Thoughts on populism and post-Italian elections

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Credit: The Financial Times

Despite the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of France less than a year ago, the populist wave has maintained a strong footprint and influence over European politics. The outcomes of the recent legislative election in Italy confirm that a core EU member state and Eurozone’s third largest economy has chosen a populist movement, the Five Star Movement (M5S), and an extreme right party, Northern League, to lead Italian politics for the upcoming years.

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The story behind the results of the Italian election of March 4, 2018 is shaped by a series of factors: migration (influx of over 750,000 migrants since 2011 from Sub-Saharan Africa), frustrations towards the EU and Eurozone governance, ethno-nationalism (especially for Northern Italy), stagnating economy and increase of poverty (11.1% unemployment rate and 37.8% youth unemployment rate), and disillusionment with Italian political establishment. In addition, the results highlight the division between several Italies: in the North, the Northern League gained the most voices; in the South, M5S was the big winner; and in the middle, a faction of center left.

In the upcoming weeks, party leaders will be working on building a coalition in order to gain a majority. It was projected to see a coalition between Forza Italia and the Northern League, but in recent days Party leader Matteo Salvini expressed openness to join a coalition with M5S and other parties, at the exception of the Democratic Party. “The choice of speakers for the lower house of parliament and the Senate, due after March 23,” writes Giada Zampano of Politico “will provide the first hint as to possible alliances before parties consult with President Sergio Mattarella about forming a new government.” Mathematically, no future government can be formed without either M5S and/or the Northern League.

Here is my discussion with eTBS This Morning‘s host, Alex Jensen, on the populist wave over Europe in light of the Italian election, and the transatlantic link between European and American populist movements: audio file here or on iTunes here.

(COPYRIGHT 2018 BY POLITIPOND. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED. THIS MATERIAL MAY NOT BE PUBLISHED, BROADCAST, REWRITTEN OR REDISTRIBUTED WITHOUT PERMISSION).
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Sovereignty versus Voices – Thoughts on Trump and Macron’s Addresses at the UN

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World  leaders are gathered in New York for the opening of the 72nd Session of the United Nations General Assembly. This year is quite unique with a series of major unknowns and new players. The 2017 session included the recently elected American president, Donald Trump, and French president, Emmanuel Macron. In addition, the United Nations (UN) is headed by a new Secretary General, António Guterres, trying to make a name for himself. If these players matter, the geopolitical context requires a concrete and thoughtful reflection on its engaging world players on a multilateral basis. Comparing Macron and Trump’ speeches permits one to reflect on the internal forces at play and visions within the liberal order at a time of growing instabilities and complex challenges.

Unknowns Ahead of the 72nd UNGA Session

President Trump was elected in November 2016 on a nationalist platform summed up in his campaign slogan, America first. Trump’s vision of the world is dire, dark and negative, requiring the US to start defending his interests and national security on unilateral basis. Historical alliances, global governance, multilateral institutions and global trade are undermining American interests and supremacy. Trump perceives diplomacy in transactional terms, wherein only the US can win. Months later, in May 2017, on the other side of the pond, Emmanuel Macron won the french presidential race by campaigning on an agenda calling for audacity and grounded on a pro-Europe and pro-multilateralism agenda. Macron’s election was perceived as the end of the populist rise beginning with Brexit and allowing Trump to win the White House. The two leaders met on a series of occasions, the first time at a NATO summit and the second in Paris for the 14 of July. Both men could not be more different, but appear to be developing a relationship.

Ahead of the 72nd session, the future engagement of the US as part of the Paris deal (global fight against climate change), North Korea, the future of the Iranian nuclear deal, and multilateralism at large remain unknown. These four issues are at the center of the global agenda due to a shift in American foreign policy since the election of Trump. Soon in office, Trump called for the departure of the US from the Paris deal and has been more than unclear about the reality of climate change. Interestingly enough, many experts were, positively, surprised by the fact that world leaders remained committed to the Paris deal despite the departure of the US. On North Korea, Trump has escalated the rhetorics, as part of his tweeting war, threatening to unleash ‘fire and fury‘ against North Korea ensuing the launch of  intercontinental ballistic missiles. With regard to the nuclear deal with Iran, Trump had used this issue on the campaign trail to undermine diplomacy and multilateralism and Secretary Clinton (whom did not finalize the deal). The Iran deal is widely perceived among conservative and republican circles as a failure, which will undeniably result with Iran becoming a nuclear power. Lastly, on multilateralism, Trump has never shied away from the fact that unilateralism and transactional foreign policy serve better American interests than complex organizations like the United Nations.

