News & Current Affairs

November 11, 2010

Location, location and how the West was won

Filed under: Politics News, Reviews — Tags: , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 8:38 pm
Union flag hoisted in Beijing

On his current visit to Beijing, UK Prime Minister David Cameron has said China will soon reclaim its position as the world’s biggest economy – a role it has held for 18 of the past 20 centuries. But how did the US, Britain and the rest of Europe interrupt this reign of supremacy? It comes down to location.

Why does the West dominate the world?

Europeans have been asking this question since the 18th Century, and Africans and Asians since the 19th. But there is still not much agreement on the answers.

People once claimed Westerners were simply biologically superior. Others have argued Western religion, culture, ethics, or institutions are uniquely excellent, or that the West has had better leaders. Others still reject all these ideas, insisting that Western domination is just an accident.

But in the last few years, a new kind of theory has gained ground.

What is the West?

image of Ian Morris Ian Morris Professor, Stanford University


Distinctive ways of life began emerging in different parts of the world 11,000 years ago, when the first farmers created more complex societies. Great civilizations grew out of the original agricultural cores (in what we now call southwest Asia, China, Pakistan, Mexico, and Peru), all of which steadily expanded as population grew.

The westernmost of the Old World’s agricultural cores, in southwest Asia, was the foundation of what we now call Western Civilization. By 500 BC, the Western core had expanded across Europe, its centre of gravity shifting to the Mediterranean cultures of Greece and Rome. By 1500 AD it had expanded still further, and its centre was shifting into Western Europe. By 1900 AD it had expanded across the oceans, and its centre was shifting to North America.

People, it suggests, are much the same all over the world. The reason why some groups stuck with hunting and gathering while others built empires and had industrial revolutions has nothing to do with genetics, beliefs, attitudes, or great men: it was simply a matter of geography.

China and India are, of course poised to pick up the baton of global superpowers, but to explain why the West rules, we have to plunge back 15,000 years to the point when the world warmed up at the end of the last ice age.

Geography then dictated that there were only a few regions on the planet where farming was possible, because only they had the kinds of climate and landscape which allowed the evolution of wild plants and animals that could potentially be domesticated.

The densest concentrations of these plants and animals lay towards the western end of Eurasia, around the headwaters of the Euphrates, Tigris, and Jordan Rivers in what we now call south-west Asia. It was therefore here, around 9000 BC, that farming began, spreading outwards across Europe.

Farming also started independently in other areas, from China to Mexico; but because plants and animals that could be domesticated were somewhat less common in these zones than in the West, the process took thousands of years longer to get going. These other zones of complex agricultural societies also expanded, but the West long retained its early lead, producing the world’s first cities, states, and empires.

But if this were all that there was to the story – that the West got an early lead and held onto it – there would be no controversy over why the West rules. In reality, when we look back across history, we see that things were more complicated. Geography determined how societies developed; but how societies developed simultaneously determined what geography meant.


The first city – 6,000 years ago in Iraq

image of Richard Miles Richard Miles Archaeologist and historian


The ancient Greeks called it Mesopotamia, the land between two rivers – Tigris and Euphrates. But it is also the land between two seas – the Mediterranean Sea and Persia Gulf. It is also the land between mountain and desert, lagoon and salt marsh. All these geographical features have to be borne in mind when considering the birthplace of the first civilisations.

Geography v history – it’s impossible to know which takes precedence. There’s no getting away from the brutal facts of nature – rivers that flood will dry up, rainfall that’s intermittent, mountains that are impassable, deserts that are hostile.

Applying this kind of analysis to Mesopotamia, where summers are hot, winters are cold and rainfall is low, I’d sum it up like this: difficult but not impossible. No garden of Eden, but no howling wilderness either.

In the earliest days of agriculture, having the right temperatures, rainfall, and topography was all-important. But as villages grew into cities, these geographical facts became less important than living on a great river like the Nile, which made irrigation possible.

As states turned into empires, being on a river began mattering less than access to a navigable sea like the Mediterranean, which was what allowed Rome to move its food, armies, and taxes around.

As the ancient world’s empires expanded further, though, they changed the meanings of geography again. The long bands of steppes from Mongolia to Hungary turned into a kind of highway along which nomads moved at will, undermining the empires themselves.

In the first five centuries AD, the Old World’s great empires – from Rome in the West to Han China in the East – all came apart; but the political changes transformed geography once again. China recreated a unified empire in the 6th Century AD, while the West never did so.

For more than a millennium, until at least 1700, China was the richest, strongest, and most inventive place on earth, and the East pulled ahead of the West.

East Asian inventors came up with one breakthrough after another. By 1300 their ships could cross the oceans and their crude guns could shoot the people on the other side. But then, in the kind of paradox that fills human history, the East’s breakthroughs changed the meaning of geography once again.

Dr Richard MilesPlease turn on JavaScript. Media requires JavaScript to play.

