Friday. 19/2/2021

The Monocle Minute

Opinion / Chiara Rimella

Trouble at the top

Mario Draghi (pictured) and his team of ministers have been confirmed by lawmakers to lead a new unity government in Italy. Europe is breathing a sigh of relief as an authoritative, trustworthy man has been put back in charge, averting a political crisis. Peace has been restored. Or has it?

Let’s remember that Draghi’s rise is the result of a parliament that’s highly fragmented and made up of blocs that are prone to disagreements. And the coalition now backing him is almost impossibly heterogeneous. It brings together centre-left, centre-right, far-right and populist parties – all under the same befuddling banner. It’s the kind of thing that would have found the anti-establishment Five Star Movement gag in disgust just a few years ago; now they’re swallowing it whole – even expelling senators who haven’t toed the line. Such an experiment would normally be considered a political abomination for the country too, if people weren’t so concerned with “getting through this” and willing to accept “whatever it takes” to keep the ship afloat. Still, it’s hard to imagine a harmonious course ahead.

The picture is even less rosy when it comes to the role of women in this new government. Draghi’s cabinet is far from gender-equal and, particularly when it comes to the names put forward by parties such as the centre-left Democratic Party, many believe they chose establishment male politicians to keep the political peace. It’s an unfortunate choice that stings all the more in light of recent statistics revealing the pandemic’s disproportionately negative impact on women, who make up the vast majority of those who lost jobs in 2020. This has set female employment in Italy back to its lowest level in four years. Italy’s road ahead must find a way to move beyond perpetual crisis management in matters both political and social.

Politics / Cambodia

Net losses

Cambodia’s government issued a new decree this week that establishes an internet gateway that will monitor citizens’ online connections and activities. The role of the gateway is ostensibly to help with collecting revenues, as well as protecting national security by allowing authorities to block connections that affect “national income, security, social order, morality, culture, traditions and customs”. Similar to a gateway imposed by China, it requires service providers to make users fill out online forms to verify their identity. Failure to comply may result in operating licences and bank accounts being suspended. It’s a broad-brush approach, with serious implications, that comes as the government has been cracking down on its political opposition. Many citizens have been threatened and prosecuted for expressing their views on the internet – as clear a sign as any that Cambodians’ freedom of speech, privacy and data protection are at risk.

Space / Japan

Filling the void

Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency is recruiting astronauts for the first time since 2008 and, starting in the autumn, there will be a relaxation of its hiring requirements. Until now applicants needed to have at least a graduate degree in science or engineering, and three years of professional experience in the area. Now the door will be open for candidates with a humanities background and other qualifications.

The change is designed to attract and nurture talented applicants who can “conduct leadership and teamwork while respecting diversity” and “communicate and share unprecedented space experience for humanity with people from around the world”. It’s no surprise that “humanity” has been identified as a key skill required to work in space: Japan is joining US-led project Artemis (pictured), which could put the first Japanese astronaut on the moon in the late 2020s. Japan will want to put its best foot forward when it does.

For a discussion of new recruitment drives with Lucy van der Tas at the European Space Agency, listen to today’s episode of ‘The Globalist’ on Monocle 24.

Transport / San Francisco

Missing link

Cycling activists in San Francisco and Oakland are petitioning the region’s transit authorities to complete a bike lane over the double-span Bay Bridge. Currently – and rather comically – the only bicycle and pedestrian link is on the eastern span between Oakland and Yerba Buena Island, which sits in the middle of the bay. Several plans to fund and build infrastructure that continues this link across the western span and into San Francisco have hit the brakes in recent years. And, in a region currently trying to better connect its public transport through San Francisco’s Transbay Terminal, it seems that better bike connections need to be made too. Leading the new petition is the Rails-to-Trails Conservancy, a cycling and pedestrian advocacy group, which says that a quick-build bike lane would cost as little as $10m (€8.3m) and could be built in three months. That’s a shorter timeframe than previously stalled bike-lane proposals and at significantly less expense. Coupled with community pressure, this could be just the kicker the authorities need to put the wheels in motion.

Urbanism / Oslo

Snow circumstances

For many in Norway, the idea of going a winter without skiing (particularly the cross-country variety) is unspeakable. Yet it’s a thought that Oslovians have been forced to entertain in recent months as travel restrictions have grown stricter. So the Oslo city council had a bright idea: bring the slopes to the city. Over the past few weeks, large trucks have transported tonnes of snow from hills on the outskirts of the capital to the green parks of downtown Oslo, where the fluffy stuff is also being made by snow cannons. The newly introduced “snow parks” are providing everything from cross-country ski trails to snowboard runs. It also gives ski-happy residents one fewer reason to leave town; a slippery slope, perhaps, but it just might offer a holdover until the ski season returns.

M24 / The Foreign Desk

Explainer 253: Guantanamo Bay – here to stay?

The terrorist detention facility is arguably the most controversial prison in the world. Obama proclaimed he’d close it; Trump swore to add to it. Neither got what they wanted. Why? And what can Biden do with it now?

Film / The Netherlands

Blossoming business

The Netherlands is a world leader in the horticulture industry and shows no sign of wilting. We visit a delicately orchestrated flower auction, a grower and a florist to unpack the challenges of this fragrant business.

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