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
In his 2011 book ‘Vanished Kingdoms: The History of Half-Forgotten Europe’, the historian Norman Davies writes: “That the United Kingdom will collapse is a foregone conclusion. Sooner or later, all states do collapse… Only the ‘how’ and the ‘when’ are mysteries of the future.”
A ‘Yes’ vote in Scotland’s September 18 referendum is a distinct possibility. According to Peter Kellner, one of Britain’s foremost opinion poll experts, the pro-independence forces were, by the start of this month, gaining about four votes for every one lost, whilst the unionists were losing about two supporters for every one they were winning. Read more
The view from Toompea hill over Tallinn bay and the Old Town of Estonia’s capital is justly considered one of the glories of the Baltic region. Scarcely less memorable is a plaque on the wall of Stenbock House, the 18th-century mansion on Toompea hill which is the official seat of Estonia’s government. Read more
The consensus, such as it is, on the eurozone crisis was neatly summed up on Monday by Hugo Dixon, author and editor at large of Reuters News: “The euro crisis is sleeping, not dead.”
What about the crisis in Greece? Over the past four to five years Europe, supported by the International Monetary Fund, has invested more time, effort and money in Greece than in any other struggling eurozone state. The aim is to reform a country so inefficiently governed, so riddled with corruption and so burdened with debt that it seemed, for certain spells in 2011 and 2012, to pose a threat to the eurozone’s survival.
So it seems reasonable to ask: if this time, effort and money have not changed Greece for the better, what has it all been for? Read more
Here are three reasons why some of Italy’s EU partners don’t want Federica Mogherini, the Italian foreign minister, to become the 28-nation bloc’s next foreign policy supremo.
Only one is to do with her. The second is about the distribution of big EU jobs among nations. The third, most important reason is about Italy and why its foreign policy may not suit the EU as a whole. Read more
It’s the fashion these days for outsiders to lecture France as if it’s a talented but obstinate schoolboy failing his grades. The idea seems to be that the more you tell the French off, the faster they’ll pull their socks up. This approach is wrong. We should, instead, smother France with love.
Like anyone, the French like to hear from time to time that they are clever, beautiful, funny, kind and successful. But for the past 10 years or so, the outside world has spoken fewer nice words about France than about any developed country.
It’s reached ridiculous proportions. Anyone would think, from all these foreign sermons, that French civilisation was falling apart. This is hardly the way to get the best out of any nation, not just the French. We need to stop finding fault and start smothering France with love. Read more
“There is a tide in the affairs of men
“Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune.”
So said Brutus in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, and the same thought was surely the cause of much rejoicing on Friday among the main political party groups in the European Parliament. Seize the moment, and victory will be yours.
The parties’ success in forcing the EU’s national governments to nominate Jean-Claude Juncker as the next European Commission president is one reason why Friday’s EU summit in Brussels will go down in history. The parties, using the European Parliament as their lever, have rebalanced the distribution of power among the EU institutions in their favour. Read more
Don’t mix football with politics, goes the old saying – and Belgians are learning the lesson well.
Often depicted (wrongly, in my view) as an artificial, politically divided country doomed to disintegration, Belgium is cheering with one voice as its football team delights fans at the World Cup in Brazil. The streets of Brussels and other cities are festooned with black-yellow-red national flags – symbols of unity under which, at least during a football match, most Belgians can gather. Read more
Croatia's economy is not so sunny
The slow, painful healing of the Greek economy after a catastrophic debt crisis raises an interesting question. Which country now holds the title of No.1 Economic Basket Case of the European Union?
The answer is surely Croatia. It is a small country (4.3m people, not even 1 per cent of the 28-nation EU’s 506m inhabitants) that did not join the EU until last July. It is not a eurozone member. It has gorgeous islands and beaches where life seems distinctly pleasant. So Croatia and its economic troubles often slip under everyone’s radar.
But Croatia is now in its sixth successive year of recession. During this time it has lost almost 13 per cent of its gross domestic product. Unemployment is about 17 per cent of the workforce, and among young people the rate is close to 50 per cent. Read more
Poland has made such impressive progress since the end of communism in 1989 that its political elite like to think of their country as part of “northern Europe”, on a par with prosperous, well-governed places like Germany and Sweden, rather than “eastern Europe” (i.e., Macedonia or Romania) or “southern Europe” (Greece or Italy).
