ITALY CALLS ON EUROPE

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A champion of a European Renaissance and a politician’s rather than an accountant’s view of Europe, Macron has not managed to avoid a crisis with Italy or overcome German and Northern Europe’s distrust

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This article has been published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

The next European elections will coincide with the second anniversary of Emmanuel Macron's accession to the Elysèe Palace.

There's no doubt that, with the chaotic Brexit on the doorstep, Angela Merkel heading into the sunset and other European governors with confused or short-sighted identities, over the last 24 months the French president has been the most visible figure during a critical season for the European Union.

Even more critical if considered against the backdrop of French society's profound distress and the political climate that has prevented his two predecessors, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande from being re-elected at the end of their first five year term in office (it had only ever happened before to Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981).

The circumstances that enabled Macron  and his novel political entity, La Republique en Marche, to with the electoral competion are well-known: the collapse of the Socialist Party, the implosion of the Republicains (buckled by the Fillon affair), the menacing advance of the Front National, the improvisation behind Jean Luc Melanchon's left wing grouping, and finally the centrist faction set up by François Bayrou.

The common denominator of all these factors was once again that same "social rift" that had previously been singled out by Emmanuel Todd and taken on board by Jacques Chirac as a winning issue for his election to the presidency in 1995, but was also the cause of the fall of Alain Juppé two years later and the subsequent tiresome cohabitation with Lionel Jospin up to 2002.

Ever since his election it was clear that Emmanuel Macron was well aware of these sinister precedents that stemmed from the difficulties encountered by his two predecessors in their attempts to get broad sections of French society (almost five million public employees, rural classes undergoing transition, growing temporary employment, youth unemployment, chronic unrest in the suburbs) to accept a drop in public spending and the fearsome deficit foreseen by European commitments. During his visit to Berlin on 26 May 2017, in his press conference with the Chancellor, Macron stated that he had had to face the "rage" of the French and believed that "Europe should serve its citizens and not vice versa". A very explicit and brave statement, clearly aimed at his host, accompanied with the usual and ritualistic reference to the trust placed in the "French-German motor" as the flywheel of European integration.

Four months later, in September 2017 at the Sorbonne he painted a picture of the much needed reform leading to a more political and less mechanical governance of the Eurozone (a European Finance Minister with a coordinated budget, a Stabilisation Fund, greater power granted to the European Parliament). In other words, a bold attempt to merge the "Europe of Regulations" (Stability and Growth Pact of 1977, Fiscal Compact of 2012) with anti-cyclical policies, partly through a review of the German "export oriented" policies, and the connected trade surpluses, and support for internal demand.

This request was somehow reiterated in May 2018 at Aachen during the awarding of the Charlemagne Prize. The Sorbonne address, with which the French President set himself up as a champion of smart  and more poignantly dynamic pro-European thinking, targeting populisms alongside 'accounting' paralysis, was met by a resounding silence, unfortunately broken by the result of the German federal elections in which the Grosse Koalition lost out and the AfD made a giant leap forward, and the concurrent refusal of the so called "Hanseatic League", headed by the Netherlands and the Scandinavian countries to consider any changes to the Eurozone.

The transatlantic relations during the Trump era have been the other stage on which the French President's European leadership has stood out.

His visit to Washington in April 2018, after Trump's attendance at the Bastille Day celebrations on 14 July 2017, stoked expectations that Paris would manage to hold up Europe's end while working to reduce the tensions across Atlantic, given the difficulties encountered by Berlin on various sensitive issues, such as its own export surplus, its NATO 'burden sharing' and its avowal of the North Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia.

Unfortunately the various actions implemented by Washington's, ranging from the refusal to back the climate agreement, its stance on the Iranian accord (including the threat of 'secondary' sanctions against Tehran's trade partners, France being among those with the most to lose) and ultimately the breakdown of the INF treaty (on intermediate nuclear missiles targeting Russian and European cities), have highlighted the limited success of the French initiatives and those of the so called 'French-German engine' which is showing signs of wear when dealing with these accelerating geopolitical variables.

The bilateral agreement signed in Aachen on 22 January gave the impression of being little more than a voluntary commemoration of the French agreement signed in 1963, with little hope of providing a platform to mobilise Europe on the many delicate and complex issues on the European agenda. The most poignant of these being a European defence force independent of NATO, which however many European partners (Poland, the Baltic nations, the Netherlands, Italy and Romania) still view very favourably. The readiness of neutral countries such as Sweden and Finland to follow the French leadership, for different yet convergent reasons, is also doubtful. Even Germany, despite its recent displays of intolerance towards American unilateralism, is still a long way from sharing the French interventionist approach adopted in recent years in Libya, Syria, the Sahel and Yemen: the "Great Switzerland syndrome", rich and uninvolved,  is understandably entrenched in German DNA having learnt its lesson in the 20th century.

In actual fact Macron's 'message' on a European Renaissance of 3 March was met with a mixture of indifference and irony in Berlin and in many other European capitals.  

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, who is set to replace Merkel, after warning that European integration 'depends on conduct and economic results and not politics', launched an implicit challenge to the French Europeanism by suggesting that Paris' permanent seat on the UN's Security Council should become a "European seat"!. Then again, Sigmar Gabriel, the former Social Democrat Vice Chancellor, after praising Macron's anti-populist message, underlined how the European Union for France is a power 'multiplier' and called for a Conference on Cooperation and Security in Europe with the involvement of Russia as a way of solving the Ukrainian crisis.

"The most recent event that confirms Gabriel's comment was provided in the 3+1 formula adopted for the visit of Xi Jinping. After signing agreements and contracts worth close to 40 billion dollars the day before, Emmanuel Macron then exhibited Angela Merkel and Jean-Claude Juncker as 'witnesses' to a strictly European approach to China and the New Silk Road programme.

However, the European Council meeting in Brussels, which took place at the same time, left it up to the various governments to decide whether or not to to implement the Huawei 5G system.

Ultimately, the leadership of the 'European' party as the 26 May elections approach has unquestionably increased Macron's visibility, though the volatility of the French social framework, allied with a political void following the German elections in 2017, have proffered an indication of improvisation and insufficient attempts to seek cohesion with European partners that has undermined the effectiveness of these initiatives.

This is the picture against which one should frame the tensions that have mounted between France and Italy. While the pointed criticism of the Conte government's migration policies have seemed to be inspired by 'domestic' considerations given the close ties between Salvini and Le Pen, Macron's attitude towards the Fincantieri-STX agreement, reached in Hollande's day by the Gentiloni government, has provided tangible confirmation that "European industrial champions", capable of standing their ground against American or Chinese giants are only welcomed by Paris when it's a French or French-German initiative, as is the case of the Siemens-Alsthom agreement on railways, which in any case has been blocked by the European anti-trust authorities.

Once the current pre-electoral hiatus us over, it will be advisable that in both Paris and Rome they start thinking about the 'aftermath' of 26 May. Even the effects on public expenditure required to quell the tensions underlying the incidents that have overwhelmed French public life would suggest the need for a serious joint evaluation of the issues underpinning Eurozone growth, in line with the previously announced reform proposals rightly put forward by the French presidency.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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A champion of a European Renaissance and a politician’s rather than an accountant’s view of Europe, Macron has not managed to avoid a crisis with Italy or overcome German and Northern Europe’s distrust

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The uncertainty surrounding the European vote could be attributed to voter mistrust of national governments and not on the EU

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The European Parliament that will be elected in 2019 will be different from the one it replaces. The two main political groups, the European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) will both lose seats. For the first time since the parliament began direct elections in 1979, those two groups will be unable to form a parliamentary majority together. They will have to enlist the support of the liberal democrats (ALDE) to control the legislature, perhaps with the support of Emmanuel Macron’s movement, but that grand coalition will leave significant representative gaps.

The two governing parties of Italy will be excluded from the new majority, as will the governing party in Poland and the largest party in Belgium. If the EPP severs its relationship with Viktor Orban, then Hungary’s governing party will not participate either. Depending on how the elections go, neither will the largest or second largest political party in France – Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement national (or ‘national rally’). That is not to say that these groups will unite in some monolithic ‘populist’ opposition to the new majority in the European Parliament; they are too disparate to make such an outcome likely. Rather it is to point out that the new European Parliament will be like most national parliaments in Europe in the sense that the political composition of the assembly will be highly fragmented. Depending upon where voters live, it will also be unrepresentative.

This fragmentation – together with the lack of representation that it entails – is important both as cause and as effect. The causal significance lies in the message it conveys to the European electorate: the old mainstream ideologies continue to dominate the positions of importance and the legislative agenda while new issues, ideas, or forms of political representation struggle to be heard. This is not a good message for the European Parliament to project at a time when participation rates in European elections continue to fall from one contest to the next. It is also not a good symbol when the older generation that was shaped by the Cold War experience of Europe as a peace project passes the torch to generations that have little or no memory of the conflict between liberalism, communism and fascism that shaped the ‘mainstream’.

Those newer generations think of Europe more as a bulwark against the forces of globalization and perhaps also as a new opportunity to build democracy beyond the nation state. For these younger voters – who are only ‘young’ by comparison with the supporters of the EPP, S&D, and ALDE – watching the mainstream ideological groups close ranks to protect their institutional privileges could be a deep source of frustration and disillusionment. We can speculate about whether this will really have an impact on popular attitudes; it is always possible that voters accustomed to grand coalitions in domestic politics will shrug off the symbolism created by this new majority in the European Parliament. That remains to be seen. But it is hard to imagine that younger generations will look at this new condominium between the EPP, S&D, and ALDE as a source of inspiration in Europe.

A lot will depend upon the forces that brought European politics to the current situation, sapping support from the mainstream political parties and reducing voter enthusiasm to cast their ballots in European contests. Here we have more solid analytical foundations. Social scientists have puzzled over the decline in support for the European project and the fragmentation of the European electorate for more than a quarter of a century, since the Danish people first vetoed the ratification of the Maastricht Treaty. Along the way, they have developed two different lines of argument to explain why European politics has evolved as it has, both nationally and across the European Union. One of these arguments is about the tension between European integration and national sovereignty; the other is about the growing disenchantment of the voters in different countries with their own national elites.

The argument made by scholars like Liesbet Hooghe and Gary Marks is about European overreach. At some point national elites promised too much from the European project and invested too much political capital in expanding European competences to make good on these commitments. They pushed to liberalize the movement of people across national boundaries, they fixed their exchange rates to create a European currency, they widened European Union membership to a wide array of countries that were unfamiliar to those who lived in the ‘core’ countries of Western Europe, and they placed constraints on newer member states that their populations were neither able nor willing to accept. In this account, the ambitions of pro-European elites outran the natural scepticism of their national electorates.

This mismatch between what the European Union does and what European voters want has created an opportunity for opposition parties to mobilize voters against Europe. Paradoxically, such mobilization was most effective wherever there was elite consensus. Some eight-five percent of Danish politicians supported the Maastricht Treaty when it first went to referendum in June 1992; when the votes were counted, a majority of the Danish people were against. Over the decades to follow, this pattern found repetition well beyond the Danish electorate in countries as diverse as Ireland, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom. Increasingly, moreover, the same dynamics have played a prominent role in European elections. That is why parties sceptical of Europe have been disproportionately prominent in past; there is no reason for this election to be any different. If anything, frustration with excessive European ambitions is now more deeply embedded.

Another hypothesis found in the works of scholars like Stefano Bartolini and the late Peter Mair centres on the weakness of national institutions. In this theory, the expansion of Europe is not a cause of popular disaffection but a consequence. The inexorable mix of demographic change, technological innovation, and economic globalization forces politicians to adapt continuously both in terms of how they provide public goods and services and how they manage popular expectations. In many cases, such adaptation entails breaking long-standing commitments to create opportunities for education or advancement, or to remove uncertainty related to health care, employment, or retirement. National politicians looked to European institutions to avoid awkward domestic debates and to shift blame for unpopular policy decisions. In a similar way, they also looked to other ‘politically independent’ institutions like currency boards (or common currencies), fiscal councils or central banks.

These attempts to sidestep democratic processes did not offer long-term solutions. Even worse, one-time adjustments turned out to offer only a temporary fix. ‘Reform’ became an endless item on every policy agenda. This made it easy for opposition parties to mobilize against national governments, blaming them for hiding from their responsibilities and for breaking faith with the electorate. The point to note in this theory is that the European Union is not a protagonist and disaffection with Europe is only a symptom of a deeper frustration with national elites. In that sense, European elections tell us less about what the voters think about the European Union than what they want to communicate to their national politicians. Hence the solution is not to curb European overreach and to transform the EU into some more modest project; it is to repair the lack of confidence voters have with national politicians.

The difficulty lies in choosing between these hypotheses. The evidence in favour of focusing on the problem of national disaffection is nevertheless suggestive. Public opinion polling shows that disaffection with Europe per se is more easily reparable than the theory of overreach would suggest: European integration continues to deepen and yet popular affection for Europe has increased over the past three years – indeed, it is strongest among the younger generations. By the same token, poll after poll shows that voters in most European countries are more disenchanted with their national governments than they are with the European Union. Meanwhile, populists who fail to gain traction in mobilizing young people against European institutions are now turning their attention on other politically independent arrangements – first and foremost, central banks.

If this suggestion is correct, then we should worry less about the fragmentation of the European Parliament that is sure to result from the next round of elections. We should worry more about the weakness of national political institutions and about the frustration of voters with the way they are represented in national politics. Frustration with the European Union is symptomatic of a deeper problem with democratic governance. That frustration will not abate completely until the deeper problem is addressed.

@Erik_Jones_SAIS

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe

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The uncertainty surrounding the European vote could be attributed to voter mistrust of national governments and not on the EU

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Introducing a minimum wage would bolster the integration of member states and improve relations between the people and the institutions

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The idea of a minimum wage is certainly nothing new. It's been a topic of discussion ever since the end of the Nineties of last century, as one of the possible elements of the so called European "social pillar"; a pillar that was supposed to stand alongside stability and growth, guaranteed by macro-economic governance, fairness and social justice. As it turns out the social pillar has never been developed, and the emphasis of European policies has almost exclusively been focused on macro-economic stability.

