EU Elections: The Center Does Not Hold

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Centrists are poised to emerge as the biggest losers in the EU Elections. The center-right EPP (European People’s Party) and its center-left counterpart the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will remain the two largest parties in the next EU Parliament, however they will no longer hold the majority. Both parties have sustained considerable losses. The EPP will have 173 seats in the new assembly, down from 216. S&D seats will drop from 185 to 147. The level of support historically held by the centrist bloc has diminished as smaller euroskeptic, and pro-EU parties have enjoyed a surge of support across the continent during this election cycle. The voting results, and projections make it clear that the EU Parliament will be even more fragmented over the next five years.

This weekend’s elections were quite different from the EU Parliament elections of the past. Turnout was over 50% and up seven percent from 2014. Supporters of the European Union, and its detractors both regarded this election as critical to the future of Europe. The biggest surprise, however, seems to be the emergence of the Pro-EU liberals and the Greens. Both parties have suddenly become crucial components to any attempts to create a stable majority.

Although the far-right surge did not materialize as many right-leaning politicians were hoping, inroads were made. Whether or not this election was a referendum on the EU is immaterial, no matter how left-leaning media outlets and politicians in Europe and beyond are claiming today. The more profound takeaway from the elections is the collapse of the political mainstream, and rejection of the ruling parties across the continent. The election results are going to bring consequences to the internal political systems of many European nations. The effects are already being felt from England, to Greece. At mid-week we will look closer at the fallout this election is having for individual EU member-states, and the union as a whole.

Thursday 8 March, 2018 Update: The EU’s Vulnerable Southern Flank

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The Italian general elections on Sunday ended up as a triumph for Italy’s populist parties. The Northern League and Five Star Movement (M5S) were the major winners. Both parties campaigned on anti-establishment, anti-immigration, and anti-European Union platforms. A new government has yet to be formed and it could be some time yet before that happens. However, that government will almost assuredly be staunchly anti-European Union in sentiment, as well as in deed.

Italy has long been considered to be one of the economic problem children of the European Union, along with Greece, Portugal, and Spain. The growing debt and economic vulnerability of of the Southern European EU members brought about an era of austerity from Lisbon to Athens. Austerity was more than enough for Southern European nations to contend with. But then came the European migrant crisis which saw continuous waves of African, and Middle Eastern migrants washing up on Southern European shorelines.

Italy was arguably the hardest hit. Austerity, and the migrant crisis combined to bring about a political shift in Italy. In recent years, voters have moved away from mainstream political parties, and tossed their lot in with populist parties that are opposed to essentially everything that the European Union supports. Brussels, and Rome appear to be fated towards a clash down the road and the EU is not waiting for the new government to form before it fires the first shot.

Yesterday, the European Commission urged Italy to increase economic reforms. The nation’s recovery from the 2008 crisis continues, yet at a sluggish pace. The commission also cited ‘excessive economic imbalances’ present in Italy. To be fair, the commission’s report also pointed to Cyprus and Croatia as having similar problems, yet their inclusion serves to highlight the fact that the EU’s southern flank is becoming increasingly vulnerable.

This increases the scrutiny which will be placed on Rome in the coming months. The new Italian government will not be as receptive and compliant to EU ‘economic suggestions’ as Greece and Alex Tsipras’ government was in 2015. More to the point, Rome will not submit itself to the wishes of Brussels, and the veiled threats of Angela Merkel like Athens did. The EU feels it would be in its best interests to have a stake in determining Italy’s economic policies for the foreseeable future. How far Brussels is willing to go to keep its influence alive remains to be seen?

What will Italy’s reaction be to increased EU bullying? An Italexit could have severe consequences for Brussels and signal the final nail in the coffin for the great European Experiment.

 

Sunday 4 March, 2018 Update: Merkel Gets Her Coalition. Now What?

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Angela Merkel has her coalition. The Social Democrats voted in favor of forming a new government along with Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union conservatives. Merkel will stay in the chancellery in Berlin, and political stability is set to return to Germany, at least for the moment. Forming a coalition after months of deadlock is assuredly a victory for her, though the scope and magnitude of it is up for debate. During the next few months, Merkel needs to tread carefully. One errant slip can turn it into a Pyrrhic victory and then the coalition becomes an albatross around her neck.

Make no mistake about it, Merkel has her work cut out for her. In spite of the grandiose proclamations of a ‘Grand Coalition,’ the government that has been put together more accurately resembles a diminished coalition at best. Germany was rattled by the political paralysis that followed the September elections, leaving many to wonder if the nation will ever be the same again. Support for the coalition is dropping, according to polls. At the same time, the right wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party is building momentum. AfD is also setting itself up to be the main opposition party in parliament, raising the prospect of a clash with the new government somewhere down the line.

