Tony Barber

Almost exactly 15 years ago, on December 29, 1999, Vladimir Putin – then Russia’s prime minister and on the verge of promotion to the presidency – published a 5,000-word “mission statement” that summed up what he saw as the enduring values of the Russian people.

With the rouble dropping like a sack of Volga valley potatoes and the increasing threat to the Putin era’s social contract – “I make you wealthier and let you travel abroad, but I stay in power indefinitely and you don’t demand political freedom” – it is worth taking another look at the so-called Millennium Message. Read more

Tony Barber

Which of the eurozone’s 18 member states will be the weakest performing economy in 2015?

Italy, which has recorded no economic growth since 1999? Cyprus, which is still reeling from its financial sector collapse in 2012-13? Or some other hard-pressed southern European nation? No. In all probability, the sick man of the eurozone will be Finland.

The Finnish economy is in its third consecutive year of contraction. Any growth in 2015 will be not much bigger than a snowflake. The country will hold a general election in April. The question is whether the dark outlook will benefit The Finns, a populist-nationalist party which was known as the True Finns when it shocked Europe by coming third in the 2011 election with 19 per cent of the vote. Read more

Tony Barber

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Tony Barber

People wait in line at a government employment office in Madrid – Getty

A strong, broadly based economic recovery in the eurozone is nowhere in sight – as will become clear on Friday, when Eurostat, the EU agency, and several national statistical offices publish estimates for gross domestic product growth in the third quarter of this year. Read more

Tony Barber

For the past 15 years, there has been little good to say about Italy’s economic performance, and even less about the quality of Italian political life.

Yet one Italian institution emerges with its reputation unscathed – and even strengthened – from this long spell of incompetence, corruption and decline.

I am speaking of the presidency. Carlo Azeglio Ciampi, who served as head of state from 1999-2006, and Giorgio Napolitano, his successor and the current president, have exemplified everything that is dignified, decent and honourable about their country. Their behaviour in office has put the squabbling and self-serving political classes to shame – and it has preserved respect for Italy among its allies and partners abroad. Read more

Tony Barber

Since a cabinet reshuffle in August instigated by President François Hollande and Prime Minister Manuel Valls, France has had its most reform-minded government in 20 years. A new broom is doubtless a good thing – but is every break with past practice deserving of applause?

Take Fleur Pellerin, who was appointed culture minister in August. She revealed this week that she hadn’t read a book in two years. This is like a British health minister saying he or she can’t be bothered to visit a National Health Service hospital, or a Russian defence minister saying he has no interest in tanks and guided missiles. Read more

Tony Barber

The No victory in Scotland’s independence referendum demonstrates, once again, the wisdom of the aphorism about historical change contained in The Leopard, Giuseppe Tomasi di Lampedusa’s novel about Italian unification in the mid-19th century: “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change.” Read more

Tony Barber

At school we used to be taught in history lessons that Portugal was England’s oldest ally (“Please, sir, Treaty of Windsor, 1386!”). Oh dear, oh dear. How ever will the Anglo-Portuguese alliance survive the wickedly humorous indictment of popular English culture just published by João Magueijo, a Portuguese-born professor of theoretical physics at Imperial College, London?

The professor has lived for more than 20 years in England and clearly likes something about the place, for he seems in no hurry to leave. But when he describes his travels around the British Isles, he writes with the appalled fascination of an entomologist confronted with an unwholesome species of beetle. Read more

Tony Barber

It’s time to say “thank you” to Herman Van Rompuy.

Mr Van Rompuy, 66, is nearing the end of five years as the first full-time president of the European Council, which groups the 28-member EU’s national leaders. He has done the job shrewdly, unselfishly, professionally and without losing sight of the ideal of European peace, democracy, prosperity and unity that motivated him to enter public life. Read more

Tony Barber

Like anyone familiar with the French definition of budgetary discipline, I didn’t spill my coffee in shock on Wednesday morning when Michel Sapin, finance minister, disclosed that France wouldn’t bring its public finances in line with EU-set targets until 2017 – two years later than previously agreed.

From the day of the euro’s launch in January 1999, it’s never been any different in Paris. No grande nation worth its salt would balance its budget on the orders of some bumptious bureaucratic bean-counter in Brussels. Read more