my take on

Europe and the World • by Ralf Grabuschnig

Happy birthday, European Union. You look old.

The EU celbrates its 60th birthday. But whatever so-called "doctors" like to make us belief, it is not dying yet.

The EU celebrates its 60th birthday this weekend. It sure looks older.

This weekend, the 27 EU heads of state (yes, 27, it’s official) met in Rome for a very special occasion. March 25th – yesterday – marks sixty years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome, the EU’s birthday! And what better way to celebrate that than with…  a council.

Oh well… at least they celebrate, I guess.

Unfortunately, on its 60th birthday, the European Union indeed looks very, very old. In fact, its condition even seems critical. In the last ten years, self-proclaimed doctors of all sorts have repeatedly told us, the EU might not make it much longer. The institution’s body is frail and the removal of its diabetic food called England certainly does not improve this overall situation. This weekend’s celebration might therefore quickly turn into a mourning.

Notwithstanding the critical condition of Europe, the EU needs this celebration. After so many bad years, it feels good to celebrate for once. And this also gives us the chance to look back on what is still a huge success story. The sixty years that the European Union has been around mark – after all – the most peaceful, wealthy and open period this continent has ever seen.

It is an old story that wars between EU members have become all but unrealistic. However, the EU-period marks much more than that. It opened up new opportunities for people living in every corner of Europe, from Spain to Lithuania. People can today move more freely, think more freely – simply live more freely – than they ever did before. We are currently living through our heyday. No matter what these so-called doctors tell us, the patient is therefore far from dead.

That of course doesn’t mean, the EU does not also need to change. Recent discussions around the future of this union lead in the right direction. Yes, the EU will have to reinvent itself. But it always has.

What is the true tragedy is that so many people living on this continent no longer connect the historical accomplishments they enjoy each day – their personal freedoms, their wealth and their possibilities – with the political structure of the EU that made so much of it possible. As I said, we are now living more freely than ever. It is no coincidence that this unprecedented level of personal liberty and wealth came alongside the development of the EU.

On this birthday, let us therefore rightfully celebrate what has been achieved on this continent. But let us not forget to also think ahead. To discuss – and yes, fight over – the future of this European Union. Many paths are possible. All but one: going back to our petty nation states, falling for the populists’ promise that this would magically solve all our issues. The EU is not the problem. It has always been the solution but as the problems change, so must the solutions.

It only seems fitting – in the face of the celebrations in Rome – to end on some Latin wisdoms. One in particular comes to mind here, the Habsburgs’ old slogan now used by Spain: plus ultra – “further beyond”. That is indeed the only direction open to us but it is a damn good direction. It can be done. Viribus unitis.

The sick man upon the Bosphorus

Bosphorus bridge in Istanbul. The days when Turkey was a bridge between East and West are long gone. Thanks to Erdoğan.

Turkey was once considered a bridge between East and West. Under Erdoğan, those days are definitely gone

Once again, it’s time to talk about an old friend of this blog: Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, aka the sick man upon the Bosphorus. I have mentioned him here over and over again in the past. And of course, that is because a lot has happened in Turkey recently. There are the refugee deal with the EU, the attempted military coup last summer and Erdoğan’s ongoing project to become sultan. A lot to cover. However, in the last couple of weeks, Erdoğan offered even more reasons to turn our attention to him. Now he went full-on mental.

Erdoğan, still loving the N-word

I understand it’s a difficult time for our little sultan. Next month, he is holding his referendum to cripple Turkish democracy a bit more by giving himself semi-dictatorial powers. Surprisingly though, a victory is not certain at all. People in Turkey are decidedly mixed on the issue, with 40% in favour, 40% against and 20% undecided. No surprise, Erdoğan is getting a bit nervous now, just four weeks ahead of the referendum. A key element of his strategy for still winning this, was gathering support amongst Turks abroad. Unfortunately for him, authorities in Germany, Austria and the Netherlands now upset this plan.

