Don’t mention the G-word. Turning up the heat in Europe

Don’t mention the G-word. Turning up the heat in Europe

Greece still has many hurdles to jump through before it can see its 86bn euro bailout being enacted. First, a vote in the Greek parliament is needed by Wednesday, which seems likely with opposition support. Parliaments in several eurozone states also have to approve the new bailout. In the longer term, Greece’s economy will likely enter a serious recession – a contraction of 3%, a rise in unemployment above 26%, and that’s before the ECB announces any further emergency liquidity (ELA) to prop up Greece’s virtually bust banking system, with capital controls to be kept in place for some time yet, and banks of course, still closed. And on Alexis Tsipras’ desk, a bill of 3.5bn euros to be paid to the ECB by next Monday.

With the vote on Greece’s bailout producing a decisive ‘no’ vote last Sunday, it was as much a referendum on prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza government, who now face supporting a more draconian bailout than was previously offered. The shift to populist parties across Europe is a trend that is set to continue, given the success of UKIP as a significant player in UK politics, the rapid rise of Podemos and latterly Ciutadans in Spain, as well as other parties across the continent challenging the consensus and traditional party politics. Together with this is a growing probing of democracy in Brussels, as many politicians will use the Greek deal as a means of making bold statements on the brutal nature of negotiations EU-style. Among them, the politics – and fairness – of austerity – endlessly debated between economists, its effects witnessed on every level in pharmacies and homes in Greece.

Talks around the table about Greece’s bailout flared up European divisions on the country’s exit from the single currency it has just avoided. Similar rifts on the migrant crisis have divided north and south Europe – the lion share of the 137,000 people in the first six months of the year arriving at the shores of Italy and Greece, the majority fleeing from Syria’s bloody civil war, according to a recent UNHCR report.

A look at headlines in recent days points to the continued scale of this problem. “Hungary begins work on border fence to keep out migrants”. 80,000 migrants have already reached Hungary this year, 80% of them from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, Hungary received more refugees per capita than any other EU country apart from Sweden. The threat of migrants is causing other European states to erect walls and fences, a physical and symbolic image of this problem.

The solidarity needed to implement Brussels’ plan to distribute migrants more fairly throughout Europe and ease the pressure on its most vulnerable states was in short evidence, after the plan was rejected at the end of June by European leaders, confirming again the toxic nature of immigration.

Long ignored in the European news cycle has been Ukraine. Its economy is forecast to shrink by nine percent this year, so precarious the situation remains in the country. Russia’s frozen conflict in the east has affected production, as a trade war continues. Gas supplies from Russia to Ukraine, as of the beginning of July, have been halted.

Ukrainian president Petro Poroshenko spoke yesterday of Russia’s plan to make Ukraine a “state of bondage”, wishing to exert political influence through the conflict in the east. He said: “Ukraine won’t allow that.”

He also warned of a new spike in military activity in Donbass: “We’ve got information that there is a record large number of the armed forces of the Russian federation along with the border of Ukraine.”

The Greek deal this morning has also staved off the threat of Russian economic assistance for the crippled southern European economy. Russian president Vladimir Putin was keen to ally with Tsipras, the latter describing Russia as one of “Greece’s most important partners” just last month. In addition, NATO movements in the Baltics to counter Russian aggression look unlikely to end any time soon.

A cocktail of economics and politics have already made for an incredibly turbulent year for Europe and its institutions. Disagreements are likely to create further divisions, proving the difficulty in mastering the art of diplomacy in such a divergent continent.

France’s olive branch to Greece

France’s olive branch to Greece

Greek negotiations are looking more precarious – and harder to predict – than ever. This weekend saw a hard-ball approach from Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble, who proposed allowing a temporary exit for Greece from the euro, and an even clearer line from Finland, who rejected the latest proposals, that trust has completely broken down – its finance minister erring more on the side of a Grexit than keeping the country in the single currency. One official said some of the proposals appeared designed to “humiliate” the Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras and his Syriza government.

