Not all is well in Europe

 

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull Meets Angela Merkel
@ Getty

With the election of President Macron in May and the guaranteed re-election of Angela Merkel, the European Union and the state of European affairs were supposed to return to the positive. Unfortunately, a series of recent events have exposed deep problems in Europe with the rise of AfD in Germany, the call for independence by Catalonia, the UK-EU tensions over the terms of Brexit, the election of Sebastian Kurz in Austria, and the recent assassination of a Maltese journalist. These recent events, prior to the European Council meeting on October 19/20 in Brussels, display domestic tensions and the need for greater unity at the EU level. But both seems incompatible at the moment.

Despite winning a fourth-term as Chancellor (past analyses here and here), Angela Merkel has yet to finalize the structure of her government. The strong results by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), extreme right party, was a response to Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik towards refugees since 2015. AfD capitalized on the fear associated to immigration and the perceived undermining of German identity. Chancellor Merkel is working on the coalition talk. On Sunday, Merkel’s CDU lost an election in the northern state of Lower Saxony to the SPD, which could affect her upcoming coalition talks. With the decision by SPD not to enter in a coalition with the CDU, Ms. Merkel will have to move towards the option of a Jamaica Coalition (with the pro-liberal and green party). The talks to form a coalition will be difficult considering the differences of policies and options on fundamental issues from immigration, EU reforms, taxation policies and environmental protection.

In the case of the UK-EU relationship as part of the Brexit negotiations, the current tension is centered around the financial obligations of the UK, or the net contributions of the UK to the EU’s budget in 2019 and 2020.

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@ Olivier Hoslet/EPA 

 Until an agreement on the UK financial obligations is set, the EU is not willing to move forward regarding the terms and type of relationship between the UK and the EU post-Brexit. Prime Minister May changed the tone with her recent speech in Florence and confirmed that the UK will “honour commitments we have made during the period of our membership.” But the EU is expecting more concrete terms coming from the British leader. At home, PM May is facing a difficult front from the hard brexiters, framing the financial obligations as a ‘divorce bill,’ and members of her own party. She appears to have lost credibility domestically affecting her ability to shape a common position, and her European counterparts are concerned about her ability to stir the negotiations and ultimately deliver. Until the question of financial contributions is settled, PM May will not be able to move forward and discuss the terms of the future relationship between the UK and the EU. As reported by the Guardian, European leaders are the ones overruling EU chief negotiator, Mr. Barnier, whom suggested opening talks about the transition phase. But it appears that some European capitals are not ready to respond to May’s call. Ultimately, “the problem is not in the commission so you will not find the solution in the commission.” Therefore, the upcoming European Council will be critical for PM May to make a her case with as many EU leaders as possible.

On Sunday, Sebastian Kurz became one of the youngest elected leaders, at 31, as the Chancellor of Austria. Mr. Kurz, leader of the conservative right wing Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP), won the national election with 31 percent of the vote. The Social Democratic Party of Austria, which currently governs in coalition with People’s

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@ David Sailer/FT

Party, received 26.7 percent, while the Freedom Party, extreme-right, had 27.4 percent. Traditionally, the People’s Party and the Social Democratic Party govern in a coalition, but this time, Kurz may be forming a coalition with the extreme-right taking the country back to 2000 when Jörg Haider led the country triggering political sanctions by the EU. Austria is one of the wealthiest EU countries with one of the lowest unemployment level and highest standard of living. But during the 2015-16 migration crisis, Austria took part of Merkel’s Willkommenspolitik welcoming a considerable number of refugees. During his tenure as Foreign Minister, Mr. Kurz, was behind the drive to seal the Western Balkan route in 2016 and was critical. The theme of the election, as it was the case in the other western countries, was identity, in particular anti-immigration and anti-Islamization. For instance, he has been calling for effective defence of the EU’s external borders, a stop to illegal immigration and curbs on foreigners’ access to welfare payments. “Anti-immigration populism and nationalism” wrote Steven Erlanger and James Kanter of the New York Times “are challenging the European Union’s commitment to open borders for trade and immigration.” In the coming days, Kurz will be building his coalition, but a move to the extreme-right appears as the new normal for Austria.

The continuous tension between Madrid and Catalonia represents a considerable crisis in one of the largest Eurozone economies (read two recent analyses here and here). After a referendum, considered by Carles Puigdemont, as a victory towards the independence of Catalonia from Spain, he has failed to call for it during his address to Catalan lawmakers on October 10. PM Rajoy asked Mr. Puigdemont to clarify his address by tomorrow (October 19). In case of a failure to comply, Madrid may use its emergency powers to take administrative control of the region by invoking the article 155 sending the country into a deeper political crisis. The tensions between Madrid and Catalonia continue to escalate despite a recent call by Mr. Puigdemont asking PM Rajoy to initiate a negotiation in order to find a solution.

