Spain’s most unpredictable, messy election in modern times

Spain’s most unpredictable, messy election in modern times

Spaniards head to the polls on Sunday in what is the most unpredictable vote since the country emerged from dictatorship into a fragile, newborn democracy more than 40 years ago.

It may sound like a lazy, simplistic exaggeration. But in this election, the battle is about the very unity of Spain.

The Socialists are set for a decisive victory under current Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez, brought to power only 10 months ago.

All polls show he’ll be well short of a majority. After that all other bets are off.

So Sunday’s election will be more about who will pact with who the day after. The coalition talks that follow will be long and messy.

They’re completely unknown territory for Spain. Spanish news bulletins are buzzing with speculation about what the next government will look like. No-one knows for sure.

The country has never had a governing coalition at national level in modern times.

On the campaign trail, the left and the right have used it as threat, saying their political adversaries in a coalition would put Spain into a state of chaos.

It would mean either a centre-left government between the Socialists and the far-left party Podemos, with its more sympathetic approach to Catalan parties who want to break apart Spain.

Or a centre-right alliance that would swing Spain nearer to the extreme right.

SPAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-VOX
“For Spain”. Far-right Vox leader Santiago Abascal at the party’s final campaign rally

The unpredictable factor comes from the staggering rise of the far-right Vox party. In the 2016 election, they won just 0.2% of the vote. This time round, they could be the kingmakers.

Its policies are straight from the populist playbook. As well as being both anti-immigration and anti-establishment, its main focus is defending national unity is its main focus, promoting Spanish values and traditions and proudly waving the Spanish flag as a nationalist symbol.

For some, this is a nightmare scenario. For others, the status quo under the current Prime Minister is to be feared more.

“If Sánchez wins, Spain will stop being what it’s been the past four decades”, centre-right Popular Party leader Pablo Casado said in a TV debate this week.

The 38-year-old, photogenic leader of the PP was elected leader last summer, bringing in a more right-wing agenda than his predecessor, Mariano Rajoy.

His party has been forced to move to the right precisely because of the threat of Vox. But it could be a poor strategy. The PP are currently on course to half their number of seats.

Casado’s message to voters is that Spain needs to be rescued from pro-Catalan independence parties that are threatening national unity and holding the country hostage.

SPAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-PP
Popular Party leader Pablo Casado has moved his party to the right since becoming leader in July 2018

Some voters perceive that former leader and Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy wasn’t tough enough on Catalonia.

During Rajoy’s time in office, relations between Spanish and Catalan leaders had been bitter for years. Sánchez has managed to turn down the heat, resuming dialogue and forming a working group.

But in doing so, the opposition has accused him of being both a traitor and danger to Spain.

Sánchez has retaliated, refusing any discussions about independence or a referendum.

Elections had always seemed inevitable.

With a weak government and a far less-than-finished set of reforms, he had no option but to call snap elections back in February.

The straw that broke the camel’s back was Spain’s delayed budget.

PSOE Closing Rally Ahead Of General Elections
Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez has warned voters about the risk of the right and far-right of coming together

It’s the irony of Spanish politics that Mr Sánchez was brought to power by Catalan independence parties – who could be behind his potential, if unlikely, downfall. The same parties then voted down the budget, rejecting conditions for talks between Madrid and Barcelona.

To have got even this far, Sánchez has had a certain amount of luck. He was in the right place at the right time when he became the first Spanish politician in modern times to win a confidence vote, signing agreements with a broad range of parties to bring down Rajoy and his party’s long legacy of corruption.

As Sánchez saw it, his government, with its majority-female cabinet, would be a symbol of a progressive Spain that wants to be the centre of European affairs. With his polished, youthful image, it was straight out of the Macron playbook of politics.

Earlier this week, the four male candidates for Spanish Prime Minister took part in two consecutive nights of late-night TV debates, ending in typical Spanish style well past midnight, before being chewed over even more in post-match analysis.

Spanish Candidates To Elections Attends 'El Debate'
Far-right Vox was banned from TV debates this week because it doesn’t currently have any MPs

The elephant in the room all along was Vox.

To coin a phrase, it is on a self-styled conquest to ‘make Spain great again’.

In its view, that means standing against progressive reforms, feminist policies and laws protecting women from domestic violence.

Vox is competing to be the toughest on Catalonia, tapping into anger across Spain after the region’s illegal independence referendum in 2017.

The party supports returning power to Madrid, bringing back echoes of the centrist totalitarianism that Spain lived through under Franco.

Formed back in 2013, it’s taken a while for the party to gain traction. It was catapulted to the national stage only in December, after standing in regional elections in Andalucía.

It won 12 seats and 11% of the vote there, bringing down near 40 years of Socialist rule and becoming the first far-right party in a regional parliament since the Franco era.