After a number of German municipalities stopped Turkish politicians from holding rallies there, Erdoğan first exploded. He ranted against Germany, drawing one Nazi comparison after the other – nothing that’s very welcome in Germany, as you can probably imagine. Austria was soon to follow suit and call for a full ban on Turkish propaganda on Austrian soil. Again, the sultan and his followers responded with Nazi claims, basically calling the whole country racist. But the climax was reached in the Netherlands. When the country banned two of Erdoğan’s ministers from entering last week, what do you think he did? Right! Calling the Dutch Nazi remants. Yes, the Dutch – a country occupied by said Nazis for five years.

Remember, this man is our partner!

That all sounds pretty bad. But then again, having megalomaniac autocrats oppose you is generally a good sign you’re on the right track. If it wasn’t for one problem. Recep Erdoğan is not just a crazy autocrat on our doorstep, he is also our partner. We made him an ally when we signed the refugee deal in 2015. Ever since then, he routinely threatened with ending that deal and “flooding Europe with refugees”. Unsurprising then that no strong answer came from Berlin for weeks after Erdoğan’s attacks. It’s Merkel’s refugee deal – it cannot just fail.

Yet, it clearly should. Why should we make ourselves dependent on a dictator-to-be for no reason? We need to end that deal to be able to show Erdoğan his place. Let him “open the floodgates” – it has never been proven anyway that it was the Turkey deal stopping the flow of refugees in the first place. Ending the deal now won’t bring 2015-conditions all over again. And even if it did, that would at least force Europe to come up with a real solution instead of outsourcing our problems to a psychopath.

There is no good reason why we should play nice with an autocrat who is at this moment demolishing democracy in Turkey. There is also no good reason why we should have him and his people hold rallies in the EU or tolerate him calling all Europeans Nazis. In my eyes, we therefore need to do three things: end the refugee-deal, end the EU accession talks with Turkey and start treating Erdoğan like we treat other autocrats and dictators. With appropriate distance.

Poland isolates itself in the EU. How long can this go on?

After isolating itself at the EU summit, Poland is now where it really belongs: on the sidelines of the EU

Poland’s government completely isolated itself at this week’s EU summit.

EU summits are usually predictable events. Those involved with the talks as well as those reporting on them most often know the likely outcome before the talks even start. And even if the talks then turn into all-nighters, these predictions are seldom proven wrong. In some sense, this week’s summit in Brussels was quite similar. Everybody knew what was going to happen, yet it turned out to be a remarkable event. For the first time, EU leaders elected a Council President without reaching unanimity. And for the first time, they did so without the support from the candidate’s own country. Poland really rocked it this time.

Disclaimer. This is going to be a short article, probably including a fair amount of ranting.  As long-time readers might know, Polish politics is a topic that keeps on infuriating me. I’ll try to keep my cool as well as I can though.

Poland’s attempt at playing tough

For months leading up to the summit, the Polish government around Jarosław Kaczyński and his army of puppets worked on preventing their countryman and Kaczyński’s personal nemesis Donald Tusk from securing a second term as Council President now. For months, they were told that there was simply no way. Tusk enjoys wide support all over Europe and in times like these, the EU takes no interest in experiments. Yet, the Polish government continued its blockade all the way to the council and even proposed an alternative Polish candidate for the post, which the others rightfully ignored.

This attempt at playing tough ended the only way it could this last week. Tusk was elected with 27 of the 28 votes and Poland completely isolated and ridiculed itself within the EU. What is remarkable is that not even Poland’s closest allies in the Visegrád Group – not even tough man Viktor Orbán – supported their blockade. This truly was complete and utter isolation. Unfortunately though, the Polish government doesn’t seem to have learned its lesson.

How long can this go on?

Instead of trying to save their face, Polish politicians reacted by digging themselves in even further. Kaczyński had nothing better to do on the weekend than to deflect from his defeat and label the EU as a German-run organisation that is by definition opposed to Poland’s interests.

