Justin Bieber: big in Manila. Photo: Getty.
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The authorities keep trying to ban celebrities from Manila

Why is the Filipino capital so sensitive?

Brokedown Palace is a 1998 film about a pair of friends incarcerated after accidentally smuggling heroin out of Thailand. Claire Danes plays Alice; Kate Beckinsale plays Darlene; and, for the purposes of filming, Philippine capital Manila plays Bangkok. What could be more flattering to a city than forming the backdrop to a drama set in a Thai prison?

To compound the insult, on her return to the states, Danes gave several less-than-complimentary interviews about Manila.  “It just f***ing smelled like cockroaches,” she told Premiere magazine:

 There’s no sewage system. [We saw] people with like, no arms, no legs, no eyes, no teeth... Rats were everywhere.”

In an separate interview, with Vogue, she called the city “ghastly and weird”.

Manila was understandably pissed off. The city council passed a motion, 23 to 3, to ban the actress from the city and prevent her films playing in its movie theatres until she made a public apology. They were supported by the country’s president Joseph Estrada, who said: “She should not be allowed to come here.”

Danes, presumably on the advice of her PR team, swiftly issued an apology, explaining that, “Because of the subject matter of our film... the cast was exposed to the darker and more impoverished places”. But this wasn’t enough for Kim Atienza, the city councillor-cum-TV weatherman who’d originally proposed the ban. He branded the actress’ comments “an excuse... and not a genuine apology”, adding: “We will lift the ban only if we are satisfied.”

As far as we can tell, that ban is still in place. Claire Danes remains barred from entering Manilla.

As an isolated incident, this is bizarre enough. But a celebrity contriving to offend the Philippines, and in particular its capital city, is a surprisingly common occurrence.

In 1966, when the Beatles visited the country to perform two concerts in Manila, the band missed an appointment to meet the first lady, Imelda Marcos. The Manila Times ran a front-page story on the “snub”, with a later headline delightfully proclaiming, “Imelda stood up: first family waits in vain for mopheads”. The band soon found themselves served with an enormous tax bill, elevators stopped working on their approach, the hotel refused room service, and they were attacked by locals on their way to their flight out.

Further furore broke out in 2012, when Justin Bieber posted Instagram pictures mocking Manny Pacquiao, Filipino congressman and boxer, for getting knocked out in a fight. One picture showed the boxer prostrate alongside  by  Simba from The Lion King, with the caption “Dad wake up”. Carol Jayne Lopez, a member of the Philippines’ House of Representatives, responded by urging Congress to ban the singer from the country and instructed the country’s youth to boycott Bieber’s album.

Most recently, the protagonist of Dan Brown’s 2013 novel Inferno described Manila as “the gates of hell”, enraging officials and citizens alike.  Francis Tolentino, a member of the president’s cabinet, wrote Brown a letter – also distributed to the press, of course – saying he’d got it all wrong: Manila would be more accurately described as an “entry to heaven”. 

The Filipinos are not alone in taking offence at the words of passing celebrities (Brad Pitt was banned from China for starring in the Party-critical Seven Years in Tibet). But what makes Manila’s rage so singular is that it comes from the streets as well as the government: members of the public enthusiastically refused to serve the Beatles, while outrage over Dan Brown’s portrayal of the city was largely played out over social media.

The city’s sensitivity may be rooted in its history. Manila has been handed round like a church collection plate since the 16th century, when it was invaded and occupied by Spain. Great Britain occupied it from 1762 to 1764; the US took control after bringing down the First Philippine Republic in 1901. Japan had a go during WW2, occupying the Philippines from 1942 after heavily bombing Manila. The US recaptured the city in 1945, which was nice, but in the process 100,000 were killed and the city was largely destroyed.

It’s stayed free of foreign occupation since the war. But National Disaster Consciousness month, “celebrated” every July, serves as a tribute to its predisposition to natural disasters. Many of the densely-populated city’s residents live in slums or other informal settlements, often lying on a flood plain. As a result, the international media tends to ignore the city’s charms in favour of reporting on checkpoints and earthquakes, floods and typhoons.

All that, and tourism is one of the city’s largest industries, with visitor numbers increasing over 70 per cent over the last five years. If your city was in one of the world’s largest natural disaster zones, and tourists provided 6 per cent of its GDP, you’d probably over-react to celebrity insults, too.

This is a preview of our new sister publication, CityMetric. We'll be launching its website soon - in the meantime, you can follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Barbara Speed is comment editor at the i, and was technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman, and a staff writer at CityMetric.

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Who is the EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier?

The former French foreign minister has shown signs that he will play hardball in negotiations.

