Getting away from it all in Asia

At a time of problematic politics on both sides of the pond, what will the impact be of Obama’s visit to South Asia and David Cameron’s trip to the Far East?

The coalition government in the UK has spent much of the last few weeks swinging the cutting axe at nearly every government department and it appears that now Cameron and his Liberal Democrat allies are for now, at least, having a change of scene. The one facing them at home is hostile and on 10 November thousands of students demonstrated violently in central London against the proposed rise in university tuition fees. Public reaction has also been negative to funding slashing of child benefit, housing benefit and the defence budget. The Church of England has raised concern over the impact on the poor from the specific benefit reduction and reorganisation that has been planned.

But Cameron and his coalition colleagues have been sipping wine and trying to secure trade deals on the other side of the world. They are not running away directly but the change of scene at a time of political unrest may well allow them a period of reflection to consider their changes. They can also catch their breath; the Government’s reforms have been rolled out continuously since the general election.

A couple of countries to the south, this week Barack Obama has chosen to spend the aftermath of the Democrats’ painful losses at the mid-term elections on 2 November meeting his old school-teachers in Indonesia. As the Tea Party basks in the glow of election success, Obama has been wooing Indonesia in a similar way to the way he courted the Muslim world in 2009.

Indonesia stands at a crossroads, geopolitically: it is the largest Muslim majority nation in the world and a massive regional player for ASEAN. It has large sway in its region through its seat on the G20 and in that sense is similar to Brazil as the most important partner in a regional club. The administration in Jakarta needs to ensure that its leadership does not become confused or stall as other local players look up to the major power and faltering on its part could lead to introversion and a failure to keep up with the interchanging pace of foreign policy discussion.

This latest outreach to the Muslim world by the US President seems to be an attempt to move policy discussion into the international sphere after such devastation domestically. Cameron and Obama are now moving on to the G20 and with the Cancun climate change summit coming up next month, both leaders will probably be quietly hopeful that they can ride out the current waves of protest and election defeat overseas.

Europeans having to swallow some tough medicine

On Tuesday 12 October, huge strikes are scheduled to take place across France. On the same day, a right-wing party in Spain called España 2000 is planning a demonstration of Spanish-ness in the face of what it sees as reprehensible attacks on the nation by the present government. And in the UK, there has been widespread condemnation of the Government’s ‘austerity’ measures, such as the recent announcement to cut child benefit for those earning in the top tax bracket.

It seems that the peoples of Europe are muscling up and finding their voice to respond en masse to governments’ differing plans to address budget deficits and economic shortfalls. On Friday 8 October, the French Senate approved a preliminary section of more wide-ranging pension reforms. But rather than being a trivial amendment buried deep within some unimportant preamble – the Upper House has given the thumbs-up to raising the retirement age by two years, from 60 to 62. This has not gone down well in France and unions look set to go ahead with an unlimited walk-out in protest at the changes from this Tuesday. There were well-attended strikes when this bill was first floated but the politicians in Paris have continued with their reforms in the face of popular denouncements. But these changes are needed.

Across the Channel, the Government is four years further on with its retirement age reform plans (from 65 to 66 from 2016) and it has also met with militant unions and a vocal general public. Yet people are living longer and funding their pensions costs more. Providing for them is made even more difficult when, as outgoing Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne wrote simply – ‘There’s no money left!’ But alterations to the age from when Europeans can begin withdrawing a state pension are not new – in 2007, Germany passed a law raising the age to 67. Looking further afield, the Australian government plumped for 67 when its proposal got through parliament there last year. There has been criticism that the right-wing government in Paris and the Conservative-led coalition in London are, on one hand, enjoying swinging the axe and concocting a painful dosage for the public (particularly the Roma in France), whilst on the other hand steering clear of having to taste their remedies themselves. David Cameron, the British prime minister, is a fan of saying that ‘we are all in this together’ but critics highlight the personal fortunes that he and his Chancellor, George Osborne, enjoy.

But it is not only conservatism which is cutting public services and tightening the belt. In Spain, the socialist government is having to cut spending as well. It provoked large-scale protests when it announced the proposal to cut public sector salaries by 5% across the board from next year. In addition, like the Conservative plan in the UK, it has approved a drop in MPs’ pay, although the Spanish figure of 15% is more impressive than Cameron’s 5%. There are other similarities. Zapatero has committed to scrapping the ‘Baby Cheque’ policy, which saw mothers able to apply for a €2,500 grant (rising to €3,500 for the ‘numerous families’) and the Coalition has planned to reform the child benefit system in the UK. Although unpopular, both the Conservative-dominated government in the UK and the Socialist leadership in Madrid have realised the unsustainability of such benefit policies.

And just as Labour will want to step into the leftist opposition breech in debating the cuts in the UK, so the right-wing political classes have been venting the fury at what they see as a deliberate debilitation of the power and role of the central Spanish state by Zapatero’s government. Right-wing party España 2000 have complained about the number of immigrants in a Spain where jobs are scarce and they have organised a protest for the coming Tuesday – Columbus Day, or Day of Hispanicity. The members of the party will be celebrating their three key principles: the unity of the country, the Spanish language and the values engendered in the national flag. This will be a thinly-veiled attack on devolution, a key policy of the present government and one which the centrist party believes has contributed to the economic problems of the day, along with an open-door immigration policy.

Protests will be coming from all angles and all sides of the political spectrum to the different governments of Europe this autumn and it will be a measure of their reformist ability as to how well they allay the fears of the masses. The unions in the UK have managed to install Ed Miliband as their preferred successor to Gordon Brown at the head of the Labour Party with an aim to rally the rebellious troops against the necessary cuts being outlined by the Coalition. Their partners in France and Spain are also standing up to the deficit-reduction packages being offered by their respective governments. Over the next few months we will see who blinks first.