In Sunday’s election, Vox is expected to enter Spain’s parliament for the first time with around 30 seats. However, polls could be underplaying the party’s popularity. A ‘hidden’ vote could propel it above fifth place and give them twice as many seats.

Even after this election, Vox will still be a fringe party, but as all populist parties do, they have great influence on their establishment counterparts, which in turn mimic some policy to avoid haemorrhaging votes.

As such, this is already victory for Vox.

Many of its founding members were disaffected Popular Party members.

The party is expected to fare similarly to Podemos, the far-left populist party born at the same time as the protest movement over inequality and Spain’s ailing economy.

Its leader, Pablo Iglesias, is unforgettable. A former university professor, he has a ponytail, rolled-up shirt sleeves and a constantly raised fist in defiance of the political mainstream.

SPAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-PODEMOS
Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias could form a centre-left government with the Socialists

To get a measure of their politics, Podemos endorsed Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to lead the Labour party in 2015.

Iglesias is looking incredibly likely to support the Sánchez and his PSOE party to keep the centre-left in power. Mr Sánchez sounds warm about the idea of offering them ministries in government and analysts suggest it is the most likely outcome.

Together, they hope they will see off the Popular Party and the signs they will form a centre-right coalition with Vox and Ciudadanos, another party that has been pulled to the right from the centre ground.

Like Vox, Ciudadanos stands firm on Catalonia, where the party was born.

It has its eyes on taking over the Popular Party as the largest centre-right party and has ruled out entering a coalition.

Its leader Albert Rivera, said it was a “national emergency” to get rid of Sánchez.

SPAIN-POLITICS-VOTE-CS
Ciudadanos and its leader, Albert Rivera, are staunchly anti-Catalan independence

If Sánchez and the Socialists manage to emerge as the largest party, it will be their first victory in more than a decade.

It will be a show that, against the rules of politics these days, occupying the centre-ground is a vote-winner.

But that won’t be enough.

As we know all too well, polls these days throw up all sorts of surprises.

Vox’s vote could be underestimated, the right could rise, the left could be revived – or the biggest surprise at all, that there is no surprise.

Across Europe, the political establishment is continuing to be rocked. Two-party politics is over and fragmentation rules.

Spain was always the country that most thought would be immune from populist, far-right politics, especially given its still raw fascist past.

That prediction was wrong. Now, Spain is in for a few volatile months.

Theresa May will finally have to give up her red lines to deliver Brexit

Theresa May will finally have to give up her red lines to deliver Brexit

It’s early days yet for the Prime Minister’s attempt to “break the logjam” in her words by meeting Jeremy Corbyn.

It’s optimistic thinking that the pair can agree on anything. Sit-down talks with the Labour leader could fail as soon as they were announced last night by Theresa May.

Will MPs ever find a majority for any Brexit option, the EU is asking again and again. The odds are slim.

A week today, Theresa May will be standing before 27 watchful European leaders at a summit in Brussels, all hopeful that she has a plan that she thinks enough MPs can finally get behind.

And that, shock horror, could be a softer Brexit.

She’ll be desperate for EU leaders to green-light her request for another extension, moving the no-deal Brexit cliff edge for a second time, from next Friday to 22nd May, by which time she hopes the UK’s withdrawal will be done and dusted – crucially before her red line, the EU elections, which begin the following day.

So in just over a month: agree an extension, get a Brexit deal over the line AND avoid European elections.

It sounds like the stuff of miracles.

And apparently miracles can only be granted by the EU if Theresa May commits to those elections, passing legislation for them for legally unavoidable reasons, but only as a contingency measure if she delivers her deal (explained ably here by my colleague, Mark Stone).

But failure to get Brexit over the line and the UK is looking at European elections and another delay to Brexit.

Quite how long, nobody really knows. The prime minster wants it to be “as short as possible”, but there’s little trust in EU circles in what she says anymore.

FRANCE Ireland 171472
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, leaves the Elysée Palace after a meeting with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Standing beside the Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in Paris, French President Emmanuel Macron said yesterday that a long extension is “far from evident or automatic”.

It would need a clear reason, and a new approach.

So sure enough, on the same day that the hardline leader demanded that Britain tell Europe what it wants and tell them “now”, in the evening the Prime Minister’s podium moment came, heeding the call for some clarity.

Macron’s concern is that the UK could jeopardise the EU’s key institutions on its way out, before a new Commission and its President are elected in the summer. Hence why he reportedly pushed for an even earlier exit of 7th May at last month’s Brussels summit.

The priority must be the workings of the EU and the single market, Macron warned, repeating his now familiar line that the EU can’t be held hostage by Britain’s self-made “political crisis”.

Not every leader is quite so alarmist.

European Council president Donald Tusk tweeted “let us be patient”. This from the same official who called on MEPs in Strasbourg just a week ago to consider a long extension.

All indications are that – through gritted teeth – even Macron would join his EU counterparts in agreeing to a long extension, unanimously as per the voting rules.

