Next Sunday, Swedes go to the polls of the first time since 2014. I see it as one of the most important elections in the European Union in 2018. The far-right Swedish Democrats have risen significantly since 2014 and may be able to derail, if not replace, the centre-left minority government led by Stefan Lofven and the Social Democrats.
It is impossible not to look at the election through the prism of immigration as it has been at the forefront of political discourse in Sweden since the Swedish government decided to loosen its immigration policy in 2014, in the face of a major refugee crisis.
Four years later and the impact of that decision is still sending shockwaves across European politics and Sweden in particular. Despite a buoyant economy (growth was 2.3% in 2017 and is set for 2.4% in 2018), there is a sense among a proportion of the electorate that Sweden has done too much and needs to pushback and further reform.
Crime rates have risen and many Swedish commentators have attributed this upsurge to immigrants. The data to back this up is very difficult to ascertain and there have been many accusations of “fake news” by both sides in relation to crime reporting.
This feeling and political train of thought has been seized upon by Jimmie Akesson and the Sweden Democrats. They have a enjoyed a prolific surge in popularity since the 2014 election, when they received 12.9% of the vote, today they are polling at approximately 20%.
The party combines elements of nativism and anti-immigration in their platform that is often disguised in “cute” Swedish outfits and a very innocent looking party logo.
The incumbent Prime Minister, Stefen Lofven also faces a significant challenge from the centre-right Moderate Party, led by Ulf Kristersson.
The Moderates had previously been in government from 2006 to 2014 as part of the Alliance for Sweden, which also contained the Centre, Liberal and Christian Democrats. In most polls today, this coalition is polling behind the potential centre-left coalition of the Social Democrats, Green and Left parties.
The Left Party is not currently part of the minority coalition but they have been polling at approximately 10% and have made it clear they would like to be part of the next government. Prior to 2010, the Left party were also part of the centre-left coalition though it is not yet clear if they will be included in talks after the election. It seems highly unlikely that the Social Democrats can choose to exclude them and remain in power.
However, both coalitions regularly fail to reach 40% in polls and at best can hope to lead a minority government. The current polling numbers look chaotic and as mentioned, it is very difficult to see a majority government if any hue without the Sweden Democrats being included.
One further point when looking at the polling numbers above is that parties need to gain at least 4% of the votes to be included in parliament. This could have a big impact on the two coalitions if any of the smaller parties slip below this threshold.
So far, the notion of working with the Seden Democrats has been rejected by all the major parties but there are voices in the Moderates who would prefer dialogue with Sweden Democrats than to simply accept a further premiership led by the Social Democrats.
On that note, I do predict the Social Democrats to be returned as the largest party, despite their challenges mentioned previously. They have consistently led in the polls, with only an occasional poll giving the Sweden Democrats the lead while the last poll that showed the Moderates returning the most seats was on the 21st June 2016.
Perhaps the best thing for Social Democrats would be if the Swedish Democrats actually finished with more seats than the Moderates. There is no way the Moderates could support a government led by Jimmie Akesson. A lead of more than 5% points for the Social Democrats over the Moderates may also increase public pressure on Ulf Kristersson to back, or at least accept, a Social Democrat led government.
However, even if the Social Democrats claim the most seats, there is little chance they will equal their 2014 performance of 31% and Stefan Lofven may come under intense pressure to resign if the Swedish Democrats and Moderates both vote down the left coalition.
The final week of campaigning will be crucial in Sweden as one or two % points away from the left to right or from the Moderates to the Sweden Democrats or vice versa may drastically change the final composition of the next Riksdag and the political arithmetic.
I will write a follow up review of the election on the Friday after, when results are known and the first political overtures have been made…
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..
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.
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…
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…”
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.
So far, we have discovered very little about what the United Kingdom’s future relationship will look like with the European Union post Brexit. The formal declaration that the UK would be leaving occurred on the 29 March 2017 with the United Kingdom serving the withdrawal notice under Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union.
The negotiations really started on the 19th June 2017 when the British Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union (catchy title!), David Davis, landed in Brussels to negotiate the exit terms with the European Union’s head negotiator, Michael Barnier.
The British Government’s position had been strongly weakened less than ten days before when Theresa May and her Conservative government lost their majority in the House of Commons. This was after they had voluntarily called the election to consolidate their majority. In hindsight, it was a poor decision though at the time most pundits believed It would deliver a larger majority. It didn’t and was possibly the worst prelude to negotiations May could have imagined.
Since then, there has been plenty of back and forth from London to Brussels. Talks are ongoing but seem to deliver very little in terms of concrete results, at least for the public. In fact, I think many people are already suffering from “Brexit fatigue”. Maybe it’s part of the Tory strategy, deliver so little and trickle news to the media so slowly that people eventually stop caring. Unfortunately for them, this won’t work as the media continues to focus on every announcement.
It doesn’t help that the Tories are currently undergoing an internecine leadership battle between those who want to either reverse Brexit or at the very least mitigate its impact and those who believe Brexit will be the greatest thing to happen to the UK since they found oil in the North Sea. This allows the British tabloids to continue their desire for the hardest possible Brexit through mouthpieces like Jacob Rees-Mogg or Nigel Farage.
We have seen some battle lines drawn on divorce payment, the role of the European Court of Justice in any (yet to be agreed) transition period. However, nothing is confirmed. Personally, I believe it will be very hard to the UK to make real, concrete progress until either Theresa May is deposed and a new leader who openly represents one of the afore mentioned factions emerges or, even more dramatically, a General Election is called and Labour emerge, championing a soft Brexit.
