The past week has seen scandals and government impasse cause two European governments to fall. Another continental nation’s government teeters on the brink of failure, which is more of a political tradition in that country rather than an extraordinarily rare event. The resignation of a large part of a fourth nation’s government appears to be a fait accompli intended to bring about largescale political reforms that will allow the ruling party to remain in power almost indefinitely. By all measures, this has been an extraordinary week in European politics, made even more so by the fact that reporting on all of the above-mentioned political events has been minimal in Europe and around the world. Yet the consequences have the potential to be rather significant.
In the Netherlands, the Dutch government resigned collectively on Friday following a scandal over childcare benefits that saw thousands of Dutch families wrongly accused of fraud by tax officials. Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s government accepted full responsibility for the scandal and tendered their resignations. Parliamentary elections were already scheduled for March, 2021. The government’s resignation, coupled with the fact the nation is now under a national lockdown due to COVID-19, and the growing need for a post-pandemic economic plan are helping to add a strong note of urgency to the upcoming elections.
Estonia’s government also fell in recent days. Prime Minister Jüri Ratas resigned after a key government adviser was accused of impropriety in the Porto Franco property development. Many other government officials resigned in the wake of this, hoping that their departures will allow the storm to blow over and give their parties time to regroup before the next election. The Estonian president has tasked the head of the main opposition party to form a new government within 14 days. Like the Netherlands, Estonia is facing a deteriorating COVID-19 situation, as well as pandemic-caused economic despair. The political future of Estonia is now precarious, to say the least.
The Italian government is always one heartbeat away from collapse. This time, it is former Premier Matteo Renzi pulling the strings. Renzi has removed his support from Italy’s shaky coalition government, causing two ministers from his Italia Viva party to resign from the government. The heart of the dispute is how the current government intends to spend its share of the European recovery funds. Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte plans to appoint a council of technocrats to manage the funds. Renzi opposes this move. The political maneuvering at present runs the risk of toppling Italy’s government at a time when the country is dealing with its worst recession since the end of World War II, and the COVID-19 pandemic.
Russia is the fourth nation on the list that is playing governmental musical chairs. We will talk more about Vladimir Putin’s latest domestic maneuvering later this week as more details come to light.
The political turmoil in three European democracies has arrived at a difficult time. These scandals and political self-interest only weakens the collective image of the EU as its vaccine rollout strategy suffers delays and setbacks. Add to the equation are populations tired of lockdowns and curfews, and another wave of anti-EU political change could become reality by the summer of 2021.
With COVID-19 infections rising considerably, the Spanish government has declared a national state of emergency and is moving to impose a nighttime curfew. Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez has said the curfew will run from 11:00 PM until 6:00 AM every night, and will start on Sunday evening. The emergency measures also coming into effect will include travel restrictions between districts and regions should regional leaders deem them to be necessary. Private and public gatherings will be limited to six people. These measures will be applied to all national region in Spain with the exception of the Canary Islands. This state of emergency, and the measures included in it are nearly identical to the one introduced during the first wave of the pandemic in April.
Meanwhile in Italy, Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has insisted there will not be a new nationwide lockdown even though COVID cases are rising significantly in his country. The government is adopting stricter measures. All bars and restaurants must close by 6 PM. Gyms, movie theaters, and swimming pools will close down and Conti urged Italians not to leave their immediate area unless for work, school, or health reasons.
Italy and Spain were hit hard by COVID-19 in the spring. The other day it appeared both countries, as well as others on the continent are moving towards stricter restrictions as the number of cases is rising. Over the past 24 hours the pace of those restrictions taking effect has sped up in Southern Europe, leaving one to wonder how long it will be until other parts of Europe follow suit.
Europe is facing a second wave of the COVID-19 pandemic as cases continue to surge in many nations across the continent. Outbreaks are being reported in France, the United Kingdom, Belgium, the Czech Republic, and areas of Spain and Italy among others. Governments have been deliberately selective with placing restrictions, and lockdowns on the general public, but the time may be nearing when more immoderate measures are put into play. Ireland is the only EU nation to reimpose a six-week long nationwide lockdown starting Thursday. Nonessential retail businesses will close, and residents are expected to stay within three miles of their homes, except for work and other essential activities. Police will set up road checkpoints to deter unnecessary travel.
