Czech mogul faces tough cabinet talks after election triumph

Bloomberg reports: Czech billionaire Andrej Babis hit his first obstacle to forming a new cabinet after dominating the country’s parliamentary elections, with potential coalition partners declining to join him in government as long as he’s facing criminal fraud charges.

After promising to run the state like a business, fight Muslim immigration and oppose deeper integration with the European Union, Babis’s ANO party won 29.6 percent of ballots on Saturday. The euro-skeptic Civic Democrats were second, followed by two anti-establishment parties, the Pirates and the anti-Muslim SPD. Mainstream and pro-EU political forces suffered heavy losses.

As the second-richest Czech, Babis has drawn comparisons to Donald Trump and Silvio Berlusconi. He took credit for one of the fastest economic expansions in the EU and the bloc’s lowest unemployment, but his opponents have accused him of conflicts of interest tied to his agriculture and media businesses. A month before the vote, he was charged with fraud. He has rejected the allegations, but his current coalition partners, the Social Democrats and the Christian Democrats, said they won’t join him in power as long as the case remains open. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

A suspected network of 13,000 Twitter bots pumped out pro-Brexit messages in the run-up to the EU vote

BuzzFeed reports: Researchers have uncovered new evidence of networks of thousands of suspect Twitter bots working to influence the Brexit debate in the run-up to the EU referendum.

The findings, from researchers at City, University of London, include a network of more than 13,000 suspected bots that tweeted predominantly pro-Brexit messages before being deleted or removed from Twitter in the weeks following the vote.

The research – which is published in the peer-reviewed Social Science Computer Review journal and was shared exclusively with BuzzFeed News – suggests the suspected bot accounts were eight times more likely to tweet pro-leave than pro-remain content.

“This is research that corroborates what Facebook and others say: that there are bots that serve to falsely amplify certain messages,” co-author Dan Mercea told BuzzFeed News.

“There is a potential distortion of public communications and we want to get to the bottom of that. This amplification is of concern as it gives us a false sense of momentum behind certain ideas… If there is false amplification, how do we know if someone is genuine?”

The new evidence of botnet activity in the EU referendum raises serious questions for Twitter, including whether the tech giant has any evidence as to who was behind the bots, and whether or not the site was aware of significant Brexit bot activity at the time. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Britain’s relationship with the EU has not yet reached the point of no return

Helen Mountfield QC writes: As the storm clouds gather over Brexit, the EU withdrawal bill has been delayed a second time while the government tries to persuade backbench Tories to revoke their support for amendments that would allow MPs to block a “no deal” Brexit. The ever-sane Conservative MPs Dominic Grieve and Anna Soubry have put their names to an amendment that would provide that any final deal must be approved by a separate act of parliament. This is more than parliament parking its constitutional tanks on the government’s lawn: it means that if, as seems increasingly likely, the only option on offer is a disastrous, no-deal Brexit, MPs can require the government to think again.

These amendments prompt the question: haven’t we already bound ourselves to leave the EU, by triggering article 50? The answer is no, probably not. No one has ever tested exactly what article 50 means before, because no one has ever used it, so anything that a lawyer says about its reversibility is informed speculation. But most EU lawyers think that having given notification of intention to withdraw from the EU under article 50 doesn’t actually bind us to doing it.

Article 50 is a provision for withdrawal from the EU, not expulsion from it. We are the petitioners here. If parliament decides that having thought it through, we would be mad to leave and wants to call it off, then there is a short window in which the court of justice of the EU would probably rule that we can. That is, we can decide to stay unilaterally, without asking the European council, or the commission, or the EU27, for permission.

The frequently used divorce metaphor is helpful here. All we have done is tell the EU we are unhappy and plan to go. Our relationship has not yet reached the point of no return. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Spain threatens to take over Catalonia’s government as constitutional crisis looms

The Washington Post reports: Spain’s central government announced Thursday it would quickly move to take control of the autonomous Catalonia and restore “constitutional order” after the region’s president refused to back away from a push for independence.

Facing a deadline imposed by Spain’s central government to answer the question whether Catalonia was declaring independence or not, the regional president replied Thursday that Madrid should stop threatening to seize control of the autonomous region but instead agree to dialogue.
Catalonia’s president Carles Puigdemont answered Spain’s demand for clarity by sending a second letter to Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, stating that Catalonia’s suspension of its declaration of independence remains in force.

