The last special election before the November 6th Congressional Election takes places tonight. I’ve covered a number of these special elections this year and while each has its own unique narrative and characteristics, the overall direction has been positive for the Democratic Party.
They have managed to win several Republican seats and some of these victories point towards them potentially re-taking the House in November.
The seat has been held by a Republican since 1983. According to The Crosstab, it leans fourteen points to the right of the nation and would be a major gain for the Democrats.
What must be very worrying for the Republican Party is that they currently hold 72 seats that are less Republican leaning than Ohio 12th.
The Democrats need to take 23 seats to reclaim the House, so a win today would illustrate just how possible this is with a strong turnout of their base.
The polls have it very close with a point advantage to either side in the last two polls while the betting markets also have it going down to the wire with the Republican candidate Troy Balderson the slight favourite.
The Democrats’ candidate, Danny O’Connor, is a moderate who will try and reclaim the middle political ground from the Republicans.
In his views, he is quite similar to Conor Lamb, who took the Pennsylvania 18th from a Republican in a March special election that I covered here.
He doesn’t support Nancy Peloisi as the Democratic Leader of the House and he is not been backed by (or endorsed) a specific 2020 Presidential hopeful.
If O’Connor can win today, and take another strong Republican seat running on a moderate, centrist ticket, I will be closely following what type of Presidential candidate he Is drawn towards.
A victory in November for the Democrats may contain a number of seat wins in the rust belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio. In 2020, the Democrats will need to field a candidate that can potentially beat Trump in all three.
If O’ Connor wins today I am confident the Democrats will win in November and, for reasons I will elaborate on further later, I am very close to predicting the Democrats will go with a male candidate in 2020…
On Brexit, so much has happened in the last two weeks but very little has changed. Time has passed, and May has survived without really presenting a credible plan for the Irish border.
I had believed that a Customs Union amendment would be passed by the Tory rebels in the Trade and Customs Bills that would have, at worst, safeguarded against a Hard Brexit or even tied the United Kingdom to the Customs Union after March 2019.
This would have not fully alleviated the challenged that Brexit posed to Ireland, but it would have been concrete, tangible progress.
Instead the European Research Group Conservative MPs were able to add clauses that made it illegal for Northern Ireland to have a separate customs structure to that of Britain, as well as another clause that only allows the UK to collect VAT on behalf of EU nations if they do the same for the UK.
The former makes the Irish backstop, agreed in December and formalized in March, almost impossible to implement in the case of No Deal and ups the ante on the Irish government to concede further on what constitutes a hard border.
The latter makes Theresa May’s Facilitated Customs Arrangement, one of the central tenets of here Chequer’s Plan, very likely to be rejected by the European Commission.
It’s a very worrying state of affairs and the lack of certainty continues to damage all parties involved.
I always thought that a soft Brexit would ultimately prevail but would probably take Theresa May down with it.
The Irish government have lobbied hard within Brussels and have take a very firm stance. This has played well with the Irish electorate and has garnered the support of all the major political parties.
However, as it becomes less certain that a soft Brexit that retains the status quo at the Irish border will emerge, Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein have begun to challenge Leo Varadkar’s affirmation that there will be no change.
Sinn Fein are a bit of a disadvantage here as their seven seats at Westminster could have been enough to swing some of the key votes mentioned above.
I believe Fianna Fail will now go on the offensive on Brexit and seek to criticize the Fine Gael position as naïve and out of touch with the political realities in Brussels and London.
There is still a small chance that a final agreement can be built from the basis of the Chequer’s proposal, though this is unlikely.
If the proposal does indeed collapse, the Irish government must hope that this becomes the moment the UK parliament finally asserts its will and decides that economics trumps party politics.
Otherwise, Leo Varadkar could fall from grace almost as fast has Theresa May has…
I am keeping a keen eye on the November US midterms. I wrote a few blog posts on the last few “by-elections” that took place to try and get an indication of where the American electorate are ahead of the voting on November 6th.
We are now into the Primaries phase where incumbents are often challenged by more than one candidate from their own party, ahead of facing off against their counterpart candidate in November.
Like in the UK first past the post electoral system, many races are very uncompetitive in the United States Congress. This can often lead to the primary contest being much more dramatic and exciting.
This was not meant to be the case in the 14th Congressional District in New York where the incumbent Joe Crowley was a 10 term Congressmen who had not even faced a challenger since 2004.
However, he faced a challenge from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a New York native, of Puerto Rican descent and a self-confessed socialist and member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
She had previously volunteered for Bernie Sanders campaigns and is in the far left of the Democratic Party.
Nobody saw this win coming and, in the end, it was a convincing margin of victory 57.5% to 42.5%. She campaigned on a progressive platform with Medicare, gun control and the abolishment of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency.
The results so far have been too mixed so far to create a narrative of whether the Democratic campaign will have an establishment or more leftwing feel.
Ocasio-Cortez ran a great campaign and stayed close to the ground. Even her campaign video is inspiring for the more sentimental among us.
I’ll continue to post sporadically on the build up to the elections. It still seems quite likely that the Republicans will retain the Senate but that the Democrats are slight favourites to retake the House.
If this is the case, it is also crucial to observe what type of Democratic Congress emerges. Will it be one that wants to push the progressive side of the party and potentially support another Presidential bid by Bernie Sanders or will the establishment be emboldened and believe a more mainstream Democratic candidate will still be able to take on and defeat Donald Trump…
I haven’t written about Brexit in almost four months. It’s a frustrating topic that produces daily coverage but often little in terms of tangible progress or moments that truly move the Brexit needle.
There is a constant expectation of drama and a desire for decisive political moments but so often they fail to transpire.
That said, it is clear we have now reached a point where “fudging” becomes a lot less viable as an option for Theresa May and her government if she wants to avoid a No – Deal scenario.
She will face a crucial test this week when the Withdrawal Bill comes back to Westminster with 15 amendments from the Lords.
When these amendments were tabled a month ago, it looked like there was an appetite for inflicting defeats on the Government from some of the Tory rebels.
The chaos last week over the British proposal for the backstop agreement (which contained another round of David Davis will he /won’t he resign) has rattled many in the party as the consensus seems to be his resignation would have led to others and this could really have threatened the stability of the government.
This may convince the some of the Tory rebels that this isn’t the time or the appropriate forum for firing from both barrels.
Amber Rudd alluded to this in an article in the Telegraph yesterday where she wrote;
"a technical measure which is essential to getting Brexit right".
This leads me to believe that she won’t be supporting the amendments or rallying other moderates to the cause either.
It would be in line with so many other seminal Brexit moments so far where almost every analyst predicted major drama and the potential rolling of political heads but “fudge” won out…
However, even if the amendments aren’t passed tomorrow there could still be some massive blows to Theresa May and Brexit this month.
The Irish border has not been resolved at all and I stand by my analysis from the time of the December summit that a political earthquake was probably only delayed.
She will also have to face down an amendment to the Trade Bill that has come from her own party and now has the backing of the Labour Party.
It is hard to see how she avoids this defeat. The only question is whether it will return to parliament before the summer recess or even before the EU Summit at the end of the month.
There may also be challenges to the Taxation (Cross-border Trade) Bill and further amendments tabled.
In summary Theresa and the Conservatives may overturn all 15 amendments this week but if she does it is likely more a tactical retreat from her political opponents (in both Labour and her own party) rather than a major political coup.
If she can’t overturn the 15 amendments then her position may become untenable very shortly thereafter as the challenges pile up and her authority diminishes.
Theresa May has successfully managed to balance the scales since losing her majority in last June’s election, but this June may turn out to be even more damaging to her premiership…
It was an incredible weekend in Ireland but one with very little drama. The race was run for the No side by about 11pm when the results of the RTE exit poll re-affirmed that of the Irish Poll and showed a clear majority had voted to Repeal the 8th Amendment from the Irish Constitution.
I boldly made three predictions for the 8th Amendment in April and repeated them last Friday week and now I must humbly accept I was wrong on all three counts.
Obviously, I underestimated the desire across the country for the 8th Amendment to be replaced but I also think I overestimated the division in the country and the negativity around supporting Repeal.
I thought turnout would be lower than in 2015 for Marriage Equality as I argued that;
“The Yes campaign for the Marriage Equality had a real “feel good” that allowed many to openly support the campaign even if it was not an issue that was high on their political priorities. So far, I do not see the same level of enthusiasm for the Yes campaign amongst the “non-aligned”.
By May 24th, the sheer numbers of women (and men) out on the streets campaigning for Repeal meant that more and more people were being engaged and the referendum almost became omnipotent in Irish life.
Even those who initially had wanted nothing to do with it were being asked daily what they felt and which way they were inclined to vote.
The personal stories shared on media and across social platforms also helped to normalize the debate and bring the issue much closer to home for many.
If the 8th Amendment had been an abstract law at the start of the campaign, by the end it was a much more tangible force that either hurt women or saved the lives of the unborn, depending on your final views.
Ultimately though, and despite the graphic posters, the Irish electorate related the 8th to women and the women and men of all ages, religions and political creeds mostly voted for change.
This uniformity of this belief by the end of the campaign meant that while the Yes % vote varied only Donegal actually voted No.
The #hometovote campaign also helped the Yes side and it was encouraging to see so many Irish citizens come home to Ireland to help change the laws. However, at the moment I believe this group can only be energized for referendums and will not play a role in shaping the next government.
There is no doubt the great weather also helped boost the turnout by a percentage point but given the scale of victory I don’t think even the most ardent No supporter could claim it had a decisive impact.
Most of the reviews and articles will focus on how Ireland is now finally transformed and has eradicated the last vestiges of the Catholic Church’s influence in Ireland’s political thinking. I will leave this point to more eloquent Irish (and international) writers.
What I finally want to look at is whether this result has changed the political landscape in Ireland.
