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February 08, 2017

Fillon faces new allegations

François Fillon is not out of the woods yet. Just a day after he addressed the public about the allegations of nepotism, and ready to embark on the campaign trail again, new revelations emerged. Le Canard Enchaîné writes in its Wednesday edition that Penelope Fillon received €45,000 in severance payments from the Assembly at the end of her two assistant contracts. The investigative newspaper writes that, in 2002, Penelope Fillon received €16,000 - which is an equivalent of five months salary payments - but started to work for the literary review early so that there is an overlap. Legislation also does not foresee such high sums for severance payments, so the article.

Fillon went into offensive mode, writing an open letter in the newspaper Ouest-France accusing the satirical paper of lyings, and printing obvious mistakes. The latest polls for him are not good. They suggest that he did not convince the French with his speech on Monday. Just one in three of those questioned believe he should remain as the conservative candidate, according to France 24. Among conservatives his support was higher, between 58% and 62% believed his version. The polls show that Fillon would now be eliminated in the first round on April 23, with Le Pen and Macron moving on to the May 7 runoff.

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February 08, 2017

Does Martin Schulz really have a chance?

Majid Sattar brought a sense of perspective to the debate about the success chances of Martin Schulz. He acknowledges that the turn of events is truly extraordinary, and Schulz has a number of qualities that Sigmar Gabriel lacks. He may be able to grow the SPD beyond its fast-shrinking core constituency. But Sattar warns that Schulz is still untested. And the deep-seated structural problems of the SPD are not going to go away. What is helping Schulz for now is the deep division in the CDU/CSU, which have now formally nominated Angela Merkel as their joint candidate for chancellor. The CDU/CSU managed a process of modernisation, a repositioning of the party at the political centre, thanks largely to Merkel herself. And the more Gabriel tried to focus on the SPD's core trade-union-aligned working-class voters, the more the party distanced itself from centrist voters - such as teachers. Schulz is closer to Merkel than Gabriel in this respect. His strategy for the working class voters is to talk about social justice, a strategy Sattar suggests lacks credibility. Even Schulz, who was never in government himself, will not be able to deny that his party was constantly in government since 1998 - except for a period of four years. Schulz will also need to answer the question of how he wants to become chancellor. The politically most realistic option is a coalition with the Greens and the Left Party, but that combination is still short of a majority. As is the combination with the Greens and the FDP. (Sattar does not mention the possibility of a Grand Coalition with Schulz as chancellor, which to us seems his most realistic option). The best aspects of his candidacy, according to Sattar, is that the renewed attention on the fight for the political centre will make it harder for the AfD to break into the news cycle.

In respect of the AfD, FAZ has an insightful and very long investigative story on how the AfD is using automated bots on Twitter and Facebook to get its points across to the electorate. The party denies this officially, but the journalists have actually managed to trace down a number of accounts that can realistically only come from bots, and not humans. Moreover, these bots are highly effective in the way they generate followers and amplify news messages. The party says that, even if there were evidence of such bots, they would not have been officially authorised.

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February 08, 2017

Spain's not-so-green taxes

Taxation is not a European Commission competence, but it interacts with other areas of policy. Just like the competition authorities took aim at the Irish tax rulings, now it is the environmental implementation review that allows the Commission to make recommendations on green taxes. El País notes that the report released on Monday advises Spain to increase its environmental taxation, and reduce harmful subsidies. The report suggests the need to shift the tax burden away from taxes on labour, towards taxes less harmful to economic growth. Environmentally-related taxes collected are just 1.85% of the Spanish GDP in 2014, against an EU average of 2.46%. Spain is also criticised for having no strategy for eliminating environmentally harmful subsidies, such as subsidies on fossil fuels, local coal, company cars, and diesel compared to petrol. In addition, the Commission notes that environmental policy is largely devolved to the regions or even to the municipal level, leading to normative dispersion.

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February 08, 2017

Building the Catalan tax database - legally?

Spanish regions have some taxation competencies, but in the case of Catalonia the improvement of the regional tax administration gets mixed up with the controversy over the independence movement. As we reported two weeks ago, a separatist senator caused a commotion with his remarks that the Catalan tax agency had stolen the tax information of citizens. In the meantime he resigned and was replaced in the senate, but this has not prevented Spain's data protection agency from launching an investigation into the Catalan tax agency. Lluís Salvadó, the director of the agency, welcomes the investigation as he says everything is being done legally. According to Salvadó, the Catalan government has 30 years of accumulated data from a multitude of minor taxes it manages, and has simply been aggregating the disparate sources of information. He said that it is firms that have live tax information of their employees, and that it will be the taxpayers and firms themselves that will provide data as needed at the time of payment.

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February 08, 2017

Reports of the death of Russia’s economy were exaggerated

We continue to treat Russia as outside our reservation, but a possible strategic alliance between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin, and the nearing end of economic sanctions, are making us pay closer attention to certain political and economic development of importance for the EU. We noted a thorough analysis of the possible trajectories of the Russian economy by Andrey Movchan, who writes that the fall in oil prices, more so than western sanctions, has damaged the economy, but there is no reason to expect any serious negative surprises, such as a radical social upheaval. The biggest threat to Russia is the country’s chronically weak banking system, he writes. The big overriding problem is that the Russian government has failed to reform the economy, and is running a deficit now at the expense of long-term development. He thinks that the Russian government might end up loosening its monetary policy, and cutting off capital flows from abroad. This could lead to curbs on foreign currency transactions, and the imposition of price controls. If this happens, it will be after the 2018 presidential elections.

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