Last but not least, Daphne Caruana Galizia, Maltese journalist, was assassinated on Monday in a car bombing in the smallest EU member state, Malta. She had made a name for herself exposing ramping corruption at every levels of the Maltese society and political arena. During the Panama Papers’ scandal, she exposed the link between politicians and shell companies. More recently, she uncovered financial dealings between family members of Azerbaijan’s president and Malta’s prime minister, forcing snap elections. Her assassination is latest attempt to undermining freedom of press and expression in Europe and it requires proper response and inquiry by the Maltese government and the European Union.

EuopeAll these recent issues illustrate considerable challenges for the future unity of the bloc, but as well expose major systemic and domestic failures. These issues related to ethno-nationalism, populism, secessionist desires are ramping and require stronger domestic initiatives to shrink economic and social inequalities, address sub-national identity and cultural fears, and bring back a certain civility in the political discourse. At the EU level, these crises illustrate the  a growing disconnect between Brussels and the capitals. Fascinating enough the EU is being criticized for being too little integrated on issues of migration and being too passive on questions of regional secession, but the EU does always not have a mandate to dictate policies and rules in certain areas of political life.

Each selected case exposes the undermining of core EU values from freedom of expression, to maintaining democratic values, inclusion, and ultimately the centrality of the rule of law. Austria is another piece of the European populist puzzle and highlight the shift toward the extreme-right. Hungary and Poland are the examples of the undermining of EU values and a clear shift towards non-democratic regimes. For instance, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban has championed what is refered as “illiberal democracy.” Austria illustrates that the East-West divide continues to widen. Populism is vibrant and spreading throughout Europe and it is shacking the democratic foundations of EU countries and the EU.

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

 

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A Half-Tone Victory for Merkel

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Credit Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

Angela Merkel won a fourth term at the helm of Germany ensuing the German federal parliamentary election. In postwar Germany, she is now one of the longest serving Chancellors after Konrad Adenauer and Helmut Kohl. Despite winning her fourth mandate and maintaining her status of most seasoned European politician, she is facing some serious challenges at home. Her conservative party, the CDU, scored one of the lowest results in recent memory and lost almost 1 million voters to the extreme-right anti-immigrant party, Alternative for Germany (AfD). Time will tell, but this general election sends a signal to Germany, Europe and the world: traditional postwar german politics appear to be changing. This election marks very well a substantial political shift.

Data and Political Landscape

The big story of this election is the rise of the AfD as the third largest bloc in the parliament with over 88 deputies, as it received 12.6% of the vote. As argued by Gideon Rachman of the Financial Times, “Germany now looks more like a ‘normal’ western country. And that, ironically, is not something to be welcomed.” The normality implies a Western country with a relatively strong presence by a extreme-right anti-immigrant party. Germany is not immune anymore.

The AfD was founded in 2013 in response to the bailout of the Eurozone economies. It was an eurosceptic party created by conservative intellectuals six months prior to the 2013 elections, led by a professor of economics at the University of Hamburg, Bernd Lucke, opposed to the bailouts by Germany of other eurozone economies. At that time, the party failed to make it into the Bundestag receiving only 4.6% of the vote, or 0.4 percentage points below the 5% cutoff. The 2015-16 refugee crisis leading to an open-door policy by Chancellor Merkel, welcoming over 1 million refugees, was used by the AfD leadership in order to shift the party ideology from eurosceptism to anti-immigration. The three figureheads of the party being Alexander Gauland, Alice Weidel, and Frauke Petry have used incendiary rhetorics and not shied away from addressing Germany’s nazi past.

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Source: The Guardian

With 32.9% of the vote, Merkel’s CDU won the night and a significant share of the Bundestag. However, it is a half-tone victory considering one of the worst results for the CDU losing over 8.6% of the votes compared with the 2013 general election. Furthermore, Merkel’s CDU saw the migration of roughly 1 million voters towards the AfD (see chart below). Merkel’s agenda throughout the campaign was mainly based on the concept of continuity. But the migration towards the AfD may not be only about immigration policies. Chancellor Merkel played a considerable role on making Germany one of the strongest world economies and the economic power of the European bloc. The reforms began in the 1990s, continued by Merkel, implementing neoliberal economic programs permitting to grow the economy, lower unemployment and averse the debt. For instance, four of the world largest companies are German and the country has one of the lowest unemployment level at 5.7%. But these policies came at a cost as the trade-off allowed a huge wealth to companies and low wages. Over the 12 years under Merkel, the disparity between the wealthy and the poor has widened and 16% of the population is at risk of poverty.