But Puigdemont then added a threat of his own: if Madrid did not agree to talks, and continued its “repression” of the region, then the Catalan parliament would meet to vote on a formal declaration of independence. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Merkel moves left to disarm the right

Der Spiegel reports: Angela Merkel has been leader of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for 17 years, six months and four days, but she still knows how to surprise her party. Last Saturday she dropped by the annual congress organized by its youth wing, the Junge Union. The younger generation has long seen itself in the vanguard of the CDU’s conservative faction, frequently rallying behind politicians who do not see eye to eye with Chancellor Merkel.

At the 2004 congress, Helmut Kohl was given a welcome that suggested he, rather than, Merkel was at the helm of the party (“Who is our idol? – Helmut Kohl”). A year later, the man of the hour was Friedrich Merz, her archrival at the time, who was hellbent on tax reform. This year, the standing ovations were in honor of Jens Spahn, the young state secretary at the Ministry of Finance and the man that many are hoping will spearhead a conservative U-turn within the CDU.

Not surprisingly, there was a rancorous atmosphere when Merkel took to the stage on Saturday morning to field questions from the audience. Was she willing to admit the party had suffered a bitter defeat in the election in late September? Was it not high time she began paying more attention to center-right voters?

Once again, Merkel demonstrated that she is nothing if not flexible when under pressure, and laid out her plan to woo back voters who defected to the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) on September 24. The trouble was, her plan was not even remotely what many members of her party want to hear.

In his speech the previous evening, Jens Spahn had spelled out what he sees as the reasons for the CDU’s election humiliation in no uncertain terms. The elephant in the room, the issue no one dares address, in his opinion, is refugee policy. “Does anyone here seriously believe that the reason we lost 12 percent to the AfD in Baden-Württemberg is because of old-age care policy?”

The one person who does seriously believe it is Angela Merkel. She talked about the badly paid care workers for the elderly, about families who can’t afford affordable housing in Germany’s cities. She talked about aging men and women who spent 45 years working only to find their pensions aren’t enough to live on.

“These are social issues we need to resolve,” she said. “The CDU is sometimes more inclined to focus on the economy and less inclined to consider what it actually means for the individual,” she added, in a small swipe at her own party. By the time Merkel left the Congress center in Dresden after about two hours, it had become eminently clear that her response to the rise of the right-wing populist AfD is to shift to the left. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

In center of Europe, politics takes a Trumpian turn with rise of anti-immigrant billionaire

The Washington Post reports: The man poised to lead the Czech Republic following elections this week is a polarizing billionaire who vows to drain the swamp of this capital city’s politics, run his country like a business and keep out Muslim immigrants.

He casts himself as the straight-talking voice of the common man and derives support from the country’s forgotten communities. He makes a sport of attacking the European Union and says NATO’s mission is outdated. He pledges to put his own nation’s interests above all else but is dogged by investigations into alleged shady dealings that threaten to cripple his political career.

Andrej Babis is so similar to the U.S. president in profile and outlook that he feels compelled to offer at least one key distinction.

“I was never bankrupt,” the 63-year-old says mischievously in an interview at his featureless office park on the outskirts of this gloriously gargoyle-and-spire-pierced city. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

The time has come for Theresa May to tell Britain: Brexit can’t be done

Alastair Campbell writes: As she tries to move the Brexit negotiations forward, how much better would Theresa May and the country feel if the speech she made to her party went as follows.

“Leadership is about confronting the great challenges. But Brexit is the biggest challenge we have faced since the second world war. So I intend to devote my speech, in four parts, to this alone.

“First, I want to explain why I voted remain – because for all its faults, the European Union has been a force for good in Europe and in the UK. I believed that our future prosperity and security, and opportunities for our young people, would be enhanced by staying in. Second, I want to explain why, nonetheless, I was something of a reluctant remainer. The truth is, there is a lot wrong with the EU. So though I voted remain, I was not starry-eyed. I was determined that, had we won, we would also fight for reform.

“Third, I want to explain why I have been trying so hard to deliver the Brexit the people voted for. It was a close result. But leave won. I felt strongly that it was my duty to deliver the only Brexit that I believed could meet the demands of the majority of leavers – out of the single market and the customs union, out of the European court of justice.

“But precisely because I have a profound sense of duty, I want to tell you the absolute truth as I see it. It cannot be done. Yes, you can shout. You can storm out. But I have looked at it every which way. And, as your leader, I have concluded that it cannot be done without enormous damage to our economy, to your living standards, to our public services, to our standing in the world. This is damage I am not prepared to inflict. The cost is too high. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Malta car bomb kills Panama Papers journalist

The Guardian reports: The journalist who led the Panama Papers investigation into corruption in Malta was killed on Monday in a car bomb near her home.

Daphne Caruana Galizia died on Monday afternoon when her car, a Peugeot 108, was destroyed by a powerful explosive device which blew the vehicle into several pieces and threw the debris into a nearby field.

