There is a very interesting election taking places in the US today that could have major ramifications for both the next mid term and presidential election cycles. It’s a by-election for a seat in Congress, specifically Pennsylvania's 18th congressional districts.
I’ll be honest I don’t normally focus this much on the US congressional elections (though I have punted on Democrats reclaiming the Congress in November here). This election though is really intriguing for several reasons.
It’s a district that should be a clear win for the Republican candidate. Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton here by nineteen percentage points in the presidential election. It also falls into the infamous Rust Belt, that area of the United States that is suffering from continued post-industrial decline.
If that wasn’t enough, Trump visited personally on Saturday to endorse the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, who himself is a major Trump proponent.
Despite these inherent advantages, the Democratic candidate Conor Lamb is slightly favourite after making gains in the polls in the last few weeks.
While only thirty-three, he has a strong pedigree as a former Marine and federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh.
He’s a right leaning Democrat who has already stated he does not support the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Peloisi.
In my view he has identified that Trump has pulled American politics, at least temporarily, into a new paradigm and to regain power in November in the House and then in the next Presidential race the Democrats need to attack the republicans in different ways.
He has stayed quiet on gun control and abortion, two areas that have often been championed by Democrats but that would not necessarily be popular in his district.
He has focused on jobs and combating the drug crisis, which is a major epidemic in many parts of the Rust Belt. The Democrats were seen by many here as out of touch with the working man and part of “the swamp” and he is doing his utmost to portray himself as fighting for the people.
The view among many political analysts has been that a win for Conor Lamb or even a narrow defeat would be a major boost for the Democrats and show that they are on course for major wins in November.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this but I would look at it from a different angle. If Lamb wins, I think it could be the start of a new approach to beating Trump in many political regions of the US.
The Democrats may decide that a jobs-focused candidate who is viewed as in touch with the working classes may be a better match up than a socially liberal, progressive candidate in 2020. If this does end up being the case, Trump’s legacy will live on past 2021, regardless of victory or defeat.
I wrote a preview of the Italian election a while back here that also looked at the overall state of the Italian economy. It didn’t make for pretty reading and I did reflect afterwards if I had been overly negative.
I predicted that Five Star Movement would win the most seats but would fail to get a majority. One interesting aspect of this election was that, unlike the Brexit or Trump votes, the results, though disheartening and alarming to many, didn’t come as a shock to many.
It was clear for at least 6 months that the Euro-skeptical parties were going to make major gains at the expense of the incumbent left-leaning Democratic Party. Furthermore, a hung parliament was also predicted by most polls.
What is less clear now is what follows. Italian politics is typically built on coalitions and in this campaign, there were three main groups; the centre-right coalition, the centre-left coalition and 5 Star Movement. As you can see from the results below, to form a functioning majority, this political landscape will need to be redrawn.
I won’t spend too long speculating on the internal political machinations now at play as there are plenty of Italian commentators who obviously understand the internal dynamics a lot more than I ever will.
I see three probable outcomes. A Matteo Salvini led centre right minority government, a Luigi di Maio 5 Star Movement in coalition with the League or the Democratic Party.
Of these, the least desirable from my perspective would be a Salvini government. He is strongly anti-immigration and has crossed the line with some language that is close to hate speech and racist on numerous occasion.
It’s important to note that Italy’s challenges and problems haven’t now started because of this election. This election has only brought these issues closer for the forefront of many in Europe, as elections do.
I will hold off further comment for now until we get some further indications of what the next government will be and will then write a more focused article on what this means, in terms of poly and impact.
However, I don’t buy into the simplistic narrative that every election in Europe is now “the centre” v “populism”. There are elements of this in Italy but while immigration has played a role, youth unemployment and disillusionment with the status quo have played a more prominent role.
Unfortunately for Italy, these issues now seem to be part of the status quo. The key policies proposed by the main parties will not help address these issues and I continue to seriously worry for the health of the Italian economy and society as whole , regardless of who next sits in the Palazzo Chigi…
In the end the week wasn’t quite as dramatic as I had predicted here. Further details did emerge from all sides but there were no major fallouts or political backlash, aside from a few belligerent comments from the DUP.
It was a badly kept secret that Jeremy Corbyn would announce last Monday that Labour’s official Brexit policy would now be to seek “a customs union” with the EU. He also stated that the UK would remain in the single market during any transitional period before exiting it.
The speech received a mixed reception with many remain-supporters claiming it didn’t go far enough. Equally, some pro-Brexit Labour MPs were unhappy with Frank Field claiming a customs union would be “ratting” on leave voters.
Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on the speeches, I’m not sure how impactful Corbyn’s intervention was. It has opened some clear divide on policy between Labour and the Tories but for it to be meaningful, Corbyn needs to cultivate some cross-party support to win any major votes against the government.
Fortunately for Corbyn, Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna have already tabled Clause 5 in the Trade Bill, that will lead to a vote in parliament. Many analysts quickly jumped on Corbyn’s change in policy as the potential vote that could bring down the government.
May’s speech on Friday was well received by many as containing more detail. Personally, I didn’t see that. I did learn that it’s now highly unlikely that May will request a customs union, along with the responsibilities that come with it.
Her speech does seem to have appeased the Brexiteers. Jacob Rees Mogg, who leads the anti-EU European Research Group that contains enough MPs to force a Conservative leadership contest, gave it his qualified approval, writing in the Telegraph;
“There are inevitably a few small points that will concern Leave campaigners but we must all recognise that everyone will have to give up something to get a deal, so now is not the time to nitpick.”
I think May has done enough to fend off an attack from this faction of her MPs. If she holds firm on her red lines, she may not accomplish much but it is one less flank she must defend against.
The EU has so far shown very little appetite to compromise on its negotiating stance. The protocol it released on Wednesday, was very close to what was concluded in December, much to the consternation of those who thought that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
The next big challenge for May will come from the remainers. Any meaningful votes in parliament that pushed for a customs union, single market access in exchange for certain Brexit sacrifices could seriously hurt the government.
I do not see Brexit being reversed at this hour but it may end up being quite a light version. This will not be the case if the final agreement is concluded under Theresa May as she has firmly come down on the side of the brexiteers. The strength of the Brexiteer position is that they can maximise the power of their limited numbers by a clarity of purpose.
There is a broad church of pre-EU supporting MPs that would form the majority in the Conservative Party. Unfortunately for them, they have not found a consensus that they can use a rallying cry. In the future political historians would struggle to identify the zeitgeist of the post Brexit referendum vote period.
However, if, for example, the Anna Soubry bill ends up being this rallying cause it could easily win a vote in parliament. Theresa May must now quickly work to convince those within her own party that voting alongside Jeremy Corbyn and Labour for a customs union agreement would seriously undermine the government. I expect to see lots of “red” scaremongering (though done a little more subtly than the Czech spy smear).
Whether this will be enough to convince her own MPs that the UK’s best interests is now outside a customs union but with a bespoke trade deal remains to be seen.
My views on where we are heading have not changed significantly after the last week’s events. I see the UK exiting the EU with a deal that falls short of most expectations on both sides of the EU argument.
Unfortunately, I do not see it causing a general election in the next twelve months, as when push comes to shove the Tories will probably put power over the nation’s interest. I think Theresa May will not last until the summer of 2019 as Prime Minister but my view on whether her exit date is 2018 or 2019 varies almost by the week.
The next few weeks will focus on trade talks and the Irish question, both of which I’ve left aside for today and will come back to shortly. I will be writing quite frequently on Brexit over the next two months, as trade talks are soon going to reach their crescendo..
The next five days will go a long way in determining how Brexit eventually plays out for the British people. It is a week that will be dominated by two speeches from Jeremy Corbyn on Monday and Theresa May on Friday, as well as by the release of the EU protocol of the December agreement that concluded Phase One of the talks.
This is only the very high-level summary of events and there are also other key players and actions that could influence the week. However, I am focusing on these three critical dynamics as they may also determine the future of Theresa May as Prime Minister.
May is currently under pressure from both flanks of her party, as well as from the Labour opposition who have returned to polling ahead of the Conservatives, after a short recent blip…
Until recently most of the pressure came from the pro-Brexit side of the party with Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox all pushing May to pursue a “hard” Brexit which they believed would allow Britain to sign mutually beneficial free trade agreements around the globe.
Of late, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory backbencher, who heads up the European Research Group, has become the most vocal advocate of this from of Brexit through some savvy media appearances and his bi-weekly blog on Conservative Home, aptly named the Moggcast.
While this group have been focused and efficient in their lobbying, they simply don’t have the MP numbers to lead the party (there were 62 MP signatures on a recent letter addressed to the Prime Minister) but could force a leadership contest for the Tories (48 MP letters required).
More worrying for Theresa May is the recent re-invigorated onslaught from the pro-EU side of her party under the likes of Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. Soubry’s proposed new clause 5 in the Trade Bill is potentially very damaging to May’s authority as it is a motion for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU, if not the customs union.
This clause was also signed by Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP who has been very vocal on Brexit. Any customs union agreement with the EU will severely impede on Britain’s ability to conclude free trade deals with third party nations.
This brings me to the first of the two speeches this week. Jeremy Corbyn announced last week that he would make a speech, laying out his party’s vision for Brexit. In recent times, Corbyn has remained quite coy on what Labour’s official policy for Brexit is. It has exposed Corbyn to quite a lot of flak, particularly from its young and London based voters, who typically voted Remain.
The rumours coming out of the party are that Corbyn will call for a customs union with the EU. This will potentially give Soubry’s clause the numbers to pass in Westminster, inflicting a heavy defeat on May and a major victory for those seeking a soft Brexit. Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, two potential future leaders of the party, have both hinted that this will be part of Corbyn’s speech.
It has rarely been that straightforward with anything Brexit-related though. While many Labour supporters voted Leave, backing a customs union would be popular with the majority of his party and could finally differentiate Labour’s strategy from that of the Conservatives, who have continually ruled out a post-Brexit customs Union.
However, Corbyn has been unconvincing in his defence of the European Union and his previous track record of votes in relation to Europe is far from emphatically pro-EU. His style is also not one of bombastic, engaging speeches that capture the imagination and I am quite worried that today may be a damp squib that hands the initiative back to Theresa May on Friday.
