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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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…

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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.

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.

 

 

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

The big test for populism in Europe in 2017

If 2016 was the year of the unpredictable and the rise of populism, 2017 looks to be the year that much of that ground work now plays out.

It will be likely dominated by Donald Trump as the world watches his move into the White House and tears up the rule book of how to govern with a new style of shock politics, protectionism, straight talking and Twitter diplomacy.

Elsewhere, British Prime Minister Theresa May will be determined to prove to her critics that she can start the UK’s exit from the EU – one of the biggest earthquakes of 2016 – in an orderly fashion when she triggers divorce proceedings through Article 50 by the end of March.

Will Mrs May finally lay on the table what exactly she wants – membership of the single market, staying in the customs union, and so on? These are monumental decisions that will affect every one of our lives.

She will have to be ready for the reaction of EU leaders, who will no sooner be ready to throw down any whiff of “cherry-picking”. Each country will each have their own grievances, least of all a need to keep their own popularity in check back home.

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Brexit hitting the headlines across Europe last year

May has the impossible task of pleasing those in her party and across the country who voted not only leave but remain, and across Europe she’ll be trying desperately hard to get allies to back her Brexit wish list.

But the EU will be determined to show that Brexit isn’t the only priority – the continent after all is still nursing the hangover of the 2008 financial crisis, and trying to muddle its way through its policy on migrants – which has all but disappeared from the headlines.

There will likely be a lot of back and forth – concession on one hand and demand on the other – which could mean 2017 is the year of inaction, even anticlimax, for Brexit.

This has always been classic EU territory though – the approach of just about getting by.

The prime minister will first need to see who will be those leaders around the negotiating table, following decisive elections in some of Europe’s biggest democracies.

All eyes will be on France for the next five months to see how the political mood there will determine the results of its presidential election.

The expectation will be that while populism is exerting great pressure on the political conversation, it’s yet to yield truly significant results in the biggest national elections.

The far right in France has been boosted by many different factors, least of all an historically unpopular incumbent, François Hollande, who has ruled himself out from running for a second term. His Socialist party looks disunited – with no clear frontrunner in its own primary elections – and all opinion polls indicating it won’t make it past the first round of France’s presidential vote.

France’s likely new president from May – centre-right François Fillon

The surprise candidate could be former economy minister Emmanuel Macron, who has sought to capture the tricky centre-ground of politics. His unconventional style – never having been elected to office or joined a political party – is gathering momentum, but has he simply laid the ground for a more serious run next time round? In such a crowded political spectrum, it may prove difficult for Macron to unite traditional left voters around his start-up campaign.

But the focus will be firmly on the Front National, for whom a victory has always been seen as impossible. Everybody has always said the two-round voting system is fundamentally rigged against the FN. Both left and right merely gang up in a tactical move to prevent the far-right from gaining enough ground.

But we’re living in very different times, and while the polls give centre-right hopeful François Fillon two-thirds of the vote against Le Pen in the second round, her softening of the party image, a longstanding disaffection with mainstream politicians and the feeling that globalisation has bred great inequalities mean her party is gathering support like never before.

Le Pen’s focus on identity politics at a time when more than 230 people have been killed through terrorist attacks in the last 18 months has growing appeal for some French voters who want a hard line on Islam, immigration and security.

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Marine Le Pen said Donald Trump’s victory gave hope for her presidential campaign

If you still believe the polls however, France will elect centre-right former prime minister Fillon – keenly labelled a Putin supporter and Thatcher admirer. He has promised a liberal economic policy, huge cuts to the public sector and a ‘shock’ at the top of France’s sclerotic political system. His main priorities will be to shore up a failing economy, bring down relatively high unemployment and an unmanageably large government debt – and more challenging yet, make French people feel safer.

We could well be in for a surprise result in May. Be sure to mind that gap in the opinion polls for the months to come. Fillon is a skilled, experienced politician who thinks he knows how to administer the medicine of change to France – but don’t underestimate the rogue nature of polling and those who don’t even normally vote who could sway the result in Ms Le Pen’s favour.

A Le Pen victory would have unknown consequences politically across Europe. It could spell the end as we know it for the EU which she says has made French people poorer and under threat from terrorism.

The stakes existentially for the union this year could not be higher on this one election alone.

