How Putin is using Hungary to destroy Europe

Anna Nemtsova reports: Russian President Vladimir Putin has some key allies in the European Union. In some countries, they are outliers, even fringe elements. In some, like France and the Netherlands, they made impressive bids for power before, finally, they failed. But in Hungary, a nation of about 10 million people east of Austria, west of Ukraine, and north of the Balkans, Putin’s soulmate is the prime minister, Viktor Orban.

As with so many Putin allies and apologists (including in the United States) Orban made the fight against immigration a centerpiece of his agenda. And he then went one better by identifying another Hungarian as the personification of evil “liberalism.”

Last month Hungary hosted a unique conference for persecuted Christians. Orban opened the conference by scolding Europe for, “denying its Christian roots” and for allowing in “dangerous extremists.”

The billionaire George Soros, once a supporter of Orban, is now identified publicly and ubiquitously as his number one enemy. In a recent public statement Orban called the world’s biggest philanthropist “Satan,” claiming that the developer of one of the best Hungarian universities wants to destroy Europe by letting in Muslim immigrants.

That statement made many alt-right supporters happy, both in Hungary and in Russia. One of the eminences grises of the Kremlin, Vladislav Surkov, wrote in his column on Monday: “Things that acquire a national scale in the United States become a global trend outside its borders.” [Continue reading…]

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EU prepares for British government collapse after firing of 2nd minister

VOA reports: European Union negotiators are readying themselves for the collapse of Prime Minister Theresa May’s government as it lurches from one crisis to another, say officials in Brussels.

And Britain’s Opposition Labor Party is eagerly standing by, with its deputy leader warning Thursday that the ruling Conservative government is so fragile “random events could bring it down.”

“Another Day, Another Crisis,” was the Daily Telegraph’s headline Thursday in the wake of May having to fire two key Cabinet ministers in a week — Michael Fallon as her defense secretary over sexual harassment claims, and the ambitious International Development Minister Priti Patel late Wednesday over 14 unauthorized meetings with Israeli ministers, business people and a high-profile lobbyist during a family vacation to Israel. [Continue reading…]

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Brexit is reversible even after date is set, says author of article 50

The Guardian reports: The former diplomat who drafted article 50 says the UK could opt to reverse Brexit up to the moment we leave, even if a date for the country’s departure from European Union were added to the withdrawal bill, as Theresa May plans.

Lord Kerr, a former UK ambassador to the European Union, said Brexiters in May’s cabinet were suggesting Brexit was irreversible and thereby misleading the public.

He was speaking hours after the government confirmed it wanted an amendment to the withdrawal bill to set a fixed departure point of 11pm GMT (midnight in Brussels) on 29 March 2019.

“We are leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019,” May wrote in the Telegraph.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Kerr, now a crossbench peer, said the UK could still opt to stay in the EU. “At any stage we can change our minds if we want to, and if we did we know that our partners would actually be very pleased indeed.”

He added: “The Brexiters create the impression that is because of the way article 50 is written that having sent in a letter on 29 March 2017 we must leave automatically on 29 March 2019 at the latest. That is not true. It is misleading to suggest that a decision that we are taking autonomously in this country about the timing of our departure, we are required to take by a provision of EU treaty law.” [Continue reading…]

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Catalonia crackdown evokes memories of the dark days of Spain’s dictatorship

The Washington Post reports: As Spanish leaders and Catalonia’s separatists battle over the fate of the would-be breakaway region, a shadow from the past is looming over the conflict: Francisco Franco, the dictator who held his nation in an iron grip from 1939 to well into the 1970s.

With Catalan leaders exiled and locked behind bars, Catalan media outlets under threat and national police using truncheons to break up last month’s independence referendum, many here in Catalonia say that their repressive history is making an ugly return.

They point to the no-negotiation stance by Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy, who they say has sought to quell separatism not by persuasion but by force and fear. And they say his center-right People’s Party never fully purged itself of its past after having been founded by Franco-era officials.

