Immersed in thoughts about whether Greece will strike a last-minute deal with its foreign creditors to avoid a debt default, I found myself on Tuesday evening outside an Athens souvenir shop selling a T-shirt with this slogan:

To be is to do – Plato
To do is to be – Aristotle
Do be do be do – Sinatra Read more

Manuel Valls, French prime minister, hit the nail on the head when giving his explanation for the resounding defeat suffered by his Socialist party in Sunday’s local elections.

“With their vote, the French have expressed their anger, their fatigue with life that is too difficult – unemployment, taxes and a high cost of living,” said Mr Valls (above). Read more

Two decades after the Dayton peace agreement that ended the 1992-95 Bosnian war, EU governments have finally approved an association agreement with Bosnia-Herzegovina that puts the troubled state on track for eventual membership of the 28-nation union.

This is unambiguously good news for everyone who takes the view that democracy, prosperity and ethnic harmony will only take lasting roots in former Yugoslavia once all the states that emerged from its collapse, as well as neighbouring Albania, are full EU members.

But the EU’s decision to approve Bosnia’s association accord, taken on March 16, must be seen against the backdrop of the Ukraine crisis. With Russian-western relations in their worst shape since the end of communism, the Kremlin has made clear over the past year that it intends to ramp up its influence in the Balkans. The EU initiative is a signal that European governments are pushing back. Read more

It seems as if good news is gushing out of Spain these days like water from a Seville fountain.

The economy is expanding at its fastest rate in seven years, leaving behind France, Germany and Italy. The government predicts Spain’s return to growth will create half a million jobs this year. A commercial airline (Ryanair) is going to fly in and out of Castellón airport, the unused, €150m facility near Valencia that was a symbol of wasteful expenditure in Spain’s pre-crisis years.

To cap everything, researchers say they have found, under a Madrid convent, some of the remains of Miguel de Cervantes, author of Don Quixote and Spain’s most revered literary figure.

If only Greece could boast similar successes – a healing economy, a society recovering from the euro crisis, and the discovery of Homer’s skull under the patio of an Athens taverna.

Without wanting to turn a sprinkler on Spain’s parade, I think a few words of caution are in order. Read more

There cannot be many legislatures in Europe where the largest political party and the second largest party are rivals, yet vote the same way 80 per cent of the time. Since last May’s European Parliament elections, the EU assembly has turned into just such a place.

What does this say about European democracy? I have some thoughts on that – but, first, the facts. Read more

A useful report on EU-Russian relations was published last week by the EU committee of Britain’s House of Lords, the upper house of parliament.

The report shows how London and other EU capitals badly misjudged Russian intentions last year, before the February revolution in Kiev, President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of the Crimean peninsula and the Kremlin’s armed intervention in eastern Ukraine. In particular, the way that the British government allowed expert knowledge and experience of Russia to waste away in the UK foreign office after the Soviet Union’s demise is indefensible. Read more

Should you find yourself in Baku, skip the Versace store and Emporio Armani. Go instead to the grand edifice with the Grecian columns that stands between them, overlooking the Caspian Sea with its fabulous oil and gas riches.

This building was constructed in 1960, when Azerbaijan was part of the Soviet Union, to mark Vladimir Lenin’s 90th birthday. It is a vastly different place these days, hosting the Museum of Azerbaijani Independence. If you’re in luck, as I was this morning, you will be the only visitor. Read more

Here’s one prediction if Alexis Tsipras and his radical left Syriza party win Sunday’s Greek parliamentary elections: 595 women with mops and rubber gloves are going to be very happy.

They are cleaners whom the outgoing government, led by Antonis Samaras of the centre-right New Democracy party, fired from their jobs at Greece’s finance ministry as part of its effort to cut public expenditure and root out clientelism.

The cleaners’ dismissal caused a right old uproar in Athens. Mr Tsipras, terming their treatment typical of callous measures adopted to please Greece’s EU and International Monetary Fund creditors, has promised to reinstate them.

Everyone I’ve met this week in the Athens political world is sure he will do exactly what he says. Long live the revolution! Read more

Greece’s parliamentary elections on Sunday are set to put in power the nation’s most leftwing government, led by the radical Syriza party, and its youngest prime minister, 40-year-old Alexis Tsipras, since the second world war.

But some familiar names and faces will survive Syriza’s expected victory. Despite six years of economic slump, and despite the reappearance of serious concerns about Greece’s ability to stay in the eurozone, the old Greek political order is not about to be swept away in its entirety. Read more

Most euro area governments and investors are breathing a sigh of relief after Wednesday’s preliminary judgment from the EU’s highest court in favour of the European Central Bank’s sovereign bond-buying programme – the 2012 initiative that helped to bring the euro crisis under control.

But governments and investors, in and outside Europe, should keep in mind that the danger of a bitter, protracted struggle over EU constitutional law will now go up. This would pit Germany against other power centres in the EU. Read more

Within twenty years of the end of the second world war, the same European countries that had been sworn enemies during six years of bloody conflict committed themselves to a future of peace, prosperity and political and economic integration.

Some war crimes suspects slipped the net and avoided the Nuremberg trials, but their elusiveness did not interrupt or discredit the reconciliation process led by West Germany and France.

But two decades on from the wars that ripped apart the former Yugoslavia, it is impossible to make the case that reconciliation and integration are as advanced there as they were in western Europe by the mid-1960s.

The region’s societies, ethnicities and political leaderships remain bitterly at odds over how to assess the war crimes committed in Croatia and Bosnia-Herzegovina between 1991 and 1995.

 Read more

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

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

  Read more

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

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

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

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

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

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