Europe Dispatch — 24th February 2017

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

 

Britain – The House of Commons debated this week on the merits of the state visit offered to President Trump days after his inauguration. Two petitions, one with 1.8 million signatures calling for the invitation to be rescinded, and one with 310,000 signatures supporting the visit were both debated, as is the rule for any petition that gathers more than 100,000. The move was purely symbolic, as the government has made clear they have no intention of changing their position; though opposition lawmakers were given the ability to vent their frustrations. Labour MP Paul Flynn denounced the president as possessing a ‘ceaseless incontinence of free speech’ and responded to a question from Green Party co-leader Caroline Lucas by decrying Trump’s ‘cavernous depths of scientific ignorance’ on the issue. Alex Salmond, former First Minister of Scotland and current SNP MP accused the Prime Minister of ‘fawning subservience’. In the past 50 years, only two US presidents have been afforded a state visit: George W. Bush in 2003, and Barack Obama in 2016, where he made a high-profile intervention in the then-ongoing EU referendum campaign.

Two by-elections are being held in England today, following the resignation of Labour MPs Jamie Reed and Tristram Hunt in Copeland and Stoke-on-Trent Central, respectively. Both are expected to be pitched battles in seats the Labour Party has held since the 1950s. At time of writing the polls have just closed, but no results have been announced. A full write-up will be available on the Capital Hardtalk website when these results are known.

France – It’s been a week of intense campaigning for both Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen that saw both candidates on high-profile events outside of France, courting the votes of expat communities. Macron started the week by taking a hit in the polls after making controversial comments during a television interview in Algiers, the Algerian capital. The North African nation won its independence from France in 1962 following an intensely bloody and asymmetric seven-year war. Macron condemned France’s colonial history in Algeria, calling it a ‘crime against humanity’. This marks some of the strongest language against France’s actions in Algeria said by a French politician; the emotional resonance the conflict has today among ordinary Frenchmen has led to little appetite for open dialogue. Centre-right candidate François Fillon, who had previously described France’s colonial history as the nation ‘sharing its culture’, accused Macron of ‘stabbing France in the back’ with these remarks. Macron earned better media coverage later that week, speaking to more than 3,500 Frenchmen at a rally in London, before engaging in a private meeting with Prime Minister May at 10 Downing Street.

Marine Le Pen, of the far-right National Front, has also taken to overseas campaigning, spending two days courting the votes of French nationals in Lebanon. The visit included a meeting with President Michel Aoun, the Middle East’s only Christian head of state, and Sunni Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri, though the largest press coverage came from her cancelled meeting with Grand Mufti Sheikh Abdul Latif Derian, the country’s highest Sunni religious figure. The cancellation stemmed from Le Pen’s refusal to wear a headscarf during the meeting, though the Grand Mufti’s office has released a statement claiming Le Pen’s aides had been informed in advance she would need to wear one. Le Pen, an anti-immigrant candidate who has faced repeated claims of Islamophobia, has continually supported a ban on headscarves in all public places in France.

Another fake jobs scandal in French politics this week, this time moving from the centre-right to the far-right. French police searched the National Front headquarters in following allegations of misuse of European Union funds. Le Pen, a Member of the European Parliament, allegedly paid her bodyguard more than €41,000 in 2011 and her Paris-based assistant slightly under €300,000 from 2010 to 2016 by claiming they were EU parliamentary assistants. To qualify as a parliamentary assistant, one must be physically working at a European Parliament office in either Brussels, Strasbourg, or Luxembourg. Le Pen has refused to pay the €340,000 being demanded by OLAF, the European anti-fraud office, and has claimed the investigation is politically motivated.

Good news for Macron’s candidacy late in the week, following the announcement that the 39-year old liberal political upstart had forged an alliance with veteran centrist candidate François Bayrou. Bayrou, 65, a three-time presidential candidate and leader of the centrist Democratic Movement (MoDem) announced in a press conference that he would not stand for president this year and instead work to have Macron elected. Bayrou described his decision as a ‘sacrifice’, but stated he believed the risks present in this election were too high, a pointed jab at the electoral prospects of Marine Le Pen. Following his greatest electoral performance in the first round of the 2007 election, in which he won 18.57% of the vote, Bayrou won 9.13% in the first round of the 2012 election. His endorsement makes it more likely that Macron will make it through to the all-important second round run-off, after a week that saw his polling lead over centre-right François Fillon tighten significantly.

Ireland –Enda Kenny, the Taoiseach (Prime Minister) of Ireland has announced that he will address questions surrounding his leadership once he returns from the traditional St Patrick’s Day visit to the United States. The announcement put to rest rumours that he would face a motion of no confidence, following criticism of the government’s handling of accusations that a police whistle-blower had his reputation attacked for revealing corruption in the police’s driving licence penalty system. Kenny had already announced previously he would not lead his Fine Gael party through another general election, though MPs from his party held fears that the police whistle-blower scandal could have led to an unpopular Kenny facing an early election. Kenny, 65, was first elected to the Dáil (National Assembly) in 1975, and was elected Taoiseach in 2011. He is so far the only Fine Gael leader to win re-election as Taoiseach in Irish history.

Italy – A major schism in Italy’s governing Democratic Party is spilling out into the open, following the resignation of party leader Matteo Renzi to launch a fresh leadership contest. Renzi, who served as Prime Minister until December 2016 when he resigned following a referendum loss, faces challengers from the party’s left, who argue the party has abandoned its traditional leftist and working class roots. Renzi called the contest following concerns that left-wing MPs and senators were considering creating a splinter party, which would likely fracture the left-wing vote in the coming general election. Renzi, who has said accused his challengers of inadvertently helping the populist Five Star Movement, will face a challenge from Michele Emiliano, the populist left-wing president of the Apulia region.

Polls:
France (Ifop-Fiducial): First round — Marine Le Pen (National Front) 26.5%, Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) 22.5%, François Fillon (Republican) 20.5%, Benoît Hamon (Socialist) 13.5%, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Unsubmissive France) 11%, others 6%.

Second round — Marine Le Pen (National Front) 39%, Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) 61%.

Germany (INSA / YouGov) CDU/CSU 31.5%, SPD 30%, Left 9.5%, Greens 6.5%, FDP 5.5%, AfD 11%, others 6%.

United Kingdom (ICM / The Guardian) Conservatives 44%, Labour 26%, UKIP 13%, Libereal Democrats 8%, SNP 4%, Greens 4%, others 1%.

Italy (EMG) Democratic Party 29.8%, Five Star Movement 28.7%, Forward Italy 12.1%, Northern League 13.2%, Italian Left 3%, Brothers of Italy 4.5%, Popular Area 3%, others 7%.

Five things to read this week:

1. This piece from the BBC’s chief correspondent Gavin Hewitt, looking ahead to the year’s elections in the Netherlands, France, and Germany.

2. This profile from Politico Europe of Julia Reda, the only MEP representing the German Pirate Party.

3. This column from The Guardian, arguing that Spain’s sleeplessness problem stems from the country’s placement in the wrong time zone.

4. This dispatch from Foreign Policy’s Julie Smith on the façade of status quo at this year’s Munich Security Conference, and annual meeting of world leaders and diplomats.

5. An article in The Atlantic this week on the effect of Marine Le Pen’s politics in Francophone Quebec.

 

Also watch:
This ten minute video from The Guardian’s ‘Anywhere but Westminster’ documentary series, meeting with the people of Stoke-on-Trent before today’s by-election.

 

  • Taran Molloy, Capital Hardtalk

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