Nevertheless, the issue of a coordination, or even a harmonisation of European labour policies has never been completely discarded, though it tends not to rank as a high priority, from the European debate. In 2014 Jean-Claude Juncker said that "all EU Member States to put in place a minimum wage and basic guaranteed income." As so often happens, this statement of principle did not make much leeway. Today, on the eve of the elections, and in the wake of the distress and loud call for social justice of which the gilets jaunes are the most visible expression, the issue is now taking centre stage once more. It's being raised by the European Socialist Party, and has been discussed by Emmanuel Macron in his "letter to Europe's citizens" and is often mentioned by the Populist parties.

The issue is an important one, because it is part of a more general discussion on so called "social and fiscal dumping", meaning the tendency in recent years, by European governments, to compete among themselves by acting on so called cost competitiveness: the reduction of production costs, to be achieved thorough wage depreciation (bolstered by high unemployment figures) and the reduction of corporate and capital taxation. The only objective pursued by European countries at present seems to be to increase exports and corner market shares at the expense of other EU countries which are viewed as competitors and not as partners.

Because this "race to the bottom" seems so entrenched, it's hard to imagine that a harmonised minimum wage will be enough to change a growth model which seems so strongly rooted in the minds of our managers (and many economists). After all, that the social pillar has been generally neglected is not a matter of chance: it was perceived as a useless ornament of a system in which market flexibility was considered the main path towards growth. With this approach, the only guide for setting wages would have to be labour productivity, and the setting of minimum wages was opposed because it caused distortions and ultimately unemployment. It matters little that the empirical evidence (even that produced by the Commission in recent times) has always shown a limited or possibly non-existent impact of minimum wages on unemployment.

While it may be unrealistic to imagine that the minimum wage alone might stop social dumping (it would at least have to be associated to a harmonisation on corporate taxation and a joint taxation of multinationals), this doesn't mean it would serve no purpose. In the first place it would make dumping harder. And, more importantly, it would help to fight poverty and reduce inequality, which in Europe has reached levels that are incompatible with stable and balanced growth. Moreover, one of the throwbacks of the crisis on the European economy has been the phenomenon of the working poor, that is to say workers whose wages don't allow them to significantly lift  themselves above the poverty line. With an economy that's having a hard time putting the crisis of the previous decade behind it, a European minimum wage could transfer resources to categories whose consumption requirements are fairly high, thus increasing their spending power, general consumption and domestic demand. While consumption is a stable component of wages, a higher domestic demand would help to reduce the European economy's dependence on exports (especially in certain countries where foreign demand is particularly significant, as is the case of Germany), and therefore on an international situation that is becoming increasingly unstable from both a geopolitical and economic perspective.

Before verifying to what extent one can actually hope to implement a European minimum wage, one should first dispel a misunderstanding. With very few exceptions, almost no one believes in a minimum wage that is the same for everyone. The differences (in prices and wage/productivity ratios) are too vast. The discussion today is on the harmonisation of the minimum wage linked to some national indicator, such as the national median wage (the value for which half of the wage earners earn more and half earn less) or some other indicator. There's plenty of room for manoeuvre, seeing as there's currently a great variety of responses to the issue. While it is true that 22 out of 28 countries have a minimum wage (Italy is one of the six without, even though the collective bargaining system has for a long time replaced such a measure), its level, even considering the different living standards and spending power, varies drastically. Eurostat provides statistics that highlight this diversity (and the potential benefits from harmonisation). The richer countries, including the United Kingdom, France and Germany in particular have the highest minimum wage in terms of spending power, while almost all the EU expansion countries lag behind (with the exception of Romania, Poland and especially Slovenia, which have rather high minimum wages). The minimum wage ranges between 39% and 64% of the national median wage.

This diversity is hardly surprising, seeing as the wage structure is the result of a complex institutional system and of the "social contract" that voters in each country are free to choose. That's why the Maastricht Treaty establishes that wage policies are not a European prerogative and that they are absent from the European fundamental rights charter adopted in 2000 in Nice. So what can be done? One could indicate a threshold value, as a recommendation within the context of the European semester, which countries would be invited to meet, without prescribing an obligation that the Treaty in any case would not allow to be set.

What then becomes crucial is the choice of threshold. During the Nineties of last century the discussion focused on a minimum wage of around 60% of the median wage (conventionally, a wage is considered "low" if it's two thirds below the median salary and the poverty line stands at 50% of the median). The 60% threshold was and is therefore calculated as a value that on the one hand guarantees decent living conditions (a living wage, a subsistence salary, which has been discussed ever since the Rerum Novarum by Leo XIII), and on the other a minimum level of fairness in the distribution of working wages. A minimum wage of 60% of the median salary could for example reduce the number of working poor.

Today there are only three countries that exceed the 60% threshold (France, Portugal and Slovenia), so it's hard to see the others wilfully converging towards such a level. One could lower the threshold (for example to the poverty threshold of 50%), thus improving the chances of an agreement between member states, and thus limiting incidents of dumping. But from a macro-economic point of view one would not have the hoped for results in terms of the reduction of poverty and inequality, or support for aggregate demand. A more promising alternative would be to keep the 60% threshold which would however be included within a broader package of indicators (such as for example the indicators of macro-economic imbalances introduced as a result of the crisis, and never truly developed as a tool to coordinate member state policies). Every country would then find a way of introducing such a threshold in its own legislation, via legal minimums, collective bargaining or other systems.

@fsaraceno

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe

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Introducing a minimum wage would bolster the integration of member states and improve relations between the people and the institutions

) [3] => stdClass Object ( [id] => 10735 [title] => What Europarliament can we expect [alias] => europarliament-may-elections [introtext] =>

Will the new parliament witness a shake up? It will certainly have a harder time managing a huge budget and a few broken promises

[fulltext] =>

Many things will change in Brussels and Strasbourg after the May elections. Although the opportunity for a 'revolutionary' transformation is being bandied about and artfully exaggerated by the anti-establishment forces of the international sovereigntist movement, there should in any case be a strong divergence from the past. Accelerating a transition process that is already underway towards a more politically driven European Parliament.

After 40 years of electoral history, less than 30 since it was granted co-legislator status and only 15 since the Union's major eastward expansion, the Europarliament is still a relatively young institution, but it is also lacking in maturity from a political standpoint and with a degree of internal conflict that is still only latent.

The entire party system in recent years has been propped up by the agreement between the main groups represented in parliament, which, though guaranteeing the operation of the complex European decision-making system, have tended to water down political confrontation between opposing ideologies.

The real clash as a matter of fact is neither internal between parties, it is inter-institutional with the other arm of the European legislative process, the dominant EU Council that represents the wishes of the member states. The assembly's political difficulties are the result of this mismatched  balance of power with its own nemesis which has meant it has had to brush over its own internal conflicts in order to promote a forced collaboration between groups so that the elected institution could retain relevance within the EU system.

In other words, parliament is forced to be efficient if it doesn't want to be sidelined, which also limits one of the assembly's most incisive powers, its power to block proceedings. If we consider how persuasive the US Congress can be by deciding a shutdown or the blockade caused by Westminster on the Brexit withdrawal agreement, and compare this to the fact that in Strasbourg no one has ever managed to go beyond threatening to block the EU's annual budget.

During the last legislation, the agreement between the European centre right (EPP), the Social Democrats (S&D) and the Liberals (ALDE) resulted in a historic European compromise in order to guarantee Parliament a more incisive role, without any real opposition by the Greens, the Conservative groups, the extremist factions on the left and right or any of the anti-establishment movements.

This highly collaborative arrangement will probably fall through in favour of a transition towards a more political confrontation between parliamentary groups. After all the historic European compromise had shown signs of wear during the last legislation, when the PPE took over all the top positions while essentially arranging to exclude the Social Democrats.

If, as expected, there will be great confusion on the floor, the situation will also be right for change to quote Zhou Enlai, a former foreign minister under Mao Zedong. The composition and weight of the various groups will decide the 'revolutionary' coefficient within the new parliament, but the results will in any case have to be analysed. More significantly, there are three factors that need to be monitored to establish the post-historic European compromise configuration of the various factions.

The first concerns the right wing factions, not so much as a result of their rise which could lead them to holding around 20% of consensus, well below a third of the representation. It is instead revealing trying to understand what the Pole Jarosław Kaczyński and the Italian Matteo Salvini are up to. While the first has taken over the helm of the European Conservatives (ECR) from the exiting Britons, opening the door to Giorgia Meloni's Italian right wing nationalists, the second has ousted Marine Le Pen as the ideological leader of the International Sovereigntists (ENF).

The two leaders met in Poland in January, possibly to discuss a union between the Conservatives and right wing nationalists in a grouping that would include the Hungarian strong man Viktor Orban, who at the time was supposed to leave the EPP. But a merger was probably never their main purpose, when considering the similar weight – between 20 and 25 MEPs – that the League and the right wing Poles could secure in the next Parliament and which would make their impact null if they were placed within the same group. The more likely hypothesis is that each will lead its own front, and if the numbers allow it, enter an alliance with the EPP, which would take on the task of "normalising" the right wing factions.

A second factor that needs to be born in mind is the positioning of the parties without a political affiliation. These are post-ideological movements that have spread throughout Europe over the last decade, especially Macron's La Republique en Marche (LREM) and the Italian 5 Star Movement (5SM). They have both voiced their resolve not to join a traditional party and instead aim to set up their own parliamentary group.

A project that was initially criticized owing to the difficulty to focus interest on parliamentary groups that haven't yet been set up, but ultimately extremely worthwhile if it were to succeed. It it's partly successful, the other factions would be weakened but the new groups would live on the fringes of the parliamentary debate, probably without holding any significant positions and no Commission chairs. If instead it succeeds, it could lead these groups to become the decisive prop for any coalition, thus tilting the balance and maximizing the impact of a limited number of MEPs (less than 20 for both LREM and 5SM) compared to what they might achieve if they were diluted within a broader traditional party.

The third and widely underestimated consideration concerns the participation of the United Kingdom to the European elections and the actual results. According to the latest polls, Jeremy Corbyn's Labour should secure 30 MEPs, changing the negotiating power of the European centre-left, which in recent months has been negligible. This may result in the Dutchman Frans Timmermans, Juncker's right hand man and currently a deputy Commission president, moving his chattels directly onto the 13th floor of the Berlaymont Building, the most important of the European executive.

A positive result by the Socialists might rekindle a traditional alliance, stemming the sovereigntist and populist extremists, but the new majority would hinge on MEPs who are, theoretically, fated to leave and thus opening up an interesting debate on a legislation split into two halves.

Foreseeing the composition is not enough to understand what type of parliament we will be landed with, we also have to consider how it will operate. The last Euro-parliament has passed plenty of laws, but the addition of post-ideological parliamentary groups and the increased weight of the Euro-sceptical right wing factions could lead to a greater fragmentation, which could imperil the capacity to address the delicate legislative issues to be faced during the next legislation.

Much attention had been paid, owing to its exceptionality, to the cross-floor majority which last March approved the new rules on copyright. Although not in the same proportions, this could be a paradigmatic vote for the next term. Besides legislating less, a fragmented Parliament would also involve more 'transient' majorities that could form on the spur of the moment based on the issue, making the job of the reporters called on to negotiate between the Parliamentary positions and the EU Council much more complex.

The fragmentation could also be compounded by the high turnover rate for MEPs which is estimated will be between 40 and 60%. A highly inexperienced parliament, or worse still weighed down by euro-sceptics, could slow the decision making process even further.

And finally there are the issues that the next Parliament will have to address. A fair amount of the debate, at least until 2020, will revolve around the Multi-Year Financial Framework (MFF), the seven year plan that will decide the allocation of funds for the 2021 – 2027 period.

The funds allocated by the MFF will also hinge on very weighty dossiers such as the new Common Agricultural Policy  (CAP), once the queen of all community policies but which is expected to be cut down to size. Among the other 'hanging' files that have to be negotiated with the Council, despite having been voted through during a plenary session, there is also the directive on drinking water, which could be the first European law stemming from an initiative put forward by European citizens who collected 1.8 million signatures, and the abolition of Daylight Saving Time.

Beyond these pending issues, the new Parliament's true task will be to fully implement the programmatic decisions made by the previous legislation running up to 2030, such as the strategy on climate and the creation of a European defence industry, as well as the future challenges posed by artificial intelligence or batteries, central to electric mobility and energy decentralisation. But most of all, it will have to handle the failed promises of the last five year term and primarily the Dublin reform and the huge failure in the handling of the migratory crisis, along with the ordered exit of the United Kingdom, provided Brexit actually comes to completion during the next legislation, or at all.

@gerardofortuna

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe

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Will the new parliament witness a shake up? It will certainly have a harder time managing a huge budget and a few broken promises

) [4] => stdClass Object ( [id] => 10727 [title] => Sovereigntists prepare to storm Brussels [alias] => mario-draghi-speech-european-elections-sovranists [introtext] =>

A contradiction in terms: why should anyone promoting nation states want to enter the European parliament? And to do what? We explain why the sovereigntist block won’t break through on May 26

[fulltext] =>

For the first part of this editorial I'll refer to the rationale outlined by Mario Draghi last February at the University of Bologna, in an address which we will one day recognise as a milestone on the teaching of European Union perspectives. I will be quoting large sections from it.

As European citizens, for the past 10 years we have had to fight off one of the most profound economic and financial crises even, and this has gradually dimmed our perception of the benefits of integration and brought to the fore the costs, associated with a supposed loss of national sovereignty. In actual fact – Draghi reminds us – "there is an inherent trade-off between EU membership and the ability of countries to exercise sovereignty".

This is a fundamental point, which was the main bone of contention I raised during my video-interview with Steve Bannon, who tried in vain to convince me that the future of the European communities depends on us being able to restore our national sovereignties. He had a hard time justifying the simultaneous praising of America first, the Trumpian claim, in what is an extremely federated United States of America….

We have to beware – Draghi added – "not to conflate independence with sovereignty: the latter is reflected in the ability to control outcomes and respond to the fundamental needs of the people.  The ability to make independent decisions does not guarantee countries such control. In other words, independence does not guarantee sovereignty. Countries that are completely shut off from the global economy are independent but not sovereign in any meaningful sense – often relying on external food aid to feed their people. Yet being connected through globalisation also increases the vulnerability of individual countries so they must work together to exercise sovereignty, especially if they belong to the European Union."

Besides the mild criticism of European technocrats and of powers apparently pulling strings in the background, European sovereigntists have often disagreed among each other: Salvini has met Marine Le Pen just once, but then she did not attend the first Convention for a Common Sense Europe promoted by Salvini in Milan (what a missed opportunity). Perhaps because his northern colleagues have very little time for her. Orban too was nowhere to be seen, and the Poles in attendance were few and treading very carefully.

