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
German Constitutional Court (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)
We don’t like what the European Central Bank is doing – but if someone is going to drop a nuclear bomb on the eurozone, it won’t be us. This seems to be the main message in today’s judgment from Germany’s constitutional court on the ECB’s Outright Monetary Transactions programme.
The OMT is an initiative aimed at saving the eurozone with large-scale ECB purchases of the bonds of governments vulnerable on financial markets, in return for a commitment to deep-seated economic reforms. Germany’s Bundesbank and much of the German public have never warmed to the OMT – even though the programme has never actually been used and, some experts think, never will be.
So the German court’s judgment will come as a relief to Mario Draghi, the ECB president, and all those who hold that the OMT, unveiled in August and September 2012, is the single most important reason why Europe’s monetary union no longer appears in mortal danger. But mixed with this relief will be a feeling that the German court’s judgement is not entirely helpful – and that some of its arguments are not particularly well-founded. Read more
Geert Wilders (Michel Porro/Getty Images)
Beneath his populist rhetoric neither Geert Wilders, nor most supporters of his far-right Freedom Party, nor the vast majority of Dutch voters seriously entertain the notion that the Netherlands will leave the European Union. But in election campaigns it is the rhetoric that counts.
The election in question is the May 22-25 vote, in the Netherlands and the European Union’s other 27 member-states, for the European Parliament. Like other anti-EU, anti-euro, anti-establishment parties in countries such as France and the UK, the Dutch Freedom Party is riding the tide of popular disenchantment with mainstream politics and EU institutions.
Wilders is after the protest vote, and he will get it – just like Marine Le Pen’s National Front and the UK Independence Party of Nigel Farage. All three movements have an excellent chance of topping the polls or at least upsetting the political apple cart in their respective countries. Read more
Ask a German politician or pundit to account for the strength of Germany’s economy. I’ll bet you a plate of Nürnberger sausages that he or she will praise the labour market and welfare reforms adopted about 10 years ago by the government of Gerhard Schröder, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s predecessor.
The “Hartz reforms” tightened the terms on which unemployed Germans claim welfare benefits. They laid the emphasis on putting people quickly back into jobs, at lower pay if necessary. Nowadays German unemployment is remarkably low (5.1 per cent of the workforce in December 2013, according to Eurostat, versus 27.8 per cent in Greece, 25.8 per cent in Spain and 12.7 per cent in Italy).
However, some newly published research by four German economists challenges the argument that the Hartz reforms are the main cause of the nation’s economic recovery. Their carefully written study, entitled “From Sick Man of Europe to Economic Superstar: Germany’s Resurgent Economy”, should be required reading for everyone concerned with boosting the eurozone’s economic performance. Read more
Matteo Renzi (Getty)
Outside Italy there is an understandable enthusiasm for the constitutional and electoral reform proposals of Matteo Renzi, leader of the centre-left Democratic party. Italy unblocked – at last! Inside the nation itself, there is more caution and scepticism. This reflects the experience of Italians, who have travelled such roads in the past without being rewarded with better government and a better class of political leaders.
Renzi, 39, and Silvio Berlusconi, 77, leader of the revived conservative Forza Italia party, struck a deal this month which is beguiling in its simplicity. Read more
Protest in Istanbul, Jan 2014 (Getty Images)
According to the Turkish proverb, if you spit down it gets in your beard and if you spit up it gets in your moustache. In other words, it’s a mess either way – and that pretty much sums up the state of EU-Turkish relations as Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Turkey’s prime minister, prepares to visit Brussels on Tuesday for the first time since June 2009. Read more
Here is a startling prediction from the European Commission. In the absence of comprehensive economic reforms, living standards in the eurozone, relative to the US, will be lower in 2023 than they were in the mid-1960s.
This forecast, contained in the Commission’s latest quarterly report on the euro area economy, deserves to be displayed prominently on the wall of every president and prime minister’s office in Europe.
It is a sobering prediction for two reasons. First, it contrasts starkly with the comforting tales of economic recovery and financial market stability on which Europe’s leaders are congratulating themselves in these early weeks of 2014. Second, it raises profound questions about Europe’s relative weight in the world and, in particular, about its military alliance and economic partnership with the US. Read more
Europe’s recovery proceeds apace – at least on bond markets. When it comes to public opinion, it’s a different story.
A Gallup poll, published on Wednesday, showed what a devastating impact the eurozone’s crisis has had on popular attitudes to the European Union. Nor is the collapse of confidence in the EU limited purely to countries that have been required to slash wages and benefits in return for international financial aid. Read more