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.
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.
Tomorrow, France will choose between two candidates and their respective paths. The path of Emanuel Macron is pro-European Union and built on the support of many politicians who are responsible for the mess that France finds itself in right now. The other path is offered by Marine Le Pen, a right-wing candidate with a message which has resonated among many working-class French citizens. Le Pen’s path is forged in populism and is decidedly anti-European Union. Truthfully, Le Pen’s candidacy bears a striking resemblance to Donald Trump in 2016.
It will be a decisive, and momentous day for France no matter who wins. The ramifications that will follow the decision will be felt far and wide from Washington to Brussels and Berlin. The results will also push many questions about France’s future to the forefront. Should Le Pen win will a Frexit referendum be long in coming? Or, if Macron is victorious how much closer will he move France into the EU’s bosom?
Macron is leading in the polls yet the former investment banker has had a difficult last week of campaigning. First it was a volatile debate with Le Pen where the infamous ‘France will be led by a woman’ remark was made. Then today the Macron campaign suffered a major hacking attack. It is unclear how damaging the attack will be, but comparisons between the Macron hack and what happened to Hillary Clinton’s campaign last year are already being made.
With the polls set to open in less than 24 hours, one has to wonder about Macron’s lead in the polls. Is it a genuine lead, the result of intentional under-representation in the polling, or because many Le Pen supporters are hesitant to reveal who they are really voting for? 2016 is not that far behind us and the debacles that polling data suffered during Brexit and the US election are on many minds today.
The wild card is the computer hack. France’s election campaign commission has warned that anyone spreading the leaked information before the election could face criminal charges. Whether this deters people or not remains to be seen. It is unclear how large of a role, if any, the incident will have come tomorrow.
For what it is worth, I would like to see Le Pen win tomorrow. However, even if she is not the winner, France has not seen the last of her.
It is 0245 here in the eastern United States and 0745 in the Netherlands. The polls there opened fifteen minutes ago and will remain open for the next nine hours as Dutch voters go to the polls. At stake are the 150 seats in the House of Representatives. The elections in the Netherlands have garnered much attention in the last week or so thanks to the diplomatic crisis between the Dutch and Turkish governments, however, there are other factors responsible for the recent surge of interest.
Many in the media, as well as a sizeable fraction of political observers are looking upon the Dutch parliamentary elections as a prime indicator of the direction European politics will be taking for the next five to seven years. The overall consensus is that these elections will serve as a litmus test for European populism, though the pundits and analysts who claim this seem to have forgotten the results of earlier litmus tests on the continent like Brexit, and the Italian referendum, as two examples. Populism has become a force to be reckoned with in Europe already, having challenged or defeated the embattled status quo in a number of EU nations already. The media, and European Union supporters especially seem to be locked in denial on this. Their positions and reactions to Europe’s political shift to the right is strikingly similar to those of Democrats and the media here in the United States during the 2016 Primaries. As then-candidate Donald Trump racked up victory after victory it became apparent he was ushering in a new populist era of American politics. The warning signs were everywhere and anyone who could read the political tea leaves objectively understood that something major was happening in US politics at the time. His opponents, the media, and the political establishment responded in large part by burying their heads in the sand and waiting patiently for the ‘Trump Phenomenon’ to burn itself out. To their surprise and horror it did not happen. On 9 November, 2016, they awoke to find their greatest nightmare had become reality: President-elect Donald Trump.
Geert Wilders is in many regards the Dutch Donald Trump. His Party for Freedom (PPV) is a right-wing movement expressing a message expressed on a foundation of nativism, and populism. Wilders argues that political elites in the Netherlands have lost touch what issues regular people consider to be of the most importance. The political and cosmopolitan elites promotion of internationalism undermines the nation’s identity. He points to the fallout from the European refugee crisis as proof of this. How Wilder and his party perform in the elections today could give a hint about how similar candidates will fare in the French and German elections later in the year.
Or it may not. The ongoing spat with Turkey could serve as a Dutch ‘October Surprise.’ It has the potential to siphon votes away from the incumbent parties and motivate more people to cast their ballots for the PPV and other anti-establishment parties. In nine hours or so we will see whether or not this is the case.
An apparent terrorist attack in the heart of Berlin days before Christmas. Berlin police have launched a new manhunt for the person responsible for the truck attack on a Berlin market that killed twelve and injured nearly fifty. ISIS claimed responsibility for the attack as Berliners face the reality that there is a terrorist roaming armed and free in their city.
While all of this is taking place, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s refugee policy is coming under renewed attack. Hours after the attack, a leading nationalist politician was referring to the victims as “Merkel’s dead.” This morning Bavarian Premier Horst Seehofer, a close ally of Merkel, said the time has come to rethink the chancellor’s immigration policy. In nine months she will be up for re-election and despite a comfortable 57% approval rating, yesterday’s attack showcased her vulnerability.
As a wave of nationalist populism surges across Europe and rearranges the political landscape in a number of nations, Merkel is aware that one false move could unleash that wave in Germany. Her handling of the refugee crisis has polarized German voters and set the nation’s politics into a period of uncertainty. Merkel’s center-right party has been losing ground in state elections to the nationalist Alternative for Germany party. While the chancellor has hardened her refugee policy in the second half of 2016, resulting in climbing approval numbers, the prevailing political winds, and this latest terrorist attack could be a menacing combination for Merkel to hurdle.
The general consensus in Berlin has been that Merkel is poised to win re-election in 2017. A terrorist attack on German soil has the potential to change the scenario and it might possibly be on the doorstep right now. 2017 could very well bring about a Trump Moment for Germany and put a left-leaning coalition in power. That scenario could potentially rock an already reeling European Union back on its heels and unleash many unforeseen circumstances across Europe and the world.
*Author’s Note- With the holiday season now upon us, most of this blog’s posts will be shorter than usual between now and New Years.*