Over in Germany, voters in elections in the autumn of this year will in all probability realise Angela Merkel is the only candidate capable of steering the EU’s largest economy – and arguably the 27 other member states – through still turbulent waters. But as we’ve seen with her recent announcement to ban the full-face veil and criticism of her domestic migrant policy, Merkel is feeling the pressure like never before from both outside her ranks with the buoyant Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party and within her coalition government.

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Angela Merkel will be hopeful of a fourth term in office

 

The right-wing nationalist AfD party, founded in 2013 as merely an anti-euro party, has turned its focus to the surge in immigration in previous years and frames Islam as ‘not German’. It has so far made strong gains in regional votes. Polls suggest it has around 12% support nationally, and it looks set to play the security card even more after December’s Christmas market attack in Berlin, which killed twelve, and other jihadi-related terror on German soil last year which has left some Germans seeing refugees as the problem.

Angela Merkel’s popularity is some way ahead of her European counterparts and despite saying this election will be “tough like no other”, her likely election win will bring her to an unrivalled sixteen years in power.

Yes, she will lose seats to her majority, and yes, the AfD will enter the Bundestag, Germany’s national parliament, but Merkel will escape largely unscathed with the promise of more security measures for Germans, a call for greater unity domestically and across Europe, as well as more strong leadership by not cowering to populist rhetoric.

On the global stage, however, with a clear Putin and Trump alliance to come, she will find herself much more isolated.

The Netherlands too will be heading to the polls with the peroxide populist Geert Wilders hopeful that growing momentum in past elections will finally provide electoral victory in March’s vote – offering another political earthquake to a nervous Brussels establishment.

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Dutch far-right politician Gerry Wilders

The PVV party, which he founded in 2004, became the third-largest party in elections in 2010. It has captured support from an unease about growing immigration, a pledge to “de-Islamise” the Netherlands, a lack of trust in the ruling government and his promise to take the country out of the European Union.

The latest polls show the PVV as the biggest single party in the country – and Wilders seems to be pushing himself as the candidate saying to voters – “I’m the only one listening to you”. At the very least he’ll have a powerful voice in the Dutch parliament, and at most he could become the country’s next prime minister.

Populism in Europe so far has proven it isn’t a “one-size fits all” – it has been difficult for any commentator to neatly categorise and accurately predict this burgeoning phenomenon.

Austria overwhelmingly rejected far-right candidate Norbert Hofer last November but the populist tide there looks set to shape parliamentary elections and the political discourse for some time yet.

In Italy, a referendum on the political system and on the country’s own leader Matteo Renzi both adhered to and confounded expectations. Voters said no to the changes but the political chaos that was expected didn’t come to pass with the swift appointment of Paolo Gentiloni. He will need to bring strong governance – something Italy isn’t used to – at a much-needed time for stability – through a commitment to reform its vastly expensive parliamentary system and mend its ‘sick-man’ economy which has scarcely grown in the past 20 years.

Turkey’s President Erdogan will be fearful of more attacks this year

Leaders from around the world will be fearful of more violence in Turkey on its doorstep after the most turbulent and bloody year there in recent history, given its crucial geography as a border post to the Middle East and a hotbed for terrorism inside and outside its boundaries.

It will take a lot for President Tayyip Erdogan to convince European leaders he is placing Turkey’s security first, in front of any personal leadership ambitions to become more autocratic by increasing his executive powers (which he’s putting to a referendum). It comes after a year of mass arrests of people from across society following a failed coup attempt in July and an ongoing state of emergency from countless acts of terror.

Support from Erdogan’s nationalist voters will only isolate him in Europe and the Middle East, exacerbating security, political and economic risks. His tight grip on power will equally put the EU’s migrant deal with Turkey into question, which spells trouble for EU leaders up and down the continent.

The person to watch closely this year will be none other than the Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin – the newest – and strongest – global alliance?

With ongoing military provocation in Eastern Europe, his continued support for the conflict in eastern Ukraine and suspected cyber interference in the US elections, the strong man of Russia looks set to be a big winner in 2017 – but a figure at the very centre of more global uncertainty.

Russia’s place as a resurgent global superpower has been well and truly cemented after what is seen as a successful intervention in Syria. Russia’s involvement there will be entrenched further throughout 2017, leading Putin to gain even more influence in Middle Eastern events.

With the US under Trump on-side, Putin will in short be given a lot of room to show his political and military muscle in 2017 and beyond.

2017 will be a year marked by nail-biting elections, as millions of people across Europe decide at the most crude level what sort of politics they want. The backdrop of populism as a march against globalism means strong leadership in Europe will be in much demand but in short supply.