It does seem highly likely that we will have an election before the end of 2019 and it may even come at some point in 2018. Have any parties or politicians benefited from their campaigning and the result.
Leo Varadkar and Simon Harris played major roles in the campaign and Harris’ appearance in one of the last televised debates was widely praised. Fine Gael currently have an unassailable lead in the polls and the result will only have strengthened this lead.
There may be a slight increase in female support for Sinn Fein away from Fianna Fail given the respective party positions on the 8th. Mary Lou McDonald played a very public role in the campaign and was a key figure on the Yes side.
However, the campaigning of Micheal Martin has bolstered his leadership over Fianna Fail. It was a brave decision to campaign against the party position taken at the last Ard Fheis and it would have ended his leadership if the campaign had failed.
The role of the Citizen’s Assembly has received a lot of attention as a means to bring more direct democracy and electorate led legislation.
It would be very interesting if a major party proposed using the Assembly for something like housing or healthcare. I do not know if this possible, but it would be very interesting to see if the Irish electorate is as far ahead of its politicians in other policies as it was on this initially.
Finally, the 8th Amendment campaign had a very all-island feel and approach with many women from the North canvassing here. In Dublin Castle Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill held up a sign “The North is Next”.
This could pose another challenge to Anglo-Irish relations as the British Government come under further pressure to legislate in Northern In the absence of an Assembly.
Unionists are skeptical of many of the movements for social progress in Northern Ireland after the alleged “Trojan horse” comments of Gerry Adams.
However, it will be a lot harder to ignore and dismiss these campaigns when they are soon led by women from leafy suburbs in Belfast and Dublin and bolstered by those returning home to campaign from the British mainland.
Ireland is changing but moving forward it looks set to increasingly change united island. Regardless of how hard or soft the final Brexit border is, the island of Ireland is united in its desire for progressive politics and policies…
Donald Trump’s decision to pull the United States out of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, signed by Iran, the US, the UK, China, Russia, France and Germany in July 2015, is a major setback to the Middle East and potentially even to global stability.
Trump had threatened to cancel the deal on numerous occasions in the past but refrained. He was previously either distracted by other events or felt that the timing was wrong.
I ultimately didn’t believe he would follow through with it as it is such a dangerous step. Trump and the United States do not enjoy the support of any of the other signatories in this decision.
The logic behind the decision is not at all clear as, according to the International Atomic Energy Agency, the UN’s nuclear watchdog, Iran has kept to its side of the deal and has passed every quarterly compliance test.
The two questions for me are what caused him to make this decision now and what potential impact it may have.
There have been several voices calling for the US to pull out of this deal. The writing was on the wall for deal when John Bolton was appointed Trump’s National Security Advisor in March. He has been a long-time critic of the Iranian regime and the deal and in a statement made hours after the announcement, he welcomed Trump’s decision;
“Well, I don’t really have much to add to the President’s speech. I think the decision is very clear. I think it’s a firm statement of American resolve to prevent not only Iran from getting nuclear weapons, but a ballistic missile delivery capability. It limits its continuing support of terrorism and its causing instability and turmoil in the Middle East.”
Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli Prime Minister, has also shown in recent times that he has major influence with Trump and I initially thought the US decision to move its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem had been Netanyahu’s piece de resistance.
In hindsight Netanyahu’s “Iran Lied” presentation last Monday was an ominous sign that there were major discussions and lobbying going on behind the scenes but the presentation itself actually fell quite flat according to many observers and this allowed it to fly slightly under the political media’s radar.
There may be a case that domestic issues have also motivated Trump to try and create a major foreign policy news story. The Stormy Daniels scandal continues to rumble on and Trump’s approval ratings, while rising slightly in recent months, are still lingering around the 40% mark. This clearly irritates Trump who references them regularly.
Trump is now at risk at isolating the US in the Middle East. While all the other signatories have continued to back the deal, it is unlikely there will be much co-ordinated action between them to the exclusion of the United States, as tensions are still running high between the UK, France and Germany and Russia over the Salisbury attack and its political fallout.
In the Middle East itself, the move may embolden both Israel and Saudi Arabia (allies in all but name) , to act more aggressively against Iranian interests, including potential further strikes in Syria, Yemen and Lebanon.
The Iranian response will be interesting. While I believe they have legitimate reasons to be incensed, they need to be careful not to have any context for missile strikes on their nuclear bases as it does seem quite apparent that many in Trump’s inner circle (at the behest of Israel) would welcome military action on Iran.
While this is still less than likely, the chances of it have increased significantly after yesterday’s announcement. The worlds other leaders now need to take heed and ensure peace and pragmatism are the paths taken…
In the run up to the US Congressional elections in November I will be write a post every so often with an update on the situation and any thoughts I have on the direction the House and Senate are heading in.
I have punted on the Democrats reclaiming control of the Congress after the election. At the moment, the polls and bookies also see this happening, but I am not taking this as a definite as there have been many electoral shocks recently.
Today is the special election for the 8th Arizona Congressional District.
The background to this “by election” was caused by one of the most bizarre political scandals I have come across when the incumbent Republican Congressman, Trent Franks, asked two female members of his staff if they would bear his children. Franks resigned in early December after the House Ethics Committee launched an investigation into his behaviour. His quotes below are almost unbelievable;
“I have recently learned that the ethics committee is reviewing an inquiry regarding my discussion of surrogacy with two previous female subordinates, making each feel uncomfortable,”……“I deeply regret that my discussion of this option and process in the workplace caused distress.”……. “I want to make one thing completely clear. I have absolutely never physically intimidated, coerced or had, or attempted to have, any sexual contact with any member of my congressional staff.”
This election should be a straightforward win for the Republican candidate, Debbie Leisko, over her Democratic competitor, Hiral Tipirneni.
Donald Trump won this district by 21% in the 2016 Presidential Election and it should be a clear Republican Hold. However, the recent victory of Conor Lamb in the 18th District of Pennsylvania (which Trump won by 19%) has left many believing that many previously uncompetitive seats have become battlegrounds.
This is almost certainly not the case here. There are a number of inherent, structural advantages for the Republians here that mean a shock is a lot less likely (Republicans make up 41% of registered voters v Democrats 24% plus an older demography).
There have been major questions marks about three of the major polls released but I have included the numbers below for reference;
The margin of victory here is important though. For this to be a successful election for Republicans and a positive indicator for November they need to win by at least 15%.
For the Democrats a margin of less than 10% would be a major boost and could lead to a re-assessment of the political landscape ahead of November. A win here is almost impossible and would be a major shock despite some polling calling it quite close.
The result will not decide November but may be another piece of contextual evidence on the potential chance of the Democrats reclaiming the House of Congress…
The 8th will Probably be Repealed but it will be Closer than the Marriage Equality Referendum in 2015...
The campaign is heating up. I last directly wrote about the 8th Amendment referendum in August 2017. Then I warned that it would be a very close race, especially if it was run on the basis that the 8th would be replaced with legislation that allowed abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
That does seem to be the case now. It was the recommendation of the Citizen’s assembly and it seems difficult to envisage how it will not be the starting point for legislation if the 8th is indeed repealed. I warned then that the campaign may be our Brexit/Trump moment where there is a shock results that rails back against the assumption that Ireland has moved on and changed.
I do now believe it will pass on May 25th but see it being an extremely close race. There is a comfort to viewing this through the prism of the next logical step in Ireland continuing its path to becoming a truly progressive republic.
However, in many ways I think the comparisons to the Marriage Equality referendum are dangerous for the Repeal side and fail to distinguish the differences and intricacies of both the society that is being asked the question and the question itself.
The Yes campaign for the Marriage Equality had a real “feel good” that allowed many to openly support the campaign even if it was not an issue that was high on their political priorities.
So far, I do not see the same level of enthusiasm for the Yes campaign amongst the “non-aligned”.
The reason for this may be that so far, the No side have been more successful in framing the referendum around “abortion” than the Yes side have been in framing it around “bodily autonomy” and “freedom of choice”.
There are two factors that make the “No” side’s task easier here. The No side got its posters up earlier and many of the posters contain stark warnings about what they believe repealing the 8th means.
Furthermore, the wider phenomenon of a growing effectiveness of short, simplistic political messages in recent times, arguably fueled by the rise in social media platforms like Twitter, means the message of abortion is received and processed a lot easier than “bodily autonomy”.
That said, the Yes campaign is still ahead in every poll so far which is the clearest indicator that it will pass. The most recent poll from the Irish Times this week showed a slight drop in support for Yes at 47%, with No at 28%, “Undecided” at 20% and “Don’t Know” at 4%.
The results were also framed as Yes at 63% and No at 37% with others excluded. This is a much more dangerous way of analyzing the results for those who are in favour of Repeal as Irish voters in past referendums have shown a high aversion to change when there is uncertainty around what that change will be.
Finally, it’s time for some updated predictions based on where we stand today. There may be changes in the run up to the Referendum, but this is probably the final predictions I will make;
Yes to pass with a vote of 52% to 57% - a much smaller margin of victory than the 62% Yes received in the Marriage Equality referendum.
Turnout out to be lower than 55% for the reasons illustrated above
5+ Constituencies to Vote No versus only Roscommon in the Marriage Equality referendum.
I started to write an article last night on why the UK shouldn’t bomb Syria. I fell asleep before I had completed it and when I woke up this morning it was obsolete. The UK had crossed it’s Syrian Rubicon and another Middle Eastern country had been added to the list of UK targets of military action.
I will not pontificate on the legitimacy of the missile strikes last night by the US, UK and France. There is plenty of coverage and articles out there already doing so.
The thrust of this short piece is a hope that the hawks in all three governments are now satiated and that there will be no further escalation in violence or warfare. It is a hope that could be crushed as early as tonight if the three nations decide to embark on further sorties or if Syria’s key allies, Russia and Iran, decide to launch retaliatory strikes.
