. This has recently happened with two major disputes -- between Britain and Spain over Gibraltar, again, and following familiar lines -- and also between the West and Syria over the latter’s chemical weapons attack on its own citizens.

As it happened a leading Conservative MP, Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, was on holiday on Majorca as his party called all its MP’s back to London for a hastily arranged House of Commons debate on Britain’s role on possble military action with the United States against the Syrian government.

Mr Clinton-Brown is currently chairman of the Conservative party’s International Office and therefore close to what is at stake.

In an interview with the Bulletin’s Humphrey Carter before he left for London the MP said that he would be voting against a military strike and expressed considerable reservations about the principle of international intervention in Syria and especially over Britain’s participation in it as proposed by prime minister David Cameron.

Mr Clifton-Brown’s concluding comment in the interview was, "It is going to be a tough call for the prime minister to make" -- a prediction that was to be borne out in the government’s dramatic defeat in the Commons vote.

An article by the senior Conservative MP Sir Roger Gale, a regular contributor to the Bulletin, appeared alongside the interview with Geoffrey Clifton-Brown.

After a detailed analysis of the issues Sir Roger expressed "grave concern" about a possible strike against the Assad regime and said that he "remained to be convinced that any intervention now will be other than too little, too late and ineffective."

(Although Seven Days does not normally include political comment it is probably a fair observation that in a single page on Thursday the Bulletin caught the spirit of several of his MPs’ opposition to his policy that would lead to Mr Cameron’s historic defeat in the Commons later in the day.)

The holiday letting maze

A Letter to the Editor by a Minorca resident thanked the Bulletinfor its continuing coverage of the legally complex issue of holiday letting of private properties.

After outlining the key issues and asking the newspaper to "carry on being our voice" the writer made this plea to the authorities -- Please Keep It Simple.

"If only" was probably the response of many who read that request.

In the following few days the Bulletin carried two reports on the latest government thinking on the subject, three commentaries by Bulletin columnists and a survey of legislation by a lawyer. By the end of the week Gerry Mulligan came to the rescue on his Local Comment page with a proposal for a "concise, unambiguous booklet, in the appropriate languages, explaining the way to stay legal as a new resident in the Balearics".

The problem, as he admitted, would be to find someone able to spend the years necessary to weed through the bureaucracy to discover the rules.

And to keep pace with their changes, he might have added.

Dog business

Another legal matter that is frequently in the news is dog dirt in the

streets. It is a complaint frequently mentioned in Letters to the Editor but in her Calvia column Angie Guerrero responded on behalf of the Calvia authorities to accusations that the law requring dog owners to clean up after they have done their business is not enforced.

She said it is enforced and fines imposed on a regular basis but in the end the problem can only be dealt with satisfactorily if dog owners play their part. The ordenza municipal says: "Dogs must be on the lead at all times in the public domain.

Dog owners must carry plastic bags, poop scoops or something to clean up their dogs mess."

Fines for failing to observe the law can run as high as 600 euros. Guerrero said that when she gets grumbles about the fines she tells the person concerned, "Pay the fine, learn the lesson and clean up after your dog in future."

Coastal law changes

Still on the legal track, the Bulletin carried an analysis by Alejandro Bellapart of recent changes to Spanish coastal law which, he said, represent "a positive step to permit the renovation of coastal properties hitherto condemned to simple maintenance repair, and undoubtedly will help to reactive the real estate market in privileged coastal properties". Sr Bellapart conceded, however, that the new law "diverges from the original spirit of the 1988 Coastal Law, which was that the Spanish coast should become free of buildings, an objective which unfortunately has not been achieved."


In Brief

Two groups of tourists were involved in a fight in Andraitx on market day when the bus service to Palma could not take them all. The police were called and decided that those with children should be given priority.

Playa de Palma was the site of a stand-off between police and about one hundred illegal street traders who encircled the police when they tried to arrest one of their number.

