The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

If 2016 was the year of the unpredictable and the rise of populism, 2017 looks to be the year that much of that ground work now plays out.

It will be likely dominated by Donald Trump as the world watches his move into the White House and tears up the rule book of how to govern with a new style of shock politics, protectionism, straight talking and Twitter diplomacy.

Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be determined to prove to her critics that she can start the UK’s exit from the EU – one of the biggest earthquakes of 2016 – in an orderly fashion when she triggers divorce proceedings through Article 50 by the end of March.

Will Mrs May finally lay on the table what exactly she wants – membership of the single market, staying in the customs union, and so on? These are monumental decisions that will affect every one of our lives.

She will have to be ready for the reaction of EU leaders, who will no sooner be ready to throw down any whiff of “cherry-picking”. Each country will each have their own grievances, least of all a need to keep their own popularity in check back home.

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Brexit hitting the headlines across Europe last year

May has the impossible task of pleasing those in her party and across the country who voted not only leave but remain, and across Europe she’ll be trying desperately hard to get allies to back her Brexit wish list.

But the EU will be determined to show that Brexit isn’t the only priority – the continent after all is still nursing the hangover of the 2008 financial crisis, and trying to muddle its way through its policy on migrants – which has all but disappeared from the headlines.

There will likely be a lot of back and forth – concession on one hand and demand on the other – which could mean 2017 is the year of inaction, even anticlimax, for Brexit.

This has always been classic EU territory though – the approach of just about getting by.

The prime minister will first need to see who will be those leaders around the negotiating table, following decisive elections in some of Europe’s biggest democracies.

All eyes will be on France for the next five months to see how the political mood there will determine the results of its presidential election.

The expectation will be that while populism is exerting great pressure on the political conversation, it’s yet to yield truly significant results in the biggest national elections.

The far right in France has been boosted by many different factors, least of all an historically unpopular incumbent, François Hollande, who has ruled himself out from running for a second term. His Socialist party looks disunited – with no clear frontrunner in its own primary elections – and all opinion polls indicating it won’t make it past the first round of France’s presidential vote.

France’s likely new president from May – centre-right François Fillon

The surprise candidate could be former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to capture the tricky centre-ground of politics. His unconventional style – never having been elected to office or joined a political party – is gathering momentum, but has he simply laid the ground for a more serious run next time round? In such a crowded political spectrum, it may prove difficult for Macron to unite traditional left voters around his start-up campaign.

But the focus will be firmly on the Front National, for whom a victory has always been seen as impossible. Everybody has always said the two-round voting system is fundamentally rigged against the FN. Both left and right merely gang up in a tactical move to prevent the far-right from gaining enough ground.

But we’re living in very different times, and while the polls give centre-right hopeful François Fillon two-thirds of the vote against Le Pen in the second round, her softening of the party image, a longstanding disaffection with mainstream politicians and the feeling that globalisation has bred great inequalities mean her party is gathering support like never before.

Le Pen’s focus on identity politics at a time when more than 230 people have been killed through terrorist attacks in the last 18 months has growing appeal for some French voters who want a hard line on Islam, immigration and security.

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Marine Le Pen said Donald Trump’s victory gave hope for her presidential campaign

If you still believe the polls however, France will elect centre-right former prime minister Fillon – keenly labelled a Putin supporter and Thatcher admirer. He has promised a liberal economic policy, huge cuts to the public sector and a ‘shock’ at the top of France’s sclerotic political system. His main priorities will be to shore up a failing economy, bring down relatively high unemployment and an unmanageably large government debt – and more challenging yet, make French people feel safer.

We could well be in for a surprise result in May. Be sure to mind that gap in the opinion polls for the months to come. Fillon is a skilled, experienced politician who thinks he knows how to administer the medicine of change to France – but don’t underestimate the rogue nature of polling and those who don’t even normally vote who could sway the result in Ms Le Pen’s favour.

A Le Pen victory would have unknown consequences politically across Europe. It could spell the end as we know it for the EU which she says has made French people poorer and under threat from terrorism.

The stakes existentially for the union this year could not be higher on this one election alone.

Over in Germany, voters in elections in the autumn of this year will in all probability realise Angela Merkel is the only candidate capable of steering the EU’s largest economy – and arguably the 27 other member states – through still turbulent waters. But as we’ve seen with her recent announcement to ban the full-face veil and criticism of her domestic migrant policy, Merkel is feeling the pressure like never before from both outside her ranks with the buoyant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and within her coalition government.

