Tag Archives: European Union

As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Martin Schulz, formerly the European Parliament president, has returned to German domestic politics in recent weeks. (Facebook)

For the past two elections, Germany’s center-left has tried to stymie chancellor Angela Merkel with two jowly, doughy figures compromised by high service in Merkel-led ‘grand coalition’ governments. 

And for the past two elections, Germany’s center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has won a smaller share of the vote than at any other time in postwar German history.

For months, it appeared that the Social Democrats were set to sleepwalk into making the same error in 2017.

With the federal election formally set for September 24, it seemed that the SPD would choose as its candidate for chancellor Sigmar Gabriel, the economy minister who serves as vice chancellor in the current Große Koalition and who has served as the party’s official leader since 2009.

Though polls showed Merkel’s center-right Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union), in power since 2005, losing some ground to the eurosceptic and anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany), they still maintained a consistent lead of anywhere from 11% to 17% against the Social Democrats. With Gabriel at the helm, the SPD seemed content to lose another election to Merkel, perhaps willing to suffer as the junior partner in her fourth-term governing coalition or otherwise in complete opposition.

So it was a surprise to see Gabriel on Tuesday bow out of competition to lead his party into the 2017 elections and instead endorse Martin Schulz, who stepped down as the president of the European Parliament just weeks ago to return to German politics. Continue reading As Gabriel steps aside, Schulz gives Germany’s SPD best shot in a generation

Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

(pixelbliss / 123rf)

There’s no doubt that world politics in 2016 turned nationalist, anti-globalization and increasingly illiberal, and that’s clear from three touchstone elections — Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte’s election in May, the decision by British voters to leave the European Union in June and US president-elect Donald Trump’s victory in November. 

But what if the Brexit referendum didn’t even happen in 2016?

Timing is everything in politics and, when former UK prime minister David Cameron originally announced that he would concede a referendum on EU membership, the law that he and his Conservative-led government later enacted in the House of Commons specified that the referendum would be held no later than December 31, 2017. From 2013 throughout much of the 2015 general election campaign across Great Britain, many commentators and politicians assumed that Cameron would hold the referendum in 2017 — and not in 2016.

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RELATED: Leave campaign’s immigration emphasis
could trump Brexit economics

RELATED: In defense of David Cameron

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Only after Cameron’s surprisingly strong 2015 victory did his team seriously consider moving the referendum forward to June 2016, barely a year after the Conservative Party’s sweep to reelection.

At the time, the aggressive approach made a certain amount of sense. Cameron was at the height of his political popularity after the 2015 vote, and so the sooner Cameron could move beyond the European question, the better — and the better to end the uncertainty of a Brexit that began with the 2013 decision to hold a vote. A quicker (and shorter) campaign would give the ‘Leave’ camp less time to raise money and win voters that, though divided, seemed to edge toward the ‘Remain’ camp. Another recession, perhaps sparked by a new American administration or more troubles with European banks or debt, in particular, could dampen voter moods about EU matters.  Continue reading Why Cameron should have waited until 2017 to hold the Brexit referendum

What to expect from Italy’s new government

Image result for gentiloni
Far from a rupture, Italy will get more of the same under its new prime minister Paolo Gentiloni. (AFP / Getty)

Consider Italy’s new government renzismo without Renzi.

A week after Matteo Renzi failed, in spectacular measure, in his efforts to win Italian voter approval of his ill-fated referendum on political reform, Italy has a new prime minister after consultations between Renzi, other political leaders and Italian president Sergio Mattarella.

With no more than 15 months (and likely far less) until the next general election, Italy’s new premier Paolo Gentiloni will lead a government that looks much like the one Renzi led until last week — one dominated by the centrist and reformist wing of Italy’s center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party).

Given that the Democrats and their centrist allies retain a majority in the lower house of the Italian parliament, the Camera dei deputati (Chamber of Deputies), it was almost certain that Mattarella would appoint someone from the Italian left. It was not certain that Mattarella would turn to a Renzi ally, however, given the longstanding tradition of non-partisan ‘technocratic’ governments in Italian politics. Still, Gentiloni was a colorless Roman aristocrat with an undistinguished political career until his sudden ascent to foreign minister two years ago. He replaced Federica Mogherini, who departed Renzi’s government in 2014 to serve as the EU high representative for foreign affairs and security policy. Today, Mogherini remains a rising star who may yet eclipse even Renzi from her perch as Europe’s top diplomat.

Gentiloni, who hails from Roman nobility, began his career in journalism, switching to politics in the 1990s as an ally of Francesco Rutelli, a former centrist mayor of Rome from 1993 to 2001. Both of them served in the short-lived government of Romano Prodi from 2006 to 2008; Rutelli as deputy prime minister and culture minister, Gentiloni as communications minister. In the center-left primary to determine the party’s candidate in the 2013 Roman mayoral election, Gentiloni finished in third place with just 14% of the vote.

Despite strong marks for his time as foreign minister, no one expects Gentiloni to remain prime minister longer than the next election, no matter who wins.

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RELATED: Renzi’s referendum loss isn’t the end of the world
for Italy or the EU

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Gentiloni, instead, looks more like a caretaker who will lead the government through rough months ahead while Renzi licks his wounds back home in Florence and prepares for the next election.

Perhaps most consequentially for Europe (and global markets), Gentiloni’s cabinet retains Renzi’s finance minister Pier Carlo Padoan, himself seen as a potential successor to Renzi. Other key ministers retained include defence minister Roberta Pinotti and justice minister Andrea Orlando, while Angelino Alfano, previously interior minister, will assume Gentiloni’s new role as foreign minister.