Somehow the European Union has claimed enough progress has been made to move to the second stage of the negotiations in December. The Phoney War lasted eight months between the UK’s declaration of war on Germany in September 1939 and Germany’s first offensive on the Low Countries on the 10 May 1940. December will mark approximately eight months of the Brexit talks.
As each day passes with little progress and updates I think it is more likely that the EU negotiators will start the genuine war and publicly deliver some hard truths to the British Government. This is no not really in anyone’s interests (I haven’t even touched upon Ireland in this article though I have speculated on how the internal Tory struggle is dangerous before here).
The problem for the British is that while they bicker and postulate that any bad deal will hurt the remaining 27 EU nations more, the European Union is going about its business in a discreet and diligent manner. They have started to send out signals that they are losing patience with David Davis and co. but I still think they are yet to use any of the weapons at their disposal. Davis publicly calling his European counterparts the “enemy” gives them further justification for harsher measures. The phoney war is going to soon end and I believe it will be the European side who fire the first bullet. This bullet may even be the coup de grâce for May’s shambolic reign as Prime Minister.
Sometimes I really have to force myself to acknowledge an astute or shrewd move from a politician or a political entity that I dislike. Unfortunately, like many Millennials on the left, I can become a little over indignant at people or groups who espouse opinions contrary to my own views. This is an occasional affair and there are probably a lot more occasions where I can’t see the intelligence behind a certain action because its motive or impact is simply abhorrent or odious to me. This is purely a reflection on my own blinkered views. I have a lot to learn and I realize this more and more every day.
The Spanish Government’s reaction to the Catalan Independence vote was a clear example of me failing to be objective in my analysis. I simply failed to spot the reasons behind Rajoy’s decision to come down hard on the separatists. I lamented the violent reaction over Twitter and smugly ascertained that Rajoy and the Spanish Government are so stupid, that they’ve lost Catalonia forever.
Now that the dust has settled a little, it’s time to take stock. Catalonia is still a part of Spain today. The violent reaction of Spanish security forces was condemned across Europe by many separatist and socialist parties, however the silence from Europe’s governments was deafening. The EU itself was happy to call this an “situation in Spain”. There were no calls for a boycott of Spain, no real tangible downside for Rajoy and his government.
On the contrary, Rajoy will probably experience a boost in popularity from some regions. His approval rating was already exceptionally low. He was never going to get many more votes in Catalonia so why allow them to question the authority of the Spanish Government. A soft approach would have made him appear even weaker to the rest of Spain and potentially exposed a soft underbelly to be attacked by opposition or the other parties who prop up his tenure.
“Upon this a question arises: whether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? One should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person, it is much safer to be feared than loved.”
He was never going to be loved by the people of Catalonia so he could try and create some fear and show them the government meant business. Similarly, Rajoy is not loved by the people of Spain but coming down hard on the separatists was never going to really hinder his support from his mainly conservative base. He also correctly guessed that the EU and other major powers around the world would be too busy with their own issues to wade too deeply into the crisis.
I don’t agree or like what Rajoy did. To me it was an attack on democracy and freedom to vote. It was government legalized violence. However, I am not a Spanish constituent, my opinion doesn’t matter to him. Unfortunately, there is every chance that Catalonia won’t be able to move further with their Independence bid despite the Yes result (most Catalonians still poll for remaining in Spain - they simply stayed at home) and that Rajoy will increase his parties vote in the next election.
I am not praising Rajoy or lauding his government's actions but understanding the motives of those we disagree with is crucial to challenging their narratives of events and creating compelling counter arguments. I never want to accept that violence can win but at the moment, in Catalonia’s case, it’s looking pretty bleak. Franco died peacefully in his bed at the ripe, old age of 82, I doubt he disapproves of Spain’s actions last week…
Leo Varadkar needs to stand up to the Franco-German axis for Ireland and the small nations of the European Union
*First appeared here on Slugger O' Toole
Since it became clear that Angela Merkel would be re-elected as German Chancellor, there has been a re-focused approach to tax harmonisation within the European Union, driven mostly by Emmanuel Macron's France, along with Germany. This has been covered by numerous media outlets and there is little I can add to the conversation. The argument is that France and Germany who are now both stable and revitalised after momentous national elections, will look to readjust the balance of Europe. It was a major talking point a few years ago and then seemed to die down with numerous crises occurring, like the EU sovereign debt crisis, followed by Brexit.
In fact, it looked like Brexit would deter these efforts for a number of years at the very least. However, the certainty of the EU position in the face of a disorganized and often contradictory UK position has probably alleviated some of the fear in Brussels that the EU will suffer more than the UK from Brexit. The buoyant economic situation across Europe has also added to this new-found sense of confidence. This is a welcome change from the near fatalism that pervaded much of the mainstream media concerning the European Project over the last number of years. Unfortunately for Ireland, this has exacerbated the return to the tackling the major thorn at the side of the two most powerful EU economies; the variance in corporation tax that has attracted a disproportionate amount of foreign direct investment to certain peripheral EU states.
Ireland is undoubtedly the most high-profile example of a country benefitting from a lower than average corporate tax rate in the EU. It isn’t the only nation though, with some of the so called peripheral nations also attracting companies in this way. These include Cyprus and Malta amongst others. Many of these have suffered in the past from poverty, emigration and elevated levels of unemployment, A story all too familiar to many of our own older generations. The access to the European Union has offered these countries the chance to invigorate their economies, some experiencing growth unheard of in the recent past.