Here’s the blunt truth: however much leaders are at pains to point out that there are plenty of other important issues, such as trade and the EU economy, Brexit will drag on for years regardless.

Talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU will be even more painful and protracted.

Speaking in Paris, Leo Varadkar said that the EU should avoid a “rolling extension”, so the possibility is that it would be a long one that could be shortened, instead of vice-versa.

Another condition – that there is a sliver of a chance that a new approach can get a majority in the House of Commons.

The signals from MPs in Westminster point to a different form of Brexit. One possibility could be remaining in a customs union with the EU – an option that Jeremy Corbyn has been calling for and one which performed best in the series of indicative votes.

Indeed, Macron yesterday cited a customs union as a specific option the European Union would be being open to considering.

It would be a red line for Mrs May, causing a likely mutiny of Cabinet ministers.

20621043-1.jpg
Theresa May’s talks with Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn could force her to move her red lines, causing a likely mutiny of Cabinet ministers

But crucially, it’s been the Prime Minister’s stubborn red lines up until now that have, in great part, brought us to this impasse.

The non-legally binding, ambitious document on the UK’s post-Brexit future relationship could be changed “in a period of days and weeks”, according to the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, to take into account something like a customs union.

The alternative, however, could be a no-deal Brexit.

No matter how hard the talk is from the French President, he stood next to Mr Varadkar and admitted that their countries – France and Ireland – stand to be the most affected by a no-deal.

“We will never abandon Ireland or the Irish people no matter what happens”, Macron said.

So why would the EU want to be seen to be inflicting so much pain on itself by favouring no-deal over a long extension?

They wouldn’t.

With European elections next month set to be another show of strength for populist, eurosceptic forces across the continent, a no-deal would be like throwing a red rag to a bull.

ITALY-POLITICS-VOTE
Deputy Italian prime minister Matteo Salvini has said that Brussels has sought to “punish” the UK in Brexit talks

Italy’s far-right deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini has called Brexit talks “an attempt on the part of Brussels to punish”.

And in the German Bundestag, co-leader of the far-right nationalist party, Alternative für Deutschland, has criticised Chancellor Merkel for being “partly responsible” for Brexit, for her failure to help out the UK.

Talk of no-deal has ramped up across the continent in recent days, amid fears of it happening accidentally.

The EU wants to be seen as being ready for every Brexit eventuality.

It’s why Brussels will begin a series of news conferences later about the effect of a no-deal on everything from food safety to fisheries.

gettyimages-934966680.jpg
German Chancellor Angela Merkel will hold talks with Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar in Dublin tomorrow

Tomorrow, German Chancellor Angela Merkel will head for Dublin for her own meeting with Leo Varadkar, precisely because she is worried that preparations for a no-deal Brexit in Ireland, with its obvious border complications with the UK post-Brexit, aren’t as advanced as they should be.

There’s lots riding on talks producing a way forward between now and next Wednesday’s Brussels summit.

But as things stand, the UK will leave either with a deal or without a deal in just 9 days.

To really make some headway, Theresa May will finally have to give up her red lines to deliver Brexit.

Spanish foreign minister interview on Catalan independence

Spanish foreign minister interview on Catalan independence

It took a lot of fixing from my colleagues on the foreign desk, but eventually we managed to get a sit-down interview with the Spanish foreign minister Alfonso Dastis at his offices in Madrid — the day before the 1st October 2017 Catalan referendum on independence.

Here’s my interview with Mr Dastis in full, where I ask if there will be a referendum, whether Spanish PM Mariano Rajoy misjudged the situation, and if the Catalan question represents the most serious threat to Spanish democracy in 40 years.

Europe’s year of solidarity – and surprises – ahead

Europe’s year of solidarity – and surprises – ahead

The political scene across Europe will be a series of contradictions in 2018. At the same time the continent leaves behind 2017 more confident and stable, from the united front on Brexit talks to the new Merkel-Macron engine starting to fire on all cylinders, the voices of dissent are still echoing around – and it’s not just the sound of ardent Brexiteers.

Euroscepticism may not have grabbed the top seats of leadership, but 2017 has once more been testament to the fact that any power is enough for populism to re-shape the narrative of mainstream political parties. A tough policy on refugees here, a bit of anti-establishment knife-twisting there. Despite growing prosperity across Europe, there’s still enough discontent and mistrust of the political classes to swing the continent to the right.

In Germany, the AfD, founded just four years ago when it failed to win a single seat in the German national elections, this time round won 94 seats, and is the country’s third largest party.

A far-right party, the FPO, is in coalition again in Austria after a decade away from power. Then, it caused Austria to be frozen out of close European circles. These days, a party in power in the heart of Europe that’s anti-migration and anti-Islam is slowly becoming the new normal.

And in France, staunchly pro-Europe, centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron saw off the far-right Front National leader Marine Le Pen, but she still managed to get nearly 11 million people to vote for her – many weary of a sluggish economy and concerned about French identity.

