PARIS — On July 1, France will assume the rotating presidency of the European Union, a role it will exercise for the next six months. It’s a moment that French President Nicolas Sarkozy has been preparing for since last year, and anxiously awaiting since at least January, when his popularity among French voters suddenly plummeted. With the impact of his domestic reforms stymied by the increased cost of fuel and food commodities, and his image tarnished by personal excesses and professional lapses, Sarkozy was counting on using the parallel track of the EU presidency to reinject some dynamism into his […]

SLIM PICKINGS FOR FACT FINDERS — Now that both major U.S. political parties have their presidential candidates, a continuous procession of foreign government officials, politicians, and prominent journalists has come to Washington in pursuit of one objective: gaining information about what to expect from either presidency. Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) was an unknown quantity to foreign governments when he began his successful race for the Democratic nomination, and is still largely an unknown quantity today. In many areas, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) is no better. Hence foreign governments’ quest for information on each candidate’s position on energy, the environment, immigration, […]

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It’s important to remember, as Congress tries to determine who authorized what interrogation practices and when, that the interrogation practices themselves are but one abhorrent component of a larger system of black sites, kidnappings and renditions. And as Amnesty International points out in a report released Tuesday (.pdf), American agents couldn’t have carried out that program without the assistance of various European governments: The role of European states in renditions and secret detention has ranged from active participation to tacit collusion. European agents have arrested or detained suspects and turned them over to US custody without judicial process. They have […]

ASTANA, Kazakhstan — Kazakhstan, with its vast reserves of hydrocarbons, is on a path to become a petro-power on a global scale. That, at least, is the plan of the Kazakh government, oil companies with access to the rich oil fields of Kazakhstan, and those seeking alternatives to OPEC oil. However, as oil production in the landlocked country increases in the years ahead, Kazakhstan could find itself without viable export routes to bring its hydrocarbon wealth to market. In 2007, Kazakhstan produced approximately 1.45 million barrels of oil per day (bpd), of which it exported around 1.2 million bpd. Kazakhstan’s […]

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At the end of a two-day summit that wound up today, the EU and Russia announced the start of formal negotiations for a longterm strategic cooperation agreement to replace the one signed in 1998. Those who like to read significance into minor trivia might take note of the date: July 4th. The negotiations, which have been previously blocked by Poland and most recently Lithuania, are set to address a wide range of subjects, but prominent among them will be increased economic integration between Russia and the Euro zone. That means everything from visa waivers for travel to the all-important energy […]

ISTANBUL, Turkey — Sultanahmet courthouse, in the heart of medieval Istanbul, is a drab 1960s building, with the pedestrian look of a place where unexceptional bureaucratic business is conducted. The courtroom, with its peeling gray walls, looks like a dusty schoolroom. But the courthouse’s unremarkable appearance belies the importance of the decisions being weighed there. It was there, in May, that members of a leading Islamist creationist organization, the Science Research Foundation (SRF), were sentenced to three years in prison on charges of engaging in illegal threats and creating a criminal organization. The protracted trial, bookended by the 1998 banning […]

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This Oxford Business Group article on the potential rebirth of the Russia-Syria strategic relationship (via Friday Lunch Club) illustrates that, while Russia is not yet in a position to project its influence as widely as it did during the Cold War, the Middle East is already well within its reach. It also illustrates the fine line that American policy, both regional and global, will have to walk in the post-Bush era. Whether in terms of values (democracy promotion) or interests (containment/isolation of adversaries), readily available alternatives exist to American influence and support. Sovereign wealth funds, for instance, are increasingly allowing […]

SOFIA, Bulgaria — Still today, whenever there are elections in the small Balkan country of Macedonia, the alarm bells start going off in the EU. Nowadays, however, the principal conflict in Macedonia is not between ethnic Macedonians and the ethnic Albanians who constitute some 25 percent of the population of the country. The violence that broke out on election day earlier this month was the result of a worsening power struggle within the local Albanian community itself. Despite heavy security and the deployment of some 13,000 police, the parliamentary elections on June 1 were yet again marred by irregularities. Armed […]

On June 5, Turkey’s Constitutional Court struck down a proposed amendment that would have allowed Muslim students to wear headscarves in the country’s public universities. According to the court’s judgment, the entirety of which has not yet been released, such an amendment would have undermined one of the pillars of the Turkish state — the constitutionally unalterable provision that the country remain a strictly secular republic. On the face of it, the court’s ruling was a legal matter, a question of how far the state could go in limiting religious expression. And in most other circumstances a decision of this […]