Unfortunately for the small nations, now that Germany and France (with the support of some of the other large nations) have realised that the rules are not in their favour they have decided that they want to play a different game. The latest utterings coming from Paris and Berlin are that the Eurozone needs a finance minister, along with a uniform corporate tax rate.
The Irish government needs to be firm and stand up for itself here, along with the other smaller nations. Allegedly, we have a lot of goodwill over the unique challenges we face with Brexit. Surely, we can argue, this is not the time for such drastic changes to the daily functions of the EU. Furthermore, these actions would boost the dissenters against the European Union’s creeping power. Many of these protestors have fuelled far right movements in European countries in recent years.
Ireland needs to say this isn’t the time and tell Europe that they will use any veto powers available to them to block this. Ireland can then work with the other nations who are more discreetly opposed to a single tax rate to organise a bloc of countries. Ireland is one of the most pro-European nations. Varadkar will need to effectively vocalise that there is difference between being Eurosceptic and believing that these potential steps are a bridge too far.
A lot of Varadkar’s appeal to his supports revolves around his frank and outspoken method of communicating. He is seen as someone who isn’t afraid to mince his words. This is often seen in sharp contrast to his predecessor, Enda Kenny. It’s hard to forget the image of Nicolas Sarkozy rubbing his head, this was not the action of someone speaking to their equal.
Varadkar has been a lot more forthright with his criticism of the British government for their approach thus far to Brexit. It would be a lot more of a challenge to be as outspoken against tax harmonisation. However, this does not mean it would be prudent to stay silent. Ireland needs to stay strong on this issue. We cannot back down and allow ourselves to be walked over and dismissed. Let’s hope we have a leader who will fight for Ireland and maybe we can be an inspiration for other nations struggling to find their voice in Brussels.
*First appeared here on Slugger O' Toole
A lot of eyes in Ireland and Britain will be focused on Catalonia in the upcoming weeks. The vote taking place on October 1st will be an acid test for the integrity of Spain and the aspirations of independence for a number of regions across the European Union.
The referendum was first called for in June 2017 and was formally approved by the Catalan Parliament on the 6th of September. Almost immediately, the Spanish Constitutional Court claimed the referendum was non-binding, stating the Spanish Constitution does not allow Spanish Regions to hold Independence votes.
This should then be a straightforward matter. If the vote is null and void, it doesn’t make sense for it to take place. In 2014, in Catalonia’s last bid for Independence, the Catalan government basically accepted a similar ruling by the Court and then used the ensuing vote for publicity and consensus building.
The Catalans seem a lot more bullish this time around. There is a determination to hold a legitimate referendum, which they will not accept as illegal, and then act on the results after. The interesting aspect for North Ireland will be the aftermath of a successful vote.
It is not entirely clear what will happen in this case. It seems almost impossible for Catalonia to gain independence without the explicit approval of Spain. They would certainly not be able to join the European Union, as every European Union member has a veto, through the Council of the EU.
If the vote allows the Catalans to gain additional leverage in future negotiations or indirectly lead to future approval for a future referendum by the Spanish Government, it may be soon as a very useful tool by Nationalists in Northern Ireland in future years.
This type of positioning and posturing is excellent PR for a cause and nothing gets the masses engaged like an Independence vote, as we saw in Scotland in the run up to their Independence bid.
There is almost certainly not a majority in Northern Ireland who would vote for unification with the Republic in a legal referendum which meets the requirements of the Good Friday Agreement today. There are probably though a few local councils where a Yes vote would be successful today, especially when the result of voting Yes is more symbolic than anything else. Even a Northern Ireland wide vote would be a lot closer in this scenario. There is nothing like telling people they can’t vote on something, that will make them want to.
I think the key point is that a successful Independence bid for Catalonia is very unlikely to come about from the upcoming referendum. However, if an illegal referendum is viewed in the future as the first step in Catalonia’s successful bid for independence, will this then be a precedent for Nationalists in Northern Ireland and further afield?
If there is clear evidence in the future that a majority want Northern Ireland to unify with the Republican of Ireland, will the leaders of the Nationalist parties really wait for the tacit approval of the British Government or will we be hearing a lot more about the “Catalan way”.
Emmanuel Macron has captured the imaginations of many outside of France over the last few months. His second round Presidential run-off with Marine le Pen in May was seen by many as an existential crisis for the European Union. There was a collective sigh of relief across Europe when it was announced that he had won quite comfortably (the final vote was 66% v 34%). During the campaign, his policies and manifesto were given a bit of a free pass as many people simply wanted Le Pen as far away from the presidency as possible. He then won a comfortable majority in the Parliament a month later to consolidate his power.
His campaign slogan “En Marche!” (Onwards!) sounded very upbeat and dynamic but gave little indication of his views on the current state of France and his aims to change it. That’s why in the weeks after his election in mid-May I wrote a piece here where I was quite critical of Macron. The criticism was more to do with the lack of substance in his campaign, I compared it to Leo Varadkar’s in Ireland.
He did publish a manifesto, which I was able to find an English version of, which to me seemed quite similar to many of the policies of Nicolas Sarkozy’s Republican party in 2012. Sarkozy, who lost out to Francois Hollande that year, did run again for the Republican party nomination for 2017 but was defeated in the first round.
The goals mentioned in the manifesto included cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corporate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. He also intended to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all which includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
After just over 100 days, Macron has now announced his plan for transforming French labour laws, which are captured in the Code du Travail, a broad piece of legislation which encompasses nearly all aspects of French working life. This comes on the back of suffering the largest drop in popularity for a French President in a single month in July (from 64% to 54%) since Jacques Chirac in 1995. It does seem as if the French public have gotten a little bit sick of hearing “Onwards!” without seeing any actual progress.