Italian banks on the brink

With his confidante running the government, Matteo Renzi is now free to start crafting his own political comeback from the sidelines. (Facebook)

Gentiloni and Padoan will turn most immediately to efforts to calm markets about Italy’s tottering banks and, in particular, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena (MPS).  Increasingly, it seems likely that the bank, the world’s oldest (dating back to 1492, will require a bailout from the government, potentially angering taxpayers. Potentially, the government might also require a ‘bail-in’ of the bank’s investors, potentially angering Italy’s capital class. Other Italian banks in need of capitalization may come in for the same treatment. Essentially, Italian banks today find themselves in much the same position as American banks in 2009 — undercapitalized and sitting on far too many non-performing loans. While the U.S. bailout in 2008 and 2009 was far from popular, in today’s climate, in a country like Italy, where joblessness and listless (or negative) growth have become endemic, a bailout could be far more toxic.

Renzi may believe that, by leaving such unpopular steps to Gentiloni and Padoan, he can emerge later in 2017 or 2018 for a comeback — not unlike Silvio Berlusconi, himself forced from office twice, despite dominating Italian politics for nearly two decades.

That may be too clever by half. Continue reading What to expect from Italy’s new government

Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

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Germany’s chancellor since 2005, Angela Merkel is widely believed to be preparing to seek fourth term in the 2017 federal elections. (Facebook)

It’s entirely possible that September 2016 marks the worst month of German chancellor Angela Merkel’s career.Germany Flag Iconmecklenburg-vorpommern berlin

Merkel’s center-right party, the Christlich Demokratische Union (CDU, Christian Democratic Union) fell to third place in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern, a relatively low-population state of just 1.6 million that sprawls along the northern edge of what used to be East Germany. While the center-left Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands (SPD, Social Democratic Party) has been traditionally stronger there in elections since reunification, two factors made the CDU’s loss particularly embarrassing. The first is that it’s the state that Merkel has represented since her first election in 1990 shorly after German reunification. The second, and more ominous, is that the CDU fell behind the eurosceptic, anti-refugee Alternative für Deutschland (Afd, Alternative for Germany), a relatively new party founded in 2013 that today holds seats in 10 of Germany’s 16 state assemblies and that, according to recent polls, will easily win seats in the Bundestag in next September’s federal elections.

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Two weeks later, on September 18, Merkel’s CDU also suffered losses in Berlin’s state election. As left-wing parties have long dominated Berlin’s politics, and the SPD placed first and Germany’s Die Linke (the Left) and Die Grünen (the Greens) placed third and fourth behind the CDU. But even in Berlin, the AfD still won 14.2% of the vote.

berlin-2016 berlin-assembly

Taken together, the state election results forced a mea culpa from Merkel on Monday. The chancellor, who is expected (though by no means certain) to seek a fourth consecutive term next year, departed from the calm, steely confidence that since last summer has characterized her commitment to accept and integrate over a million Syrian refugees within Germany’s borders. Merkel admitted, however, that she would, if possible, rewind the clock to better prepare her country and her government for the challenge of admitting so many new migrants, and she admitted lapses in her administration’s communications. With the AfD showing no signs of abating, it’s clear that its attacks on Merkel’s open-door policy are working. Merkel’s statement earlier this week admitted that her policies have not unfolded as smoothly as she’d hoped.

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RELATED: Can Hillary Clinton become America’s Mutti?

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Indeed, German polls are starting to show that voters are souring on Merkel and her approach to migration, so much that in one poll in August for Bild, a majority of voters no longer support a fourth term for Merkel. All of which has led to hand-wringing both in Germany and abroad that Merkel’s days are numbered.

Don’t believe it. Continue reading Merkel may be down, but don’t rule her out for a fourth term just yet

Why Northern Ireland is the most serious obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)
Few Protestants or Catholics want to go back to the days of a land border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. (BBC)

When pro-Leave campaigners argued that, by leaving the European Union, Great Britain could ‘take back control,’ one of the clear things over which Brexit proponents seem to want to take control was national borders.northernirelandUnited Kingdom Flag Icon

Given that Great Britain itself is an island, that’s mostly a theoretical proposition, because you can’t step across the border into England, Scotland and Wales — their ‘borders’ are through their seaports and airports.

That’s not true in Northern Ireland, the only region in the United Kingdom that does share a land border with another European Union member-state. It’s also one of the most delicate tripwires for British prime minister Theresa May in her dutiful quest to invoke Article 50 of the European Union’s Lisbon Treaty next year and begin negotiations for a British EU withdrawal.

Scotland has garnered more headlines because Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued that Scots, who voted strongly for Remain, deserve a second independence referendum  when the British government finally does leave the European Union. But if ‘Remain’ proponents are looking to the one part of the United Kingdom that could impossibly prevent Article 50’s invocation, they should look to Northern Ireland, where Brexit could unravel two decades of peace, and where Brexit is already causing some anxiety about the region’s future.

May, just days after replacing David Cameron at 10 Downing Street, visited Belfast earlier this week in a bid to reassure both unionists and republicans. But it’s not clear that May’s first journey to Northern Ireland, which preceded a meeting with Ireland’s leader a day later, was a success.