The former seems slightly more likely than the latter. Despite the bombastic rhetoric of the Russian government this week, it seems unlikely that would really escalate this to the next level by targeting “allied” sites or infrastructure.
It would be counterproductive and could ultimately dislodge Russian’s position of (albeit challenged) supremacy in Syria now.
It is a little too early to fully analyze what impact these strikes have had on Syria’s military capability, but it seems unlikely it will serious hinder their slow but steady path to ultimate victory they have pursued since Russia’s major interjection into the Syrian Civil War.
Approximately one year, Trump also launched missile strikes against the Syrian regime after another alleged chemical attack by the Syrian regime on its own people. At the time Trump was quoted as saying;
“No child of God should ever suffer such horror,”
There was an initial fear then that the strikes would escalate into American troops on the ground and an overthrow of the Syrian regime. Essentially, back then the “Trump factor” was so unknown that this seemed a possibility despite all the obvious challenges and dangers.
However, when this did not occur, and Trump refrained from further action it appeared the window for the possibility of serious military intervention by the West had passed.
We are unfortunately again at a similar crossroads. The difference this time is that both the UK and France have entered on the side of the US. Apart from the obvious aims of preventing further chemical attacks on innocent civilians, both European nations may also have more nefarious motives for intervening.
Emmanuel Macron has been cozying up to the Saudi Royal family in recent times and it may be more than a coincidence that Macron’s strong actions have taken place less than a week since the Crown Prince visited Paris.
Theresa May has had a bump in her approval ratings in the last month since her strong reaction to the Skripal attack in Salisbury. She may identify this as a further opportunity to bolster her reputation as strong on foreign policy.
This is major gamble by May as only 22% of Britons supported cruise missile strikes against Syria in a poll they published on Thursday.
There will be parliamentary debate on Monday in the UK and hopefully both the opposition and members of her own Conservative party will speak up against further military action.
We are now in a dangerous lull where the first strikes have taken place, but we cannot know for certain that there will be no further action. In my view these initial strikes have been in vain and will produce very little on the ground without engagement with Russia and Iran.
Unfortunately, with the recent appointment of John R. Bolton as Trump’s National Security Advisor there is another hawk in his inner circle who is not afraid to advocate military action against Iran. Whether this would extend to direct action against Russia is unknown for now.
Over the next few days it will become a lot clearer whether this was another one-off strike/warning to the Syrian regime against the use of chemical weapons or we have reached a new level of tension and conflict between the US and its allies against the Syrian regime backed up by Russia and Iran.
The terrifying difference on this occasion would be that the conflict could potentially bit e solely between proxy forces on both sides but directly between military superpowers.
Let’s hope that common sense prevails and we see a de-escalation of threatening rhetoric and a return to dialogue in the coming days…
There is a very interesting election taking places in the US today that could have major ramifications for both the next mid term and presidential election cycles. It’s a by-election for a seat in Congress, specifically Pennsylvania's 18th congressional districts.
I’ll be honest I don’t normally focus this much on the US congressional elections (though I have punted on Democrats reclaiming the Congress in November here). This election though is really intriguing for several reasons.
It’s a district that should be a clear win for the Republican candidate. Donald Trump beat Hilary Clinton here by nineteen percentage points in the presidential election. It also falls into the infamous Rust Belt, that area of the United States that is suffering from continued post-industrial decline.
If that wasn’t enough, Trump visited personally on Saturday to endorse the Republican candidate, Rick Saccone, who himself is a major Trump proponent.
Despite these inherent advantages, the Democratic candidate Conor Lamb is slightly favourite after making gains in the polls in the last few weeks.
While only thirty-three, he has a strong pedigree as a former Marine and federal prosecutor in Pittsburgh.
He’s a right leaning Democrat who has already stated he does not support the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Peloisi.
In my view he has identified that Trump has pulled American politics, at least temporarily, into a new paradigm and to regain power in November in the House and then in the next Presidential race the Democrats need to attack the republicans in different ways.
He has stayed quiet on gun control and abortion, two areas that have often been championed by Democrats but that would not necessarily be popular in his district.
He has focused on jobs and combating the drug crisis, which is a major epidemic in many parts of the Rust Belt. The Democrats were seen by many here as out of touch with the working man and part of “the swamp” and he is doing his utmost to portray himself as fighting for the people.
The view among many political analysts has been that a win for Conor Lamb or even a narrow defeat would be a major boost for the Democrats and show that they are on course for major wins in November.
I don’t necessarily disagree with this but I would look at it from a different angle. If Lamb wins, I think it could be the start of a new approach to beating Trump in many political regions of the US.
The Democrats may decide that a jobs-focused candidate who is viewed as in touch with the working classes may be a better match up than a socially liberal, progressive candidate in 2020. If this does end up being the case, Trump’s legacy will live on past 2021, regardless of victory or defeat.
I wrote a preview of the Italian election a while back here that also looked at the overall state of the Italian economy. It didn’t make for pretty reading and I did reflect afterwards if I had been overly negative.
I predicted that Five Star Movement would win the most seats but would fail to get a majority. One interesting aspect of this election was that, unlike the Brexit or Trump votes, the results, though disheartening and alarming to many, didn’t come as a shock to many.
It was clear for at least 6 months that the Euro-skeptical parties were going to make major gains at the expense of the incumbent left-leaning Democratic Party. Furthermore, a hung parliament was also predicted by most polls.
What is less clear now is what follows. Italian politics is typically built on coalitions and in this campaign, there were three main groups; the centre-right coalition, the centre-left coalition and 5 Star Movement. As you can see from the results below, to form a functioning majority, this political landscape will need to be redrawn.
I won’t spend too long speculating on the internal political machinations now at play as there are plenty of Italian commentators who obviously understand the internal dynamics a lot more than I ever will.
I see three probable outcomes. A Matteo Salvini led centre right minority government, a Luigi di Maio 5 Star Movement in coalition with the League or the Democratic Party.
Of these, the least desirable from my perspective would be a Salvini government. He is strongly anti-immigration and has crossed the line with some language that is close to hate speech and racist on numerous occasion.
It’s important to note that Italy’s challenges and problems haven’t now started because of this election. This election has only brought these issues closer for the forefront of many in Europe, as elections do.
I will hold off further comment for now until we get some further indications of what the next government will be and will then write a more focused article on what this means, in terms of poly and impact.
However, I don’t buy into the simplistic narrative that every election in Europe is now “the centre” v “populism”. There are elements of this in Italy but while immigration has played a role, youth unemployment and disillusionment with the status quo have played a more prominent role.
Unfortunately for Italy, these issues now seem to be part of the status quo. The key policies proposed by the main parties will not help address these issues and I continue to seriously worry for the health of the Italian economy and society as whole , regardless of who next sits in the Palazzo Chigi…
In the end the week wasn’t quite as dramatic as I had predicted here. Further details did emerge from all sides but there were no major fallouts or political backlash, aside from a few belligerent comments from the DUP.
It was a badly kept secret that Jeremy Corbyn would announce last Monday that Labour’s official Brexit policy would now be to seek “a customs union” with the EU. He also stated that the UK would remain in the single market during any transitional period before exiting it.
The speech received a mixed reception with many remain-supporters claiming it didn’t go far enough. Equally, some pro-Brexit Labour MPs were unhappy with Frank Field claiming a customs union would be “ratting” on leave voters.
Now that I’ve had a few days to reflect on the speeches, I’m not sure how impactful Corbyn’s intervention was. It has opened some clear divide on policy between Labour and the Tories but for it to be meaningful, Corbyn needs to cultivate some cross-party support to win any major votes against the government.
Fortunately for Corbyn, Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna have already tabled Clause 5 in the Trade Bill, that will lead to a vote in parliament. Many analysts quickly jumped on Corbyn’s change in policy as the potential vote that could bring down the government.
May’s speech on Friday was well received by many as containing more detail. Personally, I didn’t see that. I did learn that it’s now highly unlikely that May will request a customs union, along with the responsibilities that come with it.
Her speech does seem to have appeased the Brexiteers. Jacob Rees Mogg, who leads the anti-EU European Research Group that contains enough MPs to force a Conservative leadership contest, gave it his qualified approval, writing in the Telegraph;
“There are inevitably a few small points that will concern Leave campaigners but we must all recognise that everyone will have to give up something to get a deal, so now is not the time to nitpick.”
I think May has done enough to fend off an attack from this faction of her MPs. If she holds firm on her red lines, she may not accomplish much but it is one less flank she must defend against.
The EU has so far shown very little appetite to compromise on its negotiating stance. The protocol it released on Wednesday, was very close to what was concluded in December, much to the consternation of those who thought that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed”.
The next big challenge for May will come from the remainers. Any meaningful votes in parliament that pushed for a customs union, single market access in exchange for certain Brexit sacrifices could seriously hurt the government.
I do not see Brexit being reversed at this hour but it may end up being quite a light version. This will not be the case if the final agreement is concluded under Theresa May as she has firmly come down on the side of the brexiteers. The strength of the Brexiteer position is that they can maximise the power of their limited numbers by a clarity of purpose.
There is a broad church of pre-EU supporting MPs that would form the majority in the Conservative Party. Unfortunately for them, they have not found a consensus that they can use a rallying cry. In the future political historians would struggle to identify the zeitgeist of the post Brexit referendum vote period.
However, if, for example, the Anna Soubry bill ends up being this rallying cause it could easily win a vote in parliament. Theresa May must now quickly work to convince those within her own party that voting alongside Jeremy Corbyn and Labour for a customs union agreement would seriously undermine the government. I expect to see lots of “red” scaremongering (though done a little more subtly than the Czech spy smear).
Whether this will be enough to convince her own MPs that the UK’s best interests is now outside a customs union but with a bespoke trade deal remains to be seen.