In less than a year, President Trump has managed to shape a new narrative about the instability of the international order, in particular the liberal order, and the need for the US to use military might at all costs to advance its interests (i.e. the limited bombing over Syrian and the escalation of the war in Afghanistan).

Trump-Macron Ping-Pong

The speeches of both leaders could not be more at odds. If Trump sees the world and foreign policy as a transaction and through unilateralism, Macron has expressed his support towards multilateralism and global governance. Both leaders made their debut at the UN earlier today and their respective speeches confirm the prior statement.

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UN Photo/Cia Pak

President Trump’s speech (here) certainly marks a breakup with his predecessor. Trump opened his address before global leaders with a campaign tone talking about domestic matters (the growing economy, the strengthening American military and American resilience). Trump emphasized at great length the concepts of sovereignty (used 21 times in total including the word sovereign), security, prosperity and power. Regarding the way he sees American foreign policy, he underlined that the US was guided by outcomes and not ideology. “We have a policy of principled realism,” he argued “rooted in shared goals, interests, and values.” Some claimed that this speech demonstrated a return to realpolitik for the US. But half way through his speech, the American president made the following statement, “The scourge of our planet today is a small group of rogue regimes that violate every principle on which the United Nations is based.” These rogue regimes were identified as North Korea and Iran.

On North Korea, Trump used the platform to directly threaten the regime in Pyongyang claiming that the US may have no other option than “to totally destroy North Korea.” The language utilized to describe the members and leader of the North Korean regime was undiplomatic to say that least. He used this part, without mentioning it, to point the finger at Beijing. Ensuing his menace, he said “That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for.  Let’s see how they do.” The use of the pronoun ‘they’ in the last clause indicates the disconnect between Washington and the rest of the world. It indicates that Washington has its strategy ready (use of military force), and now the members of the UN can try to find an alternative via diplomacy.

Macron’ speech (here in French) had a totally different tone. His opening sentences emphasized the core ideas, values and norms encompassed by the UN and the desire to design a new system putting human rights at its center (with a natural

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UN Photo/Cia Pak

reference to René Cassin). The issues laid out by the french leader consisted of Syria, terrorism (Iraq), Mali (G5 Sahel and MINUSMA), protection of refugees, climate change, nuclear proliferation, multilateralism, and the reform of the UN (less bureaucratic and more active).

On climate change, President Macron directly responded to President Trump by expressing absolute opposition to renegotiating the Paris deal. On nuclear proliferation, Macron expressed deep concerns with the way North Korea behaves on the international stage, but rejected Trump’s reference of the Iranian deal as a bad one.

If Trump’s narrative was centered around the theme of sovereignty, the structure of Macron’s address was organized on the idea of France’s ability to hear the voices of the weakest and defending their rights and empowering them by speaking for them. Through the emphasis of voices, Macron presented France as a guardian of the weakest with French national interest being directly intertwined with global security. In reading and analyzing Macron’ speeches (for instance with his recent speech in Athens), one can identify a series of commonality: bringing France into the sphere of superpower (at least in rhetorics); similitude with an Obamaesque style of narration; deep reference and understanding of history; and a bold and global call for audacity. This style certainly breaks with the recent past of addresses of French presidents (in particular Sarkozy and Hollande) and re-unites France, for better or worst, with its gaullo-mitterrandist heritage.

Concluding with Secretary General Guterres’s comments seems appropriate. “We are a world in pieces. We need to be a world at peace.” The antipodal addresses of the American and French leaders illustrates a clear split within the West about framing critical menaces, developing a cohesive strategy, and ultimately shaping world affairs. The transition from rhetorics to actions, if any, will be fascinating to observe.