The status quo for a trouble-burdened European continent looks more shaky than ever – and the potential for surprises ever greater.

But could populism be the wake-up call the European Union has needed?

‘Political tourism’ storm in Spain

‘Political tourism’ storm in Spain

It’s the start of a storm in Spain – about so-called ‘political tourism’.

Members of Spain’s leftist party, Podemos, the Basque terrorist group, ETA, and a Catalan anti-capitalist party, CUP, headed for Venezuela in a private plane laid on by President Nicolás Maduro – leader of a nationalist government which many now regard as a regime.

Now Spain’s politicians are demanding explanations.

Exclusive images from Spanish TV channel Antena 3 last night showed figures from all three groups on the tarmac at Madrid’s airport in December 2014 headed for Caracas on a presidential plane laid on especially by Venezuelan leader Nicolás Maduro.

What were these groups doing being flown privately by this divisive political figure – and how close are they to him?

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Politicians among the passengers headed for Caracas conference. Source: Antena 3 Noticias

Among those on board was Anna Gabriel, the spokesperson and politician for the CUP, a Catalan anti-capitalist, anti-EU and anti-NATO party which is propping up a pro-independence Catalan government.

All she had to say to reporters was that she was up to “very interesting things” in Venezuela.

Very interesting things included discussing neo-Fascism, the destructive effects of capitalism, the right to decide about the break-up of Spain, and ETA.

Another aboard was Iñaki Gil de San Vicente, the father-in-law of the number one man in ETA, the Basque terrorist group responsible for killing 829 people in its struggle for separatism. He’s also the father of a Basque terrorist arrested in France.

And from Spain’s third biggest political force, Podemos, was María José Aguilar, member of the party in Spain’s central Castilla la Mancha region. The party wished to distance Aguilar’s journey from the party, saying that she went to attend the conference for its intellectual, artistic discussions instead.

15 Spanish nationals were aboard the plane in total, with over 30 people from 13 nationalities flying altogether.

The Spanish Interior Minister questioned the circumstances surrounding the private plane – and the consequences the scandal could have on Spanish politics. Jorge Fernández Díaz called it “unprecedented” and said it wasn’t the “normal thing” for a leader of a country to lay on a plane.

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Some of the insults received at Antena 3 Noticias on Twitter. Source: Antena 3 Noticias

The images have caused uproar on social media, with some users condemning Antena 3 for the poor taste of its journalism. The scoop was also splashed over nearly all of the front pages of Spain’s daily newspapers.

Spain’s newest political party Podemos – which had one of its members on board – has previously allied itself with chavismo – a left-wing ideology which takes its name from the late Venezuelan leader Hugo Chávez. It was an answer to capitalism, all about dealing with rising inequality in Latin America by promoting nationalisation, social welfare and patriotism.

Podemos even received funding from the Venezuelan government and senior figures have worked for the leadership, all while praising its democracy as one of the world’s best.

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One Spanish TV channel claims Podemos received 3.7 million euros from the Venezuelan government for 10 years. Source: La Sexta

Venezuela is in the midst of a deep economic crisis. The drop in oil prices means debt repayment is becoming near on impossible and the country has finally declared an economic emergency.

Inflation has been rocketing for several years already, making the bolívar currency virtually worthless, while the economy has been shrinking since the beginning of 2014. It’s these alarming figures the Venezuelan government is seeking to hide from its own people.

Food shortages are all too common. Imports for staples such as eggs, flour and milk have become too expensive for the government, leaving supermarket shelves empty.

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Food shortages in Venezuela: Source: Infobae

According to the latest Press Freedom Index from 2015, its media ranked 137 out of 180 countries, compared to Spain (33rd). Journalists have been harassed and the press has been polarised and limited.

It says: “Many local and foreign journalists were the targets of threats, insults, physical attacks, theft, destruction of equipment and arrests during a succession of protests.”

With national elections in Spain in December still far from producing a new government, any tremors of instability there are  enough to whip up a political storm.

 

 

The Catalan independence cataclysm

The Catalan independence cataclysm

Forget for a moment the huge hype and expectation surrounding today. Hearing the calls from the Catalan parliament for a declaration of independence, the first steps towards a new European state and then a constitutional block from Madrid, you’d think it nothing out of the ordinary for a secessionist movement with more momentum than ever before.

