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February 07, 2017

Insurrection in Romania

Hundreds of thousands of people have been demonstrating in Romania for a week against government plans to decriminalise corruption. Yes, you read that right. The government is barely five weeks old, as PM Sorin Grindeanu took office on January 4 after the December elections, won by the Social Democratic PSD with over 45% of the vote. The new government wasted no time introducing legislation that would have allowed the leader of the PSD to avoid trial on corruption charges. On January 18, Euractiv reported that President Klaus Iohannis had stopped attempts by the justice minister to decree amendments to the law which would have decriminalised certain offences and redefines what constitutes abuse of office, with immediate effect. Romania's anti-corruption agency had also said the amendments should not be passed without wider consultation. Similar proposals had already been prevented in 2013 by complaints from NGOs.

The January 18 incident already provoked a small public protest, numbering in the thousands. Mobilisation kept up and tens of thousands - incuding Iohannis - attended the following protest on January 22. The third protest on January 29 was already called the largest since the fall of Communism.

It all blew over on January 31 after the government went ahead and passed the legal reforms by emergency ordinance anyway. By all accounts the crowd that day numbered 300,000 and protests have continued every day with numbers swelling to a reported 600,000 on Sunday. On Sunday the government withdrew the decree. After that, the protest on Monday fell back to the tens of thousands, who are now demanding the government's resignation. The PM has offered to fire the justice minister, but it doesn't look like the protesters will be satisfied with that. The idea that the justice minister acted on his own is clearly not credible.

The European Commission was relatively quick to react. The Guardian reported on January 27 that the Commission had criticised the Romanian government's intended decree. However, Transparency International worries that Frans Timmermans indicated in a recent letter that the Commission is considering not to publish an update to its 2014 anti-corruption report, preferring to incorporate its work into the European Semester.

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February 07, 2017

On how to confront Trump

The nomination of Donald Trump was greeted by almost universal horror in European capitals, except in places likes Budapest and Warsaw. Another notable exception was Rome. We noted at the time that the new foreign minister, Angelino Alfano, urged his European colleagues to refrain from Trump-bashing. So we are wondering: is Italy pro-Trump? Will this stop the EU from mounting a collective response? 

Marta Dassu provides a reliable analysis of why Italy is more open-minded about Trump than other European countries. "Let’s look at the possible benefits" - is not a sentence you would read in a typical German discussion of Trump. From an Italian perspective, a Trump presidency offers two specific opportunities. One is an improved relationship with Russia, given Italy’s historically good relations with that country. And the second is the possibility of US support for Italy’s Libya policy. Dassau advocates a dual-track foreign policy for Italy: work with Trump without fracturing the EU. 

The New York Times had an in-depth article on the German policy response to Trump, and quoted a number of senior officials who stated that they are preparing something in the background. One official, anonomous as ever, said there is a real dilemma for Germany. They need to do something, but doing it could provoke US anger and a counter-response that might trigger a complete break-up, which Germans want to avoid. A CDU MP is quoted as advocating more military co-operation within the EU, but we are sceptical that this is possible.

Klaus Brinkbaumer, editor of Spiegel, puts Germany’s dilemma well:

“Germany has viewed its leadership role -- at least the leadership understanding of Chancellor Angela Merkel and Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble -- as one that is by all means in opposition to the interests of other European countries. Whether Schäuble’s austerity policies or Merkel’s migration policies, it all happened without much co-coordination and with considerable force. It is thus somewhat ironical that it is Germany, the country that is politically and economically dominant in Europe, that will now have to fill in many of the gaps created by America’s withdrawal from the old world order, the one referred to by former German Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer as 'Pax Americana.' At the same time, Germany must build an alliance against Donald Trump, because it otherwise won’t take shape. It is, however, absolutely necessary.”

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