Briefing / Europe
London's mayoral election, shenanigans in the Spanish royal family, and why people are leaving Portugal.
UK — POLITICS
As London scrambles to put on its best face in time to host the Olympic Games, so do the city’s two most recognisable politicians. On 12 May the affable incumbent, Boris Johnson, and his veteran rival Ken Livingstone will battle it out for the position of mayor of London.
Johnson and Livingstone’s campaigns will be defined by one issue: transport. Since his ascent to power in 2008 Johnson’s most striking legacy has been the cycle hire scheme that he launched in July 2010. It’s been very popular: in the first 18 months the sturdy bikes were hired over seven million times with some 140,000 people signing up to for the €54 annual membership. They’re even known as “Boris bikes”.
Livingstone’s transport trump card is a promise to freeze fares on the Underground train system. Livingstone, who spent eight years as mayor at the start of the century, can claim to have revitalised the bus and tube network when he was last in power.
The two politicians have more in common than they would like to admit. Both see themselves as men of the people – Ken takes the tube, Boris is always on his bike. But their ambitions are different. Conservative Boris has long held a desire to become prime minister and hopes holding on to the Mayor’s office will further his cause. Labour politician Ken would see a win as a last hurrah in his 40-year career.
Three more British places with an elected mayor
Hartlepool: Stuart Drummond ran for office dressed as a monkey – he was the football team’s mascot. He has been re-elected twice.
Leicester: The largest city outside London to have a mayor; Labour’s Sir Peter Soulsby took up the post last year.
Newham: Boris or Ken won’t be the only mayor hosting the Olympics. Sir Robin Wales is mayor of Newham, the London borough where the 2012 Games take place.
Spain — ROYAL FAMILY
A recent Spanish Royal scandal involving the embezzlement of funds by the king’s son-in-law Iñaki Urdangarín has prompted the Casa Reál (Royal Family) to publicly disclose its expenditure online for the first time. Urdangarín is accused of siphoning around €6m of public money into his business interests and is in self-imposed exile in Washington.
The Spanish Royal family is one of Europe’s cheapest with only €8.46m spent in the past financial year. (In comparison, the British Royal family cost around €47m and the Dutch monarchy €40m.) The official Spanish figures are misleading, however, as much of the security and travel costs fall to other government departments. The true figure is around €25m – arguably a bargain price for a monarchy.
The figures also reveal that the Royal Palace spent €1.65m on office supplies, reading material, and press related activity. So Spaniards can at least take solace in the fact that their monarch is well read.
Date: 4 March
Candidates: Former president and current prime minister Vladimir Putin is clear favourite, ahead of a field largely populated by such no-hopers as communist Gennady Zyuganov and nationalist head-banger Vladimir Zhirinovsky. A late run by billionaire Mikhail Prokhorov may stir things up. Issues: Widespread allegations of fraud have prompted large protests and dented Putin’s authority.
Monocle comment: Putin will be aware that authoritarian leaders are not infallible. The hand-back from his Mini-Me Dmitry Medvedev may not be as seamless as he anticipates.
Up, up and away
Europe — EMIGRATION
Portugal is facing its largest emigration wave since the 1960s – one in 10 Portuguese nationals with a college degree is leaving the country. As nurses, architects, civil engineers, scientists, pharmacists and lawyers head abroad, the centre-right government has surprised the public by supporting the idea.
Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho has said if teachers can’t find a job they should go to other Portuguese-speaking countries. In 2011, between 100,000 and 120,000 Portuguese decided to look for work abroad – many are going as far from the crisis-ridden Europe as possible: Brazil and Angola are the new favourite destinations.
Italy — TAX EVASION
Mario Monti’s government has lost no time in turning its attention to one of Italy’s biggest ills: tax evasion, an activity that denies state coffers €125bn annually according to Confindustria, the country’s main employers’ lobby. Recent high-profile sweeps in resort towns and on high streets by Italy’s tax police, the Guardia di Finanza, have caught tax dodgers off guard and represent a break from past efforts by Rome to recoup funds via lenient tax amnesties. The state’s tax-collecting agency, Agenzia delle Entrate, is also beefing up its arsenal with software to crunch data from citizens’ returns, utility bills and financial transactions to uncover fraud in real time.
Belgium — DEVELOPMENT
A new luxury housing development, called Up-site, on the banks of Brussels’ main canal is due to breathe life into the city’s lacklustre downtown. The centrepiece will be a 142m tower with 42 storeys – it’s set to be the highest residential building in Belgium when it opens in June 2014. The scheme also includes 106 units in lower buildings along the water, plus new offices and retail.