A protest in front of the parliament building in Moldova's capital, Chisinau
After President Vladimir Putin’s annexation of Crimea in March 2014, some feverish western politicians and commentators started to detect the Kremlin’s malign hand manipulating every event large and small across Russia’s former Soviet neighbourhood.
They drew particular attention to Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, whose political classes contain vocal, westernised lobbies that rarely waste a chance to point their US and European interlocutors in an anti-Russian direction.
Yet the reality is not so black and white. Since the Soviet Union’s demise in 1991, it never has been. In important respects, the political, economic and social ills that afflict these states are home-grown. You can blame the Russians for a lot, but not for everything. Read more
Will Germany’s economy benefit from Chancellor Angela Merkel’s decision to throw open the nation’s doors to enormous numbers of refugees from beyond Europe’s borders? What, if any, is the connection between this decision and the hunger of German business for new workers in a shrinking labour market?
On these questions there is a spectrum of opinions. At one end stands Marine Le Pen, leader of France’s far-right, anti-immigrant National Front. On her party’s website you can find a video and text of a speech she delivered in Marseilles on September 8.
Ms Le Pen said of Ms Merkel’s decision: “Germany is most likely thinking about its ageing population, and it is most likely seeking to lower wages and to continue recruiting slaves by means of massive immigration.”
You don’t have to like Ms Le Pen’s vicious language to appreciate that Germany has a demographic problem. According to David Folkerts-Landau, a Deutsche Bank economist, the German population – the EU’s largest, at close to 83m – is set to decline by 3.5m over the next decade unless net migration into Germany increases significantly. Without such migration, he forecasts that the German labour force will shrink by an even greater 4.5m workers. Read more
Alexis Tsipras, Greece’s re-elected prime minister, is finding the first few days back in government anything but plain sailing.
On Thursday this blog reported how Mr Tsipras had demanded the resignation of a deputy transport minister barely 24 hours after having appointed him. The minister, Dimitris Kammenos, was from the rightwing nationalist Independent Greeks party, the junior coalition partner to Mr Tsipras’s leftwing Syriza party. Embarrassingly, his social media accounts contained anti-Semitic content.
Now some curious details are emerging about another deputy minister, this time from inside Syriza itself. Read more
Questions are already being raised about the competence of Alexis Tsipras's government
Two days into the new Greek government led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, and tensions are already showing. They will probably be manageable, for the moment, but troubling questions about the competence of the ruling coalition are already being asked.
Late on Wednesday Mr Tsipras felt obliged to ask for the resignation of a deputy transport minister whom he had appointed only 24 hours earlier. The minister, Dimitris Kammenos, belongs to the rightwing nationalist Independent Greeks party, with which Syriza, the leftwing party led by Mr Tsipras, is in coalition. Read more
Portugal’s October 4 general election catches the eye for three reasons.
Firstly, Prime Minister Pedro Passos Coelho’s centre-right government has overtaken the opposition Socialists in opinion polls. If he holds on to this lead, he will become the first prime minister to be re-elected among the five eurozone states that required emergency financial help between 2010 and 2013. Read more
I was at the Greek archaeological site of Delphi last weekend, attending a conference on Europe’s future, when the news arrived that Jeremy Corbyn, a 66-year-old leftwinger, had been elected as leader of Britain’s opposition Labour Party. I climbed up the hill and asked the Oracle for some predictions.
TB: Oh, Oracle, will the world see Corbyn’s triumph as irrelevant? After all, Labour’s never going to win a general election under him, so he will never be prime minister.
ORACLE: Not irrelevant, my friend, but illustrative. The world will see Corbyn’s success as one more that Britain, like a snail, is retreating from the international stage and withdrawing into itself. Read more
Once again, it was an agonisingly long piece of Greek parliamentary theatre. But once again, in the early hours of Thursday morning, Alexis Tsipras came out on top.
For the second time in a week, the prime minister survived a mini-rebellion in his radical leftist Syriza party and, with the help of opposition parties, passed a set of reforms required to secure a new, €86bn financial rescue from Greece’s international creditors. Read more
Alexis Tsipras and Vladimir Putin at a meeting in the Kremlin in April
We learned on Monday that Yuri Milner, the billionaire Russian entrepreneur, is to spend $100m of his own money over the next 10 years to fund a project searching for alien civilisations beyond our solar system.
According to my calculations, that is $100m more than the Russian government has offered in financial aid to Greece since the radical leftist Syriza party, often presumed to be close to Moscow, came to power in January.
During Syriza’s chaotic six months in office, the notion has cropped up time and again that Alexis Tsipras, the prime minister and party leader, would like to play a ‘Russian card’ to ward off pressure from Greece’s eurozone creditors.
There is something to this, but the picture is more subtly textured than first impressions might suggest. Let’s look below the surface and find out what’s going on. Read more
Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras addresses the European Parliament (Reuters)
Two thoughts come to mind when one looks at the last-minute reform proposals which Greece’s radical leftist-led government has sent to its creditors as a way of saving the nation’s eurozone membership.
1) Why should the creditors, financial markets or anyone else have faith that the Syriza-dominated government will actually implement any of these reforms?
After all, even Greek governments that were more politically mainstream, more pro-EU and, in theory, more business-friendly found it impossible to execute comprehensive reform programmes between May 2010, the month of Greece’s first bail-out, and last January, when Syriza came to power.
But much of the Syriza leadership is wedded to Marxist or quasi-Marxist dogmas that run completely counter to the spirit governing the reforms to which the government, all of a sudden, is promising to put its signature.
In other words, there seem few reasons to believe that Alexis Tsipras, prime minister, and his colleagues would want to carry out these reforms, even if the party and the Greek state possessed the capacity to carry them out – which they don’t.
2) The latest proposals appear to be deafeningly silent on some important matters raised with Greece by the creditors since January. In the letter sent by Euclid Tsakalotos, Greece’s new finance minister, to Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the Dutch head of the eurogroup, I see no mention at all of labour market reform or privatisation of state assets. Read more
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