2017 was also a year that saw terror grip major European cities again – in London, Manchester and Barcelona, claiming dozens of lives.

Angela Merkel Records New Year's Address
The pressure will be on German chancellor Angela Merkel to form a new government, after months of political uncertainty

2018 will start with pressure on Angela Merkel to form a new government, more than 3 months after the September elections. Mrs Merkel knows time is of the essence. As she said in her New Year address, “the world is not waiting for us”. She is due to meet SPD leader Martin Schulz at the end of this week to begin open-ended discussions on what next, ranging from a new coalition, propping up a minority Merkel government, or the prospect of new elections, which would deliver more or less exactly the same result.

Schulz may well have to swallow his pride and grudgingly accept to a new Grand Coalition with the CDU, fully aware that it will mean political suicide for his personal leadership and his party. But in doing so, he would be saving the unity of Europe’s largest and most powerful nation — and prop up Angela Merkel’s slipping crown, in the absence of no obvious successor to her yet.

Merkel has the challenge of winning over a growing number of voters who no longer think she’s up to the job. One poll published by WELT newspaper astonishingly showed that nearly 50 per cent of Germans want her to resign immediately. Just 10 per cent think she should remain.

Imagine for a moment the irony that, after the existential crisis of the Eurozone and the enormity of the (ongoing) migrant crisis that saw the door open to more than a million refugees into Germany in 2015, the relatively small matter of national elections would see her off.

However, Merkel can seek relief in the renewed sense of purpose for Europe through her close alliance with French president Emmanuel Macron. Both share a view for ambitious eurozone reforms. Yes, they are strong on style, but little on substance for now.

Grandstanding on the future of Europe has been Macron’s best trump card since being elected last May. His uncontrollably lengthy speeches and grandiose ideas are all well and good, but 2018 will be the year his promise is put to the test – with proof of results.

In his New Year’s speech, Macron said: “Europe is good for France – France can’t succeed without a strong Europe”.

After storming to victory, Macron administered the bitter medicine of reforms to France’s mammoth-sized state, saying he would do the job of turning the country’s labour market, regulations and economic model on their head, where his many predecessors had failed – or had simply been too frightened.

He said it would take “two years” to see the fruits of his labour reforms, pushed through in spite of determined, albeit dwindling, union anger.

European Council Leaders Meet in Brussels
Macron has captured the imagination of a reinvigorated Europe and a more prosperous France – with his popularity ratings starting to improve

France under its youngest leader since Napoleon has unmistakably undergone a growth spurt on the international stage. Macron has been flexing diplomatic muscle in Africa and in the Middle East, talking of French becoming the world’s first language, as well as boosting business confidence abroad. The 40-year-old president fixed meetings with both US President Donald Trump and the Russian leader Vladimir Putin soon after entering the Elysée, as France begins to rival Germany as the heavyweight in Europe and on the global diplomacy front.

Mr Macron still has to pass the test of speaking for all French people – addressing the millions who had felt left behind by globalisation and voted for Le Pen in May last year, and who regard him as an out-of-touch leader.

2018, so Macron says, will be the year of the “French renaissance”. In his TV address, he told the nation that they are “capable of the exceptional”. It’s the language of aspiration that a more optimistic France wants to listen to.

With a monopoly on power in the National Assembly and the first modern French president to reverse a continually downward popularity trend after a few months in office, this year looks bright for the so-called ‘Jupiter’ president.

Europe has never been a stranger to throwing up a few surprises, and in Italy, with populist parties nearer to power than ever before, March’s election could provide the EU with a moment for more nail-biting.

Opinion polls predict the eurosceptic, anti-establishment Five Star Movement emerging as the largest party, ahead of the ruling centre-left Democratic Party led by former Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, and a resurgent Forza Italia in third place with the former ‘bunga-bunga’ leader Silvio Berlusconi at the helm.

ITALY-POLITICS-GOVERNMENT
Italy’s current prime minister Paolo Gentiloni says “there is a long way to go” in the country’s economic recovery

But remember, this is Italy, a country much better known for coalition deals than strong and stable government. Italy has had 64 governments since World War Two.

The most likely result seems to be a hung parliament, which leaves potentially months of protracted talks and uncertainty ahead for financial markets and the entire eurozone.

Italy has emerged from the worst of the financial crisis, returning to growth, but it remains sluggish. The influx of migrants is still a big issue which will dominate the election agenda, despite a fall of a third in sea arrivals in 2017, according to Italy’s interior minister.

Berlusconi will be a figure to watch in bringing the sides together to thrash out a coalition deal. But the former prime minister, who has a tax fraud conviction that includes a ban on serving public office, can’t run for the top job, or even stand for parliament.

Let the games begin.

When Mariano Rajoy used an end-of-year press conference to say 2017 “hasn’t been an easy year at all” for Spain, he wasn’t joking.