The Polish joke of a foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski (you know, the one hating cyclists and vegetarians) even proclaimed that the Polish government would “drastically lower the level of trust toward the EU”. This guy is actually saying that the government will now somehow start to change Polish public opinion towards the EU.  However, there is one problem. Public opinion in Poland has consistently been amongst the most EU friendly in Europe. Even though the government certainly believes it somehow represents the “soul of the nation” (or whatever nationalist crap they like to believe in), they will have a hard time changing that overnight.

We should never forget that Kaczyński PiS (what a fitting name) only received some 37% of the vote in Poland and had to deal with massive protests ever since. Even though Polish leaders like to make us believe they can do whatever they want, truth is they probably can’t. While some sense of general nationalism always seems to work with Polish voters, distancing the country from the EU altogether almost certainly won’t. At least I like to think so because that would no longer be the Poland I know.

Central Europe and the future of the EU

The EU Commission offered five possible future paths for Europe. Reactions from Central Europe are mixed.

The EU Commission offered five possible scenarios for post-Brexit Europe this week. Reactions from Central Europe will prove crucial in the process.

Things are moving in Brussels. Eight months after the Brexit vote, Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this week proposed five possible future paths for Europe after Britain’s departure. This urgently necessary step was met with different reactions across the continent. Germany and France were quick to openly favour a multi-speed Europe, the Visegrád group predictably opposed this view. However, despite the periodic Visegrád-bashing on this blog, I won’t focus on that today. Because this time, it is not all bad news coming from Central Europe.

Juncker’s white paper and its five scenarios

On Wednesday, the European Commission published a white paper laying out future scenarios for post-Brexit Europe. The five scenarios listed should serve as a basis for a broad European dialogue. The EU should simply decide where it’s going by 2019 when the United Kingdom will likely leave the Union. These are the five paths outlined :

  1. Carrying on
  2. Nothing but the single market
  3. Those who want more do more
  4. Doing less more efficiently
  5. Doing much more together

As you can see, these scenarios range from ending the EU as we know it (number two) to a full-fledged federalist European Union (number five). In between, there are many conceivable constellations. France and Germany, the traditional driving forces of the EU, jointly declared their support for a multi-speed Europe this week (number three), where those countries willing to integrate further can do so. I have on this blog also repeatedly supported this idea (for example here, here or here) in the past.

As could be expected though, not everyone was happy this Franco-German advance. In particular, countries in Eastern and Central Europe voiced their concern to a multi-speed Europe. They did so for different reasons though.

Visegrád is not the sole representative of Central Europe (anymore)

Immediate reactions from the Visegrád Four Poland, Hungary, Slovakia and Czechia were as predictable as they were hostile. In a joint statement, the four wrote that “any divisions within the EU could lead to divergence between member states [and the] interests of all member states should be treated equally”. This overly general statement was later complemented by Polish PM Beata Szydło simply calling for “Not ‘more or less Europe’, but a better Europe”. Yeah, sure.

As expected as this response was, reactions from the EU’s newest members were less so and question the established belief that the Visegrád group somehow speaks for all of East-Central Europe. Bulgaria’s PM Ognyan Gerdjikov for instance said on Thursday that “the future of Europe is in federalisation“, openly going for number five on Juncker’s list! Similar statements came from Romania and Croatia. Romania’s President Klaus Iohannis even made clear he will support a more integrated EU at this month’s European Council meeting in Rome.

An open multi-speed Europe is clearly the preferable solution

These reactions further prove the point: a multi-speed Europe is the preferable solution, though the model needs to be an open one. It is great news that this idea that has been floating around for years – just listen to Guy Verhofstadt’s speeches in the past – is now being considered more widely. With French and German support, we might just be heading for this version of the EU after Brexit.

However, reactions from Bulgaria and Romania also made one thing clear. It would be a dangerous mistake to limit the inner circle of those willing to move on to today’s core members. Countries like Romania or Bulgaria, while neither in Schengen nor the Eurozone yet, have a legitimate interest to move along. We have to give them the chance to.

In the meantime, let’s wait for the Council meeting in Rome at the end of the month. With just a little bit of luck, a multi-speed vision of Europe will become a serious possibility there. The constantly complaining Visegrád leaders would then finally have to confront the consequences for their refusal to show any European solidarity. They would find themselves side-lined in the outer circle, where they belong.

