my take on

Europe and the World • by Ralf Grabuschnig

Authoritarian politics on the rise: all eyes on Austria

The Austrian Conservatives, ÖVP, proposed a new security package. Their proposals are authoritarian to the core.

The Austrian Conservative Party proposed a new surveillance package and it couldn’t be more authoritarian.

The rise of authoritarian politics is something I have often discussed on this blog. However, my considerations have this far mainly focused on the Visegrád states Hungary, Poland and Slovakia (for instance here, here and here). Another country that is no stranger to such ideas is my home state of Austria though. There, the conservative ÖVP party just tried to push through a new “security package” and it couldn’t be more authoritarian. Luckily, this did not get any support from the other parties just yet. Considering Austria’s election in October though, this deserves a closer look.

Security equals full surveillance for the ÖVP

To be fair, the Austrian grand coalition has been working on a new security package for months. And the reasons are somewhat understandable. The government tried to find a way to access WhatsApp and Skype data like they can with calls and text messages. You know, through judicial resolution. However, since the fall of the coalition and the announcement of early elections, things have changed dramatically.

This week, the conservative ÖVP – one half of that coalition – in the person of minister for the interior Wolfgang Sobotka proposed a new law. And as it turned out, this proposal goes far beyond what the coalition partner SPÖ ever agreed to. Hell, even the far-right refused to support it!

To start with, the ÖVP somehow forgot to mention any need for a judicial resolution before tapping into personal data. Instead, the police should simply be able to monitor people’s communication on suspicion. Yeah, that sounds very reassuring. But even worse: all this would not end at the police. Anyone responsible for providing security in a private or semi-private setting could get access to such data. That includes janitors in case of neighbourly disputes, associations of all sorts and even gardeners in public parks! All these people could simply request access to private information if they can provide a “reasonable suspicion”. And if they abuse this, they would get fined a mere 500€. I mean, are you fucking kidding me?

The ÖVP’s deeply authoritarian core

But the ridiculous ideas put forward by the Sobotka don’t even end there. He also wants to introduce a state-backed malware to infiltrate computers. The ÖVP wants to also be able to monitor every person a suspected criminal could get in touch with, which is, well… anyone, and they want to force private companies to store camera footage for two weeks and hand it over if necessary. This practice has been deemed illegal by the European Court of Justice but that doesn’t seem to matter for the ÖVP.

All this shows one thing very clearly: this party has not progressed a bit over the last 70 years. No matter how hard their new leader Sebastian Kurz now tries to rebrand the party as a fresh movement – there is a hard-authoritarian core at play here.  Large parts of the ÖVP simply don’t trust civil liberties. They are not comfortable with privacy and they would rather know exactly what is going on in every corner of the country.

Until now, opposition from all other parties, including the far right, crossed such authoritarian plans. But I’m afraid we might see more of that if the election in October returns an ÖVP-FPÖ right-wing coalition. That would put Austria firmly in the camp of a Viktor Orbán or Jarosław Kaczyński. Hardly a company I want to be associated with.

Everyone’s darling Emmanuel Macron

Macron hosted both Merkel and Trump in Paris this week. Does he need to be everyone's darling?

After hosting first Angela Merkel, then Donald Trump in just a week: does Emmanuel Macron really need to be everyone’s darling?

French President Emmanuel Macron was having a busy week. First, there was the biannual Franco-German joint cabinet meeting, an old tradition designed to bring Germany and France closer together. With a new president in charge in France and German elections coming up in September, the importance of this meeting is easy to spot. Right after Merkel and her colleagues left Paris however, Macron also hosted Donald Trump, who came to attend the French Bastille Day celebrations.

If these two meetings sound hard to reconcile to you, you are damn right. While it is of course important to maintain good relations with as many world leaders as possible, even Donald Trump, Emmanuel Macron simply cannot continue being everyone’s darling forever.