Macron issued five decrees on Thursday which will dramatically overhaul elements of the Code du Travail. They have reported across media outlets and I won’t go into detail on them here.
This is going to be his first major test. Former presidents have crashed against the great cliffs of French labour and have been broken. Even Francois Hollande, Macron’s predecessor and a member of the Socialist party, experienced major civil unrest last summer when he tried to initiate reforms. Macron has the benefit of a fresh start and a clear, if shrinking, mandate. He has shrewdly issued these as presidential decrees , which should expedite the process. So far most of the Unions’ reactions have been measured. Only the CGT has called for a day of action. In hindsight, Macron’s plan of a ‘100 meetings’ looks to have taken some of the wind out of the sails of the more combative Union elements.
I think the ramifications of whether Macron can succeed will reverberate across the European Union. If he is able to successfully implement an overhaul of the domestic labour system without sending tens of thousands to the streets , he will emerge with a renewed vigour and confidence.
If he can further consolidate his position at home, he will be able to focus more on internationally. If the polls are accurate (for once) and Angela Merkel also has a comfortable victory in the German Federal elections, Europe will see an emboldened and aggressive Franco-German axis leading the conversations and policy direction of the European Union. Macron has been involved in both Brexit negotiations and talks for a more integrated European financial system (for the Irish out there this means one corporate tax rate). While Brexit negotiations have been well covered by the press, the talks over the latter have been progressing discreetly behind the scenes. While the world watches the escalation of the North Korean crisis (I still believe an agreement will ultimately be brokered by China), real impact in European’s daily lives could be a lot more impacted by whether the French finally accept some changes to the long lasting Code du Travail.
I remember the first time I heard the expression “PIIGS”. I was in a finance lecture in Boston and the professor rather smugly asked who in the class was from one of these nations. It was a very diverse class with a lot of Europeans. The acronym was relatively new at the time so only a few hands rose gingerly. In my mind's eye the professor then took great pleasure in explaining the term, naming the five members and finally asking the class again. This time there were quite a few Spanish, Italian and one or two Irish hands raised. I spent most of my formative years growing up in the Celtic Tiger economy. I remember hearing how we had replicated the successful Asian economies and were one of the fastest growing in the Western world. It was almost a fait accompli. Ireland had made it. Then came the crash and that afternoon in Boston where I was condescendingly reminded that Ireland was now a basket case along with the other failures of Europe; Portugal, Italy, Greece and Spain.
I am sure there were very similar feelings of disillusionment and devastation amongst the citizens all five nations. While many argue that there was never really a clear commonality between the economic situations of all five there was undoubtedly a shared impact on the national psyche. The causes and details of the crash are well known so this post will focus on their current situation, the outlook for the countries and if the PIIGS acronym has any relevance today.
Across Europe there is a lot more optimism today than at any time over the last five years. There have been some shocks in recent times, like Brexit and Marine Le Pen reaching the French Presidential run off, but overall the news has been a lot more positive and today every country in the European Union is expected to see economic growth in 2017 (see chart below). The PIIGS acronym has mostly stopped being used and Ireland has actually led many of the economic performance indicators since 2014.
The devastation the bailout packages had on the citizens of Portugal, Ireland, Greece and Spain is slowly passing into memory. Italy did not suffer the ignominy of a sovereign bailout being forced upon them so they didn’t quite reach the same depths of despair. The images of Greek riots will live long with many. I can’t imagine many Greeks will be able to ever forget the many editorials across Europe that had provocate headlines along the lines of “Time to Let Greece Sink” or “EU needs to eject Greece”. They say that in times of true crisis you discover your true friends, Greece won’t forget how they were treated by their counterparts when they were at their lowest point.
The debt levels of Italy, Portugal and Greece remain alarmingly high. Italy is also projected to grow by less than 1% this year which will keep the markets on edge. However all five of the nations are growing and benefiting from increased tourism numbers as well as a rise in employment levels. Politically the left parties flourished in the crisis years and came to power in some capacity in Portugal, Spain and Greece. The Greek party Syriza continues to be the most prominent and currently leads the government of Greece, albeit it with a toned down version of its earlier manifesto.
I think the North/South divide is less relevant in Europe than before. The North/South divide was frequently used to contrast the hardworking/thrifty northern states and the lazy/spendthrift Mediterranean states (Ireland was somehow plugged into the latter group - Costa del Kerry if you will). This is less obvious today as Europe grows overall, benefitting from a buoyant global economy. I believe the 2004, 2007 and 2013 expansions of the European Union will become more evident in the next five years. There is a much clearer contrast between the economic performance of the East v West than any linear North/South divide. New groups or idea blocs will emerge that reshape the internal dynamics and policies of the EU. The reaction to the refugee crisis over the last three years is an early indicator of this. I will explore this thesis in the future through a number of political and social lenses.
So are there still the PIIGS today? I never believed in the validity of this acronym and today it makes less sense than ever. It was a convenient catch all for the countries who lost the most in the last financial crash. It was the classic example of the wealthiest in society differentiating their economic position from the poorest due to their supposed character traits and hard work. Hopefully this is a lesson that will be learned and Europe can move forward in a more unified fashion when facing the great challenges of tomorrow. This certainly remains to be seen...
The comments today from the UK Minister for Immigration , Brandon Lewis, were blunt and to the point “Free movement of labour ends when we leave the European Union in the spring of 2019. I’ll be very clear about that,”.