Germany stands together with Baltic states, Slovenia, Slovakia and the Netherlands in being uncompromising and more willing than ever before to see the 19-member currency break down. Meanwhile, hope still rests with Southern Europe states such as Spain, Portugal and Italy, who have shown themselves to be far more ready to fight for a deal, owing in part to their own economic troubles. A Greek exit would do them no favours, as the ripples of a broken Europe would flood the entire continent no less.

By far the most loyal supporter of Greece throughout the negotiations has been France. Newspaper reports at the beginning of the week outed the fact that advisers from the French Treasury had been in Athens, helping the Greeks to draft out the proposals that prime minister Alexis Tsipras handed to the European Council on Thursday evening. One adviser said: “It’s the Greeks who are holding the pen, but they are using us as a sparring-partner”. Sceptics have used this as a means of exaggerating France’s role, retorting that the Greeks would be incapable of working alone on the list of reforms. Greece needs expertise, and for France, it shows that they are at the very centre of the European game.

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On Sunday, Hollande dismissed German proposals of a temporary Greek exit, which had grabbed many of the headlines. He asserted: “There is no temporary Grexit, there is a Grexit or there is not a Grexit”.

For each French citizen, Greek debt totals 600-700 euros. Although the eurozone has tried since the beginning of this crisis to build a firewall around Greece, a Grexit would nonetheless spell a loss of 55.7bn euros to the French, far more than either Italy or Spain, according to 2012 figures.

France’s president, François Hollande, has long been working hard for a German compromise in achieving a deal, acknowledging the suffering of the Greek people and the need for “indispensible” reforms. On Wednesday, he said Greece’s latest proposals for its next 59bn euro bailout were both “serious” and “credible”. Hollande equally talked of the need of a united Europe, whose break-up Angela Merkel could realistically never allow herself to preside over.

The Greek crisis has marked the fracturing of the symbolic, long-standing Franco-German micro-managing of the European Union’s recent troubles – Angela Merkel seems more than ever to run the show alone – her calm, measured approach resonating far more than any other leader.

In no uncertain terms, France’s economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, warned in Spain’s El País newspaper on Thursday: “if we don’t act fast, the euro zone will cease to exist in ten years”. In what is increasingly seen as a disagreement around negotiation tables, Macron argued that a Grexit would not only be an economic failure, but political. He said: “Not doing everything possible so that Greece stays in the eurozone is accepting a deterioration of Europe”. Macron’s grand gestures were accompanied by a warning for the 19-member currency as a whole: “the status quo and ambiguity are driving us to the disbanding of the eurozone.”

Echoing the language of Hollande, he said a compromise had to be found, with ambitious reforms for Greece, but not so much so that they destroy the country’s economy, given its already painful course of austerity. Investment was needed for growth, but Macron maintained a critical line against Syriza and Tsipras, who is no hero of the Greek people, he said.

François Hollande has always been seen to be more presidential on an international stage, from France’s military intervention into former colony Mali’s war against Islamists, to the British co-ordinated attack on Libya. In reality, he is continuing to struggle with his own domestic politics – a weaker-than-expected economic recovery, with unemployment refusing to budge. Economic growth for this year is predicted at 1.2%, admittedly far more than the 0.4% average growth of the past three years.

A strong Europe can not only afford Hollande a more statesman-like appearance on the continental stage, more crucially it pays to counter the anti-EU rhetoric of Marine Le Pen’s Front National party, whose reaction to Greece’s ‘no’ vote was to laud Greek PM Alexis Tsipras as a respected leader and a man of the people. She was clearly drawing on the rhetoric of increasingly potent populist politics sweeping across Europe. To draw parallels, Le Pen conjured up the figures of Mitterand, even de Gaulle, to colour her complimentary remarks. At the same time, she attacked Hollande for being the “cabinet director of Jean-Claude Juncker”.