The three sovereigntist sub-families – Europe of Nations and Freedom (Salvini's League and Le Pen's Rapprochement National), Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (Alternative for Germany and 5 Star Movement) and the Conservatives and Reformers (Post-Fascist Fratelli d'Italia, the Poles of the Right and Justice Party, the Danish Populist Party and the True Finns) – each eye each other with suspicion: on economic and social issues for example, it will be hard to reach agreements, seeing as the DNA of the individual parties is about defending national interests, with the Northerners by no means acquiescent on Italian accounting and on the populist recipes promoted by the Yellow-Green government.

The co-leader of the AfD, Alice Weidel, has often stated that Germany does not intend to pay Italian debts.

Then there's the migrant issue, that divides the countries of initial reception from those in the north. "We don't want to redistribute migrants, we just want to control our borders", the Italian Deputy Prime Minister replies fairly curtly to those who remind him that partly thanks to his friends the Dublin regulation stands unchanged. No distribution of migrants then, even if the fair allocation of asylum seekers among all EU countries was in the government contract signed by the League and the 5 Star Movement. The battle fought by Italy against an unsympathetic European Union obviously led to nothing, seeing as Salvini's allies are the last ones prepared to listen to any cries of help from initial reception countries.

Then there's Putin dividing the sovereigntist camp, to the extent that the Italian Minister of the Interior, in order not to scare off his Finnish and Polish allies of Pls, had to reassert at his Milan April convention that the current alliances are not up for discussion and that his position on European sanctions against Russia are just his own personal opinion.

Therefore, how sovereigntists will produce the reforms that will grace us with a "Europe of peoples, free to live their own identity", is unclear, because there are very few shared recipes, and besides the fear of the invader, they come in more or less extremist shades.

Another novelty is that there's absolutely no talk of any kind of Euro exit any longer. On 23 June 2016, the day of the historical referendum in the United Kingdom, Salvini tweeted enthusiastically: "A cheer for the courage of free citizens. Heart, mind and pride defeat lies, threats and blackmail. Thanks UK, now it's our turn". Pity then that three years later the United Kingdom is in the throes of an unprecedented political and institutional chaos and some of its economic indicators are unavoidably tottering. The true Brexit has kicked in with its dramatic overtones and those previously uncorking the champagne are having second thoughts. The approaching elections have normalised all the sovereigntists towards a more European approach: Europe surely needs changing, but leaving is not advisable, especially now that some of these anti-establishment forces are now in government.

Therefore Europe moves ahead as does the Euro (the latest polls indicate that as many as 75% of European citizens are in favour of the euro). Even the protesting Visegrad group, who are much too keen on Brussels' structural funds to think of going it alone, no longer question its existence.

In actual fact the sovereigntist camp hasn't even decided which areas of sovereignty should be taken away from Brussel's control and returned to the nation states: obviously enough the sovereigntist manifesto will still be a while in the drafting and there are many issues that still need solving. Perhaps the issues can be summed up with the words of Anders Vistisen of the Danish People's Party, one of Salvini's chums, who , after their meeting in Milan, stated, "… if you don't believe in this project, our Euro-bureaucracy opponents will win out. And jeopardize our national identities".

We hope that Vistisen will get a chance to read Draghi's speech in Bologna, which explains the difference between independence and sovereignty, providing hard currency examples of the importance of the integration process: "The European Union accounts for 16.5% of global economic output, second only to China, which gives European countries a large domestic market to fall back on in the event of trade disruptions. And the euro is the world’s second-most traded international currency, which helps insulate the euro area economy from exchange rate volatility".

On 26 May we will be choosing our representatives to the European Parliament among those who at least can understand these words, and can therefore lead us towards an efficient system of government that can be of use in guaranteeing growth and fairer distribution of wealth, and particularly adept at handling the regular crises and so called asymmetric shocks, that are the most threatening to the income levels of the middle classes and of those who have less.

@GiuScognamiglio

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe

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A contradiction in terms: why should anyone promoting nation states want to enter the European parliament? And to do what? We explain why the sovereigntist block won’t break through on May 26

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The tragedy of Paris is symbolic: if we don't accelerate the european integration's process, Europe falls. Let's keep this in mind on May 23

[fulltext] =>

Notre Dame aflame, hours of panic devastated this April evening, as we sat glued to the tragic images of the collapse of the tallest steeple. Notre Dame is not just of artistic value, it carries historic, political, religious and cultural significance. It's a symbol that has united us all, with its stunning beauty, its fascinating position in the heart of Paris, in the centre of the Europe we love, a compulsory destination for anyone leaving their own country at least once in their lifetime.

The French lining the banks of the Seine were crying, but we were all French on that evening… or at least most of us…

We must bear this tragic evening in mind so we realise how fragile the symbols of our communities are, if we don't look after them. Much like our continental institutions, which have often been blessed in Notre Dame during the course of history, they too need to be protected, upgraded, revived, so they can promote the progress of our European society, made up of many national cultures, but which nevertheless believe in a shared present and future, and many shared symbols.

A decade of almost unparalleled crisis has undermined the European citizen's trust in the Union's institutions: since 2007 it has dropped by as much as 15 percentage points (from 57% to 42%) but the same phenomenon is overwhelming national institutions to a greater extent (they've collapsed to 35%!). The impact of the crisis has scuttled our beliefs, and not just in the economy, but even in our social cohabitation. The all-consuming recession has caused a drastic reduction in employment, with disastrous repercussions on youth employment and worst still on all forms of permanent occupation. The countries in the south of Europe have not only recorded the most significant fall of all its indicators, they are also taking much longer to recover than the northern countries. So? What can we do?

The isolationist recipes put forward by many of the new improvised leaders certainly won't help. International cooperation, as I will explain more in detail in the editorial, is valuable and protects us against global crises.

I realise it may be counter-intuitive, but that's why we need to rely on experts and not just common sense. Only very competent leaders will have the courage to make anti-cyclical and often unpopular choices, in the short term (but this is not always the case, unfortunately, as the recent past shows). Closing borders can give the impression of simplifying governance and therefore the solution of problems. But that's not the case, especially in the time we're living in right now, when the greatest problems are global: energy, climate change, financial crises, migrations. Drastic national measures give the impression of providing a fast and logical solution, but it's the same as curing someone seriously ill with drugs: the relief is immediate, but soon things get worse and then it's too late for any cure to be effective.

We must instead lead our 500 million voters to develope a new ability to compete, negotiate and focus, all goals that can be achieved with the best education, by promoting the boldest innovative processes, investing on scientific research and the mobility of the future. Only a strengthened cooperation in all these sectors can help drag Italy First, France First or Germany First out of the swamp. The Franco-German Statement in  Mesenberg can be considered the first stone of a reboot of the European integration process, our only hope of perpetuating another 70 years of peace in Europe (a historical first), but also our chance of restoring growth and distributing wealth in a fairer and more inclusive fashion. Those who wish to join this historic journey, should vote for the parties that support it at the European elections on 23 – 26 May.

@GiuScognamiglio

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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The tragedy of Paris is symbolic: if we don't accelerate the european integration's process, Europe falls. Let's keep this in mind on May 23

) [6] => stdClass Object ( [id] => 10713 [title] => The zero growth figures [alias] => zero-growth-figures-italy [introtext] =>

The European slowdown has brought Italy to a standstill due to structural weakness and the instability produced by the government’s dispute with the EU Commission

[fulltext] =>

The economy often comes to a head in the summer. That was the story in 2011, when Europe suffered its sovereign debt crisis and also in 1971, on 15 August, when Nixon announced the end of the international convertibility of the United States dollar to gold. And it happened to a lesser extent last year as well. All Italian economic indicators started to veer into the red between June and September 2018. Just as the "government of change", the first European government in Europe in the hands of a nationalist-populist force, moved its first steps. Was it just bad luck or was there blame involved?

The first problems for the "Italy first" government came from outside. The entire euro zone in the second half of the year started to creak, with industrial production dropping by 0.5%, mainly owing to problems in Germany: between June and December German industrial production fell away by 2.2% and Italy followed suit: from the middle of the year industrial turnover started to drop until the shock collapse of 7.4% in December. A repercussions of the international value chain, with Italy's industrial compartment strongly linked to Germany's, compounded by the European diesel car crisis. But even the China-US trade war was partly to blame. For a country like ours, where growth relies on exports, the slowing of world trade was already very bad news. When allied with a nationalist ideology, it bears within it an obvious paradox: the only hope for our local sovereigntists is the failure of sovereigntists abroad. Or forms of cooperation between nationalists – an obvious contradiction in terms.

If the first shock came from abroad, one certainly can't pin the great freeze entirely on international economic circumstances. If we break down the figures for industrial turnover, we see that the heavy drop in December 2018 was equally spread over national and foreign sales; and that from January onwards the foreign component started growing again while internal growth kept dropping off. The same can be said for the orders that Italy's industry had in its portfolios: after dropping by 4.7% in December, mainly due to the drop of orders from abroad, they then fell by 1.2%, this time due to a drop in national demand. Since the middle of the year, even private investments have slowed. In short: Europe's snuffles resulted in a bout of pneumonia in Italy. This is partly due to our economy's structural weaknesses; and in part due to a factor that is crucial for markets: expectations.

The expectations surrounding the government's budget started to come to a head way before the budget was actually drafted: when, before announcing the 'expansive' measures, the gauntlet was thrown down before the European Commission, regarding excessive budget spending. This led to a storm that lasted two months and ended in compromise, but left a number of victims on the ground, mainly on the Italian side. The yield differential between Italian and German treasury bonds (the spread), which during the first four months of 2018 had stood at around 120 base points, climbed to around 230 in May, and peaked at 320 in November. In March 2019, when the emergency seemed to be over, it was hovering between 230 and 260 base points: over double compared to the same month of the previous year. This means that the interest rate on Italy's debt has gone up by one percentage point. The effect on the government's interest rate payments is disruptive: it has grown by 0.9% in a year, while in 2017 it had dropped by 1.2%. This figure, besides damaging the public accounts (the total debt in 2018 climbed to 132.1% of GDP), also has repercussions on the private economy, making credit conditions worse for companies and families and putting banks at risk.

But beside the spread-effect, could it be that the moneys funnelled into the economy by the 2019 budget not do much for manufacturing and consumption? After all, it is still 2% of GDP, which has been allocated to meet three objectives: blocking a VAT increase, allowing a drop in retirement age (so called "quota 100") and bringing the citizen's income into being. The compromise reached with Europe put paid to the potentially expansive part of the budget, meaning public investments, by wiping off 1.8 billion from this particular budget heading.

Even the government has posted what can hardly be considered a positive assessment of the impact of its budget on growth: 0.4% GDP points. The Parliamentary budget office is more pessimistic: 0.3% of GDP points, due to the citizen's income (which accounts for 0.2% of GDP) and the neutralisation of the VAT safeguard clauses. This latter measure has a positive effect of 0.1% of GDP – but it's worth recalling that as early as next September the government will have to decide what cash it will use in order not to raise VAT in 2020 and 2021. While the impact of the remaining parts of the budget is zero. Therefore in its first year of life the government has waged all its resources on an "expansive" budget which, if all bodes well, will only increase GDP by half a percentage point; as the country enters recession and growth forecasts are being lowered by everyone (the EU Commission now estimates a growth of 0.2%, the Bank of Italy 0.4%, while according to the OECD we'll witness a drop of 0.2%). The Italian government has in fact now lowered its growth forecast from 1% to 0.2% of GDP in its DEF (Economic Planning Document) published at the beginning of April.

If the economic budget has had a fairly negligible effect on growth, what about on employment? In the absence of economic growth and a possible recessions approaching, it's hard to see how companies will be hiring enough to completely replace the additional retirees who will have benefitted from the early retirement opportunities offered by "quota 100", while employment in the public sector is blocked by its internal stability agreements. As for the citizen's income, advertised on buses as a "revolution in labour relations", it is more likely to have an impact on the social security system rather than on labour markets– it's hard to imagine how the Job Centres in just a few months, with a few thousand extra staff, can suddenly become effective job placement terminals.

In actual fact the government measure that so far has had an impact on the job market is the so called "dignity decree", which in July introduced substantial disincentives on temporary employment. The figures published by INPS (the Italian Social Security Agency) for the last part of the year saw the 5SM claiming victory owing to a growth in permanent employment contracts: over the whole of 2018, while jobs overall have increased by 5.1%, within that number those pertaining to permanent contracts have increased by 7.9%, more than temporary job contracts (+4.5%). If we once again look at a breakdown of these figures, one sees that the real boom lies in so called "transformations", meaning temporary contracts now transformed into permanent ones: these have posted a + 76.2%. One can well imagine what's gone on: many companies, as the temporary contracts that could no longer be renewed lapsed, transformed them into more permanent ones. Good news of course, but not the creation of 'more' jobs. After all, the "activations" meaning the start of new employment relationships, have actually slowed over the same period.

If we step back to look at more medium term trends, especially where employment figures are concerned, we see that temporary employment has been growing constantly for the last ten quarters: in 2018 temporary employment reached its historic peak, with 3.1 million temporary contracts. Even Renzi's imposing budget, with incentives for permanent employment contracts, did not reverse the trend, after an initial thrust. The reason for this is linked to both the demands of the economy and the actual manufacturing structure, which is increasingly focused on services, which feature more flexible and insecure working relations in areas such as sales, tourism and logistics. Much as was the case with Renzi's tax relief incentives, even the effects of the dignity decree can only be fully assessed in the long term. And the figures for February have already shown a drop in permanent occupation: could it be that the Di Maio effect is already wearing off?

@robertacarlini

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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The European slowdown has brought Italy to a standstill due to structural weakness and the instability produced by the government’s dispute with the EU Commission

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Two former 5SM members come forth. “The movement is dead: all that’s left is a successful brand”. “One of the media’s deceits was to validate its revolutionary stature”.

[fulltext] =>

“We witnessed an experiment. An attempt at social engineering. An experiment that shows how much we need democracy and how easy it is to sell pie in the sky. But this story, the story of the Movement, will end badly, very badly”. These forthright and abrasive comments belong to the authors of the book Supernova (ed. Ponte alle Grazie) Nicola Biondo and Marco Canestrari, who are very familiar with the 5SM organisational machine having contributed to its progress and ideals for many years before turning their back on it in dismay.