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

European crises – The forgotten malaises

Daniel Stolle

Has populism disappeared from Europe? Is the European Union finally perceived as a constructive actor in Europe? Where are the reflections on regional crises affecting the unity of the EU and the security of the member states (MS)? All these questions seem to have disappeared from the national and European agendas since the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of France. Unfortunately, the malaise within each MS of the Union remains unchanged and ought to be analyzed.

On the question of the European Union, the debate about the role of the Commission will re-emerge with the next appointment of the President in 2019 and the next rounds of trade agreement with Japan. One core lesson that is often forgotten is the centrality of the MS in the decision-making process of the EU. The integration of the Union, either deepening or widening, cannot occur without the agreement and consent of the MS. If European technocrats and experts on the EU are aware of this fact, a wide majority of Europeans still tends to be unaware or even doubt this reality. Many cases in recent years, beginning with the Greek debt crisis leading to a referendum opposing the terms of the bailouts, which was then rejected by Prime Minister Tsipras, followed by the Austrian elections in May/November 2016, then the Brexit vote in June 2016, and the radicalization of new MS like Poland and Hungary, illustrate this popular opposition against the integration process and the EU at large.

The commonalities among all these cases are: regain of national sovereignty, protection of national identity, and quest to increase national power over European forces. The argument has usually been MS versus the EU. However, opening up the black-box of each MS, one can identify a much more nuance and complex picture. Within each MS, a division between cosmopolitanism (usually cities) versus nationalism (usually rural and post-industrial regions) is dividing countries politically and culturally speaking. The domestic split existed before 2016, but the financial crisis leading to an anemic economic growth across the Union exacerbated the split.

Pew Research Center

However, since the ‘positive’ outcomes of the Dutch and French elections, one could be fooled believing that the cultural-identity split dividing MS and the Union has disappeared. For many the election of Emmanuel Macron at the helm of French presidency stopped the populist wave. Such statement is certainly false considering the current domestic tensions in Poland with the push for constitutional reforms undermining the independence of the judiciary and in Hungary with the continuous anti-democratic efforts. The response of the Commission to potentially trigger Article 7 to sanction Poland is the proper approach enforcing the Copenhagen Criteria. However, the lack of clear support by Paris and Berlin to sanction Warsaw sends a mix message of unity and support of the rule of law in the EU.

The current Brexit negotiations are as well an important matter for the future of the EU and the relationship with the UK. Even though the departure of the UK from the Union is a disappointing event, it is an important historical lesson for Europeans. At this point, it would be a mistake for the EU to appear weak in the negotiations by not reaching a complete departure of the UK from the Union; Brexit ought to occur. In the UK, there are already surges of unhappiness towards the ruling class with the recent domestic talks of a potential remaining of the UK in the Union. It would play against the EU to keep the UK at this point of time. Despite a close majority of pro-Brexit votes winning the non-binding referendum, the EU needs to move along and finalize the exit of the UK. In addition, the EU needs to remain strong in enforcing rule of law and global norms. If the rumors of ongoing US-UK negotiations, as advanced by the American president, regarding a comprehensive trade agreement between the UK-US to kick in as soon the exit is completed, were to be true, the EU needs to escalate the matter. It is in the interest of the EU to enforce its global standing as the trade negotiator for the 28 Member States. The credibility of the EU as global actor is at play and should not be undermined by neither the UK nor the US. The 27 remaining MS need to support such action in case ongoing trade talks between London and Washington were to be accurate.

The domestic political tensions have distracted from the broader question of furthering the integration of the EU. The Eurozone crisis has highlighted the limitation of an integration à la carte and incomplete integration process in fiscal and economic matters. President Macron was in recent time the most pro-European candidate centering his agenda around the need to foster EU integration. Now in power, President Macron may back down from its EU centric agenda. But the EU needs to maintain the momentum in pushing for deepening the integration process in fiscal and economic issues as well as in defense policies.

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