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Angela Merkel will be hopeful of a fourth term in office

 

The right-wing nationalist AfD party, founded in 2013 as merely an anti-euro party, has turned its focus to the surge in immigration in previous years and frames Islam as ‘not German’. It has so far made strong gains in regional votes. Polls suggest it has around 12% support nationally, and it looks set to play the security card even more after December’s Christmas market attack in Berlin, which killed twelve, and other jihadi-related terror on German soil last year which has left some Germans seeing refugees as the problem.

Angela Merkel’s popularity is some way ahead of her European counterparts and despite saying this election will be “tough like no other”, her likely election win will bring her to an unrivalled sixteen years in power.

Yes, she will lose seats to her majority, and yes, the AfD will enter the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, but Merkel will escape largely unscathed with the promise of more security measures for Germans, a call for greater unity domestically and across Europe, as well as more strong leadership by not cowering to populist rhetoric.

On the global stage, however, with a clear Putin and Trump alliance to come, she will find herself much more isolated.

The Netherlands too will be heading to the polls with the peroxide populist Geert Wilders hopeful that growing momentum in past elections will finally provide electoral victory in March’s vote – offering another political earthquake to a nervous Brussels establishment.

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Dutch far-right politician Gerry Wilders

The PVV party, which he founded in 2004, became the third-largest party in elections in 2010. It has captured support from an unease about growing immigration, a pledge to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, a lack of trust in the ruling government and his promise to take the country out of the European Union.

The latest polls show the PVV as the biggest single party in the country – and Wilders seems to be pushing himself as the candidate saying to voters – “I’m the only one listening to you”. At the very least he’ll have a powerful voice in the Dutch parliament, and at most he could become the country’s next prime minister.

Populism in Europe so far has proven it isn’t a “one-size fits all” – it has been difficult for any commentator to neatly categorise and accurately predict this burgeoning phenomenon.

Austria overwhelmingly rejected far-right candidate Norbert Hofer last November but the populist tide there looks set to shape parliamentary elections and the political discourse for some time yet.

In Italy, a referendum on the political system and on the country’s own leader Matteo Renzi both adhered to and confounded expectations. Voters said no to the changes but the political chaos that was expected didn’t come to pass with the swift appointment of Paolo Gentiloni. He will need to bring strong governance – something Italy isn’t used to at a much-needed time for stability – through a commitment to reform its vastly expensive parliamentary system and mend its ‘sick-man’ economy which has scarcely grown in the past 20 years.

Turkey’s President Erdogan will be fearful of more attacks this year

Leaders from around the world will be fearful of more violence in Turkey on its doorstep after the most turbulent and bloody year there in recent history, given its crucial geography as a border post to the Middle East and a hotbed for terrorism inside and outside its boundaries.

It will take a lot for President Tayyip Erdogan to convince European leaders he is placing Turkey’s security first, in front of any personal leadership ambitions to become more autocratic by increasing his executive powers (which he’s putting to a referendum). It comes after a year of mass arrests of people from across society following a failed coup attempt in July and an ongoing state of emergency from countless acts of terror.

Support from Erdogan’s nationalist voters will only isolate him in Europe and the Middle East, exacerbating security, political and economic risks. His tight grip on power will equally put the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey into question, which spells trouble for EU leaders up and down the continent.

The person to watch closely this year will be none other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – the newest – and strongest – global alliance?

With ongoing military provocation in Eastern Europe, his continued support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine and suspected cyber interference in the US elections, the strong man of Russia looks set to be a big winner in 2017 – but a figure at the very centre of more global uncertainty.

Russia’s place as a resurgent global superpower has been well and truly cemented after what is seen as a successful intervention in Syria. Russia’s involvement there will be entrenched further throughout 2017, leading Putin to gain even more influence in Middle Eastern events.

With the US under Trump on-side, Putin will in short be given a lot of room to show his political and military muscle in 2017 and beyond.

2017 will be a year marked by nail-biting elections, as millions of people across Europe decide at the most crude level what sort of politics they want. The backdrop of populism as a march against globalism means strong leadership in Europe will be in much demand but in short supply.