May supposedly had a very successful Brexit subcommittee cabinet meeting at Chequers last Thursday where she managed to keep both factions happy and onside. Very little of what was agreed was leaked to the press and we may have to wait until her Friday speech for the detail. It may be that May has come up with a plan that keeps the party united and has found a way around the Irish border issue, one of the major sticking points an almost any proposed plan thus far.
This issue is a about to get a lot more complex on Wednesday when the College of 27 EU Commissioners sign off on a draft legal text of the December Phase 1 agreement. Tony Connolly, from Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE, is reporting here that it will only include the reference to avoid the hard border on the island of Ireland (paragraph 49) and not paragraph 50 which made reference no border down the Irish Sea. This was inserted after pushback from the DUP, who prop up the British government.
If this is the case, then May will be severely limited by this agreement. It will be very interesting to note if any of her Friday demands explicitly contradict the agreement or if May will simply acquiesce to the EU’s rules of negotiation.
Simple acceptance could be fatal for May’s premiership if Corbyn has offered a compelling alternative and the EU have effectively ruled out most of her “fudge” options that have kept party together.
It promises to be a very exciting week of drama, political brinkmanship and intrigue. I am now going to sit back and watch it all unfold…
Last Thursday, Israeli police announced they had recommended the Attorney General that Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases.
Then on Sunday, numerous Israeli media outlets linked him to a case where seven Israelis have been arrested for allegedly helping the Bezeq Group, a communications group, in exchange for favourable coverage of Netanyahu and his wife.
Over the weekend Netanyahu was in Munich, speaking at the same security event as Theresa May. He gave a bellicose speech where he threatened that Israel would take action directly against Iran if any of its redlines were crossed;
“And we will act, if necessary, not just against Iran's proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”
The speech was incredibly aggressive and what made it even more noteworthy was the he directed these threats at the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Zarif, who was in the audience.
However, the pièce de résistance came when he displayed a piece of the drone that Israel shot down which he claimed came from Iran (see title pictures).
In the nine years Netanyahu has spent as Israeli Prime Minister in this current run (he was also Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999) he has been one of the most pugnacious leaders in the democratic world, both in words and deeds.
He has led two military campaigns in this time against the Palestinians, Operation Pillar Defence in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Despite the defensive titles, these claimed over 2,250 Palestinian lives, a large proportion of which were civilians.
He has also continually focused on Iran and has threatened pre-emptive strikes on multiple occasions. He also famously displayed a diagram with a bomb during a speech in 2012 (see title pictures again) saying Iran were 90% there to getting a nuclear weapon. Thankfully, his calls for a strike were ignored by most leaders who went on to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Netanyahu has displayed considerable influence over the US President. He pulled off a major diplomatic coup by convincing the US to relocate its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and he has improved relations with Saudi Arabia in a bid to further isolate Iran.
I won’t speculate on what would come next for Israel and the Middle East if he is forced to resign, though hopefully a more sensible leader will emerge. It would be hard to imagine a more belligerent Israeli Prime Minister taking the mantle from Netanyahu but it is possible. Fortunately, they will almost certainly not have the same influence over the US President and this may lead to a more nuanced Middle East policy from the United States…
I was genuinely annoyed yesterday with the decision of the Democratic Unionist Party to end the talks on reforming a Northern Ireland Assembly and their decision to request the British Government to restore Direct Rule in Northern Ireland. I thought it was worth trying to look at this solely from the perspective of the DUP and not from where I stand as a liberal and Irish nationalist.
It had seemed since last Friday that a deal was very close and that a compromise over a standalone Irish Language Act had been agreed (three Acts; Irish, Ulster-Scots and Culture under an umbrella Act).
However, plenty of unionist politicians and political commentators came out quite vehemently against this and the consensus is that this may have spooked Foster and her party leaders.
I think there may be more to it than this. A new Northern Ireland Assembly deal required compromise from both sides. It did involve potential acquiescence by the DUP on an Irish Language Act and also potentially on Marriage Equality.
Why does the DUP need to compromise though? They have the balance of power at Westminster with their ten seats so when they call for Direct Rule they will have an influence on the governing of Northern Ireland.
It is actually even more emphatic than this when we look closer at the 2017 General Election results. The DUP took ten of eighteen seats and with Sinn Fein abstaining from Westminster it leaves only one non-DUP MP from Northern Ireland, Lady Hermon in North Down.
I would be slightly concerned though if I was Arlene Foster. It now appears as if the ten MPs are the future of the party, particularly in the continued absence of an Assembly.
The RHI scandal still looms over the head of Foster (this was the original reason for the Assembly collapsing in the first place) and if the Inquiry leads a damning conclusion, she may even be quietly removed with a number of potential leaders from the MP pool.
Without an Assembly there will be no Irish Language Act or Marriage Equality Act in Northern Ireland, why would the Tories risk either when they need the support of the DUP.
Karen Bradley, the relatively new Northern Ireland secretary recently compared the issue of Marriage Equality to broadband, deeming both devolved issues;
“It will be a matter for the elected politicians in Northern Ireland to make a decision about equal marriage,” ... “That’s not for me to impose, in the same way it’s not for me to impose the way that super-fast broadband is rolled out across the country.”
If the DUP cross the Rubicon and decide that the Northern Ireland Assembly is no longer needed (for now they have just suggested that a return won’t be happening in the short to midterm) they will leave nationalists without any representation in a local or British parliament.
There is very little possibility of Sinn Fein taking their seats at Westminster, even if their continued absence hurts their constituents. Equally, Sinn Fein are in such a position of dominance over their main nationalist rival, the SDLP, that there isn’t much possibility of SDLP getting any seats at the next Westminster election.
The Good Friday Agreement does call for the Republic of Ireland to have a role in overseeing the implementation of the agreement but it is hard to see how this could become joint authority or joint governance.
Unless the Irish government makes some concrete form of joint rule a red line for approving the UK’s Brexit Deal (which is highly unlikely) than it leaves nationalists almost completely out in the cold. The Irish government will most likely focus on the border and even this will require a lot of work and compromise with the British government, leaving little leverage for pushing for a more direct role in managing NI affairs.
This is probably not the consensus view of the next few years and there is every chance that a deal will still be agreed at some point in 2018.
There is every chance that this could lead to a massive backlash against the DUP in the next Westminster election as many citizens place the blame on the lack of progress, economic or social, in the state.
Alternatively, many potential voters may be so disillusioned by the time the next election rolls around that the opposition parties may not be able to rally a large turnout. A low turnout would almost certainly favour the DUP.
In my view, this success of the DUP’s decision to effectively shut down Stormont for the foreseeable future will be determined by when the next UK General election is called. If it is as late as 2022 (as the bookies currently believe) then they are effectively the only voice in Northern Ireland politics with actual power. The latest date for the next election is May 2022, that’s a staggering fifty one months of dominance.
However, if the UK govt falls in the short to midterm, which may be possible given the internal Tory turmoil, the DUP may lose some seats and not hold the Westminster majority after the election.
I haven’t touched upon Brexit or demographics in this article (I covered it here quite recently) as this has been extensively covered and wanted to try and understand the DUP’s mentality and decision making.
They are often lampooned by the media and their strategic direction and intelligence questioned but when I took a cold, analytical look at where both major parties stand, the DUP seem to be in a much stronger position without Stormont…
Labour have recently encountered a slight setback in British General Election polling, suffering their first three consecutive poll defeats since the General Election in June 2017.
It has encouraged calls for Jeremy Corbyn to come out stronger against a “Hard Brexit” and to make a greater case for the United Kingdom to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union.
In recent weeks Chuka Umunna, the young Labour MP from London, has been one of the most vocal proponents of the United Kingdom remaining in both.
His appearance on the Andrew Marr show last weekend was quite impressive, even if the image of him speaking in solidarity with Conservative MP Anna Soubry, an ardent pro-remain MP, would be difficult to accept for many Labour supporters.
Umunna has been quite astute in trying to rally the pro-remain Labour supporters without directly criticising Corbyn. Instead, he said he could not envision Corbyn using party whip to vote for a Hard Brexit;
“I cannot conceive of circumstances where Labour MPs are marshalled to go through the lobby and vote against us staying in the customs union and the single market with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove,”
“I cannot see Jeremy saying to Labour MPs, “we’re going through the lobby with those guys” and damaging the interests of our constituents.”
Personally, I don’t think it’s a definite negative that Corbyn isn’t taking the lead on Brexit. There is a significant element of his party who voted Leave and with so many things uncertain and fluid in the UK-EU negotiations, there will be plenty of time to lay out position ahead of a “meaningful” vote in the Commons on a final deal.
The challenge for Corbyn is to ensure his policies and plans for Healthcare, Education etc get enough airtime and continued publicity in the current environment where many in the British media are focused almost exclusively on Brexit and the internecine internal Tory disputes.
I thought that this dispute would be more damaging to Conservative poll support. However, I am beginning to theink the continued publicity and coverage of both sides may be helping the Tories in the short term.
For now, until there is a clear Brexit policy by the Conservative party, every potential voter in the Tory universe who has accepted that Brexit cannot be wholly reversed can still envisage a successful outcome to the talks.
Until the Conservatives policy becomes clear and Labour know where they stand I don’t think the polls should overly concern Labour HQ.
Corbyn and his team should continue to lay out their vision for government while making contingency plans for Labour’s position in the various potential scenarios that arise from the talks…
After four months, the German parties involved in negotiations have reached an agreement to conclude a new coalition, pending a vote from the members of the Social Democrats (SPD).
However, the key point to take from this agreement is how much Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats/Bavarian sister party (CDU/CSU) had to concede to get it over the line.
To appease the previously sceptical Martin Schulz and his Social Democrats, she has given his party the Foreign and Finance portfolios, plus some others. The former are two major coups for his party.
Schulz is expected to step down as leader of the party and take the role of Foreign Minister. He has been a major advocate of a more federal Europe and has even tweeted his desire for a “United States of Europe” by 2025.
Merkel is not expected to finish the next term and may even retire if the approximately 460,000 SPD members vote down the coalition in early March.
Even if it passes, she will not be able to lead and execute on her decisions in the same capacity as she has previously done. Her leadership has been characterised by a progressive approach to the many issues facing Europe and Germany over the last decade but in a timely and non-radical manner.
Merkel will have to balance all factions’ ambitions in this coalition as well as defending against the Alternative for Germany attacks from the opposition benches, who went from no seats in 2013 to the current third largest party.
Their populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are resonating with more voters since the decision of Merkel to allow up to a million immigrants into Germany since the Syrian Civil War.