Richard Miles at Tell Brak – a city first excavated by Agatha Christie’s husband Max Mallowan

Western Europe – sticking out into the cold North Atlantic, far from the centres of action – had always been a backwater. But when Europeans learned of the East’s ocean-going ships and guns, their location on the Atlantic abruptly became a huge geographical plus.

Before people could cross the oceans, it had not mattered that Europe was twice as close as China to the vast, rich lands of the Americas. But now that people could cross the oceans, this became the most important geographical fact in the world.

The Atlantic, 3,000 miles across, became a kind of Goldilocks Ocean, neither too big nor too small. It was just big enough that very different kinds of goods were produced around its shores in Europe, Africa, and America; and just small enough that the ships of Shakespeare’s age could cross it quite easily.

The Pacific, by contrast, was much too big. Following the prevailing tides and winds, it was an 8,000-mile trip from China to California – just about possible 500 years ago, but too far to make trade profitable.

Geography determined that it was western Europeans, rather than the 15th Century’s finest sailors – the Chinese – who discovered, plundered, and colonised the Americas. Chinese sailors were just as daring as Spaniards; Chinese settlers just as intrepid as Britons; but Europeans, not Chinese, seized the Americas because Europeans only had to go half as far.

Europeans went on in the 17th Century to create a new market economy around the shores of the Atlantic, exploiting comparative advantages between continents. This forced European thinkers to confront new questions about how the winds and tides worked. They learned to measure and count in better ways, and cracked the codes of physics, chemistry, and biology.

As a result, Europe, not China, had a scientific revolution. Europeans, not Chinese, turned science’s insights onto society itself in the 18th Century in what we now call the Enlightenment.


Will China soon rival the US?

George Bush

Many observers think so, but not George W Bush. In an interview with the Times this week, he said that “internal problems” meant it was unlikely to rival the US any time soon. “Do I think America will remain sole superpower? I do.”

By 1800, science and the Atlantic market economy pushed western Europeans into mechanising production and tapping the power of fossil fuels. Britain had the world’s first industrial revolution, and by 1850 bestrode the world like a colossus.

But the transforming power of geography did not stop there. By 1900 the British-dominated global economy had drawn in the resources of North America, changing the meaning of geography once again. The US, until recently a rather backward periphery, became the new global core.

And still the process did not stop. In the 20th Century, the American-dominated global economy in turn drew in the resources of Asia. As container ships and jet airliners turned even the vast Pacific Ocean into a puddle, the apparently backward peripheries of Japan, then the “Asian Tigers”, and eventually China and India turned into even newer global cores.

The “rise of the East”, so shocking to so many Westerners, was entirely predictable to those who understood that geography determines how societies develop, and that how societies develop simultaneously determines what geography means.

When power and wealth shifted across the Atlantic from Europe to America in the mid-20th Century, the process was horrifyingly violent. As we move into the mid-21st century, power and wealth will shift across the Pacific from America to China.

The great challenge for the next generation is not how to stop geography from working; it is how to manage its effects without a Third World War.

Why the West Rules – For Now: The Patterns of History, and What they Reveal About the Future is published by Profile.

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July 20, 2009

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Enduring allure of Egyptian belly dance

Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dance festival

The Ahlan Wa Sahlan festival has been a big hit this year

Hundreds of women of all nationalities sway their hips and twirl in time to the beat of a drum in a hotel ballroom by the pyramids in Cairo.

Belly dancing is said to have been practised in Egypt since Pharaonic times and now it has caught on around the globe.

It is well-established in Europe and the US and has recently spread to Asia. This year dozens of dancers travelled from China for the Ahlan Wa Sahlan belly dancing festival.

“Because this is the land of dance, women have to come!” declares Raqia Hassan, the festival organiser.

“When she comes she can meet famous dancers and musicians. She can see the pyramids. Anyone who comes to Egypt one time, she cannot stop coming back.”

Japanese belly dance fan

Safa Bakr’s shop attracts women from all over the world

Raqia, who has taught many belly dancing celebrities, leads her large class through the basic moves of the dance putting together a routine.

“It’s fun and you can do this at any age,” says Ewa Horsfield from London. “You can express your own personality. It’s an individual dance. You just listen and respond to the music.”

Many speak of the fitness benefits of belly dancing.

“In China all ladies like for their health,” says Angel from Shanghai.

“This kind of dance began here. Here teachers [are] very, very good so all Chinese ladies want to come.”

Contradictions

Belly dancing is big business in Egypt thanks to the global market.

Designer, Safaa Yasser Bakr, runs a belly dancing costume shop in the historic Khan el-Khalili bazaar.

She helps a Brazilian woman try on a sky-blue sequinned bra and a matching skirt with a split up one side.

“In one show big stars change costume many times,” she tells her. “You need maybe five different pieces.”

