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

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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

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

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“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