Contrast this with Emmanuel Macron, who has four more years until the next Presidential election and has a majority of 350 seats of a total of 577 in the National Assembly.
He has so far been able to reform the previously impregnable French Labour laws , has political momentum and the French economy had its strongest performance in 2017 in six years, growing 1.9%.
There are challenges for Macron ahead. Things can change quickly in French politics and major protests may still erupt over the labour reforms or other legislative changes.
“It’s the economy stupid” – I’ve heard this quote dozens of times over the years in political parlance. I had attributed it incorrectly to Ronald Reagan and not James Carville, part of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign team.
The central tenet of this claim was that the electorate vote with their pockets. Their perception of the economy has a major bearing on the way they vote. Incumbents can point to a strong economy, while candidates will offer an alternative solution that they believe will improve the economy.
This is not an American phenomenon and can often be the case in any election across the globe. What is a little different with President Trump is that he has repeatedly boasted about how much the stock market has risen in his time as president as opposed to the overall performance of the economy.
At Davos in January, he spuriously claimed that the stock market had increased 50% since he was elected and that it would have dropped 50% if Hillary Clinton had been elected. This was met with a mixture of gasps and derision from the audience. The market has undoubtedly increased under his tenure but this is a continuation of an exceptionally long bull run (I won’t delve into the details here as this run has been covered extensively).
However, what we have seen over the past few days is that the stock market is a volatile beast that can’t be controlled or tamed. On Monday, the Dow Jones dropped 1,175 points (4.6%) which was its largest fall in absolute terms ever.
There are numerous theories as to this occurred, ranging from the beginning of a major correction to profit taking by savvy investors.
Regardless of whether it heralds the beginning of something major or not, Trump should heed the warning it offers. The economy consists of a lot more than the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
If Trump stakes his presidential performance to a simple and crude metric measure like this he could swiftly find himself out of touch with an electorate that had become frustrated with the lack of tangible economic progress felt under earlier part of the same bull run under Barack Obama.
To be fair to Trump, he has also focused on job creation as well, although according to some economists that may soon suffer from supply constraints. Equally, his tax reforms have been met with a lot of cynicism from the Democrats who see them as tax cuts for the rich while not offering enough benefits across the spectrum of the labour force.
It’s a long way until the next US presidential election. The current bull run would have to break a lot more records for it to still be going by the time campaign season swings around.
Trump speaks a lot about fake news and how his positions and events are misconstrued. In many ways this has been successful to an extent. However, he will find it a lot more difficult to dismiss a plummet in share prices or a major market correction as simply not true.
By not diversifying his offering and thinking in greater terms than an equity index, Trump may lose the election before the first ballot in the Democratic presidential nominee campaign is even cast.
At the start of the year I did a quick scan of what elections are coming up in Europe in 2018. The Italian election on Mach 4th caught my eye and I decided to do a little research on the the Italian economy, the general state of Italian politics and the key political players and parties heading into the election.
All three areas really captured my imagination but I quickly became concerned about the direction Italy is heading in and what tangible progress it has made since the worst days of the Financial Crisis and the European Sovereign Debt Crisis.
I wrote a little about Italy a while back when discussing the current states of the PIIGS but it was quite high level and I didn’t delve deep enough to really get an insight into the current malaise troubling many Italians and its economy.
The first thing to note is that the current global economy overall is as strong as it has been in a decade. There is positive news emanating from all across the globe, boosted by stronger than predicted economic performance in China, positive economic sentiment in Europe and the continued stock market bull run in the US (Trump’s tax deal may be a factor in the very short term to this but will ultimately be damaging in the long term).
However, the headline figures do not look good for Italy. The overall debt to GDP has continued to grow and stood at 132.6% of GDP at the end of 2016. This is dangerously high for a developed economy and compares very unfavourably to its peers in the EU (highlighted in red and blue in the chart respectively)
Other European nations had have had similar levels of debt but have benefitted from strong levels of growth recently as the overall EU economy enjoys a period of strong growth which has led to the lowering of their Debt/GDP ratios. Unfortunately, the growth in Italy has been quite slow and continues to lag most of its peers.
The Italian statistics office has estimated that YoY growth in Q3 2017 was 1.7%. This is the best figure since Q1 2011 and 2017 looks set to be the best year 2010. The growth is encouraging and has been welcomed by investors and pundits alike. If the growth continues like this over the next two to three years Italy may see itself in a more structurally strong state.
In relation to Italy, it does appear JFK’s old words hold slightly true; “a rising tide lifts all ships”. I say slightly as it more from those looking from the outside inwards than the feelings of every day Italians, many of whom still feel disillusioned and left behind.
The political situation is a lot more challenging. The current government is led by a coalition of centre-left parties under the leadership of Paolo Gentiloni and the Democratic Party (PD). The previous Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, was performing well in polls and election. He may even have joined (in the eyes of the media at least) the ranks of young, progressive global leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron. However, he fell on the sword of constitutional reform and resigned after the Italian electorate rejected his proposed changes.
In polls PD and its probable coalition allies are now significantly trailing the “centre right” coalition, of which the two largest parties are Forza Italia and Lega Norda.
The former is led by Silvio Berlusconi, the comeback “kid” of Italian politics whose resurgence has been partly fuelled by his promise for a flat tax rate for all Italians, initially starting at 23% but eventually moving down to 20%.
A flat 15% rate has been a campaign pledge of their key ally, Lega Norda (under the leadership of Matteo Salvini) for quite some time. It has proven popular with the electorate but is seen as quixotic by their opposition and most economists.
While austerity has certainly not been a purely positive factor for peripheral nations in the EU in recent years, abandoning fiscal prudence with such a policy like this could be absolutely devastating to the Italian economy, particularly when debt is already greater than 130% of GDP as previously discussed.
Another factor that could potentially be detrimental to Italy is the Lega Norda’s stance on immigration and their ties with other right wing parties in Europe. Salvini has come out quite strongly against Muslims in Italy with quotes like;
“The problem of the Muslim presence is increasingly worrying. There are more and more clashes, more and more demands. And I doubt the compatibility of Italian law with Muslim law, because it's not just a religion but a law. And problems can be seen in Great Britain as well as in Germany, so reassessing our coexistence is fundamental.”
This sounds a lot closer to what we associate with leaders in Hungary and other Eastern EU states then Italy’s traditional place at the heart of Europe as a founding member of the European Economic Community.
The X factor in Italian politics currently at the moment is the Five Star Movement. They are currently leading most polls to secure the most seats (I punted on them recently and the odds have dropped significantly since). They claim not to be a political party and neither see themselves on the left or right of the political spectrum.
They have dropped their pledge for a referendum on the euro but little else is known of their polices and aims apart from “transparency” and tackling corruption. In recent days, there has been more mootings for potential coalitions based on the numbers, though it is still difficult to envisage who they could go into government that would deliver a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
In all likelihood, they will get the most seats but the centre right will be the closest to forming a majority. In either case, it will lead to a stalemate with political uncertainty and paralysis until Italians go back to the polls or a centre right coalition with a heavy populist element and major tax cuts at a time when Italy has the second highest debt to GDP ratio after Greece.
The world is in a strange place currently where economic optimism is high and markets are performing well. Paradoxically, geopolitical risk is reaching levels not seen for quite some time. If Italy continues down the same path without clear reform or strategic direction it may be one of the biggest casualties globally in an economic downturn.
The good times cannot last indefinitely and ultimately it is the tough decisions you make in them that determine your ability to handle recessions.
Unfortunately for Italians, their political leaders have not yet identified these challenges, let alone started to tackle them…
2017 was one of the most exciting year ends for politics in the Republic in recent memory. In Late November, the fallout from the Sergeant McCabe drama reached its crescendo which led to an incredible game of brinkmanship between Leo Varadkar and Michael Martin. Initially, Fianna Fail went for blood and when Leo publicly backed Frances Fitzgerald it seemed the government’s confidence and supply was teetering on the edge of a political precipice.
An election at that time would have been very, very tight and could have gone either way. Michael Martin had publicly announced that he would not enter coalition with Sinn Fein but I think if the numbers had been right at that time, it could well have happened.
I think it was ultimately fortunate for Fine Gael that two further incriminatory emails were found that realistically made Frances Fitzgerald’s position untenable. While Fine Gael maintained their public position that her resignation was regrettable and unfair, I’m sure there were some sighs of relief around Fine Gael HQ. In Leo’s words;
“So, it is with deep regret that I have accepted her resignation. It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing.”
As I wrote about then, the Brexit talks could not have come at a better time for Fine Gael, in the direct aftermath of the aforementioned scandal. The unequivocal backing given to the Irish government allowed Leo Varadkar to be bullish and stand firm on the long held Irish positions. It played very well with the Irish public and was a change from the cautious approach of Enda Kenny who, at times, has been perceived as a lap dog of the European leaders.
By the time an agreement was finally reached that accommodated all sides and allowed the talks to proceed to Phase Two, Fine Gael had already enjoyed a boost in popularity which was reflected in the polls at the time. They reached 36% in an Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times, their highest in over two years. It definitely allowed Fine Gael to finish the year on a high and gave the opposition parties plenty of food for thought.
So far in 2018, the public’s focus has shifted to more local issues with healthcare and housing back on the agenda. In these areas, Fina Gael have not performed as well as could be expected and it offers opportunities for both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein to challenge current government policies and offer alternatives. As always, in Fianna Fail’s case it is a little more challenging as they are propping up the government through the C&S agreement.
Michael Martin has done a decent job over the last eighteen months of differentiating Fianna Fail’s position from those of Fine Gael, despite being complicit in any piece of legislation that has been passed. I have mentioned already that it was very difficult to do so in Brexit talks as the public were quite united behind Leo Varadkar, here even Sinn Fein’s criticism of the government approach was muted. When the talks resume in March, Fianna Fail will again struggle for relevancy.
The Eight Amendment debate has really captured the media’s attention currently. It has probably overtaken healthcare and housing for many as the key issue facing the parties today. While no referendum has currently been set, the debate about what is on the ballot paper and who supports what is already raging.
Sinn Fein as a party have come out quite strongly for a replace motion that, at the very least, makes changes to the current wording and offers more rights to women. There have been dissidents to this policy, most notably Peader Tiobin in Meath West.