The language was just as uncompromising and provocative, talking of the “democratic disconnection” of Catalonia from the rest of Spain.

The Catalan parliament’s approval of a move towards independence within 18 months was met with the waving of Catalan senyera flags, some deputies on their feet in applause, a minority sober in defeat instead waving the national Spanish flag. Yet proceedings were noticeably much more muted than in the past.

Today’s constitutional earthquake will send tremors all the way to Madrid as Barcelona hastily embarks on setting up state institutions such as an independent social security system and tax authority within just thirty days.

But have things really changed in Catalonia as to the likelihood of independence?

What will follow is the next episode in the strained relationship between this region and the Madrid government, who will slap down the rules of the Constitution, with the courts preparing a case against leaders in Barcelona.

Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy appeared in front of cameras minutes after the vote repeating that “the government will not allow this to continue” and saying he will use all legal and political means at his disposal to put a stop to the process.

The inconstitutional snub was echoed by Socialist Party leader Pedro Sánchez, who will meet Rajoy on Tuesday to discuss their counter-attack.

Sánchez said: “The majority of Catalans don’t want secession. Breaking the law is denying democracy.”

Regardless, the document says it will ignore any such threats from instutitions of the Spanish state, including the constitutional court.

The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas
The embattled Catalan President, Artur Mas

The extraordinary events in the Catalan parliament in Barcelona also addressed the elephant in the room – the future of president Artur Mas, whose political future looks to be hanging in the balance.

The CUP, the coalition partner of Junts Pel Sí, the pro-independence coalition who won a majority in September’s elections oppose Mr Mas serving a third term as President.

Negotiations with the leftist,  anti-establishment, anti-EU party haven’t got very far since the elections, but Mas is trying his best to win them over with policy sweeteners in what critics call a vanity project.

They are calling for another leader to be appointed, perhaps Junts Pel Sí leader Raul Romeva. But if an agreement isn’t found, yet more elections will have to be called for March next year.

Mas has embodied the defiant push for Catalan independence, buoyed by a pro-independence win in the September elections on a seat basis, but falling short of a majority he would have needed in a proper referendum – pro-independence parties won 47.8 per cent of the vote.

Nonetheless, beginning his address to the Parlament, he said the ballot boxes had spoken, legitimising the majority vote that was to come.

Critics of Mas say he has isolated himself from Catalan public opinion, which evidently remains deeply divided on the issue of secession. Business leaders too say that with his majority only assured by the CUP party, he has handed the independence movement to leftist radicals.

Anti-independence party Ciudadanos, the second-largest party in the Catalan parliament that looks set to rock the boat in Spain’s general election on 20th December, ironically said that ongoing cases of corruption – of which Mr Mas is part – have nothing to do with the process.

They warned today’s events were the greatest threat to Spain’s democracy for the past thirty years.

The last election is only as important as the next. With the make-up of Spain’s next government unclear and with coalition agreements expected to extend well into January, parties of all colours are exploiting the Catalan situation to gain votes.

Aside from Spain’s economic recovery, the unity of Spain is a key election trump card, especially for Rajoy. He wants to be seen as the leader who stands for stability and managing the breakaway Catalan region.

The constitutional fallout from the defiance on show could mean tough financial sanctions – even on individual leaders, which could potentially mean prison sentences.

It could also sour any potential negotiations between leaders in Catalonia and the next Spanish government.

Pro-independence politicians remain more defiant and determined than ever. For Madrid, it’s another case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.

This struggle of democracy against democracy is a long way from ending.

Best sites for European news

2015 has been a watershed year for Europe, battling economic ruin in Greece to the migrant and refugee crises. It has divided Europe along north and south and east and west lines.

Here are the best European news sites to get behind the headlines and understand the often complex workings of the continent.

Politico Europe – a site originally catering for American politics, this Brussels-based site is excellent for analysis and stories you wouldn’t ever usually see elsewhere

Bloomberg Europe – an easy to understand snapshot of European finances and what it means for the continent

Euronews – Based in Lyon, this site provides excellent video and pictures to cover a wide range of stories from Europe

The Guardian – balanced, well-written stories and features from correspondents around the continent

Others:

El País English – Spanish news in English

Financial Times – paywall (£)

France 24

Greece’s election to end all elections – for now

Greece’s election to end all elections – for now

A hastily arranged three-week election campaign in a country now apathetic towards its political class for the unbearable burden of reforms and austerity. This Greek election is being seen as nothing more than a mirage for the country’s creditors who are running the show. What the country needs now is a period of political stability.