He added no caveats and made no mention of Ireland. While we Irish sometimes overestimate our own importance (small country syndrome if you will) it would be a massive blow if Irish citizens no longer had the right to work in the UK. It is a strange quirk that Irish residency in the UK is so taken for granted that I have been told more times that London is the sixth largest French city by population rather than it is the second largest Irish city on the same basis. The chart below illustrates just how crucuial this continued right to work will be.
“There has been a Common Travel Area between the UK and the Republic of Ireland for many years. Indeed, it was formed before either of our two countries were members of the European Union. And the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries mean that there will always be a special relationship between us.
“So we will work to deliver a practical solution that allows the maintenance of the Common Travel Area with the Republic, while protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom’s immigration system.
“Nobody wants to return to the borders of the past, so we will make it a priority to deliver a practical solution as soon as we can.”
Above are the words of Theresa May when questioned on the topic in January. However a lot has changed since then domestically in the UK. Her leadership is no longer "strong and stable".
I do not believe Theresa May will be the British Prime Minister in March 2019 when the UK leaves the European. Ireland may be a victim of the hawkish, pro-Brexit faction of the Conservative party if they gain power in the meantime. If negotiations break down fully between the European Union and the UK then it is very possible that all the talk of ‘special recognition for Ireland’ will fall by the wayside.
It is too early to speculate based on one interview. However it would be prudent for the Irish government to keenly follow every development and statement from the key players in the British government from now until the final Brexit settlement is agreed. Finally as I have mentioned before it would be naive in the extreme to believe the Irish aspect of Brexit is anywhere near being settled...
Finding out about the British Brexit referendum result was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I was following the Irish football team around France and we had taken a small detour to Ghent. We had found a barge to rent on AirBnb and when we arrived there it was huge. It was soon turned into the flagship of the joint Irish/Lebanese Naval Force (there was a Sean, Cathal, Abdallah, Jad and Maher aboard). When Abdallah announced first thing in the morning they had voted to leave I literally couldn’t believe it. We had drunkenly gone to sleep pretty early the night before, after a long day’s drive, confident that the polls were all correct in suggesting a Remain win. I immediately viewed it as a watershed moment for Western politic and have maintained a healthy distrust of polls since.
Trump being elected was a lot less shocking. I do concur with the view that there was a similar pattern of middle class voters disillusioned with mainstream politics who viewed drastic change as a positive. I didn’t believe he would ultimately win but I advised my brother (who enjoys a punt) to back him at 3/1 a few days before the election ( this was before James Comey came out and said that Hillary Clinton was still under investigation by the FBI - a moment many think had a major impact on the final result).
These two results could have marked the beginning of epochs of change in their respective countries. Brexit, in particular, was seen as a dramatic departure that would change the face of the European Union forever. I may be guilty of engaging in a little hyperbole here, but not more so than the British press in the days following the election.
However in recents months both Trump and Brexit momentum have definitely stalled. The key question in this article is which will collapse first. There is still a major chance that Trump will successfully complete his term as President and may even get re-elected if he chooses not to return to the simpler task of selling golf holidays to wealthy pensioners. Similarly Brexit may turn out to be unheralded success that Nigel Farage has crowed about for a number of years. I don’t think this is likely.
Trump came to power on a wave of radical promises, including the memorable ‘drain the swamp’. However the swamp is fighting back. It looks to me like Trump has sent the last twenty years surrounding himself with sycophants and yes men. He seems to have a very binary view of the world and has so far proven himself to be very incapable of subtlety and nuance. These are two qualities that are crucial when you are the leader in a democratic country. The emphasis here is definitely on democratic. He is a self professed admirer of Putin and seems to wonder why he can’t simply sign off on laws the way Vladimir can.
The allegations of collusion with a foreign government are mounting. Every day it seems a new accusation or piece of evidence comes to the attention of the public (and the potential prosecutors). His supporters scream ‘fake news’ any time there is a major story from a broad variety of media outlets. They saying goes there is no smoke without fire and currently the Trump administration, in particular a number of his key clientele, are suffocating. I predict Trump will ultimately survive these allegations after lengthy, multiple investigations but his administration will suffer greatly. To be a little bolder I predict he will not get the backing of the Republican party (and will either announce his intention not to run again before this goes public) or run as the first ever incumbent, Independent Presidential candidate (someone may correct me if this isn’t legally possible).
Brexit is stumbling on without a clear mandate. I have no doubt that if the Referendum was re-run Remain would win. The Conservatives, and Theresa May in particular, are living on borrowed time. There may even be an early election called if the DUP pull the plug. This could result in a Labour minority government or the Brexit doves gaining the upperhand in the Conservative party. I think a very diluted Brexit will take place with the freedom of movement and access to the market intact albeit with a different title and an added layer of political spin. There may be a few caveats to please the hawks and this will be gained through some sort of divorce bill that is a lot lower than the sixty billion pounds that has been bandied about.
Events are moving so swiftly on both sides of the Atlantic that predictions can’t remain static but in the end I see Trump and Brexit being constrained by Realpolitik to the extent that little changes substantially. This would be quite appropriate for two campaigns that were distinctly lacking in substance. Maybe the real lesson we can take from the last year is that vision and bringing people together leads to lasting change, not divisive soundbites...
ps if anyone is interested I’ve posted a picture of the finest Irish/Lebanese vessel the world has ever seen….
I want to start this article with the caveat that this is just to offer another perspective and I would never condone or encourage any form of violence.