A blogger whose posts often attracted more readers than the combined circulation of the country’s newspapers, Caruana Galizia was recently described by the Politico website as a “one-woman WikiLeaks”. Her blogs were a thorn in the side of both the establishment and underworld figures that hold sway in Europe’s smallest member state. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Sebastian Kurz’s audacious gamble to lead Austria pays off

The Guardian reports: By handing a convincing victory to the centre-right party of 31-year-old Sebastian Kurz on Sunday, Austria rewarded one of the most audacious political gambles in its recent history.

Until Kurz was announced as a candidate for chancellor in June, his Austrian People’s party (ÖVP) had been trailing by some distance in polls behind its senior partner in the governing coalition, the centre-left SPÖ, and behind the far-right Freedom party (FPÖ).

But on Sunday evening the man Austrian tabloids have affectionately dubbed wunderwuzzi or “wonderkid” could hardly make himself heard over deafening cheers as walked on to the stage at Vienna’s Kursalon, draped in the turquoise colours of his “movement”.

With the ÖVP winning more than 30% of the vote, Kurz is in a position to choose whether he wants to continue the “grand coalition” of the past decade under his leadership or enter an alliance with the nationalist FPÖ. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

How dirty campaigning and fake Facebook sites came to dominate the Austrian election

The Washington Post reports: The two Facebook pages told sharply different tales, but neither looked especially favorable for Sebastian Kurz, the 31-year-old Austrian foreign minister who is expected to become the country’s youngest-ever chancellor following elections Sunday.

One cast itself as a fanboy site for the telegenic Kurz, but included dodgy accusations that nongovernmental organizations were smuggling in thousands of migrants. It also included a poll suggesting that the center-right leader might seal the country’s border with Italy to block the path of asylum seekers.

The other appeared to be a far-right attack site against Kurz, and was laced with anti-Semitic conspiracy theories.

In the end, neither site was what it appeared. But both, according to the Austrian media, had the same unlikely creator: a former consultant for the reelection campaign of Kurz’s rival, center-left Chancellor Christian Kern.

The disclosure of the deception has rocked the normally sedate world of Austrian politics in the election’s final weeks, crowding out debate over the issues and clogging Austrian newspapers and news shows with endless discussion of who knew what, and when. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

As Austria heads to the polls, the far right eyes what may be this year’s biggest European success

The Washington Post reports: Austria could be set for a turn to the right, as voters there head to the polls on Sunday in an election that’s being closely watched across Europe.

One of the most likely results, according to polls, is a coalition between the right-wing populist Freedom party and the center-right ÖVP party. The Freedom party is expected to make significant gains, possibly paving the way for its best election result in over a decade.

What’s at stake?

When neighboring Germany held its election less than a month ago, the far-right Alternative for Germany made significant gains. The political center still held, however, putting Chancellor Angela Merkel on track for a fourth term. Her party’s losses were widely linked to her decision to allow more than one million refugees into the country within four years.

In Austria, the backlash against liberal policies has been much more pronounced. As a member of the European Union, Austria could resist efforts by Germany and France to reform the E.U. and to expand cooperation on issues such as immigration.

The center-right candidate considered most likely to win the chancellorship, Foreign Minister Sebastian Kurz, has already rejected E.U. reform proposals by French President Emmanuel Macron. As foreign minister, Kurz also pursued policies designed to stop the influx of immigrants, even if some of those measures contradicted E.U. rules. Sunday’s elections could turn some of those measures into longer-term solutions embraced by the country’s political mainstream. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Donald Trump’s rogue state: U.S. has no right to terminate Iran accord says EU

Politico reports: The EU’s foreign policy chief, Federica Mogherini, said Friday that the United States had no right to unilaterally terminate the Iran nuclear accord. She called the agreement “effective” and said there had been “no violations of any of the commitments” in the deal.

At a news conference at the European Commission’s Brussels headquarters, Mogherini gave a strongly-worded rebuke of the U.S., which has been a chief ally of the EU on security matters, including the response to Russia’s military intervention in Ukraine.

Her comments were aimed directly at U.S. President Donald Trump, moments after he gave a speech in Washington saying he would not certify Iran’s compliance with the agreement, and was asking Congress to adopt legislation that would potentially trigger the reimposition of sanctions on Tehran.

“More than two years ago, exactly in July 2015, the entire international community welcomed the results of 12 years of intense negotiations on the Iran nuclear program,” Mogherini said, adding: “It is not a bilateral agreement. It does not belong to any single country. And it is not up to any single country to terminate it. It is a multilateral agreement, which was unanimously endorsed by the United Nations Security Council.”