The twists and turns in the battle between Barcelona and Madrid show no signs of ending. The intensely dramatic and bitterly divisive fallout from October’s illegal independence referendum has created Spain’s worst political crisis for nearly 40 years, with neither side looking likely to gather around the table for much-needed dialogue any time soon.

The incredible scenes of police violence on 1st October referendum day should have been enough of a wake-up call that Spain’s democracy has gone awry.

When Rajoy suspended Catalan autonomy and called snap elections after the regional parliament voted to unilaterally declare independence at the end of October, he took a gamble. He believed he could catch pro-independence parties on the back foot and deprive them of a parliamentary majority that they saw as a mandate for their break from the rest of Spain, and against Madrid’s “repression”.

After 21st December’s vote, however, we’re back at square one. The balance of pro-and anti-independence forces hasn’t changed – and splits more or less down the middle, leaving families, friends and colleagues incredibly divided.

SPAIN-POLITICS
Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy says the unilateral declaration of independence in Catalonia was “destabilising”

Pro-independence parties are now in open disagreement about forming a government and who should be its president. Deposed Catalan leader Carles Puigdemont remains in self-imposed exile in Brussels, as his party discusses the possibility of investing him as president via video link, such is the risk of him being arrested as soon as he touches down in Spain.

The question of what Mr Puigdemont does next will not be easy to answer. The second option, former vice-president Oriol Junqueras, is one of eight Catalan leaders in custody or in exile awaiting trial on charges of sedition. As the legal process kicks off, there’ll be speculation once more of just how politically-motivated Spain’s justice system has become.

2017 exposed the silent majority of Catalans who are against independence, proud of both their Catalan and Spanish identities. The anti-independence party Ciutadans has ascended with each election – winning December’s vote with 11 more seats and a 25% vote share – but has no chance arithmetically of forming a government.

In opposition though, Ciutadans has the chance to moderate the ambitions of the region’s next secessionist government, by telling them they don’t speak for all Catalans, and pointing out that independence looks increasingly long-term in ambition, and fraught with risk, least of all for business.

Indeed, the separatist camp is divided about the next steps on independence, with one side pushing for the republic to be declared immediately, the other stepping back adopting a more moderate tone.

puigdemont.jpg
Carles Puigdemont remains in Brussels – but for how much longer?

The conflict has in some part been of Rajoy’s own making. His long-term intransigence – hoping any crisis simply disappears if you don’t touch it – has done nothing to bring about a solution. What’s more, his PP party faired the worst ever in the region’s elections, coming last with just 4% of the vote.

More than 80% of Catalans want an agreed referendum – and while the elections showed that nothing has changed, it wasn’t a vote for the status quo either. Both sides need to talk desperately to turn down the political temperature, but giving in to the secessionists for Rajoy would be anathema. With growing speculation about a snap general election, Spain’s constitutional crisis over Catalonia looks set to bring even more surprises throughout 2018.

In March, Russian votes for its next president. But the token speculation ends there. Vladimir Putin is definitely heading for another term that by the end, will have seen him in power for a quarter of a century.

Putin presides over a continually weak economy, creating growing discontent on the streets, which in turn has led authorities to crush dissent even harder. Most recently, it resulted in banning prominent opposition leader Alexei Navalny from running for president after being convicted of embezzlement.

The all-too-predictable script to Russian politics to one side, Putin’s eyes will be fixed on the big prize – pulling off this summer’s World Cup, to be held in cities spanning the country. It will be another assertion of Russia in global affairs, and without a doubt an unforgettable summer of football.

Theresa May Leaves Downing Street For Prime Minister's Questions
Theresa May will have to get ready to see off more rebellions in the lengthy set of Brexit talks ahead this year

Finally, it will be decision time for Brexit. There’s more than a year to go before the UK formally leaves the European Union in March 2019, but the deal firstly on transition and then the future relationship will have to be thrashed out in good time before autumn, when it gets passed to the European Parliament, which wields a veto on the final deal.

The agreement reached at the beginning of December on phase one of “sufficient progress” on the divorce deal is merely the start of a long road ahead. Around the EU table, there’s renewed confidence in Theresa May in having been able to square the circle of the Irish border after the curveball thrown by the party that keeps her in power, the DUP. But the Irish question hasn’t disappeared altogether. Brussels will repeat its usual refrain in demanding more detail as Mrs May battles with squabbles in her Cabinet about what the end position should look like.

In her New Year message, the Prime Minister herself admitted this year had been a rollercoaster ride – “of course any year brings its challenges”, but she remained upbeat.

Indeed, May finished the year in a stronger position than many could have possibly imagined, after several Cabinet resignations, a parliamentary sex scandal, losing her majority in June’s snap election and dogged determination from both Remainer rebels and staunch Brexiteers on the backbenches that want her to change course.

