The message from former prime minister Matteo Renzi to the Italian left couldn’t be more clear:
Unite or die.
Unfortunately for Renzi, who hopes to regain the leadership of the center-left Partito Democratico (PD, Democratic Party) and lead it to victory in the next Italian election, no one seems to be listening to him.
Even worse, it is Renzi’s my-way-or-the-highway leadership style and his continued insistence on personally leading the Italian left in the next election that has forced such a severe schism inside a party that has struggled since its foundation a decade ago to bridge a divide that spans Catholic social conservatives to outright democratic socialists.
In the span of just 10 days, Renzi’s heavy-handed approach — designed to entrench him as the Democratic Party leader — has instead launched a fresh leadership contest (with yet another preliminary struggle over the timing of the contest). More ominously, a breakaway faction split from the party over the weekend to form a new group, the Movimento Democratico e Progressista (MDP, Democratic and Progressive Movement) that could drain the Democratic Party of crucial support in the next election. The new group already claims nearly 40 deputies in the lower house of the Italian parliament and 20 senators in the upper house.
There’s still time for a rapprochement.
The faction-ridden Democrats have always struggled with unity, but there’s a real chance that the centrosinistra‘s continued inability to unite in 2017 (and Renzi’s inability to win over skeptics) could tilt Italy’s next government to anti-EU populists.
With the traditional Italian centrodestra (‘center-right’) divided and weak in the post-Berlusconi era, unless the broad centrosinistra (‘center-left’) finds a way to heal the wounds, the infighting could allow the anti-austerity, eurosceptic and increasingly illiberal protest movement, the Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement), to win the next Italian elections. Those elections must be held before May 2018. Continue reading Italian left threatens to upend Renzi plans to continue leading Democratic Party→
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.
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
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.
The xenophobic leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant Lega Nord (Northern League), Matteo Salvini, jubilantly Tweeted out a message last night as it looked increasingly like the government’s referendum on reforming Italian political institution would fail:
‘Long live Trump. Love live Putin, long live Le Pen and long live the League.’
So much for dog whistles.
Salvini, and the increasingly illiberal and populist Movimento 5 Stelle (M5S, the Five Star Movement) of comedian Beppe Grillo, founded in 2009 as an anti-austerity platform, want to use the referendum’s failure as proof that their vision.
Don’t let them.
Beware anyone, in fact, who claims that there’s a single, clear message from Matteo Renzi’s spectacular failure Sunday night. It’s a lot more nuanced than the message Salvini and Grillo are projecting, that some rising populism of the right has now beat back the elites. Far from it. Remember, even The Economist opposed a ‘Yes’ vote on the referendum. The opposition also included the center-right Forza Italia, now weaker but still headed by Silvio Berlusconi; former technocratic prime minister Mario Monti, a former European commissioner; Pier Luigi Bersani, the informal leader of the old-guard Italian left that had always been wary of Renzi; and democratic socialists like Nichi Vendola, the former regional president of Puglia.
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.
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, 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.
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.
The world woke up to the news Monday morning that outspoken Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis had, at long lost, been dismissed by his prime minister, Alexis Tsipras.
Varoufakis (pictured above, right, behind Greece’s new finance minister, Euclid Tsakalotos) had become, to say the least, a brake on negotiations with the Eurogroup, even though his widespread popularity and strident anti-austerity boosted Tsipras’s government to a stunning victory in Sunday’s debt negotiations referendum, whereby 61.31% of voters rejected a prior plan offered by Greece’s European creditors.
European officials struggled to reach consensus with Varoufakis, who just last week, in the middle of the rushed referendum campaign, referred to his European ministerial colleagues as ‘terrorists.’ Tsakalotos, an Oxford-trained economist, is expected to take a more mild-mannered approach, and he already supplanted Varoufakis as Greece’s chief negotiator back in April. That was, however, only to the extent anyone could supplant the motorbike-riding, free-wheeling Varoufakis, who gave his final press conference as finance minister Sunday night in a t-shirt.
Varoufakis’s resignation, along with a pledge of national unity across Greece’s mainstream domestic political spectrum, breathed new life into hopes for last-minute talks for a third bailout, allowing the country to reopen its illiquid and perhaps insolvent banks, lift (at least partially) capital controls that have limited daily cash withdrawals to €60, restore liquidity to ATMs that have run out of cash altogether, address Greece’s €1.6 billion default on June 30 to the International Monetary Fund and meet a July 20 deadline to make a €3.5 billion payment to the European Central Bank.