While there has been some backlash to the multitude of attacks in Europe over the last twenty four months, the attackers have mostly failed in their attempts to divide the victim nations into us and them. The ultimate aim seems to be the creation of a massive social divide between Muslim and non- Muslims that will eventually lead to a catastrophic civil war. This simply won’t happen. I even felt ridiculous typing it. In Western Europe, particularly the UK, France and Germany, there are some challenges of multiculturalism and integration but recent electoral results have convinced me this will not become a defining factor in politics there.
In other posts I have alluded to the almost groundhog day cycle of events that occurs after each attack.
If the terrorists truly want to cause division and potential mayhem they need to focus on an area that has already a) caused a major global war and b) been the source of war and bloodshed between Christians and Muslims. The answer is the Balkans. Even the millennial generation like myself remember the horrible tragedies of Srebrenica and Žepa in the early 1990s. It is simply not that long ago that Europe was torn asunder in war between Christians and Muslims (obviously there was also war amongst Christians and different nations in this conflict, I am not trying to completely oversimplify it).
Tensions still exist and there have even been suggestions of potential land swaps to move religious communities back to the countries where they enjoy a majority. Furthermore there has been plenty of funding of mosques in the region from wealthy benefactors in the Gulf. These have often promoted the more extreme Wahhabist strand of Islam. One major example is the Saudi-funded King Fahd mosque in Sarajevo. In November 2016 the Soufan Group estimated that 875 citizens of the Balkans had fought for ISIS in Syria or Iraq. This number is larger than their estimate for the UK or Germany and just over half the number who had travelled from France.
A large bombing here on a Church or other public monument that resulted in a major loss of life would seriously test the recently meshed fabric of society. A major outbreak of civil unrest or violence either in the EU (Croatia) or right on it’s doorstep (Bosnia, Serbia, Albania etc) could potentially have far reaching consequences. Russia has always viewed the Balkans as in their sphere of influence and, having suffered at the hands of Islamic terrorists in recent years, would feel obliged to intervene.
The United States helped end the genocide of Muslims in the former Yugoslavia in the 90s but I do not see a Trump led US intervening in a similar fashion, particularly with the alleged close ties between the Kremlin and the White House. A conflict where there was on threat of American intervention could quickly escalate.
It is now almost exactly 103 years to the date when Gavrilo Princip shot the the Archduke of Austria Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. In the immediate aftermath few expected twenty million to die. While Europe has moved on from these dark times, it would be unwise to ever underestimate the potential for war to begin in the one time ‘powder keg of Europe’. As morbid as it sounds it may ultimately be safer for Europe if ISIS continue to aim West and not take a look at European history...
A lot has happened in last few couple of weeks that could have an impact on how (if?) Brexit takes place. To be honest nobody really knows yet what will ensue, so the below are just some suggestions on how certain events have shifted the underlying dynamics.
The Tories Failing to Regain a Majority
The 2017 British General election will go down as a disaster for the Conservative Party. It is incredibly rare for an incumbent government to voluntarily call an election when they have a majority without the shadow of some scandal in the background (for example in Malta this year the ruling party, Laborista, called an election but this was due to alleged corruption scandals). Theresa May’s line that she needed a mandate from the people now seems arrogant and utterly misguided. While I never believed an enhanced majority would provide her team with more leverage in the negotiations, losing the majority has certainly made her position more challenging.
May is now political cannon fodder. The British were never negotiating from a position of power and I can see the knives being sharpened for her in both the Remain and Leave (Soft and Hard Brexit) factions of the Conservative Party. My view is that she will remain as the token head until some leaked agreement or article is deemed ‘disastrous’ enough for a heave. The reason that this didn’t happen in the initial aftermath is no one really wanted to take over a party that quickly after a horrific defeat and facing into the their most serious international negotiations in forty years.
If this does happen and a Davis or Johnson becomes leader the key factor will be whether this is a smooth transition internally or a General Election is called or forced. If this occurs I think the EU negotiators may lose patience and begin to force through a number of measures. These will not be generous to a seemingly fractured and rudderless United Kingdom.
The DUP Becoming Westminster Kingmakers
I am no fan of the DUP but what an incredible election they had. In March their leader looked to be on her last legs (take note Theresa) and Sinn Fein and the Nationalist’s rise seemed inexorable. Fast forward four months and the DUP now hold a majority of the Northern Irish seats in Westminster, have obliterated their only Unionist rivals (the UUP) and are now in a position of massive leverage by entering an informal agreement to prop up the Tories.
Their position in Brexit is almost laughable. They fought for Brexit (including some dodgy funding dealings) to promote their British solidarity. However they are now seen as proponents for a soft Brexit with as minimal a border as possible. The pragmatist in me does see the logic in this. A smooth, hassle-free Brexit will certainly quieten the voices calling for a Border poll. In terms of real impact though, I don’t think they have as much leverage as the media have suggested. While they will certainly bang their drums publicly, it would be almost political suicide to pull the Government, with the threat of a Jeremy Corbyn (read IRA sympathiser) led replacement looming.
Macron Gaining a huge majority in the French Assembly Elections
Now this is a politician who did need a mandate. While his presidential success was a major talking point in the global media and political circles , it was deemed by many as more a vote against Marine le Pen than it was as a vote for the former banker and junior minister in the Socialist Government. In a similar fashion to the American political system, the assembly have a lot of power to pass through (and veto) legislation. Macron’s party, En Marche, did not even have a presence in the last assembly. To go from 0 to 350 out of 577 seats is an absolutely phenomenal result. Naysayers will point to the dismal turnout of 42%. However low turnout is a bit like an own goal in football, when it goes in your favour people simply remember that you scored.