A late swing towards Syriza in the polls is being reported today, after barely any space between the leftist party and its conservative rival, New Democracy. What’s more, they can do nothing more to convince the Greek people, as campaigning drew to an end with roaring rallies in squares in the Greek capital, Athens.

A new mandate for Syriza would mean a measure of credibility after signing off the country’s finances to international creditors this summer, staving off a Grexit apocalypse, which seems to be far from the horizon. They are at the behest of the Eurozone machine and Germany, who expect any new government to fully comply with pressing reforms. Warnings from the European Commission were just as unyielding.

It is probable that coalition talks will have to begin as the mist clears on Monday morning and results become clear – neither party is expected to win a majority. Expect no coalition between Syriza and New Democracy – their economic policies differ greatly, and Syriza points the finger at ND for being partly responsible for the country’s economic problems, being part of the ‘old guard’. New Democracy believe Tsipras and his fractured party don’t have the will to implement reforms and that only they can be trusted to grow Greece’s economy. For its part, output is expected to contract by two per-cent despite unexpected growth of 0.8% in the second quarter of the year.

The new leader in government will be the seventh prime minister since the Greek debt crisis begin in 2009, in an electoral process which has occurred five times over in six years. It is no wonder that Greeks are experiencing a severe bout of election fatigue.

Syriza is still a relatively new party, elected untested just eight months ago. It would be unfair for them to assume the blame for years and years of economic mismanagement beforehand. Tsipras put it quite humorously – it’s like someone who drank three bottles of whisky and a shot of vodka then claiming it was the vodka that had given him a hangover. It depends how well you handle your drink for this metaphor to work, of course.

One of Syriza’s key pledges is a cleaning-up exercise – a definitive end to self-serving politicians who corrupted the system, leading to the financial crisis that the same politicians claimed they were managing. It is a populist, leftist message which is not unique in Europe.

Tsipras appeared at the rally alongside Podemos leader Pablo Iglesias, pointing again to the huge European significance of Greece’s national vote. Elections in Portugal and Spain – Southern European states that were forced to seek financial assistance from Europe – have the economy at the heart of their campaign.

Spain's anti-austerity, anti-corruption party leader Pablo Iglesias at Syriza rally event in Athens
Spain’s anti-austerity, anti-corruption party leader Pablo Iglesias at Syriza rally event in Athens

Tsipras said: “The message of our victory will be sent to Pablo in Spain, Gerry Adams in Ireland and to a progressive prime minister in Portugal.”

Portugal exited its bailout last year with its economy steadying and growing after three years of recession. The vote there on 4th October mirrors Greece as far as the likelihood of a coalition is concerned. Neither the centre-right ruling coalition nor the centre-left opposition Socialists can claim a full majority.

In Spain, leaders can boast one of the largest eurozone growth figures for this year, as polls there are yet to hand a majority to either the ruling conservatives or opposition Socialists.

It is a sort of political paralysis as anti-establishment parties continue to fracture traditional bipartite systems.

The European left will likely use a Syriza victory to show the pernicious effect of austerity on the social fabric of a country, which will be lumbered with yet more cuts. Those out of work reached 25.2% in July in what many call a “lost generation”.

Unemployment in Portugal is roughly in line with the European average at 11%, while in Spain, it is stubbornly at 22%. In both countries, it remains the young who are the most precarious.

Any coalition government will oversee the management of Greece’s bailout, ensuring a smooth path ahead for the country’s financial system after capital controls – still in place – were imposed earlier this year when the banking system went virtually bust.

Surprisingly, market traders have scarcely been kept awake at night by the Greek vote after Tsipras’ climb-down this summer. It is accepted that any incoming leader will have no choice but to swallow the bailout pill.

Before word of elections, talk in the summer of debt restructuring or debt reduction was rife in Europe. Germany said it was out of the question, while other economists argued it was the only way to stop Greece being straddled with debts for decades to come. Will there be any movement on this when negotiations begin in earnest?

For the country’s new leader, the interminable flow of migrants to Greece’s coastline may prove to be one of the most pressing problems. Greece borders several Balkan countries which are but the latest route for thousands of people on the move.

Sunday’s election is yet another chapter in the ongoing problems for Europe, solutions for which are elusive and painful.

For more: BBC News – Key Greece election on a knife edge