Rajoy and his allies dismiss the criticism, saying they are democratically elected leaders operating within the bounds of Spain’s constitution. But they, too, have occasionally reached toward the opposite side in their nation’s bitter history. Government spokesman Pablo Casado recently warned that if Catalan President Carles Puigdemont declared independence, he could wind up with a fate similar to a previous Catalan leader during the Spanish Civil War who was executed by firing squad in 1940. [Continue reading…]

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A leaked defence document reveals Germany’s worries about the breakup of the global order

Paul Mason writes: The German defence ministry set out its worst-case scenario for the year 2040 in a secret document that was leaked to Der Spiegel last week: “EU enlargement has been largely abandoned, and more states have left the community … the increasingly disorderly, sometimes chaotic and conflict-prone, world has dramatically changed the security environment.”

The 120-page-long paper, entitled Strategic Perspective 2040, is a federal government policy document – and the scenarios it imagines are grimly realistic: an east-west conflict in which some EU states join the Russian side or a “multipolar” Europe, where some states adopt the Russian economic and political model in defiance of the Lisbon treaty.

That the document exists at all is a sign of the increased tension in the global system. The German military’s tradition of rigorous logistical planning for every eventuality began with the celebrated German field marshal Moltke in the 1850s and has three times paid off with initial success: in 1871 against France, in 1914 and 1939 against the rest of Europe. In the post-cold war era, as Der Spiegel puts it, allowing German generals to make statements about the future was “too risky”. That changed with Russia’s annexation of Crimea in 2014.

Despite the alarmist headlines it has generated, the leaked document is, if anything, overoptimistic. In three out of the six scenarios, things go so well that Europe resembles the Biedermeier era – 1815-1848 – of domestic bliss and military boredom. Its negative scenarios – which see the US struggling to avoid isolationism and China locked in a cultural war with the west – were written before Donald Trump came to power and before Xi Jinping’s strategy of creating a politicised Chinese infrastructure across Asia. [Continue reading…]

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UK food supply overwhelmingly depends on EU and EU workers

The Guardian reports: The UK faces serious health implications if the government fails to agree a Brexit deal, finds a report that says of 35 portions of fruit and vegetables, a figure relating to the five-a-day recommendation for individuals, just one “portion” is grown in the UK and picked by British or non-EU workers.

The report, to mark the launch of a new RSA commission examining the impact of Brexit on food and farming, found that the five-a-day health target – which adds up to the 35 portions of fruit and vegetables a week – was overwhelmingly met by food grown in the EU or harvested by EU workers in the UK.

Sue Pritchard, director of the RSA Food, Farming and Countryside Commission, said Brexit offered a great opportunity to reshape farming and food, but warned that no deal over the exit from the union would have a dramatic and immediate effect.

“What would be available on the shelves would change dramatically. There will be delays at ports and all along the food supply system – the impact will be felt very, very quickly,” she said. [Continue reading…]

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EU nationals in UK face threats from government

The Obsever reports: The Home Office is warning EU nationals held in detention centres that they should leave the UK to “avoid becoming destitute”, in the latest instance of a hardened tone towards citizens from European countries.

A government letter, written on behalf of home secretary Amber Rudd and seen by the Observer, also advises EU nationals that they should consider leaving because they have the “right to travel freely across the EU and can visit, live, study and in most cases work in any other EU member state” – an observation that appears to preempt the UK’s departure from the union.

The letter, dated 18 October and written by officials from the Home Office’s immigration section, tells a Romanian national in an immigration detention centre that his request for emergency accommodation has been rejected and he should consider another country. It states: “You could avoid becoming destitute by returning to Romania or another EU member state where you could enjoy access to all your ECHR [European Convention on Human Rights] without interference.”

The ECHR protects the human rights and freedoms of individuals in 47 countries belonging to the Council of Europe and prohibits a range of unfair and harmful practices.

Detentions and enforced removals of EU citizens from the UK have risen sharply since the Brexit vote, prompting critics to claim that the Home Office is deliberately targeting EU nationals as part of the “hostile environment” Theresa May pledged for those she believes should not be in the country. [Continue reading…]

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Catalan leader vows ‘peaceful resistance’ as Madrid takes control of region

The Guardian reports: The Catalan leader has issued a defiant response to Madrid’s decision to take direct control of Catalonia, calling for “democratic opposition” to the takeover.

In a brief video message issued on Saturday afternoon, Carles Puigdemont vowed to continue working to build “a free country”.

“We must do so resisting repression and threats, without ever abandoning, at any time, civic and peaceful conduct,” he said, adding that his government did not have or want “the argument of force”.