Nicola Biondo, a writer and journalist for La Stampa, L'Unità and Avvenimenti, from April 2013 to the summer of 2014 headed the 5SM Communications Department for the Lower house of Parliament and had known Gianroberto Casaleggio since 2010. Easy going and on time, still a hint of  a Sicilian accent despite his many years in Trentino, his northern adoptive region, the former head of Communications for the 5SM discusses the issues without holding back, rewinding the film of how he believes Grillo's project has been betrayed.

Biondo, the 5SM has always shown a particular aversion towards traditional party politics. Do you believe the direct democracy experiment they have promoted has actually been effectively implemented?

The direct democracy the Movement and Casaleggio have been going on about doesn't exist. The facts bear this out: in the councils they manage, for example, there's never been any kind of poll. Their parliamentary referendums have been used to politically get rid of a few thousand registered candidates and over half of the candidates chosen are suggested by the "heavyweights", starting with Luigi Di Maio and working on down. Voters are dwindling, and the Rousseau platform is an empty shell. The Rousseau platform (that may or may not dictate policy) has lost 30% of its registered members in a year, close to 40,000 people. The rhetoric about direct and participated democracy, thanks to which the 5SM collected 32% of the vote at the latest elections, claims that complex situations can be shunned: candidates ask for votes by promising to follow orders, rather than reach decisions. In the end however, the orders it was supposed to follow, as direct democracy would entail, have been disregarded: the ILVA steel works in Taranto are still operating, as are the MUOS satellite system and the TAP gas pipeline, and Rome is still a mess. All by the wayside. After 10 years of rhetoric one can safely say, based on the actual results, that Casaleggio's direct democracy is a hoax.

What do you think of the Movement's foreign affairs policy? What do you believe is the reason behind the 5 Star's change of heart with regard to Russia and Putin?

For the Movement Putin was at first a criminal politician who had journalists killed and curtailed his people's freedom. He then became the strong man the world so desperately needs. What is the cost of this switch and who stands to gain? This question should be primarily addressed to Casaleggio: this U-turn was planned in its offices. In our new book, Sistema Casaleggio, we analyse how the Movement is a political asset in the hands of a commercial entity; the party's foreign politics is aligned to the needs of a business enterprise. Casaleggio, both father and son, have been secretly fostering relations with the new Anglo-American far-right: the promoters of Brexit, Steve Bannon and Cambridge Analytica. And they've turned their gaze east: towards Moscow and then China. Russia and China are entities that are not subject to the critical oversight of democratic consent; they are states that engage in trade wars, where the concentration of multinationals is very high and goes hand in hand with a very rigid social stratification which does not envisage any form of liberal expression, be it political or economic, other than that fostered by those in power. Casaleggio Jr. operates in his dual guise as manager of a political asset and a businessman. 'His' Movement provides access to a network that he couldn't even dream of penetrating otherwise. The contacts made by his avatars in parliament become his contacts, his business and public relations' agents. When a diplomat, a multinational or a foreign political leader shakes hands with Luigi Di Maio, or they enter into a trade agreement with one of the Movement's ministers, it's as if they were shaking hands or signing a deal directly with Davide, the Casaleggio businessman, who in turn, as is happening more and more, is dictating trade policy to its political asset, pointing to areas it should focus on (new technologies, AI, telecommunications..), and advertising his readiness to provide lobbying services to potential investors. He controls the drawbridge which provides access to the mechanism. Is there a plan to jettison Italy's historical allies and replace them with Russia and China? That's what the facts would seem to indicate. The Salvini-Casaleggio government cares little whether foreign powers take over strategic assets in Italy, our home made sovereigntists are ready to cede sovereignty to all and sundry. We needn't worry, there won't be a specific night when Italy leaves the EU, when Italexit is finally ratified. We're already stumbling in that darkness. Control is gradually being whittled away because Rome is totally isolated. Is it clear now why certain trade agreements can lead Italy to forsake its historic partnerships? Or see the latter turn their backs on us? These agreements in question are those on the new Silk Road and 5G broadband.

Davide Casaleggio claims: "I'm simply a registered member who voluntarily and for no fee provides technical assistance.”

It's one of the many lies that the Heir feeds his audiences. And no one, to this day, has asked why he needs to come up with this and so many other lies. The relationship that binds the Movement to this businessman is unparalleled. Every one of the Movement's parliamentarians hands over 300 euro a month for a poor quality and unsafe product like Rousseau. Davide Casaleggio is the chairman of the Casaleggio Association, the Rousseau Association and the Gianroberto Casaleggio Association, all entities that meet different corporate requirements. As it turns out, he manages these legal entities as if they were divisions of a single company; Rousseau in particular, seems to act as the 5SM treasury and the Gianroberto Casaleggio Association as a business incubator. The conflicts of interest of the Second Republic have been replaced by the influence peddling of the Third.

Following Gianroberto Casaleggio's death and Beppe Grillo's gradual marginalisation, who actually runs the Movement right now?

The Movement is dead, all that's left is a successful brand. Today we have Luigi Di Maio's party. He has transformed the Movement into his own personal, autocratic party. The take-over took place with oversight by Davide Casaleggio and other powers, to whom Di Maio has made many promises.

Do you find that in joining forces in government with the Lega, the 5SM has had to relinquish or betray some of its founding principles? And do you think this government will run its full term?

None of the founding principles are still standing. They've been replaced by the fiercest propaganda while the quality of the policies is standard and the people selected to run them are hopeless. The media has deceived everyone by suggesting that the Movement was revolutionary: on the contrary, it is nothing more than a façade. And as such it can be dangerous, seeing as behind its  political personnel crouch other personalities and powers that have a very strong influence over them.  Both on a national and international level. Sixty percent of the current parliament's members were  elected for the first time, and are waiting until September 2020 when they'll be eligible for a pension. In February 2020 this parliament will be called upon to elect the new State President. These two factors alone are indicative of how long the legislature is likely to last. Of course, if the international scenario were to change, there would be repercussions here as well.

This article is also published in the May/June issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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Two former 5SM members come forth. “The movement is dead: all that’s left is a successful brand”. “One of the media’s deceits was to validate its revolutionary stature”.

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The European electoral law only grants voting rights to EU residents. This means the votes of Europeans living in the UK and Switzerland could be ruled out

[fulltext] =>

Ahead of this year’s European elections, Italians resident in the United Kingdom will receive no call to vote at the consulate nor a ballot paper to send via post as is the case for the country’s general elections. In order to vote in the elections to the EU parliament they will have to return home to Italy to their council of origin.

This scenario is just one of the many unexpected consequences of Brexit. Italians in the UK will lose their right to elect their representatives in the European parliament directly from their country of residence. Until 2014, the year of the last continent-wide elections, those living in Great Britain and enrolled in the Register of Italians living Abroad (AIRE) could choose whether to vote in their own British constituency or in Italy. Even those staying temporarily in the country, for example Erasmus students, could vote at the consulate if they submitted their request in advance. From this year, however, in order to vote they will need to head back to their own municipality in Italy, unless of course there are some last-minute surprises, such as the UK postponing the country’s effective withdrawal from the EU or new measures being implemented by the Italian government.

The explanation for the current state of affairs is that the Italian law concerning the right to submit a postal vote from abroad does not apply to European elections, while the law concerning the European elections only allows voting from abroad for those resident in other countries in the EU. Few people were aware of this.

In the absence of any further information (at the moment of going to print, the website of the Italian consulate in London still cited the option of voting in the United Kingdom), the discussion has lit up Italian and European Facebook Groups with enquiries about whether Italians in the UK will be able to vote and comments that their potential exclusion from the European elections coincides with the increased importance of Europe in light of the Brexit issue.

“At the last European elections, when the United Kingdom took part, I received the documents to vote at the Italian consulate. They specified that I could vote for either an Italian or British Euro-parliamentarian, not in both countries. I chose to vote for a British representative on that occasion. I expect to receive the same communication but this time only with the possibility to vote for an Italian candidate,” says Claudia Borgognoni Holmes in an exchange of messages. Claudia is an Anglo-Italian who has lived in London for years and has founded the association UK CEN (UK Citizenship for European Nationals). The aim of her group is to help Europeans obtain British passports in order to avoid being excluded from important British plebiscites like the Brexit referendum. But no one had imagined that Brexit would also have consequences for their voting rights as Italians.

The London office of Comites, the Committee for Italians abroad, has also been caught wrong-footed. “With everything that’s going on with Brexit, our priority is to guarantee that Italians who have been here for decades can maintain their rights concerning pensions and national insurance. We didn’t even think about the problem of European elections,” explains president Pietro Molle.

Massimo Ungaro, European member of parliament from Italy’s Democratic Party and a representative of Italians abroad, has written to Italy’s Ministry of the Interior and Foreign Ministry to request clarification. “It is currently estimated that there are more than 700 thousand Italians living in the United Kingdom. If we add to these the estimated 300 thousand in Switzerland, there are more than one million Italians entitled to vote who are residing in geographical areas in Europe where they will be unable to do so […] at least unless they undertake a journey back to the peninsular,” he says.

Ungaro has called for transitory measures to ensure the right to vote from these two countries and encourage participation, “also in the context of the significant socio-political impact of Brexit and citizens’ recent disaffection with the EU institutions”. Consulted at the time of going to print, the Ministry of the Interior had not responded to these requests and initiatives.

But Italy is not the only country in this situation. Bulgaria and Greece have similar rules. The Czech Republic, Malta, Slovakia and Ireland deny citizens the right to vote from abroad, or limit these rights substantially.

A study of the EU parliament in 2013 described the obstacles encountered by European residents abroad and citizens of third countries resident in Europe in exercising their right to vote.

At the last European elections, only 22 countries out of 28 guaranteed their citizens residing in another EU member state the possibility to vote, and 18 of these provided the same right for residents outside of Europe. Many countries moreover exclude citizens from third countries, a group that is even more numerous, including those who have been resident in the country for a considerable time.

The study concludes that the elections for the European Parliament remain in many ways a “national” ballot. In spite of a softening over the years, the right to vote from abroad is more often guaranteed for legislative elections. There is a lack of common rules and the fact that every country determines different electoral legislation means that there is no real equality in exercising the right to vote.

It is not surprising that voter turnout for those resident abroad is much lower compared with national averages. The causes of this are a lesser interest in the political debate and electoral campaigns based on national issues, but also obstacles to the possibility of voting.

“While national governments have given the EP power over far-reaching legislative and budget decisions, the national political elites have been unwilling to create a pan-European democratic space,” write Stefan Lehne and Heather Grabbe of Carnegie Europe, a research institute specialized in international affairs. “European parliamentarians are elected from national lists, according to each country’s election laws, and national political parties have kept an iron grip on the electoral process. Thus, EP elections have more resembled twenty-eight national elections than transnational contests.”

This election, however, is different from the others. At stake is the future of the world’s only parliament elected directly by citizens of different countries. It will be the first election since the establishment of the European Parliament in 1979 without the participation of the United Kingdom.

400 million electors will be called to appoint 705 representatives. Due to Brexit, the number will be lower than the current 751 but Italy will see its number of representatives rise from 73 to 76 thanks to the redistribution of 27 of Britain’s 73 seats.

According to Carnegie Europe, the populist parties could obtain sufficient seats to be able to block important decisions for the future of Europe. But at the same time their rise could create the opportunity for electoral campaign to involve a continental-scale debate.

Faced with the spectre of declining voter turnout (from 62% at the 1979 elections to 43% in 2014) and disinformation attacks and fake news, the European parliament is running for cover. The campaign thistimeiamvoting.eu has been launched to encourage participation and a new app will enable users to see what Europe does for me” by tracing decisions and funds that have had an impact on people’s daily lives.

Faced with all of this, denying the vote in some countries seems to be somewhat of an anachronism. Alessandro Martinez, an Italian manager who has recently moved from the United Kingdom to Switzerland, regrets not being able to vote from abroad. “I didn’t know about these rules and I’m very sorry about this. I think that with today’s technology there should be the means to enable Italians who don’t reside in the European Union to vote,” he says.

@Claudiacomms

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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Saranno le prime elezioni senza la partecipazione del Regno Unito. La legge prevede il voto dall’estero solo per i residenti in altri Paesi della Ue. Gli altri dovranno recarsi in Italia. 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The European electoral law only grants voting rights to EU residents. This means the votes of Europeans living in the UK and Switzerland could be ruled out

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In May, 400 million Europeans will vote for the ninth time. At a national level, pro-European leaders are in trouble, but less in Europe

[fulltext] =>

Never before has Europe's fate and its capacity to compete with other global powers been decided by elections for the European parliament. The unprecedented clash between pro-Europeans and Sovereigntists that is at the centre of the electoral campaign is being vilified by unqualified language and conduct, like the fierce exchange between French President Emmanuel Macron and the representatives of the Italian 'yellow and green' government (Conte, Salvini and Di Maio). According to the most recent polls, Macron is in serious trouble even though his votes will be merged with those of the ALDE group (which should post a good showing thanks to the votes of the Spanish right wing Ciudadanos party). Perhaps that's why Italian Vice-President Matteo Salvini is attacking Macron who, for his part, has committed the major sin of answering back, always a sign of weakness. The fear of the polls also explains Macron and Merkel grandstanding at the signing of the new bilateral agreement between France and Germany in the shadow of Charlemagne's grave in Aachen, suggesting that they want to rekindle the European project as we have known it up to now.

The European elections in May will be the ninth since 1979 and will involve citizens with voting rights from all of the Union's member states, approximately 400 million people. In 4 states (Belgium, Cyprus, Greece and Luxembourg) attendance is compulsory while in all the others, Italy included, participation is voluntary.