A Cabinet reshuffle on the cards – a way of her shoring up her position in office – probably won’t be enough to stop the continued speculation about her future. There’s no knowing where the next crisis could possibly come from…

GettyImages-888090644.jpg
2018 will be decision time for Brexit

Though May made clear Brexit was “crucial”, it was “not the limit of our ambitions”, she said. But if Mrs May wants a decent deal, there’ll be far too many Brussels talks and late-night Commons sittings to tackle anything else.

The strength of unity within Europe over the past year has shocked many – after a prolonged period of weak growth that brought a tide of Euroscepticism.

The doom-sayers who predicted more EU nations would follow Britain out of the bloc were wrong. Europe has a new sense of purpose, and successive elections have cemented strong leadership – Merkel and Macron the obvious examples  – who have addressed migration and extremism head on instead of ignoring it.

But populism is no longer the exception – it is the political mainstream.

It makes the guessing-game a trivial pursuit – because this year Euroscepticism could finally be a vote-winner.

What this election means for Brexit

What this election means for Brexit

It was meant to be the “Brexit election”. It turned out for the most part, it was fought on many other issues besides.

It was meant to be the election that handed Theresa May a huge Brexit mandate that would offer her stability through the stormy seas ahead. It hasn’t.

As a result of today’s hung parliament result, there’s now a complete lack of clarity surrounding what sort of Brexit the UK wants, and how long it will have to get it.

The outcome will surely have left Brussels, Paris and Berlin completely shocked, but official words of concern or surprise have yet to emerge from EU corridors.

The first Brexit negotiations, after the triggering of Article 50 at the end of March, begin in just 11 days time. They will decide how often both sides will meet and what will be discussed, carving out a timetable for the next prime minister that will require compromise, great persistence and the backing of the British public.

That timetable could soon be out of the window if a government isn’t formed soon. Yes, the UK does have the option of extending talks, but that would require the agreement of the 27 other EU nations that by and large just want the job done.

In this hugely volatile and ultimately unpredictable seven weeks of campaigning, we have learnt nothing new about the parties’ approach to Brexit. Theresa May laid out her shape of Brexit in her Lancaster Speech a whole six months ago (out of the single market to control migration and by default out of the customs union) back in January, in a 12-point plan – that famed “red, white and blue Brexit”.

The reality is that isn’t anywhere near as simple as “Brexit means Brexit”.

Aside from the prospect of walking away from the table without a deal, and the calamitous cliff-edge consequences that that would bring about, Mrs May has delivered nothing more than soundbites, superficiality and painting the EU as the scapegoat.

Across the political spectrum, Jeremy Corbyn has committed his party to a “jobs-first Brexit”, securing the rights of EU citizens in the initial stages of talks, a Brexit that protects workers’ rights and prevents the UK being “a bargain basement on the shores of Europe”, in the words of the Labour leader. In an interview this morning, he said he’s ready to roll up his sleeves and deliver that vision in government.

The next British prime minister will have to face a fiercely united, emboldened European Union, buoyed by a decisive victory in France for president Emmanuel Macron against the tide of populism and nationalism, and in Germany, the confident figure of Chancellor Angela Merkel, who looks as if she’ll comfortably secure a fourth term in September.

It’s precisely where British politics is out of step with the rest of Europe. Mr Macron faced a presidential election that Mrs May wished she’d had all along – one that she fought as if she were competing in – and in Germany, Merkel is steering the ship of a grand coalition of centre-left and centre-right parties that no-one in British politics would want to put their name to.

The EU-27, as they’re known without the UK, are singing from the same hymn sheet – an idea that would hardly seem possible just a few years ago amid economic chaos and the migrant crisis. Brussels is unequivocal about its transparent approach to Brexit; gone is the temptation of doing country-by-country back-door deals and vicious sniping.

In Brussels, it’s the orderly sort of Brexit preparation that’s a mirror image of the political chaos to come in the next few days in Westminster, as parties thrash out coalition negotiations, with all manner of Brexit permutations now possible – to the confusion of Brussels.

It’s also dependant on, assuming Theresa May steps down, who from the Remain or Leave camps, becomes the next Tory leader. From hard-line Boris Johnson to pragmatic Philip Hammond, the extremes are fields apart.

Ultimately, it is in the interest of both sides to have orderly Brexit negotiations, so it would seem sensible for them to begin only when the UK is ready and the dust is settled on a coalition pact or cross-party agreement – a point which chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier intimated in a tweet.

Yes, the EU wants a quick deal, but one based on fairness – not at the expense of weak UK leadership that leaves both sides ultimately reeling.

France’s unpredictable revolution

France’s unpredictable revolution

It’s an election to fundamentally re-shape France’s prosperity and role in the world.

Until a few months ago, centre-right candidate François Fillon was a virtual shoo-in for becoming France’s next president, after defeating Marine Le Pen in all likelihood by a large margin.