Fine Gael TD’s have mostly come out in favour of some sort of repeal or replace motion. Interestingly, Varadkar has not publicly stated his position yet. It would be a political bombshell if he came out in favour of keeping the Eight amendment and could even put his position as party leader in doubt. I believe he will offer a very nuanced opinion soon, that gives him enough room to manoeuvre without totally alienating the ardent repealers in his party, with the likes of Kate O’Connell making passionate speeches against it recently with memorable quotes like;
“It is when we have been at our most Catholic in Ireland that we have been at our least Christian,….Irish women were quite literally enslaved in an act of church and State collusion that can be honestly characterised as nothing other than sexual apartheid,…….Their babies were sold like puppies to foreign homes or enslaved in industrial schools to be preyed upon by those in power wielding authority”
However, Fianna Fail are the most intriguing party to analyse on this issue. At the Ard Fheis last October, the party came out quite strongly against repealing the Eight Amendment. With estimates of the no repeal motion being passed by a ratio of 5/6 to 1, it is incredible that Michael Martin has now publicly backed repealing the Eight and going as far as to back abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
The two favourites to be the next Fianna Fail leader, Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary, have both openly opposed Michal Martin’s stance on this. I think Michal Martin is greatly concerned about being perceived as the socially conservative party in Irish politics.
It would open Fianna Fail to attack on both flanks from 1) fiscally conservative but socially liberal voters who may swing to Fine Gael and 2) socially liberal, nationalist voters who now see Sinn Fein as a better fit for their views.
I think it’s fair to say that, at the very least, Michael Martin has staked his political future on the Eight being repealed or replaced. It this isn’t the case the knives may come immediately. Even if it passes though, his authority has now been publicly questioned and unless Fianna Fail manage to close the gap to Fine Gael by the end of the year I can see a leadership challenge emerge.
Mary Lou McDonald is now the President-Elect of Sinn Fein. Opinions vary on whether Sinn Fein see an immediate boost in the polls from this. I think it will take time, as plenty of media outlets and political commentators have already implied that this is only a superficial change.
Mary Lou McDonald needs a catalyst to really show that Sinn Fein is her party now. An issue that she can directly lead and take on the government over. She nearly had it over the Frances Fitzgerald issue, before Michael Martin shrewdly made it his own.
She is an excellent debater and she is able to hold her own in most Dail exchanges. I see Fine Gael as the leading party over the next eighteen months at least. The key challenge for Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein is to convince the public that they are the viable alternative. Currently, Fianna Fail hold a considerable lead in the polls (see latest from January 21st below) but may struggle on a whole host of issues as previously discussed.
Finally, on a 2018 election I think the chances of this happening have greatly receded since December. This is reflected in betting odds where it has dropped from 1/8 to 4/7. Fianna Fail will not call an election while they are behind in the polls. Equally, Fine Gael do not need to and will see 2018 as an opportunity to enhance their reputation on housing (note the newly announced first buyer’s scheme) as well as benefitting from any available good will on the Eight Referendum and Brexit outcomes that appear favourable to Ireland.
2018 will be a very interesting year and the dynamics between all three main parties will evolve fluidly over different issues. Fine Gael do look slightly unassailable currently in terms of most seats in a General Election. That being said, they were on their almost on their knees as recently as November and may find themselves sin a similar position again if the key events of 2018 do not go their way. An increasingly desperate Michael Martin and a newly emboldened Mary Lou McDonald will be waiting in the wings for any possible path to power…
The UK is looking increasingly isolated in international circles. Some of this is clearly down to Brexit and the pressure it has put on relations with the EU 26 nations. This is not the only reason though. Actions taken by some of its other allies have led to binary choices for the British which have had very obvious downsides.
In the past, they may have been in a position to arbitrate these disputes but currently there are simply not enough resources available or focus to take on this role.
I write this as I read that Donald Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom has been cancelled. The writing was on the wall for this visit for some time. Many groups had rallied around it and used it as a lightning rod to channel their frustrations about the current state of the United Kingdom.
It seems very likely that any kind of visit (there were already previous indications that it would be toned down from a full state visit) would have been met protests. Clearly Trump didn’t fancy that.
However, relations have been strained between Theresa May and Donald Trump before this. When Trump retweeted a Britain First video in November, it was met with serious criticism from the British Government. Trump in turn reacted by tweeting;
"Theresa, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!"
It will be a challenge to move relations back to where they were under almost every President before Trump over the last thirty years. There have been very few diplomatic crises between the US and the UK in that time. Unfortunately for the UK Brexit and the Trump presidency occurred within seven months.
It is difficult to envisage a return to the previous level of relations while Trump remains as president. The challenge is that he will continue to say/tweet controversial remarks. May will continue to come under severe pressure by her electorate to condemn the most odious and abhorrent of these remarks. Even mild public criticism will irk Trump and probably cause him to lash out publicly. The downward spiral will then continue…
Furthermore, Trump’s foreign policy lacks the nuance of previous administrations. In the Palestinian question, he has practically cast off any semblance of neutrality by recognising Jerusalem as the undisputed, undivided capital of Israel and publicly criticising the Palestinian leadership. May does not have the stomach to seriously oppose this policy and this will not her position or popularity in the Middle East.
Similarly, in the ongoing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the British government has failed to level any criticism of the new Saudi regime despite obvious human rights abuses in their Yemeni campaign.
Major arms deals from the UK to Saudi Arabia mean there is little scope to work with the Iranian side to mediate this crisis or, at the very least, maintain cordial relations with Iran. Boris Johnson did defend the Iranian Nuclear Agreement this week but it may not be enough after his earlier gaffe in the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe scandal.
The lack of allies currently in Europe is highly linked to Brexit and it will be difficult to change this in the short to medium term until the Brexit question is (if ever?) resolved. Ironically, if the UK had voted to Remain, I think there would now be a lot of scope to take more of a role as a leader in the EU. It would be able to work with the many eastern countries who have a healthy euro scepticism and it may have been able to get concessions on the overall EU immigration policy.
These countries have recently pushed for closer ties and integration with China. Increased trade with China is a key objective of the British government. Fortunately for the UK, Chinese-British relations have not been damaged by the Trump or Brexit factors. Managing this relationship will be crucial to a post- EU Britain.
On a Eurozone budget, it would not have had a say, but could have still have pushed back on proposed tax harmonisation and worked with the smaller nations who it has had historically strong ties with such as Malta, Cyprus and, more recently, Ireland.
Brexit has also negatively impacted ties with Russia as allegations and accusations of interference in the Brexit referendum have been levelled and rejected while US sanctions have been enforced. Again, increasing ties with Russia makes a lot of sense moving forward in terms of diplomatic clout and trade but the UK may be hamstrung here by US/Russia relations…
In summary, there are many challenges currently facing British diplomats and the UK government. It has been a challenging few years overall for the UK. However, the UK still has a lot of soft power and brand Britain is very strong. I see this almost everywhere I go in the world. A genuine problem currently is the political paralysis of the British Government as it struggles to come to terms with the competing factions in its government as well as major opposition to Brexit.
The UK will only be able to start to mend and build further ties when it has a clearer idea of where it wants to go and regains it sense of purpose. No pragmatic nation wants to build further ties with a rudderless country in a perceived state of political and economic malaise…
I sometimes place an over emphasis on individual leaders and how their decisions and interactions can shape and dictate global events. Please allow me to do so once more. For this article, I want to pick a few quotes from Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping during Macon’s recent trip to China that I believe capture the aims and attitudes of both men.
I have written in the past about Macron’s grand plans for France and Europe. I believe he sees himself as heading a France that is on the cusp of regaining its place as joint leader of the European Union, after allowing Germany to dominate proceedings since the financial crash in 2008.
To do so, while he tackles legacy domestic issues at home, he must also present a dynamic and confident France abroad. A large part of his election manifesto was to make France competitive again. To do this, he must increase French exports. China is naturally the most attractive market so this trip was a major test and opportunity for Macron.
For Xi Jinping, a man who has the world at his feet, Macron’s visit was an opportunity to host a leader of a still influential European nation while not being overawed as the realities of their respective economic strength becomes more evident each day. This visit carried a lot less pressure for XI Jinping but did give him the chance to project Chinese prestige and strength to Europe as it continues its Belt Road Initiative project.
Macron started his three-day tour in Xi’an, the ancient starting point of the Silk Roads to show his commitment to China’s “new silk road”, the afore-mentioned Belt Road Initiative.
“After all, the ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese,” …… “By definition, these roads can only be shared. If they are roads, they cannot be one-way,”
This was a clear message to China that current trade imbalances cannot continue indefinitely. He later referenced the exact figures of French imports and exports to China and it was a recurrent theme throughout his trip.
Macron pulled out all the stops in terms of flattering the Chinese with Chinese literature quotes, a visit to a very important but virtually unknown Buddhist pagoda in Xi’an and the gift of a white horse, Vesuvius.
Unfortunately for Macron, despite his Gallic charm offensive. he struggled to deliver many major deals or positive “results” on the trip. He had urged caution before the trip and justified this on the trip stating;
“I don’t want to give the impression that we made this trip to obtain as many contracts as possible,” ……“We have secured unprecedented openings ... which are the result of much hard work.”
This did come across as a little Trumpesque and all it was missing were a few ‘great’, ‘tremendous’ and huge’ adjectives strewn in. France simply doesn’t have the economic strength to dictate favourable trading terms with China. While Macron believes he represents the undivided European Union position, this is simply not, yet at least, the case.
Only this week I wrote about the divisions emerging in the European Union. I failed to mention the economic divergence which became apparent in a summit hosted by Viktor Orban last November. It included leaders of China and sixteen eastern European nations (Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).
China has already benefitted from these divisions by making major investments in peripheral EU countries like Greece, Hungary and Poland. It’s a smart move designed to create divisions in Europe (not dissimilar to what Putin’s Russia often orchestrates) and also to create exit and entrance points for the Belt Road Initiative in Europe. The major difference with Russia though is that China has the financial clout to build and sponsor major infrastructure projects. It’s a tired cliché but money still talks…
Macron and other EU leaders are aware of this. Macron went as far as almost rebuking Xi Jinping for this by stating the below, although it was very veiled criticism and probably aimed more at the leaders of sixteen nations who attended the November summit in Budapest;
“Europe has often shown itself divided about China,”….“And China won’t respect a continent, a power, when some member states let their doors freely open.”…“China, which is a great power, does not respect a country that sells its essential infrastructures to the lowest bidder,”
Ultimately this trip was a little underwhelming. It delivered little in terms of concrete results. Macron can console himself slightly by acknowledging that he did show a lot more sophistication and understanding of China than Donald Trump managed to back in November. However, this does not make up for the lack of political and economic power Macron has compared to the US.