Joining Mogherini in what amounted to extraordinary isolation of the U.S. president, French President Emmanuel Macron, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May and German Chancellor Angela Merkel issued a joint statement reaffirming their support for the accord, which they described as “in our shared national security interest.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Theresa May under pressure over ‘secret advice’ on halting Brexit

The Observer reports: Theresa May is under pressure to publish secret legal advice that is believed to state that parliament could still stop Brexit before the end of March 2019 if MPs judge that a change of mind is in the national interest. The move comes as concern grows that exit talks with Brussels are heading for disaster.

The calls for the prime minister to reveal advice from the country’s top legal experts follow government statements declaring that Brexit is now unstoppable, and that MPs will have to choose between whatever deal is on offer next year – even if it is a bad one – or no deal at all.

Disquiet has been growing among pro-remain MPs, and within the legal profession and business community, about what is becoming known as the government’s “kamikaze” approach. Ministers insist that stopping Brexit is not an option, as the British people made their decision in last year’s referendum, and the article 50 process is now under way, however damaging the consequences might turn out to be when negotiations are concluded. [Continue reading…]

Jessica Simor, QC, writes: Article 50 provides for the notification – not of withdrawal but of an “intention” to withdraw. In law, an “intention” is not a binding commitment; it can be changed or withdrawn. Article 50(5) is, moreover, clear that it is only after a member state has left that it has to reapply to join. Had the drafters intended that once a notification had taken place, a member state would have to request readmission (or seek the consent of the other member states to stay), then article 50(5) would have referred not just to the position following withdrawal, but also following notification. Such an interpretation is in line with the object and purpose of article 50.

The EU’s competences are based on the consent of its member states. The authority to increase or reduce these competences is within their hands. Article 50 is an example of the principles of consent and conferral; it confirms the right of a member state to withdraw from the union. In the words of the German federal constitutional court in the Lisbon case, the “right to withdraw underlines the member states’ sovereignty… If a member state can withdraw based on a decision made on its own responsibility, the process of European integration is not irreversible”. The purpose of article 50 is therefore to confirm in express terms the member states’ ability to withdraw from the EU and to lay down the procedures for doing so. By confirming the right of states to withdraw from the EU treaties, article 50 maintains the right of states to change their mind on withdrawal, as provided for in article 68 of the Vienna convention on the law of treaties.

I have today sent a freedom of information request to the prime minister seeking disclosure of the legal advice and asking her to waive any privilege and release it in the greater public interest. It is important that this advice is made available to the British public and its representatives in parliament as soon as possible. At any point from now, but certainly when parliament is finally faced with the likely reality; a bad deal or no deal at all, it must act in the interests of the people and order the prime minister to revoke the notification. It can do this whether or not the government says so; parliament is sovereign – in constitutional theory at least, it controls the executive; not the other way round. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

As Germany and Spain prove, history – with all its wounds – is not over

Natalie Nougayrède writes: History is back in Europe. The Catalan referendum and the German election illustrate this spectacularly. The scale of the far-right vote in what was once East Germany and Catalonia’s apparent march towards independence may look like they happened on separate planets – to be sure, they are fuelled by different political beliefs – but they both have to do with pent-up frustrations. Citizens who feel that they have been insulted have gone to the ballot box, and in some cases taken to the streets, to protest. In both situations there is a vivid historical backdrop, with memories of Europe’s 20th-century nightmares playing an important role: in Catalonia, the fight against fascism and Franco; in the east of Germany, the experiences of Nazism and Soviet communism.

In Leipzig and the nearby small town of Grimma, I was told about how citizens felt their self-esteem had been trampled on. German reunification has not led to a shared sense of community. Rather, it’s compared to colonisation: “westerners” took over everything – regional administrations, courts, education and the economy. Everything about life in the Communist state – the way people dressed, what they ate, what they learned in school, how they decorated their homes, what they watched on TV – became an object of scorn and ridicule. It’s not that life isn’t better now: of course it is. There is freedom. And living standards have improved immensely. But many eastern Germans feel their identity has somehow been negated, as if they were being asked to forget about it.

Speaking with Catalan friends in recent days, I heard similar qualms: “We were waiting for a sign that our voice would be heard, but as the years passed nothing was changing” … “Our cultural difference isn’t being acknowledged as it should be”: these were common sentiments, even from people not altogether enthusiastic about breaking away from Spain. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Europe helped draft the Iran nuclear deal. Now EU leaders seek to save it from Trump pressure

The Washington Post reports: European officials and business executives are quickly mobilizing a counter effort to the expected U.S. rebuff of the Iran nuclear accord, encouraging companies to invest in Iran while urging Congress to push back against White House moves that could hobble the deal.