Eventually two police riot squads reached the scene and brought the incident to a close.

The Bulletin’s report identified the traders as Senagalese. The national tax authorities released figures for those earning more than 600,000 euros a year.

Of the 5,612 in that tax bracket 123 are based in the Balearics -- a lower figure than expected given the number of apparently very rich people with homes here.

Approximaely two thousand Balearic residents declared incomes of over 150,000 a year.

Back to 2003

By Ray Fleming

There’s a nasty stench in Westminster reminiscent of the run-up to the Iraq war. It will be recalled that in 2003 the UN weapons inspectors asked for more time to finish their search for Iraq’s alleged weapons of mass destruction but were rebuffed by the United States and Britain. The war went ahead but no weapons of mass destruction were ever found. In Syria today UN inspectors have just begun to try to establish the facts about the chemical weapons attack near Damascus last week; yesterday UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon asked the US and its supporters to delay any decision about military action until his inspectors have reported on their work, a matter of a few days. However, like Tony Blair, David Cameron seems determined to take action ahead of the facts. Yesterday morning he chaired a meeting  of the National Security Council and afterwards informed the nation by Twitter that it had “agreed unanimously the use of weapons of mass destruction by Assad was unacceptable -- and the world should stand by that.” Does he know something that the rest of the world does not yet know as a fact?
Why the hurry to recall parliament today for a short debate on Syria and the chemical weapons? Parliament resumes anyway on Monday and could have provided the two or three days needed for substantive and searching debate.
What’s the rush?

Who'S out first?

Thus far, Britain's Defence Secretary Liam Fox has seemed to be the minister most likely to be the first to resign from the Lib-Con coalition cabinet. He has been involved in a knock-down, drag-out fight with the Treasury about where funding for a renewed Trident nuclear weapon should come from. Until now the Ministry of Defence has paid only annual maintenance costs of Trident which was originally funded from a central reserve. Now George Osborne wants any new capital costs to be carried by MoD -- a burden which would seriously affect the budgets of all three services, already under pressure. Yesterday, however, an unlikely second candidate for early resignation appeared in the form of Iain Duncan Smith, the Work and Pensions minister who, according to one report, had been in a “blazing, smoking Grade A row” with Mr Osborne over his plans for spending more on welfare reforms in the short term in order to make bigger saving later on. Mr Smith, who once when leader of the Conservative party, described himself as the “quiet man” seems an unlikely candidate for a shouting match of this kind but as D (Deficit) Day in October grows nearer tempers are certain to be getting shorter. Yesterday in a speech in London Mr Osborne acknowledged that he was following a “ruthless path”. Indeed he seems intent on taking the title of Iron Chancellor from Germany's Otto von Bismarck who has held it since the 1870s.

EU law extended

THIS week's ruling by the European Court of Justice that the European Commission (Brussels) has the power to harmonise criminal laws across the whole of the EU naturally produced a rash of headlines of the “Europe can now jail British citizens” variety in Britain. It should be said at once that not even experienced international lawyers are agreed on the precise meaning of the judgement; some think it breaks new ground while others believe it is only a minor extension of the Commission's existing legal powers. The European Court of Justice's judgement related narrowly to the punishment of offenders against the EU's environmental directives but the Commission quickly issued a statement saying that it regarded the result as “an important precedent for Community law in general”.

The ruling addresses the problem that although legally binding directives are issued by the Commission in Brussels on behalf of the EU as a whole, not all member states feel obliged to act on them. Many policies determined by the Council of member states and issued as directives by Brussels are observed unevenly among the EU's 25 members. This is an unsatisfactory situation and leads to the often heard defence of non-compliance that another country isn't bothering about it either. It also breeds resentment; many Spanish hunters and bird-catchers whose activities have been curtailed feel that their Italian counterparts continue to do as they please. The Court's ruling is presumably intended to provide a remedy for this kind of discrepancy.