Yet after the fake jobs scandal involving his wife, Fillon’s poll ratings went into free fall and threw the door open for some outside bets to make real progress in the popularity stakes, changing the dynamics of France’s presidential elections to an open race like never before.

In previous French elections, you could have talked confidently of a battle between the two traditional parties of the centre-left and centre-right.

Now the political discourse has changed to extreme left, extreme right and centrist, leaving the contest wide open and unpredictable until the very end. Pollsters reckon the choice of which way to take France next has left around 40% of French people undecided in the final days before Sunday’s first round.

France’s two-round system allows voters to be both ideologically rebellious and politically pragmatic. Sunday’s first round will be fodder for French people who want to protest about immigration, the economy, unemployment and punish the political class.

The second round, however, and the two week interim period, marks a shift in tone and political debate. This is ultimately about making a president, and rhetoric starts to feel a lot more real and serious.

It’s precisely why Marine Le Pen is leading most polls for the first round, before plummeting in the second. Her hardline policies on immigration, the euro and identity still remain in the minority, believe it or not.

The outcome of this election will re-shape France profoundly. The size of its unwieldy state is likely to be the biggest victim – job cuts and downsizing are to come.

Growth will be one of the first action points. Reactivating France’s sclerotic economy and bringing down unemployment, as well as how freely businesses run.

But it will be internationally that France has most to gain. Its standing will be shaped by precisely how pro- or anti-EU its next president leans. By extension, it will define the future of the EU and the euro currency, and perhaps how hard or soft Brexit will be.

It’s why – through a mixture of lucky timing and sheer ingenuity – that unashamedly pro-Europe, pro-tough reform medicine candidate Emmanuel Macron has all the makings of France’s next president.

 

 

5 takeaways from Koblenz far-right populist conference

5 takeaways from Koblenz far-right populist conference

They proclaim themselves as the leaders of the New Europe. A “free” Europe against Islam, one which calls for the death of the European Union and lauds the victory of Donald Trump. It is a future of Europe that is yet to be realised of course, regardless of the rhetoric in this year of decisive national elections across the continent.

Marine Le Pen was the headline act of a meeting of far-right European populist leaders from Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Austria in the German city of Koblenz, under the banner of a “vision for a Europe of freedom”.

The figures gathered under great security as thousands of demonstrators outside showed their opposition to their right-wing policies with banners and colourful protests.

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz
Far-right populist leaders gather at summit to call for a “Europe of freedom”

Here are some takeaways from today’s summit:

1. The Trump effect

It’s been no secret how much far-right party leaders have idolised Donald Trump’s victory in the US and his inauguration yesterday merely buoyed spirits and gave hope that their anti-establishment message will lead to an awakening.

That is to forget the swathes of protests against Trump across the world and his relatively narrow victory which has led many to call him the inheritor of a “disunited” States of America.

Marine Le Pen talked of a “domino effect” after Brexit and then Trump to “bring down Europe”, she said, prompting the return of the “nation state”.

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz

“Yesterday, a new America. Today… a new Europe!”, Geert Wilders, leader of the anti-immigration Freedom Party (PVV) in the Netherlands

It would be fair to say the mainstream of politics is apprehensive of Trump’s as yet unclear foreign policy, especially on NATO and Russia relations, and by contrast his absolutely crystal clear nationalist policy of “America first”. Be under no illusion: Trump’s protectionist pledge is likely to put trade with the EU – and hopes of a significant UK deal – towards the back of the queue, behind US jobs for US firms. This would not be any gift to EU of course, so how will the populists respond exactly to a US president who is at best indifferent and at worst contemptuous of the world’s second biggest trading area, the European Union?

Trump said the UK was “smart” to leave the EU, warning other countries will leave the bloc. For the moment though, there is little sign of any referenda to come – not least for the fact these parties face obstacles to grabbing power (see number 3).

Donald Trump’s “America first” slogan was accompanied by a depressing outlook of the world’s largest economy, and like his inauguration speech, far-right leaders in Koblenz painted a similarly bleak picture. Wilders complained that “women can no longer show their blonde hair without fear” on Dutch streets. It’s as broad a brush stroke as Trump in his address yesterday, with an appeal to emotions rather than respect for the facts.

2. Angela Merkel isn’t going anywhere

There were shouts of “bye bye Merkel” and “Merkel must go” by the energised crowd in Koblenz.

“Europe needs Frauke, not Angela”, far-right Dutch politician Geert Wilders said, in support of his far-right German counterpart.

GERMANY-POLITICS-MUSEUM
Angela Merkel at a gallery opening in Koblenz on Friday

But look at approval ratings, and although Merkel has been hit by her migrant policy, which Le Pen branded a “daily disaster”, and they tell a different picture. Merkel is on 56%, her AfD counterpart Frauke Petry, on 10%, and the chancellor is virtually certain to stay on as leader after national elections at the end of September.