On the continent, select regions in Spain and Italy are returning to lockdown conditions. A two week lockdown begins in the Spanish region of Navarre on Thursday. The measures being imposed on Navarre are more restrictive than those which have been placed on Madrid by Spain’s central government. In Italy, the southern region of Campania will be conducting an 11 PM- 5 AM curfew similar to one currently in place in the north. Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte has said that this time around, unlike the March lockdown, he is giving towns and regions more freedom to decide what measures to put into place. In effect, Conte is giving towns and regions across Italy the ability to decide their own fate.
With a second wave of the pandemic now ramping up, travel restrictions which had been relaxed over the summer are starting to be reintroduced in some cases. Denmark has closed its borders again to a number of European nations that it considers to be high-risk. France is suggesting voluntary quarantines for people arriving from Britain and Spain. In the Netherlands and Belgium, the governments are trying to discourage non-essential travel across the shared border of the two nations.
All of these measures are relatively fair, and cannot be considered extreme. If case numbers do start to surge dramatically though, restrictions will become tighter and for the second time in a year the European Union could see its member-states closing its borders to essentially the rest of the continent.
Amid a high level of tension in the Mediterranean brought on by Turkey’s deal with the Libyan government demarking their Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ) Greece and Italy signed an agreement establishing an EEZ for the two nations in the Ionian Sea. The agreement was signed today by the Greek and Italian foreign ministers, making official the demarcation of maritime zones which has been pending since 1977. While its fair to say the agreement has been a long time coming, recent Turkish moves in the Mediterranean are responsible for pushing demarcation to the front burner. The agreement will have considerable ramifications for the area but it is, at heart, a hedge against Turkish hegemonic ambitions in the natural resource-rich Eastern Med region.
This may not be the only EEZ agreement Greece signs this month. Athens is in negotiations with multiple neighboring states to reach similar agreements. Again, keeping Turkey in check is the primary motivation fueling these moves. In fact, sources in the Greek Foreign Ministry have hinted that an agreement with Egypt could be signed as early as next week. If Greece and Egypt complete a deal it will be benefit Cairo’s continuing campaign against the Muslim Brotherhood, which has received significant funding from Turkey.
It has become possible that the war in Libya has the potential to drag on for an extended period of time with no clear winner. If this comes about it allows Turkey to maintain its foothold in Libya, meaning the EEZ agreement between Ankara and Tripoli will take effect, and be enforced. The rest of the Mediterranean is waking up to this possibility. Italy and Greece are already making moves and now it is a question of who will move next. Israel and Cyprus are also major players in this game. They will be heard from sooner or later.
When all is said and done, the COVID-19 pandemic might very well wind up being regarded as the straw that broke the European Union’s back. The pandemic caught Europe flatfooted, so to speak and the EU response has been less than inspiring, or beneficial for that matter. Instead of demonstrating its strengths, events of the past month have instead put the EU’s deficiencies on full display, and highlighted the body’s failure to meet the needs of its member-states in the midst of a global emergency. There’s no leadership coming out of Brussels, and certainly no sense of responsibility among the wealthier EU members, or a humanitarian desire to hand out billions of euros to prevent nations such as Spain and Italy from collapsing under the strain of COVID-19. Loans and bailouts, on the other hand, are perfectly fine, as we’ve seen in the last week.
To be fair, the European Union is making an effort, yet it has resulted in far less than what some of its hardest-hit member states want or need. Individual EU governments are increasingly reluctant to come together and provide material goods, and funds. France is calling for unity, while looking to Germany, as is much of the EU, for a solution to Spain and Italy’s woes. Berlin has been reluctant to provide one, with many Germans viewing it as Europe expecting their country to pay the COVID-19 bill. Spain and Italy have requested aid to help boost their damaged economies after weeks of lockdown, including ‘coronabonds’ to fund the recoveries. Germany, and the Netherlands refused. German Chancellor Angela Merkel insisted Spain and Italy apply to the European Stability Mechanism instead. Given that Southern European nations believe ESM is what helped caused so much economic hardship in Greece, its not likely that either Spain or Italy will apply.
The origins of the bad blood between Southern Europe and its neighbors to the north are found in the 2008/2009 fiscal crisis. The wounds inflicted there have never really been fully repaired. Now, the COVID-19 pandemic has ripped them open again, and the bad blood between the southern and northern states is flowing once more.
Only this time, the feud carries the potential to burn the entire bloc to its foundation.