My views on where we are heading have not changed significantly after the last week’s events. I see the UK exiting the EU with a deal that falls short of most expectations on both sides of the EU argument.
Unfortunately, I do not see it causing a general election in the next twelve months, as when push comes to shove the Tories will probably put power over the nation’s interest. I think Theresa May will not last until the summer of 2019 as Prime Minister but my view on whether her exit date is 2018 or 2019 varies almost by the week.
The next few weeks will focus on trade talks and the Irish question, both of which I’ve left aside for today and will come back to shortly. I will be writing quite frequently on Brexit over the next two months, as trade talks are soon going to reach their crescendo..
The next five days will go a long way in determining how Brexit eventually plays out for the British people. It is a week that will be dominated by two speeches from Jeremy Corbyn on Monday and Theresa May on Friday, as well as by the release of the EU protocol of the December agreement that concluded Phase One of the talks.
This is only the very high-level summary of events and there are also other key players and actions that could influence the week. However, I am focusing on these three critical dynamics as they may also determine the future of Theresa May as Prime Minister.
May is currently under pressure from both flanks of her party, as well as from the Labour opposition who have returned to polling ahead of the Conservatives, after a short recent blip…
Until recently most of the pressure came from the pro-Brexit side of the party with Michael Gove, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox all pushing May to pursue a “hard” Brexit which they believed would allow Britain to sign mutually beneficial free trade agreements around the globe.
Of late, Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Tory backbencher, who heads up the European Research Group, has become the most vocal advocate of this from of Brexit through some savvy media appearances and his bi-weekly blog on Conservative Home, aptly named the Moggcast.
While this group have been focused and efficient in their lobbying, they simply don’t have the MP numbers to lead the party (there were 62 MP signatures on a recent letter addressed to the Prime Minister) but could force a leadership contest for the Tories (48 MP letters required).
More worrying for Theresa May is the recent re-invigorated onslaught from the pro-EU side of her party under the likes of Anna Soubry and Sarah Wollaston. Soubry’s proposed new clause 5 in the Trade Bill is potentially very damaging to May’s authority as it is a motion for the UK to remain in a customs union with the EU, if not the customs union.
This clause was also signed by Chuka Umunna, the Labour MP who has been very vocal on Brexit. Any customs union agreement with the EU will severely impede on Britain’s ability to conclude free trade deals with third party nations.
This brings me to the first of the two speeches this week. Jeremy Corbyn announced last week that he would make a speech, laying out his party’s vision for Brexit. In recent times, Corbyn has remained quite coy on what Labour’s official policy for Brexit is. It has exposed Corbyn to quite a lot of flak, particularly from its young and London based voters, who typically voted Remain.
The rumours coming out of the party are that Corbyn will call for a customs union with the EU. This will potentially give Soubry’s clause the numbers to pass in Westminster, inflicting a heavy defeat on May and a major victory for those seeking a soft Brexit. Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry, two potential future leaders of the party, have both hinted that this will be part of Corbyn’s speech.
It has rarely been that straightforward with anything Brexit-related though. While many Labour supporters voted Leave, backing a customs union would be popular with the majority of his party and could finally differentiate Labour’s strategy from that of the Conservatives, who have continually ruled out a post-Brexit customs Union.
However, Corbyn has been unconvincing in his defence of the European Union and his previous track record of votes in relation to Europe is far from emphatically pro-EU. His style is also not one of bombastic, engaging speeches that capture the imagination and I am quite worried that today may be a damp squib that hands the initiative back to Theresa May on Friday.
May supposedly had a very successful Brexit subcommittee cabinet meeting at Chequers last Thursday where she managed to keep both factions happy and onside. Very little of what was agreed was leaked to the press and we may have to wait until her Friday speech for the detail. It may be that May has come up with a plan that keeps the party united and has found a way around the Irish border issue, one of the major sticking points an almost any proposed plan thus far.
This issue is a about to get a lot more complex on Wednesday when the College of 27 EU Commissioners sign off on a draft legal text of the December Phase 1 agreement. Tony Connolly, from Ireland’s national broadcaster RTE, is reporting here that it will only include the reference to avoid the hard border on the island of Ireland (paragraph 49) and not paragraph 50 which made reference no border down the Irish Sea. This was inserted after pushback from the DUP, who prop up the British government.
If this is the case, then May will be severely limited by this agreement. It will be very interesting to note if any of her Friday demands explicitly contradict the agreement or if May will simply acquiesce to the EU’s rules of negotiation.
Simple acceptance could be fatal for May’s premiership if Corbyn has offered a compelling alternative and the EU have effectively ruled out most of her “fudge” options that have kept party together.
It promises to be a very exciting week of drama, political brinkmanship and intrigue. I am now going to sit back and watch it all unfold…
Last Thursday, Israeli police announced they had recommended the Attorney General that Benjamin Netanyahu be indicted on charges of bribery, fraud and breach of trust in two cases.
Then on Sunday, numerous Israeli media outlets linked him to a case where seven Israelis have been arrested for allegedly helping the Bezeq Group, a communications group, in exchange for favourable coverage of Netanyahu and his wife.
Over the weekend Netanyahu was in Munich, speaking at the same security event as Theresa May. He gave a bellicose speech where he threatened that Israel would take action directly against Iran if any of its redlines were crossed;
“And we will act, if necessary, not just against Iran's proxies that are attacking us, but against Iran itself.”
The speech was incredibly aggressive and what made it even more noteworthy was the he directed these threats at the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammed Zarif, who was in the audience.
However, the pièce de résistance came when he displayed a piece of the drone that Israel shot down which he claimed came from Iran (see title pictures).
In the nine years Netanyahu has spent as Israeli Prime Minister in this current run (he was also Prime Minister from 1996 to 1999) he has been one of the most pugnacious leaders in the democratic world, both in words and deeds.
He has led two military campaigns in this time against the Palestinians, Operation Pillar Defence in 2012 and Operation Protective Edge in 2014. Despite the defensive titles, these claimed over 2,250 Palestinian lives, a large proportion of which were civilians.
He has also continually focused on Iran and has threatened pre-emptive strikes on multiple occasions. He also famously displayed a diagram with a bomb during a speech in 2012 (see title pictures again) saying Iran were 90% there to getting a nuclear weapon. Thankfully, his calls for a strike were ignored by most leaders who went on to sign the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action in 2015.
Since the election of Donald Trump, Netanyahu has displayed considerable influence over the US President. He pulled off a major diplomatic coup by convincing the US to relocate its Israeli embassy to Jerusalem and he has improved relations with Saudi Arabia in a bid to further isolate Iran.
I won’t speculate on what would come next for Israel and the Middle East if he is forced to resign, though hopefully a more sensible leader will emerge. It would be hard to imagine a more belligerent Israeli Prime Minister taking the mantle from Netanyahu but it is possible. Fortunately, they will almost certainly not have the same influence over the US President and this may lead to a more nuanced Middle East policy from the United States…
I was genuinely annoyed yesterday with the decision of the Democratic Unionist Party to end the talks on reforming a Northern Ireland Assembly and their decision to request the British Government to restore Direct Rule in Northern Ireland. I thought it was worth trying to look at this solely from the perspective of the DUP and not from where I stand as a liberal and Irish nationalist.
It had seemed since last Friday that a deal was very close and that a compromise over a standalone Irish Language Act had been agreed (three Acts; Irish, Ulster-Scots and Culture under an umbrella Act).
However, plenty of unionist politicians and political commentators came out quite vehemently against this and the consensus is that this may have spooked Foster and her party leaders.
I think there may be more to it than this. A new Northern Ireland Assembly deal required compromise from both sides. It did involve potential acquiescence by the DUP on an Irish Language Act and also potentially on Marriage Equality.
Why does the DUP need to compromise though? They have the balance of power at Westminster with their ten seats so when they call for Direct Rule they will have an influence on the governing of Northern Ireland.
It is actually even more emphatic than this when we look closer at the 2017 General Election results. The DUP took ten of eighteen seats and with Sinn Fein abstaining from Westminster it leaves only one non-DUP MP from Northern Ireland, Lady Hermon in North Down.
I would be slightly concerned though if I was Arlene Foster. It now appears as if the ten MPs are the future of the party, particularly in the continued absence of an Assembly.
The RHI scandal still looms over the head of Foster (this was the original reason for the Assembly collapsing in the first place) and if the Inquiry leads a damning conclusion, she may even be quietly removed with a number of potential leaders from the MP pool.
Without an Assembly there will be no Irish Language Act or Marriage Equality Act in Northern Ireland, why would the Tories risk either when they need the support of the DUP.
Karen Bradley, the relatively new Northern Ireland secretary recently compared the issue of Marriage Equality to broadband, deeming both devolved issues;
“It will be a matter for the elected politicians in Northern Ireland to make a decision about equal marriage,” ... “That’s not for me to impose, in the same way it’s not for me to impose the way that super-fast broadband is rolled out across the country.”
If the DUP cross the Rubicon and decide that the Northern Ireland Assembly is no longer needed (for now they have just suggested that a return won’t be happening in the short to midterm) they will leave nationalists without any representation in a local or British parliament.
There is very little possibility of Sinn Fein taking their seats at Westminster, even if their continued absence hurts their constituents. Equally, Sinn Fein are in such a position of dominance over their main nationalist rival, the SDLP, that there isn’t much possibility of SDLP getting any seats at the next Westminster election.
The Good Friday Agreement does call for the Republic of Ireland to have a role in overseeing the implementation of the agreement but it is hard to see how this could become joint authority or joint governance.
Unless the Irish government makes some concrete form of joint rule a red line for approving the UK’s Brexit Deal (which is highly unlikely) than it leaves nationalists almost completely out in the cold. The Irish government will most likely focus on the border and even this will require a lot of work and compromise with the British government, leaving little leverage for pushing for a more direct role in managing NI affairs.
