My piece on the Donald Trumps of Europe is this week’s cover of the international edition of Bloomberg Businessweek.
From the volume of the outrage, you’d think Europeans had never dealt with the likes of Donald Trump before. The French newspaper Libération called him “the American Nightmare.” The German newsweekly Der Spiegel slapped his face on its cover in front of flames crawling up an American flag. (Online, the fire was animated.) Wherever one looks in the continent, there’s rising alarm in the media about the possibility that Trump could become president of the U.S.
And yet, as much as the headlines make him out to be an American phenomenon, in Europe, Trump would fit right in. His mix of nationalistic nativism and economic protectionism has proved a winning formula for far-right parties across the continent. Trump’s rise is reminiscent of Jean-Marie Le Pen’s, which stunned the French media and political class when he made it to the second round of his country’s presidential election in 2002. A former paratrooper who’d questioned the historical significance of the Holocaust, he was widely considered far too unconventional, far too crude—and, frankly, far too racist—to ever be granted a shot at the country’s highest office.
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My profile of M-Kopa, a company selling solar power to people making less than $2 a day, has just been published by Bloomberg Businessweek.
Tom Opiyo is the best-performing salesperson at M-Kopa Solar, a Kenyan company selling solar power systems to the very poor. Watching him work, it’s not hard to see why. Opiyo is a pastor who used to be a musician and concert promoter, and when he’s closing a sale he never stops talking. “The electric company can sometimes leave you in the dark. With M-Kopa, the light cannot go out,” he tells a group of 15 potential customers gathered under a tree in a rural area in western Kenya on a sunny October afternoon. “If you get power from the power company, you will always be paying. But when you buy M-Kopa, it’s yours forever.”
Opiyo is tall and thin, with a closely shaved head he keeps shaded under an M-Kopa baseball cap. He infuses his pitch with quotes from the Bible and brings in an actor to break the ice with impersonations of famous Kenyan politicians. But his underlying argument is financial. Before demonstrating his product, Opiyo walks the group through a calculation, asking how much each person spends a week on kerosene. He works out what that adds up to over the course of a year and then totals a sum for the entire group. “I show them the cost of what they are using compared to what I’m going to give them,” Opiyo says. “If you bring this to their minds, they can see how they are foolish, and then you know they are going to buy.”
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Bloomberg Businessweek has published my profile of Ada Colau, Barcelona’s activist-turned-mayor.
In 2007, Ada Colau put on a black leotard, a yellow cape, and a Zorro mask and gate-crashed a campaign rally in Barcelona. For two and a half minutes, Colau commandeered cameras, holding up a cardboard sign—“Housing Out of the Market, Like Education and Health”—while she delivered a speech on irresponsible development. “We don’t want to hear that the solution is to build more,” Colau told the crowd gathered in the small city square. “We have devastated our territory more than enough. There are a lot of houses. What we need is that these houses fulfill their social role.” When she was done, she dashed between a pair of parked cars and sprinted down the street.
She didn’t know it then, but her appearance as a superhero was one of the first steps on a path to city hall. In June she was elected mayor of Barcelona, with the support of a coalition of leftist political parties. She campaigned on fighting inequality.
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My profile of Finland’s version of the Tea Party has just been published in Bloomberg Businessweek.
In early August, Timo Soini, the foreign minister of Finland, mounts a stage at the convention center in the town of Turku. The occasion is celebratory, marking the 20th anniversary of the formation of the Finns, the conservative party he heads, and his entrance into government for the first time following elections in April.
Soini is a big man, with the girth and mirth of a television sitcom dad and a gift for the colorful phrase. His speeches are usually easygoing affairs, loaded with crowd-pleasing mockery of Finland’s participation in the bailout of Europe’s weak southern economies. But on this occasion his imagery is stark. He describes his party’s performance in the election as “a hard, diamondlike achievement” and likens the tough decisions he’s since had to make as facing “the cosmic cold.”
In the past 20 years, Soini has led the Finns from an insignificant also-ran to the country’s second-largest party, now governing in coalition with two other conservative parties, including Prime Minister Juha Sipila’s Centre Party. Soini has done so by being the voice of opposition. And yet, just three months after taking office, he’s being forced to explain why Finland agreed to sign on to a new €86 billion ($96 billion) bailout for Greece.
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Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my piece looking at how cutting-edge technology is rescuing traditional Italian craftmanship.
Northeast Italy’s industrial heartland stretches roughly from Milan to Venice, along the floodplains of the Po River all the way to the Adriatic. In the 1960s, farmers in the region began setting up small family-owned businesses, each specializing in just one small part of a finished product. Within a generation, many of these companies became world leaders in their respective fields, and small Italian cities thrived as manufacturing hubs. The town of Montebelluna, north of Venice, once produced about three-quarters of the world’s ski boots, with different companies specializing in buckles, plastic shells, and foam linings. About 70 percent of Europe’s chairs were designed and manufactured by the 1,200 small outfits centered around Manzano, near Italy’s eastern border with Slovenia—with each part of the production process handled by a different highly specialized company.
Like much of the rest of the country, however, the region has fallen on hard times. Italy’s craftsmen have been undermined by competition from China and other parts of Asia. Since the beginning of the global economic crisis, the northeast’s industrial sector has shed about 135,000 jobs—some 17 percent of its total workforce. “We needed to find an escape route,” says Ignazio Pomini, the president of HSL, a 27-year-old maker of automotive prototypes located in Trento, northwest of Venice. “To use the same technology, the same skills, the same space, the existing investments, but for a new business.”