Macron and Merkel reinvigorate the Franco-German axis

Earlier this week, Paris hosted the Franco-German joint cabinet meeting, which of course also meant a visit by Angela Merkel. This was the first such cabinet meeting since Macron took office and it also comes at a decisive moment. Over the last couple of years, the Franco-German connection has suffered (I only say “Eurocrisis”) and this traditional motor of European integration is not what it used to be. Both Merkel and Macron have made promises to change that.

And so they did. A whole array of measures has been decided during their meeting on Thursday. They announced closer military cooperation, for instance, vowing to step up their joint anti-terrorism efforts and even build new joint fighter jets! They also agreed on a European military drone programme and on pushing further military space missions. On a more current note, Angela Merkel even voiced approval to discuss French ideas for a Eurozone finance minister. Berlin has for long staunchly opposed this proposal. In short: a lot is moving here. The French-German connection already seems closer than it has been for a long time.

A new-found bro from across the pond

However, Merkel was not the only one charmed by Emmanuel Macron this week. In fact, his programme couldn’t have been more contrary, as he then welcomed Donald Trump to Paris. It is obvious by now that Trump and Angela Merkel are not particularly fond of each other. And until now, the same seemed to be true for Macron. I think we can all still remember the awkward handshake battle he and Trump engaged in last time they met. A bit later, Macron also lashed out against Trump when inviting all US climate scientists to come work in France, after the US had withdrawn from the Paris climate accord.

This time around, however, things were different. In fact, it seems like the presidents of the US and France found a new bro in each other. For a whole day, the two were touring Paris and Trump later said “the friendship between our two nations — and ourselves, I might add — is unbreakable.” On the other hand, when pushed to comment on the recent scandals surrounding Donald Trump’s son, Macron declined and said he did not wish to interfere with US domestic politics.

You cannot be everyone’s darling forever

To be very clear: I do not generally oppose Donald Trump visiting EU countries, on the contrary. Given his dangerous understanding of democracy, we need to keep that line open. Isolating the US now would only push its administration further into the defence and towards other, less democratic allies.

However, pampering a US-president this dangerous is no game for any European leader to play. Donald Trump is a man who repeatedly lashed out against his country’s judicial system and the independence of judges. He almost certainly colluded with Putin’s Russia in his presidential campaign. He banned millions of people from his country based solely on their religion and he does not believe in human-made climate change. And that is ignoring all his personal flaws such as his constant disregard for women, which he again demonstrated when telling Macron’s wife that she was “in such great shape… beautiful“.

As a European leader representing European values you cannot simply stand by and say you don’t want to comment on internal issues. You have to point these things out. During the G20, the US’ partners managed to do just that when outvoting Trump 19:1 on the Paris agreement. Likewise for Macron, deepening European integration in concert with Germany while playing nice with half-autocrats like Donald Trump cannot work in the long run. So stop trying to be everyone’s darling, Mr. Macron.

Is this the death of Scottish independence?

Many in Scotland have long been pushing for an "indyref2" to take Scotland out of the UK. This is now more unlikely than ever.

A second Scottish independence referendum, or indyref2, seemed inevitable after the Brexit vote. That dream died last week.

Last week’s snap elections in the UK are a gamechanger. In my last post, I already discussed the election’s repercussions on Westminster politics and the Brexit negotiations in Brussels. However, I had to leave out one topic particularly dear to me – the meaning of this election on the prospect of Scottish independence. And one thing is clear: hopes for a second independence referendum, an indyref2, are now all but dead.

The SNP’s election defeat in Scotland

But what even happened in the elections last week? The UK-wide results should be by now clear to everyone. PM Theresa May lost her gamble to win an iron mandate for her vision of Brexit and ended up with a hung parliament and a strong Labour in opposition. The picture in Scotland is however very different. There, the Scottish National Party went into the snap elections with unprecedented strength. Since 2015, the party held an incredible 56 of the country’s 59 seats in Westminster. It was never going to be easy to repeat such a landslide victory. Last week’s election, however, proved to not only have the SNP lose seats but almost halved their numbers.