May boldly claimed that Brexit need not result in the return of a ‘hard border’ between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. But settling Northern Ireland’s Brexit border issue is virtually intractable for the May government — at least without alienating one of three crucial groups of people: first, the mostly Catholic republicans of Northern Ireland; second, the most Protestant unionists of Northern Ireland or finally, those Brexit supports across the entire country who voted ‘Leave’ in large part to close UK borders to further immigration.

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As in Scotland, Northern Ireland’s voters narrowly titled against Brexit — 55.78% supported ‘Remain,’ while just 44.22% supported ‘Leave.’ Generally speaking, republicans widely supported ‘Remain,’ and unionists leaned toward ‘Leave,’ including first minister Arlene Foster. Continue reading Why Northern Ireland is the most serious obstacle to Article 50’s invocation

Ten things that May’s elevation to No. 10 tells us about Britain’s future

Home secretary Theresa May has a clear path to succeed David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)
Home secretary Theresa May has a clear path to succeed David Cameron at 10 Downing Street. (Oli Scarff / Getty Images)

It’s as if an entire season of Game of Thrones swept through British politics in the space of two-and-a-half weeks.United Kingdom Flag Icon

The list of political careers in ruins runs long and deep. Prime minister David Cameron himself. Chancellor George Osborne. Former London mayor Boris Johnson. Justice secretary Michael Gove. Nigel Farage, the retiring leader of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). Maybe even Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, who may enjoy the support of grassroots Labour members, but not of his parliamentary party.

Monday brought another casualty of the post-Brexit era: energy secretary Andrea Leadsom, who withdrew from the September leadership contest for the Conservative Party leadership. The decision came just four days after Tory MPs pitted Leadsom (with 84 votes) in a runoff against home secretary Theresa May (with 199 votes), eliminating Gove (with just 46 MPs supporting him).

Leadsom, who supported the Leave campaign in the June 23 referendum, had garnered the support of the eurosceptic Tory right, including endorsements from former leader Iain Duncan Smith and other Leave campaign heavy-hitters like Johnson and even Farage. But Leadsom struggled to adapt to the public stage as a figure virtually unknown outside of Westminster a week or two ago (reminiscent in some ways of Chuka Umunna’s aborted Labour leadership campaign last year).

Though she promised to bring far more rupture to Conservative government than May, Leadsom also struggled to defend against charges that she embellished her record as an executive in the financial sector before turning to politics. Over the weekend, she suffered a backlash after suggesting she would be a better leader because she (unlike May) had children.

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It was always an uphill fight for Leadsom, despite the rebellious mood of a Tory electorate that voted overwhelmingly for Brexit and was clearly attracted to Leadsom’s more radical approach. May, a more cautious figure, supported the Remain campaign during the referendum, though she largely avoiding making strong statements either for or against EU membership. At one point, she argued that the United Kingdom should leave the European Court on Human Rights (a position that she has disavowed now as a leadership contender).

So what happens next? And what do the prior 18 days portend for the policies and politics of the May government?  Continue reading Ten things that May’s elevation to No. 10 tells us about Britain’s future

In defense of David Cameron

Prime minister David Cameron resigned earlier this morning. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)
Prime minister David Cameron resigned earlier this morning. (Stefan Wermuth / Reuters)

Normally, when a politician — especially a president or a prime minister — resigns, he or she is met with effusive praise.United Kingdom Flag Icon

There’s the defeat. Then the stepping down. Then a deluge of pieces heralding the peaks as well as the valleys of the political career that’s just ended.

Not David Cameron, who stepped out of 10 Downing Street this morning to step down as British prime minister, a day after he narrowly lost a campaign to keep the United Kingdom inside the European Union. For Cameron, today’s political obituaries, so to speak, are absolutely brutalThe Independent called him the ‘worst prime minister in a hundred years.’

And that’s perhaps fair. He is, after all, the prime minister who managed to guide his country, accidentally, out of the European Union. His country (and, indeed all of Europe) now faces a period of massive uncertainty as a result.

The man who once hectored his party to stop ‘banging on about Europe’ has now been done in over Europe — just as the last two Conservative prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

He’ll leave behind a Scotland that wanted to stay inside the European Union by a margin of 62% to 38% and that will now have the moral and political capital to demand a fresh independence referendum to become an independent Scotland within the European Union. First minister Nicola Sturgeon, of course, knew this all along, and she wasted no time in making clear that a second vote is now her top priority.

He’ll also leave behind an awful mess as to the status of Northern Ireland, which also voted for Remain by a narrower margin. Its borders with the Republic of Ireland are now unclear, the republican Sinn Fein now wants a border poll on Irish unification and the Good Friday agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence might have to be amended.

He’ll leave behind an angry electorate in England, sharply divided by income, race, ethnicity and culture — if the divide between England Scotland looks insurmountable, so does the divide between London and the rest of England. Despite the warning signs, and the rise of Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), Cameron failed to provide English voters with the devolution of regional power that voters enjoyed in Wales, Scotland, Northern Ireland and even London.

Cameron showed, unlike Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy, he was willing to accede to the wishes of Scottish nationalists and give them a say in their own self-determination. Given the corrosive nature of the eurosceptic populism within his own party and in UKIP, it wasn’t unreasonable that Cameron would force them to ‘put up or shut up’ with the first in-out vote on EU membership since 1975, when the European Union was just the European Economic Community.

