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…