For all the celebration that followed the resounding ‘no’ vote in Sunday’s referendum, the coming Sunday could bring financial austerity far more severe than Greece has known in the past five years, marked by a nearly 30% drop in GDP growth and a 26% unemployment rate. Failure to reach a deal could result in a shortage of cash, food, medicine and so many other necessities to the extent that European leaders are whispering that Greece could require humanitarian aid.
If you think the past nine days have been tense, just wait.
For all the uncertainty and mistrust that have characterized Greek-EU relations since Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras suddenly announced a snap referendum last Friday, the week ahead promises to reach ever dizzying heights of suspense after Greek voters delivered a strong endorsement to Tsipras by rejecting the terms of the most recent deal on offer from the Eurogroup — over 61% of the electorate voted no (or ‘oxi’). The result, whether Tsipras admits it or not, essentially begins the process by which Greece will eventually leave the eurozone.
There are no winners here.
Tsipras and the far-left SYRIZA (Συνασπισμός Ριζοσπαστικής Αριστεράς, the Coalition of the Radical Left) took power after January’s parliamentary elections on the mutually incompatible pledge of keeping Greece in the eurozone while demanding more lenient conditions from the country’s creditors. In so doing, Tspiras miscalculated European goodwill. It wasn’t unreasonable for Tsipras and finance minister Yanis Varoufakis to argue that Greece’s debt load is unsustainable. Moreover, even plenty of orthodox economists, including many at the International Monetary Fund, one of Greece’s creditors, admit that years of austerity have exacerbated economic conditions — GDP contraction of nearly 30% since 2008, a 26% unemployment rate and a nearly 50% youth unemployment rate. But the erratic and amateurish approach of the Greek government, capped by Tsipras’s 11th-hour decision to call the July 5th referendum, destroyed what little goodwill remained for his government.
There’s still time — even now — for Greece and the rest of Europe to reach a deal. But the complete lack of trust between Tsipras’s government and the entirety of the rest of the eurozone’s leadership makes it much less likely to happen. The complete breakdown in trust between Tsipras and even sympathetic European leaders must certainly rank among the most troubling casualties of the past nine days. Continue reading If Grexit comes, Greece will have wasted five years in depression→
Did the International Monetary Fund’s latest proposal just basically admit Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras is right? Greece needs, under still-optimistic growth projections, at least € 50 billion through 2018 and debt restructuring. If Berlin admitted this even a week ago, we’d have avoided a lot of trauma. So while the Greek government is still amateur-hour, Tsipras, finance minister Yanis Varoufakis (picutred above with IMF managing director Christine Lagarde) and the rest are fundamentally correct — Greece can’t meet its debt burden.
All of this should have been easily foreseeable five years ago. The answer is that this deal, like the eurozone’s creation in the 1990s, was more about politics than economics. I don’t know if that means ‘nai’ or ‘oxi’ or what ‘nai’ or ‘oxi’ generally even mean anymore.
For the past 48 hours, the rest of Europe and, indeed, the rest of the world have watched Greece come unhinged.
In a speech shortly after midnight Friday night, prime minister Alexis Tspiras announced that instead of continuing negotiations between the Greek government and the Eurogroup of eurozone finance ministers, he would call off talks to hold a referendum next Sunday, July 5, thereby putting the question to the Greek people — will they accept the terms of the latest deal with Greece’s creditor institutions or will they reject it?
The most notable thing about former British prime minister Tony Blair’s sudden reappearance in the United Kingdom’s domestic politics, with just under a month to go until a general election, is that no one particularly noticed his absence from domestic political matters.
Unlike former US president Bill Clinton, who has balanced his financial and philanthropic activities with lingering, widespread popularity on the American political scene, Blair’s popularity diminished after he left 10 Downing Street. Still well-regarded abroad, Blair has offered his consulting services to leaders from Albania to Kazakhstan, and he’s become a wealthy man in the process, a much more controversial proposition for a former British prime minister than a former US president. Blair suffers further by contrast to his successor, Gordon Brown, who quietly receded from public view when he lost the premiership in 2010, resurfacing only to promote a dense policy book or to campaign full-heartedly against Scottish independence. There’s a sense that Brown hasn’t ‘cashed out’ the way that Blair did.
Though current prime minister David Cameron has attempted to blame both Blair and Brown for wasteful government spending as a prelude to his own government’s budget cuts, it is Blair’s role in the US-led invasion of Iraq that haunts his legacy. Blair only recently left his position as an envoy for the Middle East ‘quartet’ (the United States, the United Nations, the European Union and Russia), where his impact in the region has been negligible at best. Despite high hopes when he assumed the role shortly after leaving office, Blair is unlikely to lead any grand gestures in the Middle East.
