By Gideon Rachman
Amid the tragedy, euphoria and confusion in Ukraine, the risks of renewed confrontation between Russia and the west are rising. An east-west struggle over the fate of Ukraine would be a tragedy for the country – increasing the risks of civil war and partition. But while a brutal arm-wrestling match between the Kremlin and the west – with Ukraine as the prize – is a distinct possibility, it is absolutely not in the interests of Russia or the west. On the contrary, the Russians, Europeans and Americans have a common interest in preserving Ukraine as a unified country that avoids civil war and bankruptcy.
Do last week’s German constitutional court ruling lambasting – but failing to overturn – the ECB’s crisis-fighting bond-buying programme and Matteo Renzi’s ousting of Italy’s prime minister Enrico Letta have anything in common?
In the view of many ECB critics, particularly in Berlin, the two are not only related, but one may have caused the other. 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
By Gideon Rachman
Germany has surrendered and the euro is saved. That seems to be the markets’ interpretation of last week’s ruling by the German constitutional court on the European Central Bank’s “whatever it takes” policy to save the single currency. The judges’ ruling essentially boiled down to this: “We don’t like what the ECB is doing. We think it illegal. But only the European Court of Justice can strike it down.”
An electoral poster opposing the "Stop Mass Immigration" referendum Getty Images
The result of the Swiss referendum - narrowly approving restrictions on free movement of people from the European Union – presents a big dilemma for the administrations in both Bern and Brussels. The Swiss now have the massive headache of trying to renegotiate their painstakingly constructed deals with the EU – a large and angry partner. The EU has to decide how to strike the balance between indulgence and punishment, in responding to the Swiss.
Having just listened to the vice-president of the European Commission, Viviane Reding, speaking on the radio, it seems likely to me that the EU will take the punitive route. But that, I think, would be a mistake. 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
Guy Verhofstadt (Nicolas Maeterlinck/AFP/Getty)
The three main candidates to be the next head of the European Commission are now clear: Martin Schulz will be the left’s candidate; Guy Verhofstadt will be the standard-bearer for the liberals; and Jean-Claude Juncker will be the candidate of the centre-right, having apparently secured the all-important backing of Angela Merkel. (The German chancellor’s office has declined to confirm officially that Merkel is backing Juncker – but press reports, including in the FT, seem pretty certain.)
The most striking thing about this list is how very traditional it is. The EU has just been through a wrenching crisis that has raised questions about its very survival. And it is also now a club of 28 countries. But the three main candidates for Commission president are all traditional European federalists – drawn from the six founding member states. 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
By Toby Luckhurst
Europe is beset by rising energy prices, driven by the increasing competitiveness of shale production in the US, political commitments to lower emissions and an over-reliance on Russia in the wake of unrest in the Middle East and North Africa.
Britain’s Big Six, the six dominant energy companies, face accusations of overcharging, but they in turn claim that prohibitive emissions targets and governmental “green levies” are to blame for the price increase. While the US is benefiting from a shale gas boom that is predicted to give it an edge over both the EU and China for the next two decades, fracking is struggling to take off in Europe due to high costs, geological difficulties and public ambivalence to the environmentally destructive production methods. European politicians are considering abandoning the 2030 renewable energy targets in light of these high costs.
These articles analyse the causes of and possible solutions to Europe’s energy crisis. Read more