The European stance — sketched out on the sidelines of an Iran-focused investment forum in Zurich this week — is an early signal of the possible transatlantic rifts ahead as America’s European partners show no sign of following the White House call to renegotiate the landmark pact with Tehran.

“The nuclear deal is working and delivering and the world would be less stable without it,” Helga Schmid, the secretary general of the European’s foreign policy service, said in a speech at the Europe-Iran Forum.

This amounted to a warning shot that Washington may once again find itself isolated from its key Western allies, who have already broke with the White House over issues such as President Trump’s call to withdraw from the Paris climate accord. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Merkel should follow Macron’s lead on Europe

Christiane Hoffmann writes: After the election victory, it didn’t take long for the congratulations to come in. Just one day afterwards, the most powerful man in the world, Donald Trump, called German Chancellor Angela Merkel with his best wishes for her party’s success.

That was in March, after the Christian Democrats had just won an election in the tiny state of Saarland. A half year later, though, the U.S. president was conspicuously reticent with his compliments, waiting several days after last Sunday’s general election in Germany before finally calling on Thursday. One could see it as a form of brutal honesty: Given Merkel’s weak result, there isn’t much to celebrate. But perhaps it was also a preview of the new reality: Merkel’s loss of power.

Since the election, the chancellor is no longer viewed as the uncontested leader of the German government, a woman who almost secured an absolute majority for her conservatives in 2013. Instead, if she manages to assemble a coalition with the business-friendly Free Democrats (FDP) and the Greens, she’ll be heading up a government experiment born of necessity. And she will be a chancellor whose turn at the top is coming to an end. That will erode Merkel’s authority on the global stage. Leaders like Trump, Putin and Erdogan know only too well when someone in power has passed their zenith. Indeed, that may have been a reason for Merkel’s uncanny imperturbability both on election night and since. Anything to avoid showing signs of weakness. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Europe and its discontents

Ivan Krastev writes: While the fear of foreigners seems to be at the heart of the conflict between Europe’s East and West, the East’s alienation from the European project could be better understood elsewhere. It is rooted in the trauma of those who have left. Think of it as a delayed reaction of the consequences of millions of East Europeans emigrating to the West in the past 25 years.

In the period between 1990 and 2015 the former G.D.R. lost 15 percent of its population. The mass migration from post-Communist Europe to the West not only impaired economic competitiveness and political dynamism, but also made those who decided to stay home feel like real losers. Those with roots have grown resentful of those with legs. It is the people in the depopulated areas in Europe who most enthusiastically voted for populists.

And while political anger has erupted both in the east and in the west of Germany and in the east and the west of Europe, there’s a clear pattern: When dissatisfied with the status quo, Westerners largely seek alternatives in or around the political mainstream — many of those disappointed with Ms. Merkel’s Christian Democrats in western Germany voted for the Liberals — while in the east, voters seek alternatives in political extremes.

Germany’s central role for the future of Europe is defined not only by its economic and political power but also by the fact that Germany like no other European country experiences the East-West divide not as a clash between member states but as a split in its own society. [Continue reading…]

 

Facebooktwittermail

Spain suspends Catalan parliament session as independence row escalates

The Guardian reports: The Spanish prime minister has called for the Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, to drop plans for a unilateral declaration of independence to avoid “greater harm”.

Speaking a day after Puigdemont said he would press ahead with plans to make a declaration in the next week, Mariano Rajoy warned that the situation could escalate further if the Catalan government carried on.

“Is there a solution? Yes, there is,” Rajoy told the Spanish news agency Efe. “And the best one would be a return to legality and the swiftest possible confirmation that there won’t be a unilateral independence declaration, because that way still greater harm could be avoided.” [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail

Catalonia moves to declare independence from Spain on Monday

Reuters reports: Catalonia will move on Monday to declare independence from Spain following its banned referendum as the European Union nation nears a rupture that threatens the foundations of its young democracy.

Mireia Boya, a Catalan lawmaker from the pro-independence Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) party, said on Twitter that a declaration of independence would follow a parliamentary session on Monday to evaluate the results of the Oct. 1 vote to break away.

“We know that there may be disbarments, arrests … But we are prepared, and in no case will it be stopped,” she said.

Catalan President Carles Puigdemont said earlier he would ask the region’s parliament to declare independence following the poll, which Spain’s government and constitutional court say was illegal and in which only a minority of Catalans voted. [Continue reading…]

Facebooktwittermail