Blair rode to victory in May 1997 on a landslide wave proclaiming the arrival of his center-oriented ‘New Labour.’ Though he capitalized then on a popular, youthful image, he is largely reviled in Great Britain today, as Sarah Ellison wrote in a scathing Vanity Fair profile earlier this year:
A man with aspirations to global leadership—even to global moral leadership—is now regarded by many of his countrymen as a shill for big corporations and deep-pocketed and dubious regimes. In terms of personal wealth, Blair is said to be worth an estimated £100 million ($150 million), a figure he denies. Today, Blair rarely makes public appearances in London. In 2010, he canceled a book party to celebrate the publication of his memoir, A Journey: My Political Life, to avoid the inevitable protests. Blair wasn’t invited to the wedding of Prince William and Kate Middleton in 2011. Last January, a London waiter attempted a citizen’s arrest of Blair for alleged war crimes arising from the invasion of Iraq.
Last month, two Labour candidates actually refused to accept £1000 donations from Blair, who had pledged £106,000 to candidates in marginal seats.
If you thought that the Scottish independence referendum was a divisive matter, just wait another three weeks.
Even though Catalunya’s regional president Artur Mas officially cancelled a scheduled referendum on Catalan independence originally scheduled for November 9, diffusing a constitutional crisis with the national Spanish government, Mas announced that Catalans will instead have the option to participate in a non-binding ‘consultation.’
From referendum to ‘consultation’
In substance, the informal ‘consultation’ isn’t incredibly different than the formal vote that Mas (pictured above) and the Catalan regional parliament initially scheduled, given that Spanish prime minister Mariano Rajoy denounced the vote and questioned the ability of Mas or a majority of the Catalan parliament to call a referendum legally. Spain’s constitutional court ruled the referendum unconstitutional at the end of September, and Mas originally declared that the vote would go forward.
Mas’s admission this week that the vote will be informal and non-binding reduces many of the tensions with Madrid, though the original vote wasn’t entirely binding, either. But his announcement may dampen his credibility with pro-independence Catalans (critics took to Twitter to declare it was ‘game over’ for Mas) and force the third regional election in four years.
Nevertheless, the referendum will still ask Catalan voters the same two questions as before:
Do you want Catalonia to be a state?
If so, do you want Catalonia to be an independent state?
If there’s one person who will benefit no matter how Scotland votes in its too-close-to-call independence referendum on September 18, it is deputy first minister Nicola Sturgeon, who has taken a high-profile role leading the ‘Yes’ campaign that supports Scottish independence.
When Alex Salmond, the leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) became first minister in May 2007, just eight years after Scotland’s initial elections for its local parliament in Holyrood, Sturgeon became his deputy, and she has served as the deputy leader of the SNP since 2004.
If Salmond suffers a defeat in next week’s referendum, the 44-year-old Sturgeon, a popular figure in Scotland, might soon replace the 59-year old Salmond in government. Some SNP deputies are already arguing that, if the ‘Yes’ camp doesn’t win next Thursday, Salmond should resign and allow Sturgeon to become first minister, in much the same way that Tories in Westminster are arguing that British prime minister David Cameron would have to step down if the ‘Yes’ campaign wins.
With polls now showing that the ‘Yes’ campaign has essentially caught up with the ‘No’ campaign, a close defeat may yet be a victory for Salmond. As in Québec in 1980, a narrow loss wouldn’t foreclose another possible vote in a decade’s time. But it might be difficult, after losing Scotland’s best chance at independence, for Salmond to lead the SNP into a campaign for a third consecutive term in the next elections, which must be held before 2016. Moreover, another term as first minister is a letdown from the much headier notion of becoming sovereign Scotland’s first prime minister.
On the other hand, if the ‘Yes’ camp pulls off the victory that just a week ago seemed out of its grasp, Sturgeon would almost certainly rise to deputy prime minister in an independent Scotland, just as much the heir apparent to Salmond then as now. As women flock toward independence, according to many polls, Sturgeon may be the ‘Yes’ campaign’s secret weapon.
The bottom line is that Sturgeon is the favorite to become, within the decade, either Scotland’s next first minister (within the existing UK system) or its second prime minister as an independent country.
In light of all of the questions — including Scotland’s currency and EU membership — that would be settled in its first chaotic years as an independent nation-state, Scotland’s future leadership is one of the key variables in whether it would become viable as a new state.