Nowadays Safaa sells most of her alluring outfits to foreigners.

Safa Yasser Bakr

Safa sells her wares in Khan el-Khalili – Cairo’s Islamic heart

“I see people coming from France, Italy, United States, Argentina, Spain, Japan,” she says.

But in Egypt at large, many experts fear the dance is losing its appeal.

Society has become more religious and conservative over the past generation and belly dancing is not considered a respectable profession.

“I don’t like belly dancing. I don’t like to see a woman half-naked dancing and moving her body like that,” says one man on the street in central Cairo.

“It has a kind of sexual movement. That’s why I don’t like to watch it,” adds his friend.

An older passer-by remembers the famous dancers of the 1960s with affection but says he would not let his wife or daughters dance in public today.

“I liked the old belly dancer because you could not see a lot of her body,” he remarks. “They were very respectable – not like the new ones now.”

Enduring art

Dance historian, Mo Geddawi, accepts belly dancing is facing a challenging time in Egypt but says this must be seen in perspective.

“Forget about different governments and religion,” he says. “When Christianity and then Islam came the dance was taboo, but people continued to dance.”

“Sometimes in public it is less but the dance never died.”

For now though international devotees help to ensure the dance goes on.

Diana Esposito from New York came to Cairo on a scholarship to study the social and economic reasons for its decline but has become an accomplished belly dancer herself.

“The first time I saw it I thought the movements were so sensual,” she says. “I decided to try something new and it became an addiction.”

“I don’t see the dance being done properly anywhere else in the world. That’s why everyone flocks here – this is the capital of belly dance.”

July 15, 2009

Price of habit chokes US smoker

Filed under: Business News, Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 6:06 pm

Price of habit chokes US smoker

Josh Muszynski

Josh Muszynski: ‘I thought someone had bought Europe’

A man in the United States popped out to his local petrol station to buy a pack of cigarettes – only to find his card charged $23,148,855,308,184,500.

That is $23 quadrillion (£14 quadrillion) – many times the US national debt.

“I thought somebody had bought Europe with my credit card,” said Josh Muszynski, from New Hampshire.

He says his appeals to his bank first met with little understanding, though it eventually corrected the error.

It also waived the usual $15 overdraft fee.

“It was all back to normal,” Mr Muszynski told his local television station, WMUR. “They reversed the negative balance fee, which was nice.”

Debt crisis

His nightmare began when he checked his online bank account a few hours after buying the cigarettes.

He thought he would be a couple of hundred dollars in the black. But his overdraft had pushed him into the red – by an amount equivalent to many times the entire US national debt.

“It is a lot of money in the negative,” he said. “Something I could never, ever, afford to pay back.

A copy of Josh Muszynski's bill

The 17-digit amount on his online bill shocked Mr Muszynski

“My children could not afford it, grandchildren, nothing like that.”

In panic, Mr Muszynski rushed back to the petrol station, but they were unable to help. He says he then spent two hours on the phone with the Bank of America.

Eventually, it assured him it would be fixed – and the next morning, it had been.

But no-one has yet explained to Mr Muszynski how such a astonishing error could have been made.

July 10, 2009

Leaner GM emerges from bankruptcy

Filed under: Business News, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 7:01 pm

Leaner GM emerges from bankruptcy

General Motors (GM) says it has emerged from bankruptcy protection after creating a “new GM” made up of the carmaker’s best assets.

GM chief executive Fritz Henderson said it was the beginning of a “new era”.

The leaner GM will own four key brands including Cadillac and will be 61% owned by the US government.

Mr Henderson said negotiations were continuing “around the clock” to conclude a deal to sell GM Europe, which includes Opel and Vauxhall.

Mr Henderson said that GM would take the “intensity, decisiveness and speed” of the bankruptcy process and apply it to the new company.

“We will be profitable, we will repay our loans as soon as possible and our cars and trucks will be among the best in the world,” he said.

A smaller GM is being created with a reduced workforce, smaller dealer network and less debt.

‘Cautiously optimistic’

Industry analysts interpreted the short timeframe of the bankruptcy as a good sign.

GM BRANDS
1958 Cadillac Eldorado
BRANDS STAYING
Chevrolet
GMC
Cadillac
Buick
BRANDS GOING
Pontiac*
Saturn#
Saab#
Hummer#
Opel#
Vauxhall#
*= to be discontinued/# = to be sold

“It is the smaller, leaner, tougher, better cost-focused GM,” said George Magliano, an automotive analyst with consulting firm IHS Global Insight.

“But they still have to deal with the problems that they faced longer-term.”

Analysts argue that GM will need to change what it offers consumers and produce more cutting-edge vehicles.

“I’m still cautiously optimistic – they still need to put a product out there that everyone is excited about purchasing,” said Pete Hastings, analyst at Morgan Keegan.

“The challenge in the future is how to approach a marketplace that has been burned by GM,” he added.