The status quo for a trouble-burdened European continent looks more shaky than ever – and the potential for surprises ever greater.

But could populism be the wake-up call the European Union has needed?

‘Political tourism’ storm in Spain

‘Political tourism’ storm in Spain

It’s the start of a storm in Spain – about so-called ‘political tourism’.

Members of Spain’s leftist party, Podemos, the Basque terrorist group, ETA, and a Catalan anti-capitalist party, CUP, headed for Venezuela in a private plane laid on by President Nicolás Maduro – leader of a nationalist government which many now regard as a regime.

Now Spain’s politicians are demanding explanations.

Exclusive images from Spanish TV channel Antena 3 last night showed figures from all three groups on the tarmac at Madrid’s airport in December 2014 headed for Caracas on a presidential plane laid on especially by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

What were these groups doing being flown privately by this divisive political figure – and how close are they to him?

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Politicians among the passengers headed for Caracas conference. Source: Antena 3 Noticias

Among those on board was Anna Gabriel, the spokesperson and politician for the CUP, a Catalan anti-capitalist, anti-EU and anti-NATO party which is propping up a pro-independence Catalan government.

All she had to say to reporters was that she was up to “very interesting things” in Venezuela.

Very interesting things included discussing neo-Fascism, the destructive effects of capitalism, the right to decide about the break-up of Spain, and ETA.

Another aboard was Iñaki Gil de San Vicente, the father-in-law of the number one man in ETA, the Basque terrorist group responsible for killing 829 people in its struggle for separatism. He’s also the father of a Basque terrorist arrested in France.

And from Spain’s third biggest political force, Podemos, was María José Aguilar, member of the party in Spain’s central Castilla la Mancha region. The party wished to distance Aguilar’s journey from the party, saying that she went to attend the conference for its intellectual, artistic discussions instead.

15 Spanish nationals were aboard the plane in total, with over 30 people from 13 nationalities flying altogether.

The Spanish Interior Minister questioned the circumstances surrounding the private plane – and the consequences the scandal could have on Spanish politics. Jorge Fernández Díaz called it “unprecedented” and said it wasn’t the “normal thing” for a leader of a country to lay on a plane.

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Some of the insults received at Antena 3 Noticias on Twitter. Source: Antena 3 Noticias

The images have caused uproar on social media, with some users condemning Antena 3 for the poor taste of its journalism. The scoop was also splashed over nearly all of the front pages of Spain’s daily newspapers.

Spain’s newest political party Podemos – which had one of its members on board – has previously allied itself with chavismo – a left-wing ideology which takes its name from the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. It was an answer to capitalism, all about dealing with rising inequality in Latin America by promoting nationalisation, social welfare and patriotism.

Podemos even received funding from the Venezuelan government and senior figures have worked for the leadership, all while praising its democracy as one of the world’s best.

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One Spanish TV channel claims Podemos received 3.7 million euros from the Venezuelan government for 10 years. Source: La Sexta

Venezuela is in the midst of a deep economic crisis. The drop in oil prices means debt repayment is becoming near on impossible and the country has finally declared an economic emergency.

Inflation has been rocketing for several years already, making the bolívar currency virtually worthless, while the economy has been shrinking since the beginning of 2014. It’s these alarming figures the Venezuelan government is seeking to hide from its own people.

Food shortages are all too common. Imports for staples such as eggs, flour and milk have become too expensive for the government, leaving supermarket shelves empty.

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Food shortages in Venezuela: Source: Infobae

According to the latest Press Freedom Index from 2015, its media ranked 137 out of 180 countries, compared to Spain (33rd). Journalists have been harassed and the press has been polarised and limited.

It says: “Many local and foreign journalists were the targets of threats, insults, physical attacks, theft, destruction of equipment and arrests during a succession of protests.”

With national elections in Spain in December still far from producing a new government, any tremors of instability there are  enough to whip up a political storm.

 

 

The Catalan independence cataclysm

The Catalan independence cataclysm

Forget for a moment the huge hype and expectation surrounding today. Hearing the calls from the Catalan parliament for a declaration of independence, the first steps towards a new European state and then a constitutional block from Madrid, you’d think it nothing out of the ordinary for a secessionist movement with more momentum than ever before.

The language was just as uncompromising and provocative, talking of the “democratic disconnection” of Catalonia from the rest of Spain.

