Europe Dispatch – 17th February 2017

A weekly round-up of the biggest news from across the Old Continent

Britain – Prime Minister Theresa May has come under fire for her decision to extend the offer of a state visit to the United Kingdom to President Trump, made during her visit to Washington D.C. in late January. May has aligned the UK’s foreign and trade policy towards the United States, emphasising the two nations’ historic ‘special relationship’ as Britain prepares to enter negotiations to leave the European Union. Leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn called on the Prime Minister to revoke her invitation in the wake of Trump’s decision to halt all travel from seven majority Muslim countries and impose an indefinite ban on all Syrian refugees from entering the United States. An open letter from 250 legal scholars from universities across Britain called on the Prime Minister to revoke this invitation, citing the President’s ‘racist, xenophobic, misogynistic and homophobic measures,’ climate change denial, and disrespect for the concept of judicial independence, among other issues. The government has not shifted its stance on the state visit, according to an official Foreign Office response rejecting an online petition to cancel the visit that has gained more than 1.8 million signatures.

As the ‘Brexit Bill’ to formally trigger Article 50 enters the House of Lords, peers opposed to Theresa May’s plan for a ‘hard’ Brexit appear confident that they will be able to pass a series of amendments to the bill, after the Commons approved the bill without passing any amendments. Dick Newby, the Peer who leads the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords, expects enough Conservative peers to abstain on an amendment safeguarding the rights of EU citizens living in the UK to allow it to pass with Labour and Lib Dem support. The House of Lords, as an unelected body, is usually hesitant to break with the Commons on significant votes; they are more likely to do so when the action is supported by the British public more generally, as when the Lords opposed the government’s unpopular tax credits plan in 2015. Opinion polling shows such public support exists for the proposed amendment. The Liberal Democrats are also pursuing an amendment to ensure a second referendum on EU membership, though it is less likely to have large support from Labour Peers.

Romania: In an effort to quell public outrage after two weeks of massive street protests, the Romanian parliament unanimously approved a proposal to call a referendum on a series of anti-corruption reforms. The proposal was spearheaded by President Klaus Iohannes, an outspoken critic of the governing Social Democratic Party (PSD). The move comes following the government’s highly unpopular attempt to decriminalise certain acts of corruption and offer an amnesty to various public servants convicted of abuse of power offence, both of which have since been rescinded. The date of the referendum and exact wording of the referendum question are not yet known.

Brussels: The European Parliament voted to back the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) free trade agreement with Canada, by 408 votes to 254. The bulk of support came from the centre-right European People’s Party (EPP) bloc, with the centre-left Socialists and Democrats (S&D) bloc split on the issue. The agreement, similar to the now-defunct Trans-Pacific Partnership, would eliminate nearly all tariffs between Canada and the EU, but has been opposed by labour unions and environmental activists, concerned that it would lead to significant deregulation and allow for excessive corporate power over legislation. The European Parliament’s approval means that aspects of CETA such as tariff reduction will provisionally take effect, though more controversial aspects, such as investor-state dispute settlement provisions cannot come into force until the deal is ratified in full. Full ratification requires unanimous approval from all EU member states. Negotiation on CETA was delayed for weeks in October 2016 when Belgium’s devolved Wallonian Parliament voted against the agreement, rendering the central Belgian government unable to support the deal.

France –Emmanuel Macron’s campaign manager and head of the En Marche! political party, Richard Ferrand has accused the Russian government of co-ordinating efforts to discredit Macron’s centrist liberal candidacy and assist far-right candidate Marine Le Pen in this year’s election, mirroring Russian support for Donald Trump’s campaign in last year’s American presidential election. Ferrand said that En Marche! was being hit by continuous cyber-attacks from locations within Russia, and furthermore accused Russian state-controlled media of smearing Macron with fake news. Macron has repeatedly fought back against unverified rumours of an extramarital homosexual affair, while Russian newspaper Izvestia reported that Wikileaks founder Julian Assange had ‘interesting information’ on Macron.

Embattled centre-right candidate for the French presidency François Fillon now faces pressure from within his own Republican Party, with roughly 40 elected representatives readying a declaration asking that he considering dropping out of the race. Fillon, previously a front-runner to win the May run-off, has haemorrhaged support in the wake of the ‘Penelopegate’ scandal, alleging Fillon paid his wife and two children hundreds of thousands of Euros for jobs they did not do, or were not qualified to have.