Le Pen talked of the victory of the ‘no’ camp as a means of standing up to the “oligarchy” of the EU, the “diktats” of the single currency and an “inhumane” austerity. In short, she said: “this No is excellent news”, spelling the end of France throwing money into Greece’s black hole of debt. She even coined the term “eurosterity” (or eurostérité), calling for the dissolution of the single currency, which she likened to a vanity project which was saving face only by imposing tough austerity.

Running short of allies, Alexis Tsipras cut a lonely figure around the negotiation table on Sunday. As leaders enter a new week of talks, nobody really knows whether Greece is blindly tip-toeing to the exit door, or if the solidarity shown by the likes of France will ultimately lead to a last-minute deal. After leaders ignored the seemingly apocalyptic Sunday deadline, the can-kicking that has characterised negotiations looks set to continue, for how ever long it can.

When predictions go wrong: the real threat to Europe in 2015

When predictions go wrong: the real threat to Europe in 2015

I entered 2015 with the prediction that one of the biggest European stories would be the flow of migrants from war-torn areas of the world, mainly in the Middle East, to European shores. This was most pronounced just before the turn of the New Year. Blue Sky M was a Moldovan vessel carrying nearly a thousand migrants, mainly from Syria, which had been abandoned by its crew. Italian coast guards brought the ship to Gallipolli safely. Then, two days later, a ‘ghost ship’ named Ezadeen containing some 450 migrants turned up in the Adriatic, later brought ashore by the Italian coast guard. The boat had again been abandoned by its crew. It seemed this would be, as it has been already, a recurring story with an ever greater threat to life and a burden to European states with already lots to worry about.

Italy was and will be seen as the most vulnerable target in what is now a lucrative business for smugglers, but dramatic scenes have also been witnessed in the Spanish enclave of Melilla in Morocco, where migrants have been seen jumping fences and overwhelming border postings. As numbers of migrants and asylum seekers fleeing conflict in places like Syria continue to swell, we are brought back to the bloodiness of the conflict there which is now entering its fourth year, with no sign of an end.

For the events in Paris and the deaths of 17 people, they serve as a reminder of the greatest scourge emanating from the Middle East: ISIS. The killers were influenced by ideology coming from the so-called state, including one, Amedy Coulibaly, swearing allegiance to the organisation in an online video. Coulibaly is believed to have travelled to Madrid days before the attack, during which he was shot dead. His widow, Hayat Boumedienne, travelled to Madrid on the 2nd January, before travelling to Syria via Turkey six days later. An intelligence failing, many will be thinking.

The number of Europeans fighting for ISIS, according to an estimate from September 2014, totals over 3,000. That figure rose rapidly throughout last year, and EU’s counter-terrorism chief Gilles de Kerchove said at the time: “”The flow has not been dried up and therefore possibly the proclamation of the caliphate has had some impact.”

The majority of fighters, he said, were from from France, Britain, Germany, Belgium, The Netherlands, Sweden and Denmark but a few are coming from Spain, Italy, Ireland and now Austria.

“Even a country like Austria I think has now foreign fighters, which I was not aware of before,” he said.

As major European capitals such as London, Madrid and Berlin seek to protect public buildings, public transport and similar high-profile targets, who would ever think that the next threat to peace in Europe after the horrific attacks in Paris would be the small Belgian town of Verviers?

Reports suggest that Belgian police had been tracking the two suspected jihadists who were killed yesterday and stopped them before it was too late. Their plan was to kill police “on public roads or at police stations,” according to the federal prosecutor at a press conference this morning.

And in Berlin, two men have been arrested on suspicion of recruiting fighters and procuring equipment and funding for Islamic State in Syria. German police were keen to point out this was part of a months-long investigation into a small group of extremists in Berlin. Though the threat is in itself worrying, some peace of mind is gained from the fact that authorities were already aware of these two potential incidents. Lessons might be learnt in Paris from the two Kouachi brothers having been on UK and US no-fly lists, in addition to their previous convictions, but the arguments over mass surveillance and the extent to which states can anticipate attacks is far from over.