The firm lost its title as the world’s largest vehicle-maker in January.

Toyota sold 8.97 million vehicles in 2008, while GM’s global sales had dropped to 8.35 million vehicles.

The new GM will operate with 27,000 fewer US employees and operate 13 fewer US car plants compared with last year.

It will operate the strongest parts of the old company, with only its Chevrolet, Cadillac, Buick and GMC brands remaining. Others such as Hummer and Saab are being sold off.

The company’s logo will remain the same; blue with white GM letters underlined.

Loan repayment

RECENT ROAD TO GM BANKRUPTCY
Feb 2008: GM posts $38.7bn loss for 2007 and plans to cut 74,000 union jobs
Sept 2008: GM has 100th anniversary
Dec 2008: US state offers $13.3bn in loans to GM and Chrysler; Canada offers $3.3bn
Feb 2009:GM posts $31bn loss for 2008
March 2009: The White House requests a new viability plan from GM and calls for boss Rick Wagoner to resign
May 2009: Reaches deals with US and Canadian unions. GM bondholders approve restructuring
June 2009: GM files for bankruptcy
July 2009: GM emerges from bankruptcy

GM said it planned to repay its government loans before the current 2015 deadline.

The firm is getting $60bn (£37.3bn) in financing from the US Treasury, which gives the US government a 61% share in the new GM, while the United Auto Workers union will have 17.5%.

Canada’s government will have a 12% share and GM bondholders will own about 10% in the new company.

GM said it hoped to float the company on the stock exchange again “as soon as practical”.

The US government has said it does not want to be involved in the day-to-day running of the carmaker.

The company also said it was exploring a partnership with online auction site eBay to make it easier for customers to buy its cars.

Rocky road ahead

GM filed for bankruptcy protection on 1 June, saying it would be forced to liquidate if the plan was not approved.

The plan was strongly supported by President Barack Obama and GM’s 40-day bankruptcy ended two days earlier than that of its cross-town rival Chrysler.

However, it is unlikely to be smooth sailing for the two carmakers.

US car sales have been hit hard as the financial crisis has made it harder to get credit and made consumers reluctant to make big purchases.

During the past six months, car sales in the US have fallen by more than 30%, while in Japan they have declined 20%.

July 6, 2009

US and Russia agree nuclear cuts

Filed under: Latest, Politics News — Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , — expressyoureself @ 5:16 pm

US and Russia agree nuclear cuts

US President Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev have reached an outline agreement to cut back their nations’ stockpiles of nuclear weapons.

The “joint understanding” signed in Moscow would see reductions of deployed nuclear warheads to below 1,700 each within seven years of a new treaty.

The accord would replace the 1991 Start I treaty, which expires in December.

Mr Obama said the two countries were both “committed to leaving behind the suspicion and the rivalry of the past”.

Separately, Russia also agreed to allow the US military to fly troops and weapons across its territory to Afghanistan, allowing it to avoid using supply routes through Pakistan that are attacked by militants.

On a range of issues, differences remain between us
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev

The two countries also will set up a joint commission to co-operate over energy, and fighting terrorism and drug-trafficking. Military co-operation, suspended since last year’s conflict between Russia and Georgia, will be resumed.

However, on the contentious issue of US plans to base parts of a missile defence shield in Eastern Europe, the presidents merely said they had agreed to a joint study into ballistic missile threats and the creation of a data exchange centre.

‘Frank’ discussions

After three hours of talks at the Kremlin on Monday, Mr Obama and Mr Medvedev publicly signed a joint understanding to negotiate a new arms control treaty that would set lower levels of both nuclear warheads and delivery systems, including intercontinental ballistic missiles, submarine-launched missiles and bombers.

US-RUSSIA NUCLEAR DEAL
Each country to cut deployed nuclear warheads to 1,500-1,675 (currently 1,700-2,200)
Delivery systems to be within 500-1,000 range (currently 1,600)
Reductions so be achieved within seven years of new treaty
Treaty to be signed before Start I expires in December and include “effective” verification measures

“Within seven years after this treaty comes into force, and in future, the limits for strategic delivery systems should be within the range of 500-1,100 units and for warheads linked to them within the range of 1,500-1,675 units,” the document said.

Under the 2002 Treaty of Moscow, each country is allowed between 1,700 and 2,200 deployed nuclear warheads and 1,600 delivery systems – meaning each side might only be required to decommission a further 25 warheads.

Correspondents also point out that the proposed cuts would still leave the US and Russia able to destroy each other many times over.

A White House statement said the new treaty would “include effective verification measures” and “enhance the security of both the US and Russia, as well as provide predictability and stability in strategic offensive forces”.

Afterwards, Mr Medvedev said the talks had been “very frank and very sincere”, but that they had been, “without any doubt, the meeting we had been waiting for in Russia and the United States”.