Russia’s three pillars of subversion in Europe

Russia get's a lot of spotlight in the US, following the DNC hacks and its ties to Trump. But what about Europe?

Russia’s foreign policy towards the west is increasingly hostile. What’s the risk for Europe?

Russia is getting a lot of bad press these days, especially in the United States. After Russian-led hacking attacks against Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign and several dubious connections to Trump’s cabinet, the US media is rightly concerned about growing Russian influence in Washington. But Russia’s aggressive foreign policy is not limited to Washington – Europe will get a taste of it this year as well. It was in Putin’s interest to get Donald Trump elected but an even older dream of his is to get rid of the European Union. 2017 will give him plenty of opportunities to further this goal. Let’s see how.

Russia’s aggressive foreign policy towards Europe is based on three main pillars, some similar to the US, some quite different. As these are growing stronger by the day, it is about time to discuss how Russia exercises its influence exactly and what this could mean for the EU.

Pillar 1 | Far-right parties

Russia has for long maintained good relations with far-right and right-wing populist parties in Europe. After all, this is a natural coalition. To these parties, Russia is at the same time a valuable partner and a role model. The authoritarian ideas promoted by the European far-right are already reality in Putin’s Russia. Putin’s system is what they want for their countries and Putin is the kind of leader they want themselves to be.

For Russia on the other hand, this cooperation is a cheap and efficient tool to assert influence in EU member states. By supporting far-right opposition parties, the Kremlin can inject pro-Russian views into the respective countries’ public discourse. Once these parties make it into government, it can use these links to also encourage pro-Russian policies.

One example of this is the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ). It has been close to Putin’s United Russia party for a long time and just last December, three high-ranking FPÖ members travelled to Moscow to sign a memorandum of understanding with the party. For years, the FPÖ has consistently supported Russia, called for an end to the EU’s sanctions and even sent a team of “election observers” to Crimea. Just this week, Frauke Petry, head of the German AfD emulated them and met high ranking United Russia representatives in Moscow. Similar meetings, agreements and connections exist with virtually all major far-right parties in Europe. The French Front National once even received a 9 Million Euro-loan from Moscow!

Pillar 2 | Authoritarian politicians and governments

The logical next step for Putin is supporting Russia-friendly politicians who are already in power in Europe.  His closest ally amongst Europe’s heads of state is clearly Hungary’s Viktor Orbán. He was the first to – at the height of the Ukraine crisis in 2015! – invite Putin on an official state visit. Orbán has also repeatedly called for an end to sanctions, has recently visited Moscow himself and just signed a contract with Russia to build new reactors at Hungary’s nuclear power plant in Paks. Another Putin-friendly politician sits in Prague, Miloš Zeman, who gained questionable fame for being the only major politician from a NATO country to full-out deny Russian presence in Ukraine. More of Putin’s friends are concentrated in places like Bulgaria or also Serbia and considering Russian links to opposition parties all over Europe, this group of supporters is destined to grow.

Pillar 3 | Undermining democracy

Besides maintaining friends and allies in several EU parliaments, one of Russia’s key foreign policy aims is the strategic delegitimisation of democracy in Europe. They do so – as in the US – by hacking, leaking information and portraying elections as rigged. By using such means and spreading fake news through Russian and foreign online “media”, the Kremlin increasingly succeeds in weakening public belief in democracy and also helps its allies win elections.

These tactics, that have proved so successful in the US presidential election, are already being employed in Europe. French presidential candidate Emmanuel Macron recently accused Russia of interfering in the elections and he certainly will not be the last. This strategy simply pays off for the Kremlin: whilst destabilising European countries and weakening the EU as a whole, they also prove to the Russian people that things aren’t much different elsewhere. The message is “there is no real democracy anyway” and this message begins to stick in Europe too.

It would therefore be foolish to underestimate Russian influence in Europe. The country is not only a military threat, as in Ukraine or the Baltics, it has more subtle means of subversion too. And unfortunately, it has increasingly powerful European partners in this endeavour.

