Europe / Global
An eye on Serbia's parliamentary election, the launch of Bristol's own currency, and Q&As with Sweden's Minister of Gender Equality and the CEO of Norges Bank Investment Management, Oslo.
End to the congestion
Moscow is one of Europe’s most populous cities and its concentric city planning means it is often gridlocked. An ambitious plan to develop 148,000 hectares of land to the southwest of the city will pull commuters out of Moscow’s central districts and create a new business hub.
Date: 6 May
Candidates: The pro-European coalition led by President Boris Tadic’s Democratic Party had a surprising victory in 2008. Re-election would be less startling but the opposition Serb Progressive Party are polling well. There is encouragingly little support for the radical nationalist parties.
Issues: Serbia has turned in its last war crimes suspects and engaged in some sensible discussion about Kosovo. Not coincidentally, Serbia was granted EU candidate status in March.
Monocle comment: It would be nice to think that the epic existential joke Serbia has been playing at its own expense for two decades was at an end.
UK — CURRENCY
Could local businesses be protected by a currency with a limited range? The city of Bristol is about to find out. The Bristol pound, which launches on 24 May, will be backed by the Bristol Credit Union, which will make it possible to open accounts, perform electronic transfers and spend Bristol pounds by text message. Ciaran Mundy, a director of the project, believes that 300 businesses will have signed up to accept the currency by the time the first notes are printed. “It’s about keeping money in the local economy,” says Mundy, “rather than exiting through long international supply chains or disappearing into offshore financial institutions.”
Minister for gender equality
A new gender neutral pronoun has sparked an intense debate in Sweden. Some pre-schools have suggested using the neutral word hen instead of hon and han – which translate as he and she – in order to allow children to grow up without gender specific pressures and prejudice. A new children’s book also uses the term. Nyamko Sabuni is evaluating its use.
What are the advantages of using the gender neutral hen?
I welcome the debate. Aside from that I have no opinion on how parents choose to address their children. But when these terms are used at pre-school it becomes my responsibility as a minister to evaluate them.
Critics are saying this is going too far and may make children confused and unsure – what do you have to say to them?
That’s something that our evaluation will show. If it turns out that it’s not good for the children, then it shouldn’t be used.
How equal is Sweden?
In an international perspective we’re more equal than others but I’m not satisfied. Women earn less than men, there is gender segregation in the labour market and women still do most of the work at home. We’re working to change that.
Would you use the word hen?
No, I’m not planning to.
The EU’s big squeeze
Hungary — POLITICS
The row between Hungary and the EU is set to worsen after the European Commission threatened to withhold €495m in aid unless Hungary narrows its budget deficit below 3 per cent in 2013. The Commission is also voicing its criticism of the right-wing government over the challenges to independence of the judiciary and the data ombudsman.
The threat to withhold the funds, which would need to be ratified by all 27 member states later this year, has been greeted with outrage in Budapest, especially after the EU’s support of the Greek bailout. Hungary also needs EU approval for a proposed €20bn stand-by agreement with the imf.
Prime Minister Viktor Orban described the decision as “an extremely stupid policy”. He accused the EU of having a “bad management mentality of supporting the bad and punishing the good”. Budapest says it has radically cut the budget deficit but Brussels argues that the savings have been made by swift one-off policies such as crisis taxes on retail, banking and telecommunications. Hope of resolving the issues through early negotiations with the imf have faded and the dispute looks set to continue into the summer.
Countries arguing with the EU:
Belarus: Tension grows over human rights abuses. More than 200 Belarusian officials are now banned from the EU and have had their assets frozen.
Serbia: Serbia refuses to recognise its former province Kosovo, as an independent state, so stalling its accession to the EU, although Serbia finally gained candidate status in March.
Spain/Portugal — RAIL
Plans for a high-speed rail link between Madrid and Lisbon have come to a grinding halt. Initially agreed upon in 2003, the €7.8bn project would have united the two capitals in three hours. After years of delay, Portugal pulled the plug on the project as a raft of austerity measures hit. The original plan has stalled, but a slower and less expensive version may still go ahead.