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A short piece I did for Bloomberg Businessweek on Europe’s refugee crisis is in this week’s issue.
On a wintry day in early February, four rubber dinghies—each loaded with more than 100 people—pushed off the Libyan coast into the icy Mediterranean and headed toward Europe. By the time the Italian coast guard reached the first boat on Feb. 9, seven of the would-be migrants had frozen to death. An additional 22 died as they were being ferried to shore through 25-foot waves. On Feb. 11, a cargo ship discovered nine other survivors clinging to what was left of the second and third dinghies. Of the fourth, no trace was ever found.
About 56 million people in the world have been displaced by conflict, the highest number of people pushed out of their homes since World War II. The vast majority are fleeing Africa and the Middle East, and many have their sights on Europe. This is putting pressure on asylum systems across the continent as the European Union struggles to form a consensus among governments with little political incentive to deal with a humanitarian catastrophe.
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My profile of Hungary’s increasingly authoritarian prime minister has just been published in Bloomberg Businessweek.
The soccer match hasn’t drawn much of a crowd. It’s being played in tiny Felcsut, Hungary (pop. 1,800), and the teams on the field are ranked 3rd and 10th out of the 16 squads vying for the national championship. Except for a small section where fans of the visiting team are clustered, only a sprinkling of the 3,500 seats are occupied.
This isn’t the kind of contest where you’d expect a prominent politician to show up—unless that politician is Viktor Orban, 51, the Hungarian prime minister. Having just returned from a trip to South Korea, Orban’s made the 45-minute drive from Budapest to Felcsut. He’s wearing a black coat and long gray scarf, and when the game begins he’s standing by himself just outside the glass walls of the VIP booth, in line with the center of the field. When the home team, 10th-place Puskas Academy, threatens the opponent’s goal, he puts both hands over his mouth. When the ball goes wide, he turns and slaps a concrete pillar. Just before halftime, a Puskas attacker rifles the ball into the back of the net. Orban raises both arms in triumph.
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Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my piece on Rome’s degradation.
The neighborhood in which Massimiliano Tonelli is walking is more than 100 years old, built in central Rome shortly after the unification of Italy. Monumental buildings rise around a central park, in the corner of which lie the ruins of an ancient Roman fountain. The Colosseum is a 15-minute walk away.
As the 35-year-old blogger ambles, he counts off the blemishes: cracks and pits in the sidewalk; walls plastered with posters and pamphlets; beer bottles lying around a garbage bin; cars illegally and dangerously parked; a man drying his laundry on a park bench. “The city is so beautiful, potentially,” he says. “It’s absurd that it be left like this.” He looks up at one of the 19th century buildings, its facade resplendent in the morning sun. “Rome is a city that’s only beautiful from 3 meters high and upwards.”
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Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my story on Greenland’s prime minister and her quest to win independence through mining.
Sofus Frederiksen lives in a small river valley above a sheltered stretch of Greenlandic fjord, where in the winter slabs of floating ice fuse into a pale blue sheet. Frederiksen, a 49-year-old farmer of Danish and Inuit descent, built his house himself, and his 10 horses, 95 cows, and about 500 sheep make his farm one of the most productive businesses in the small town of Narsaq. From his kitchen, where pictures of his grandchildren cover the refrigerator, a window frames a 2,300-foot mountain, a steep slope of black rock and white snow. There, an Australian company called Greenland Minerals & Energy (GDLNF) hopes to build an open-pit mine, extracting uranium and what it says is one of the largest deposits of rare earth metals in the world. Like many in Greenland, the Frederiksen family thinks it’s a great idea. “We know that we have to move, and we have accepted it,” says Frederiksen’s wife, Suka. “We are only two people here against hundreds of jobs working in the mine. We tell ourselves that we have to give something for the Greenlandic people.”
The mountain is a reminder of the choices Greenland faces as its government scrambles to energize an economy heavily dependent on Denmark, the country that colonized it in the early 1700s. Narsaq also happens to be the birthplace of the country’s prime minister, and she is a strident supporter of mining. A native Greenlander with a broad face, bright eyes, and a smile that breaks like sunlight, Aleqa Hammond, 48, is the first woman to occupy the island’s highest office. Elected just over a year ago, she came to power on promises to mine the country and put it on the path to independence. “We have mountains with uranium content,” she says. “We have mountains with gold. We have mountains with iron. We have mountains with zinc and lead. We have mountains with diamonds. We have mountains that are there for us to use and bring prosperity to our people.”
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Bloomberg Businessweek has just published my piece an attempt to introduce a minimum basic income in Switzerland.
Marilola Wili braces her foot against the wall to pull open a vault door inside a former bank building in downtown Basel. In the darkness inside, 15 tons of coins glint like dragon treasure. “It’s something everybody’s dreamed about, swimming in money,” says Wili, a waitress and musician as well as a member of Generation Basic Income. That’s an activist group trying to persuade voters to amend Switzerland’s constitution to guarantee every citizen a yearly income of 30,000 Swiss francs ($33,000)—whether they work or not.
The vault is part publicity stunt, part fundraising effort. Switzerland’s system of direct democracy offers anybody who can gather at least 100,000 signatures the chance to put a ballot initiative before the country’s voters. Wili and her comrades celebrated reaching that milestone in October by dumping 8 million coins, one for every Swiss resident, in front of the Parliament building in Bern. Wili’s chief occupation these days is to find a buyer for the five-centime coins along with the vault in which they’re displayed, as a sort of art installation. Proceeds will fund a campaign to persuade voters to approve their initiative in a referendum that will be held in two or three years.
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