So what exactly would Sturgeon bring in the way of political skill and states(wo)manship?
One of the most vexing questions of the current campaign for Scottish independence is how easily it might be for an independent Scotland to join the European Union.
As a constituent part of the United Kingdom, Scotland has been part of the European Union and its predecessor, the European Economic Community, since 1972, the date of the first EEC enlargement, when Ireland and Denmark also joined.
As such, Scotland has been exempt from several conditions that would be required of an independent country seeking EU membership today. Scotland hasn’t had to join the eurozone or become a member of the Schengen zone, which allows all EU citizens to travel freely throughout 26 of the 28 member states (Ireland and the United Kingdom are the exceptions). It has also received some of the benefit of those rebates that Margaret Thatcher clawed back from Europe in the 1980s.
An independent Scotland might be forced to accept, at least in principle, joining either or both of the the eurozone the Schengen zone as a condition of re-accession to the European Union. The former could complicate the assurances that Scottish first minister Alex Salmond has tried to give that Scotland could continue using the British pound and, like Ireland today, share open borders with what remains of the United Kingdom. Continue reading How an independent Scotland could enter the EU→
It was another Conservative prime minister, Harold Macmillian, who explained in just five short words how governments can crumble with such spectacular suddenness:
Events, my dear boy, events.
Today, his Tory successor, British prime minister, David Cameron faces one of the biggest events of the history of his country — the possible disintegration of the British union, as the chances of a Scottish vote in favor of independence in 10 days rise dramatically.
As polls show that the campaign has rapidly narrowed (the ‘No’ campaign had a 20-point lead just last month), and with handful of polls now showing that the ‘Yes’ campaign has taken a narrow lead just days before the September 18 referendum, Cameron now suddenly faces the prospect that he’ll be the prime minister on whose watch Great Britain simply dissolved.
It was Cameron, after all, who agreed with Scottish first minister Alex Salmond last year to hold a referendum, and it was Cameron who demanded a straight in/out vote — no third option for ‘devolution max’ or a federalized version of the United Kingdom.
So if Cameron loses Scotland, must Cameron go?
Victory for the independence camp would cause nearly as great a political earthquake in the rest of the United Kingdom as in Scotland. It would leave rest of the United Kingdom — England, Wales and Northern Ireland — to pick up the pieces of what was once a global superpower. All three major parties, including the center-left Labour Party and the junior coalition partner, the Liberal Democrats, fully opposed independence. So a ‘Yes’ victory would be a repudiation, from Scotland at least, of the entire political mainstream.
Cameron’s position, in particular, would be especially vulnerable as the prime minister who allowed the great British union to fall apart.
In the campaign for Scottish independence, key ‘Yes’ camp leaders consistently argue that a sovereign Scotland could retain the British pound as currency, and they’ve decried statements from British officials that Scotland wouldn’t be permitted to use the pound in the event that Scottish voters opt for independence in the September 18 referendum.
But putting aside whether, as a technical matter, Scotland would be able to adopt the pound, the greater issue is why it would actually want to do so — either in a formal currency union with the rest of the United Kingdom or by informally adopting the pound sterling as Scotland’s currency (‘Sterlingisation’).
Even though polls show the ‘Yes’ campaign narrowing the gap with the ‘No’ side, (the latest YouGov survey, taken between September 2 and 5, gave the ‘Yes’ camp its first lead of 47% to 45%, with 7% undecided), almost every poll in the last year shows more Scottish voters opposed to independence than in favor of it.
If the ‘Yes’ side falls short, one of the key questions will be whether the decision to embrace the pound as an independent Scotland’s currency was wise as a strategic matter. But if the ‘Yes’ side carries the referendum, Scotland’s first minister Alex Salmond will have to confront what kind of independence he’s actually won for a new country yoked on Day One to monetary policy dictated by the Bank of England.
It’s odd that the campaign’s fight over the pound has become such a central debate, but it’s possibly even odder that Salmond would cling to the pound (and other indicia of the union, such as the British monarchy) in his campaign for independence.
George Osborne, chancellor of the exchequer, has attempted to maintain a united front among his own Conservative Party, the Liberal Democrats and Labour that Scotland would not be able to avail itself of the pound if it becomes an independent country. But there’s plenty of skepticism that the remaining United Kingdom of England, Wales and Northern Ireland would actually be able to stop Scotland from doing so. Continue reading Why would an independent Scotland even want to keep the pound?→