Back to France, where in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attacks, police in Paris have been pursuing a number of suspects who allegedly supported the Islamist gunmen behind the attacks in Paris. They are currently being questioned about “possible logistical support”, such as weapons or vehicles, that they could have given the gunmen. Again, this shows a renewed effort by Europe to confront what seems to have been a simmering problem for many nation states.

Away from the headlines of economic insecurity and poor growth for the continent, the topic of conflict in a globalised, connected world is what will undoubtedly mark this year. The potential for attacks, even the likelihood, has been raised across Europe. It will be the feared unknown at the forefront of our minds.

One final prediction

It seems already that there is another threat not just to Europe but to the world. Cyber attacks to French websites since the Paris shootings number around 19,000, more than a week following the attack on the Charlie Hebdo offices. The head of France’s cyberdefense for the French military said some of these had been carried out by well-known Islamic hacker groups. Arnaud Coustilliere pointed to “structured groups” that used tactics like posting symbols of jihadist groups on companies’ websites. Websites for small businesses, like pizza delivery or gardening. Hardly ones which could affect national security. With this in mind, It seems that the threat is all but overstated for now, though as I write this, there is breaking news that the sites of French public radio station France Inter, as well as newspapers Le Parisien, Marianne and L’Express have all been taken down. For now, it could be a suspected attack, but it could equally be an inocuous server fault. Could cyberterrorism bring a great threat of danger to countries around the world? The momentum for such attacks is already underway, though governments, already aware of the problem, seem to be gathering preventative measures.

A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

A year of uncertainty and political dynamism: Spain going forward into 2015

I set myself the challenge of writing a concise analysis of Spain’s year in 2014, with a look at how the country’s next year will shape up. It will be a year of elections and plenty of political excitement, set against a Europe which is still far from mended.

Any comments, please do tweet me @andrewiconnell. I’d love to hear your thoughts.


They come and go so often that Spaniards of today are no longer surprised by their political class. One word that is synonymous with Spanish politics today is corruption, and it appears in the TV news and newspapers every single day. This distrust in politicians and their true motives may surprise but goes no way to placate the Spanish population.

As 2014 closed, there were more than 2000 corruption cases in Spain, ranging from national to regional levels of government, and equally in the royal family. Spain’s monarchy had little trouble in dealing with the transition of power from Juan Carlos, the towering figure of Spain’s ideological transition, to his son Felipe VI. The case surrounding Princess Cristina, the King’s sister, whose husband is accused of obtaining millions of public funds, which then implicated her on tax fraud charges, may force her to renounce her accession to the throne, and disgrace the family name. In 2015, expect more corruption being picked apart by Spain’s media, but don’t be surprised. Unfortunately, Spain seems to have become accustomed to such debauchery.

Political indignation was a movement that started in Spain back in 2011. Today, it is coming back to haunt politicians most recently following the passing into law of the so-called “Ley Mordaza” – the gagging law. Its content for many Western democracies is eyewateringly draconian. Fines are levied for taking photos of police officers, as well as demonstrating outside government buildings, and it has driven many thousands onto the streets to voice their opposition. It is being seen as an attempt by the conservative government to silence its critics for their handling of the financial crisis. The fight for rights in Spain’s civil society will continue well into 2015.

One story that caught the attention of the Spanish media has been that of pequeño Nicolás, or little Nicolas. It has played out like a movie thriller – there well may be an idea there. A boy of 20 years old, accused now of forgery, fraud and identity theft, allowed himself to rub shoulders with influential members of Spain’s governing party, to the point that Nicolás managed to somehow shake hands with Spain’s monarch, Felipe VI, during his coronation. The pale-faced law student – who hardly ever attended classes – has appeared in countless photographs crowding PP party politicians, including questionably closed-door meetings in party headquarters. Nicolás hired bodyguards, yachts and flash cars in order to pretend to live a high, double life, and allegedly posed as a member of Spain’s secret security forces. Did Nicolás’s infiltration into high political and economic circles lead to any influence? How was it that such a shadowy and young figure was allowed to get so close to politicians? A debate about trust in politicians has already started, as waves of public indignation continue to abound with ever greater magnitude.

