Foreign affairs

Opinion polls indicate a very close race, and it can almost certainly be ruled out that Rajoy’s ruling Partido Popular (People’s Party) will be re-elected with an outright majority.

Even so, deliberately or not, Rajoy’s campaign tactics demonstrate that this election is about age differences and the changing of the generations in Spain, no less than it is about Catalonia and coffee-and-croissant economic issues. Read more

The malign side-effects of the Paris terror attacks and Europe’s migrant crisis are still emerging. But something that needs watching is the way in which the two issues are combining to isolate Germany within Europe. In particular, Germany’s vital relationships with its western and eastern EU neighbours – France and Poland – are under severe strain. Both the French and the Germans feel they are facing a national crisis – terrorism for France, migrants for Germany – and that the other side is not showing sufficient “solidarity”. Read more

Donald Trump – would not rule out the idea of a database to track Muslims in America

Watching the debate on terrorism from the US this week has been a bizarre experience. The attacks took place in France – but it seems to be the US where the political demands for ever-tougher border controls are taking hold. On November 19th (Thursday), the House of Representatives passed the American Security Against Foreign Enemies Act (SAFE – get it!) which would stop resettlement of Syrian and Iraqi refugees in the US indefinitely. By contrast, President Hollande has just reaffirmed that France will take 30,000 Syrian refugees over the next two years. Read more

António Costa, the Socialist leader who toppled the Portuguese government

I have a confession to make. After Portugal’s October 4 parliamentary elections, I wrote that Pedro Passos Coelho, the centre-right prime minister, had broken the mould of eurozone crisis politics. He had shown that it was possible for a European government to carry out difficult economic reforms and win re-election. This misread what was about to happen in Portugal.

Mr Passos Coelho’s ruling coalition came first in the polls. President Anibal Cavaco Silva asked him to reconstitute his government. But no sooner was Mr Passos Coelho back in Lisbon’s São Bento palace – the seat of Portugal’s government – than he was, metaphorically speaking, out again. Read more

When Narendra Modi was elected as India’s prime minister 18 months ago, my Dad cracked open a bottle of champagne at our family home in east London.

It was an odd way to celebrate the arrival of a devout Hindu leader who has an aversion to alcohol. Stranger still was that this was being done by my Dad, who has never lived in India.

Why was he, like hundreds of thousands of other people of Indian origin in the UK — particularly those from the western state of Gujarat, elated about Modi’s victory? And why are 60,000 of them going to pack Wembley Stadium in London on Friday just to see him in the flesh? Read more

Rwanda's capital city, Kigali, at night

Economic statistics for sub-Saharan Africa have been criticised for decades as unreliable, complicating efforts to measure wealth – and poverty.

But help might now be at hand, thanks to a light-bulb moment for three World Bank economists.

Tom Bundervoet; Laban Maiyo and Apurva Sanghi found a close correlation between the intensity of night-time lighting, as viewed from space, and countries’ gross domestic product over the 21 years to 2012 . Read more

For anybody who used to visit Myanmar during the darkest days of the military junta, Sunday’s national elections seem little short of miraculous. I remember travelling to Yangon in the early 1990s, when the closest you could get to Aung San Suu Kyi was to drive past the gates of her residence on University Avenue – where the opposition leader was held under house arrest. Almost all the leading activists for her party, the National League for Democracy, were in jail – usually under very harsh conditions.

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves at supporters as she visits polling stations at her constituency

Myanmar pro-democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi waves at supporters as she visits polling stations at her constituency  © Reuters

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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

If Vladimir Putin is looking for a way out of his estrangement from the west over the Ukraine crisis, he sometimes has an odd way of showing it.

Two days after Russia’s president met his US counterpart Barack Obama at the UN Security Council last month and called for an international coalition to fight Islamist terrorism, Russia gave the US just one hour’s notice that it would launch air strikes in Syria. It delivered the message via a Russian general who turned up on the doorstep of the US embassy in Baghdad.

Addressing the annual Valdai Club conference on Thursday, Mr Putin reiterated his appeal for co-operation in Syria – but only after running through a typical litany of complaints about US policy and behaviour.

Yet this was a different Mr Putin from the sour figure who, at the same meeting with foreign journalists and academics a year ago, delivered arguably his bitterest anti-US diatribe since his combative “Munich speech” of 2007.

By shifting the military theatre from Ukraine to Syria – however big a gamble Russia’s military intervention there may be – Mr Putin seemed to feel he had seized the initiative. His acid wit and self-assurance were back. 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

By Ravi Mattu

To understand how Justin Trudeau became Canada’s 23rd prime minister, you need to first understand how Stephen Harper lost it.

