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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 12 Jul 2019

posted by eucentresg


Greek elections: victory for New Democracy party
On Sunday (7 July), the far-left Syriza party was ousted by the centre-right New Democracy party in the Greek elections. New Democracy leader Kyriakos Mitsotakis won almost 40% of the vote, gaining 158 seats out of 300 in parliament. Despite its defeat, the Syriza party, led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, won 31.5% of the vote. This outcome makes it the main opposition party in Greece and a key player “among progressive political forces in Europe”, according to Syriza MEP and European Parliament Vice-President Dimitris Papadimoulis. Analysts suggest Syriza lost the elections as a result of austerity measures enforced early in their term and because of the Prespa Agreement, which saw an agreement between Greece and North Macedonia on the latter’s name.

New Democracy’s victory marked the first time in a decade in Greek politics that a political party had won enough seats to form a single-party government. The implications of this is that it gives Mitsotakis – part of a political dynasty – a firm mandate to push through plans to cut taxes to “drive investment, growth and new jobs”. It is worth noting he will inherit a Greece that was brought out of austerity-driven bailouts under Tsipras. Both New Democracy and Syriza combined received over 70% of the Greek vote, a percentage unseen since 2009.

The recent elections also saw the ousting of Greek neo-Nazi party, Golden Dawn, from parliament. The party, which was the third largest party in parliament, failed to pass the 3% threshold and would not be represented in the upcoming parliament. According to Euractiv Greece, their defeat was a result of their involvement in an ongoing trial into the 2013 murder of an anti-fascist rapper by a party supporter.

EU Top Jobs: Von der Leyen makes the rounds for Commission top job while Lagarde received backing on Central Bank presidency
German conservative Ursula von der Leyen from the center-right European People’s Party (EPP) emerged from last week’s emergency EU summit as the compromise candidate to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president after German conservative and EPP leader Manfred Weber was blocked by French President Emmanuel Macron and others. She needs the backing of at least 375 MEPs in the current 748-member chamber at next Tuesday’s plenary vote in Strasbourg. To date, von der Leyen has only secured the support of the EPP which has 173 seats in the Parliament.

The backing of the Green party is crucial for her to win an absolute majority in the European Parliament, especially since Germany’s Social Democrats expressed fierce opposition to her nomination. By getting the Greens’ support, she could count on a comfortable majority that would help to compensate for the loss of votes within the largest political families as well as potential absentees during the plenary session. However, the European Greens have set tough conditions for giving their approval, including setting a genuine commitment to climate protection, sea rescue in the Mediterranean and a revamping of the Spitzenkandidat process. Apart from the veteran German Cabinet minister’s lack of historic support for (or opposition to) environmental goals, another sticking point is the failure of von der Leyen’s EPP to back boosting the EU’s 2030 emissions reduction goal.

Ska Keller, a co-chair of the Greens group in the European Parliament alongside Philippe Lamberts and a Spitzenkandidat (or lead candidate), expressed disappointment at the European Council’s decision to kill the process since von der Leyen was not a lead candidate and did not run in the elections. They added that while von der Leyen came across as a “very able politician”, that is “not enough”. Further, Lamberts added on Belgian radio that “[s]he got there only thanks to [French President] Emmanuel Macron and [German chancellor] Angela Merkel. I am not convinced she will be able to take decisions that go against their national interest”.

POLITICO writes that one way to overcome the Greens’ complaints about the selection process could be to offer them policy concessions and top-level representation, including the potential position of a Green commissioner. Last week, European Council President Donald Tusk told MEPs in Strasbourg that he is backing a potential Green bid for a European Commission post.

The German defence minister also met on Tuesday with the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) group. She faced some pointed enquiries during the hour-long meeting, including from Polish MEPs about the rule of law and Article 7 disciplinary proceedings that the European Commission has launched against Warsaw over reforms which Brussels claims undermined judicial independence. Von der Leyen stressed the importance of rule-of-law standards, but also said that no EU country should be singled out for criticism and that the rules should apply equally to all – a response that indicates a softer tone on the rule of law than Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans.

That was music to the ears of some Eastern European MEPs who argue that Warsaw, Budapest and other capitals of newer EU member countries face a double standard in Brussels. Von der Leyen also avoided taking a firm stance on many other issues, ducking a pointed question about whether she believes the EU enlargement policy to the East was a mistake. Rather, she told MEPs that she wanted to prevent Europe from becoming divided.