Macron is now in a position of power and ,until his cuts to public expenditure bring a million protestors to the Parisian streets in 2019, has the backing of the majority of the French people. He will now seek to impose his will on the Brexit negotiations. He believes in a harsh deal for the British, that will effectively scare other countries away from considering an EU exit. Below are some of the quotes he made, prior to his presidential success in March;
“I am a hard Brexiter” and (European negotiations with Britain prior to the Brexit referendum) “created a precedent, which is that a single state can twist the European debate to its own interests. Cameron was toying with Europe and we agreed to go along with it, which was a big mistake.”
With Angela Merkel facing a German election in late August, I expect Macron to become a key figure over the next few months. As a former Banker he may well believe that London’s difficulty is an opportunity for Paris. Relocating a few major banks to Paris would further add to his impressive Presidential start and what better way to go about this than through tough talks with little quarter given to their historic rivals.
While I would like to be proven wrong, I can’t see the British decision to leave the European Union now being reversed. In hindsight the decision to call an election by the Conservative Government seems foolish at best. They will now be negotiating from a position of enhanced weakness, facing an emboldened French maverick and a distracted Angela Merkel. Their best policy would be to stop making brash, jingoistic public claims about not being bullied and to keep their heads down and try to make substantial progress. The calls for Theresa May’s head will rise in volume from her former friends in the British press when she agrees to pay a substantial ‘divorce settlement’. If she can end her tenure with a lot more clarity on what Brexit means , accompanied by some substantial progress than she will have taken at least the first step to political redemption.
Leo Varadkar and Emmanueal Macron's recent ascents to power are two of the most interesting political stories of 2017 for many global media outlets. They have shattered the record books for becoming the youngest leaders of Ireland and France respectively. Their personal relationships have captured the imagination of the wider public. Varadkar is Ireland's first openly gay leader while Macron married his secondary level drama teacher, 24 years his senior. Their enthusiatic and frank style of speech has lead to much praise and publicity. They are both viewed as 'fresh' and 'dynamic' in their homelands.
Now that I have gotten the seemingly obligatory fawning out of the way I want to dig a little deeper and highlight that while both of these politicians may espouse a new departure in politcs they are a lot more traditional than the public has so far realised.
The domestic conditions for their success do vary slightly, given my patriotic bias, we'll start with Varadkar. The leading party in Ireland, Fine Gael, has been in power since 2011. Enda Kenny has been their party leader since 2007 and is currently Ireland's longest serving member of Parliament. A very poor performance in the 2016 election led to him being returned as Taoiseach only as the head of a minority government. A number of controversies involving the national police force made his position untenable and there were very few shocked when he announced his intention to step down in mid May. Within 48 hours Leo Varadkar launched his campaign with a very smooth website and the immediate backing of two thirds of the party's members of parliament. His only opponent Simon Coveney stood little chance enduring what can only be descibed as the political equivalent of a blitzkrieg. Since his public announcement that he was gay in January 2015 in the lead up to the Marriage Equality referendum, every statement and public appearance has been carefully managed.
The sophistication of his campaign is definitely something he has in common with Macron, whose catchy (if completely meaningless) slogan En Marche! (Onwards!) seemingly captured the imagination of the French public. Or at least that is the narrative his campaign team pushed. In reality Macron emerged from one of the weakest pools of candidates ever put forward for a French Presidential election. The two traditional parties both offered flawed candidates. The Socialist candidate, Benoit Hamon, never really stood a chance after the disastrous tenure of his predecessor Francois Hollande. Francois Fillon of the Republican party was an early favourite before his campaign was derailed by allegations of corruption. Meanwhile the FN party of Marine Le Pen is reviled by a majority of the French Public. At times in the second round run-off the sum of Emmanuel Macron's argument for election amounted fact that he was 'not Le Pen'. Immigration often took centre stage in the campaign and Macron used this to take public attention away from his very pro-business policies and intention to reduce the government footprint on French society. To me these policies are basicaly those of the Republican party under Nicolas Sarkozy, wrapped in a shiny new box.
They include cutting public service headcount by 120,000 and reducing the headline corproate tax rate from 33% to 25%. This would take it lower than Germany, whose total rate varies from 30-33%. Furthermore, his intention to overhaul social welfare and provide employment insurance for all can be deemed a more conservative policy as it includes provisions like necessity to prove a genuine attempt to find a job and mandatory loss of benefits if two suitable positions are rejected.
Leo Varadkar has tried to limit his planned policies thus far as he was more intent on convincing the Fine Gael members to follow their elected parliamentarians. His manifesto for party leadership was titled 'Taking Ireland Forward' (another catchy but utterly meaningless slogan). His carefully managed facade has fallen on occasion and there were potentially ominous hints of what is to come when he said he wants to lead a party for 'people who get up early in the morning'. His manifesto has a distinct Thatcherite feel to it. In the past the Irish people have rejected governments who move too far to the right (including the decimation of the Progressive Democrats). A Fine Gael party who try and drive these policies through under the illusion of a 'new type pf politics' will suffer a similar fate.
I have undoubtedly taken a cynical view of both men and may in time be proven wrong (particularly as both men finally have time to act and not only use catchy soundbites). However until then it seems fitting to borrow a Gallic phrase to describe my views on the direction both men will take their countries ; 'plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose' . The rough translation for this is the more it changes, the more it stays the same...
How politicians can make hay while the violence reigns
This is a very sensitive issue and while this post will look at it from a purely political (if Machiavellian) style I want to first mention that the writer is unequivocally against all violence and my thoughts are with all the families and friends of those impacted.