His achievement in winning a majority government is remarkable. But for all the talk of Mr Trudeau’s image and good looks — one UK newspaper this week asked if he was the “sexiest” politician in the world — his victory in Canada’s elections owed as much to how voters’ viewed the Conservative prime minister he defeated as to a love-in for the new man. Read more

UK rolls out the red carpet for China

President Xi Jinping’s state visit to the UK has featured all the pomp and circumstance the UK can muster. Has it cemented the UK’s place as a prosperous best friend to China in the West or has Britain bowed too deeply to an authoritarian regime? Joshua Chaffin puts the question to Jamil Anderlini and Demetri Sevastopulo.

Britain has long built its foreign policy around a special relationship with the US. The coming week will witness an attempt by the UK government to build another special relationship — this time with the People’s Republic of China. The government of David Cameron will be straining every sinew to honour President Xi Jinping, during his five-day state visit to the UK. The Chinese leader will be the guest of honour at a banquet at Buckingham Palace, he will give a speech at Westminster, he will spend time with the prime minister at Chequers and will travel to Manchester with the chancellor of the exchequer.

President Xi’s visit has been meticulously planned to provide images that will play well in China. But all this pomp could well be disrupted by some unplanned circumstances. The US Navy has let it be known that, over the next few days, it intends to challenge China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. Beijing has been bolstering these claims in recent months, by “land reclamation” exercises that have created artificial islands — some of which now host airstrips. The Americas are expected to sail within 12 miles of these new islands — to make the point that they do not accept that China has established new territorial waters in the Pacific Ocean. Read more

The EU package for Turkey agreed at the latest Brussels summit on the refugee crisis looks pretty desperate. The situation of Syrian refugees, the bulk of those braving death to try to make their way to Europe, is very desperate. Syria’s neighbours, Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan, which together have taken in more than 5m refugees, once the unofficial tally is added to those registered by the UN, know that very well.

Now, the EU is offering Turkey three main things to get it to prevent Syrians transiting to Europe and keep them inside its borders. Stalled EU accession negotiations will be re-energised. Talks will start on liberalising EU visa rules for Turks. And Ankara will be offered something like €3bn in aid for refugees (about half the sum it has already spent) and border control. Read more

Tunisia is a small country with a population of just less than 11m. But it has played a big role in the upheavals that have shaken the Middle East.

It was in Tunisia that the popular uprisings against autocracy that became known as the “Arab spring” began in December 2010, setting an example that shook the region.

Zine el-Abidene Ben-Ali, Tunisian president, became the first autocrat to be toppled when he fled the country in January 2011. Mr Ben-Ali’s fall helped to electrify the rest of the Arab world as slogans and ideas that had first appeared in Tunisia spread to countries such as Egypt, Libya, Syria and Bahrain.

Four years later, Tunisia is still important — but for different, sadder reasons. 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

Pope Francis has just delivered his speech to a joint session of Congress. He is the first Pope, and the first religious leader, to speak on Capitol Hill – in many ways the epicentre of US politics. Sitting behind him during the address were John Boehner, the Republican speaker of the House of Representatives, and Joe Biden, the US vice-president. Both are Catholic. 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

While the US prepares to welcome Pope Francis, his new world origins, drive for Vatican reform, and calls for social justice and action against climate change have enthused – and shaken – Catholics around the world. The Argentine pontiff arrives for his first trip to America at a time of declining Catholic congregations and with a society that has become more liberal than the church on many social issues.

The Catholic share of the US population has been declining at a slow rate in recent decades, but a Pew study released this year raised fears that the pace of the drop has accelerated since 2007. According to the survey, it had fallen to 20.8 per cent in 2014, from 23.9 per cent seven years earlier underlining the challenge facing Pope Francis. Read more

Australian politics is so cut-throat and brutal that it is easy to treat it simply as a spectator sport – without much wider international significance. But that would be a mistake. The fall of Tony Abbott and his replacement as prime minister by Malcolm Turnbull may well herald a shift in Australian foreign policy that will be noticed in Beijing, Tokyo and Washington.

Put simply, Turnbull is likely to take a softer line on China. Abbott was a firm supporter of America’s pivot to Asia and the effort to push back against Chinese territorial ambitions. But Turnbull seems to be more sceptical. The evidence for his scepticism is set out, in this informative post from the Lowy Interpreter. It is interesting, in particular, that Turnbull has sympathetically reviewed the work of Hugh White, an Australian academic who has argued that the US should do more to accommodate a rising China – and that the alternative might be a catastrophic war. Read more