Meanwhile, International Monetary Fund boss Christine Lagarde has received the backing of EU finance ministers to become the president of the European Central Bank (ECB) on November 1. She will now face a European Parliament hearing to vet her competence to succeed Mario Draghi at a time of global trade tensions and low inflation.

Migration: Salvini shuts migrant centre in Sicily; Malta permits German migrant rescue ship to dock
On Tuesday (9 July), Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini attended the closure of the Mineo centre in Sicily, which was once the largest migrant centre in Europe. The decision to close Mineo was announced last month, following the decline of asylum seekers from 2,526 a year ago to 152. Remaining migrants were transferred to smaller centres ahead of the closure.

Italy has been at the centre of recent disputes regarding migrant rescue ships attempting to dock on Italian waters. The German NGO-operated “Alan Kurdi” vessel and the “Alex”, run by an Italian NGO, were barred from entering Italian waters on Friday (5 July). On Saturday (6 July), the “Alex” defied the Italian government’s decree and set sail for Lampedusa after “declaring a “state of emergency” on board”. The move angered Salvini, who accused the crew of abetting human traffickers.

On Sunday (7 July), Malta announced that it would allow the “Alan Kurdi” to dock on its Island and all 65 people on board to come on land. The rescue ship carried migrants rescued off Libya. The German government offered to take in up to 40 people from the ship and from another Maltese military vessel that rescued 58 individuals in a separate operation. Maltese premier Joseph Muscat tweeted that the 65 people rescued would be “immediately relocated to other EU member states”. Italian and Maltese foreign ministers, Enzo Moavero and Carmelo Abela, issued a joint statement decrying the “case-by-case” approach to the migrant crisis, calling for the EU to enact a permanent mechanism to manage the crisis.

Germany’s development minister urged the EU to launch migrant rescue missions in the Mediterranean and in Libya. Gerd Müller had accused the EU of turning a blind eye to the recent crisis and called for the commission to launch a new sea rescue program following the end of Operation Sophia. German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer also appealed to Salvini to “rethink (his) stance of not wanting to open Italian ports” following the recent tensions between the two EU member states.

Brexit and diplomatic spat between US and UK dominated at one-to-one face off debates between Johnson and Hunt
Diplomatic relations between the US and UK took a hit as leaks from private diplomatic cables to the British Foreign Ministry revealed that the UK’s ambassador to the US, Sir Kim Darroch, called Trump incompetent and insecure and described the US administration as “dysfunctional”. President Trump hit back at Darroch with ire through his tweets, and also criticized Theresa May’s handling of Brexit. He went as far as to threaten to end diplomatic relations with Britain.

Kim Darroch has since resigned from his post, citing that the leak has made his carrying out his role “impossible” and that the “responsible course” is to let someone else take over. Many in the public service regretted his resignation and deemed him the victim of a “malicious leak”. It remains to be seen if a new ambassador will be appointed before the next prime minister is in place.

The issue surrounding Darroch’s assessment of the Trump administration become a point of contention between the two Tory candidates during their one-on-one debate in final bid to replace May as conservative leader and prime minister. Johnson avoided speaking on behalf of the Darroch in an attempt to maintain his good relations with Trump. Meanwhile, Hunt responded through a tweet that Trump’s comments were “disrespectful” and defended Darroch’s position.

The new Prime Minister will be chosen on the 22 July and while both candidates Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have promised to take the UK out of the EU by October 31 with or without a Brexit deal, a no deal could trigger a general election, which would give Labour party an opportunity to come to power.

On Tuesday (9 July), Jeremy Corbyn announced that Labour would back a second referendum for any Brexit deal put through by the new Prime Minister or in the case of a no deal. The decision was also backed by Labour-affiliated trade unions, which seemed to have swayed Corbyn in making the decisive move. He also said that Labour would campaign to Remain “against either a no deal or a Tory deal that does not protect the economy and jobs”.

Corbyn acknowledged that Brexit has been “divisive” in a nod to the tension between the Leavers and Remainers within Labour party but he himself had been accused of sitting on the fence. Many believe that the party’s loss to the Brexit Party and Liberal Democrats during the European parliament elections was due to this unclarity on Brexit. However, this recent policy shift towards a public vote still leaves the door open to Labour backing its own Brexit deal over Remain in the case of a snap general election.

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