While Macron clearly believes he represents both France and the European Union, I believe Xi Jinping saw him as a leader of a country of 67 million people, which would be the equivalent of the seventh largest province in China. When Macron returns to France and tries to follow up on some of the initiatives discussed in China, he may also come to this realisation pretty rapidly…
Unfortunately, this article is a little dated already. I first alluded to this divide back in June in an article about the PIIGs but then got pulled in a myriad of directions and topics. The evidence of this divide has grown since.
The recent demands of the Polish and Hungarian leaders for a greater say in running the European Union, particularly in the areas of budget and immigration, at a joint press conference was what reminded me that I not returned to this topic in some time. The image above of both men standing strong and divided will play well with their electorate, as well as populists across Europe.
I still think it is worth discussing now as it may be a key factor in the European Union in the near to medium term. There is a clear gap opening between the western EU states clustered around France and Germany and the Eastern states led by Poland and Hungary.
This is not a simple “them and us” divide and both camps do not neatly fit into sides. However, there are factors that are worth looking at. The easiest way is probably to look at the different tensions between the West and Hungary and Poland respectively, while looking at how they have aligned their interests in the meantime. Finally, identifying where they can find allies in the rest of Europe.
Viktor Orban is the combative, outspoken leader of the conservative Fidesz party. He has been Prime Minister since April 2010, though he was also previously Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002. He has passed a number of controversial laws, including an article in the constitution in support of traditional marriage.
However, the real fissure between himself and the many members of the western states stems from his views on immigration. In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, Hungary erected a border fence between itself and Serbia so that it could monitor the immigrants entering the country.
Prior to this, Orban had rejected the conditions of the Dublin Agreement in June and prevented immigrants being returned to Hungary. A year later he caused further controversy when he claimed that
“Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future,”
“every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk”….“For us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it,”
While deemed deplorable by numerous political commentators, this language resonates well with many across Europe, as the relative success of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage in France and the UK indicates. Orban also highlighted the fact that the western states did not have to face the “invasion” in the same way, as they were far away from the migration path.
Poland was initially, at least partially, supportive of the EU’s immigration measure and voted Yes in the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council majority vote to relocate 120,000 refugees in September 2015.
In October of that year, the Law and Justice party came to power. It is also a socially conservative party, though it wasn’t perceived as quite as euro-skeptical party as Orban’s Fidesz party. It has publicly stated its admiration of the Fidesz party with one its founders Jarosław Kaczyński previously claiming
“a day will come when we have a Budapest in Warsaw.”
The Polish government, under the Law and Justice party, came into conflict with the European Union in 2017 over its plans to check the supreme court’s independence and to assume control of the appointment of judges. The proposed legislation would have immediately fired the majority of the sitting eighty-three judges on the supreme court subject to being re-appointed.
The attempted removal of the separation between the legislative and judicial elements of Polish society was met with a fierce rebuke by the European Commission. The vice president, Frans Timmermans, said;
“Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law,”
The crisis reached a crescendo in December with the EU threating to invoke the most serious sanctions possible, including suspension of voting rights and blocking financial transfers.
This would have required the backing of all other member states. Viktor Orban declared at the time that Hungary would veto this under any circumstances. A defiant message to the Commission that they can’t bully member states into submission.
Looking forward, there is no doubt that both governments will work together on a number of strategic aims.
On immigration, they can find allies in nearly all oppositions across Europe (fortunately, Ireland does not have a far right, anti -immigration party, the reasons for which I hope to explore soon). The recent success of Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) which allowed them to enter Austrian government as the junior coalition partner is a boon, particularly for Victor Orban. While the FPO are a lot less bellicose about their opposition to immigration, there is certainly common ground to explore and expand upon.
EU interference in domestic issues is particularly irksome to both governments and it plays well to both electorates when they effectively tell the EU to “butt out”. Orban supported Spain’s Catalonian crackdown , claiming
“The Catalonian referendum is a Spanish internal issue, and accordingly Hungary is not commenting on the subject”.
The plans of Emmanuel Macron to further harmonize and integrate the European Union will be an area of opposition for both and they may be able to draw in allies here that would not necessarily agree on their views on immigration but feel threatened by further EU consolidation.
Ironically, the United Kingdom may have fallen into this category. Theresa May visited Poland in December to sign a military pact and it was notable that she claimed the judicial crisis was a domestic issue for Poland to decide.
The UK may still look to both nations for support in the latter stages of the Brexit negotiations. So far, the European side has shown itself to be united but any division would aid the UK’s negotiating hand.
In summary, a divide is opening up between the governments of some eastern and western EU nations. There are a number of challenges that need to hurdled. The European Commission and Parliament have to understand that dialogue is essential, while at the same time not pandering to populist, far right policies that threaten human rights or the rule of law.
Europe is finally enjoying a relative period of geo-political stability after a tumultuous decade. If this is to continue through 2018 and into 2019, a pragmatic approach is needed by all sides. I am not certain that this will be the case and will revisit this topic over the next eighteen months. Interesting times lie ahead…
I started A Bit Left and A Bit Lost in June 2017. Initially, it was something to do while I moved countries and searched for a job. A way to combine my interest in politics and current affairs with that little spark for writing I think I've always had but rarely used.
It's been a great seven months. I've written around thirty articles and even got a few published on Slugger O' Toole. However, I love having everything I write on my own medium, so I can link back to previous articles and develop some themes and trends. These trends can evolve over time or dissipate in numerous ways. From key characters stepping aside or a catalyst for change.
The Political Punts page allows me to make "hard" predictions on a certain date and then look back and either bask in a little self congratulation or try to identify what I incorrectly assumed or based the bet on.
These 2018 predictions are a mix of themes and potential events. I always place at least a little wager on the political punts so finding markets online to match my views and predictions can be tricky. For these, they are more general predictions and most touch on topics I have covered in 2017.
Trump to continue his Erratic Foreign Policy but No War: The United States is in disarray under Donald Trump. Trump has already had spats with numerous leaders and caused widespread outrage with his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has shown little ability to maintain a coherent foreign policy. Trump is easily distracted by individual events and I expect this to continue. I think, in time, 2017 will be seen as a year of regression for the US but for now the buoyant global economy is giving Trump some breathing space.
The Global Bull Market Run to Continue, Just About...: 2017 has been a great year for the global economy and stick markets. We are definitely getting close to the peak and there will eventually be a market correction but there should just about be enough fuel left for 2018 to be another positive year. If this is the case, I will probably be making a very different 2019 prediction.
China to Continue its Steady, Low-Key Ascent to Global Hegemony: It was a good year for China and its leader Xi Jinping. He managed to consolidate his hold on power, prevented Trump from delivering on his pre-election threats on trade and China avoided any hard economic landing, while extending its global diplomatic and economic reach. I expect 2018 to be a similar year and would be surprised if there are any major negative stories.
Tories to Survive and Brexit is Happening: 2018 will be a tough year for the United Kingdom. Brexit is not going to be reversed with the current government (or a Labour alternative). The current Tory Government will probably survive but continue to stutter along. It is hard to see how the UK will be in a better state this time next year than now. However, politics in the UK has been so shocking since the Scottish Independence referendum was first called and there is every chance that something equally surprising and unexpected will happen in 2018.
Fine Gael to increase seats lead over Fianna Fail in any Irish General Election: The economic headline figures will continue to impress and this will be enough for many to approve of Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. Furthermore, the "Brexit talks bounce" will continue to help Fine Gael and paralyse Fianna Fail. 2018 should be a good year for Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar.
The Irish Abortion Referendum Campaign to be Brutal: I think this will be a very nasty, divisive election. Much more similar to the last US Presidential election or the Brexit Referendum than the Marriage Equality Referendum. It is a much more partisan topic than marriage equality, which I believe the average Irish voter ultimately viewed as a matter of common decency and fairness. It should pass but if the odds go above 5 or 6/1 I may take a small speculative punt on it not passing.
Iran to get even closer to Russia/China and avoid a Revolution: The news has been filled with coverage of the current unrest in Iran recently. I don't think this will reach the levels of 2009 and the Green Revolution. Iran will continue to forge deeper links with Russia and China as Trump will make occasional threats against Iran, mainly at the best of Benjamin Netanyahu and the American pro-Israel lobby.
Thank you for reading this year. Keep following and have a happy and healthy 2018!
I have been following events in Catalonia from afar since I last wrote about the violent reaction of the government after the independence referendum. Since then, my attention and focus has been a little closer to home with a relatively dramatic period of events and negotiations concerning Brexit and a scandal in the Irish government. On the international front, the decision of Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a major talking point among the liberal, chattering classes.
In this age of constant news, viewed and accessed through many devices and mediums, it is very difficult for a topic to dominate the headlines for more than a fleeting moment. The Catalan separatist movement suffered from this.
There was genuine outrage across Europe and further afield in the aftermath of the crackdown. The images of citizens being assaulted by members of the Spanish police as they attempted to exercise their democratic right to vote was abhorrent to most people across the world.
I wrote that Rajoy had astutely guessed that whilst he may initially face a global backlash, he would not face major challenges from his Spanish constituents and that the ire abroad would quickly dissipate.
A crucial victory for Rajoy was the muted response to the violence from the European Union leaders and leaders of the EU 27. A crisis like this can either cause a period of introspection where you analyse the issues that have caused it or a hardening of attitudes where the blame is focused solely on the other side.
On this occasion Europe, in the midst of a number of existential challenges, leaders were happy to call this a Spanish problem and wash their hands of any responsibility. This attitude was summed up by the words of Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the European Parliament;
“Let me be clear: Violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution. And it can never be used as a weapon or instrument. None of us want to see violence in our societies. However, it is a duty for any government to uphold the law, and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force.”
I believe this deafening silence of condemnation further emboldened Rajoy to pursue criminal charges against the leaders of the Catalan Independence bid, as well as dissolving the Catalan parliament. Arrest warrants were issued for at least ten Catalonian politicians. The majority of these were arrested and some remain in jail. Carlos Puigdemont and four former ministers fled to Belgium, where they remain. Spain initially tried to extradite them but has now withdrawn the five European arrest warrants.