On every measure, Cameron leaves behind a country more broken and more polarized than the one he inherited from Gordon Brown in May 2010. Continue reading In defense of David Cameron

British voters take to polls today for historic EU referendum vote

After years of preparation, it's now up to voters to make their choice.
After years of preparation, it’s now up to voters to make their choice.

So it’s finally here.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Polls are now open across the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, where voters are deciding whether to either remain a member of the European Union or to leave the European Union. It’s home to the largest city in the European Union (London) and, with 64.9 million people, it’s the third-most populous state in the European Union, after Germany and France.

Polls are open from 7 a.m. through 10 p.m. — that means that here on the east coast of the United States, polls will be closing at 5 p.m. ET, with the first results to arrive shortly thereafter. No official exit polls are being conducted, but private hedge funds are believed to have commissioned exit polls and early financial indictors could tell us know traders believe the result will go. In any event, the final result is expected to be announced by ‘breakfast time’ on Friday morning.

The United Kingdom joined what was then the European Economic Community in 1973 under Conservative prime minister Edward Heath, after two failed attempts at membership, in each case vetoed by French president Charles de Gaulle. Continue reading British voters take to polls today for historic EU referendum vote

‘Leave’ campaign’s immigration emphasis could trump Brexit economics

UKIP leader Nigel Farage made immigration the heart of his campaign to leave the European Union. (PA)
UKIP leader Nigel Farage made immigration the heart of his campaign to leave the European Union. (PA)

Turkey is not going to become a member-state of the European Union anytime soon.United Kingdom Flag IconEuropean_Union

No matter what joint talks take place next week, next month or next decade between Turkish and European diplomats, it is absolutely incomprehensible that the European Union, with or without the United Kingdom, would be willing to grant membership to a state with the level of economic corruption and political authoritarianism as Turkey. Full stop.

Even if European diplomats did, though, and even if each of the other 27 member-states of the European Union wanted to admit Turkey — which today borders war-torn Syria and destabilized Iraq — all it would take is for a British prime minister to say, simply, ‘No.’

That’s because EU membership is one of a handful of issues accomplished only by unanimity of the European Union’s member-states. For example, Greece has held up Macedonia’s EU accession hopes for years over a long-simmering conflict over the name ‘Macedonia,’ and the Greeks, for the better part of the last century, have been none too keen on doing many favors for their Turkish rivals, either.

Last week, EU officials cheekily informed Turkey that the country has not yet met all of the EU conditions for visa-free travel to the European Union, one of the rewards that Turkey received as part of a controversial deal to stem the flow of Syrian and Iraqi migrants from Turkey into the European Union. Though critics of German chancellor Angela Merkel argue that she sold out EU values in exchange for a Turkish solution to the EU migration crisis, Europeans are holding firm in requiring that Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stop using ‘anti-terror’ laws to arrest journalists, academics and political opponents. This is hardly the stuff of happy Turkish-EU relationsContinue reading ‘Leave’ campaign’s immigration emphasis could trump Brexit economics

Long before Brexit came Greenlandexit — and a corresponding boost to Greenland’s economy

In 2015, Greenlandic prime minister Kim Kielsen signed a new declaration over EU relations.
In 2015, Greenlandic prime minister Kim Kielsen signed a new declaration over EU relations.

The year was 1985.European_UnionUnited Kingdom Flag Icongreenland flag

Germany was still divided into east and west, and Portugal, Spain, Austria and Sweden were all still outside the European Economic Community, the forerunner to today’s European Union.

But it marked the first — and, so far, the only — time that any territory voluntarily exited the European Union.

It was Greenland, then and today an autonomous country within the kingdom of Denmark. In the 1980s, Greenland was fresh off winning a new layer of home rule in 1979 from the Danes. Angry about the fact that its own local fisheries were forced to compete with more industrial fishing outfits from the European Union, Greenlanders voted to leave the European Economic Community, many of them noting that Greenland is closer, in geographic terms, to the North American continent than to Europe.

In the intervening years, of course, several rounds of treaties have refined the European Union’s structure, including the Treaty of Lisbon, which for the first time introduced in Article 50 a legal mechanism for a member-state’s exit from the European Union that establishes a two-year framework for negotiation from the moment of withdrawal notification to final exit.

Greenland, however, set the only real-world precedent that British voters and policymakers have if, indeed, the country decides to leave the European Union in the June 23 referendum.

Flush off the excitement from winning a modicum of self-government from Denmark nearly 3,500 miles away, the eurosceptic, left-wing and outright separatist  Siumut (Forward) soon won the first local elections after the introduction of home rule. Among other things, Greenland’s prime minister Jonathan Motzfeldt scheduled a referendum for February 23, 1982, in which Greenlandic voters would be asked whether the country should continue to be a member of the European Economic Community after becoming a member, nearly by default, when Denmark acceded in 1973.

The referendum was close — out of 23,795 voters, 53.02% voted to leave and 46.98% voted to remain. Continue reading Long before Brexit came Greenlandexit — and a corresponding boost to Greenland’s economy

Jo Cox’s assassination will forever mar the Brexit referendum

Labour MP Jo Cox was killed in her own constituency Thursday, just one week before a once-in-a-generation referendum on British EU membership.
Labour MP Jo Cox was killed in her own constituency Thursday, just one week before a once-in-a-generation referendum on British EU membership.

I had a series of posts that I was planning to finalize starting today about the Brexit referendum but, of course, the news of Jo Cox’s murder has preempted everyone’s thoughts about the European Union debate today.United Kingdom Flag Icon

There will be plenty of time for more debate in the week ahead, one of the most important weeks of political debate in the United Kingdom’s postwar history and, indeed, in Europe’s postwar history.