Despite the upheavals at a national level, according to the latest polls the next elections are unlikely to affect the major political coalitions and their share of seats. For what they're worth, the polls still have the PPE in the lead with 22.5% (+1.1%), followed by the Social Democrats with 17.1% (-0.6%) followed by the liberals of ALDE with 13.1% (+0.1%), then come ENF (7.9%) (+0.7%), GUE/NGL 7.7% (-0.6%), ECR 7.4% (+1.7%). and EFDD 7.1% (-0.9%). The European People's Party (which can rely on the votes of Forza Italia, bolstered by Berlusconi's candidacy) should then receive 177 seats and would remain the largest group in the European Parliament. The European Socialist Party, affiliated with the Democratic Party, is unlikely to win more than 136 seats. The liberals of ALDE with 96 seats would be ranked third, and would include the votes awarded to the French president. The fourth spot would go to Europe of Nations and Freedom Group (ENF) which harbours the League along with the candidates of Le Pen's Front National which should secure 62 seats, ten more than the left wing GUE/NGL group, the ECR reformists and the 47 seats of the Greens. The 5 Star Movement, which in Europe has only joined the EFDD group would have to make do with 46 seats. Rather meagre pickings for the yellow-green government.

But these figures should be taken with a pinch of salt. On the eve of the elections in Bavaria, last October 14, everyone was forecasting a bumper crop for the far right party Alternative für Deutschland. Instead the honours went to a party on the opposite end of the political spectrum, the Greens, while the AfD, with ambitions of clearing the 20% mark, had to chew on a result of just 10%. And that's not the first time that the ballots defy the polls. Yet the fear surrounding the sovereigntist factions is still there. According to long-standing pollsters like Pagnoncelli, the time for a right wing landslide is yet to come. According to estimates by Politico.eu. the total of the parties classified as soft or hard Euro-sceptics (such as the League) are likely to be hard put to win between 150 and 170 seats. Less than a quarter of the 705 seats that will be assigned after the May vote, the first without the United Kingdom. Politico.eu's estimate seems almost excessive, compared to the average of the latest polls. Pollofpolls.eu, a portal that monitors Europeans' voting intentions, downsizes the share of 'sovereigntist' seats to closer to 100: 57 to parties running under the Europe of Nations and Freedom flag and 50 going to lists connected to Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy (EFDD, the grouping that hosts the 5 Star Movement). Italy would be getting the lion's share here, with a total of 28 seats allocated to the League and 26 to the 5 Star Movement. A bunch of votes that would bolster the two families that count among their ranks Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement national, the German far right party Alternative für Deutschland and other lesser groups such as the Polish Nowa Prawica (a 'radically eurosceptic' party that wants the death penalty reinstated) and Svoboda a přímá demokracie, a Czech party with just 1,400 members. The diffidence towards 'Brussels bureaucrats' could act as a bond and override the implicit hostility towards a group made up  entirely of nationalists. But even the Rassemblement national (an updated version of the Front national) or the Danish People are vying for the moderate vote. One also has to consider that forces that have little in common with the moderate vote, such as Viktor Orban's Fidesz, are still hosted within the People's Party.

Orban, or indeed Salvini. The troubles within the parties are shifting the spotlight onto the leaders or those who aspire to the role. But are we so sure that Salvini is a strong leader? Or more poignantly a respected leader? As a great political journalist put it better than I ever could "He resembles an arrogant gang leader, who boast a party and an electorate that are more akin to vassals than militants". As for the Five Star Movement the leadership is shared between a controlling owner (Casaleggio & Associati), a brilliantly inspirational comedian (Beppe Grillo) and a young politician whose main concern is avoiding a collision course with the owner or the inspirational comedian while holding together an electorate brought up on a diet of generalised cussing. Ultimately, they are all leaders fuelled by slogans who have little to do with representative democracy.

As for the Italian centre-left and its preparations for the European elections, things aren't going much better here either. Once again there's quite a crowd of aspiring leaders (the primary election candidates), but backed by weak and often not formally established parties. That's the case of LEU that has not managed to become a party after promising to do so after the political elections, but the same applies to the smaller left-wing formations such as Sinistra Italiana, Potere al Popolo or De Magistris' movement. I think that in many cases these formations are making the mistake of seeking a leader at all costs (Pisapia, Grasso and now perhaps Calenda) rather than fielding a group of reliable managers both at local and central level.

Massimo D'Alema in an interview for La Stampa on January 31 remarked that the juxtaposition between pro-Europeans and Sovereigntists could become a trap that might trip up the left. But an alliance of forces that relate to the democratic left at the upcoming European elections is essential, however tricky it is to set up in practice. Clearly without anyone being excluded because if one wants to be involved in European socialism it would be little strange to say: the left-wing Democratic Party yes, LEU no. Both are part of the European socialist family.

So content should take centre stage. A reformist European alliance that takes its cue from European socialism and the ecological movements can effectively be achieved by presenting a proposal for Europe. Providing it can overcome the old approach whereby, as D'Alema noted: "politics had to take a back seat and allow the economy and finance to rule the roost".

@pelosigerardo

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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In May, 400 million Europeans will vote for the ninth time. At a national level, pro-European leaders are in trouble, but less in Europe

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Should the drop in consensus for the EU be blamed on the press and its short-sighted reporting or on inefficient governance?

[fulltext] =>

Journalists tasked with following European events run the risk of covertly contributing to Euroscepticism. Correspondents in Brussels are supposed to provide a day by day account of the community's dealings, marked by frustrating diplomatic marathons, inconclusive emergency summits, long legislative processes, trite bureaucratic expedients, minor last minute compromises and oft repeated clashes involving reciprocal national vetoes. Chancellor Bismarck used to say that "the less people know about how sausages and laws are made, the better they sleep". In their own way the Brussels journalist is in a kitchen, though not over a hob, and will tend to describe how a Wurst is cooked rather than informing their readers on what a sausage tastes like. Focused by the job on the minor detail rather than the overall picture, the correspondent runs the risk of transmitting a distorted or in any case disparaging image of the great community construct.

At a time when the European Union is not particularly popular one has to ask oneself to what extent the press is responsible for the general disenchantment that surrounds the unification project in many European countries. In Italy, the mass media risk having an even greater responsibility. By their very nature, 24 hour news channels have to string the news out, exaggerate the impact of the various news items, overdramatise diplomatic relations or parliamentary votes. Information or entertainment? Every day many newspapers tend to lean towards impressionism and to add theatrical spice to the Union's activities. War, sports and even weather terminology abounds when describing the backdrop or the behind the scene news: clashes tensions, war, attacks, blows, ultimatums, freezes and storms. European dossiers are presented as if they were a long series of battles which necessarily decree victors and vanquished.  And it matters little if the next day the situation is reversed and even less whether the journalistic reporting tweaks emotions and provides a distorted image of the European Union, banishes the great advantages that European countries have secured thanks to the community construct into the background and ends up ultimately reinforcing Euroscepticism.

This may feel like a rhetorical statement, but it's less trivial that it may seem. The integration between European countries has guaranteed 70 years of peace on the European continent, the longest period without a conflict since the 16th century. When François Mitterand in 1995 announced in front of the European parliament that "nationalism is war", the then French president was looking back at centuries of European history. All too often the gaze looks no further than the short term, to the two bloody world conflicts of the 20th century. Yet the historian Max Roser has calculated that between 1500 and 1800, if one divides this time span into 25 year periods, over 60% of the years, excluding the rather sedate 18th century, is marked by conflicts between the major continental powers. During the last five centuries there have been at least 50 wars between major European countries. Without going so far as to follow the perhaps overly optimistic dictates of Immanuel Kant in his essay published in 1795  -Zum ewigen Frieden – Ein philosophicher Entwurf , translated into English as 'Perpetual peace, a philosophical sketch', the long process of European integration has so far dampened the continent's warmongering tendencies, ensuring a peace that at the end of the Second World War seemed an impossible achievement.

In this context, the European integration process has had an exceptional political, as well as economic, impact. Is it off the mark to ascribe the end of the dictatorships in Portugal and Spain in the Seventies to the gradual expansion of the European Economic Community to Ireland, the United Kingdom and Denmark? All too often it is believed that the Soviet Union and the United States were responsible for the fall of the Berlin Wall, and particularly Ronald Reagan's decision to equip America with its space shield, thus cornering the Soviet's foreign policy. But Mikhail Gorbachev's decision to reform the state run economy was a reaction to the European decision to complete the single market and bolster the Union. Seen from Moscow's perspective, the new Brussels' commitments were considered a threat by the Soviet superpower. Ultimately, the Soviet leader's strategy to review his country's economic fabric to keep it in step with the times failed, leading to the dissolution of the Communist empire.

In 2019, the United Kingdom will leave the European Union. For the first time one of the carriages of the community's convoy will be unhitched, instead of adding more. However, it is symptomatic that the list of those that wish to join Union is getting longer by the day: Serbia, Montenegro, Albania and Macedonia are the first in line. Moreover, the year has just begun that will mark the fortieth anniversary of the first universal suffrage for the European parliament. Almost 350 million European citizens will head for the polling stations between 23 and 26 May in the second largest instance of direct democracy after the one that takes place in India every five years. As a result of the recent institutional reforms, the parliamentary assembly, in conjunction with the Council, now takes on the role of co-legislator in a vast number of sectors: from immigration to consumer protection, from economic management to issues such as energy, the environment and transportation. "There was a time when at European summits the address by the European Parliament president was ignored by heads of state and government", as a long-standing community officer recently admitted. "The French President Jacques Chirac was known for theatrically reading his copy of Le Figaro… Now his words are listened to very closely, and often lead to questions and reactions".

As it happens, we tend to forget or underestimate the radical changes that the European Union has introduced on behalf of its citizens. The single market guarantees the free circulation of goods, capital, people and services within a geographic area inhabited by approximately 510 million people and covering an area of 4.4 million square kilometres. Companies are free to export without paying customs duties or having to adapt their products to specific national regulations. Workers can move from one country to another without needing a visa or showing their documents at the border, benefitting from health services in the country where they reside. Investors can purchase shares and bonds on any community market and easily transfer funds and open accounts abroad. The single market has enabled millions of students to study abroad, millions of travellers have taken advantage of the amazing drop in air fares and millions of consumers can make online purchases anywhere in Europe.

For ten years, at first the financial crisis, then the economic one and now the social and political one that burst onto the scene in 2008 with the dramatic bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the United States is surprisingly challenging this entire outlook. Every European success story is noq vilified. The benefits of the Euro in terms of financial stability, trading instrument, political power are no longer believed. The focus in now on the excessive strictness of the rules, which are deemed too stringent. Even the benefits of the Single Market and the Schengen area are now overshadowed by what's actually taking place on the ground. There are those who stress a possible over-regulation of the European Commission and those who worry about industrial delocalisation, unfair competition between workers from different countries, legal and illegal immigration. There are even those who wonder how the imposition of taxes remains an almost completely national affair, allowing a number of countries to use their tax regimes rather unscrupulously to attract investments or saving, to the detriment of their neighbour.

In the end, the current situation is shining a light of the increasing weakness of the European construct. The European Union as a confederation of sovereign states seems to have reached the end of the line.  The doctrine of keeping one's house in order, according to which it is possible to set up an increasingly close relationship between independent countries guaranteed by shared rules, is now being challenged by the need to guarantee new forms of solidarity between member states. The mutual control between member states and healthy competition between national governments is no longer beneficial. In fact, in many ways they heighten tension between countries. The current situation has shown how the various crises, whether economic, financial, social or migratory, cannot be solved by a series of national measures, even if they are coordinated amongst each other. The problems drag on, the dossiers are never closed; with the paradoxical result that Europe gives the impression of being ineffective, and thus contributing to a general lack of enthusiasm towards the European project.

On taking over the leadership of the European Commission in November 2014, the former Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker showed he was aware of this vicious circle. Over the years, without any radical change of an institutional nature, he has done his utmost to make the European Union more federal. He laid the bases for a union of the capital market, an energy union and a digital union. He exerted pressure to improve the foundations of the monetary union by fighting tooth and nail to strengthen the banking union as well as promoting a Euro zone budget. He has created two financial instruments – the European Fund for Strategic Investments (EFSI) and the European Defence Fund (EDF), which are supposed to act as an economic and political flywheel for the entire European Union. He founded a new body of European volunteers to help integration among the young, along the lines of Erasmus, the University exchange programme. He also tried unsuccessfully to impose broader forms of solidarity in the management of migrants and refugees, but he did manage to create a body of European customs officials.

The effort has been considerable, and the attempt to federalise the approach is there for all to see. But as said, it is but an attempt. The many principles of a confederation of sovereign states remain in force: among them, the unanimous vote in many areas, including taxation and foreign policy; the absence of net financial transfers from one country to another to solve banking crises or deal with economic shocks; the impossibility of standardising social security and pension regulations.

Two threats hang over the future of the European construct. The current set up has proven unable to solve many new problems, but what's worse is that this inefficiency is helping to embolden political radicalism in many countries. Those who want to safeguard the community structures must pursue the goal of reinforcing the Union's federal structure, to make them more effective and thus parry the criticisms made by the more nationalist parties. In concrete terms, this means extending the number of areas in which the Council's decisions are reached based on a simple or qualified majority, the harmonisation of national tax systems and a further enhancing of the role of the European parliament. It won't be easy. These days, the difficulties that many countries are having to face induce them to fold back on themselves, rather than embrace the community's ideals.

The last ten years have brought to light very profound differences between European countries. Getting the South to balance its accounts and the East to welcome migrants are serious issues that have triggered a new wave of nationalism. It would be naïve to solve them by imposing a top-down federal solution. The real challenge in the coming years is therefore to work towards greater European integration, in order to avoid the European construction being put on hold and war returning to the continent, but this must be done while retaining the cohesion between the various European sensibilities. The new French-German friendship treaty signed in Aachen at the end of January, despite its limitations, is a first step in this direction. In Italy and elsewhere, a responsible, informed, unbiased and conscientious press is called upon to play an essential part. After all, this very confused moment in history could provide suffering newspapers with a new raison d'ȇtre. As Paul Valéry used to say, "the future is not what it used to be".

@BedaRomano

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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Should the drop in consensus for the EU be blamed on the press and its short-sighted reporting or on inefficient governance?

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The Yellow Vest protests have highlighted Macron’s frailties. He must work to revive his political programme and get the majority of those who voted for him to back it

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The 'yellow vest' crisis marks a very particular moment in French political history. Much has been said about the ruptures it reveals, about territorial France now taking up arms against the city, yet setting itself apart from the banlieues. The roundabout blockades and the by now ritual Saturday demonstrations in the middle of towns initially seemed to be a new version of the “jacqueries", the peasant revolts of old. There has however been a subsequent attempt to capture the nuances of a multifaceted movement, and we have therefore witnessed a concerted effort to understand and rationalise the crisis, by plunging into the sociology of a French population that has a hard time reaching the end of the month, with the modern addition of mobilisation via the social networks. The fact that premonitory warnings signs of this movement had not been perceived, such as for example the discontent triggered by the lowering of the speed limit from 90 km/hr to 80 on provincial roads last July, is representative of the paradigm of a French power completely centred around the main towns and incapable of staying in touch with its inhabitants throughout its vast provincial expanses.