There is, however, considerable opposition to any extension of Brussels' powers into the field of criminal law. The Court hearing began before last year's enlargement of the EU and 11 of the then 15 members were opposed to any change, Britain, Spain, France and Germany among them. It was therefore an ironic coincidence that the EU's president, Jose Manuel Barosso, should have chosen yesterday to announce the scrapping of 60 draft laws intended to impose EU-wide standards in various areas, as part of his deregulation campaign. He said some 70 of 200 draft laws had been identified as generally unnecessary and that where necessary, it would be best left for individual countries to take action.

WHICH WAY?

IT is difficult to understand what the “Third Way” gathering of prominent centre-left politicians, recently concluded in London, really achieved. Described as a “progressive governance conference” it attracted an impressive attendance, starting with former US President Bill Clinton and including President Mbeki of South Africa and Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, the recently elected President of Brazil. But the very different interests of Europe's rich nations and those of the impoverished Third World often seem to stand in the way of a common Third Way approach in practice, however much agreement their may be about it in theory. When he addressed the conference Mr Blair used it to re-affirm his commitment to the reform and improvement of public services; in parts his speech sounded like a first draft of Labour's manifesto for the next election. Of much greater interest was the debut in an international forum of Brazil's President, a former trade unionist, who has the task of enabling his country, potentially the richest in Latin America, to realise its full potential. While acknowledging the reforms for which he must be responsible, he did hesitate to point to inequalities which make his job so difficult: “To give each citizen on Earth the quality of life in Sweden or England or Germany you would have to make the Earth three times bigger than today”, he told the delegates. At the close of the conference Peter Mandelson, who had chaired it throughout, said that there was no need for a Fourth Way - the Third Way had been and still was “a winning brand”.

Some progress made

Some of the road blocks erected by the United States on the “road–map” for progress towards a setttlement between Israel and the Palestinians were shifted slightly in Washington. President Bushreceived UN Secretary General Kofi Annan and representatives of the EU and Russia – the three entities which, with the United States, make up the so–called Quartet which has been working on the aforementioned road–map since mid–September. The attention given by the President to this meeting was mildly encouraging since previously Washington had signalled that it did not want to finalise these proposals before Israel's general election late in January lest they became a target for criticism during the election campaign. That remains the Bush administration's position but the President re–affirmed the target of establishing within three years a Palestinian state, living in peace and security beside Israel, which he first proposed in June of this year. Unfortunately, however, there are countless other road blocks in the way of real progress. Some of the language used by Bush in his earlier speech has been blurred. For instance, instead of an unambiguous reference to a Palestinian state the preferred wording is now “a state with certain attributes of sovereignty” (whatever that might mean) which could be formed only when the Palestinians have a leader “uncompromised by terror”. Perhaps a comparable phrase should be drafted to make clear what in his past record might disqualify an Israeli politican from standing for election as leader of his state. Overall, this peace plan consists of three phases of reciprocal steps by Palestinians and Israelis. For the Palestinians, the initial requirements are for an end to terrorist attacks and reforms in their government. For its part Israel would be expected to pull troops out of Palestinian areas, ease the conditions of Palestinians living in those areas, and end “settlement activity” on what the plan calls, perhaps significantly, “occupied territory”. The phrase “settlement activity” is disappointing because it implies new activity whereas an essential requirement of any peace plan is a withdrawal by Israel from all, or a substantial number, of its illegal settlements established for some time on occupied land. Despite these and some other unsatisfactory compromises in the document, it is encouraging that the United States is working constructively on a peace plan that does not expect the Palestinians to make all the concessions and the Israelis none, as others have done in the past. The fact that this is a more even–handed approach almost certainly owes a great deal to the involvement of the European Union, Russia and the UN in its preparation. However, because of Washington's insistence on waiting for the Israeli election before launching the road–plan, valuable time is being lost and, indeed, this promising initiative could be lost altogether, with serious consequences, if action against Iraq is allowed to take precedence over it.

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