“I would like particularly to stress that our country would like to reach a level of co-operation with the United States that would really be worthy of the 21st Century, and which would ensure international peace and security,” he said.

Russians spell out their hopes for Obama visit

But the Russian leader cautioned that there remained “differences on many issues”, most notably on the proposed US missile defence shield.

Mr Obama said he and Mr Medvedev were countering a “sense of drift” and were now resolved “to reset US-Russian relations so that we can co-operate more effectively in areas of common interest”.

“We must lead by example, and that’s what we are doing here today,” he said.

The US president said he was confident a legally binding disarmament treaty would be signed by the end of the year, when Start I expires.

On Tuesday, Mr Obama will meet Prime Minister Vladimir Putin.

He said last week that he thought the former Russian president had “one foot in the old ways of doing business and one foot in the new”.

“I think that it’s important that even as we move forward with President Medvedev, that Putin understands that the old Cold War approaches to US-Russian relations is outdated, that it’s time to move forward in a different direction,” he told the Associated Press.

Mr Putin responded: “We stand solidly on our own two feet and always look into the future.”

Graph showing US and Russian nuclear weapon stockpiles

January 15, 2009

Go-ahead for new Heathrow runway

Go-ahead for new Heathrow runway

The government has given the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow, saying it is the “right” move for the country.

The decision, confirmed by Transport Secretary Geoff Hoon, comes despite opposition from environmentalists, local residents and many MPs.

Mr Hoon outlined measures to limit noise and emissions but told MPs doing nothing would “damage our economy”.

The debate was halted and local MP John McDonnell thrown out after he grabbed the mace and shouted “disgrace”.

Alongside the commitment to a new runway, Mr Hoon also announced increased investment in public transport, including the possibility of new high-speed rail links from the airport.

WHAT HAPPENS NEXT?
MPs told of decision
Planning process begins – this will take years
Legal challenge likely in days
If Tories win next election they would scrap plan
If all goes according to government plan, construction would start in 2015
Third runway due to finish 2019

In an effort to appease critics he said airlines using the new runway would be required to use the newest, least-polluting aircraft.

He told MPs the government was satisfied environmental targets could be met, as it would put an initial cap on additional flights from the new runway of 125,000, would ensure new slots were “green slots” used by only the “cleanest planes” and would set a new target on aircraft emissions – that they would be lower in 2050 than in 2005.

“Taken together this gives us the toughest climate change regime for aviation of any country in the world,” he told MPs.

He also announced he would set up a company to look into creating a high speed rail line between London and Scotland – adding there was a “strong case” for a new high speed rail hub at Heathrow.

Heathrow ‘hub’

And he said hard shoulders could be used to ease traffic on the the most congested parts of the M1, M25, M6, M62, M3 and M4, as well as motorways around Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol.

But he ruled out ending “mixed mode” use of runways – where planes land on one runway until 3pm then the other for the rest of the day to give residents a break from noise.

However, he said the Cranford agreement, which limits planes taking off to the east of the airport, would end, which he said would benefit Windsor and other towns to the west of the airport and Hatton and North Feltham to the east.

“Heathrow is the only hub airport, it’s our most important international gateway, it connects us with the growth markets of the future – essential for every great trading nation,” he told MPs.

Doing nothing would only give an advantage to its competitors, he said, adding: “The government is taking the right decisions for the long term.”

The debate was halted when John McDonnell, whose constituency borders Sipson – where hundreds of homes will be bulldozed to make way for a third runway and sixth terminal – shouted “disgrace” as the transport secretary said MPs would not get a vote on the decision.

Labour unease

After marching from the backbenches to the despatch box he picked up the mace and placed it on an MPs’ bench – he refused requests to end his protest and was ordered out of the Commons and suspended for a week.

The government has long argued, in principle, that it is in favour of the scheme, subject to pollution limits and access concerns.

But there has been deep unease within Labour ranks about the decision, with several cabinet members reported to be unconvinced and more than 50 MPs openly opposed.

At a press conference in Berlin ahead of the Commons statement, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said he wanted to “protect the economic future of the country while, at the same time, meeting the very tough environmental conditions we have set ourselves”.

Shadow transport secretary Theresa Villiers told BBC Radio 4’s Today any government environmental promises would be shown “to not be worth the paper they are written on” and said her party would cancel the project if they win the next general election.

In the Commons she said: “This is a bleak day for our environment and for all those of us who care about safeguarding it.”

The Liberal Democrats also oppose the third runway and have urged ministers to invest in high-speed rail links instead.

Their spokeswoman, Susan Kramer, told the BBC the arguments in favour of expansion were “glib” and south west London would become a “pretty miserable” place to live.

“There’s this conventional wisdom amongst business that you must grow the airport … it just isn’t held up by the reality. Actually Heathrow has been serving fewer destinations over the last ten years.”