Madrid reacted to the Catalan parliament’s unilateral declaration of independence on Friday by firing the regional government and dismissing the head of the local police force.

Puigdemont and his cabinet were formally removed from their posts, and their powers and responsibilities taken over by central government in notices posted to the official state bulletin on Saturday morning. [Continue reading…]

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Spanish PM dissolves Catalan parliament and calls fresh elections

The Guardian reports: The Spanish government has taken control of Catalonia, dissolved its parliament and announced new elections after secessionist Catalan MPs voted to establish an independent republic, pushing the country’s worst political crisis in 40 years to new and dangerous heights.

Speaking on Friday evening, the Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, said his cabinet had fired the regional president, Carles Puigdemont, and ordered regional elections to be held on 21 December.

Rajoy said the Catalan government had been removed along with the head of the regional police force, the Mossos d’Esquadra. The Catalan government’s international “embassies” are also to be shut down. [Continue reading…]

Simon Tisdall writes: What comes next could make or break Rajoy and his government. But it could also make or break Spain.

Hardliners in Madrid, including members of Rajoy’s ruling People’s party, are champing at the bit. They will now demand a quick end to the protracted Catalan crisis, which has transfixed the entire country since the region’s disputed independence referendum earlier this month.

Ultra-unionists who have long sought to clip the wings of Catalonia’s autonomy will see a chance, and a justification, to bring secessionist leaders crashing down to earth. Their main targets are Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, Oriol Junqueras, his deputy, and Carme Forcadell, speaker of the Catalan assembly.

The penalties for rebellion under the Spanish constitution are harsh. Rajoy’s government has already shown itself willing to wield this weapon, locking up two leading Catalan independence advocates and appearing to throw away the key.

Jordi Sanchez, head of the Catalan National Assembly pressure group, and Jordi Cuixart of Omnium Cultural, were remanded in custody without the possibility of bail last week for alleged sedition. They face up up to 15 years in prison. [Continue reading…]

BBC News reports: The Scottish government has said it “respects and understands” the position of the Catalan government, which has declared independence from Spain.

In a statement, External Affairs Secretary Fiona Hyslop did not explicitly recognise Catalonia as an independent state.

But she said the people of Catalonia “must have the ability to determine their own future”.

And she called for a “process of dialogue” to resolve the crisis. [Continue reading…]

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My fantasy Corbyn speech: ‘I can no longer go along with a ruinous Brexit’

Alastair Campbell writes: Last week I wrote a speech for Theresa May, which concluded with an announcement that she had decided Brexit was impossible to deliver. Sadly she didn’t listen, and so onwards she leads us towards the cliff edge. I am hoping for better luck with Jeremy Corbyn, fantasising that he delivers this speech to a rally of his faithful Momentum followers …

“Thank you for that wonderful reception. Yes, yes, I know my name. ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’. Yes, that’s me. Now please stop singing and sit down. Please.

“I will be honest with you. I didn’t want the job. I didn’t think I would get the job. I wasn’t sure I could do the job. But thanks to you I got it. Thanks to you I now have the confidence to do it. I approach the challenge of being prime minister not with fear or trepidation but with confidence that our time is coming. That it is our duty now to serve. Protest is one thing. Government is another. And we must now prepare, genuinely prepare, as a government in waiting.

“If I become prime minister it is Brexit that will define my leadership. As a result of what happened on 23 June 2016 I have no choice in the matter. The people’s choice dictates that it is so.

I have concluded that rejecting this vision of Brexit is the only route to the vision of the world that drives us
“It is clear to me the constructive ambiguity of our position on Brexit is no longer tenable. It is fine for a party of protest. It is not good enough for a party one step away from government.

“Let’s imagine this entirely credible scenario. As the current chaos inside the government continues, Mrs May falls. The Tories try to foist another prime minister on us, chosen by their ageing membership. But we and the public won’t wear it. We force an election. We win an election. I am prime minister. Now the hard part begins.

“What does our ‘jobs-first’ Brexit mean then, in power? What is a jobs-first Brexit if our leaving the single market hurts growth, as every analysis in the world says it will? What is a jobs-first Brexit dependent on trade if trade slows and even grinds to a halt with the absence of a proper customs infrastructure at our ports, the absence of good trade deals not just with the EU but with the 66 countries with whom we have deals as part of the EU? What is a jobs-first Brexit if firms decide that if the UK leaves the EU, they leave the UK, and take their jobs and their tax take with them?