Europe in crisis: Is the EU really that close to the brink?

At this year's Munich Security Conference, everyone's in crisis mode. Trump, Russia, Ukraine and elections in Europe. These are tough times indeed.

The world met in Munich for the annual Security Conference this weekend and it’s all crisis mode

This weekend, world leaders met for the annual Security Conference in Munich. However, at this year’s edition nothing quite seemed like it used to be.  It was not really about security. Neither was it about defence cooperation or NATO. No, this year was all crisis mode.

After all, the conference offered the first chance of a meeting between many European politicians and a high-ranking member of the Trump cabinet, Vice President Mike Pence. The American VP furthermore had a private meeting with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov – Ukraine’s President Petro Poroshenko sitting next door. This image alone should give us a pretty good idea what the atmosphere must have been like in there.

However, the conference was also about the ongoing crisis of the European Union, as has become clear in statements leading up to the event.

“How close the European project stands to the edge of the precipice”

In the run-up to the Security Conference, Norbert Röttgen, chair of the German Bundestag’s foreign affairs committee used dramatic words to describe the current state of the EU. “We just need one more election to go wrong, and the EU will no longer be what it is today” he proclaimed, aiming at the prospect of Marine Le Pen winning this year’s presidential elections in France. “This shows you how close the European project stands to the edge of the precipice.”

He did not bring this up in connection with the Security Conference for no reason. The elections in France were almost certainly amongst the hot topics discussed behind the scenes in Munich. After all, these elections embody something way more important: their outcome is an indication for the state of the EU as a whole. But is it really that bad? Is Europe really this close to the brink? I wouldn’t necessarily say so.

Le Pen’s road to the Élysée

For years now, Le Pen’s Front National has been deemed to take over the presidency in France. Now, it only seems consequential that after the year of Brexit and Trump, this might now be the time. But while this conclusion may seem tempting, past experience from France tells us otherwise.  Only a little more than a year ago, France held regional elections, where the Front National did fantastically almost everywhere in the country in the first round. However, the party couldn’t win a single region in the run-off, as centre-right and centre-left voters joined forces and voted strategically.

There are strong indications they would do so again. A year and a half is not that long a time, even in times of Brexit and Trump. Additionally, with Emmanuel Macron there is a strong mainstream candidate who is reasonably electable in both conservative and liberal circles. Norbert Röttgen’s worst fear might therefore just not become reality.

The crisis could develop into the worst-case scenario still

But of course, it could just do. It is nonetheless far from impossible for Marine Le Pen to actually win, which would, in this I agree with Röttgen, send shockwaves across the European Union. But would it doom the whole project? I think that view is highly oversimplified. Even if Le Pen won the elections and wanted to take France out of the Eurozone, Schengen or even the EU altogether, she would at this point have to do so against the will of a significant share of the population.

France is not the United Kingdom. The country is deeply interwoven with the European institutions and other EU countries. I don’t think Le Pen can this easily “pull the trigger” and call a referendum on EU membership. More likely, her presidency would develop along the lines of Viktor Orbán in Hungary: deep hostility towards Brussels, loud disagreement and even open conflict. Not a nice outlook indeed but is it survivable? I think it is.

What we need is a positive case for Europe

It seems certain that 2017 will be no better year for the EU than 2016. Populism is still on the rise and in France, a populist party might just win this year’s presidential elections. It might. However, it won’t help anyone to doom the whole European project because of that prospect. It’s not all about politicians, parties and governments after all. If the EU manages to regain the support of a majority of people in France and elsewhere, Le Pen and others will have a hard time wrecking the project. Vice versa, if public support for the EU continues to fall, we won’t even need a Le Pen to wreck it.

Instead of bemoaning the current state of things, let’s instead try and create a positive case for this wonderful project again. Brexit offers a unique chance here and recent moves towards a real two-speed Europe are the right signal already. Let’s give the folks in Munich something else to talk about next year.

