Ever since she pulled up to Westminster Abbey for her 1952 coronation in a four-tonne, eight-horse-drawn gilded carriage, Queen Elizabeth II has had a keen sense of occasion.
However, growing up in wartime Britain also helped ration thoughts of excess: she’s just as happy behind the wheel of a 4x4 rambling round the grounds of her Scottish home Balmoral (Princess Elizabeth got her driving licence in 1945) as she is in one of the eight state limousines. Keen to paint a picture of modesty and restraint, Buckingham Palace points out the Royals also have a number of Volkswagen people carriers at their disposal, and has described how the Royal Train is kitted out with furnishings “you could find in Homebase or B&Q [British DIY stores]”. Still, it beats a train on any one of her nation’s rail routes.
Until 1997, the Queen sailed to all corners of her Commonwealth in her very own boat, which she christened the Royal Yacht Britannia in 1953. Its decommissioning was one of the first acts of Tony Blair’s New Labour government. With an estimated cost of £60m (€70m), proposals for a replacement are sensibly dead in the water. Now, Her Majesty has to make do with a special RAF squadron for state visits abroad – just two a year now that she’s pushing 85 – which she shares with the rest of her family and the prime minister.
Stationed at the RAF’s base in Northolt is the No. 32 (Royal) Squadron. Shared with the Ministry of Defence, the Royals only account for 20 per cent of the fleet’s activity. Should the Queen ever run into problems in the sky, the Duke of Edinburgh, the Prince of Wales and the Duke of York all know their way round a cockpit.
The eight saloons of the Royal Train are painted maroon, with grey roofs. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh’s rooms each contain a bedroom, bathroom and sitting room; Prince Phillip has his own kitchen.
For special occasions the Queen hauls out a coach, barouche or brougham from the Royal Mews at Buckingham Palace. She arrived at her coronation in the Gold State carriage, while it’s the Irish State Coach she usually rides in to Parliament’s State Opening every year.
Her Majesty’s two Bentleys are nearly a metre longer than standard versions and large enough for Her Majesty to stand upright before disembarking to greet her subjects. The other state claret-coloured limousines include three Rolls-Royce Phantoms and three Daimlers, none of which have to carry licence plates.
Always keenly aware of where the political and economic winds are blowing, the Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan has filed an application with the country’s patent institute to copyright his initials for commercial purposes. The public have until March to log any objections before authorities decide. The likeness of Mustafa “Ataturk” Kemal – the founder of the Turkish Republic – is still a big seller (he died 70 years ago): he appears on iPhone cases and key chains. While Erdogan retains high popularity – he is seeking a third term in this year’s elections – it’s unlikely that he’ll outshine Ataturk, either politically or in the merchandise department.
Europe’s new space cargo ship will blast off in February, taking supplies to the International Space Station. “It is a pretty exclusive kind of lorry,” says Ralph Heinrich from Astrium, the Bremen-based company that built it. Named after the German mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler, the ship will also pull the space station back into orbit.
Some of the EU’s newest members are also some of its most youthful. Maltese MEPs are the youngest with an average age of 45, while Bulgarian MEPs average at 47. The youngest MEP is Denmark’s Emilie Turunen, who is 26.
Already the world’s largest producer of uranium, Kazakhstan is keen to be the location for a long-awaited international uranium bank. The idea is to curb proliferation threats by producing nuclear fuel in Kazakhstan and exporting it to countries, so that they do not need to enrich uranium domestically. Kazakhstan, site of Soviet-era nuclear tests, gave up its nuclear arsenal voluntarily when it gained independence two decades ago, and is a strong advocate of nuclear disarmament. Additionally, the project appeals to the strongman president, Nursultan Nazarbayev (pictured), who is desperate for his country to be seen as a major diplomatic player and a civilised partner of the West.
Transport is always an issue in landlocked Central Asia, and the transport ministers of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan met recently with their Iranian and Omani counterparts to discuss the creation of a new rail route from the Iranian port of Bandar-Abbas, which should make trade easier with the Gulf States. Another new rail line is planned to link Iran with Kazakhstan, via Turkmenistan. Both will provide easier access to cars and goods from the Gulf for isolated Central Asians.
In Tajikistan, where poverty levels are extreme even by the standards of the region, authorities are taking time out from tackling a growing Islamic insurgency to construct a 165m flagpole in the capital, Dushanbe. Topped with a vast 30m by 60m flag, on completion it will be the tallest flagpole in the world.
In neighbouring Kyrgyzstan, attempts are underway to keep the first democracy ever to exist in the region on track. Vicious ethnic violence, a few months after last April’s ousting of the previous president, led to concerns that the country was destined to remain in a permanent cycle of violent revolution and counter-revolution. A shaky coalition is currently in place ahead of presidential elections planned for the end of this year.
You have suggested that the Nordic countries should form a new alliance, the United Nordic Federation. Why?
A Nordic federation would be one of the 10-12 largest economies in the world and would be entitled to a seat in the G20. Within a Federation the combined market of more than 25 million people would provide much better conditions for growth than today – through an integrated labour market, harmonised taxation and common research undertakings.
How realistic is your suggestion?
It would require political will and endurance, perhaps too much of it.
What has the response been?
Surprisingly benevolent. Many people have expressed interest in the idea, and even those that have deemed it Utopian have urged intensified Nordic cooperation.
Last time Sweden, Norway and Denmark formed the Kalmar union things ended badly. Why would it work better now?
For the first time in 600 years the countries are more equal, contrary to the old days when Denmark and Sweden took turns in dominating the others.
Plans by the Baltic states to build a new nuclear reactor to replace a tired plant in Lithuania that the EU forced to close in 2009 are in disarray after South Korea’s Kepco, which had been in the running to build the plant, pulled out. It would have meant that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania could get by without depending on Russia.
After a much-maligned 2006 smoking ban, which included a cloud-sized loophole that saw most bars free to let customers carry on lighting up, the Spanish government has finally got tough. Legislation has been introduced that goes even further than that of other European countries, with the new ban including public spaces both indoors and outdoors – no more swift smokes outside hospital doors, for example. Given its cherished place in the national psyche, the habit won’t be dropped by the average smoker in Spain without a fight, but polls suggest that just under half of Spaniards are actually in favour of a complete ban.
The first ever direct flights between Brazil and Russia started in January, with the Russian carrier Transaero offering a once-a-week flight on the 14-hour route from Moscow to Rio. For now, it’s just a seasonal route aimed at wealthier Russians seeking new destinations to get some sun during the long Russian winter. But the company says it hopes to increase frequency of flights and make the route year-round if business links between the two BRIC countries pick up. Last year, Brazil and Russia signed a bilateral visa waiver agreement in the hope of boosting tourism and doubling trade turnover to $10b in a year.
One of the deepest recessions caused by the global financial crisis was dealt with by Europe’s youngest head of government, Latvian PM Valdis Dombrovskis. Following a €7.5bn IMF bailout in 2009, the 39-year-old implemented an austerity package that managed to secure the nation’s solvency, and get Dombrovskis re-elected in October.