One is therefore forcefully reminded of the issue of the isolation of the elite that sociological investigations have found to be scarcely representative: the French meritocratic selection system currently produces  a high level of social reproduction, with the bitter realisation that often only the sons of those who have a foothold on the rungs of the social establishment can acquire the codes to access society's peaks. The French education system is a two lane affair. The high school graduates with the best grades all come from the best schools, all located in the main cities, and can access the system of "prépa classes", the two foundation years after high school, with fearful workloads, which do however allow access to the competitions for the best graduate state institutions for administration (Sciences Po / ENA), engineering (the Ecole Polytechnique for example), and business (business schools such as HEC, EDHEC, etc.) or teaching (the ecole normale supérieure). The rest of the students take short degree courses at universities and institutes  whose more meritorious educational paths are rarely considered on a par with the grandes écoles” system. This entrenched power structure based on an elitist and restricted selection process is one of the more tangible aspects of the divisions within French society, a phenomenon that is also reflected in the language. The competitive selection of an elite, which tends to view itself as a series of castes on different hierarchic levels, based on results produced between the ages of 16 and 22 is undoubtedly a problem, which is further compounded by the absence of social turnover which this highly selective system entails. Since 1968 even the provincial French "école normales" were shut down. These used to enabled deserving adolescent sons of farmers or factory workers to become teachers and embodied the promise of a Republican social elevator open to all.

We are therefore faced with a power structure that has objective difficulties getting in touch with certain sections of society, and this has been the case for several decades. The "gilets jaunes" crisis has highlighted these fractures but it may also be seen as a watershed.

The scarcely organised and representational nature of this movement has driven the government, and President Macron in particular, to build bridges with intermediary figures, who are in a position to mediate with the revolt. And this is where the locally elected, and primarily the mayors, who had been sidelined by vertical power structure put in place by the young president, have come into play. The dialogue now ensuing with the mayors is extremely representative of this new way forward: in the sports centres of Normandy or Occitaine, the president has taken off his jacket and entered the dialectic arena with the locally elected personnel, which has led to a series of critical considerations being levelled at the economy, taxation and democracy. This is as much a change of tack for the Macron presidency, as it is for the Fifth French republic, which has never had to withstand such a profound level of criticism even on methodological grounds. A "major national debate" has been organised in conjunction with a local and virtual consultation that is designed to allow the various complaints and requests to be aired, a way of channelling the "yellow vest" demands within an institutional construct.

This doesn't meant things have settled down. The Macron presidency is walking a tightrope, exposed to what is almost an endemic capacity for violent mobilisation against the government. But the awareness of the precariousness of the current predicament, succinctly captured by Macron himself in February when he admitted to be "walking on ice", provides a strong impulse towards change, partly to avoid the chasm into which France appeared to be slipping at the end of 2018, when its entire institutional set up was under threat.

Macron, dragging his ministers along as well as his entire administration, has started to listen to the grievances. He has proven to be a great speaker with great physical resilience, capable of engaging in six hour long debates with local politicians and rebutting the criticisms levelled at the government. Macron also seems to have understood that one has to allow distress to be voices, one cannot and cannot expect to win all disputes thanks to one's oratory. He is doing one of the hardest things: the outstanding student trained at an elite state school for top administrators, a highly competitive environment where future managers are taught to have the right answer for everything, has had to learn to set aside his instinctive will to win so that he can be believable when listing to loser's qualms.

At this stage new scenarios in the wake of the "yellow vests" are starting to shape up. The crisis means his approach to the European elections will change. Macron is effectively on the campaign trail, and is somehow intent on using the debating tool to win back consent, a trend that the polls seem to bear out. The focus on international politics has also fallen off. At the time of the more virulent demonstrations, between November and December last year, the French presidency put its international role on the backburner and essentially put a stop to all international travel. The resumption of diplomatic activities came with the signing of the Aachen Treaty in January 2019: the renewal of the historic bilateral French-German treaty raised many eyebrows, even though it has left things pretty much unchanged. This reaction was a further indication of how touchy the European issue is within the country, and this will alter, and could even silence all the grand rhetoric about a European revival that Macron had displayed after his elections. Germany too is weaker on this front, and therefore the French presidency, despite toning down its will to reform Europe, must acknowledge the danger of making Europe's revival the focus of its political message. This is reminiscent of Sarkozy's presidency: an open and fruitful relationship with Germany and great attention paid to European institutions but a political programme which put the national interests centre stage.

Since the 'yellow vest' crisis, tantamount to a mid-term assessment for the French presidency, Macron is often in the hot seat, which may represent an weird yet powerful propellant for a revival of his political fortunes. He has already weathered the most problematic stage of the crisis. Now he has to find a way of outlining a reform programme that is compatible with some of the instances raised by the provinces, a very tricky yet not impossible task. So Macron, rather than quitting, doubles down?   

@jpdarnis

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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The Yellow Vest protests have highlighted Macron’s frailties. He must work to revive his political programme and get the majority of those who voted for him to back it

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As the French president’s European enthusiasm wanes, partly due to the geopolitical climate, the French nationalists take to the streets

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According to French President Emmanuel Macron Europe is a shield and it protects you even when all around the European continent things are in turmoil – America is stepping away, Russia is turning aggressive, the British are scattering in every direction – and on the continent, within the European Union, the nationalists are joining forces and put themselves forward as an alternative to the integration process and the idea that the closer we stick together, the stronger we'll be.

Macron won the 2017 electoral campaign by wrapping himself in the blue starred banner and equating French and European interests, the Marseillaise and the Ode to Joy played in unison, promising a collective reawakening: "I don't want to belong to a generation of sleepwalkers that has forgotten its past and turns a blind eye on its tormented present", was what the pro-European Macron told Strasbourg, defending the authority of democracy over authoritarian democracy.

The French president's European thrust has been stalled by his many internal and external problems. For some time now, the young Macron is always ranked among the 'weak' leaders in Europe: alongside Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor who is organising her own succession (with a care and a determination that should be inspirational for many other western politicians) and Theresa May, the British prime minister who is wrenching the United Kingdom away from the EU family.

For those who see Europe in decline, Macron's weakness lies in his inability to stoke the European dream, while Donald Trump has already changed his mind about his "favourite" Macron (ages seem to have passed since the hugs and handshakes during Macron's visit to Washington and Trump's "I like this guy" at the press conference) and now considers Europe as an unruly and unreliable ally and harps on about the "European scroungers" that have always got under the US' skin. And while Russia blithely pursues its destabilization programme, with European chaos its ultimate goal, however it pans out (though sovereigntist and nationalist would be ideal).

Macron's weakness, once again in the eyes of the defeatists, can also be pinned on the internal offensive launched by the 'yellow vests', which has taken the palace by surprise and forced it to yield in certain areas and rethink others: from the outset the 'gilet' have been touted as a symbol of the revolt against Macron, not just as French president, but primarily in his role as spokesperson for a liberal, open and pro-European outlook that is wrong and doomed. The support garnered by the protests from the RT broadcaster, close to the Kremlin, in its French version and far right American websites reveals the fact that the protest against the rise in fuel prices are now more of a pretext for the ongoing day-glo demonstrations. A  Europe living in fear and a Europe of opportunity, lined up one against the other, in the streets, for months, and we'll find out who won at the end of May.

There's also another line of criticism, also embraced by those decrying Europe's decline, and it concerns the cooling of Macron's reformative urge on the European front: in 2017, in his overly broadcast address at the Sorbonne, when there were still programmes afoot to bolster our shield, the French president had envisaged a series of measures designed to rebuild the European edifice. Now everything's changed. Paris is once again on the defensive, and it's more about all hands on deck, but the vultures forget to underline that we're all in the same boat, and it's not Macron against the rest, it's us against the defeatists.

Every criticism contains an element of truth: Macron's popularity has collapsed, European supporters are no longer making their voices heard, his image as a rather arrogant soloist has widened the chasm between the expectations from below, and the promises from above. And the promised reforms have not been carried through because the intra-European dialogue is now fragmented and vexed: if we can't all chastise a vicious regime like Venezuela's, it's hardly likely we'll manage to find an agreement to strengthen the euro zone or club together to solve the migration problem. Macron seems to have lost his ability to connect the various European projects: the Mediterranean alliances on which the French leadership had pinned its hopes at the start of his mandate are not working, and Italy, with its anti-French rhetoric, is partly responsible, while Northern Europe is trying to forge ahead alone, prompted by Dutch leader of Mark Rutter, the instigator of liberal European reforms who pays little heed to the inefficiencies of the South.

For all these reasons only the Treaty of Aachen, the embrace between Macron and Merkel and the solid French-German engine are the only believers, albeit on a mostly symbolic level, in Europe's future. Europeanism has made many a detour but has finally gone back to its first love, and this, whatever the defeatists say, is not a step backwards: it's about going back to first principles. The same principles that are improving Macron's popularity and strength, because when the details of the clash that awaits the continent at the next European elections are known, it's much harder to nit-pick about the liberal president.  

During the electoral campaign, Macron wants to reiterate the concept of 'protection'. This aspect is more likely to win over the hearts and minds of Europeans more than any reform (besides being much more immediate). Protection encompasses the economy – against the trade wars between America and China and the protectionist attitudes spreading to every corner of the globe, and defence, the creation of a European army, but most of all it concerns the European social pact, the capacity to create mechanisms that fuel the identity of the European project and underline its superiority over all the alternatives. So there's an ideological clash in the offing between Macron and that part of Europe that wants to turn the EU into a cash point, an approach often favoured by Central and Eastern European countries, where the bridge with the West would have collapsed were it not for the generous EU funds, highly appreciated even by the most Eurosceptic governments such as the Hungarian and Polish ones. But there's a deeper cultural aspect that goes well beyond the diplomatic squabbles and the technical tinkering behind the completion of the Banking Union.

The people of Europe are and will be better protected thanks to its double sovereignty, the national and collective one. The European identity is not an improvised jumble of geographically adjoining citizens that haven't learned or no longer intend to comply with the regulations governing common spaces: the European identity is part and parcel of a promise of well-being and peace that must adapt to the times (and that's where the reforms are needed), but so far has done a great job. Whenever surreal alternative formulas are concocted, such as the sulphurous illiberal democracy Viktor Orbán is so proud of in Hungary, France points out that the original agreement, that we grow economically together in what is also a political embrace, is what protects all the countries from all kinds of unfortunate deviations. In this regard, the Brexit negotiations are having an uproarious side effect: it's raised our awareness that the single market is the best discovery since the war and that no such promising trade areas exist anywhere else in the world; it has reminded us that without European harmony we wouldn't know where to put our rubbish; but it has especially shown that a united Europe can protect the collective interests, a superior interest, with a resolve that has rarely been encountered. That is what a protective Europe is about, it’s a shield that is not the simple sum of lots of smaller shields, it's much more, and much greater: Macron has decided to bear this shield throughout the European campaign: behind it we can live in peace, and I promise that we will also work on putting our house in order.  

@paolapeduzzi

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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As the French president’s European enthusiasm wanes, partly due to the geopolitical climate, the French nationalists take to the streets

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Why have Macron’s reforms stalled? Is it just a problem of communication or are there other underlying issues?

[fulltext] =>

Even though slightly improving in recent polls, the popularity of the French president is still extremely low, and scarcely two years have passed since the start of his mandate. If the yellow vest movement has (at least initially) contributed to this loss of consensus, the trend was there much earlier, in the autumn of 2017. Why have these difficulties arisen? Is it just a communication problem pertaining to a president who is chronically incapable of feeling and understanding for the 'French at the bottom of the pile'"? Or are there more structural reasons, that perhaps go beyond the actions of the Macron government (which after all has been in power for less than two years)?

There's no simple answer, because over the last ten years the economic policy measures of the various governments have compouded the effects of the crisis and the rise in unemployment, making the picture much murkier. So let's try and set the record straight.

The period between 2008 and 2016, presided over by Nicolas Sarkozy first and François Hollande (from 2012 onwards) second, saw families experience a considerable drop in their spending power, severely trimmed by the repercussions of the crisis on employment and wages, which were subsequently compounded by the fierce austerity measures implemented in France starting in 2013. A report by OFCE (Science Po's French Economic Observatory) carried out in December 2018 worked out that the annual drop in average spending power for French families amounted to 450 euro. The same report also noted that that drop mainly affected the upper deciles (the families in the top half of the earnings bracket), while the social security reforms had generally benefitted the poorer sections of the population. Inequality had therefore been reduced.

Under pressure as a result of French industry losing its competitive edge, François Hollande added a further twist to France's economic policy by concentrating on so called supply-side policies. The tax relief granted to companies and corporations (mainly through tax credits linked to job creation or investment), and the liberalisation of the labour market (thanks to the El Khomry law, which takes its cue for a large part from Matteo Renzi's Jobs Act), in the president's intentions were meant to improve competitiveness, growth and employment. Many, including the author, noted at the time that opting for supply-side policies at a time when the economy was weighed down by a strong lack of demand, was a dangerous ploy (which after all cost the Socialist president his re-election). But this is not the space where one might assess Hollande's budgetary policies. What has to be emphasised here is that during his mandate a large amount of resources were transferred from families to businesses (and to the State, in an attempt to keep public finances under control). However, this was done primarily by targeting higher earners and reducing inequalities; this explains why, despite the harshness of the economic downturn, 'tax compliance' did not fall off and the social contract withstood the brunt of the crisis.

So what changed with the election of Emmanuel Macron in May 2017? Not much from the point of view of fundamental tendencies, but a great deal in the philosophy underlying its economic policies. The first budget, voted through in the autumn of 2017, can probably be termed the Macron presidency's "original sin". The priority was the reform of taxation on capital, with the institution of a 30% flat tax on capital revenue (which is also not included in the calculation of property tax). This entailed breaching what for the French was a sacred principle, capital and labour should always be on an equal footing in the eye of the taxman. Macron then followed in Hollande's footsteps nd introduced measures to improve competitiveness. He reduced corporate taxation and increased the level of tax relief first introduced by his predecessor. To avoid an excessive increase in the state deficit, the government also tweaked public spending by reducing public wage packets and cutting a few welfare measures (and rent subsidies in particular).