German politics is finally getting interesting again

German politics has for more than a decade been dominated by Angela Merkel. With Martin Schulz, a serious contender now surfaced.

Angela Merkel has been Germany’s Chancellor for almost twelve years. Is it time for a change?

As a relative newcomer to Germany, it’s sometimes hard for me to fully grasp the significance of Angela Merkel. Whatever you think of her, that woman is impressive. She’s been Chancellor of Germany for almost twelve years now and led her party, the CDU, for almost seventeen.

During that time, she has shaped the country in a way few other German politicians have. Today, Merkel therefore seems almost like a natural force in German politics. It feels like she’s always been there and she will be there forever. No wonder, Germans like to call her “Mutti”, or Mum. But this sense of inevitability has also made German politics a quite predictable and, frankly, boring game in recent years. This year’s federal election is going to change that.

Angela Merkel’s legacy in Germany

Merkel’s legacy is indeed hard to overlook, both in Germany and abroad. As head of Government, she has managed such momentous challenges as the 2008 economic crisis, the Euro crisis and, of course, the refugee crisis. In Germany, she has smothered political opponents like the SDP or even her long-time ally the FDP, making the Conservatives the dominant party in the country. With the AfD however, she has also witnessed the rise of a political force to the right of her CDU, a premier in the history of the republic. This is particularly striking as Merkel has increasingly moved the CDU to the centre – some would even say the left – when adopting more and more socially liberal positions, particularly her open-door policy for refugees.

All this made Angela Merkel what she is today: the most influential and powerful politician in Germany and Europe. But times are changing. During the last two years, Merkel has increasingly faced criticism at home. Her party’s Bavarian ally, the CSU, openly opposed the Chancellor on her refugee policy, the AfD overtook the CDU in regional elections in Merkel’s own home state and finally, the SPD has turned into a serious opponent again. Yes, this year’s federal elections are getting interesting.

Martin Schulz and the recalibration of the German party system

This recent Social Democratic resurrection of course, has everything to do with the party’s new candidate for the office of Chancellor: Martin Schulz. With his move from the European Parliament to running for office in Germany, he has led the SPD to unforeseen heights. In recent polls, the party climbed to 30%, just a couple of points short of Merkel’s CDU.  This is all the more remarkable, once you consider it started from an all-time low of 20% in January. For the first time in years, Angela Merkel therefore faces a real contender. And this begs the question: is Martin Schulz the better option for Germany?

Many liberals ask themselves this question these days – I sure know I do. But isn’t the real question a different one? Aren’t Merkel and Schulz in reality very similar, exemplified by the fact that people like me even ask themselves this question? Angela Merkel undeniably moved her CDU closer and closer to the centre, not shying away from traditional “left” positions like phasing out nuclear energy, opening the doors to refugees, fighting inequalities in school education, and – even though not proposed by her – introducing a minimum wage. What the SPD and Schulz are offering is in fact little different. They can of course shout out slogans like “Time for justice” but ultimately: what real alternative do they offer?

The real struggle starts after the election

What makes this election so interesting is therefore not so much the outcome itself. To paraphrase the rather absurd words of Jeremy Corbyn here: the real struggle starts after the election. Two strong candidates like Merkel and Schulz might well earn each of their parties over 30% of the vote but in the long run, two such massive centrist parties with little differentiation between them are probably not sustainable. Instead, this setting opens up other possibilities, especially on the right of the political spectrum.

The CDU will therefore sooner or later feel the urge to move further right, already drawn by the likes of Horst Seehofer and his CSU in Bavaria. While this probably won’t happen while Merkel is still in power, it’s an open secret she won’t run again after the next term. It remains to be seen whether the SPD can in the meantime establish itself as the real centrist power in the country. If it does – and hereby I answer the question I deemed unnecessary before – Schulz is indeed the better option for Germany.

Is Romania heading down the authoritarian path?