But in one respect it now turns out that Poland has more in common with, say, Italy than it might wish. Read more
There is a widening gap between Germany and its two principal English-speaking allies, the US and the UK, which ought to concern everyone who believes in the enduring need for a transatlantic alliance of democracies. Read more
Now that most of the results have come in from the European parliament elections, let’s take a family photograph of Europe’s presidents, chancellors and prime ministers. Who have the broadest smiles on their faces, and who are sobbing into their handkerchiefs?
Among the European Union’s six biggest states – France, Germany, Italy, Poland, Spain and the UK – the happiest leader must surely be Matteo Renzi, Italy’s premier. He won, and won big. Mr Renzi (above) demolished the notion that Beppe Grillo’s anti-establishment Five-Star Movement is on an unstoppable roll. He also inflicted an emphatic defeat on Silvio Berlusconi’s centre-right Forza Italia party.
Even though it was not a national election, the youthful Mr Renzi can now claim to have a mandate of sorts for the political, economic and social reforms that he knows are necessary to modernise Italy. This is not to say that he will succeed – the power of entrenched anti-reform interests in Italy is formidable. But maybe he has a better chance than he did 48 hours ago. Read more
No doubt about it, Sunday’s European parliament elections have produced a political tremblement de terre – an earthquake – in France, with Marine Le Pen’s National Front (FN) claiming victory in the poll. But across the 28-nation EU as a whole, the mainstream pro-European parties will breathe a sigh of relief tonight at having held their ground relatively successfully against anti-establishment insurgents from the far right, far left and anti-EU camps.
The protest vote is not nearly big enough to be labelled a comprehensive rejection of the EU, its political values and its economic crisis management over the five years since the last European elections. Eurosceptics, broadly defined, are projected to win about 130 of the EU legislature’s 751 seats. Given that the EU has just gone through the biggest financial shock and recession of its 56-year history, the damage could have been greater.
Conversely, the vote cannot be considered a ringing endorsement of the cause of closer European integration. The mainstream centre-right European People’s party looks set to be the winner, but with its representation in the EU legislature sharply down to about 211 seats from 273. Moreover, estimates of a pan-European voter turnout of just over 43 per cent – well below the levels recorded in national elections in every member-state – indicate that more than half of the 388m eligible voters simply do not think the European parliament matters much. Read more
Ten minutes into moderating Friday night’s European parliament election debate in Florence, I was gripped with the unnerving sensation that someone was going to tap me on the shoulder and murmur: “Mr Barber, where is it all going wrong?”
Voting kicks off in less than two weeks, but the big event in the Palazzo Vecchio is unlikely to have any more influence on the outcome than the opinions of Lorenzo de’ Medici in his tomb. Read more
As the televised brawls between Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and deputy prime minister, and Nigel Farage, leader of the anti-EU Ukip party have recently shown, the quality of political discussion in Britain is rarely so low as when the topic in question is the European Union.
All the same, sanity and thoughtfulness on the EU issue can still be found in British public life. For this we should thank, among others, the House of Lords, the much misunderstood but invaluable upper house of parliament. Read more
When out of the blue a little-known millionaire businessman with no political past is elected president of his country, what does this tell you about the quality of that country’s democracy and about the trust of citizens in their established political classes?
These questions are raised by the remarkable victory on Sunday in Slovakia’s presidential election of Andrej Kiska, 51, who will serve a five-year term as head of state after trouncing Robert Fico, prime minister, by a margin of almost 60 to 40 per cent. Read more
Until a week ago, it looked as if the far-right, anti-immigrant Freedom party (PVV), led by Geert Wilders, might become the largest Dutch political party in the European parliament after the May 22-25 elections to the EU assembly.
But that was before Mr Wilders offended large sections of Dutch opinion, and provoked high-level resignations from the PVV, by making incendiary, xenophobic remarks at a political rally. His party, once top of the opinion polls, is falling back as a result. Read more
In Cyprus, there is good news – very good news, actually – and bad news.
The good news is that the €10bn emergency international rescue of Cyprus, arranged almost exactly 12 months ago, is working. The economic slump triggered by the collapse of the island’s inflated banking sector is less severe than first feared. The hero of the hour is Haris Georgiades, Cyprus’s finance minister. If he sticks around, he ought to be the Financial Times’s next European Finance Minister of the Year. Read more
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