This time, “only” 35 of the 59 seats went to the SNP. The other parties on the other hand, the Conservatives in particular, managed to stage a spectacular return. The Tories gained thirteen seats up from only one, Labour won seven. This makes the Scottish political landscape more diverse than it has been for a long time. Also, for the first time in 30 years, the Conservatives are again a political force in Scotland.

How was this decimation possible?

The SNP’s stunning defeat can be traced down to a number of reasons. First of all, the Scottish Tories and to a lesser degree Labour managed to tap into the third of Scottish population that voted for Brexit last year. With its staunch pro-EU stance, the SNP has lost support in many Brexit-leaning areas. Even though not a single Scottish constituency ended up with a pro-Brexit majority in the referendum, this number of swing voters certainly helped the Tories to stage their unlikely return.

More importantly however, the SNP’s repeated calls for an indyref2 before 2019 seem to have frustrated many of their traditional voters. Many saw Nicola Sturgeon’s insistence on calling that referendum as an obsession. This made some who voted for the SNP for reasons other than independence in the past to change their minds. And they certainly got what they wanted. Indyref2 is now off the table and will be for years.

That’s it for indyref2 for the next years

One thing remains clear though: the outcome of the UK’s elections – also in Scotland – made a hard Brexit a lot more unlikely. The election did not only enable Labour and the Scottish Tories to push for a less radical approach to the negotiations. It also moved Nicola Sturgeon’s attention away from another referendum towards actively influencing the Brexit talks. The until now not too unlikely scenario of the United Kingdom crashing out the European Union with no trade deal and a following a break-up of the UK itself is therefore a lot less of a risk now.

Even though, for a variety of reasons I have long supported the idea of Scottish independence, this is not all bad news. Instead of focusing on indyref2, the Scottish First Minister will now need to get more actively involved in the Brexit discussion. Together with Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson and Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, she now has a chance to significantly influence these talks. In a hung parliament, Theresa May will find it much harder to oppose such calls. For the UK, the EU and remainers everywhere, this new balance of power in Scotland might therefore be good news. And who knows: maybe we will still get to see indyref2 once the Brexit dust has settled.

What Theresa May’s colossal failure in the UK election means for Brexit

The Houses of Parliament in Westminster. Theresa May called a UK election to win an iron mandate. It ended in colossal defeat and a hung parliament.

Theresa May hoped to win an iron mandate for her hard Brexit in the UK election. What she got instead is a hung parliament.

You just have to love British politics sometimes. When Theresa May called snap elections in April, she seemed to be heading for a landslide victory. Most observers, including myself, have already predicted a Tory super majority in Westminster, leaving Labour crushed on the side of the road. What Theresa May got in yesterday’s UK election instead is a hung parliament, Corbyn’s Labour stronger than ever and her own future as PM more than uncertain. But well: that’s what you get when you overoptimistically call snap elections despite the fact you never ran a proper campaign before and were never elected by your own party, let alone the people of the country.

After this UK election: where do we go from here?

When the last results came in this morning, few things were certain. Neither the Tories nor Labour possess an overall majority in Westminster and a whole lot of scenarios are possible. Even a Labour minority government supported by the Scottish Nationalists, the Liberal Democrats and the remaining smaller parties was a real possibility. So were new elections as early as August. However, it now turns out that Theresa May chose her only option to stay in power and formed an alliance with the Northern Irish DUP.

What I have hoped for in all my last posts has materialised though. Theresa May’s leadership is mortally wounded and her plans for a hard Brexit are de-facto dead. The Tory-DUP alliance also only has a waver-thin majority of two seats in the House of Commons. More likely than not, this “bloody difficult woman” will therefore have to resign within the next couple of weeks.

This new government constellation will also inevitably soften the UK’s approach towards the Brexit negotiations. The DUP, while having been pro-Brexit in the referendum, will push for a softer deal to preserve the open inner-Irish border. Given the new balance of power in parliament, the PM will not be able to oppose them on that. This election, after all, was a clear rejection of a hard Brexit.

