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October 31, 2016

Will the quake help Renzi?

Remember the 2002 elections in Germany? The situation in Italy today may have some parallels. Back in July of 2002, chancellor Gerhard Schröder was trailing his opponent - Edmund Stoiber, then CSU chief - by some 10pp. During August, parts of eastern Germany suffered one of the worst floods in living memory. Schröder travelled immediately to the affected areas, put on his wellies, and co-ordinated the rescue efforts on the ground. Stoiber wasn't seen for days, and when he finally arrived, he looked as though as he didn't belong there. The floods were widely credited for securing Schröder's improbable victory in the subsequent elections. Events intruded. They are also now intruding in the US. 

Italy's serial earthquakes could turn out to be for Matteo Renzi what the floods were for Schröder. As the head of the government, Renzi's in the position to take the initiative. He, and no opposition leader, can promise funds for reconstruction. And he can defy the EU's budget rules. His rhetoric is sharp. He said yesterday that Italy would spend whatever it takes to construct the country after earthquakes in various parts of central Italy over the weekend. The quakes destroyed and damage part of Italy's cultural and national identity, Renzi said, and he would not spare a cent to reconstruct everything. And he added, for good measure, that he had no respect for any technocratic rules that question the efforts to restore the country's national heritage. 

Nobody in the EU had even said anything - and even the European Commission, we would presume, would accept the earthquakes as an exceptional circumstance. What we assume is happening is that Renzi is now more ready than ever to defy EU rules as he gets closer to the referendum, and then again as he approaches the elections, which have to be held before the spring of 2018. All opposition leaders have taken anti-EU positions. That is reflected in their poll rating. If and when Renzi eurosceptic, he will benefit at their expense.

We also noted a somewhat counter-intuitive commentary by Dominique Moisi in Les Echo, who argues that an Italian No in the referendum, in the same year as the Brexit vote, would put an end to the referendum as a democratic instrument and would turn the whole of Europe more inward-looking. But he writes that this is a risk worth taking. Reform requires that political leaders take personal risks (which is of course what Gerhard Schröder did).

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October 31, 2016

Is Montebourg an alternative to Hollande?

Francois Hollande’s book continues to ripple through the Socialist party. Locally elected officials are now turning against a new candidature by Hollande, writes Le Point. They were prepared to shoulder Hollande’s defeat, but not the humiliation from his book. These foot soldiers are now searching for a new role model that portrays their aspirations for the party into the next elections, even if it means accepting a defeat right from the start. And guess who's showing up? Arnaud Montebourg. "The alternative to Hollande is me,” Montebourg said in an interview with Journal du Dimanche. "The left can win. My belief in that is hard as steel.” He chose his moment well to come out of silence. 

He is surely not alone. Manuel Valls has ambitions, but as prime minister he cannot speak as freely about them. Instead he continues to walk on eggshells with comments that distance him from Hollande without appearing to be another Brutus. And there is Emmanuel Macron, the real Brutus, as Valls calls him. Macron has lots of potential, but moving away from the Socialist party does not make him a natural candidate. Hollande, meanwhile, multiplies his interventions without saying anything, just smiling as if nothing had happened. He leaves the job to his speaker Stéphane Le Foll, who hammers on with the message that the president is still boss.

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October 31, 2016

The trials of Geert Wilders

Geert Wilders is on trial from today - and not for the first time - for inciting hatred. However, this time the case is much weaker than at previous occasions. A Volkskrant preview of the month-long trial recalls that Wilders was acquitted in 2010 in a trial following his "tsunami of Islamisation" remarks. The court then ruled his "offensive and shocking" speech was nevertheless "acceptable" in the public debate. This time around, the trial revolves around a rally where he asked the audience "do you want more or fewer Moroccans?" and to their reply of "fewer, fewer" he said "we'll fix that". While European law generally restricts what people may say in public, Wilders' defence team wants the court to take inspiration in the US tradition where courts allow nearly absolute freedom of speech. Wilders will also argue that he cannot be prosecuted for statements which are consistent with his party platform for over ten years, as well as calling out the hypocrisy of not prosecuting other political leaders for similar statements, such as PM Mark Rutte - who said Turks should leave the Netherlands - and PvdA leader Diederik Samson - who said Moroccan youths have an "ethnic monopoly on nuisance". It looks like this trial can only benefit Wilders' anti-establishment appeal less than six months before the general election.

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