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December 14, 2016

Towards the next Italian referendum

One of the many complicating factors in Italian politics is the possibility of another important referendum next year - on Matteo Renzi’s Job Act, his only important economic reform. This included the abolition of Article 18 in the Italian constitution, which gave workers the right of non-dismissal. Francesco Verderami has a long article in Corriere della Sera this morning, in which he explains why Italy will go to the polls at some point between mid-April and mid-June next year, either for a new election, or for a referendum on the jobs act. The jobs act is an issue that could align Matteo Renzi’s opponents once again. 

The Italian Constitutional Court will have a bearing on both issues. It is due to rule on the electoral law in January. Verderami says the consensus view among parliamentarians is that the court would let the new law pass. This should then pave the way for a new electoral law to be approved quickly, in time for new elections in the spring. This seems to be his main scenario, if only because the PD wants to avoid another humiliating referendum defeat. The court has yet to rule whether the Article 18 abolition meets the test for being brought to a referendum. The government could weaken the labour law to circumvent the need for a referendum. The referendum would also be subject to minimum turnout rules, unlike the referendum on Dec 4 (which would have passed that threshold in any case). 

The prospect of new elections has created all sorts of strange bedfellows. Matteo Renzi and the Five Star Movement want new elections. Parts of the PD do not. Angelino Alfano, the new foreign minister, says there is no need to wait for the Constitutional Court to rule in January, and wants the government to draft a new electoral law right away. Verderami concludes that, since the Constitutional Court will rule on the electoral law before it rules on the Article 18 referendum, the least risky course of action for the PD would be to opt for early elections in the spring.

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December 14, 2016

Austria blocks declaration on Turkey

We already flagged the story in an earlier briefing. Austria has indeed vetoed a common declaration by EU foreign ministers who wanted to signal that the EU will not extend the membership talks with Turkey. The Austrian foreign minister Sebastian Kurz cast his veto on the grounds that the declaration did not go far enough. He wanted a statement to end the accession process altogether, irking the Germans in particular which are desperate to keep Turkey on board because of the refugee agreement. Frank-Walter Steinmeier called his Austrian colleague irresponsible, and said that for him the only red line would be the introduction of the death penalty. In other words, humans rights violations by Turkey are not considered to be an obstacle to EU membership. We agree with Kurz on this issue. It is fundamentally dishonest to claim that Turkey has any prospect of EU membership at this time. Keeping this option alive raises false hopes.

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December 14, 2016

How to avoid exposure and be popular

It has been only three weeks since the Republican primaries that rearranged all the knowns in the French presidential campaign. One François entered the race, another abstained. The number of candidates on the centre left multiplied - some known, some forgotten. Emmanuel and Jean-Luc play their solos. Marine portrays herself as presidential - call her Marine, forget the Le Pen.

After each primary comes the readjustment, to talk to all of the French and not just the right or the left. Francois Fillon made some changes to his health reform programme, and got criticised for it. This is the downside when campaigning early with a strong and detailed programme. Emmanuel Macron refuses to get bogged down with programme details. Marine Le Pen avoids too much exposure too, her full campaign starting only in February. It is a strange paradox, writes Cécile Cornudet: Politicians recognise that the French want something new and truthful, but at the same time decide to blur their speeches. This is also true for the candidates of the left, there are no concrete new ideas out there. 

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December 14, 2016

Can Putin topple Merkel?

The big fear within the CDU is that Vladimir Putin could influence the German elections in the same way he influenced the US elections, through security breaches and the sponsoring of fake news, and thus topple Angela Merkel. Frankfurter Allgemeine devotes a large amount of its first two pages to this theory, and quotes that parliamentary director of the CDU group in the Bundestag as saying that Germany should prepare for major interference in next year’s elections. Merkel was, of course, instrumental in the EU policies on sanctions against Russia, and Putin’s life would be a lot easier with the so-called red-red-green coalition of the SPD, the Greens, and the Left Party. The CDU now wants to step up the counter-espionage activity of the German secret services, while the SPD thinks that the CDU is bordering on the paranoid. The talk about Russia reflects the CDU's fear that they might lose the elections, a senior SPD spokesman is quoted as saying.

FAZ produces some solid background on what is known so far. The key question is whether Russia was behind the hacker attack on the Bundestag in April 2015. The president of the federal office for IT security believes so. The article goes back to the published counter-espionage reports and finds that concerns about Russian activity have been gradually increasing. The strongest indication in favour of the theory was the publication of 2,400 documents from a Bundestag committee that investigated an espionage scandal as part of which the National Security Agency tapped the phone of German politicians, including Merkel. The Wikileaks papers only included documents on Bundestag computers before the hacker attack, and the documents corresponded in format to those of the committee computers. 

The security services tend to accept that there are doubts, stemming mostly from members of the committee itself. They believe that the most plausible explanation for the document leak is an old-fashioned mole. The documents would have easily fit on a single USB-stick. Altogether 50 people had access to them. 

Expect this story to run and run. It has the potential to make the German elections a lot more confrontational than they would otherwise be.

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December 14, 2016

So much for Germany as world leader

Hans Kundnani does a thorough job debunking the notion that Germany could replace the US as "the leader of the free world". That notion was clearly an emotional response by angry liberals after the election of Donald Trump. But it does not stand up to closer scrutiny, which is what Kundnani provides. For starters, leadership, like what the US has provided, includes military responsibilities to defend other democracies. Germany is technically unable and politically unwilling to fulfil such responsibilities. He recalls a 2014 Nato exercise during which German soldiers had to paint wooden sticks black and attach them to their armoured vehicles, pretending these were real machine guns. In 2015, the German military budget was $36.7bn, compared with $597.5bn for the US. It is smaller in total size than that of France or the UK. In GDP terms, defence spending is a pitiful 1.3%. The recently announced programme to increase defence spending will merely end up maintaining existing capabilities without adding new ones. 

Kundnani also makes the point that soldiers carry a much lower social prestige in Germany than the US, which means that the Bundeswehr is struggling to recruit. The goal is now to increase the Bundeswehr by 7,000 (!) soldiers by 2023, and Kundnani writes that he does not believe they are going manage even this. 

What about economic power? Kundnani makes the point that given Germany's extreme reliance on exports, Germany is much more likely to become a source of vulnerability than a source of power.

And what about moral leadership? Can Angela Merkel provide at least that?

“Given her approach to the euro crisis, it’s not clear she deserves even that title — no shortage of Greeks, Spaniards, and Italians would dispute it. But even if she does preside over the free world as a figurehead, it shouldn’t be reassuring for anyone who worries about a resurgence of authoritarianism. Rather, it brings to mind Joseph Stalin’s famous question about the pope: “How many divisions has he got?”

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