The election on the 21st of December will be a decisive victory for Rajoy and Spanish unionist if they can break the majority currently held by pro-Independence parties. It is important to note that less than half of the electorate turned out to vote in the initial Independence Referendum in September.
The Spanish government claims that the silent majority have always favoured unity and may have voted for pro-independence parties in the past more to protect local interests as opposed to wanting an independent Catalonia. They can then state that the results of this election are a more accurate reflection of political desire for an independent Catalonia.
From the most recent polling data available, it does appear that the pro-independence parties will fall short of an absolute majority. The period of turmoil and uncertainty seems to have spooked much of the political centre ground. It is hard to imagine that was not the intention of the Spanish government.
However, a renewed majority for the separatist parties would be a crushing blow for the Spanish Government. It would be seen as a defiant rejection of political intimidation and violence by the pro-independence supporters in the region but met with fear by many others who see independence as a distraction from everyday life.
Unfortunately, I can only see the Spanish government extending the olive branch from a position of power. If the unionist parties break the majority or even gain a majority themselves, Rajoy can offer congratulations to the Catalan people for their pragmatism and for pulling Spain back from the brink, it will be labelled a victory for every citizen of Spain. He may even then adopt an apologetic tone for some the events that transpired over the previous four months.
The issue with this is that there are numerous secessionist movements across the European Union. Leaders of countries facing secessionist challenges may in future adopt the Rajoy model of delegitimizing regional elections and tacitly approving heavy-handedness and violence by national police forces, safe in the knowledge that the European Union will stay silent and call it a national, domestic issue.
After the admirable approach taken by the United Kingdom with the Scottish referendum, Europe may have now lurched a few steps right in its approach to regional independence movements. Coupled with the rise of far-right political parties, we may see a lot more political violence over the next decade.
This will force politicians of all hues to offer innovative ideas and solutions to ensure the evolving European Union projects continues to contain a liberal, pacifist core. If not, Europe may fracture from future events and political causes that the average EU citizen is not even aware of today. The European leaders chose to ignore the violence in Catalonia but that may in time may be the catalyst for the collapse of the entire European project if a red line against institutionalised political violence is not drawn.
I recently wrote about how the Brexit deadlock was a perfectly destructive equilibrium of opposing aims and forces. The de facto vetoes held by the Irish Government on one side and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) on the other meant no viable solution was available that satisfied both sides. This led me to believe that heads would roll as one side was simply cast aside.
I was wrong on this for now. All sides were able to come to an agreement that allowed the talks to progress to the second phase, which will focus on trade. The impasse was broken mostly by vague language that was deemed acceptable by everyone as it was possible for a broad spectrum of interpretations of what the text actually meant.
“Regulatory alignment” was perceived as less constricting to the DUP than “no convergence” between the North and South that led them to effectively veto the agreement that had been decided on Monday last. For most commentators the second iteration, which was agreed last Friday is not much more favourable to the DUP’s stated goals. They have signed off on a document that commits the UK to full alignment between the North and South unless there are prior, agreed solutions.
“In the absence of agreed solutions, the United Kingdom committed to maintaining full alignment with those rules of the internal market and the Customs Union which, now or in the future, support North-South cooperation, the all-island economy, and the protection of the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement. In this context, implementation and oversight mechanisms for the specific arrangements to be found will be established to safeguard the integrity of the internal market.”
The breakthrough was greeted with guarded optimism by most sides, with the Irish government and Theresa May’s camps being the most vocal and ebullient. I wanted to wait until the weekend had passed to assess the fallout.
Furthermore, for Theresa May to navigate the talks and deliver a final solution, she needs to keep the hard right, anti-EU faction of her party onside. The uniformity of the message delivered by members of her party over the weekend was a crucial acid test of whether she had been able to get all sides onboard. Cracks that appear already will possibly move to chasms as the trade talks will evolve from aims and goals to facts, laws and treaties.
David Davis spoke on the Andrew Marr show yesterday and appeared bullish on the United Kingdom’s trade deal prospects, while playing down the commitments agreed in Phase 1. Davis claimed the divorce settlement will only be paid if a deal is agreed and that the text agreed was more a statement than a concrete agreement;
"We want to protect the peace process and we also want to protect Ireland from the impact of Brexit for them. This was a statement of intent more than anything else.”
Michael Gove, the Environment Minister and prominent Brexiteer, went a step further when he stated;
“If the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge.”
To me, this means that if the Tories win the next election, they can renege on many of their commitments and start over. While he public supported May’s efforts, this undoubtedly undermines her authority and negotiating position.
This has sparked alarm bells in Ireland and Europe and backlash from members of Labour and the Scottish National Party.
The DUP response has already been quite toxic and has done the most to poison relations between North and South. Sammy Wilson made some deplorable comments about cowboys and Indians in the past few weeks. Arlene Foster grudgingly approved the deal with the caveat that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. However, the most insidious comments came from Ian Paisley Junior who claimed the DUP “had done over” the Irish Government and Leo Vardker. This is almost Trump-esque language that will harden Irish resolve as well as cause consternation among many in London.
I won’t be writing about Brexit again until 2018, though there may be further breakthroughs and crucial details that emerge at the meeting of European leaders next week. For now, talks have progressed without real progress and I think all sides will be happy to park the key issues until the New Year. For 2017, disaster has been averted and jobs have been retained.
This agreement was akin so a small release of energy that has resolved the threat of a political earthquake in the very short term. Unfortunately, the underlying fundamentals have not changed and it is still my view that the Irish border is a catch 22 position that can’t be resolved with the current agreement. I expect the Spring to be a very turbulent time for Brexit and political volatility to greatly increase. That’s for later though, to paraphrase the Chinese proverb, “may we live in interesting times, but let’s enjoy Christmas first…”
I am not going to go into why it’s wrong for President Trump to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel this week. Furthermore, I will leave the analysis of what the fallout will be from this to others or for another day.
Jerusalem is a city that has captured the hearts and minds of millions around the world for millennia. This decision will be comprehensively scrutinised and analysis will be mostly filled with passionate and long held views.
What I want to focus on is how Prime Minister Netanyahu was an early innovator in manipulating President Trump and why that success has now helped him land a major victory for him and his party.
Benjamin Netanyahu has many faults but I believe he was very quick to identify that the best way to get what you want from Donald Trump is to flatter him. In light of Trump’s trip to Asia where almost every Asian leader followed this strategy, this may seem obvious.
However, this was not as obvious back in February when Netanyahu visited Trump at the White House. Netanyahu waxed lyrical about how great a tried to Israel Donald Trump is;
“I deeply value your friendship. To me, to the state of Israel, it was so clearly evident in the words you just spoke -- Israel has no better ally than the United States.”
This would have been music to Trump’s ears. However, he went further than that. He then suggested that there were new avenues towards peace that they can explore and that the United States would back Israel in these aims.
“And I believe that under your leadership, this change in our region creates an unprecedented opportunity to strengthen security and advance peace. Let us seize this moment together. Let us bolster security. Let us seek new avenues of peace. And let us bring the remarkable alliance between Israel and the United States to even greater heights.”
There are allegations that one of Trump’s major benefactors, Sheldon Adelson of Las Vegas fame, had sought a commitment from Trump on moving the embassy to Jerusalem and recognising it as Israel’s capital. Trump’s son in law, Jared Kushner, has also been a vocal supporter of Israel in the past. He was recently recorded saying “there may be no solution” to the Middle East peace process.
Netanyahu quickly realised that it is important to have allies in Trump’s inner circle as mentioned above. This, along with flattery and allowing Trump to believe Netanyahu’s aims were his own ideas, have given him incredible leverage in the White House.
Other foreign leaders will now take note of this success for Israel and may look to identify ‘courtiers’ who can help them achieve their aims, while at the same time praising Trump publicly.
This will be more difficult for leaders of Western, democratic nations who will face pressure form their electorate in a scenario where they perceived as sycophantic to Trump, given his often misogynist and potentially racist views and statements.
Russia is an obvious example of a country that has tried this approach. Unfortunately for Putin, they were a little too obvious in their attempts at disparaging Hillary Clinton and placing Trump on the throne.
Now it appears likely that other countries, like Israel already, will bear the fruits of Russia’s toil. The world is now in a position where the most powerful can be manipulated and his strategy moulded by flattery and scheming. The results of this could be unexpected, widespread and potentially catastrophic…
The Symmetrical Power of the Irish Government and DUP will probably lead to a Political Earthquake…
“Earthquakes are usually caused when rock underground suddenly breaks along a fault. This sudden release of energy causes the seismic waves that make the ground shake. When two blocks of rock or two plates are rubbing against each other, they stick a little. ... When the rocks break, the earthquake occurs.”
Yesterday was a disaster for North-South relations in Ireland. The DUP scuppered a deal that had been agreed by all sides AKA the Irish Government, the Tory Government (granted not the DUP, whose ten seats prop them up) and the European side.
By most accounts it appears that Theresa May had verbally agreed to a deal that committed Northern Ireland to “regulatory alignment” with the Republic and the European Union without consulting the DUP beforehand.
This was either a case of misplaced confidence or extreme naivete. We are now in a position where two opposing forces are pushing against each other in a state of equilibrium (aka stalemate in the negotiations). Unfortunately, the window for an agreement to be reached that appeases both sides has almost completely passed.
This equilibrium cannot last indefinitely. It is increasingly likely that at least one side will be forced under and burnt and the ensuing release of energy and emotions will have devastating implications for those involved.
At this stage, the most likely victim of this political earthquake is the British Government. Theresa May’s authority has been consistently undermined and her position looks untenable. Having said that, it’s looked untenable for months and nothing has dislodged her yet.
Nobody across the political spectrum has so far proposed a solution that is acceptable to all parties. I would hazard a guess and say that nobody so far has guessed correctly what will happen when either the Irish Govt or the DUP are let down or the talks collapse completely.
If Brexit has taught me one thing, it’s that logical outcomes rarely happen when this level of emotion is invested by all sides. As I have stated already, the British Government do look the most vulnerable to this potential, political rupture. However, the potential backlash could take down Leo Varadkar, Arlene Foster or even threaten the stability of the United Kingdom.
We are close to an earthquake that will be have devastating but unforeseen circumstances. Leadership and maturity must now be shown by all sides if we are to avoid this…
The last week has seen many spats and comments from Irish, British and European politicians on Brexit, trade and the Irish Border question. Theresa May travels to Brussels for a crunch meeting with Jean Claude Juncker tomorrow so negotiations and emotions should reach fever pitch over the next two weeks, after the relative phoney war of the Autumn.