The statement to MPs – it is not subject to a vote in the Commons – marks the start of the planning process which would be a lengthy one, even without the opposition and legal challenges expected.

Work on a new runway is unlikely to start until 2015 and it is not expected to be operational for at least a decade.

About 700 homes will have to be demolished to make way for the runway, which will increase the number of flights using Heathrow from about 480,000 a year now to 702,000 by 2030.

‘At risk’

Campaigners have bought some land earmarked for the construction of the runway in an effort to frustrate the expansion plans.

Environmental campaigners say proceeding with the new runway will leave the government’s legal commitment to cut carbon emissions by 80% by 2050 in tatters.

Energy Secretary Ed Miliband told the the plans represented “constrained expansion” with strict rules on air quality and noise.

But Greenpeace director John Sauven said: “If Gordon Brown thinks this is a green runway then he must be colour-blind. This package is designed to patch up a cabinet split and will do very little to reduce the huge environmental impact of an expanded Heathrow, which will now become the single biggest emitter of carbon-dioxide in the country.”

Supporters of the runway say Heathrow is already operating at full capacity and the UK economy will lose business to the rest of Europe if it does not go ahead.

They point out that rival airports such as Paris, Frankfurt and Amsterdam already have at least four runways and that Heathrow is at risk of falling further behind.

Former Labour MP Lord Soley, campaign director of Future Heathrow, which represents groups in favour of expanding the airport said Heathrow brought jobs and “prosperity” to west London and the Thames Valley that was “at risk”.

The boss of British Airways, Willie Walsh, said he was “very pleased” by the decision and welcomed the fact the scheme would be subject to “very strict environmental conditions”.

Virgin Atlantic’s Paul Charles told BBC Radio 5 Live that if there was no third runway “jobs won’t be created and people will go to Europe instead”.

Richard Lambert, director-general of the Confederation of British Industry, said: “This approach to expanding Heathrow’s capacity makes real sense. It will create the integrated transport system necessary for an economy that needs to grow in an environmentally sustainable fashion.”


January 7, 2009

UN chief demands Gaza ceasefire

UN chief demands Gaza ceasefire

UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon has called for an immediate end to fighting in the Gaza Strip during a meeting of the UN Security Council in New York.

The US and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas have backed a French-Egyptian ceasefire proposal.

Israel says it has agreed to set up a humanitarian corridor to allow aid into the Gaza Strip.

On the ground in Gaza, explosions were heard through the night. Israel says it carried out more than 30 air strikes.

Mr Ban criticised both Israel for its bombardment of Gaza and Hamas for firing rockets into Israel and urged Security Council members in New York to act “swiftly and decisively to put this crisis to an end”.

Map

“We need urgently to achieve Palestinian unity and the reunification of Gaza with the West Bank within the framework of the legitimate Palestinian Authority,” he added.

More than 600 Palestinians are now believed to have been killed since Israel began its offensive 11 days ago. Palestinian health ministry officials say at least 195 children are among those killed.

An Israeli attack on Tuesday on a school building, which Israel says was sheltering militants, left at least 30 people dead and 55 injured, UN officials say.

Israel, which has vowed to reduce rocket attacks from Gaza on its territory, has lost seven soldiers on the ground. Four people within Israel have been killed by rockets.

In another development, Venezuela ordered the expulsion of Israel’s ambassador in protest at the Gaza offensive and its “flagrant violations of international law”.

Support for truce

The ceasefire plan proposed jointly by Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and French President Nicolas Sarkozy would bring together all the main parties and take all measures to end the conflict in Gaza.

The plan envisages the resumption of the delivery of aid to Gaza and talks with Israel on border security, a key issue for Israel as it says Hamas smuggles its rockets into Gaza via the Egyptian border.

Welcoming the proposal, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice called for a “ceasefire that can endure and that can bring real security”.

The contours of a possible diplomatic agreement are in place, the BBC’s Laura Trevelyan reports from the UN.

GAZA CRISIS BACKGROUND
Smoke rises over Gaza (06/01/2009)

However, if Israel continues to control the flow of humanitarian aid into Gaza and can choose to stop it at any time this seems unlikely to command the support of Hamas, she notes.

Thus frenetic diplomacy in New York and in the Middle East is likely to continue.

Israel’s ambassador to the UN, Gabriela Shalev, did not say whether Israel would accept the proposal but said it would take it “very, very seriously”.

Israel has proposed suspending attacks in specified parts of Gaza to allow people to stock up on essential goods.

The military will open up “areas for limited periods of time, during which the population will be able to receive the aid”, the office of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has said.

Andrew Whitley of the UN relief agency told the BBC that any relief in the conditions of the people of Gaza could only be a good thing:

“People have been weakened by 18 months of blockade and siege. They’ve been getting very little food, electricity or heat for a long time, and so they are in a very weakened condition.”