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Pequeño Nicolás: the thriller (Credit: Telecinco)

It has also been quite the year for the Catalans. After a non-binding vote in November, talk in the region surrounding calling early elections and shared ballots is continuing. What could once have been seen as a perfect political marriage between Catalan president Artur Mas and coalition partner Oriol Junqueras is starting to produce more difference and disagreement. Demands for early elections are numerous, and look to be coming down the way in May. With absolutely no offer of an olive branch from Spain’s prime minister, Catalan independentists will be continuing to look around Europe for allies and specifically to Brussels to grant them a democratic means of recognising desires of independentistas to break away from the rest of Spain.

In terms of the popularity of independence in Catalonia, data from The Guardian has shown it’s a rising cause, though polls over the years have arguably pegged yes and no fairly level. A later poll in 2014 pushed no ahead of yes for the first time, but it is still very close to call. For its detractors, what marked November’s consultation were those who didn’t turn to the ballot. They may have been too scared to vote since the vote was deemed illegal; they might have thought it wasn’t worth voting because it was non-binding. These arguments work for both the yes and the no camps. Those who did turn out, more than two million of them, voted resoundingly yes-yes to the questions of whether Catalonia should be a state, and if so, should it be independent. I predict results of the early elections in the region will send out a very powerful message of increased support for independence, at the very least from sheer frustration.

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Yes or no? Catalans voting in non-binding consultation in November (Credit: Wikipedia)

Catalonia reached levels of international consciousness in this symbolic referendum through the media – an event that spoke as loud as the crowds did when gathered on the streets of Barcelona during Catalonia’s national day on September 11. This year a V for victory and vote marked the celebration. International consciousness of their cause is equally key for independence to gain further ground.

Much of what can or could happen in Catalonia will be debated in anticipation of the national election towards the end of 2015 with each party gesturing and speechifying, but only when all the cards are on the table and Spain knows exactly who will be governing them will Catalans know either way how close or far they are from gaining a definitive referendum. What will also decide Catalonia’s politics is the outcome of an ongoing legal case which has implicated Catalan president Artur Mas and several allies for illegally carrying out November’s consultation. Artur Mas in his New Year speech bemoaned the fact that the vote should have opened a route for political dialogue, not a legal dispute. The fact that Mariano Rajoy said nothing in anticipation of the vote and allowed it to happen was telling enough of the Spanish prime minister’s way of handling what he says is a side issue which has been growing because of, and not despite, the economic crisis, in his words. The results held no credibility for him.

One more thing that is central to Catalonia’s independence and a sweetener for the rest of Spain: constitutional reform. This is the current stumbling block stopping Catalans from voting, as currently all of Spain would have to be consulted on independence. The leader of the Socialist party says that by reforming the Magna Carta his party will create a more federal Spain, allowing other regions more local powers, but not so far as to allow Catalonia to vote on its own future. Podemos has straddled the two sides: they recognise Catalan and Basque desire for a right to vote, but oppose Catalan independence. The party’s leader said he wants to continue to build Spain all together.

In an election year, it is no cliché to say that it is all to play for. While Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy claims that the crisis is over and Spain is well on its way to recovery thanks to his strong governance, Spain’s now tripartite political scene has produced opinion polls that in recent months mean it is very close to call a winner in next year’s general election, expected in November. They have been tussling over economic figures and questioning the recovery, as well as bandying around the perennial need for “change” in Spain.