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The small town of La Verpillière, near Lyon in central France, caused a national uproar when it opened its municipal pool during off-hours for a “women’s only” swimming session. Critics immediately argued that by accomodating the town’s Turkish (read Muslim) minority, the town had violated France’s code of “laïcité,” or separation of government and religion. The only problem being that the session was organized by the town’s outreach services, not the Turkish community, and the participants were women of all religions (and perhaps more significantly, according to the organizers, of all ages), many of whom had refrained from using the […]

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The EU has agreed to continue with the ratification process of the Lisbon Treaty, while putting off a formal solution to Ireland’s rejection of it until the next European Council in October. There’s been some mention of a special status for Ireland, and some concessions are already being considered (a Brussels “hands off” policy with regard to Ireland’s neutrality, abortion ban and economic model) in the event the treaty makes it past the seven remaining countries set to vote on it and Ireland goes ahead with a new referendum. According to European Commission President Manuel Barroso, one week wasn’t enough […]

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It’s not easy, but with a little imagination you could probably come up with some sort of category that groups together America, Saudi Arabia and China. Consolation pool for the soccer World Cup, for instance, or a snarky “Friends of the Ozone Layer” award. But toss Sweden in there, and the exercise becomes a bit more challenging. Until you consider that yesterday, Sweden’s parliament passed an aggressive surveillance bill that allows its national intelligence agency to scan all telephone and electronic communications that cross the country’s borders for key words without a court order: “By introducing these new measures, the […]

A former official in the Algerian civil service and the author of four previous novels, the Algerian novelist Boualem Sansal has recently published a new book titled Le village de l’Allemand: “The German’s Village.” Via the reflections of two brothers of Algerian origin living in the Parisian banlieues, it tells the story of the brothers’ father: Hans Schiller, a hero of the Algerian war of independence as a member of the National Liberation Front (FLN) — and, as so happens, before that an officer in the dreaded Nazi paramilitary force, the SS. For Boualem Sansal, “the line separating Islamism from […]

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France’s Livre Blanc was finally released today (French version here and here, parts 1&2, both .pdf), and the only real shock is seeing in print what’s basically trickled out in leaks and declarations over the past few months. It’s a very well-written document, coherently argued and convincingly articulated. As expected, counterterrorism and the integration of defense with homeland security play a prominent role, with an emphasis on developing intelligence capacity, both human and satellite-based, in the context of a newly added Anticipation component. There’s also a significant reduction of the French armed forces, from a total of 271,000 to 225,000 […]

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Friday Lunch Club flagged this French language Le Point article over the weekend on France’s diplomatic contacts with Syria. After some initial reservations, Condoleezza Rice has apparently now warmed up to the idea, saying she’s convinced that France will deliver “the right message” to Syria. Now Hurriyet reports that Nicolas Sarkozy is trying to arrange a side meeting between himself, Bashar Assad and Ehud Olmert at the upcoming Union for the Mediterranean conference (to which Syria was conspicuously invited), in order to add French support to Turkish-brokered peace talks between Israel and Syria. (That last clause figures highly on the […]

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According to RIA Novosti, Russia-China trade rose 44 percent year on year, to $48 billion last year. Not surprisingly, 90 percent of Russian exports to China consisted of energy products and raw materials, while 40 percent of Chinese exports to Russia were engineering or electronic products. Again, in some ways this kind of reinforcement of bilateral ties among strategic rivals represents a threat to America’s interests. But in other, broader ways, it lessens the potential for a conflict between them that could threaten the stability of the global order. With regard to the more specific question of how China’s growing […]

On June 6, Dmitry Medvedev presided over his first major multinational meetings since replacing Vladimir Putin as Russia’s president on May 7. The first gathering involved an “informal” summit of the heads of state of the Moscow-led Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS). The second was the annual meeting of the St. Petersburg International Economic Forum, which attracts many foreign diplomats and business executives. At the meetings, Medvedev eschewed the sarcastic and at times menacing rhetoric of his predecessor. He also seemed slightly more open to resolving Russia’s differences with Georgia. Yet, Medvedev reaffirmed Putin’s hard-line position regarding NATO expansion and […]

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