Over the last 18 months or so we have been inundated with images and reports of atrocities carried out across Europe, usually by individuals or groups affiliated by members of the so-called Islamic State. While these have all been disgusting acts of violence, I want to take a look at what impact they have had on elections. Will they be a key campaign topic moving forward or has the average European voter simply reached the shoulder shrug stage where a message on social media will suffice.
The comments from politicians in the aftermath of any attack have become disturbingly similar ; "now is the time for people to come together", "the people of ....... will show the world they will not bow to terrorism" or the standard "I would like to thank the emergency services for their outstanding bravery in the face of such horror" , however you do not become a leader or a senior member of any party with at least some political acumen and I am certain they immediately analyse the political fallout these attacks will have.
The two dynamics I would like to assess are incumbent versus opposition and the party's views on immigration. Whilst there are clearly other dynamics at play these are two of the factors I believe play a major role in how politicians perceive these attacks and whether they will privately view them as something they can use or will put them in defensive mode. I am going to focus on the French election that took place recently and the current UK election campaign. There are numerous other elections taking place across Europe but these may require a re-visit of this topic.
Three major incidents have taken place in France in the last 2 years; The Charlie Hebdo attack (January 2015), the Bataclan (November 2015) and the massacre in Nice (July 2016). All three would have not have helped the incumbent Socialist party. During this period President Hollande'sa approval ratings did plummet. However they were already suffering I don't believe these attacks directly lead to Hollande suffering the lowest approval ratings of any French President at 4% in October 2016 (in the summer of 2016 he published a memoir where he attacked everyone from the French national football team to the poor).
So for the incumbent government in this situation the obvious accusation is that the security forces failed or he is 'weak on security'. I think the sheer audaciousness and shock of these 3 very different attacks insulated the president from too much damage here. In fact, he actually benefited from being one of the first to master the necessary soundbites listed above as well as adding a line about taking a firm stand against terrorism.
In France the more obvious argument is the rise of the FN under Marine le Pen with her aggressive views on minimizing immigration and leaving the EU. The obvious narrative is that each successive attack increased her chances of winning and enhanced her campaign and profile. I am not so sure this is necessarily the case in terms of votes. In May 2014 the FN garnered 24.9% of the votes to win the French European Parliament elections. In March 2017 Le Pen won 21.3% of the vote in the first round run-off. So in spite of three of the most serious terrorist attacks in French history they actually lost vote share when the 'real' vote took place. In my opinion her views were still too distasteful to the majority of electorate and realistically she would have needed a lot more 'attacks' to justify her position on Islam and immigration, as well as the economic collapse of a European economy to gain any further support for her views that France should leave the EU. For FN it is difficult to see how their current approach would benefit enough from any number of attacks to move the Richter scale and hit the 30% or even 40% marks.
In my view the French have simply seen too many attacks now to be convinced to make their decision solely based on this and economics, not security will be the crucial factor over the next campaign. Macron was quick to identify this and was astute enough to avoid making it a key tenet of his campaign, instead choosing to focus on a rather woolly 'new politics' platform.
The current UK General election campaign has been blighted by two terrorist attacks which were preceded by another attack earlier in the year. They have undeniably had an impact on the campaign but have not been the key focus of it despite the campaign to label Jeremy Corbyn a terrorist sympathizer due to his alleged historical support of the IRA. The British right-wing media have continually hounded him with this label as well criticized his economic policies. In polling prior to the calling of the election by Theresa May these factor combined to give the Tories a twenty point lead.
The Labour strategy team correctly identified that they would have more success changing the public perception of their economic views than of Corbyn's past and started strongly with their Manifesto launch (May 17th - though leaked a day earlier) which received a favorable reception from the public here. The lesson here is if you are trying to regain the working class vote focus on what you can give them financially and leave nationalist policies aside, especially if you know you are perceived as 'weak' or soft'. The five days following the manifesto launch gave Labour a solid platform to voice their message and gain support in polling.
The Manchester bombing on May 22nd could have ended this momentum for Labour but there were able to deflect the weak on terror accusations and even landed some hits by pointing to the police cuts enforced by the Tory government. Corbyn's speech which claimed that terrorism was a cause of British foreign policy could have been disastrous but fortunately for him there was a precedence of Conservative politicians voicing similar views previously. So in the aftermath of this attack Labour continued to narrow the initial 20 point polling lead of the Tories and the election campaign still focused on manifestos and the differing approaches both parties would take in government.
The London Bridge attack may now have swung the pendulum back to security and foreign policy. It , at the very least, has again (rightfully so) taken up the news headlines with less than a week to go to the election. The incumbent government have the stronger line on immigration (despite never achieving any of their immigration pledge caps) and will benefit more from this potential shift. Labour have again tried to attack the Tories on their cuts in police numbers but this approach is more blatantly seen as political opportunism and will be tricky to effectively convey in the limited timeframe available to them.
My view on the attacks in the UK is that they have indirectly benefited the incumbent Tory government simply through taking the attention of the public. Neither party have been canny enough to figure out how to turn these events into an increase in their votes. The Tories realize that after their disastrous start, no campaign news is good news and will now try and quietly make it to the election on June 8th, hoping their once impregnable lead will still hold strong. Labour are faced with a tricky dilemma ; do they try and get the narrative back to the manifesto pledges which had served them well despite the public attention on terrorism for at least another 48 hours or double up on their message that the Tories, due to cuts they have made to the Police following their austerity policies, can't be trusted on security. This is a major gamble to take when the right wing press can counter this with a picture of the Labour leader with the original bearded, terrorist nemesis of the British state. An interesting week ahead....