Tic, tac goes the Brexit clock

A hard Brexit might therefore be off the table but that’s only part of the problem. Remember, Theresa May already triggered the two-year negotiation period with the EU in March and that clock is ticking. Come March 2019, the UK will crash out of the EU, deal or no deal.

The EU and Britain have already postponed the start of divorce talks because of the UK election. Talks are now scheduled to start in two weeks but also that deadline seems more than unrealistic at this point. Needless to say, two years are a near-impossible timeframe for negotiating a proper deal anyway. We are now down to 21 months and this least strong and least stable of governments will only make things harder. The only way out of this is yet another election but that would cost three more months at least and might not return a strong majority anyway. Either way, time is running out for the UK.

In the light of this UK election, I increasingly start to believe that no proper deal will be possible by March 2019. Until now, I thought the two sides could at least decide on an interim solution but after this election, the UK is quite frankly in no position to conduct negotiations. Neither can it afford to wait for a new government with a supposedly stronger mandate in the future though. At this point, I therefore believe the most likely outcome of the negotiations will be a unilateral offer from Brussels reaching London in March 2019. No matter what UK government might be in place then, they will just have to take it or leave it.

Has the European Union just recaptured its mojo?

The EU has, after years of search, found its mojo

Like the great Austin Powers, the EU finally seems to have found its mojo

As we all know, questions of EU reform have lurked in the background of European politics for many years now. After the Brexit vote, EU leaders promised once more that it cannot go on like that but at that point, this promise was already hard to believe. But well, it now seems like it might not have just been empty words. Because following the five future scenarios for the EU given by the Commission in spring, this week we heard some concrete proposals that make me believe the EU might have founds its mojo again.

Today I therefore want to look at two of these proposals that I have also repeatedly endorsed in the past: harsher sanctions for EU members not complying with the rule of law and strengthening of the monetary union.

A potent weapon against anti-democratic tendencies?

One of the EU’s most serious problems in recent years has clearly been the blatant disregard for democratic standards and the rule of law in certain member states. Hungary has cracked down on these norms for years, turning more and more into an authoritarian state. Poland has swiftly followed them down that path. For just as long, the EU has stood and watched. But there simply wasn’t much to be done. EU treaties do not allow proper sanctions. And even the comparably mild sanctions imaginable, like stripping voting rights in the EU Council, need unanimous support from all other member states.

After protracted infighting between the EU Commission and Poland, Germany now stepped into the ring. In a statement, the German government announced to look into possibilities to link the payment of EU cohesion funds to the respecting of democratic principles. While the fact that it is Germany proposing this will surely infuriate some, this is exactly what we need. Hungary and Poland are after all both major recipients of said funds. And not to forget, the governments of these countries committed themselves to democracy, liberalism and the rule of law just 13 years ago when they joined the EU. The rest of the Union now cannot just stand by.  It cannot watch them tear down these very standards while continuing to pay!

An EU finance minister is now real possibility

This week, the EU Commission has also moved to tackle another long-standing issue of the European Union: Eurozone governance or rather the lack thereof. On Wednesday, the Commission released a proposal effectively calling for an EU finance minister. It is a widely known truth that the Eurozone cannot function properly without some sort of central regulation. This far, the European Central Bank and the informal (!) Eurogroup of finance ministers have given the Euro a somewhat European framework. However, this is almost universally considered too little.

The Commission’s new plan now calls for a merger of the position of EU Commissioner for the Economic and Monetary Union and the President of the Eurogroup. This would de-facto create an EU finance minister. Positioned between the Commission and Council this could then – together with the High Representative for Foreign Affairs – be the second true EU “cabinet post”.

