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 He makes a sport of attacking the European Union and says NATO’s mission is outdated.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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

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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…]

 

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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…]

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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…]

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Catalonia responds to police violence: ‘people are angry, very angry’

The Guardian reports: Like much of Catalonia, the Hotel Vila in Calella was shuttered on Tuesday morning, its rooms empty, its doors locked and a sign reading Hotel Tancat (hotel closed) stuck to a window.

But on Sunday night, hours after the Spanish police’s attempts to halt the Catalan independence referendum exploded into violence, the hotel became another frontline in the skirmishes between locals and Spanish police; a further manifestation of the furious disbelief that has triggered strikes across the region and which brought thousands of people on to the streets of Barcelona and Girona on Tuesday to protest against an unaccustomed brutality.

Calella, a seaside resort town 36 miles north-east of Barcelona, the Catalan capital, has long served as a billet for Spanish police officers who stay there when they are deployed to keep order at large-scale events in the city.

However, the Guardia Civil officers lodged in the Hotel Vila over the weekend soon learned that they were no longer welcome.

At around 10.30 on Sunday night, incensed by the scenes of police brutality in nearby Sant Cebrià de Vallalta and around many parts of Catalonia, a group of local people headed to the hotel chanting: “Out occupation forces!” A video of the protest also shows some people shouting “fascists!” and calling the officers sons of bitches.

A group of officers – some carrying batons – emerged and, despite the intervention of members of the Catalan police force, allegedly attacked the protesters. According to the town’s mayor, 14 people were injured, of whom four were taken to hospital.

“We’ve had Guardia Civil and national police staying here for years before big football matches and nothing’s ever happened,” said one local business owner, who did not wish to be named. “There had never been problems until now. All the bars around here used to be full of them. But now people here are scared.”

By Monday night, the Guardia Civil had left Calella, leading Ramón Cosio, a spokesman for Spain’s main police union, to complain that officers were “fleeing from hotel to hotel; they are like rats who have to hide”.

The Unión de Guardias Civiles went further, saying the “harassment” of its officers in Catalonia was “more like Nazi Germany than what you see in any other country where democracy reigns and rights are guaranteed”.

With Madrid under growing international pressure to resolve its worst political crisis in decades, crowds gathered in Barcelona on Tuesday, chanting “independence”, repeating the cries of “occupying force” and urging Spanish police to leave the region. [Continue reading…]

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The EU has tied its own hands. It cannot intervene in Catalonia

Natalie Nougayrède writes: The Catalan crisis presents the EU with an unprecedented conundrum. Spain joined the European project in 1986, and its democratic transition has for decades been hailed as a model. Tensions have not run this high in the country since the 1981 failed military coup, when colonel Antonio Tejero seized the parliament in Madrid at gunpoint. The then king, young Juan Carlos, prevented the nation from entering another dark age by delivering a speech on TV uncompromisingly defending the constitution and identifying the monarchy with the country’s emerging democratic majority.

As Catalonia’s nationalist leadership hurtles towards what may be, in the coming days, a unilateral declaration of independence, the current king, Felipe, also took to the television screens. Can he rally consensus within Spain to prevent a full-on confrontation?

The best option, one would think, would be for the EU to step in. But calls for it to mediate between Madrid and Barcelona have been left unanswered. Not only that, the EU stands accused of complacency in the face of what some Catalan activists describe as state “repression” that carries echoes of the Franco era. Is any of this fair? [Continue reading…]

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Ripples from Catalan referendum could extend beyond Spain

Simon Tisdall writes: The Spanish government’s attempted suppression of Catalonia’s independence referendum by brute force has raised urgent questions for fellow EU members about Spain’s adherence to democratic norms, 42 years after the death of the fascist dictator, Francisco Franco. Charles Michel, Belgium’s prime minister, spoke for many in Europe when he tweeted: “Violence can never be the answer!”

Madrid’s pugnacious stance, while widely condemned as a gross and shameful over-reaction, has nevertheless sent a problematic message to would-be secessionists everywhere. It is that peaceful campaigns in line with the UN charter’s universal right to self-determination, campaigns that eschew violence and rely on conventional political means, are ultimately doomed to fail. In other words, violence is the only answer. Sorry, Charles.

Spain’s prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, did everything he could to derail a referendum that the courts had deemed illegal, but his pleas and threats were not persuasive. That is democracy. Rajoy’s subsequent choice to employ physical force to impose his will on civilians exercising a basic democratic right carried a chill echo of Spain’s past and a dire warning for the future. That is dictatorship.

Surely no one believes the cause of Catalan independence will fade away after Sunday’s bloody confrontations that left hundreds injured. Rajoy’s actions may have ensured, on the contrary, that the campaign enters a new, more radical phase, potentially giving rise to ongoing clashes, reciprocal violence, and copycat protests elsewhere, for example among the left-behind population of economically deprived Galicia. [Continue reading…]

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Catalans defy Spain and vote on independence, clashing with police

The New York Times reports: Defying the Spanish authorities, tens of thousands of Catalans turned out to vote on Sunday in a banned independence referendum, clashing with police officers sent from outside the region to shut down polling stations and confiscate ballots.

The police in some places used rubber bullets and truncheons to disperse voters, many of whom had spent the night inside polling stations to ensure that they would remain open.

The police crackdown left 38 people wounded — nine of whom were hospitalized — by early afternoon, according to the Catalan emergency services. Madrid-based newspapers reported that 11 police officers had also suffered injuries.

Even as Spanish security forces intensified the clampdown, the Catalan authorities maintained that voting was proceeding in almost three-quarters of polling stations. [Continue reading…]

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