As a result the 2018 budget had an impact on redistribution which was clearly in favour of higher incomes (the richest 2%), while for all the other distribution centiles incomes were unaffected, except for the exceedingly poor (the first ventile) and the upper middle classes which lost out significantly. And this is where the trust relationship between Macron and the lower classes came unstuck: after ten years of sacrifices, the first move by the new president had ended up rewarding the usual suspects, and he therefore became the 'president of the rich', who was not to be forgiven for a few unnecessary statements which were immediately understood as being indications of contempt toward the French who get out of bed early.

At the start of the Nineties one of Bill Clinton's strategists came up with the slogan "it's the economy stupid", which proved to be a lethal weapon against George Bush, to the point that it branded the outlook of an entire generation. Perhaps one Emmanuel Macron's rivals could coin a new version as: "it's social justice, stupid".

One needs to add that Macron, like Matteo Renzi before him, pays the price for basing his power on a communion between the leader and the crowd, a form of imperial populism that is detrimental to the modern liberal democracy's intermediate bodies which are supposed to mediate and work towards compromise. An approach which, when the tide changes, leaves the leader, the Jupiterian President, naked in the face of the raging crowd.

Will Macron manage to reverse the trend? The 2019 budget, and the measures approved in December following the yellow vest revolt even more so, are trying to soothe the discontent, increasing overall spending power for families by approximately 11 billion euro; a sum that mainly benefits the lower middle classes, and partially balances out the measures introduced in 2018. But these measures, brought in on the back of the popular protests, risk being one offs, because they don’t seem to stem from a change in conceptual outlook. Macron cannot relinquish the idea that the best way of improving growth is by freeing the most productive forces, which he identifies as the large capital holdings and the higher wage brackets. It matters little that the "trickle down" theory (give to the rich and the generated growth will bring reward to all) has been disowned by all recent studies, with  Thomas Pikkety and the recent works published by the World Monetary Fund and the OECD all concurring. The empirical evidence shows without a shadow of a doubt that the rise in inequality that began in the Eighties is not the result of increased productivity of the elite, but is instead due to their greater capacity to extract rent from a society in which social safeguards are being removed and competition from the middle classes in emerging countries is on the increase. In spite of this, the trickle-down theory constitutes a pillar of Emmanuel Macron's plan, and explains his stubborn refusal to review the abolition of the wealth tax, a symbolic move, the reintroduction of which would however require him to disavow his entire political history and his world vision. It's worth mentioning that despite the recent tinkering, the net winners of the first two years of Macron's presidency are still the rich and the extremely rich.

And this is the dramatic plight in which France finds itself today: it is caught between a young president who believes in an antiquated social project, and a diverse, unstructured protest movement incapable of coming up with an alternative political standpoint. The risk is that in the end the only one who will benefit from this stalemate will be Marine Le Pen.

@fsaraceno

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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Why have Macron’s reforms stalled? Is it just a problem of communication or are there other underlying issues?

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Interview with the historian Gábor Egry on the government’s projects to change and reinvent Hungary’s past including Budapest’s architectural layout

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Hungarian historian Gábor Egry is one of the most lucid observers of the manipulations of Hungary’s leaders. Director of the Institute of Political Studies in Budapest, he has spent many years studying the countless faces of Hungarian nationalism, examining first the minorities in neighbouring countries and then the government policies to reshape the nations’ historical memory.

I’d like to begin exactly with these policies, the concrete measures introduced by the Orbán government since 2010 to promote its own historical narrative for the country?

We can identify two distinct phases. Orbán’s second mandate (from 2010-2014) was characterized by the introduction of regulations designed to constitutionalize a particular historical narrative, also through the establishment of research institutes at the service of this memory policy, such as the evocatively named Veritas Institute. The most striking example was that of the new Preamble to the Constitution approved by parliament, the so-called “national credo”. It establishes that Hungarian national sovereignty was interrupted in 1944 with the Nazi invasion, and restored only in 1990, putting a parenthesis around the entire socialist experience. Other constitutional amendments decreed that the communist state and its satellite institutions were to be considered comparable with criminal organisations, as were also their successors. In keeping with this approach, a series of secondary laws were approved that prohibited the naming of roads and streets after any character, organization or institution linked to the communist period. The result was that many streets were renamed. Beginning with the third mandate (2014-2018), attention shifted more towards the alteration of the urban landscape, especially that of the capital. Imposing reconstructions in the centre of the Budapest and a variety of grand monuments were commissioned as part of an extensive urban restyling operation.

Two months ago the statue of Imre Nagy, the hero of the anti-Soviet revolution of 1956, was removed from one of Budapest’s main squares

A complete reappraisal of the ’56 revolution is being implemented. In short, the facts are that Imre Nagy was made Prime Minister; he tried to enact reforms that were unpopular with Moscow and even declared Hungary’s international neutrality. A few weeks later, the Soviet armies invaded the country, putting down the revolt and reinstating a pro-Soviet administration. Agy was kidnapped, imprisoned and put to death two years later. The rewriting of the facts concerning the autumn of ’56 is necessary to the government because the memory of those events is written much too deeply into the legitimacy of the post ‘89 period for them to be easily removed. Immediately after independence a debate erupted concerning the significance of those 30-40 epoch-changing days. While there were different interpretations, the majority of historians agree that behind the nationalist face of that insurrection, social issues were a driving force. The revolt was an attempt to bring about a sort of “third way”, which was nonetheless socialist. But what is important for this current government is only the aspect of national heroism in that insurrection, the idea that Hungarians have always fought fiercely for their freedom and the evidence of this in their opposition to those Soviet tanks in 1956. The idea that the protestors wanted something different, “something left-wing” can only be problematic for the current political leadership because according to their vision of our history, the left has always been on the margins of the nation. They have sought to suggest that being progressive is equivalent to being anti-Hungarian.

How is the socialist period (1948 to 1990) described today in Hungary?

As a foreign occupation, supported in part by fifth columnists within the country. In legal terms it has been erased from history as I mentioned earlier. This means that also its long-lasting consequences are to be ignored: according to such a logic the government therefore has carte blanche to modify the country’s institutions to its own liking, by simply branding their condition as an unwanted legacy of communism. In purely historiographical terms, institutes and projects financed by the state, such as the Committee for the National Memory, are dedicated to depicting the communist period as a classic case of totalitarianism. On one hand, it is claimed that in that period there was no space free from state intervention. On the other hand, the idea is promoted that the regime was only the product of a minority that was able to exploit a defenceless society that is presented merely as a victim. They study the repressive institutions, the legitimization of state violence, the judicial power and the security apparatus, but there is no wider reflection on the politics and society during that historical period. On a symbolic level, it is as if communism doesn’t deserve to belong to national history. The lack of this public discussion is particularly convenient for the authorities: it enables them to manipulate the past, adapting it to their propaganda needs at any given moment.

This airbrushing out of history is evidently one way to discredit the progressive and liberal messages proposed today, especially from Brussels, representing them as intrinsically alien to Hungarian values. What is the aim of this type of historical narrative?

The ultimate aim, in my opinion, is literally to rewrite national history, purifying it of any aspect that could contest the idea that this government is the only legitimate representative of the nation. The memory policy that I mentioned above intends to recreate a Hungarian past that never existed in order to establish a continuity between an undefined moment in national history, situated some time before the Second World War, and the current regime in power in Hungary. Moreover, it aims to relativize the importance of the political regime change in 1990 in order to present the 2010 elections (the beginning of Orbán’s unopposed dominion, following the grey mandate of 1998-2002) as the true restoration of national history, the moment in which Hungarians began once more to march proudly in their natural historic direction. But there’s more. The false past put forward by the Fidesz party aims to connect today’s Hungary with a historic period in which Hungarian politics was dominated by messages with an emphasis on community, based on a certain ultra-conservative form of nationalism. In interwar Hungary, governed with an iron fist by admiral Miklós Horthy, the leaders wanted not only to administer a system of government but also to implement reforms inspired by Christian social thought – and infused with anti-Semitism. Their founding idea was that the nation was an organic entity and that each of its members had a role and a duty to work for the collective good of the nation. To me there is a clear affinity with recent measures such as the “Slave Law”, which enables employers to demand up to 400 hours of overtime from their employees, who may have to wait for up to three years to be paid for it. Furthermore, the rulers during the interwar years were moved by the conviction that they were the incarnation of the social group destined to lead this nation, insofar as they were aware of the organizational necessities and equipped with innate know-how to implement radical social reforms. In this respect, the similarity between the current government and that of the interwar years is not only expressed through ideological affinities, but also through actual policies. Some measures in the fields of social or education policy, such as the corporatism that has prevailed until today, date back precisely to that period, the 1930s. And if the nation is organic and undifferentiated, there is just one logical consequence: a united nation must have a clear and unambiguous history, and this government is creating precisely that.

To conclude, many Israeli publications have detected anti-Semitic traits in the crusade launched by Orbán against financier and philanthropist George Soros. Is this also an aspect that is linked to the past?

The holocaust is problematic for today’s Hungary. The anti-Semitic legislation was introduced in our country well before the arrival of the Nazis, and today many attempt to gloss over this particularly shameful truth. Anti-Semitism is a legacy of the Horthy regime, the regime that the government wants to rehabilitate. For this reason there is an attempt, albeit grotesque, to present the holocaust as the exclusive responsibility of the Germans, a historic interpretation that is purely revisionist.

@simo_benazzo

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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Interview with the historian Gábor Egry on the government’s projects to change and reinvent Hungary’s past including Budapest’s architectural layout

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Only Europe can hope to stonewall the glorification of the nation state as proclaimed by the Trump administration

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On 4 December 2018, United States (U.S.) Secretary of State Michael R. Pompeo gave a speech at the German Marshall Fund in Brussels about ‘restoring the role of the nation-state in the liberal international order.’ At the core of that speech, he posed a fundamental challenge to world order: ‘Every nation – every nation – must honestly acknowledge its responsibilities to its citizens and ask if the current international order serves the good of its people as well as it could. And if not, we must ask how we can right it.’ He insisted that: ‘nothing can replace the nation-state as the guarantor of democratic freedoms and national interests.’ And he went on to explain: ‘Our mission is to reassert our sovereignty, reform the liberal international order, and we want our friends to help us and to exert their sovereignty as well. We aspire to make the international order serve our citizens – not to control them.’ In the language of the most recent U.S. national security strategy, this perspective on world affairs is characterized as ‘principled realism’. Pompeo describes it more simply as ‘common sense’. While Pompeo is right that his view is common, he is wrong to believe in its realism or even that it makes sense.

History never repeats itself precisely, but we have been in a similar situation before. The ‘common sense’ that Pompeo has to offer is a running theme in E.H. Carr’s classic analysis of The Twenty Years’ Crisis — a book published in 1939. That book can be read as an indictment of Pompeo’s speech almost eighty years before the fact. The argument in the book reflects Carr’s disillusionment with America’s first attempt to restructure the world system around the national state through the 1919 Treaty of Versailles. Carr participated in those treaty negotiations as a British diplomat focusing on the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. He saw first hand the awkward fit between the ideal of the nation-state and the reality of how people are organized both economically and politically in different parts of the globe.

Carr also saw the dangers in assuming that the universal pursuit of ‘self help’ by sovereign nations would somehow lead to a ‘harmony of interests’ as opposed to violent conflict. Pompeo makes great effort to tie his common sense to ideological liberalism. There are good reasons to promote and aspire to liberal values. The challenge is to use those values as the basis for recasting world order. This is where Carr’s version of realism differs from Pompeo’s.

Carr characterized the liberal view as dangerously utopian insofar as it ignores the central connection between morality and power. Different countries will only embrace common values by mutual consent, Carr argued. This is not a problem so long as the stronger countries are united and weaker countries have no choice but to accept their leadership. It becomes a problem, however, when the distribution of power starts to shift. The strong can only enforce international morality on the weak so long as they do not have to face the threat posed by a dissatisfied and rising power. For Carr, that rising power was Germany; for Pompeo it is China.

If Pompeo overlooked this central insight from Carr’s analysis, that is another aspect of his perspective that is common, particularly in the United States. Carr’s book was widely read and appreciated across the English-speaking world, and yet it had a different impact on the two sides of the Atlantic, as Michael Cox points out in his brilliant introduction to the latest edition. In the United States, The Twenty Year’s Crisis inspired the classical realists like Hans Morgenthau to write about Politics among Nations. It also inspired a firm commitment to the notion that hegemony — first British and now American — is crucial to world order. These are themes that run throughout Pompeo’s speech.

Europeans read Carr differently. They focused more closely on Carr’s warning about the dangers inherent in any system based exclusively on nation states. They also highlighted a sophisticated argument Carr makes about the transformation of ‘sovereignty’ from the recognition of geographic authority during the breakdown of the great medieval empires to the more subtle forms of interdependence that exist today. This reading challenges the easy characterization of Carr as an unabashed ‘realist’. More importantly, it sets Carr up as a prophet for the challenges that Europeans face today both at home and in their relationship with the United States.

Writing in the late 1930s, Carr anticipated that nation states would participate in multiple and overlapping forms of integration that paid less attention to formal sovereignty or international recognition. Instead, these ‘group units of the future’, in Carr’s view, would place more emphasis on effective decision-making and conflict resolution. This arrangement might not be ideal from a self-help perspective, Carr admitted, but they are likely to attract more general consent because the practicable alternatives for world order are so inherently inequitable and oppressive. When Pompeo points to the British referendum on membership in the European Union as a wake-up call, he makes the point that perhaps the EU is not delivering everything that the British want. That is true, but that does not mean the alternative would be any more attractive — which is what the British appear to be learning today.

The necessity to compromise in the pursuit of the national interest is what makes Carr a realist. But Carr was never a pure realist in the European reading of his text. He was an idealist insofar as he believed only some vision of a better future can inspire collective action. This better future is not solely a matter of working with allies and friends, but also a question of working with countries that offer more profound disagreement. Moreover, it centers on resolving the inequalities that arise from the distribution of power and resources both internationally and domestically.

This line of argument was not always productive; sometimes it led to grave error, as Carr was later to admit. For example, Carr initially argued in favor of some appeasement of Nazi Germany as a rising power. For good reasons, this argument drew criticism from Carr’s contemporaries and would continue to draw fire today. At times, however, his insights were more clearly prescient. Carr also made the case for greater redistribution to offset the inequities of the market economy. That argument had a strong appeal in the aftermath of the Great Depression; it has an even stronger appeal today.