Such plans are not entirely new. However, with Emmanuel Macron they now have a prominent supporter in a major EU state. And while Germany – or more precisely finance minister Wolfgang Schäuble – is still reluctant, that could change very soon. After a likely victory in the September general elections, Angela Merkel will be keen to strengthen the Franco-German axis once more and set upon reforming the EU where possible. Come autumn, agreeing on a finance minister might therefore just be in the cards.

Not all hope is lost for the European Union

Whether or not these two concrete proposals become reality, one thing is certain. The EU is starting to get moving again. The many calls for reform have not been ignored and there are many signs leading in the right direction now. We see a reinvigorated European Commission (I mean, just look at Jean-Claude Juncker lecturing Trump about the Paris accords). We also see a decidedly pro-European president in France and the Franco-German motor slowly starting up again. In short, the outlook is better than it has been for a long time. It therefore seems save to say: yes, the EU is slowly finding its mojo again!

Not such a smooth ride after all. Theresa May’s lead melting

Theresa May is losing ground in recent polls. Could she actually lose the general elections?

Theresa May’s position in Downing Street might not be as safe as thought

After the atrocious terror attack in Manchester, UK politics are slowly returning back to normal. And at this point, normal means campaigning because the country is now less than two weeks away from its June 8 general elections. Last month, I first discussed Theresa May’s decision to call snap elections. Back then, it all seemed like a very clever move. She managed to take everyone by surprise, caught the opposition off guard and was on the way to gaining a strong mandate for the Brexit talks. At that time, May’s Tories were leading Labour by 20% – a landslide victory seemed more than likely. Things changed radically though and the latest YouGov poll just saw May’s lead shrink to 5%!

There may be more hope than I thought

In my aforementioned post, I argued that a strong showing of the Liberal Democrats could still endanger a Tory super majority, which is why remainers and liberals should not yet lose all hope. That – if recent polls are to be trusted – turned out to be overoptimistic. However, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party is now gathering momentum after a number of hickups in the conservative campaign.

For Theresa May, this election was supposed to be about Brexit and Brexit only. Her plan was to simply repeat the words “strong and stable” often enough for people to actually remember them and then – grudgingly or not – vote for her. However, in a devastating interview with BBC’s Andrew Neil earlier this week, she failed miserably to explain a Tory turnaround on pension policy. And angering her core electorate, the elderly, is clearly no winning battle strategy. Brexit isn’t everything after all and that is bad news for Miss May.

Could Theresa May actually lose this election?

But what are the repercussions of this sharp drop in Tory support? Basically, I think this election can now go three ways now, ranging from  “bad”, to “very bad” and “slightly less bad”.

  • Outcome 1 – bad |Theresa May could actually lose the election and Jeremy Corbyn becomes British Prime Minister. While I would certainly wish her such a humiliation, it is both unlikely and undesirable. We have seen time and time again that Jeremy Corbyn takes no interest in and has no plan for Brexit. He also leads a divided party with an ideology straight from the 1960s. No country would want that for Prime Minister.
  • Outcome 2 – very bad | May manages to fend off the attacks, recover from the pensions issue and win the landslide victory previously predicted. That would almost certainly result in her pursuing a hard Brexit, ignoring the “48%” of Remain voters altogether. All that of course mixed with a heavy conservative agenda in domestic politics with further alienation of Scotland and Northern Ireland.
  • Option 3 – slightly less bad | The best outcome I can see from the election is a narrow Tory victory, maybe even falling short of an overall majority. As in 2010, this would force the conservatives to form a coalition government with LibDem, bringing at least some reasonable voices to the negotiation table.

Either way: anything seems possible now. But even though polls have changed dramatically since my last post, the conclusion remains basically the same. For remainers, liberals and progressives, the best outcome to hope for is as narrow a Tory majority as possible. Who knows? Maybe they will even fall short of a majority altogether. As long as Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t end up with one himself, that would be pretty decent news.

The Balkans and their so-called EU perspective

Statue in Skopje. The Balkans and the EU remain to be in a complicated relationship.