Romania's parliament in Bucharest. A remnant of the country's authoritarian past

Romania has quite an authoritarian past. Its government seems to have rediscovered it

I have spent a lot of time on this blog discussing authoritarian trends in Central and Eastern Europe, such as in Poland, HungarySlovakia, or just the Visegrád group as a whole. However, authoritarian tendencies in the region don’t stop there. In Romania, the newly elected Social Democratic government impressively demonstrated this earlier this week, when in a late-night move, it passed a law decriminalising “minor” cases of corruption. So what’s happening there?

Romania’s ongoing political crisis

In recent years, Romania’s Social Democrats have faced a series of issues connected with corruption. The last Social Democratic government was ousted just a year ago, following a fire in a Bucharest night club that – as it turned out – was also made possible by corrupt practices leading to the club even receiving an operating license. After a year of technocratic government, nothing really changed in the Social Democratic Party.

After then-PM and party leader Victor Ponta resigned, Liviu Dragnea took over the party. He is currently under investigation by the Romanian anti-corruption office as well and following his election victory in December, President Klaus Iohannis refused to swear him in as PM, stating that no politician facing corruption charges should be in government. Sorin Grindeanu, who was appointed Prime Minister instead,  is however alarmingly close to Dragnea and the new corruption law was clearly designed to free his party leader from allegations.

Decriminalising corruption in a late-night session… yeah…

As a result of the party’s recent conflicts with President Iohannis, watering down Romania’s corruption law has been on the government agenda from the very beginning.  It also sparked protests from the start. This explains why the government decided to pass an emergency law late on Tuesday evening. 

The amended anti-corruption law states that official misconduct that cost the state less than 200,000 Lei (around 47,000 €) would no longer be punishable by prison time. Handily, Dragnea’s case “only” cost the state 24,000 €.

This blatantly obvious move quickly sparked street protests which soon grew to the largest demonstrations Romania has seen since the end of communism. Every day since Wednesday, 250,000 people were taking the streets all over Romania, half of them in the capital alone. President Iohannis even took part in the protests himself and called upon the Constitutional Court to overturn the law.

Romania heading down the road to authoritarianism

Just today, the government surprisingly announced to  abandon their plan and take back the law. Yet, the issues gives us a pretty good idea about the future path this government will take. Already last year, the Social Democrats were behind scrapping Romania’s television fees, a move widely considered as weakening the independent media in the country. The party furthermore already proved its “creative” understanding of democracy back in 2012 when trying to oust then-President Traian Băsescu, organising an unsuccessful referendum on the issue, which caused a full-blown state crisis.

With its comfortable majority won in the recent elections, Dragnea’s party is unlikely to resign any time soon. Without the new corruption law, Dragnea will likely continue to pull the strings from behind the scenes like Jarosław Kaczyński does in Poland. With the attacks on independent media, the crackdown on the anti-corruption office and past experiences concerning his party’s democratic credentials, the Visegrád-path seems wide open to Dragnea. We might soon have to deal with yet another autocrat running an EU-country.

Will Cyprus reunification fail in 2017?

Will Cyprus reunification fail in 2017?

After years of talks, Cyprus is still a divided country. Could that change this year?

In my first post this year a couple of weeks ago, I tried to give some ridiculous predictions for 2017. One of them was that Turkey will blow the Cyprus reunification talks. So let’s have a little look at the state of these talks. A lot has already happened since then, including Greece causing the first conflict of the year. However, it is arguably still Turkey we need to worry about most.

Cyprus – the story so far

Cyprus has been divided since 1974, when Turkish troops moved into its largely Turkish speaking north after an attempted Greece-led coup. Since then, there have been repeated attempts towards reuniting the island, the last one in 2004. Since 2014, Nicos Anastasiades, President of the Republic of Cyprus and Mustafa Akıncı, President of Northern Cyprus, have again been in talks in what seems to be the most promising attempt in a long time.

In these last couple of years, the two Presidents have met repeatedly, aided by the United Nations, and moved a long way towards reaching a compromise. However, differences still persist, the main points of contention being Turkish military presence, border issues and other guarantor states.