What the media has been calling the Podemos “phenomenon” could be to some extent a victim of its own success. With increased popularity – which the party undoubtedly has garnered – there has come greater scrutiny, in a year in which the movement became a party, gained a leader in Pablo Iglesias, and outlined some of its key measures, several of which it had to revise. Its rise has been astronomical to say the least. Populism has been spreading across a Europe which has experienced huge change politically from the start of the crisis, with more questioning of austerity and how countries can move away from the spectre of long-term European deflation. Can Podemos, having won five seats in the European elections in May, stand up to the bigger, more established parties and assert itself with a wide range of credible, not pie-in-the-sky, policies? Even the most seasoned of political commentators can never with complete certainty predict elections, and Spain is no exception. A lot can happen in the next year, and for all three main parties, mere points in opinion polls will be keenly fought over.

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Spain’s new leader/university professor? Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias (Credit: Elmundo.es)

What Podemos may find hard to achieve on the European stage is credibility. By virtue of being such a new party which formed from a movement with members who are more at ease in lecture halls than parliament buildings, Brussels will undoubtedly eye this party with great uncertainty, as it is already doing with Syriza, the left-wing juggernaut in Greece. With Spain still on such an uneven economic footing, which many would say is as a result of painful, unfair and ignorant cuts and political decisions, Podemos is likely to rattle market confidence in Spain’s ability to become a fully convalescent patient in Europe. In its battle for hearts and minds, Podemos would win tomorrow. It’s not difficult to see that the need for Podemos, in a crisis which not only has political and economic facet but a huge social one, was long overdue. Its grass-root formation may just win it for them and be a shot in the arm for the European project and Spain’s traditional parties who couldn’t have expected a huge shake-up in Spain’s political scene.

This year saw the Socialist party gain a new leader in Pedro Sánchez, who is using Spain’s 1978 Constitution as a means of encouraging reform and a new start for Spain’s democracy. He is pushing Spain’s political classes on transparency, in a year which has seen most parties, according to research, become far less opaque with the voting public. Podemos meanwhile says that while the transition to democracy in Spain is now history, its legacy has produced a political climate built on mistrust and corruption.

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Spain’s unemployment won’t be moving for a while yet (Credit:Thecommentator.com)

Another cliché: it’s all about the economy. This may be somewhat of an exaggeration, but economic prosperity will be a key battleground in the election. Is everybody benefiting from Spain’s recovery? Definitely not. Does the recovery even exist? According to the data at least, mostly. While growth is heading upwards – and the Economy Minister Luis de Guindos very happy to vaunt Spain’s growth figures for next year of 2% – unemployment will remain both stubbornly and depressingly around the 23% level that it has been around for a while. Youth unemployment the same. On a recent trip to Madrid, I listened to rousing and heartfelt addresses to trains and metros by those touched by unemployment, eviction, huge money troubles, ultimately requesting spare change. One woman even laid packs of tissues on seats with a note explaining her sorry predicament. Passengers bow their heads and avoid eye contact, seemingly far too used to these undignifying, desperate, yet polite, calls for help.

Perhaps the biggest issue for Spain, and for Europe, will be the waves of immigrants from unstable and war-torn parts of the world. Scenes from Spain’s enclave of Melilla in Morocco of immigrants storming border fences are a reminder of how close the European continent is to North Africa and the Middle East, where the savagery in Syria and elsewhere is allowed to fester. Countries in Europe are now the place of refuge for several hundred thousand people. The debate around how Europe handles the humanitarian disaster leaking from conflict is going to be increasingly important, as the war in Syria moves into its fourth year. It will require the work of many nations.

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A tough year ahead for Europe as war-torn countries produce thousands of migrants (Credit:eldiario.es)

Though much of Spain’s news this year has been of domestic significance, the rise of Podemos, the battle for independence in Catalonia, trust in politicians, and economic recovery are themes that are springing up all around Europe going into 2015. Not only is their outcome hard to predict, such problems will also take more than just one year to mend.