Whatever Carr’s unevenness in hindsight, it is worth considering whether the European reading of Carr’s classic text offers a framework for responding to Pompeo’s argument for returning to a world of nation states. Just because appeasement failed with Nazi Germany does not mean there is no scope for accommodating China as a rising power, and just because Soviet-style redistribution failed to eliminate inequality is no reason to embrace an ideological commitment to the free market.

Europe has learned a lot over the past eight decades about the need for calibration in international relations and in economic policymaking. They have also learned to accommodate changes in the balance of power across countries without losing the consent of those who participate in shared arrangements. When Germany moved quickly to unification at the end of the Cold War, many Europeans expressed trepidation. Few would have thought then that a quarter of a century later, a Polish foreign minister would worry more about German weakness in Europe than about German power.

Now is the time for Europe to offer a constructive vision of world order that departs from the return to nation states that Pompeo advocates. True to Carr’s argument, this vision should be utopian enough to show how we arrive at a better place and realist enough to show how Europeans can convince reluctant partners and rising powers to make compromises in the interests of mutual gain.

The prospect of force against force that Pompeo offers and the discipline of American global leadership is not the only way to restore international order and it may turn out to be explosively counterproductive. That was Carr’s concern in the 1930s and it remains important. The difference between then and now is how much both sides of the Atlantic have learned in the meantime. Europeans must find a way to articulate that experience more persuasively. Because without some contrasting European vision, grudging acceptance of Pompeo’s principled realism as common sense will only become more common — and the world may suffer the consequences.

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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Only Europe can hope to stonewall the glorification of the nation state as proclaimed by the Trump administration

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Salome Zurabishvili is the first woman president of the former Soviet Republic. The ex-diplomat with a French accent is set on making her country part of the EU

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In Tbilisi, in Europe Square, the Georgian and European Union banners flutter in the wind side by side, forming a sparkling circle in which the EU blue merges with the white and red, the colours traditionally associated with Georgia. In these parts, when one suggests that Georgia could possibly become a member of the European Union, the locals smile to themselves, as if this was some kind of lightweight banter, a ridiculous concept to be discussed at length in one of the capital's countless wine bars, in front of a glass of excellent Georgian wine.

Someone who loves to speak about Europe is Salomè Zurabishvili, a former diplomat born in France who in recent months, after a tense and controversial electoral campaign, was elected President of Georgia, becoming the first woman to hold such a post in the history of the former Soviet republic. In the hours that immediately followed her election, Zurabishvili stated that Georgia “has decided in favour of Europe”, and announced her readiness to pursue the goal of EU (and NATO) membership with the support of a few strategic partners, including the United States. The 67 year old will remain in power until 2024, and her successor, after the constitutional reform of 2017, will be selected by an electoral college comprised of 300 members.

The Zurabishvili family fled Georgia in 1921, when the country fell into the hands of the Bolsheviks. Her parents gave birth to a baby girl many years later in Paris, in 1952. Salomé Zurabishvili therefore found herself in the ideal position to study international relations at a prestigious institute in the capital and make a very good name for herself in French diplomatic circles. After fruitful work experiences in the United States and Chad, in 2003 Zurabishvili was appointed French ambassador to Tbilisi, in Georgia, where she was subsequently given the position of foreign minister by former President Mikheil Saakashvili.

Although she speaks Georgian with a strong French accent, the new president will nevertheless have to try and earn the trust of the 4 million individuals who currently make up today's Georgian society, having overcome the initial diffidence she had met when she first moved back to her country of origin. During the course of her mandate, the former 67 year old diplomat will try to follow the example of her colleague Vaira Vike-Freiberga, the former president of Latvia (who also grew up abroad), who successfully managed to ferry her country towards NATO and European Union membership.

Last November, Salomè Zurabishvili achieved what can only be described as an overwhelming triumph: the former diplomat won the Georgian presidential elections with 59.52% of the vote, outstripping her main rival, Grigol Vashadze, by a huge margin. His ballots on accounted for 40.48% of the vote. The opposition parties immediately questioned the ballot count, claiming it was tainted by irregularities and called for the parliamentary elections scheduled for 2020 to be brought forward. Salomè Zurabishvili was elected with the backing of the Georgian Dream party, founded by the country's richest man, Bidzina Ivanishvili, who many believe to be the true puppet master of Georgian politics. Aside from the controversies, it has to be said that Zurabishvili's intention of propelling Georgia into Europe was apparent from the outset, and was confirmed by her subsequent statements.

The new president's European ambitions could however meet considerable resistance with regard to the issues related to Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia, two separatist regions which still have Russian troops on their territories, and with which Georgia has broken off diplomatic relations for some time now. The two regions are internationally recognised as an integral part of Georgia, but Russia, after the short conflict with Tbilisi in 2008, has recognised their independence along with very few other states. Since the war Russia has maintained an occupation force on the ground in both regions. According to President Zurabishvili, at the moment the conditions are not ripe to restore relations with Moscow, and the situation looks likely to stay that way for quite some time yet.

Located at a crossroads between east and west, in the heart of the Caucasus, Georgia obtained its independence from Russia in 1991, but Moscow's influence over Georgian affairs persists, even many years later. One of the most important aspects of political dialectics in Georgia, revolves around the capacity of the individual parties to ward off the pressure (whether real or perceived) exerted by Russia.

All else aside, relations between Georgia and the European Union are already in pretty good shape. The EU is Tbilisi's main trade partner and over the course of the years there have been significant steps forward made on issues such as economic integration and financial assistance. In spite of the improved relations and Zurabishvili's best intentions, the path that leads to Georgia's full integration in the European Union is still likely to be a very long and windy one.

"The emphasis placed by Zurabishvili on the fact that Georgia has chosen to align with Europe has sent a very clear message", Eastwest was told by a European Union spokesperson; "This has been further confirmed by Zurabishvili's decision to make her first official visit abroad to the European Union. We are very much in favour of this commitment to improve the political association and economic integration between the EU and Georgia and can't wait to cooperate further with President Zurabishvili".

One area in which Salomè Zurabashvili certainly made her mark during the first weeks after her election was her uncompromising approach to the Russian Federation, especially with regard to the vexed question of Abkhazia and Southern Ossetia. This was partly aided by the backing of the European Parliament, which in June 2018 approved a resolution that called on Russia to review its decision to recognise the independence of the two regions. The new president has addressed the issue of Russian occupation on a number of occasions, and has gone so far as to term it "unacceptable" and direct harsh criticism at Moscow's attitude in the area.

The fact that the European institutions seem well-disposed towards Georgia, even on such a delicate matter as territorial integrity, is undoubtedly a positive sign, especially when we consider Tbilisi's ambition to open its doors to the west. The lack of actual solutions to the issue could however hinder Tbilisi's rapprochement with the EU, especially if no significant steps forward are taken in the medium term.

"Membership of the European Union is one of the Georgian government's top priorities, we are told by Alex Melikishvili, principal research analyst with the advisory firm IHS Markit; "It's an objective that is still way off, and certainly Tbilisi is aware that right now the EU has many more pressing issues to deal with. However, the EU is still very popular among Georgians, as the latest polls have shown, including the one taken in June 2018. It turned out that the EU is even more popular that NATO".

The dossier on Georgia's membership of the EU is certainly complex, but a figure of the standing of Salomè Zurabishvili, with her extensive diplomatic experience and her wide-ranging international contacts, seems at least the best person to handle it, probably better than anyone else. Her entire mandate will in any case be judged on the results she brings home in foreign policy, an issue on which Zurabishvili has based most of her political communication.

@Cassarian

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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Salome Zurabishvili is the first woman president of the former Soviet Republic. The ex-diplomat with a French accent is set on making her country part of the EU

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The European Union has stepped in once again to solve the longstanding dispute between Spain and UK. And Madrid wins: another negative Brexit outcome for Elizabeth's subjects

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Barcelona - The fraught negotiations held in November between London and Brussels in order reach an agreement on implementing Brexit, saw the spotlight return to the question of the British overseas territory of Gibraltar, a historic bone of contention in bilateral relations between Spain and the United Kingdom.

“With Brexit we all lose, but when it comes to Gibraltar, Spain wins. We are currently enjoying a position of unprecedented strength in relation to the United Kingdom. As of now everything is up for discussion, including the question of sovereignty, to resolve a conflict that has existed for 300 years,” announced Spanish Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez attending a meeting with British negotiators and the Council of Europe on the future of Gibraltar.

Spain had, in fact, threatened to veto the Brexit withdrawal agreement unless, as part of later negotiations between the EU and the United Kingdom, Madrid would be provided a veto over questions concerning the British dependency. Spanish intransigence was eventually rewarded: future relations between Europe and Gibraltar will take place in parallel to those with London. Moreover, four Memorandums of Understanding relating to various issues, such as the environment and cross-border workers who arrive daily in the British dependency, have been signed.

An initial agreement limited the Brexit transition period to 21 months, concluding at the end of 2020. The proposed deal, brokered by Theresa May and the 27 EU member states, concerning the conditions of the UK’s withdrawal from Europe, however, required the approval of the British parliament, which voted to reject agreement.

Aside from the uncertainty concerning future relations between the EU and the UK, which will undoubtedly condition the effective scope of agreements between the latter and Spain, Brexit has succeeded in bringing the question of Gibraltar sharply back into view in a European context. A territory of just 6.7 km2, strategically positioned at the mouth of the homonymous strait, it first became a thorn in the side for Spain in 1713, when the territory was ceded to the English as part of the Utrecht Treaty that brought a conclusion to the War of the Spanish Succession.

Madrid never fully accepted losing sovereignty over Gibraltar, applying pressure through various United Nations resolutions that recognised Spain’s right to territorial integrity and inviting the United Kingdom to put an end to the colonial status of what the Spanish call el Peñon (the Rock). The UK for its part, continues to point to Gibraltar’s right to self-determination, certified in the opinion of the British government by the result of a referendum in 1967 that saw a 99.64% majority of the local population express a preference to remain under British Sovereignty.

In 2002 the Gibraltar Government held another referendum, this time the proposal was potential joint sovereignty between Spain and the United Kingdom. The idea was rejected by the territory’s 30 thousand or so inhabitants, who underlined, with a landslide majority of 98.48%, their exclusive loyalty to the UK.

The territorial dispute between London and Madrid experienced its period of greatest tension during the Franco regime, when the Spanish dictator ordered the closure of the border between Spain and Gibraltar in 1969. It remained closed until reopening partially in 1982. In recent years, however, alongside the almost exclusively nationalist perspectives on the question of Gibraltar, concerns about the striking economic inequality between the British dependency and the bordering Spanish province of Campo di Gibraltar have begun to gain prominence.

Gibraltar is not part of the United Kingdom, and therefore not a fully entitled member of the EU. The link with London, however, has guaranteed the territory access to the single market without having to join the EU customs union and consequently without the obligation of having to apply VAT. This exceptional condition has been exploited by the authorities of the small territory in order to develop an economic model based on its  tax haven status, a feature that has enabled Gibraltar to achieve a GDP per capita that is among the highest in the world – around 100 thousand dollars in the last financial year, with growth of 6% over the last 12 months. These figures certify a level of affluence in stark contrast to the conditions on the other side of the border, where La Linea de la Concepción, the Spanish municipality that neighbour’s Gibraltar, has experienced more than 10 years of unemployment in excess of 30%, positioning it at the top of the European ranking for long-term unemployment.

Spanish concerns focus mainly on the trade in contraband tobacco, a phenomenon caused mainly by the low cost of the product in Gibraltar. More than 30% of all contraband tobacco in Spain originates in the British territory, where a packet of cigarettes costs on average two euros, but the local authorities claim that the massive imports of cigarettes – 72million packets were imported in 2017, netting 180 million euros – serve to satisfy the demand from approximately 10 million tourists that visit el Peñon each year. One of the memorandums signed between London and Madrid, in fact, establishes that the average difference in the price of tobacco products sold in Gibraltar, following Brexit, should not exceed 32% of the cost of the equivalent products in Spain.

In addition to the question of tobacco, Spain would also like to see limits put in place for the financial transactions that make Gibraltar a global oasis for offshore finance, inviting the local government to introduce greater transparency concerning the exchange of information of a fiscal nature. Finance has evolved into one of the cornerstones of Gibraltar’s economy together with the gaming sector, with tens of online betting companies having opted to register their businesses in the British territory, attracted by the permissive laws governing the concession of licenses.

“If you are Spanish or another European nationality and you live and work in Gibraltar, all your rights will be guaranteed in the future, whether the United Kingdom decides so or not,” claimed the Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo, in the months following the Brexit referendum. In spite of the determination to remain under British sovereignty, 96% of the colony’s inhabitants voted in favour of remaining in Europe, one of the most pro-European results in all of the UK and its territories. This choice was motivated mainly by the concern about the introduction of time-consuming checks on the Spanish border once Brexit has been implemented. These would make it impossible for the territory to benefit from the contribution to the local economy of around 12 thousand Spanish cross-border commuters employed mainly in the tourism sector.

“For us it would be more secure to remain in Europe, but if the United Kingdom has decided differently, we will have to guarantee the protection of Gibraltar within the context of Brexit,” underlined Picardo. The recent memorandum of understanding signed between Madrid and the British government established that “Spanish citizens who work in Gibraltar “will not be discriminated against” likewise nor will inhabitants of the British colony with interests in Spain. This generic formula was introduced to calm the waters while waiting for London to define its relationship with Europe.

The current year is set to be decisive for Gibraltar also on the home front, with new elections that will define the make up of the local parliament due to take place. Polls indicate a victory for the alliance between Labour and the Liberals, as was the case in 2011 and 2015. However, Chief Minister Picardo, a key Labour figure, has declared that the electoral meetings due to take place in November 2019, will not be held until the United Kingdom has officially withdrawn from the EU, underlining how it could be irresponsible to hold an early election, in spite of the advantages indicated in the polls for his party.

@MarioMagaro

This article is also published in the March/April issue of eastwest.

You can buy the magazine at newsstand or subscribe.

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The European Union has stepped in once again to solve the longstanding dispute between Spain and UK. And Madrid wins: another negative Brexit outcome for Elizabeth's subjects

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