But it will now be forever marred by Cox’s assassination, especially if, as has been widely reported, the gunman shouted out ‘Britain first!’ as he was shooting the 41-year-old Labour MP.

Cox, a wife who leaves behind a grieving husband, Brendan, and two young children, was elected to the House of Commons in 2015 after a longtime career with Oxfam and other charitable organizations. She was in particular passionate about providing relief to those suffering in war-torn Syria. As a Labour candidate and MP, she was a passionate supporter of  resettling refugees from Syria in the United Kingdom. She was one just a few supporters of Liz Kendall in last summer’s Labour leadership contest, but she was also one of the MPs willing to put Jeremy Corbyn’s name on the ballot. If anyone personified the kind of rising star who could carry forward the center-left policy perspective of ‘Blairism without Blair,’ it might reasonably have been someone like Jo Cox.

She was also a passionate product of Yorkshire, and she was genuinely proud of the fact that she grew up in Bentley and that she never lost touch with her roots in that community, indeed the community where a deranged killer ended what should have been decades more of public service.

If you’re on the right, you can do no worse than Alex Massie’s tribute today in The Spectator. If you’re on the left, you can do no worse than Polly Toynbee’s column in The Guardian. Both make much of the tone that’s characterized the referendum campaign. Continue reading Jo Cox’s assassination will forever mar the Brexit referendum

Serbian election kicks off tumultuous year for Balkan politics

Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić met with European Council president Donald Tusk in December as part of ongoing EU accession negotiations. (Facebook / Aydemir Dursun)
Serbian president Tomislav Nikolić met with European Council president Donald Tusk in December as part of ongoing EU accession negotiations. (Facebook / Aydemir Dursun)

This weekend, Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić finalized a four-year consolidation of power in early parliamentary elections that delivered a landslide victory for his center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), giving him the mandate and the support to advance political and economic reforms that he hopes could one day result in Serbia’s accession as a member-state of the European Union.Serbia_Flag_Icon

In results late Sunday night, the SNS a wide lead over its nearest competitor, the center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (SPS, Социјалистичка партија Србије), which currently serves as the government’s junior coalition partner. The Socialist leader, Ivica Dačić, a former prime minister, currently serves as Vučić’s foreign minister. Several parties of the fragmented center-left and hard-right ultra-nationalist parties trail far behind in single digits. With just under 50% of the total vote on Sunday, the SNS can expect to have an absolute majority in Serbia’s unicameral, 250-seat National Assembly (Народна скупштина).

serbia2016 copy

Vučic called the snap elections earlier this year, fully knowing how well his party was doing in the polls. Like it or not, Vučic and the former SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić, currently in his first term as president, will be directing Serbian policy through the end of the decade.

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RELATEDVučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia
with 3rd consecutive win

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But Serbia is far from the only country in the Balkans that will vote this year, and Sunday’s vote kicks off what could become a season of electoral change across the region.

Unlike Serbia, where voters were happy to deliver Vučic the broad mandate he wanted, voters in the rest of the western Balkans are far less sanguine about their elected officials. Opposition politicians in Montenegro nearly ousted their long-serving prime minister earlier this year, though fresh elections are due before October. The twists and turns of a wiretapping scandal in Macedonia have reached fever pitch this week, with protesters marching against the government in Skopje, and a June 5 parliamentary election date is currently in doubt.

A region that still dreams of EU accession

(Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)
(Radio Free Europe / Radio Liberty)

The western Balkans are the last major region of Europe that has not yet been integrated into the European Union. With the possible exception of Turkey, it’s the final frontier of EU accession. Among the six (or seven, if you count Kosovo) countries that emerged out of the former Yugoslavia, only two of them have won EU member-state status, Slovenia and Croatia. They join only Albania in representing the western Balkans in the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

The remaining Balkan states are in varying stages of their quests for accession:

  • Macedonia was granted candidate status back in 2005, but democratic and economic backsliding have stalled its membership push, not to mention its long-running spat with Greece over the name, ‘Macedonia,’ which Greeks consider to be an inaccurate appropriation of Greek culture and history.
  • Montenegro gained candidate status in December 2010, and negotiations are ongoing, though Montenegro has fully implemented just two of 33 chapters of the acquis communautaire, the body of EU law required for all member-states.
  • The European Union granted Serbia candidate status in March 2012, negotiations kicked off in 2014 and Vučic is eager to conclude accession by the year 2020, though that remains incredibly optimistic.
  • Albania won candidate status in June 2014, and though its negotiations have yet to begin, prime minister Edi Rama, a former artist who charged to power in 2013, is an energetic center-left figure who’s worked closely with former British prime minister Tony Blair to develop a package of EU-friendly economic and political reforms.
  • Bosnia and Herzegovina applied for membership status in February 2016, but the European Union hasn’t yet granted it candidate status.
Albania's pro-European, pro-reform prime minister Edi Rama met with US president Barack Obama last week. (Facebook)
Albania’s pro-European, pro-reform prime minister Edi Rama met with US president Barack Obama last week. (Facebook)

Given the existential threats that the European Union faces, hardly anyone outside the Balkans seems to have the stomach for what promises to be a difficult round of accession. The June 23 referendum in the United Kingdom on whether to leave the European Union remains too close to call, but its passage would be a major blow to the notion of ‘ever closer union.’ Much of southern Europe, most especially Greece, have still not recovered from the eurozone crisis that stretched the limits of EU financial, economic and monetary policy and that brought into question the future of the single currency. Meanwhile, the most acute refugee crisis in Europe since World War II has weakened the Schengen agreement by undermining the free movement of people within the European Union and the eradication of internal EU borders.