Spain – The country’s Constitutional Court has struck down a resolution adopted by the Catalan regional parliament last October that laid the groundwork for an independence referendum in the style of Scotland’s to be held in September 2017. The federal government in Madrid has consistently rejected any support for such a referendum to be held, and is unlikely to change that position following this judicial ruling that any such vote would be unconstitutional. The decision is likely to stoke further tensions between Catalonia and Madrid. The previous Catalonian President, Artur Mas, is currently facing trial under charges of civil disobedience and misconduct after denying a 2014 court order and holding a symbolic referendum that November, where 80% of voters backed independence, albeit at a turnout of less than 42%.

Germany – Frank-Walter Steinmeier was elected Germany’s eighteenth President in a special parliamentary session comprising both federal and state legislators, and several prominent Germans. Steinmeier, 61, won 931 of the 1,239 votes cast after earning the endorsement of both the centre-right CDU and centre-left SPD, the latter of which he led from 2009 to 2013. As a former Leader of the Opposition and two-time Foreign Minister under Angela Merkel, Steinmeier is a far more political choice for the largely ceremonial office compared to the man he is replacing, Joachim Gauck, respected for his past as a civil rights activist in East Germany. Steinmeier will formally become head of state in a ceremony on March 18th, his victory certain to bring further optimism for the SPD, which sees this September’s federal election as the party’s best chance for forming a government since 2002.

The Faroe Islands – The remote North Atlantic island group could be Europe’s newest independent state, following an announcement by the Faroese government that a referendum on a constitution guaranteeing the right to self-determination will be held in 2018. The move is widely seen a step towards gaining independence from the Kingdom of Denmark, which has held sovereignty over the Islands since 1814. The Faroe Islands were granted self-rule in 1948, though Denmark still maintains control over currency, law enforcement, and foreign, defence, and monetary policy. With a population of 49,000, an independent Faroe Islands would be slightly smaller than Invercargill.

France (Ifop-Fiducial) – First Round: Marine Le Pen (National Front) 25.5%, Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) 19.5%, François Fillon (Republican) 18.5%, Benoît Hamon (Socialist) 14.5%, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Unsubmissive France) 11.5%, others 10.5%.

Second round: Marine Le Pen (National Front) 37.5%, Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) 62.5%.

Germany (INSA / YouGov) CDU/CSU 30%, SPD 31%, Greens 7%, FDP 5%, Left 10%, AfD 12%, others 5%.

United Kingdom (ComRes / Sunday Mirror, Independent on Sunday) Conservatives 41%, Labour 26%, Liberal Democrats 11%, UKIP 11%, Scottish National Party 5%, Greens 4%, others 2%.

Italy (EMG) Five Star Movement 27%, Democratic Party 32%, Forward Italy 11%, Northern League 11.5%, Italian Left 3%, Brothers of Italy 4.5%, Popular Area 3%, others 8%.

Five things to read this week:

1. Anna Saurbrey, an editor at German daily newspaper Der Tagesspiegel has written an op-ed in the New York Times on the political void left behind by the end of Joachim Gauck’s tenure as German President.

2. This analysis, translated from French business paper Les Échos, on the future of the transatlantic relationship between the United States and Europe Union following Donald Trump’s inauguration as president.

3. This story from Russian state-controlled media outlet Sputnik News alleging Emmanuel Macron is an agent of U.S. banking interests and backed by a ‘very wealthy gay lobby’, as an example of Russian media coverage of Macron.

4. As many in Europe ponder how the Trump Administration will handle policy towards Europe, it is worth reading this report from Foreign Policy on the diplomatic storm created by Republican Congressman Dana Rohrabacher’s unusual comment that Macedonia is ‘not a country’.

5. The cover story of this week’s New Statesman, ‘The May Doctrine’ has editor Jason Cowley interview Prime Minister Theresa May on Brexit, the United States, the return of an interventionist state, and her vision of the Conservative Party’s political future.

Also watch:
This segment from Al Jazeera’s journalism review programme The Listening Post, on the relationship between Italy’s populist anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the rise of fake news.


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