Merkel has promised to place more focus on domestic issues, though this might be a matter of too little, too late. Immigration is what brought Merkel and Germany to this point. The clumsy way she went about opening of Germany’s borders to the migrants is what caused German voters to turn on their chancellor. Merkel finds herself having to make amends, and possibly even give some of the new government’s positions and policies a slight tilt to the right. Last week she openly admitted that there are no-go zones in Germany after vehemently denying their existence for years. There are reports that Germany could even be seeking a reset in its relations with the United States. It’s a well-known truth that Merkel’s relationship with President Trump has been cool to say the very least.

The  fact that she is making these moves now, and that Germany finds itself in this position shows the clout that right wing political parties, and populist movements now hold in Germany.

Wednesday 17 January, 2018 Update: The Coming Clash Between Poland and the EU

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Until recently it has been generally accepted that the greatest threat to Poland lay to the east in the form of the Russian Federation. Under Vladimir Putin’s leadership, Russia has responded decisively to what it perceives as NATO and European encroachment of its traditional sphere of influence. Russia’s involvement in the Ukraine crisis following Euromaidan and the subsequent War in Donbass can be linked directly to its fear of NATO or the European Union co-opting Ukraine and molding it into a pro-West nation-state. Moscow cannot let this happen for a variety of reasons. As the fighting in Ukraine reached a stalemate, Russia began to shift its attention to the Baltics and its former satellite states in Eastern Europe. Russian military exercises set around the periphery of the Baltics and Poland, coupled with NATO military deployments to the region heightened tensions, and made the prospect of a future Russian-NATO clash in Poland seem a reasonable scenario.

While Russia remains a clear threat to Poland, its status as the greatest could be facing some competition. A newer menace to Poland and its sovereignty is developing in Brussels at the headquarters of the European Union.

The EU and Poland are moving towards a confrontation that could prove to be a crucial test for the Union. The right wing Law and Justice government in Warsaw has undertaken a series of moves that the EU regards as a challenge to EU principles. Even though Poland remains a proper democracy in every regard, the government’s attempts to reform the voting system, and judicial system rub Brussels the wrong way. Added to this is Poland’s refusal to accept refugees as part of the EU attempt to distribute asylum seekers from North Africa and the Middle East across Europe.

In December, the European Commission invoked Article Seven of the Lisbon Treaty, giving Poland three months to reverse its judicial reforms or face EU sanctions. This action projects the current differences as being a matter of the EU bullying Poland because it does not approve of the domestic decisions being made in Warsaw. Brussels claims otherwise, of course, but the fact remains that the European Union wants Poland to reverse its reforms and come in line with the supra-national body’s principles. In short, the EU seems determined to punish Poland for what it views as Polish defiance.

The brewing confrontation fits in well with a project on Poland I’m in the process of planning. Later this week I’ll post about it and then separately next week provide a deeper analysis of the EU-Poland rift.

Monday 25 September, 2017 Update: Germany’s Trump Moment

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German Chancellor Angela Merkel was reelected to her fourth term in office yesterday as federal elections were held across Germany. Her victory appears to be pyrrhic, however. Her  Christian Democratic Union and Christian Social Union (CDU/CSU) garnered only 33% of the vote and will be allotted 246 seats in the Bundestag. Even though these numbers represent the largest share of the vote it will not be enough to form a majority government. To complicate matters even more, the far right Alternative for Germany (AfD) party’s share of the vote was 13% and it will hold 94 seats in the Bundestag. This is especially staggering since before yesterday AfD held no seats. Now it is the third largest political  party in Germany.

Merkel’s victory speech was muted. She stated that she’d expected and hoped for a ‘better result’ indicating she understands completely how murky the election results are for her and her party. The Bild, a German tabloid, labeled it a ‘nightmare victory’ and financial markets have responded negatively to the election results. The euro is currently down against the dollar and investors could be getting antsy at the prospect of a convoluted political future for Germany. The German Chancellor now has to form a coalition government with smaller parties, or attempt to run a minority government. A minority government is the least likely scenario seeing how German politics are driven by consensus and always have been since the end of World War II.

Merkel’s power will be severely eroded by yesterday’s results. She’ll be left walking a fine line between the quicksand traps of policy uncertainty and an unstable government. If she loses her balance and either one become a reality, early elections will likely be called, signaling the end of the Merkel era.

To the surprise of many political observers, the populist wave that was rolling across Europe in 2016 and early 2017 and appeared to dissipate when Emanuel Macron claimed victory in the French elections earlier this year, came to life yesterday. Anti-immigration sentiment in Germany is high, and many voters are tired of Merkel lecturing them that it is Germany’s ‘duty’ to take in hundreds of thousands of Syrian immigrants. Crime has spiked in the Federal Republic over the past twelve months, and across Europe terrorist attacks are on the rise. These actions have convinced many German voters that a change is necessary.

Germany’s ‘Trump Moment’ came yesterday. It arrived not in the form of a Brexit-like tsunami,  but instead, like a thief in the night. And it could very well be the beginning of the end for Angela Merkel’s rule.