For current EU members, then, it may look like there’s precious little benefit in EU accession. But for the Balkan states, there remains enthusiasm that EU membership will force the kind of reforms that could reduce the crippling corruption that is, on general, worse in the Balkans than in the rest of Europe:balkans CPI 2015

Balkans populations also hope that EU membership will also clear the path not only for reforms, but for the kind of funding that could allow them to catch up to the higher EU standard of living, which, not surprisingly lags far behind: 
Balkans GDPWith eventual EU membership — and the promise it brings of greater incomes and opportunities — dangling as a carrot, it’s no surprise that Vučic has amassed so much political power in Serbia and an impressive amount of respect among European leaders. But it’s that same dynamic that could lead to massive changes throughout the rest of the region, most notably in Montenegro and Macedonia.

Wiretaps and pardons

Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski is facing protests on the streets of Skopje after the dismissal of an inquiry into a wiretapping scandal. (Facebook)
Former Macedonian prime minister Nikola Gruevski’s government is facing protests on the streets of Skopje after the dismissal of an inquiry into a wiretapping scandal. (Facebook)

Eleven days ago, Macedonia’s president Gjorge Ivanov pardoned 56 people, all of whom were implicated in a wide-ranging wiretapping scandal that forced the country’s powerful prime minister, Nikola Gruevski, to resign in January. Beginning in the early 2010s, Gruevski and his government were found to have wiretapped illegally up to 20,000 Macedonians, opposition figures, journalists and even diplomats.  macedonia

Ivanov, who announced a decree that would end all investigations into the wiretapping scandal, set off a constitutional crisis from what had already been a crisis of governance and the rule of law, and his announcements met with sharp disapproval from EU officials and Macedonia’s political opposition.

Gruevski’s ruling VMRO-DPMNE (Внатрешна македонска револуционерна организација – Демократска партија за македонско национално единство; Internal Macedonian Revolutionary Organization – Democratic Party for Macedonian National Unity) has been in power since 2006. It easily won a fourth consecutive term in April 2014, though the election was hardly a fair fight.

Gruevski has spent much of the past decade stoking nationalist sentiment, which has antagonized Greece; for example, he erected an 11-foot high statue of Alexander the Great in Macedonia’s capital of Skopje. While the spat with Greece helped Gruevski, in part, to rally domestic support, it has only hardened Greek determination to block Macedonian membership not only in the European Union, but NATO as well. Meanwhile, the VMRO-DPMNE’s government has done little to introduce reforms to stem corruption or promote liberalization.

Macedonia opposition leader Zoran Zaev stands an excellent chance of winning power in elections that may still be held on June 5. (Facebook)
Macedonia opposition leader Zoran Zaev stands an excellent chance of winning power in elections that may still be held on June 5, if he doesn’t boycott them. (Facebook)

Macedonians now seem fed up with Gruevski’s empty promises and hollow rhetoric, to say nothing of the wiretapping shenanigans and his attempts to persuade Ivanov to pull the plug on the ongoing investigations.

Elections were set for June 5, but the government, fearing a rout, may try to postpone them. A meeting scheduled earlier today in Vienna among EU leaders and Macedonia’s political leaders was cancelled, even as the intensity of Macedonia’s protesters increases.

Zoran Zaev, Macedonia’s opposition leader and the head of the center-left Social Democratic Union of Macedonia (SDSM, Социјалдемократски сојуз на Македонија), was instrumental in revealing the extent of the wiretapping scandal, though only after Gruevski tried to have Zaev jailed for allegedly attempting to illegally toppling the government.

For years, Zaev has opposed Gruevski’s nationalist showmanship and denounced the government’s flashy development projects as wasteful vanity spending. Now, with Ivanov’s announcement to suspend the wiretapping scandal that Zaev himself helped to reveal, the opposition leader has joined the front lines of the protesters. There’s a sense that he could soon be leading the country, though he pledged earlier this month to boycott elections without additional reforms to guarantee political freedom and a free and fair electoral process. An original plan to hold elections in April has already been postponed once to June and could well be delayed again.

Negotiations over the conduct and timing of the Macedonian elections are just the beginning of what could become an even more tumultuous year. If Zaev and an opposition coalition forces VMRO-DPMNE from power, no one knows exactly how willingly Gruevski and his allies will concede. Moreover, from day one, a Zaev-led government would be locked in a high-stakes battle with Ivanov to reinstate the wiretapping investigation.

Đukanović’s last stand?

Montenegro's prime minister Milo Đukanović has dominated politics for a quarter-century, but his time may soon be running out. (CDM)
Montenegro’s prime minister Milo Đukanović has dominated politics for a quarter-century, but his time may soon be running out. (CDM)

Though it officially won its independence from Serbia only in June 2006, Milo Đukanović has controlled Montenegro like a personal fiefdom since 1991, when he was first elected prime minister. Đukanović has held power, on and off, ever since.montenegro

Polls show that Đukanović and his Democratic Party of Socialists (DPS, Demokratska Partija Socijalista Crne Gore) hold a wide lead in elections that have to be called within the next six months. But that belies the frustration that’s built for a quarter-century with Đukanović and his family, whose opponents argue that they run Montenegro as their own personal duchy of corruption.