This would likely come at the expense of a smaller majority and Petry’s AfD entering the German parliament for the first time. The AfD is polling third (see tweet below) behind Merkel’s governing coalition parties, but she remains an incredibly popular leader and will have been at the top of Germany for 16 years if she wins.

Merkel’s standing on an international stage is far less certain amid speculation surrounding Trump’s moves with Russian president Vladimir Putin. Merkel will be pushing for an early meeting with the new US president, an anthesis of nearly everything she stands for as a politician. Her red lines on trade, NATO and the EU will be clear, so how well will Trump take to her, after already criticising her open migrant policy as a “very catastrophic mistake” in a recent interview.

In a couple of acts of great symbolism, as Donald Trump was inaugurated, Merkel was taking in some culture during a visit to the opening of a new gallery in Potsdam. But be under no illusion, she is no doubt already strategising her first move with Trump.

Obama meanwhile used his final phone call with foreign leaders as President to speak to Merkel, as a close ally and “reliable” partner. It was as if to say the German leader is now the standard-bearer of Western liberal democracy.

3. Are the populists “winners” yet?

Marine Le Pen walked on the stage to rapturous applause, embodying the greatest hope for the European populist movement in the French presidential elections in April and May.

But as it stands, though she’ll make it past the first round, she’ll be pummelled by her opponent in the second. Where will the tide of populism stand after that likely defeat?

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz
FN leader Marine Le Pen addressing the crowd in Koblenz

Le Pen has been the most recognisable face and voice of discontentment with mainstream politics. In France, her rise has increased due to an unpopular Hollande government, and a series of Islamist terror attacks which has benefited her identity politics staple message. So the stakes are high and the pressure is on to capitalise finally on her more mainstream appeal.

The Austrian far-right MEP Harald Vilimsky called his populist allies “winners”, adding that protestors outside have merely helped, not hindered, the far-right ascent.

But with a Merkel win, a probable Le Pen defeat and a tough ride for Wilders to gain a governing majority in this year of significant elections, populism may be on the rise, but it has yet to gain enough traction yet in political systems that fundamentally inhibit their power.

Populism isn’t going away and will influence political words and deeds for years to come – but the prospect of gaining tangible powe already looks to be falling like dominoes.

4. The “family”of populism isn’t a one size fits all

While the far-right leaders of the FN, AfD, PVV and Northern League are all political bedfellows- they form part of the Europe of Nations and Freedom group in the European parliament –  concerns in each country are not one and the same, which makes it difficult to believe their claim of cross-national cooperation and a single European movement.

Worries in France about security are not matched in Germany, after a recent poll showed even after the Berlin Christmas market attack that people there aren’t worried, unlike in France which put the issue of security second to unemployment, with 63% of French people concerned.

European Right-Wing Parties Hold Conference In Koblenz
Protests outside the summit in the ancient German city of Koblenz

On the topic of migrants, it is even less important for Germans this year, down 26 points to 40% in a national poll in January. The migrant issue was a key issue for presidential elections in Austria last November, which was won not by the far-right but ultimately a Green candidate.

Finally, Germany’s economy is faring very well, unlike in France and in Italy, where unemployment is still high and growth low.

The links holding together European populism, while similar in many ways – the distrust of politics and the frustration with globalisation, expose many country-specific dynamics, which make claims of the year of the “patriotic spring” across Europe raising eyebrows.

5. Nazi comparisons aren’t far away

EUROPE-GERMANY-POLITICS-RIGHTWING-PARTIES
Activists set up images of far-right leaders Mussolini, Hitler, Stalin & Pétain

It was a day of old Europe meeting the supposed New Europe.

An old Europe that was highlighted by protestors cheering on a “colourful and not brown” politics, an allusion to the Brownshirts of the Nazi party.

And there were signs of the new Europe, that in 2017 centres around only one thing: the persecution of the media, with criticism of the “lügenpresse” or “lying press”, a term which pre-dates Nazism and brings back reminders of its use as an anti-democracy slogan against Jews and communists. 

The theme of attacking the press, in a Trump-like manner, will only grow as elections approach.

The run-up to the summit was marked by complaints from German mainstream media, including state broadcaster ARD and newspaper Die Welt, after they were banned from attending because they had not “met journalistic standards in past reporting”. ARD is even considering taking legal action against an attempt to stifle their “freedom to report”.

By banning certain media, far-right parties are surpressing the of attention they crave, stifling the means by which most people get to hear of their arguments.

As one political analyst put it, the summit was “just good PR”. Timo Lochocki was skeptical of the co-operation the parties had promised: ““This is largely to increase media attention”, he said.

And there lies the contradiction.


As Donald Trump enters the White House, just how much the new US president seeks to provoke and sow disunity within the European Union will be closely watched.

The revolution has long begun but the big battles are still ahead for populist parties under pressure to reach the heights of leadership.