The EU got used to pretending to care about the Balkans. Stop the theatre and offer a real perspective

With all the world news from Trump to Macron, Europe seems to have once again forgotten about the Balkans. Or at the very least, the public doesn’t seem to care much what is happening there. There would have been quite some newsworthy events to talk about though, as the Balkans are – once again – in political turmoil. Just last month, pro-regime protesters stormed the Macedonian parliament in Skopje. This week, a lingering political crisis in Albania has finally been somewhat settled, Kosovo is heading for early elections and in the meantime, Serbia is drifting towards authoritarianism.

Many in Europe might have forgotten but this is supposed to be a region of special significance to the EU. Not too long ago, the Union failed miserably to broker peace in what used to be Yugoslavia. Since then, it tried to provide stability by offering EU membership to all Balkan states, an approach that actually proved quite successful for some time. Increasingly however, the EU is doing nothing. And that approach will inevitably end badly.

The EU’s historic role in the Balkans

The Balkans are important to the EU for a number of reasons. There is of course the fallout from the wars of the 1990s. More importantly though, each and every membership candidate is currently from that region (if you exclude Turkey which you definitely should). Albania, Macedonia, Montenegro and Serbia are all in line to join the EU, Bosnia-Herzegovina and Kosovo are waiting to be invited. And the European Union has an obligation here. In 2003, it offered a “European perspective” to all Balkan states, an offer it reiterated just last year. However, currently the EU is doing very little in that respect.

It is no secret that the post-Brexit EU (but already before) is enlargement-weary. I have said before that this weariness and the signals it sends to the Balkans – but also to those willing to exploit a vacuum left there – is by far the most damaging approach imaginable. Recent events in Turkey certainly don’t make the situation any less dangerous.

The EU is no longer the Balkans’ only option

The problem behind the EU’s growing disregard for the Balkans is therefore easy to spot. It opens opportunities for regimes like Erdoğan’s Turkey to step into the vacuum. Yes, the EU and the west in general are still active in the region but almost exclusively as crisis managers. Brokerage from Brussels has at least partially helped calming-down tensions in Macedonia recently. US-American intervention seems to have made new elections in Albania possible. But besides this troubleshooting, the EU and US are not doing much.

A quick look at Turkey’s activities in the region suffices to see the consequences of this. Wherever you go in the Balkans – especially in partially Muslim societies like Bosnia, Kosovo or Macedonia – you will spot Turkish influence right away. State-backed Turkish banks open branches all over the region. Gülen-associated and – after the attempted Turkey coup – increasingly state-run Turkish schools and universities open everywhere. Turkey therefore offers jobs, education and economic perspective to the people of the Balkans. The EU’s empty promise of eventual membership does none of that anymore.

No credibility in the Balkans means no credibility anywhere

The true underlying problem is this: the prospect of EU membership has in the last 15 years nowhere been as powerful as in the Balkans. The mere perspective of eventual membership helped calm down ethnic conflict in Macedonia in 2001. That same perspective helped bring justice to many victims of the Yugoslav wars by motivating Serbia and Croatia to support the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia in The Hague. But since the pace of EU talks slowed down everywhere, this effect has now long worn off.

In many cases this is self-inflicted, of course. After all, we do see a substantial reform backlog in many Balkan states. However, the real problem lies on the EU’s side. For almost ten years now, the European Union made it clearer and clearer that it is not interested in any further enlargement any time soon. Even for the frontrunners in current accession talks, Montenegro and Serbia, a date before 2025 or even 2030 is basically illusionary. But the problem runs much deeper than that. It is not just that the EU doesn’t offer a credible perspective to the Balkans anymore. Even when it does interact with the region, it does so only when absolutely necessary and with no long-term strategy. Wednesday’s meeting of Balkan leaders in Brussels will certainly give us more of that.

The effect of this is obvious. The European Union has lost large parts of its credibility already in Western and Eastern Europe, due to its handling of the financial, Euro and refugee crises. Now, it even loses this credibility in the Balkans – the one place where Europe for a long time actually stood for something. And if the EU doesn’t manage to sustain its credibility in the Balkans, it won’t do so anywhere.