The European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator today set an October 2018 deadline for the terms of Britain’s divorce from the European Union to be agreed. Michel Barnier gave his first press conference since being appointed to head up what will be tough talks between the EU and UK.

Speaking in Brussels, he warned that UK-EU relations had entered “uncharted waters”. He used the conference to effectively shorten the time period for negotiations under Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, the legal process to take Britain out of the EU. The article sets out a two year period for a country to leave the bloc.

But Barnier, 65, warned that the period of actual negotiations would be shorter than two years and there would be less than 18 months to agree Brexit.  If the terms were set in October 2018, there would be five months for the European Parliament, European Council and UK Parliament to approve the deal before a March 2019 Brexit.

But who is the urbane Frenchman who was handpicked by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to steer the talks?

A centre-right career politician, Barnier is a member of the pan-EU European People’s Party, like Juncker and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

A committed European and architect of closer eurozone banking integration, Barnier rose to prominence after being elected aged just 27 to the French National Assembly.  He is notorious in Brussels for his repeated references to the 1992 Winter Olympics he organised in Albertville with triple Olympic ski champion Jean-Claude Killy.

He first joined the French cabinet in 1993 as minister of the environment. In 1995, Jacques Chirac made him Secretary of State for European Affairs, teeing up a long and close relationship with Brussels.

Barnier has twice served as France’s European Commissioner, under the administrations of Romano Prodi and José Manuel BarrosoMost recently he was serving as an unpaid special advisor on European Defence Policy to Juncker until the former prime minister of Luxembourg made him Brexit boss.“I wanted an experienced politician for this difficult job,” Juncker said at the time of Barnier, who has supported moves towards an EU army.

 

Barnier and the Brits

Barnier’s appointment was controversial. Under Barroso, he was Internal Market commissioner. Responsible for financial services legislation at the height of the crisis, he clashed with the City of London.

During this period he was memorably described as a man who, in a hall of mirrors, would stop and check his reflection in every one.

Although his battles with London’s bankers were often exaggerated, the choice of Barnier was described as an “act of war” by some British journalists and was greeted with undisguised glee by Brussels europhiles.

Barnier moved to calm those fears today. At the press conference, he said, “I was 20 years old, a very long time ago, when I voted for the first time and it was in the French referendum on the accession of the UK to the EU.

“That time I campaigned for a yes vote. And I still think today that I made right choice.”

But Barnier, seen by some as aloof and arrogant, also showed a mischievous side.  It was reported during Theresa May’s first visit to Brussels as prime minister that he was demanding that all the Brexit talks be conducted in French.

While Barnier does speak English, he is far more comfortable talking in his native French. But the story, since denied, was seen as a snub to the notoriously monolingual Brits.

The long lens photo of a British Brexit strategy note that warned the EU team was “very French” may also have been on his mind as he took the podium in Brussels today.

Barnier asked, “In French or in English?” to laughter from the press.

He switched between English and French in his opening remarks but only answered questions in French, using translation to ensure he understood the questions.

Since his appointment Barnier has posted a series of tweets which could be seen as poking fun at Brexit. On a tour of Croatia to discuss the negotiations, he posed outside Zagreb’s Museum of Broken Relationships asking, “Guess where we are today?”

 

 

He also tweeted a picture of himself drinking prosecco after Boris Johnson sparked ridicule by telling an Italian economics minister his country would have to offer the UK tariff-free trade to sell the drink in Britain.

But Barnier can also be tough. He forced through laws to regulate every financial sector, 40 pieces of legislation in four years, when he was internal market commissioner, in the face of sustained opposition from industry and some governments.

He warned today, "Being a member of the EU comes with rights and benefits. Third countries [the UK] can never have the same rights and benefits since they are not subject to same obligations.”

On the possibility of Britain curbing free movement of EU citizens and keeping access to the single market, he was unequivocal.

“The single market and four freedoms are indivisible. Cherry-picking is not an option,” he said.

He stressed that his priority in the Brexit negotiations would be the interests of the remaining 27 member states of the European Union, not Britain.

“Unity is the strength of the EU and President Juncker and I are determined to preserve the unity and interest of the EU-27 in the Brexit negotiations.”

In a thinly veiled swipe at the British, again greeted with laughter in the press room, he told reporters, “It is much better to show solidarity than stand alone. I repeat, it is much better to show solidarity than stand alone”.

Referring to the iconic British poster that urged Brits to "Keep Calm and Carry On” during World War Two, he today told reporters, “We are ready. Keep calm and negotiate.”

But Barnier’s calm in the face of the unprecedented challenge to the EU posed by Brexit masks a cold determination to defend the European project at any cost.

James Crisp is the news editor at EurActiv, an online EU news service.