School carnage

UN officials have said that the al-Fakhura school in the Jabaliya refugee camp was being used as a refuge for hundreds of people when it was hit by Israeli shell-fire.

The Israeli military said its soldiers had come under mortar fire from Hamas militants inside the school. A spokesman for Hamas denied there had been any hostile fire coming from the school.

In all, at least 70 Palestinians and five Israeli soldiers were killed on Tuesday.

Israel says its offensive is stopping militants firing rockets but at least five hit southern Israel on Tuesday, injuring a baby.

Casualty claims in Gaza cannot be independently verified. Israel is refusing to let international journalists into Gaza, despite a supreme court ruling to allow a limited number of reporters to enter the territory.


Are you or your friends or family in the region affected by the violence? Tell us your experiences

January 6, 2009

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

Europe’s reliance on Russian gas

A gas storage and transit point on the main gas pipeline from Russia in the village of Boyarka near the capital Kiev, Ukraine

Turned-off taps have caused gas shortages in Europe

The latest developments in the dispute over the price Ukraine pays Russia for its gas has yet again affected deliveries to other countries.

Several countries in Europe have reported a sharp decline or even complete cessation of gas supplies from Russia via pipelines through Ukraine.

This has reinforced unease in Europe about the important role that Russia has a supplier of gas.

A quarter of the gas used in the European Union (EU) comes from Russia.

And that share will rise.

Increasingly dominant

Europe’s need for gas is likely to increase.

Europe’s gas pipeline network

Economic growth, when it resumes after the current recession, will mean more demand for electricity.

Gas accounts for about a fifth of the EU’s electricity and the share is likely to grow, partly because gas produces less by way of greenhouse gas emissions than coal or oil.

The EU does have other suppliers, including Norway and Algeria by pipeline, and Qatar and Algeria, again, by ship.

But Russia, with the world’s largest gas reserves and an extensive network of pipelines to Europe, is likely to be increasingly dominant.

Soviet legacy

The EU, unless it drastically changes its energy strategy, will need Russia.

EU GAS IMPORTS FROM RUSSIA
100% dependent on Russia: Latvia, Slovakia, Finland, Estonia
More than 80% dependent: Bulgaria, Lithuania, Czech Republic
More than 60% dependent: Greece, Austria, Hungary
Source: European Council on Foreign Relations, 2006 figures

But Russia in turn needs Europe to buy its gas, and also its oil.

So it is not in Russia’s interest for Europe to become more wary of using gas as an energy source.

So far the disturbances to EU supplies have been a side effect of the recurrent dispute between Russia and Ukraine, with both sides blaming the other for the reduced supplies to the west.

The quarrels are a legacy of the end of the Soviet Union.

Ukraine has been receiving relatively cheap gas.

Russia’s Gazprom wants to charge more, and the negotiations are complicated further by questions about what fees Ukraine should receive for gas crossing its territory.

Some European countries are protected with substantial stocks to cover any supply disruptions for many weeks, although some, such as Bulgaria have very little cover.

The disruptions also reinforce the attractions of developing new pipelines that avoid potential problem areas.


Have you been affected? Are you worried by the crisis?

Send your comments

December 27, 2008

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Massive Israeli air raids on Gaza

Israeli F-16 bombers have pounded key targets across the Gaza Strip, killing more than 200 people, local medics say.

Most of those killed were policemen in the Hamas militant movement, which controls Gaza, but women and children also died, the Gaza officials said.

About 700 others were wounded, as missiles struck security compounds and militant bases, the officials said.

Israel said it was responding to an escalation in rocket attacks from Gaza and would bomb “as long as necessary”.

They were the heaviest Israeli attacks on Gaza for decades. More air raids were launched as night fell.

Map

The operation came days after a truce with Hamas expired.

Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak said “it won’t be easy and it won’t be short”.

“There is a time for calm and a time for fighting, and now the time has come to fight,” he said.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon called for an immediate halt to the violence, condemning what he called Israel’s “excessive use of force leading to the killing and injuring of civilians” and “the ongoing rocket attacks by Palestinian militants”.

Middle East envoy Tony Blair and the French EU presidency also urged an immediate ceasefire.

Palestinian militants frequently fire rockets against Israeli towns from inside the Gaza Strip; large numbers of rocket and mortar shells have been fired at Israel in recent days.

In a statement, Israel’s military said it targeted “Hamas terror operatives” as well as training camps and weapons storage warehouses.

Hamas bases destroyed

A Hamas police spokesman, Islam Shahwan, said one of the raids targeted a police compound in Gaza City where a graduation ceremony for new personnel was taking place.

At least a dozen bodies of men in black uniforms were photographed at the Hamas police headquarters in Gaza City.

Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood
Fawzi Barhoum
Hamas spokesman

Israel said operations “will continue, will be expanded, and will deepen if necessary”.

It is the worst attack in Gaza since 1967 in terms of the number of Palestinian casualties, a senior analyst told the BBC in Jerusalem.

Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni defended the air raids, saying Israel had “no choice”. “We’re doing what we need to do to defend our citizens,” she said in a television broadcast.

Israel hit targets across Gaza, striking in the territory’s main population centres, including Gaza City in the north and the southern towns of Khan Younis and Rafah.

Hamas said all of its security compounds in Gaza were destroyed by the air strikes, which Israel said hit some 40 targets.

Mosques issued urgent appeals for people to donate blood and Hamas sources told the BBC’s Rushdi Abou Alouf in Gaza that hospitals were soon full.

In the West Bank, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – whose Fatah faction was ousted from Gaza by Hamas in 2007 – condemned the attacks and called for restraint.

But Hamas quickly vowed to carry out revenge attacks on Israel in response to the air strikes, firing Qassam rockets into Israeli territory as an immediate reply.

One Israeli was killed by a rocket strike on the town of Netivot, 20 kilometres (12 miles) east of Gaza, doctors said.

“Hamas will continue the resistance until the last drop of blood,” spokesman Fawzi Barhoum was reported as saying.

The air strikes come amid rumours that an Israeli ground operation is imminent.

Calls for ceasefire

World leaders urged both sides to halt the violence.

Palestinians flee the scene of an air strike in Rafah

Civilians were caught up in the air strikes in heavily-populated Gaza

A White House spokesman said the United States “urges Israel to avoid civilian casualties as it targets Hamas in Gaza”.

“Hamas’ continued rocket attacks into Israel must cease if the violence is to stop,” the spokesman, Gordon Johndroe, added.

The UK Foreign Office said: “We urge maximum restraint to avoid further civilian casualties.”

At least 30 missiles were fired by F-16 fighter bombers. Israel’s Haaretz newspaper reported that about 60 warplanes took part in the first wave of air strikes.

Egypt opened its border crossing to the Gaza Strip at Rafah to absorb and treat some of those injured in the south of the territory.

Most of the dead and injured were said to be in Gaza City, where Hamas’s main security compound was destroyed. The head of Gaza’s police forces, Tawfik Jaber, was reportedly among those killed.

Residents spoke of children heading to and from school at the time of the attacks, and there were fears of civilian casualties.

Israeli security officials have been briefing about the possibility of a new offensive into Gaza for some days now.

But most reports centred on the possibility of a ground offensive, and Prime Minister Ehud Olmert was not expected to authorise any operation until Sunday at the earliest.

Although a six-month truce between Hamas and Israel was agreed earlier this year, it was regularly under strain and was allowed to lapse when it expired this month.

Hamas blamed Israel for the end of the ceasefire, saying it had not respected its terms, including the lifting of the blockade under which little more than humanitarian aid has been allowed into Gaza.

Israel said it initially began a staged easing of the blockade, but this was halted when Hamas failed to fulfil what Israel says were agreed conditions, including ending all rocket fire and halting weapons smuggling.

Israel says the blockade – in place since Hamas took control of Gaza in June 2007 – is needed to isolate Hamas and stop it and other militants from firing rockets across the border at Israeli towns.

December 25, 2008

Gazprom to control Serbia’s oil

Gazprom to control Serbia’s oil

NIS archive)

Serbia is being offered a secure gas supply in return for its oil monopoly

Russia and Serbia have signed a controversial energy deal that will hand Russian gas giant Gazprom control of NIS, Serbia’s oil monopoly.

Under the deal, Gazprom is to build a gas pipeline through Serbia and an underground gas storage facility there.

Russia’s President Dmitry Medvedev and his Serbian counterpart Boris Tadic signed the agreement in Moscow.

The plan is for Serbia to host part of a new pipeline called South Stream, to deliver Russian gas to southern Europe.

Gazprom is taking a 51% stake in NIS for 400m euros (£380m; $560m), officials say.

Diplomatic tensions

Both countries signed an energy co-operation agreement in January, but the details have only just been finalised. Belgrade had delayed signing because a small party in Serbia’s ruling coalition had argued that the terms on offer to Gazprom were too generous.

Critics say Russia’s pledges to build South Stream by 2015 are not firm enough, given the current economic downturn.

South Stream is designed to take Russian gas under the Black Sea to Bulgaria and then to Serbia for transit towards the lucrative markets of southern Europe.

Washington and the European Union are backing a rival pipeline project called Nabucco, to bring gas from Central Asia, which would bypass Russia.

Correspondents say the planned pipeline could undermine the European efforts, which aim to reduce European dependency on Russian gas.

Serbia’s energy diplomacy is complicated by the fact that Nabucco has EU backing – yet Serbia wants to join the EU.

Political tensions over Kosovo are also a complicating factor, with the EU supporting Kosovo’s independence, while Belgrade and Moscow insist the territory remains part of Serbia.

Graphic showing Nabucco and South Stream pipeline routes
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