Economic uncertainty. A theory of populist support

Rising populist support and economic uncertainty go together, that is at least a widely held belief. But is it true?

One key explanation for populist support has always been economic uncertainty. Time to test that theory.

No one can plausibly deny that we have been going through a populist age in Europe.  For years now, growing support for populist parties seemed like a political inevitability. And when I say years, this trend can actually be tracked down pretty accurately to the year 2009. After all, a major explanation for right-wing and populist support has always been economic hardship. It was the global economic meltdown of 2007 and 2008 and its resulting “Euro crisis” that drove more and more people to such political alternatives, goes the theory. But seldom has this theory been tested.

Now might be the right time to do so as the European Commission just published its growth forecast for the EU. It states that even though growth rates are still not spectacular,  the overall EU economy is set to grow for the fifth year in a row this year. And even more importantly, every single national economy is growing as well – yes, even Greece! Obviously, economic circumstances don’t change overnight. But it begs the question: could this economic recovery spell an end to the rise of populism in Europe?

“It’s the economy, stupid”

First evidence suggests: yes, it could. While populist parties themselves like to make us believe their success stems from issues such as migration and European centralism, the famous Clinton-era saying still keeps its value. A major reason for many voters is still “the economy, stupid”. Recent electoral results seem to support the theory. As the economy slowly recovers, populist support is in decline. We can follow this trend from Austria in December via the Dutch elections to Emmanuel Macron’s stunning victory in France last week.

Of course, this superficial correlation does not prove that a recovering economy can stop populism altogether. The numbers in the Commission’s report are promising nonetheless and over the next year or two we will have plenty of occasions to test the correlation. Just look out for the imminent snap elections in Austria for a guideline.

Europe cannot leave difficult topics to populist parties

Whether economic recovery can truly spell an end to populism is only part of the question though. Populists have successfully campaigned on tangible issues as well. No one can deny that the Brexit vote happened also because the immigration argument trumped the economic one. While we can hope that improved economic circumstances will reduce the attractiveness of populism, these issues will remain. Pro-European, progressive parties will have to attack the populists on these grounds. They must offer alternatives, especially in the field of immigration.

That being said, an improved economic situation can give “mainstream” politicians back some credibility while taking that very credibility from the populists. And if progressive parties again fail to take the chance now, we at least know for sure that it is not just the economy, explaining right-wing success. Then it’s officially the failure of traditional politics.

Brexit turns nasty. That escalated quickly…

Brexit got nasty before talks even took off with politicians on both sides of the channel picking at each other

The Brexit talks turned to nasty infighting before they even started

It’s another one of these Sundays when we are all waiting for results to come in from France and I have nothing better to do than talk Brexit. But unfortunately, developments keep forcing me to do so. The latest source of tension in the Brexit talks was a particular unusual one. It all started with a dinner last week when EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and others were invited at Downing Street.

What seemed like an innocent working dinner escalated quickly though. In the aftermath of the evening, parts of the EU entourage started to leak information about the discussions that took place. One diplomat, when asked how the evening went later simply answered: “Badly. Really badly”, before adding concerning the exit  bill: “I’m not going to tell you their number, because you are going to laugh.”

This started a war-of-words between the two sides. Juncker’s top aide Martin Selmayr later went on record to say that Brexit will never be a success, no matter what. Theresa May meanwhile went all out declaring “war on Brussels” and that Brussels is trying to disrupt the UK election. Later, Brexit minister David Davis plainly called the EU side “bullies” and urged the British public to resist. So yeah, the atmosphere can safely be described as tense.

Brexit, general elections, and a whole lot of emotions

Clearly, things are not looking good in the Brexit talks and they have not even started yet. In the UK, we can already see campaign fever taking over. The country is holding general elections in just over a month and Theresa May is now increasingly betting on the nationalist card. She tries to establish herself as the candidate of the “people”, bravely facing down hostile foreign influences. This strategy might well pay out for her in the elections. For the Brexit talks though, this is pure poison.