As in Serbia, Montenegro’s opposition is even more split today than it was in the last election. The conservative opposition Democratic Front (Demokratski front) did poorly in the 2012 parliamentary elections, and its leader Miodrag Lekić narrowly lost the 2013 presidential election. Last year, however, Lekić left the party to form Democratic Alliance (DEMOS, Demokratski savez), a competing center-right party.

In December, however, Đukanović only narrowly survived a vote of no confidence in Montenegro’s unicameral, 81-member parliament (Skupština Crne Gore), following widespread protests that began in October over longstanding suspicions of Đukanović’s corruption. Protesters demanded his resignation and a transitional government; Đukanović himself spent half of the 2000s fending off a criminal inquiry into corruption from an Italian prosecutor. Đukanović’s long-time allies, the Social Democratic Party (Socijaldemokratska Partija Crne Gore), left government for the first time since 1998.

Đukanović has hoped that Montenegro’s relatively strong economy and a general trend toward liberalization will distract from his critics’ worst allegations. Moreover, Montenegrins will go to the polls as he pursues the country’s accession to NATO after formally opening talks in February. It’s a step that has appalled Moscow, which still holds plenty of economic and cultural power in the western Balkans, despite the region’s aspirations to integrate further with the rest of Europe.

Đukanović, who is only 54 years old, seems unlikely to take the opportunity of 2016 elections to step down. But it’s not inconceivable that, despite Montenegro’s more successful strides toward NATO and, eventually, EU accession, he too will face the kind of popular wrath that is now greeting Gruevski across Macedonia.

Obama’s credibility now on the line with Brexit vote

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US president Barack Obama joined forces with British prime minister David Cameron on Friday to cajole voters in the United Kingdom to stay in the European Union. (Kevin Lamarque / Reuters)

It all seemed so rational, so normal.United Kingdom Flag IconUSflag

When US president Barack Obama took the stage yesterday in London (and on the pages of The Daily Telegraph) to dismantle, with surgical precision, the arguments against the United Kingdom staying in the European Union, it didn’t feel like a rupture in international politics.

But it was a radical departure from standard operating procedure.

US presidents, to say nothing of lower officials, have never had qualms intervening in the domestic affairs of foreign countries.

Rarely does an American president so do in such a public forum.

Rarer still that an American president would weigh in on a matter that will be determined by a foreign electorate in eight weeks.

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RELATED: How Corbyn can use Brexit to
reinvigorate his Labour leadership

* * * * *

Standing beside the British prime minister, Obama was making the case against Brexit better than anyone else on the British political stage, in part because of the sheer scale of power that comes with the American presidency. Special or no, the body language of Obama and his British counterpart David Cameron spoke everything about the unequal bilateral partnership. Amazingly, Obama managed to shrink and upstage Cameron nearly as much as George W. Bush diminished Tony Blair, oft mocked as Bush’s ‘poodle,’ over the Iraq war in 2003.  Continue reading Obama’s credibility now on the line with Brexit vote

Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

Serbia's prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday's snap elections. (Facebook)
Serbia’s prime minister Aleksandar Vučić hopes to renew a four-year mandate in Sunday’s snap elections. (Facebook)

On Sunday, Serbians will go to the polls nearly two years before the current government’s term ends.Serbia_Flag_Icon

The results are hardly in doubt.

Prime minister Aleksandar Vučić is basically guaranteed to return to power by a wide margin, according to nearly every poll taken since the last election. His party, the center-right Serbian Progressive Party (SNS, Српска напредна странка), already leads a coalition that enjoys a firm majority in Serbia’s unicameral National Assembly (Народна скупштина).

Originally due by March 2018, Vučić called snap elections in March in a bid to build an even more powerful majority. Vučić argues that a fresh mandate will give his government the space to push Serbia ever closer toward European integration; critics argue that’s a fig leaf to disguise a Vučić power grab, an attempt to squeeze the Serbian political opposition into powerlessness.

Despite problems with self-censorship in the press, Reporters without Borders ranks Serbia 59th in its 2016 press freedom rankings — that’s better than EU members Croatia, Hungary and Italy. Neighboring countries fare far worse — Kosovo ranks 90th, Montenegro ranks 106 and Macedonia ranks 118, just higher than Afghanistan.

With increasingly illiberal figures like Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán thumbing their nose at European Union leaders, Vučić’s rise isn’t without its anxieties.

That’s especially true for the United States and Europe, both of whom have an interest in a country of 7 million that remains, economically and culturally, the anchor of the Balkans region, though Serbia itself shares an alphabet, similar language and a religion with Russia. Serbia is dependent upon Russia for natural gas, as well as a market for exports. In recent years, Vučić has shown that he’s willing to turn to Moscow and other surprising allies, such as the United Arab Emirates, for help when European leaders proved too slow.

That means that the European Union, despite its existential troubles, can’t afford to keep Serbians waiting indefinitely for membership.

Regardless, if polls are correct, Vučić will complete a four-year, three-election cycle that brings the SNS the most powerful domestic government in Serbia’s history following the breakup of Yugoslavia in the 1990s.

Regionally, the Serbian vote takes place in the context of a year of explosive potential as Macedonia and Montenegro are also set to go to the polls amid tense political climates.