“And how can we fund all the things in our election manifesto that we need and want to fund in the future if our economy tanks?

“At Labour’s party conference, I said that our continued membership of the EU would prevent us from implementing many of the plans in our manifesto. I am grateful to the New European, which sought legal advice in Brussels and established this was not the case. So the question becomes, not ‘What do we lose by staying in?’, but ‘What do we lose by coming out?’ [Continue reading…]

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Catalan leader will let lawmakers decide on independence

The New York Times reports: After a chaotic day of wavering, Catalonia’s separatist leader, Carles Puigdemont, announced on Thursday that he would place a decision on independence from Spain before the region’s Parliament.

The move by Mr. Puigdemont virtually ensures that the central government in Madrid will take control of the restive region, using its emergency constitutional powers.

Mr. Puigdemont made the announcement before a scheduled appearance before the Catalan Parliament on Thursday evening. He said he had made the decision after failing to secure a commitment from the central government that it would not take control of the region if he called early elections.

“There are none of the guarantees that justify convening elections today,” Mr. Puigdemont said during a brief televised address from his government headquarters. “I tried to obtain the guarantees,” he said, but “I didn’t get a responsible answer from the Spanish government, which has instead used this option to add to the tension.”

He added: “It is now for Parliament to decide its answer to the application” of Article 155 of the national Constitution.

The Catalan Parliament met later Thursday, and might vote on a declaration of independence on Friday, shortly after the Spanish Senate approves emergency measures to impose Madrid’s direct rule on Catalonia. [Continue reading…]

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Where Europe went wrong

Paul Taylor writes: Sometimes an outsider’s eye perceives symptoms of decay more clearly than those who live in the midst of Europe’s daily churn.

In “Fractured Continent: Europe’s crises and the fate of the West,” veteran U.S. journalist and think tanker William Drozdiak shows how three flawed projects launched at the end of the Cold War — the euro, the Schengen zone of passport-free travel, and the eastward enlargement of the EU and NATO — have stumbled into trouble, opening deep rifts in Europe.

“Today, the dream of European unity has begun to wither away, and the future stability of the Continent is clouded in uncertainty,” Drozdiak says in an assessment that contrasts starkly with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s recent assertion that Europe has the wind back in its sails.

Compounding the crises, the former Washington Post foreign correspondent says the United States’ disengagement has left Europeans adrift where previously a steadying hand from Uncle Sam often helped navigate the Continent through troubled waters. Drozdiak is a lifelong Atlanticist steeped in the late Richard Holbrooke’s vision of the U.S. as a benevolent, hands-on European power. He warns that, in the absence of strong American leadership, Europe risks being consumed by its old demon: nationalism.

Drozdiak points to a deep-seated EU methodological problem: the habit of setting out to achieve ambitious objectives with half-baked plans forged in late-night compromises, without anticipating what would happen when things go wrong.

Adopting a single currency without a fiscal union or a lender of last resort; opening internal borders without joint action to protect Europe’s external frontiers; bringing former Soviet satellites into the Western orbit without anticipating a hostile Russian backlash — in each case, Europe’s leaders appear to have been naively optimistic and unprepared.

Drozdiak stops short of predicting whether the EU will fall apart, pitching Europe back into conflict, or seize the chance to pull itself together in a salutary response to Trump and Brexit. But he makes clear the key lies chiefly in Berlin, “the new epicenter of power.” [Continue reading…]

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Michael Bloomberg: Brexit is stupidest thing any country has done besides Trump

The Guardian reports: Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire media mogul and former mayor of New York, has said Brexit is the “single stupidest thing any country has ever done” apart from the election of Donald Trump as US president.

Bloomberg argued that “it is really hard to understand why a country that was doing so well wanted to ruin it” with the Brexit vote, in a series of outspoken remarks made at a technology conference in Boston a fortnight ago.

At that event, Bloomberg, 75, also warned that some workers at the financial media company that bears his name were asking to leave the UK and US because they think the two countries no longer like immigrants and are no longer welcoming. [Continue reading…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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