The dynamics between parties and individuals is complex, fluid and dynamic. I’ve tried to summarize the position some of the groups involved below in terms of what they really want to happen in the coming weeks, red lines and relative power. It’s a contentious topic and certainly up for debate so feel free to comment or correct below;
Theresa May and the mainstream Conservatives;
2017 has been her annus horribilis. She started the year in a position of relative strength with Labour in disarray and massively trailing in the polls. Her Lancashire speech was met with muted praise by many in the British media. However, it’s all been downhill since including losing her majority in the General Election in June. This led to a supply and confidence agreement with the DUP which has massively impacted her negotiating leverage since.
At this point she would settle for concluding Phase 1 without her government collapsing or a heave from the Brexiteer side of the party led by Boris Johnson, Michael Gove or Jacob Rees-Mogg. To avoid this, she’ll have to do enough to satisfy both which will be difficult. The explicit backing of the Irish veto by Donald Tusk last week was a further blow and it will be almost impossible to keep everyone happy.
Pro – Brexit Conservatives;
While there is not a uniform position held by all those who favoured Brexit there are some clear demands that resonate with most of these members. They are already massively dismayed by the approximate 50 billion pound divorce bill. The fact that there wasn’t a heave against Theresa May then shows the fear they have now that it could lead to an election. They are not as pushed on what happens to the Irish border as long as progress to the next round of talks isn’t delayed further. The No Deal threat/demand has been mentioned but is still seen as the nuclear option. To be honest, they haven’t been able to impose their aims as much as I had feared back in July.
The Irish Government;
The Irish Government is in a position of strength since the unequivocal backing of Donald Tusk and the European Union last Friday. Their position seemed to be quite clear in that they would veto progress to the next round unless they have concrete guarantees from the British government that there would be no physical infrastructure on the Irish border. Their ultimate desire is that the UK remains in the Single Market. This now seems impossible but there is the potential that Northern Ireland will become a special designated zone.
Taking a hard-line publicly will also win votes. I think the Irish people have been quite riled up over the last few weeks. On the domestic front, there is no potential to be heavily criticised for being aggressive, this position does not to be defended on two fronts. Fine Gael do need a good PR story after what happened with Frances Fitzgerald and the upped ante of these talks is a welcome distraction as I wrote here.
Democratic Unionist Party;
Their position is possibly the most complex. Like the Irish government, they also want no physical infrastructure on the Irish border. They realize that this could potentially lead to backlash from the Nationalist community that could energize their voting habits and increase the nationalist turnout at Westminster elections, as well as any future Northern Ireland Assembly elections.
However, they have also said that any concessions or proposals by the Conservative party that leads divergence between the British mainland and Northern Ireland would force them to end the supply and confidence agreement. On paper, this also gives them a veto. In reality, if they did this Labour are currently polling ahead and a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour government would be a disaster for the DUP, on top of them losing their kingmaker position.
Jeremy Corbyn and Labour;
This is a very challenging position to describe and one really open for debate. Corbyn was heavily criticised for not campaigning hard enough for the UK to remain in the European Union prior to the Brexit referendum. For most of his political career, her has been a euro sceptic. I believe the government collapsing is their main aim today. The problem for them, is that they have no real way of making this happen. This is not to say that the government will not fall, I have outlined above how it could occur. If they did suddenly win a snap election, I don’t think they would try and reverse Brexit but would look for the softest version of Brexit possible, though probably falling short of complete free movement of people and goods.
The European Union;
I think at this stage they are quite happy with how things have proceeded. The initial shock and horror at the disarray of the British negotiating team has given way to a realisation that they hold most of the aces and are negotiating from a position of relative power. I was surprised at the level of backing given to Ireland on Friday though I suspect some of this was posturing and behind closed doors Leo Varadkar was encouraged to avoid using his veto. Their red line is that the United Kingdom will not have the same level of access to the single market with the free, uninhibited movement of people throughout the European Union.
I think Sinn Fein’s position is worth analysing. With the Northern Ireland assembly not currently sitting, Sinn Fein are not directly involved in negotiations. That being said, they represent the nationalist community in Northern Ireland as expressed through both the Westminster and previous Northern Ireland Assembly elections. I don’t think they would like to see Brexit reversed tomorrow. Brexit has helped propel talks of a United Ireland in the mainstream conscious of the Irish people in way I haven’t seen in my (admittedly relatively short) lifetime.
Equally, I do not believe they would want a disastrous Brexit either as they may suffer a backlash over not going back into government in the North. To be fair they have been outright in their calls for Northern Ireland to remain in the European Union from day one. This is unlikely but divergences between the British mainland and Northern Ireland would be publicly and privately welcomed, particularly if the DUP did follow through on their threat to pull down the government.
Martin won, Leo lost but he can reclaim some face with Brexit talks before the inevitable Spring election...
What a week. Irish politics is often drab, parochial and all too predictable. We aren’t often blessed with great politicians who can command the attention of the world or political events that have a global reach. For every Parnell, there is a Pat Rabbitte and most of our political crises end with a shrug of shoulders, a nudge and a wink or in extreme cases, a never-ending tribunal that produces non-criminal results years after people have stopped caring…
The last week has been different. We had high drama that captured the attention not only of the Irish public but of the global media. It was a perfect storm of brinkmanship between Ireland’s two most powerful politicians that brought the government to the edge of collapse. It also contained a human element in the abhorrent treatment of a good man, Maurice McCabe.
Too often, the issues that can divide politicians and governments are over theoretical or abstract points that seem to be part of a different, political universe. However, the allegation that a respected Minister, Frances Fitzgerald, allowed a whistle-blower to be wrongfully labelled a paedophile brought out anger and disgust in the Irish electorate.
To briefly summarise, the allegations of wrongdoing have floated around for quite a while over Frances Fitzgerald. It came to a head last Thursday when Sinn Fein tabled a motion of no confidence in the Dail after a barrage of criticism by Mary Lou McDonald. Michael Martin quickly realised that that there was anger within his own party over the behaviour of Mrs Fitzgerald and that he could not allow Sinn Fein to be the main opposition in this crisis. So, on Friday morning last Fianna Fail lodged their own motion of no confidence to be tabled this Tuesday. The Soldiers of Destiny had crossed the Rubicon and the nation held its breath.
The onus was initially put straight back on Leo Varadkar. Many believed he would cast Frances Fitzgerald aside as the motion passing would lead to a General Election right before Christmas. He didn’t, in fact he backed her to the hilt. It was a string and decisive counter attack that many labelled as Leo calling Martin’s bluff. Many Fine Gael TDs came out with vehement defences of Mrs Fitzgerald and claimed that Fianna Fail were playing political games at a crucial period of Brexit negotiations and that the Charleton Tribunal should be allowed to do its job, starting in January.
There were behind the scenes meetings over the weekend between the leaders and documents were exchanged. On Monday morning both sides held the same line and it looked like Michael Martin was going to force an election that he wouldn’t win. His future as leader was genuinely on the line with murmurs of discontent.
Then on final flop two more damaging emails emerged Monday evening. Fianna Fail finally had a winning hand. Frances Fitzgerald was finished and now Leo had to act to avert a backlash from the public. He took his time and looked indecisive but eventually on Tuesday morning Frances Fitzgerald resigned and the motion was withdrawn.
Varadkar has lost a lot of political capital. Many political pundits are incredulous as to why he continued to publicly back her after he became aware of the further emails on Saturday morning. It strikes of political naivety and a lack of experience.
I’m not his biggest fan but I think he can easily recover. He is fortunate enough that almost immediately after this debacle, the focus is right back on Brexit talks. He, along with Simon Coveney (the Minister for Foreign Affairs) have been firm but fair in holding the Irish position on vetoing progress to the next stage without concrete proposal on the Irish border question.
He benefits from the fact that the public and all the major parties agree on this. There is no potential for an attack at home as long as he holds strong. If he continues to do so and is able to gain favourable concessions from the British government (they have already acquiesced to the financial demands of the EU this week) Frances Fitzgerald and Maurice McCabe will be yesterday’s problem.
Michael Martin clearly won a great battle this week. However, it didn’t significantly enhance Fianna Fail’s political strength. They continue to prop up Fine Gael while having to defend against attack from Sinn Fein and their new leader, Mary Lou McDonald. The Supply and Confidence agreement looks damaged beyond repair. The onus is now on either Michael or Leo to call a Spring election but Fianna Fail are yet to move ahead of Fine Gael in poling (the next poll will be very, very interesting) and as Fianna Fail have ruled out a coalition with Sinn Fein, their political mobility is limited.
In summary, this was a bad week for Leo and Fine Gael but they have a lot more flexibility and potential upside in the next few weeks. Hannibal crushed the Roman Army at the Battle of Cannae and looked to be about to conquer Rome. However, he didn’t press his advantage and this eventually allowed the Romans to consolidate their position and strike back. Fianna Fail are a little reminiscent of that post victory Carthage army wandering around Italy without a clear plan. Unless Fine Gael completely collapse on the border or Mick Wallace/The Charleton Tribunal deliver further bombshells in the coming weeks this crisis may prove to be a footnote when the almost inevitable Spring election rolls around…
It may have seemed impossible for nearly all of Israel’s existence thus far but I think it’s likely in the next five years that these two nations will open official diplomatic channels. It is an act that may cause serious backlash and anger across the Middle East. Alternatively, after years of disillusionment with the leadership of Saudi Arabia, it may simply be met with a shrug of the shoulder and further sense of dejection with the state of the region.
Since the inception of the state of Israel in May 1948, Saudi Arabia has refused to acknowledge its existence. It has supported the rights of Palestinians and called for a withdrawal from territory occupied by Israel after the war in 1967 through being a charter member of the Arab League.
Crucially, it didn’t participate in the wars in 1948, 1967 or 1973. Saudi Arabia’s long term strategic alliance with the United States may have had something to do with this. This was exacerbated by the mutual distrust between General Nasser led Egypt, the champion of pan- Arabism with secular, Soviet Union sympathies and the absolute monarchy of Saudi Arabia which used Wahhabism as a crucial pillar of its legitimacy.