What makes the conflict so complicated

The talks are severely complicated by the role of these guarantors. Greece, Turkey and the United Kingdom have to be included in shaping the future of the island and they have taken part in the latest talks in Geneva. It is exactly this overlap of interests that makes the Cyprus conflict so protracted. Besides the two parts of a future Cypriot federation, there are three foreign powers involved, plus UN and EU. And while I predicted Turkey would tear down a solution this year, it was the Greek foreign minister who caused the first scandal.

After a round of talks in Geneva in early January, Greek foreign minister Nicos Kotzias blew the meeting with some rather radical comments. In a break, he faced the media, stating that Greece demands a swift withdrawal of all Turkish troops from Cyprus. So far however, the Cypriot leaders were in agreement over a gradual withdrawal over a yet to be defined period of time.

As a result of Kotzias comments, both the Turkish Cypriots and Turks subsequently left the negotiating table. Recep Erdoğan later said “We have told Cyprus and Greece clearly that they should not expect a solution without Turkey as guarantor. We are going to be there forever“.

I might still win this bet

While it was the Greek foreign minister to cause the first conflict of the new year, reactions from the Turkish President quite clearly indicate where the real problem lies. Greece was after all quick to react and withdrew Kotzias from the talks. There doesn’t seem to be any Greek insistence on removing Turkish troops a.s.a.p. Erdoğan’s statements speak a very different language. “Being there forever” is simply not compatible with a Cypriot plan for phasing out foreign military presence. Neither seems Turkey likely to support an end to the outdated system of guarantor states. A real compromise could be difficult to reach under these circumstances.

If the first weeks of 2017 are any indication, I might therefore be on a good way towards winning my first bet. Unfortunately, I’d be the only winner in this.

Theresa May and her tale of a “truly global Britain”

Canary Wharf, a centre of global Britain. Will it still be after Brexit?

Britain is a global society now. Brexit was a vote to change that

After Theresa May’s big Brexit speech this week, my dear friend Nicole has published a blog article about what it all means for internationals living in London. In it, she touched upon a number of important points that I would like to add on today. After all, the speech was indeed remarkable, though not so much for the fact that Britain is now definitely heading for a hard Brexit but for the sheer ignorance demonstrated by the PM.

“Building a truly global Britain”

One topic in particular stands out for this blatant ignorance. That was when Mrs. May said “June the 23rd was not the moment Britain chose to step back from the world. It was the moment we chose to build a truly Global Britain.” Uhm, excuse me? The Brexit vote being about building a more global Britain? What country are you talking about?!

Every single serious analysis, interview and report I have seen or heard since June 23rd spoke a clear language. People in post-industrial and rural areas of England and Wales chose Brexit as a vote against the establishment – you know, folks like Theresa May. They also voted for Brexit because migrants have successfully been blamed as the root of their problems. As Nicole nicely put it: “They (want to) see is that people from other parts of Europe come to the UK to take away their jobs”. How on earth is that an invitation for building a “truly global Britain”?

However, Theresa May now even doubled down on her argument in another speech at the World Economic Forum in Davos. “We want to build a truly global Britain. A Britain that is an advocate for free trade, for free markets around the world and a Britain that is ensuring that we are taking those opportunities.” The only problem is: this is not what people have voted for! If she truly believes that, Theresa May is a sleepwalker. An elitist Tory, sleepwalking through a process she hasn’t initiated, desperately trying to reconcile it with her party’s and her own interests.

Heading for a dead-end

This strategy can never work though. There is no way the UK government can go on pretending like the Brexit vote was a vote for more globalisation when in fact it was the opposite. Any outcome resulting from this approach will necessarily be very different from what people voted for. Building a global economy while shutting down borders to internationals simply does not go together and closing borders is a thing Theresa May must do, if she wants to stay credible. This inherent contradiction will come to the fore, at the very latest when the government has to present its deal with the EU.

In the meantime, what Mrs. May is doing is the opposite of what she is saying. Britain is becoming less global by the minute with highly-educated, competent internationals (and taxpayers) like Nicole leaving the country. So wake up, Mrs. May. You are not building a global Britain, you are managing its demolition!

 

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