Albanian Prime Minister Edi Rama (Getty)
His hair is receding, his beard is splashed with grey, and he speaks English with the grammatical precision of an independent-minded Balkan intellectual who grew up in the communist era – which is exactly what he is. But Edi Rama, Albania’s prime minister, is also so tall and muscular that, as a young man, he played for the national basketball team. Before he gave up art for politics in the post-communist era, his paintings were exhibited in Berlin, New York and beyond.
As he explained over dinner in Tirana on Thursday night, he is also old enough – he turns 51 on Saturday – to have searing memories of the cruel, isolated madhouse that was Albanian communism under Enver Hoxha, the dictator who ruled from the end of the second world war until his death in 1985. This is why Rama passionately wants Albania’s future to be in the EU, and why he foresees danger ahead if his and other Balkan countries are denied this prospect. Read more
Another chapter will be written this weekend in Greece’s proud, painful history of national suffering, defiance and martyrdom, real as well as imagined, at the hands of foreign oppressors.
Whether Greece’s radical leftist-led government capitulates to the demands of its eurozone partners and the International Monetary Fund, or whether it rejects them, the essentials of this narrative will not vary much.
Here is the reason: thanks to the way that Greece and its creditors have mishandled the debt crisis since it erupted in October 2009, the only available choice now, from the perspective of ordinary Greeks, is between extremely bad and worse. Read more
A man pushes a trolley with recyclable materials past graffiti in central Athens
Spectators of the debt drama starring Greece and its eurozone creditors are shuffling uncomfortably in their seats. They do not know the ending, but every twist in the plot suggests that it is extremely unlikely to be happy.
The Greek state is slipping closer to official default on its loans, and even exit from the eurozone. This creates an impression that the drama, which began in 2001 with the fatal decision to admit Greece into Europe’s monetary union, is approaching a sort of Act V dénouement. But real life is not a play, when the curtains come down after a fixed period of action.
Some high-level eurozone politicians – by which I mean prime ministers and finance ministers – have made it clear for at least five weeks that they are ready to let Greece default and, if necessary, drop out of the 19-nation currency area. Yet not all have thought hard enough about what might follow. To say “good riddance to the Greeks, they’ve been unreliable and irresponsible, we’ll be better off without them” does not amount to a serious policy. Read more
It is possible, of course, that the Greek crisis will once again derail their plans. But as things stand, one subject under discussion at a Brussels summit of European leaders on June 25-26 will be how to improve economic governance in the 19-nation eurozone.
The most succinct explanation for why Europe’s leaders must get their act together on economic governance appeared in a speech last November at the University of Helsinki by Mario Draghi, the European Central Bank president. He said: “Doubts over the viability of EMU [European monetary union] will only be fully removed when we have completed it in all relevant areas. This means banking and capital markets union; it means economic and fiscal union. In a monetary union, no policy area can be seen in isolation.”
What a shame that these fine words, and various thoughtful proposals for enhanced eurozone integration that are circulating in EU capitals, appear likely to produce next to nothing in terms of concrete progress at the Brussels summit. It will be a wasted opportunity – or, to put it more strongly, yet another wasted opportunity. Read more
Ukraine President Petro Poroshenko (L) with Mikheil Saakashvili (C) in Odessa
Unlike Russia’s leaders, who loathe him, and unlike some of his western friends, who once treated him as if he were Georgia’s greatest hero since King Davit the Builder (1089-1125), I don’t hold strong views for or against Mikheil Saakashvili.
If pressed, I would say that, during his 2004-13 spell as president of Georgia, he displayed an impressive, but slightly frantic reformist energy in pursuing what he believed to be his country’s pro-western destiny. His modernising fervour combined indomitable self-confidence and business school English with an unpredictability and a capacity for misjudgment that at times bordered on recklessness.
I interviewed Saakashvili in Brussels in October 2008, two months after a short war in which Russia in effect partitioned Georgia by invading it and recognising the independence of the breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia. He was more subdued than usual, possibly because it had dawned on him that in the build-up to that conflict he had fallen into a well-laid Russian trap.
Now, in the strangest of career twists, Saakashvili has been appointed governor of Ukraine’s southern region of Odessa by President Petro Poroshenko. The Ukrainian president has speeded up this move by granting Saakashvili instant Ukrainian citizenship. Read more
Just like the conflicts in Iraq and Syria, the violence in eastern Ukraine is attracting foreign fighters – some with the pro-Russian separatists, and some with the Ukrainian government forces.
Many of these fighters are from European countries. This makes it curious that we don’t hear much about this phenomenon from European governments – which are, of course, clamping down on citizens who go to fight in the Middle East. Read more
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.
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