However, since 1979 and the Islamic revolution in Iran, the strategic aims of Saudi Arabia and Israel have converged. They both have a desire to curb the influence of Iran across the Middle East. The ruling Saud family initially saw the emergence of the Islamic Republic as an existential threat to their existence.
In recent times, the threat to their existence has subsided somewhat. It has evolved into a struggle for hegemony in the Middle East. As the relative power and influence of Egypt waned in the years after the assassination of Anwar Sadat (who actually lost his life for signing a peace Treaty with Israel which made it the first Arab state to officially recognize Israel) the vacuum that opened up was the prize that fuelled the rivalry.
In the 1980’s Saudi Arabia, which still did not have the military capability, bankrolled Saddam Hussein in the First Gulf War against Iran. It is important to note that other Middle Eastern nations also supported Iraq but Saudi Arabia spent approximately thirty billion dollars in this conflict.
In more recent times Iran has increased its influence in Lebanon, as well as in post-Saddam Iraq and now in Syria. In Syria, it has acted as a bulwark for the regime of Bashir Al-Assad. The actions of Saudi Arabia in Yemen, Syria and Bahrain amongst others has failed so far to really damage the Iranian influence in the region.
The emergence of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Saudi Arabia has led to a raft of major changes in a relatively brief period of time. Just last week, he consolidated his position as the heir apparent as well as the de facto ruler by purging a large number of the Royal Court’s retinue.
He has continued the war in Yemen, a key proxy battleground between Iran and Saudi Arabia while allegedly forcing the Lebanese Prime Minister, Saad Hariri, to resign over the continued power and influence of Hezbollah (albeit with a democratic mandate).
It’s his views on the future relationship with Israel though that I believe could mark one of the most seismic changes in Middle Eastern diplomatic relations over the last fifty years. He has spoken about how Saudi Arabia adopted a more rigid Islamic outlook in the aftermath of the Iranian revolution
“What happened in the last 30 years is not Saudi Arabia. What happened in the region in the last 30 years is not the Middle East. After the Iranian revolution in 1979, people wanted to copy this model in different countries, one of them is Saudi Arabia. We didn’t know how to deal with it. And the problem spread all over the world. Now is the time to get rid of it.”
The major issue with the above statement is that it could be construed to mean “get rid of the Islamic Republic of Iran”. In order to do this, he may engage further with Israel, as the one other Middle Eastern nation that possibly reaches the same level of fear and suspicion of the Iranian state.
It is very interesting, and probably not a coincidence, that the Crown Prince used the phrase “moderate”. Just this week, the Israeli military chief, Gadi Eisenkot, gave an interview to the Saudi newspaper Elaph where he described Iran as the “biggest threat to the region” and that Israel would share intelligence with “moderate” Arab states like Saudi Arabia.
Strategically, the US is pivoting away from the Middle East to Asia in the long term. With the current presidency of Donald Trump though, this may be the perfect window of opportunity to gain maximum leverage from agreeing to diplomatic relations and potentially forming a military alliance that goes beyond the tacit one that exists today.
This would be a potent combination of the vast reserves of cash held by the Saudis combined with the military might of the Israeli army. It may still seem a stretch to many political observers currently, but we may soon see the emergence of the Saudi-Israel axis as the key power in the Middle East.
Donald Trump's first trip to Asia was an eventful, colourful affair that encompassed visits to Japan, South Korea, China, Vietnam and the Philippines. There were a few excellent pictures, including Trump massacring Japanese Carp (see picture directly above) and Abe Shinzo taking a tumble on a golf course.
The trip was met with mixed reviews both domestically and across Asia. My personal view is that Trump managed to not cause any major diplomatic embarrassment to the United States but achieved very little from a strategic perspective. The inflective moment when China openly overtakes the US is accelerating towards us, as I discussed recently. This trip reinforced the view held by many that America, while a crucial partner for many future projects and plans in Asia, will not be the driver and leader of this region.
This is best captured in recent events concerning the Trans-Pacific Partnership. The overarching aim of American foreign policy over the past decade has been a strategic pivot away from the Middle East towards Asia, with a key objective being the creation of the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
This would have been a free trade agreement between the United States and eleven different Pacific Rim states. The talks began in 2010. Trump withdrew the US from the discussion earlier this year, stating that individual trade agreements with each state would be of greater benefit to the US. The remaining eleven states agreed to the framework this weekend. While Trump will not see this as a failure, China may see it as a success. It is not currently a part of the agreement but may in time seek to join on its own terms and eventually dominate it.
The 19TH Chinese Communist Party Congress that took place in the weeks preceding Trump’s visit was a powerful demonstration of the political unity of the Chinese leadership under the President, Xi Jinping. There was no apparent heir to the throne announced and I think this shows that Xi Jinping is now the most powerful man in the world. The checks and balances of the US political system are increasingly limiting Trump’s preferred course of action on many of his campaign pledges.
However Trump’s hardline rhetoric on North Korea would have been welcomed by both South Korea and Japan.
"NoKo has interpreted America's past restraint as weakness. This would be a fatal miscalculation. Do not underestimate us. AND DO NOT TRY US."
To be honest, at this stage all this appears as is bluster by both sides. Petty squabbling between two insecure leaders who see potential enemies everywhere. The pettiness was surmised by Trump himself in this tweet;
"Why would Kim Jong-un insult me by calling me 'old,' when I would NEVER call him 'short and fat?'"
Since the escalations in the summer I have always been of the view that it will not come to violence and that China is pulling the strings and using the situation to gain maximum leverage in future Sino-US talks…
One thing that has become obvious is that Trump is quite easy to manipulate. Sycophanyc and public displays of affection and loyalty will earn his trust, irrespective of the true underlying intentions. . A notable example of this was Trump’s behaviour in the Philippines. Despite some aggressive back and forth comments between Presidents Duterte and Trump in the past, Duterte put on a bit of a show and Trump loved it, summing up the relationship between them as ;
"We've had a great relationship. This has been very successful."
In summary, Asian leaders learned a lot about Donald Trump over the last twelve or so days. Despite his often-bullish rhetoric and strongman image at home, I think they have finally realized what Putin figured before the US presidential election had even finished. He is a man that has a very limited attention span, cannot focus on an issue over a period of months and years so is always acting reactively and not strategically and that through some grand gestures and displays can be easily manipulated…
It is hard to remember a Taoiseach who puts more effort into his public image than Leo Varadkar. He is part of a breed of new politician who put their image above everything else. Wearing a symbol as divisive as the poppy is a move that was certain to temporarily shift the political discourse away from the key issues, like the current deficiencies in our health services and the homelessness crisis.
This is not lost on Fine Gael. Unfortunately, there has been little tangible progress in the two areas mentioned above. Wearing the Poppy has allowed Varadkar to take the heat off these two issues for a few days.
Furthermore, it was a move that was always going to play well with his political base. This is not to suggest that every Fine Gael supporter is a Poppy wearing anglophile, that’s a very tired and lazy cliché. However, many of the first people to comment on the topic were indignant Sinn Fein supporters. The anger at seeing the Taoiseach in a poppy led to a flurry of calls and emails. Annoying Sinn Fein supporters and Party members will, at least secretly, please plenty of Fine Gael followers.
What I do not want to write about is the appropriateness of the wearing of the poppy by our Taoiseach. There have been numerous articles over the last decade about the poppy, about how many Irishmen fought in the belief that Home Rule would come as a reward for fighting and alternatively about how Brutal and unjust the British Army have been in the past.
There will be further publicity stunts as long as our incumbent Taoiseach sits in office. They will frequently be used to distract the electorate from the issues that matter to the majority on a daily basis. What we must do is see through these smokescreens and continue to demand more from our elected government.
Getting into an online debate about the Poppy, no matter how strong your views on the topic are will not move this country forward. Forget Varadkar’s Poppy, let’s focus on the issues that matter until we have a Republic that we are proud of…
The UK government currently seems to be slipping from one scandal to another. It is hard to remember a more visibly powerless Prime Minister (older readers feel free to give some examples below). Since the June election when the Conservative party lost its majority in the June General Election, the government has simply stumbled along.
The Brexit negotiations have been moving at a glacial pace with minimal results or noteworthy achievements. I recently labeled them almost as a "phoney war". However, this may be one factor in Theresa May's continued survival. The role of Prime Minister is currently quite undesirable for a number of members of the Conservative party. Who wants to be the Prime Minister dragging the United Kingdom out of the European Union, with no deal agreed and the British economy facing a sustained period of economic stagnation.
There are elements of the party on the pro-Brexit (or historically on the anti-Europe faction) who would relish the afore-mentioned prospect, though they would surely describe it quite differently. Boris Johnson was a late joiner to this cause when he famously declared for Brexit days ahead of the 2016 referendum. He has come as close to any since the June election to openly challenging May with his September article in the Telegraph which lay out his vision for a post-Brexit Britain that was quite different to that of May in her January speech. However the key members rallied around May and the answer to a previous article "Can Boris Oust Theresa" seems for now to be a resounding No.
The sexual harassment scandal currently enveloping Westminster has cost the Minister for Defense, Michael Fallon, his job. There are numerous MPs implicated for inappropriate behaviour. We may see a few resign in the coming weeks as further details emerge. Fortunately for May, it doesn't seem to be enough at present to topple the government or force May to stand down.
It has been a very long time since the "Irish Problem" forced a British Prime Minister to resign. The current lack of progress in forming a new government in the Northern Ireland Assembly does not seem to be a pressing issue for the British public, based on media coverage in Britain. Theresa May knows that she relies on the ten DUP Westminster seats for her working majority. The DUP can pull down this government at a time of their choosing. It just doesn't seem likely in any potential scenario short of the post Brexit border being the Irish Sea, something the Tories have emphatically ruled out. They simply can not take the risk of a Jeremy Corbyn led Labour ascending to power given his previous dialogues with republican leaders.
I haven't even mentioned the current scandal with Priti Patel and her unofficial but definitely politically motivated trip to Israel. The fact that she hasn't been dismissed by now again shows just how impotent May currently is.
This lack of power may actually be what saves her until Brexit is concluded. The analogy that comes to mind is that of the naive, deluded Islamic Caliph or Ottoman Sultan surrounded by courtiers and advisors who all have their own agendas and seek to influence the leader for their own political gain (cough... Gavin Williamson). It's a fate worse then political death for most but maybe deep down May still believes she can turn things around. It's unlikely but sure surely something has to go right after so many recent wrongs....