This is probably not the consensus view of the next few years and there is every chance that a deal will still be agreed at some point in 2018.
There is every chance that this could lead to a massive backlash against the DUP in the next Westminster election as many citizens place the blame on the lack of progress, economic or social, in the state.
Alternatively, many potential voters may be so disillusioned by the time the next election rolls around that the opposition parties may not be able to rally a large turnout. A low turnout would almost certainly favour the DUP.
In my view, this success of the DUP’s decision to effectively shut down Stormont for the foreseeable future will be determined by when the next UK General election is called. If it is as late as 2022 (as the bookies currently believe) then they are effectively the only voice in Northern Ireland politics with actual power. The latest date for the next election is May 2022, that’s a staggering fifty one months of dominance.
However, if the UK govt falls in the short to midterm, which may be possible given the internal Tory turmoil, the DUP may lose some seats and not hold the Westminster majority after the election.
I haven’t touched upon Brexit or demographics in this article (I covered it here quite recently) as this has been extensively covered and wanted to try and understand the DUP’s mentality and decision making.
They are often lampooned by the media and their strategic direction and intelligence questioned but when I took a cold, analytical look at where both major parties stand, the DUP seem to be in a much stronger position without Stormont…
Labour have recently encountered a slight setback in British General Election polling, suffering their first three consecutive poll defeats since the General Election in June 2017.
It has encouraged calls for Jeremy Corbyn to come out stronger against a “Hard Brexit” and to make a greater case for the United Kingdom to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union.
In recent weeks Chuka Umunna, the young Labour MP from London, has been one of the most vocal proponents of the United Kingdom remaining in both.
His appearance on the Andrew Marr show last weekend was quite impressive, even if the image of him speaking in solidarity with Conservative MP Anna Soubry, an ardent pro-remain MP, would be difficult to accept for many Labour supporters.
Umunna has been quite astute in trying to rally the pro-remain Labour supporters without directly criticising Corbyn. Instead, he said he could not envision Corbyn using party whip to vote for a Hard Brexit;
“I cannot conceive of circumstances where Labour MPs are marshalled to go through the lobby and vote against us staying in the customs union and the single market with the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove,”
“I cannot see Jeremy saying to Labour MPs, “we’re going through the lobby with those guys” and damaging the interests of our constituents.”
Personally, I don’t think it’s a definite negative that Corbyn isn’t taking the lead on Brexit. There is a significant element of his party who voted Leave and with so many things uncertain and fluid in the UK-EU negotiations, there will be plenty of time to lay out position ahead of a “meaningful” vote in the Commons on a final deal.
The challenge for Corbyn is to ensure his policies and plans for Healthcare, Education etc get enough airtime and continued publicity in the current environment where many in the British media are focused almost exclusively on Brexit and the internecine internal Tory disputes.
I thought that this dispute would be more damaging to Conservative poll support. However, I am beginning to theink the continued publicity and coverage of both sides may be helping the Tories in the short term.
For now, until there is a clear Brexit policy by the Conservative party, every potential voter in the Tory universe who has accepted that Brexit cannot be wholly reversed can still envisage a successful outcome to the talks.
Until the Conservatives policy becomes clear and Labour know where they stand I don’t think the polls should overly concern Labour HQ.
Corbyn and his team should continue to lay out their vision for government while making contingency plans for Labour’s position in the various potential scenarios that arise from the talks…
After four months, the German parties involved in negotiations have reached an agreement to conclude a new coalition, pending a vote from the members of the Social Democrats (SPD).
However, the key point to take from this agreement is how much Angela Merkel and her Christian Democrats/Bavarian sister party (CDU/CSU) had to concede to get it over the line.
To appease the previously sceptical Martin Schulz and his Social Democrats, she has given his party the Foreign and Finance portfolios, plus some others. The former are two major coups for his party.
Schulz is expected to step down as leader of the party and take the role of Foreign Minister. He has been a major advocate of a more federal Europe and has even tweeted his desire for a “United States of Europe” by 2025.
Merkel is not expected to finish the next term and may even retire if the approximately 460,000 SPD members vote down the coalition in early March.
Even if it passes, she will not be able to lead and execute on her decisions in the same capacity as she has previously done. Her leadership has been characterised by a progressive approach to the many issues facing Europe and Germany over the last decade but in a timely and non-radical manner.
Merkel will have to balance all factions’ ambitions in this coalition as well as defending against the Alternative for Germany attacks from the opposition benches, who went from no seats in 2013 to the current third largest party.
Their populist, anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies are resonating with more voters since the decision of Merkel to allow up to a million immigrants into Germany since the Syrian Civil War.
Contrast this with Emmanuel Macron, who has four more years until the next Presidential election and has a majority of 350 seats of a total of 577 in the National Assembly.
He has so far been able to reform the previously impregnable French Labour laws , has political momentum and the French economy had its strongest performance in 2017 in six years, growing 1.9%.
There are challenges for Macron ahead. Things can change quickly in French politics and major protests may still erupt over the labour reforms or other legislative changes.
“It’s the economy stupid” – I’ve heard this quote dozens of times over the years in political parlance. I had attributed it incorrectly to Ronald Reagan and not James Carville, part of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign team.
The central tenet of this claim was that the electorate vote with their pockets. Their perception of the economy has a major bearing on the way they vote. Incumbents can point to a strong economy, while candidates will offer an alternative solution that they believe will improve the economy.
This is not an American phenomenon and can often be the case in any election across the globe. What is a little different with President Trump is that he has repeatedly boasted about how much the stock market has risen in his time as president as opposed to the overall performance of the economy.
At Davos in January, he spuriously claimed that the stock market had increased 50% since he was elected and that it would have dropped 50% if Hillary Clinton had been elected. This was met with a mixture of gasps and derision from the audience. The market has undoubtedly increased under his tenure but this is a continuation of an exceptionally long bull run (I won’t delve into the details here as this run has been covered extensively).
However, what we have seen over the past few days is that the stock market is a volatile beast that can’t be controlled or tamed. On Monday, the Dow Jones dropped 1,175 points (4.6%) which was its largest fall in absolute terms ever.
There are numerous theories as to this occurred, ranging from the beginning of a major correction to profit taking by savvy investors.
Regardless of whether it heralds the beginning of something major or not, Trump should heed the warning it offers. The economy consists of a lot more than the Dow Jones Industrial Average.
If Trump stakes his presidential performance to a simple and crude metric measure like this he could swiftly find himself out of touch with an electorate that had become frustrated with the lack of tangible economic progress felt under earlier part of the same bull run under Barack Obama.
To be fair to Trump, he has also focused on job creation as well, although according to some economists that may soon suffer from supply constraints. Equally, his tax reforms have been met with a lot of cynicism from the Democrats who see them as tax cuts for the rich while not offering enough benefits across the spectrum of the labour force.
It’s a long way until the next US presidential election. The current bull run would have to break a lot more records for it to still be going by the time campaign season swings around.
Trump speaks a lot about fake news and how his positions and events are misconstrued. In many ways this has been successful to an extent. However, he will find it a lot more difficult to dismiss a plummet in share prices or a major market correction as simply not true.
By not diversifying his offering and thinking in greater terms than an equity index, Trump may lose the election before the first ballot in the Democratic presidential nominee campaign is even cast.
At the start of the year I did a quick scan of what elections are coming up in Europe in 2018. The Italian election on Mach 4th caught my eye and I decided to do a little research on the the Italian economy, the general state of Italian politics and the key political players and parties heading into the election.
All three areas really captured my imagination but I quickly became concerned about the direction Italy is heading in and what tangible progress it has made since the worst days of the Financial Crisis and the European Sovereign Debt Crisis.
I wrote a little about Italy a while back when discussing the current states of the PIIGS but it was quite high level and I didn’t delve deep enough to really get an insight into the current malaise troubling many Italians and its economy.
The first thing to note is that the current global economy overall is as strong as it has been in a decade. There is positive news emanating from all across the globe, boosted by stronger than predicted economic performance in China, positive economic sentiment in Europe and the continued stock market bull run in the US (Trump’s tax deal may be a factor in the very short term to this but will ultimately be damaging in the long term).
However, the headline figures do not look good for Italy. The overall debt to GDP has continued to grow and stood at 132.6% of GDP at the end of 2016. This is dangerously high for a developed economy and compares very unfavourably to its peers in the EU (highlighted in red and blue in the chart respectively)
Other European nations had have had similar levels of debt but have benefitted from strong levels of growth recently as the overall EU economy enjoys a period of strong growth which has led to the lowering of their Debt/GDP ratios. Unfortunately, the growth in Italy has been quite slow and continues to lag most of its peers.
The Italian statistics office has estimated that YoY growth in Q3 2017 was 1.7%. This is the best figure since Q1 2011 and 2017 looks set to be the best year 2010. The growth is encouraging and has been welcomed by investors and pundits alike. If the growth continues like this over the next two to three years Italy may see itself in a more structurally strong state.
In relation to Italy, it does appear JFK’s old words hold slightly true; “a rising tide lifts all ships”. I say slightly as it more from those looking from the outside inwards than the feelings of every day Italians, many of whom still feel disillusioned and left behind.
The political situation is a lot more challenging. The current government is led by a coalition of centre-left parties under the leadership of Paolo Gentiloni and the Democratic Party (PD). The previous Prime Minister, Matteo Renzi, was performing well in polls and election. He may even have joined (in the eyes of the media at least) the ranks of young, progressive global leaders like Justin Trudeau and Emmanuel Macron. However, he fell on the sword of constitutional reform and resigned after the Italian electorate rejected his proposed changes.
In polls PD and its probable coalition allies are now significantly trailing the “centre right” coalition, of which the two largest parties are Forza Italia and Lega Norda.