Arguable one of the major losers of the 2017 election is the SPD receiving its worst defeat since40674809_303 postwar with 20.5% of voters. In a four year period, the party led by Martin Schulz, the former President of the European Parliament, lost over 5% of voters. One of the major problems for Schulz, whom lacked strong domestic presence, was his inability to articulate a clear alternative to Merkel’s CDU. In addition, traditional SPD voters, its blue-collars base, is declining and represents roughly 19% of the electorate. This number almost mirrors the final results of the SPD at this election. In addition, almost half a million of SPD voters migrated towards the AfD during this election cycle. Schulz’s call to bring the party into the opposition, meaning it won’t join the coalition with the CDU, is no surprise. During his announcement, the SPD leader declared that “in a democracy the opposition is perhaps a more decisive force than the government.” The hope and strategy is to redefine the values, policies and ultimately ideology of the SPD for the next general election in order to attract more voters.

Voter Migration - 2017 German Elections
Source: Deutsche Welle

This illustration below provides a substantial and brief analysis of the Bundestag since the end of the World War two. As one can observe, the SPD-CDU have historically held a substantial majority until the 2017 elections. Last, as illustrated at the bottom of the illustration, a extreme-right party, the AfD, makes his first appearance in the Bundestag since postwar Germany.

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Source: Financial Times

Jamaica Coalition

In order to govern, Chancellor Merkel will need to form a coalition. The evening of results, SPD leader, Martin Schulz, called for the party to stand as the opposition and not forming a grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU. This leaves Merkel with the possibility to join forces with the pro-business Free-Democrats, or FDP, and Green party. This triumvirat is known as the Jamaica Coalition, considering that the colors of each party mirror the colors of the flag of the Caribbean island (Black, Green and Yellow).

The development of the coalition is a priority for Merkel, which will be a major challenge for the Chancellor. For starter, candidates of the FDP and Green party disagree on substantial issues and won’t be imageseasily brought together. A “deal to form a coalition” writes Stefan Wagstyl “could take months to put together, given stark policy differences between the parties on several issues including environmental protection.”

The Jamaica coalition will affect the ability of Merkel to work with French president, Emmanuel Macron. The FDP agenda, as advanced during the campaign, goes in opposition with Macron’s proposals, as it opposes the French proposition to reform the Eurozone (i.e. creation of a European budget). On this point, President Macron will be announcing his vision for the reform of the Eurozone on Tuesday, September 26, as he was waiting for the official results of the German election. Ensuing his speech, FDP reactions will be critical for Merkel in order to define the terms of the coalition and therefore her future line with regards to European reforms.

Finally, Chancellor Merkel will need to deal with a growing opposition within her own party. For instance, Merkel is starting to see some opposition coming from Klaus-Peter Willsch, a conservative CDU, opposed to Merkel’s immigration policy. The dealing with the FDP and Green party will be challenging, but keeping in check her own party will be major dilemma.

German Political Realities and Beyond

Despite winning a fourth term and a clear mandate, the outcomes of this election cycle respond to Merkel’s most critical policy-choices: the bailouts of some of Germany’s Eurozone partners and open-door policies vis-à-vis refugees. Both decisions taken by Chancellor Merkel were the right one at the time (for the bailouts avoiding a collapse of the Eurozone) and morally justified and politically courageous (welcoming over 1 millions refugees). Unfortunately, she is now confronting the reality of a changing German electorate.

The strong result by the AfD to the 2017 federal election sends a significant signal that German politics is changing. Populism, which has been present and rising all around Germany and across the pond, finally arrived in Germany. AfD will be a force to reckon with in the legislative process, but could be the necessary evil in order for mainstream parties to craft more substantial social and integration policies.

However, the day ensuing the results, co-chair of the AfD, Frauke Petry, surprised her colleagues by announcing that she will not be part of the AfD group, but will be present as an independent. This announcement illustrates a reality regarding extreme-right parties in Europe. Winning elections has become easier for these parties, like the Front National (FN) of France and even the UKIP party in the UK, able to attract a substantial

Frauke Petry flounces out
Credit: Reuters/Fabrizio Bensch

share of the electorate. But they are unable to maintain unity once elected and even less able to govern. The most striking case is exemplified by the FN arriving, as expected, to the second round of the French elections in front of two mainstream parties, Les Républicains (right) and the Socialist Party (left). Marine le Pen, president of the party and presidential candidate, was correct when claiming that the FN was the largest party of France. However, after losing the second round with a high percentage (33.6%), the party has been dealing with major internal crises and is now almost irrelevant in shaping the debate and agenda. Petry’s announcement seems to prove the point that extreme-right parties grow strong as an opposition force using identity politics and deeply inconsistent policies in order to get elected. But their lack of political consistency and leadership tension affect their abilities to survive, despite stronger results at elections, and therefor to govern.

This elections mark a turning point in German politics and may bode some major difficulties ahead for Merkel. Furthermore, ensuing the election of Macron in May and its legislative majority, the world expected France and Germany to be finally on the same political page in order to advance and reform the EU. Hopefully, Europe will not be the big looser of this election.

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).

Interview with eFM This Morning – The German Elections

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Listen here to my interview with Alex Jensen on tbs eFM This Morning on the German elections (interview begins at 07m13s).

(COPYRIGHT 2017 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).