The Catalan parliament’s approval of a move towards independence within 18 months was met with the waving of Catalan senyera flags, some deputies on their feet in applause, a minority sober in defeat instead waving the national Spanish flag. Yet proceedings were noticeably much more muted than in the past.

Today’s constitutional earthquake will send tremors all the way to Madrid as Barcelona hastily embarks on setting up state institutions such as an independent social security system and tax authority within just thirty days.

But have things really changed in Catalonia as to the likelihood of independence?

What will follow is the next episode in the strained relationship between this region and the Madrid government, who will slap down the rules of the Constitution, with the courts preparing a case against leaders in Barcelona.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared in front of cameras minutes after the vote repeating that “the government will not allow this to continue” and saying he will use all legal and political means at his disposal to put a stop to the process.

The inconstitutional snub was echoed by Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who will meet Rajoy on Tuesday to discuss their counter-attack.

Sánchez said: “The majority of Catalans don’t want secession. Breaking the law is denying democracy.”

Regardless, the document says it will ignore any such threats from instutitions of the Spanish state, including the constitutional court.

The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas
The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas

The extraordinary events in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona also addressed the elephant in the room – the future of president Artur Mas, whose political future looks to be hanging in the balance.

The CUP, the coalition partner of Junts Pel Sí, the pro-independence coalition who won a majority in September’s elections oppose Mr Mas serving a third term as President.

Negotiations with the leftist,  anti-establishment, anti-EU party haven’t got very far since the elections, but Mas is trying his best to win them over with policy sweeteners in what critics call a vanity project.

They are calling for another leader to be appointed, perhaps Junts Pel Sí leader Raul Romeva. But if an agreement isn’t found, yet more elections will have to be called for March next year.

Mas has embodied the defiant push for Catalan independence, buoyed by a pro-independence win in the September elections on a seat basis, but falling short of a majority he would have needed in a proper referendum – pro-independence parties won 47.8 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, beginning his address to the Parlament, he said the ballot boxes had spoken, legitimising the majority vote that was to come.

Critics of Mas say he has isolated himself from Catalan public opinion, which evidently remains deeply divided on the issue of secession. Business leaders too say that with his majority only assured by the CUP party, he has handed the independence movement to leftist radicals.

Anti-independence party Ciudadanos, the second-largest party in the Catalan parliament that looks set to rock the boat in Spain’s general election on 20th December, ironically said that ongoing cases of corruption – of which Mr Mas is part – have nothing to do with the process.

They warned today’s events were the greatest threat to Spain’s democracy for the past thirty years.

The last election is only as important as the next. With the make-up of Spain’s next government unclear and with coalition agreements expected to extend well into January, parties of all colours are exploiting the Catalan situation to gain votes.

Aside from Spain’s economic recovery, the unity of Spain is a key election trump card, especially for Rajoy. He wants to be seen as the leader who stands for stability and managing the breakaway Catalan region.

The constitutional fallout from the defiance on show could mean tough financial sanctions – even on individual leaders, which could potentially mean prison sentences.

It could also sour any potential negotiations between leaders in Catalonia and the next Spanish government.

Pro-independence politicians remain more defiant and determined than ever. For Madrid, it’s another case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This struggle of democracy against democracy is a long way from ending.

Best sites for European news

2015 has been a watershed year for Europe, battling economic ruin in Greece to the migrant and refugee crises. It has divided Europe along north and south and east and west lines.

Here are the best European news sites to get behind the headlines and understand the often complex workings of the continent.

Politico Europe – a site originally catering for American politics, this Brussels-based site is excellent for analysis and stories you wouldn’t ever usually see elsewhere

Bloomberg Europe – an easy to understand snapshot of European finances and what it means for the continent

Euronews – Based in Lyon, this site provides excellent video and pictures to cover a wide range of stories from Europe

The Guardian – balanced, well-written stories and features from correspondents around the continent

Others:

El País English – Spanish news in English

Financial Times – paywall (£)

France 24

Greece’s election to end all elections – for now

Greece’s election to end all elections – for now

A hastily arranged three-week election campaign in a country now apathetic towards its political class for the unbearable burden of reforms and austerity. This Greek election is being seen as nothing more than a mirage for the country’s creditors who are running the show. What the country needs now is a period of political stability.