The former is led by Silvio Berlusconi, the comeback “kid” of Italian politics whose resurgence has been partly fuelled by his promise for a flat tax rate for all Italians, initially starting at 23% but eventually moving down to 20%.
A flat 15% rate has been a campaign pledge of their key ally, Lega Norda (under the leadership of Matteo Salvini) for quite some time. It has proven popular with the electorate but is seen as quixotic by their opposition and most economists.
While austerity has certainly not been a purely positive factor for peripheral nations in the EU in recent years, abandoning fiscal prudence with such a policy like this could be absolutely devastating to the Italian economy, particularly when debt is already greater than 130% of GDP as previously discussed.
Another factor that could potentially be detrimental to Italy is the Lega Norda’s stance on immigration and their ties with other right wing parties in Europe. Salvini has come out quite strongly against Muslims in Italy with quotes like;
“The problem of the Muslim presence is increasingly worrying. There are more and more clashes, more and more demands. And I doubt the compatibility of Italian law with Muslim law, because it's not just a religion but a law. And problems can be seen in Great Britain as well as in Germany, so reassessing our coexistence is fundamental.”
This sounds a lot closer to what we associate with leaders in Hungary and other Eastern EU states then Italy’s traditional place at the heart of Europe as a founding member of the European Economic Community.
The X factor in Italian politics currently at the moment is the Five Star Movement. They are currently leading most polls to secure the most seats (I punted on them recently and the odds have dropped significantly since). They claim not to be a political party and neither see themselves on the left or right of the political spectrum.
They have dropped their pledge for a referendum on the euro but little else is known of their polices and aims apart from “transparency” and tackling corruption. In recent days, there has been more mootings for potential coalitions based on the numbers, though it is still difficult to envisage who they could go into government that would deliver a majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies.
In all likelihood, they will get the most seats but the centre right will be the closest to forming a majority. In either case, it will lead to a stalemate with political uncertainty and paralysis until Italians go back to the polls or a centre right coalition with a heavy populist element and major tax cuts at a time when Italy has the second highest debt to GDP ratio after Greece.
The world is in a strange place currently where economic optimism is high and markets are performing well. Paradoxically, geopolitical risk is reaching levels not seen for quite some time. If Italy continues down the same path without clear reform or strategic direction it may be one of the biggest casualties globally in an economic downturn.
The good times cannot last indefinitely and ultimately it is the tough decisions you make in them that determine your ability to handle recessions.
Unfortunately for Italians, their political leaders have not yet identified these challenges, let alone started to tackle them…
2017 was one of the most exciting year ends for politics in the Republic in recent memory. In Late November, the fallout from the Sergeant McCabe drama reached its crescendo which led to an incredible game of brinkmanship between Leo Varadkar and Michael Martin. Initially, Fianna Fail went for blood and when Leo publicly backed Frances Fitzgerald it seemed the government’s confidence and supply was teetering on the edge of a political precipice.
An election at that time would have been very, very tight and could have gone either way. Michael Martin had publicly announced that he would not enter coalition with Sinn Fein but I think if the numbers had been right at that time, it could well have happened.
I think it was ultimately fortunate for Fine Gael that two further incriminatory emails were found that realistically made Frances Fitzgerald’s position untenable. While Fine Gael maintained their public position that her resignation was regrettable and unfair, I’m sure there were some sighs of relief around Fine Gael HQ. In Leo’s words;
“So, it is with deep regret that I have accepted her resignation. It is my strong view that a good woman is leaving office without getting a full and fair hearing.”
As I wrote about then, the Brexit talks could not have come at a better time for Fine Gael, in the direct aftermath of the aforementioned scandal. The unequivocal backing given to the Irish government allowed Leo Varadkar to be bullish and stand firm on the long held Irish positions. It played very well with the Irish public and was a change from the cautious approach of Enda Kenny who, at times, has been perceived as a lap dog of the European leaders.
By the time an agreement was finally reached that accommodated all sides and allowed the talks to proceed to Phase Two, Fine Gael had already enjoyed a boost in popularity which was reflected in the polls at the time. They reached 36% in an Ipsos MRBI/Irish Times, their highest in over two years. It definitely allowed Fine Gael to finish the year on a high and gave the opposition parties plenty of food for thought.
So far in 2018, the public’s focus has shifted to more local issues with healthcare and housing back on the agenda. In these areas, Fina Gael have not performed as well as could be expected and it offers opportunities for both Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein to challenge current government policies and offer alternatives. As always, in Fianna Fail’s case it is a little more challenging as they are propping up the government through the C&S agreement.
Michael Martin has done a decent job over the last eighteen months of differentiating Fianna Fail’s position from those of Fine Gael, despite being complicit in any piece of legislation that has been passed. I have mentioned already that it was very difficult to do so in Brexit talks as the public were quite united behind Leo Varadkar, here even Sinn Fein’s criticism of the government approach was muted. When the talks resume in March, Fianna Fail will again struggle for relevancy.
The Eight Amendment debate has really captured the media’s attention currently. It has probably overtaken healthcare and housing for many as the key issue facing the parties today. While no referendum has currently been set, the debate about what is on the ballot paper and who supports what is already raging.
Sinn Fein as a party have come out quite strongly for a replace motion that, at the very least, makes changes to the current wording and offers more rights to women. There have been dissidents to this policy, most notably Peader Tiobin in Meath West.
Fine Gael TD’s have mostly come out in favour of some sort of repeal or replace motion. Interestingly, Varadkar has not publicly stated his position yet. It would be a political bombshell if he came out in favour of keeping the Eight amendment and could even put his position as party leader in doubt. I believe he will offer a very nuanced opinion soon, that gives him enough room to manoeuvre without totally alienating the ardent repealers in his party, with the likes of Kate O’Connell making passionate speeches against it recently with memorable quotes like;
“It is when we have been at our most Catholic in Ireland that we have been at our least Christian,….Irish women were quite literally enslaved in an act of church and State collusion that can be honestly characterised as nothing other than sexual apartheid,…….Their babies were sold like puppies to foreign homes or enslaved in industrial schools to be preyed upon by those in power wielding authority”
However, Fianna Fail are the most intriguing party to analyse on this issue. At the Ard Fheis last October, the party came out quite strongly against repealing the Eight Amendment. With estimates of the no repeal motion being passed by a ratio of 5/6 to 1, it is incredible that Michael Martin has now publicly backed repealing the Eight and going as far as to back abortion on demand for the first twelve weeks of pregnancy.
The two favourites to be the next Fianna Fail leader, Michael McGrath and Dara Calleary, have both openly opposed Michal Martin’s stance on this. I think Michal Martin is greatly concerned about being perceived as the socially conservative party in Irish politics.
It would open Fianna Fail to attack on both flanks from 1) fiscally conservative but socially liberal voters who may swing to Fine Gael and 2) socially liberal, nationalist voters who now see Sinn Fein as a better fit for their views.
I think it’s fair to say that, at the very least, Michael Martin has staked his political future on the Eight being repealed or replaced. It this isn’t the case the knives may come immediately. Even if it passes though, his authority has now been publicly questioned and unless Fianna Fail manage to close the gap to Fine Gael by the end of the year I can see a leadership challenge emerge.
Mary Lou McDonald is now the President-Elect of Sinn Fein. Opinions vary on whether Sinn Fein see an immediate boost in the polls from this. I think it will take time, as plenty of media outlets and political commentators have already implied that this is only a superficial change.
Mary Lou McDonald needs a catalyst to really show that Sinn Fein is her party now. An issue that she can directly lead and take on the government over. She nearly had it over the Frances Fitzgerald issue, before Michael Martin shrewdly made it his own.
She is an excellent debater and she is able to hold her own in most Dail exchanges. I see Fine Gael as the leading party over the next eighteen months at least. The key challenge for Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein is to convince the public that they are the viable alternative. Currently, Fianna Fail hold a considerable lead in the polls (see latest from January 21st below) but may struggle on a whole host of issues as previously discussed.
Finally, on a 2018 election I think the chances of this happening have greatly receded since December. This is reflected in betting odds where it has dropped from 1/8 to 4/7. Fianna Fail will not call an election while they are behind in the polls. Equally, Fine Gael do not need to and will see 2018 as an opportunity to enhance their reputation on housing (note the newly announced first buyer’s scheme) as well as benefitting from any available good will on the Eight Referendum and Brexit outcomes that appear favourable to Ireland.
2018 will be a very interesting year and the dynamics between all three main parties will evolve fluidly over different issues. Fine Gael do look slightly unassailable currently in terms of most seats in a General Election. That being said, they were on their almost on their knees as recently as November and may find themselves sin a similar position again if the key events of 2018 do not go their way. An increasingly desperate Michael Martin and a newly emboldened Mary Lou McDonald will be waiting in the wings for any possible path to power…
The UK is looking increasingly isolated in international circles. Some of this is clearly down to Brexit and the pressure it has put on relations with the EU 26 nations. This is not the only reason though. Actions taken by some of its other allies have led to binary choices for the British which have had very obvious downsides.
In the past, they may have been in a position to arbitrate these disputes but currently there are simply not enough resources available or focus to take on this role.
I write this as I read that Donald Trump’s visit to the United Kingdom has been cancelled. The writing was on the wall for this visit for some time. Many groups had rallied around it and used it as a lightning rod to channel their frustrations about the current state of the United Kingdom.
It seems very likely that any kind of visit (there were already previous indications that it would be toned down from a full state visit) would have been met protests. Clearly Trump didn’t fancy that.
However, relations have been strained between Theresa May and Donald Trump before this. When Trump retweeted a Britain First video in November, it was met with serious criticism from the British Government. Trump in turn reacted by tweeting;
"Theresa, don’t focus on me, focus on the destructive Radical Islamic Terrorism that is taking place within the United Kingdom. We are doing just fine!"
