I was passing through eastern Croatia the other day and found myself in Vinkovci, a pleasant town not far from the Danube river border with Serbia. As any Agatha Christie enthusiast will tell you, Vinkovci is the place in Murder on the Orient Express whereSamuel Ratchett, a shady American traveller, is bumped off while the famous train is stuck in a snowdrift. Read more
According to the old saying, if you knew how a sausage was made, you’d never eat one. It is no easier on the stomach to watch the political intrigues that lie behind the formation of Italian governments.
A new government is on its way in Rome because Matteo Renzi, leader of the centre-left Democratic party, has decided to pull the plug on Enrico Letta’s premiership. It is difficult to see who other than the youthful, super-ambitious Renzi will replace Letta.
For Italy’s eurozone partners, this is a fateful moment. If Renzi, as prime minister, fails to deliver the reforms that European policy makers know are essential to keeping Italy in the eurozone, the likelihood that some other Italian politician will do so are exceedingly small.
But Renzi’s very public political assassination of Letta, his party comrade, was a kind of theatrical “stab in the front” that may one day return to haunt him. For if these are the methods he deems suitable to clear his path to national office, it is reasonable to assume that they will sooner or later be used against him. Read more
German Constitutional Court (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
We don’t like what the European Central Bank is doing – but if someone is going to drop a nuclear bomb on the eurozone, it won’t be us. This seems to be the main message in today’s judgment from Germany’s constitutional court on the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions programme.
The OMT is an initiative aimed at saving the eurozone with large-scale ECB purchases of the bonds of governments vulnerable on financial markets, in return for a commitment to deep-seated economic reforms. Germany’s Bundesbank and much of the German public have never warmed to the OMT – even though the programme has never actually been used and, some experts think, never will be.
So the German court’s judgment will come as a relief to Mario Draghi, the ECB president, and all those who hold that the OMT, unveiled in August and September 2012, is the single most important reason why Europe’s monetary union no longer appears in mortal danger. But mixed with this relief will be a feeling that the German court’s judgement is not entirely helpful – and that some of its arguments are not particularly well-founded. Read more
Geert Wilders (Michel Porro/Getty Images)
Beneath his populist rhetoric neither Geert Wilders, nor most supporters of his far-right Freedom Party, nor the vast majority of Dutch voters seriously entertain the notion that the Netherlands will leave the European Union. But in election campaigns it is the rhetoric that counts.
The election in question is the May 22-25 vote, in the Netherlands and the European Union’s other 27 member-states, for the European Parliament. Like other anti-EU, anti-euro, anti-establishment parties in countries such as France and the UK, the Dutch Freedom Party is riding the tide of popular disenchantment with mainstream politics and EU institutions.
Wilders is after the protest vote, and he will get it – just like Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage. All three movements have an excellent chance of topping the polls or at least upsetting the political apple cart in their respective countries. Read more
Ask a German politician or pundit to account for the strength of Germany’s economy. I’ll bet you a plate of Nürnberger sausages that he or she will praise the labour market and welfare reforms adopted about 10 years ago by the government of Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s predecessor.
The “Hartz reforms” tightened the terms on which unemployed Germans claim welfare benefits. They laid the emphasis on putting people quickly back into jobs, at lower pay if necessary. Nowadays German unemployment is remarkably low (5.1 per cent of the workforce in December 2013, according to Eurostat, versus 27.8 per cent in Greece, 25.8 per cent in Spain and 12.7 per cent in Italy).
However, some newly published research by four German economists challenges the argument that the Hartz reforms are the main cause of the nation’s economic recovery. Their carefully written study, entitled “From Sick Man of Europe to Economic Superstar: Germany’s Resurgent Economy”, should be required reading for everyone concerned with boosting the eurozone’s economic performance. Read more
Matteo Renzi (Getty)
Outside Italy there is an understandable enthusiasm for the constitutional and electoral reform proposals of Matteo Renzi, leader of the centre-left Democratic party. Italy unblocked – at last! Inside the nation itself, there is more caution and scepticism. This reflects the experience of Italians, who have travelled such roads in the past without being rewarded with better government and a better class of political leaders.
Renzi, 39, and Silvio Berlusconi, 77, leader of the revived conservative Forza Italia party, struck a deal this month which is beguiling in its simplicity. Read more
Protest in Istanbul, Jan 2014 (Getty Images)
According to the Turkish proverb, if you spit down it gets in your beard and if you spit up it gets in your moustache. In other words, it’s a mess either way – and that pretty much sums up the state of EU-Turkish relations as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, prepares to visit Brussels on Tuesday for the first time since June 2009. Read more
Here is a startling prediction from the European Commission. In the absence of comprehensive economic reforms, living standards in the eurozone, relative to the US, will be lower in 2023 than they were in the mid-1960s.
This forecast, contained in the Commission’s latest quarterly report on the euro area economy, deserves to be displayed prominently on the wall of every president and prime minister’s office in Europe.
It is a sobering prediction for two reasons. First, it contrasts starkly with the comforting tales of economic recovery and financial market stability on which Europe’s leaders are congratulating themselves in these early weeks of 2014. Second, it raises profound questions about Europe’s relative weight in the world and, in particular, about its military alliance and economic partnership with the US. Read more
Europe’s recovery proceeds apace – at least on bond markets. When it comes to public opinion, it’s a different story.
A Gallup poll, published on Wednesday, showed what a devastating impact the eurozone’s crisis has had on popular attitudes to the European Union. Nor is the collapse of confidence in the EU limited purely to countries that have been required to slash wages and benefits in return for international financial aid. Read more
Ronnie Biggs poses with a 'Wanted' poster: Getty images
Like most Britons raised in the 1960s, I grew up thinking that the human species consisted, in essence, of three types of people: fun-loving musicians like the Beatles, harmless screwballs like Johnny Morris (of BBC television’s Animal Magic series) and unspeakable villains like the Great Train Robbers.
And now the greatest train robber of them all, Ronnie Biggs, has passed away. RIP Ronnie. Read more