Hamburg’s island hop
HafenCity, in Hamburg’s port, is going green. Plans are in place to build a new four hectare space, Lohsepark, and also colonise the nearby Entenwerder park isolated by water on a nearby island, by building a pedestrian and bicycle bridge over the waves.
CEO, Norges Bank Investment Management
As CEO of Norges Bank Investment Management, Yngve Slyngstad has, for the past four years, been in charge of Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global. Colloquially known as the “Oil Fund”, Norway’s national savings pot is growing by around €750m a week – it is currently at €426bn in total – and is now the largest national wealth fund in the world, both in per capita and absolute terms.
There seems to be no end to the yields of the Norwegian oil fields. You recently began investing more of the fund in equities and property. Is increased risk on your part a reflection of this abundance?
It’s been increasingly obvious that Norwegian oil production is going to have a longer horizon than the 30 years we originally thought, so we are focusing on longer-term issues, longer-term risk. When times were really difficult in the financial market, we were a big net buyer of risky assets. When the market was falling we bought during the course of less than two years more than NKr1,000bn (€130bn) of equities. Our strategy is to be able to take on the risk of future growth, which is why we are putting a longer-term focus on corporate governance and sustainable returns.
How important are ethical investments to your fund?
We own roughly 1 per cent of the world’s companies so you cannot foresee that you can have 8,000 companies where there is no one to blame. We don’t say we won’t invest in a company and wash our hands, we sit down as owners with the boards and look at what we can improve. Corporate governance is often portrayed in terms of property rights and economic interests but you have obligations as well. We interface with boards; not to criticise them but to assist them. Our policy is not based on Norwegian ethics, it is all based on UN or EU conventions. This is not us sitting here with a Norwegian view of the world criticising people. The intention is to do something to make a difference in a positive way.
You don’t invest in tobacco but do invest in weapons manufacturers. How do you reconcile that?
We can hardly tell tobacco companies to stop producing tobacco so in this case we say we are not investing. In terms of arms, we will invest in companies unless they produce weapons that violate fundamental humanitarian principles through their normal use. Again, we follow the UN on that.
Is oil wealth a source of pride for Norway or is it tainted by climate change and geo-political implications?
You will have a different answer to that depending on which Norwegian you ask. I think the consensus view is probably that yes, this oil has this CO2 aspect but it’s probably better than coal, so how about looking at other renewable, sustainable energy sources? That’s why we have put in place a specific programme to invest in new technologies. You have to remember the main construct with this fund is that we consider the oil in the ground as a source of wealth, not purely as income. We need to maintain an export-oriented economy that is able to survive almost without the oil because if you lose that you are destroying your opportunity to compete in the world and you can’t be sure to regain that later when the oil runs out. We have of course been fortunate to have these natural resources and our hope is not to squander them but to protect them for the next generation. We have traditionally been a very poor country with frugal consumption patterns. I think that leads by necessity to a saving culture.
In the UK and the US investment bankers have a somewhat tarnished image. Is bonus culture a problem in Norway?
I don’t think Norway is a country where this is an issue. I have a fixed salary. It was Kr5.8m [€760,000] last year.
Grass is greener
Switzerland — EMPLOYMENT
Switzerland’s reputation as a safe haven is proving true even for people who don’t actually live there. In the past year, the eurozone crisis has led to an 11 per cent jump in the number of cross-border workers who enter daily from Austria, Italy, France and Germany.
A quarter of a million, or 5 per cent of the Swiss workforce, now commute into the country – half are French, many employed in Geneva. While many do clerical work, health care in hospitals is popular because the Swiss are training fewer doctors and nurses.
Old boys’ club
France — EDUCATION
Viewed with suspicion by some, ENA (École Nationale d’Administration) is a statesman-producing sausage factory. Its alumni have made up roughly one third of every French cabinet since the school’s founding in 1945. Nicolas Sarkozy is not an “Énarque” but both his predecessor – Jacques Chirac – and his socialist rival – François Hollande – are old boys of France’s “school of power”.