A late swing towards Syriza in the polls is being reported today, after barely any space between the leftist party and its conservative rival, New Democracy. What’s more, they can do nothing more to convince the Greek people, as campaigning drew to an end with roaring rallies in squares in the Greek capital, Athens.

A new mandate for Syriza would mean a measure of credibility after signing off the country’s finances to international creditors this summer, staving off a Grexit apocalypse, which seems to be far from the horizon. They are at the behest of the Eurozone machine and Germany, who expect any new government to fully comply with pressing reforms. Warnings from the European Commission were just as unyielding.

It is probable that coalition talks will have to begin as the mist clears on Monday morning and results become clear – neither party is expected to win a majority. Expect no coalition between Syriza and New Democracy – their economic policies differ greatly, and Syriza points the finger at ND for being partly responsible for the country’s economic problems, being part of the ‘old guard’. New Democracy believe Tsipras and his fractured party don’t have the will to implement reforms and that only they can be trusted to grow Greece’s economy. For its part, output is expected to contract by two per-cent despite unexpected growth of 0.8% in the second quarter of the year.

The new leader in government will be the seventh prime minister since the Greek debt crisis begin in 2009, in an electoral process which has occurred five times over in six years. It is no wonder that Greeks are experiencing a severe bout of election fatigue.

Syriza is still a relatively new party, elected untested just eight months ago. It would be unfair for them to assume the blame for years and years of economic mismanagement beforehand. Tsipras put it quite humorously – it’s like someone who drank three bottles of whisky and a shot of vodka then claiming it was the vodka that had given him a hangover. It depends how well you handle your drink for this metaphor to work, of course.

One of Syriza’s key pledges is a cleaning-up exercise – a definitive end to self-serving politicians who corrupted the system, leading to the financial crisis that the same politicians claimed they were managing. It is a populist, leftist message which is not unique in Europe.

Tsipras appeared at the rally alongside Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, pointing again to the huge European significance of Greece’s national vote. Elections in Portugal and Spain – Southern European states that were forced to seek financial assistance from Europe – have the economy at the heart of their campaign.

Spain's anti-austerity, anti-corruption party leader Pablo Iglesias at Syriza rally event in Athens
Spain’s anti-austerity, anti-corruption party leader Pablo Iglesias at Syriza rally event in Athens

Tsipras said: “The message of our victory will be sent to Pablo in Spain, Gerry Adams in Ireland and to a progressive prime minister in Portugal.”

Portugal exited its bailout last year with its economy steadying and growing after three years of recession. The vote there on 4th October mirrors Greece as far as the likelihood of a coalition is concerned. Neither the centre-right ruling coalition nor the centre-left opposition Socialists can claim a full majority.

In Spain, leaders can boast one of the largest eurozone growth figures for this year, as polls there are yet to hand a majority to either the ruling conservatives or opposition Socialists.

It is a sort of political paralysis as anti-establishment parties continue to fracture traditional bipartite systems.

The European left will likely use a Syriza victory to show the pernicious effect of austerity on the social fabric of a country, which will be lumbered with yet more cuts. Those out of work reached 25.2% in July in what many call a “lost generation”.

Unemployment in Portugal is roughly in line with the European average at 11%, while in Spain, it is stubbornly at 22%. In both countries, it remains the young who are the most precarious.

Any coalition government will oversee the management of Greece’s bailout, ensuring a smooth path ahead for the country’s financial system after capital controls – still in place – were imposed earlier this year when the banking system went virtually bust.

Surprisingly, market traders have scarcely been kept awake at night by the Greek vote after Tsipras’ climb-down this summer. It is accepted that any incoming leader will have no choice but to swallow the bailout pill.

Before word of elections, talk in the summer of debt restructuring or debt reduction was rife in Europe. Germany said it was out of the question, while other economists argued it was the only way to stop Greece being straddled with debts for decades to come. Will there be any movement on this when negotiations begin in earnest?

For the country’s new leader, the interminable flow of migrants to Greece’s coastline may prove to be one of the most pressing problems. Greece borders several Balkan countries which are but the latest route for thousands of people on the move.

Sunday’s election is yet another chapter in the ongoing problems for Europe, solutions for which are elusive and painful.

For more: BBC News – Key Greece election on a knife edge