It will be a challenge to move relations back to where they were under almost every President before Trump over the last thirty years. There have been very few diplomatic crises between the US and the UK in that time. Unfortunately for the UK Brexit and the Trump presidency occurred within seven months.
It is difficult to envisage a return to the previous level of relations while Trump remains as president. The challenge is that he will continue to say/tweet controversial remarks. May will continue to come under severe pressure by her electorate to condemn the most odious and abhorrent of these remarks. Even mild public criticism will irk Trump and probably cause him to lash out publicly. The downward spiral will then continue…
Furthermore, Trump’s foreign policy lacks the nuance of previous administrations. In the Palestinian question, he has practically cast off any semblance of neutrality by recognising Jerusalem as the undisputed, undivided capital of Israel and publicly criticising the Palestinian leadership. May does not have the stomach to seriously oppose this policy and this will not her position or popularity in the Middle East.
Similarly, in the ongoing dispute between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the British government has failed to level any criticism of the new Saudi regime despite obvious human rights abuses in their Yemeni campaign.
Major arms deals from the UK to Saudi Arabia mean there is little scope to work with the Iranian side to mediate this crisis or, at the very least, maintain cordial relations with Iran. Boris Johnson did defend the Iranian Nuclear Agreement this week but it may not be enough after his earlier gaffe in the Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe scandal.
The lack of allies currently in Europe is highly linked to Brexit and it will be difficult to change this in the short to medium term until the Brexit question is (if ever?) resolved. Ironically, if the UK had voted to Remain, I think there would now be a lot of scope to take more of a role as a leader in the EU. It would be able to work with the many eastern countries who have a healthy euro scepticism and it may have been able to get concessions on the overall EU immigration policy.
These countries have recently pushed for closer ties and integration with China. Increased trade with China is a key objective of the British government. Fortunately for the UK, Chinese-British relations have not been damaged by the Trump or Brexit factors. Managing this relationship will be crucial to a post- EU Britain.
On a Eurozone budget, it would not have had a say, but could have still have pushed back on proposed tax harmonisation and worked with the smaller nations who it has had historically strong ties with such as Malta, Cyprus and, more recently, Ireland.
Brexit has also negatively impacted ties with Russia as allegations and accusations of interference in the Brexit referendum have been levelled and rejected while US sanctions have been enforced. Again, increasing ties with Russia makes a lot of sense moving forward in terms of diplomatic clout and trade but the UK may be hamstrung here by US/Russia relations…
In summary, there are many challenges currently facing British diplomats and the UK government. It has been a challenging few years overall for the UK. However, the UK still has a lot of soft power and brand Britain is very strong. I see this almost everywhere I go in the world. A genuine problem currently is the political paralysis of the British Government as it struggles to come to terms with the competing factions in its government as well as major opposition to Brexit.
The UK will only be able to start to mend and build further ties when it has a clearer idea of where it wants to go and regains it sense of purpose. No pragmatic nation wants to build further ties with a rudderless country in a perceived state of political and economic malaise…
I sometimes place an over emphasis on individual leaders and how their decisions and interactions can shape and dictate global events. Please allow me to do so once more. For this article, I want to pick a few quotes from Emmanuel Macron and Xi Jinping during Macon’s recent trip to China that I believe capture the aims and attitudes of both men.
I have written in the past about Macron’s grand plans for France and Europe. I believe he sees himself as heading a France that is on the cusp of regaining its place as joint leader of the European Union, after allowing Germany to dominate proceedings since the financial crash in 2008.
To do so, while he tackles legacy domestic issues at home, he must also present a dynamic and confident France abroad. A large part of his election manifesto was to make France competitive again. To do this, he must increase French exports. China is naturally the most attractive market so this trip was a major test and opportunity for Macron.
For Xi Jinping, a man who has the world at his feet, Macron’s visit was an opportunity to host a leader of a still influential European nation while not being overawed as the realities of their respective economic strength becomes more evident each day. This visit carried a lot less pressure for XI Jinping but did give him the chance to project Chinese prestige and strength to Europe as it continues its Belt Road Initiative project.
Macron started his three-day tour in Xi’an, the ancient starting point of the Silk Roads to show his commitment to China’s “new silk road”, the afore-mentioned Belt Road Initiative.
“After all, the ancient Silk Roads were never only Chinese,” …… “By definition, these roads can only be shared. If they are roads, they cannot be one-way,”
This was a clear message to China that current trade imbalances cannot continue indefinitely. He later referenced the exact figures of French imports and exports to China and it was a recurrent theme throughout his trip.
Macron pulled out all the stops in terms of flattering the Chinese with Chinese literature quotes, a visit to a very important but virtually unknown Buddhist pagoda in Xi’an and the gift of a white horse, Vesuvius.
Unfortunately for Macron, despite his Gallic charm offensive. he struggled to deliver many major deals or positive “results” on the trip. He had urged caution before the trip and justified this on the trip stating;
“I don’t want to give the impression that we made this trip to obtain as many contracts as possible,” ……“We have secured unprecedented openings ... which are the result of much hard work.”
This did come across as a little Trumpesque and all it was missing were a few ‘great’, ‘tremendous’ and huge’ adjectives strewn in. France simply doesn’t have the economic strength to dictate favourable trading terms with China. While Macron believes he represents the undivided European Union position, this is simply not, yet at least, the case.
Only this week I wrote about the divisions emerging in the European Union. I failed to mention the economic divergence which became apparent in a summit hosted by Viktor Orban last November. It included leaders of China and sixteen eastern European nations (Hungary, Bulgaria, Romania, Poland, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Serbia, Croatia, Slovenia, Slovakia, Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro, Czech Republic, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia).
China has already benefitted from these divisions by making major investments in peripheral EU countries like Greece, Hungary and Poland. It’s a smart move designed to create divisions in Europe (not dissimilar to what Putin’s Russia often orchestrates) and also to create exit and entrance points for the Belt Road Initiative in Europe. The major difference with Russia though is that China has the financial clout to build and sponsor major infrastructure projects. It’s a tired cliché but money still talks…
Macron and other EU leaders are aware of this. Macron went as far as almost rebuking Xi Jinping for this by stating the below, although it was very veiled criticism and probably aimed more at the leaders of sixteen nations who attended the November summit in Budapest;
“Europe has often shown itself divided about China,”….“And China won’t respect a continent, a power, when some member states let their doors freely open.”…“China, which is a great power, does not respect a country that sells its essential infrastructures to the lowest bidder,”
Ultimately this trip was a little underwhelming. It delivered little in terms of concrete results. Macron can console himself slightly by acknowledging that he did show a lot more sophistication and understanding of China than Donald Trump managed to back in November. However, this does not make up for the lack of political and economic power Macron has compared to the US.
While Macron clearly believes he represents both France and the European Union, I believe Xi Jinping saw him as a leader of a country of 67 million people, which would be the equivalent of the seventh largest province in China. When Macron returns to France and tries to follow up on some of the initiatives discussed in China, he may also come to this realisation pretty rapidly…
Unfortunately, this article is a little dated already. I first alluded to this divide back in June in an article about the PIIGs but then got pulled in a myriad of directions and topics. The evidence of this divide has grown since.
The recent demands of the Polish and Hungarian leaders for a greater say in running the European Union, particularly in the areas of budget and immigration, at a joint press conference was what reminded me that I not returned to this topic in some time. The image above of both men standing strong and divided will play well with their electorate, as well as populists across Europe.
I still think it is worth discussing now as it may be a key factor in the European Union in the near to medium term. There is a clear gap opening between the western EU states clustered around France and Germany and the Eastern states led by Poland and Hungary.
This is not a simple “them and us” divide and both camps do not neatly fit into sides. However, there are factors that are worth looking at. The easiest way is probably to look at the different tensions between the West and Hungary and Poland respectively, while looking at how they have aligned their interests in the meantime. Finally, identifying where they can find allies in the rest of Europe.
Viktor Orban is the combative, outspoken leader of the conservative Fidesz party. He has been Prime Minister since April 2010, though he was also previously Prime Minister from 1998 to 2002. He has passed a number of controversial laws, including an article in the constitution in support of traditional marriage.
However, the real fissure between himself and the many members of the western states stems from his views on immigration. In 2015, at the height of the migrant crisis, Hungary erected a border fence between itself and Serbia so that it could monitor the immigrants entering the country.
Prior to this, Orban had rejected the conditions of the Dublin Agreement in June and prevented immigrants being returned to Hungary. A year later he caused further controversy when he claimed that
“Hungary does not need a single migrant for the economy to work, or the population to sustain itself, or for the country to have a future,”
“every single migrant poses a public security and terror risk”….“For us migration is not a solution but a problem ... not medicine but a poison, we don’t need it and won’t swallow it,”
While deemed deplorable by numerous political commentators, this language resonates well with many across Europe, as the relative success of Marine Le Pen and Nigel Farage in France and the UK indicates. Orban also highlighted the fact that the western states did not have to face the “invasion” in the same way, as they were far away from the migration path.
Poland was initially, at least partially, supportive of the EU’s immigration measure and voted Yes in the European Union Justice and Home Affairs Council majority vote to relocate 120,000 refugees in September 2015.
In October of that year, the Law and Justice party came to power. It is also a socially conservative party, though it wasn’t perceived as quite as euro-skeptical party as Orban’s Fidesz party. It has publicly stated its admiration of the Fidesz party with one its founders Jarosław Kaczyński previously claiming
“a day will come when we have a Budapest in Warsaw.”
The Polish government, under the Law and Justice party, came into conflict with the European Union in 2017 over its plans to check the supreme court’s independence and to assume control of the appointment of judges. The proposed legislation would have immediately fired the majority of the sitting eighty-three judges on the supreme court subject to being re-appointed.
