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January 23, 2017

What if the populists clash with one another?

Marine Le Pen, Frauke Petry, Geert Wilders, and Matteo Salvini, the leaders of the National Front in France, the AfD in Germany, the PVV in the Netherlands, and the Lega in Italy, met in the German city of Koblenz to co-ordinate their strategy ahead of a string of elections in all four countries. The common theme was the tyranny of the EU, the debate about which has reached a new linguistic escalation. Petry puts it this way.

"Europe has never tolerated an occupying power. Neither Napoleonic France, nor Nazi Germany. Nor the Soviet Union. And it will not tolerate the EU, God willing, any longer."

With language like this, it would probably be unwise to take a complacent view of what could happen if any of them ever got into power. Petry's theme was echoed by the others with various degrees of hysteria. Wilders gave his speech in German, in which he criticised the elites and their insistence that all cultures are morally equivalent. 

The only sign of discord at the meeting, which was attended by 1,000 delegates, was a comment by one of the leaders of the AfD who said that his party should keep a certain distance from the FN because of Le Pen's protectionistic economic policy. Germany is after all a country with a 9% current account surplus - a reality that even the AfD cannot escape.

Timothy Garten-Ash focused on precisely this theme: what happens once the interests of the various nationalists collide? This is already the case in the UK, where the English nationalism that supported Brexit is now colliding with Scottish nationalism. It gets really scary when you look at Trump and China. The risk of an accidental naval or air confrontation in the South or East China Seas is far from negligible. The outcome would then depend on the wisdom and statecraft of Donald Trump and Xi Jinping. Here is his scary conclusion:

"No, I’m not predicting the third world war. But a 21st-century variant of the Cuban missile crisis? Entirely possible. So let’s have no illusions. Up on the magic mountain in Davos, Trump’s smooth-talking mouthpiece Anthony Scaramucci tries to persuade us that everything is going to be fine. He says “the path to globalism for the world is through the American worker” (unpick that if you can), and that Trump’s “disruptive change” is going to be “a positive thing in [our] lives”. Don’t be fooled; don’t be Scaramuccied. We are in for a dangerous, rough ride over the next few years, and we’d better be ready for it."

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January 23, 2017

Why the euro is a real problem for the German left

Bernd Riexinger is one of the co-chairs of the German left party, and he has written an important article in which he takes on the party's controversy about the euro and the EU. This is important not because we think his party will be part of the next government coalition - though there is an outside chance that it might be - but because we expect the pro-EU majority after the September elections to be rather thin. 

The problem for the Left, as Riexinger openly acknowledges, is how to distinguish itself from the anti-European right. He writes that the instincts of the far right during a crisis are not too different from those of what he refers to as the neoliberal elites (the word "neoliberal" always features in discussions among the German left). If push comes to shove, the far-right would impose neoliberal, authoritarian solutions.

He discusses at length the position of the nationalist left, in particular Oskar Lafontaine and Sahra Wagenknecht from within his own party. They, too, are demanding a return to a national currency. Riexinger criticises what he calls national Keynesianism, as this would constitute a highly destructive game pitching the workers of one country against those of others through competitive devaluations. Rather, the right strategy is to change the foundations of the eurozone, and to get rid of its neoliberal constitution, thus beginning to rebuild the eurozone from the bottom-up. The Left thus needs to be in opposition to both the nationalism of the right, and the neoliberalism of the pro-EU centre.

This is an interesting article in many respects. We struggle to find any politician on the centre-left or centre-right to offer such deep thoughts about the future of the euro. His position of equidistance to the liberal pro-Europeans and the nationalist right is internally coherent, but we fear that this will no be the real-world choice, which will be reduced to two options: maintenance of the status-quo, or a return to national currencies, rather than a reform of the eurozone itself. One of the obstacles is that this would require treaty change, and there is no way that the radical position of the left party would find unanimous approval throughout the EU.

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January 23, 2017

When you call the US, what number do you dial?

We are reminded of Henry Kissinger's much over-used quip about the lack of an EU telephone number, when we read the story that Angela Merkel and her government haven't got a single number to call in Washington. They were monumentally unprepared for the presidency of Donald Trump, and don't know what to do now, Handelsblatt reports. Merkel's foreign policy adviser, Christopher Heusgen, is urging everyone to keep what he calls "strategic patience", which we believe is also Angela Merkel's instinct. There is really nothing she can do for now - other than perhaps wait and see how Theresa May fares during her impromptu visit to Washington at the end of this week. Merkel's team has been trying to get in touch with Jared Kushner, Trump's son-in-law, of whom they have read in the newspapers that he is now the powerful dealmaker in the Trump White House, but that seems to have gone nowhere.

What seems to have happened is at least that Merkel is no longer under any illusions about what to expect from Trump. We know that she has studied his post-election speeches in great detail. Handelsblatt spoke to someone close to her as saying about whether Trump will change while in office:

“None of us here believe that anymore. The Americans, and the world, will get the Trump they elected.”

That also seems Carl Bildt's conclusion:

"We had been hoping things would settle down. And there is still the hope that the inaugural address will be seen by history as the end of the campaign rather than as the start of the administration. But are we reassured? Far from it."

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