A pathway to Serbian political dominance

In July 2012, the SNS narrowly defeated the center-left, liberal Democratic Party (DS, Демократска странка) by a margin of 24.1% to 22.1%, following eight years of Democratic Party dominance in Serbia that smoothed the country’s transition from war-torn pariah to EU aspirant.

At the same time, Serbia’s two-term president Boris Tadić also lost his office to SNS leader Tomislav Nikolić. Once more sympathetic to Russia than to the rest of Europe, Nikolić and his acolyte, Vučić, quickly embraced the cause of EU accession. They made a deal with the nationalist, center-left Socialist Party of Serbia (Социјалистичка партија Србије / SPS) to take power, even though that meant making the SPS’s leader, Ivica Dačić, once a protégé of strongman Slobodan Milošević (who founded the SPS), Serbia’s new prime minister.

What is past is always present in politics. But that’s especially acute in the case of Serbia, because Nikolić, Vučić and Dačić all began their political lives on the ultranationalist right. Today, however, the three Serbian leaders have (so far, at least) transcended the bitter wars of the 1990s, using the reward of EU accession as a rationale not only to implement IMF-style economic reforms but to make genuine efforts to extradite suspected war criminals from the 1990s and to pacify relations with neighbors, most especially Kosovo, whose independence Serbia does not recognize.

The government performed adequately, however. Neither Nikolić nor Vučić made a harsh turn away from the strong EU relations that the Democratic Party nurtured, nor did Dačić suddenly revert to 1990s era ultranationalism. Dačić led the push to open formal negotiations with the European Union for Serbian accession. However begrudgingly, the Dačić government engaged Kosovo over talks about the breakaway region’s international status.

In early 2014, Vučić, then minister of defense, saw an opportunity for the SNS to take power in its own right, and he essentially forced Dačić to call early elections.

It wasn’t a difficult decision, politically, because it instantly made Vučić the most powerful figure in Serbia.

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The SNS won easily with 48.4% of the vote and 158 of the 250 seats in the unicameral National Assembly. The second-placed SPS, which would continue in coalition as a junior member, with Dačić serving as Vučić’s new minister of foreign affairs, won 13.5%. The Democratic Party, suffering from a divide between its new leader, former Belgrade mayor Dragan Đilas and Tadić, the future president, who ultimately left to form a new party, the Social Democratic Party (SDS, Социјалдемократска странка). The divide was fatal to Serbia’s democratic center-left, however, because the Democratic Party won just 6.0% and the Tadić-led SDS won just 5.7%.

Bracing for an even larger mandate?

Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)
Former prime minister Ivica Dačić, who has been happy to serve since 2014 as foreign minister, is shown here meeting US secretary of state John Kerry in Belgrade last year. (Facebook)

Again, for the next two years, the government performed adequately. Low GDP growth was still strong enough for the unemployment rate to continue declining (though it’s still precariously close to 20%), and Vučić nuzzled ever closer to EU advisors with the hope of advancing negotiations one step closer to EU membership. For now, Vučić hasn’t particularly weakened Serbian democracy on his own, with the kind of anti-liberal steps that Hungary or Poland have taken, though the internal troubles of the opposition may make it seem otherwise. Indeed, Serbia has welcomed refugees in the face of a deluge of Syrians and others on European shores, the largest wave of migrants to Europe since World War II.

Then, at the height of his power, Vučić called fresh elections. Continue reading Vučić set to consolidate political power in Serbia with 3rd consecutive win

How Corbyn can use Brexit to reinvigorate his Labour leadership

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been slow to embrace the campaign to reject Brexit.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has been slow to embrace the campaign to reject Brexit.

If, contrary to the United Kingdom’s new fixed parliament law, the British went to the ballot box tomorrow, most polls show that the result wouldn’t change much.United Kingdom Flag Icon

That is, a Conservative government with which Britons are less than enthusiastic.

Nearly eight months into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the opposition, center-left Labour Party, there’s no indication that the electorate has warmed to Corbyn’s hard-left policy views, nor any likelihood that Corbyn’s own critics on the back benches, populated with many of the figures who once wielded power in the ‘New Labour’ years under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, trust him as their standard-bearer.

The nearly flawless campaign of the left-wing (though not always Corbynite) Sadiq Khan, Labour’s candidate in London’s mayoral race, will give Corbyn at least one highlight in the coming May 5 regional elections. But Labour faces potential routs across England and, most damningly, failure to make any real progress against Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon, with the Scottish National Party (SNP) apparently heading to a romp in Scottish parliamentary elections, with a nearly 30% lead over the Scottish Labour Party.

All of which will put even greater pressure on Corbyn’s leadership. Though Corbyn entered the Labour race with no hope of actually winning, there’s little that the party’s Blair/Brown/Miliband/Cooper wing (which dominates the parliamentary caucus, though not the Labour grassroots) can do unless or until Corbyn loses popularity among the Labour faithful that delivered him to the leadership last summer. It’s not an outcome that appears likely to happen anytime soon.

Nevertheless, even if Labour suffers an especially poor night on May 5, Corbyn has a tailor-made opportunity to save his leadership. In the process, Corbyn might also transform his image among  a British electorate that remains highly skeptical of ever giving Corbyn the keys to 10 Downing Street.

It all rides on how Corbyn wages the Labour campaign to remain within the European Union in the coming June 23 referendum. If he succeeds, politically and substantively, Corbyn could both silence critics in his own party and, for the first time, introduce himself as truly prime ministerial material.

Continue reading How Corbyn can use Brexit to reinvigorate his Labour leadership