The attempted removal of the separation between the legislative and judicial elements of Polish society was met with a fierce rebuke by the European Commission. The vice president, Frans Timmermans, said;
“Judicial reforms in Poland mean that the country’s judiciary is now under the political control of the ruling majority. In the absence of judicial independence, serious questions are raised about the effective application of EU law,”
The crisis reached a crescendo in December with the EU threating to invoke the most serious sanctions possible, including suspension of voting rights and blocking financial transfers.
This would have required the backing of all other member states. Viktor Orban declared at the time that Hungary would veto this under any circumstances. A defiant message to the Commission that they can’t bully member states into submission.
Looking forward, there is no doubt that both governments will work together on a number of strategic aims.
On immigration, they can find allies in nearly all oppositions across Europe (fortunately, Ireland does not have a far right, anti -immigration party, the reasons for which I hope to explore soon). The recent success of Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) which allowed them to enter Austrian government as the junior coalition partner is a boon, particularly for Victor Orban. While the FPO are a lot less bellicose about their opposition to immigration, there is certainly common ground to explore and expand upon.
EU interference in domestic issues is particularly irksome to both governments and it plays well to both electorates when they effectively tell the EU to “butt out”. Orban supported Spain’s Catalonian crackdown , claiming
“The Catalonian referendum is a Spanish internal issue, and accordingly Hungary is not commenting on the subject”.
The plans of Emmanuel Macron to further harmonize and integrate the European Union will be an area of opposition for both and they may be able to draw in allies here that would not necessarily agree on their views on immigration but feel threatened by further EU consolidation.
Ironically, the United Kingdom may have fallen into this category. Theresa May visited Poland in December to sign a military pact and it was notable that she claimed the judicial crisis was a domestic issue for Poland to decide.
The UK may still look to both nations for support in the latter stages of the Brexit negotiations. So far, the European side has shown itself to be united but any division would aid the UK’s negotiating hand.
In summary, a divide is opening up between the governments of some eastern and western EU nations. There are a number of challenges that need to hurdled. The European Commission and Parliament have to understand that dialogue is essential, while at the same time not pandering to populist, far right policies that threaten human rights or the rule of law.
Europe is finally enjoying a relative period of geo-political stability after a tumultuous decade. If this is to continue through 2018 and into 2019, a pragmatic approach is needed by all sides. I am not certain that this will be the case and will revisit this topic over the next eighteen months. Interesting times lie ahead…
I started A Bit Left and A Bit Lost in June 2017. Initially, it was something to do while I moved countries and searched for a job. A way to combine my interest in politics and current affairs with that little spark for writing I think I've always had but rarely used.
It's been a great seven months. I've written around thirty articles and even got a few published on Slugger O' Toole. However, I love having everything I write on my own medium, so I can link back to previous articles and develop some themes and trends. These trends can evolve over time or dissipate in numerous ways. From key characters stepping aside or a catalyst for change.
The Political Punts page allows me to make "hard" predictions on a certain date and then look back and either bask in a little self congratulation or try to identify what I incorrectly assumed or based the bet on.
These 2018 predictions are a mix of themes and potential events. I always place at least a little wager on the political punts so finding markets online to match my views and predictions can be tricky. For these, they are more general predictions and most touch on topics I have covered in 2017.
Trump to continue his Erratic Foreign Policy but No War: The United States is in disarray under Donald Trump. Trump has already had spats with numerous leaders and caused widespread outrage with his decision to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. He has shown little ability to maintain a coherent foreign policy. Trump is easily distracted by individual events and I expect this to continue. I think, in time, 2017 will be seen as a year of regression for the US but for now the buoyant global economy is giving Trump some breathing space.
The Global Bull Market Run to Continue, Just About...: 2017 has been a great year for the global economy and stick markets. We are definitely getting close to the peak and there will eventually be a market correction but there should just about be enough fuel left for 2018 to be another positive year. If this is the case, I will probably be making a very different 2019 prediction.
China to Continue its Steady, Low-Key Ascent to Global Hegemony: It was a good year for China and its leader Xi Jinping. He managed to consolidate his hold on power, prevented Trump from delivering on his pre-election threats on trade and China avoided any hard economic landing, while extending its global diplomatic and economic reach. I expect 2018 to be a similar year and would be surprised if there are any major negative stories.
Tories to Survive and Brexit is Happening: 2018 will be a tough year for the United Kingdom. Brexit is not going to be reversed with the current government (or a Labour alternative). The current Tory Government will probably survive but continue to stutter along. It is hard to see how the UK will be in a better state this time next year than now. However, politics in the UK has been so shocking since the Scottish Independence referendum was first called and there is every chance that something equally surprising and unexpected will happen in 2018.
Fine Gael to increase seats lead over Fianna Fail in any Irish General Election: The economic headline figures will continue to impress and this will be enough for many to approve of Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael. Furthermore, the "Brexit talks bounce" will continue to help Fine Gael and paralyse Fianna Fail. 2018 should be a good year for Fine Gael and Leo Varadkar.
The Irish Abortion Referendum Campaign to be Brutal: I think this will be a very nasty, divisive election. Much more similar to the last US Presidential election or the Brexit Referendum than the Marriage Equality Referendum. It is a much more partisan topic than marriage equality, which I believe the average Irish voter ultimately viewed as a matter of common decency and fairness. It should pass but if the odds go above 5 or 6/1 I may take a small speculative punt on it not passing.
Iran to get even closer to Russia/China and avoid a Revolution: The news has been filled with coverage of the current unrest in Iran recently. I don't think this will reach the levels of 2009 and the Green Revolution. Iran will continue to forge deeper links with Russia and China as Trump will make occasional threats against Iran, mainly at the best of Benjamin Netanyahu and the American pro-Israel lobby.
Thank you for reading this year. Keep following and have a happy and healthy 2018!
I have been following events in Catalonia from afar since I last wrote about the violent reaction of the government after the independence referendum. Since then, my attention and focus has been a little closer to home with a relatively dramatic period of events and negotiations concerning Brexit and a scandal in the Irish government. On the international front, the decision of Donald Trump to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was a major talking point among the liberal, chattering classes.
In this age of constant news, viewed and accessed through many devices and mediums, it is very difficult for a topic to dominate the headlines for more than a fleeting moment. The Catalan separatist movement suffered from this.
There was genuine outrage across Europe and further afield in the aftermath of the crackdown. The images of citizens being assaulted by members of the Spanish police as they attempted to exercise their democratic right to vote was abhorrent to most people across the world.
I wrote that Rajoy had astutely guessed that whilst he may initially face a global backlash, he would not face major challenges from his Spanish constituents and that the ire abroad would quickly dissipate.
A crucial victory for Rajoy was the muted response to the violence from the European Union leaders and leaders of the EU 27. A crisis like this can either cause a period of introspection where you analyse the issues that have caused it or a hardening of attitudes where the blame is focused solely on the other side.
On this occasion Europe, in the midst of a number of existential challenges, leaders were happy to call this a Spanish problem and wash their hands of any responsibility. This attitude was summed up by the words of Frans Timmermans, the First Vice President of the European Parliament;
“Let me be clear: Violence does not solve anything in politics. It is never an answer, never a solution. And it can never be used as a weapon or instrument. None of us want to see violence in our societies. However, it is a duty for any government to uphold the law, and this sometimes does require the proportionate use of force.”
I believe this deafening silence of condemnation further emboldened Rajoy to pursue criminal charges against the leaders of the Catalan Independence bid, as well as dissolving the Catalan parliament. Arrest warrants were issued for at least ten Catalonian politicians. The majority of these were arrested and some remain in jail. Carlos Puigdemont and four former ministers fled to Belgium, where they remain. Spain initially tried to extradite them but has now withdrawn the five European arrest warrants.
The election on the 21st of December will be a decisive victory for Rajoy and Spanish unionist if they can break the majority currently held by pro-Independence parties. It is important to note that less than half of the electorate turned out to vote in the initial Independence Referendum in September.
The Spanish government claims that the silent majority have always favoured unity and may have voted for pro-independence parties in the past more to protect local interests as opposed to wanting an independent Catalonia. They can then state that the results of this election are a more accurate reflection of political desire for an independent Catalonia.
From the most recent polling data available, it does appear that the pro-independence parties will fall short of an absolute majority. The period of turmoil and uncertainty seems to have spooked much of the political centre ground. It is hard to imagine that was not the intention of the Spanish government.
However, a renewed majority for the separatist parties would be a crushing blow for the Spanish Government. It would be seen as a defiant rejection of political intimidation and violence by the pro-independence supporters in the region but met with fear by many others who see independence as a distraction from everyday life.
Unfortunately, I can only see the Spanish government extending the olive branch from a position of power. If the unionist parties break the majority or even gain a majority themselves, Rajoy can offer congratulations to the Catalan people for their pragmatism and for pulling Spain back from the brink, it will be labelled a victory for every citizen of Spain. He may even then adopt an apologetic tone for some the events that transpired over the previous four months.
The issue with this is that there are numerous secessionist movements across the European Union. Leaders of countries facing secessionist challenges may in future adopt the Rajoy model of delegitimizing regional elections and tacitly approving heavy-handedness and violence by national police forces, safe in the knowledge that the European Union will stay silent and call it a national, domestic issue.
After the admirable approach taken by the United Kingdom with the Scottish referendum, Europe may have now lurched a few steps right in its approach to regional independence movements. Coupled with the rise of far-right political parties, we may see a lot more political violence over the next decade.
This will force politicians of all hues to offer innovative ideas and solutions to ensure the evolving European Union projects continues to contain a liberal, pacifist core. If not, Europe may fracture from future events and political causes that the average EU citizen is not even aware of today. The European leaders chose to ignore the violence in Catalonia but that may in time may be the catalyst for the collapse of the entire European project if a red line against institutionalised political violence is not drawn.