However, the EU is also to blame here. First of all, it is highly unusual for information from a private dinner to leak to the media and many suspect Selmayr himself to have revealed them. Comments about unrealistic expectations in London and the UK’s “exit bill” certainly did not help either. It seems that disillusionment about the fact the Britain is about to leave the EU led people in Brussels to turn unjustifiably hostile towards London. Not a great basis for discussion.

Both sides need to calm down!

Elections or not, this verbal face-off cannot continue. The EU and UK will soon go through a year and a half of painstaking negotiations. It will be hard enough to find common ground and make the best of it there, also without such comments. But whether we (both on the continent and in Britain) like it or not: making the best of it must be the aim of the talks. We might not like the fact that Britain is leaving – and Brexiteers probably don’t like the fact that there will still be links of some sort between Britain and the EU afterwards. But the UK in 2019 will still only be 33km from France and a major trading partner for many EU countries and vice versa. Claiming that the two will not need to work together closely and amicably also in the future is denial, plain and simple.

I personally hate the fact that Brexit is actually happening. The UK was an important member of this European Union and without it, things will not be the same. However, I refuse to believe that the Brexit talks are a zero-sum game either. One side’s win is not the other side’s loss. So instead of exchanging insults let’s get this thing over with and try to get the best possible outcome for both sides. The EU will not seize to exist just because it doesn’t “punish” the UK hard enough and the UK will not become a failed state any time soon either. What will happen though, is that there will be a 27-state, 450 million inhabitants EU bordering an independent UK with one of the largest financial hubs in the world. They better not hate each other for decades to come.

Elections in France. Show some optimism

Elections in France brought a surprising clear victory for Emmanuel Macron in the first round already. Why are his supporters so pessimistic then?

France is still a well-fortified democracy. Let’s not forget that

A short disclaimer. I’m in Vienna this weekend – gotta visit the imperial capital every now and then – so I just want to put out some quick thoughts. In last week’s turmoil with the Turkish referendum, the announcement of early elections in the UK and the elections in France, I simply could not discuss everything. So I want to go back and talk about the French elections a bit.

When the results came in from France last Sunday night, I have to say I was quite pleasantly surprised. After all, my preferred candidate Emmanuel Macron won 24% of the vote, beating Marine Le Pen at 21%. And yet, since then most people I talked to were very pessimistic and anxious about the upcoming second round. The overarching sense seems to be that far-right success is too hard to predict and we might still be in for a surprise next week. I want to challenge this fear a bit. Because if I took anything from the first round of French elections it’s the feeling that the worst might actually be behind us.

Optimistic as I am, I expected Macron to win (though to be fair, I also thought Remain and Hillary would win). However, I did not expect Macron to win the first round. Experiences from elsewhere told me that a Le Pen victory in a field of 11 candidates is just very likely. Take the Austrian presidential elections as an example here. There, the far-right candidate Norbert Hofer crushed his five opponents in the first round, taking 35% of the vote ahead of now-president van der Bellen’s 21%. Take a look at this map to get an idea of what a landslide victory that really was. (Everything coloured blue went for Hofer).

There a reasons to be hopeful

Of course, we now know that this 14% lead turned into a neck-on-neck race in the second round with van der Bellen ultimately winning first 50.3% and then 53,8%. Also France has experienced elections along these lines before. In the 2015 regional elections, Front National gathered 27% in the first round just to be annihilated in the second round thanks to tactical voting.

But this time it’s different. Now, the “compromise” candidate, who would under normal circumstances be expected to only gather the moderate vote in the second round (if that), already won the first. That is not just promising, that is extraordinary!

The likes of Le Pen are of course strong and we should not underestimate them. But at this point it seems like their rocket-like ascent is reaching a bit of a dead end. So please, fellow moderates, liberals, leftists and what not: show some optimism.

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