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September 19, 2017

German populist vote - as seen from the outside

For many international observers Germany is the exception: In times of Donald Trump, Brexit and Emmanuel Macron Germans seem to live on another continent of social peace and political harmony. There is nothing of the desire for renewal witnessed during the French elections, or the desire to distinguish themselves shown by the Brexit vote. There is no major populist insurgence. Controversial subjects of our times like terrorism, refugees, immigration, military engagement, or nationalism, are avoided, observes Jean-Dominique Giuliani, president of the Robert Schuman Foundation.

But this peace is superficial, notes Philippe Rocard in Le Monde.  There are about 20-30% frustrated voters in Germany, angry about Angela Merkel and her motto "Wir schaffen das" (we can make it) in immigration policy, or her handouts to bailout countries during the eurozone crisis. The three parties that capture the rising protest are the AFD, Die Linke and even the FDP with its radicalised discourse against Greece.  

The rise of the AfD, which looks like it could become the third strongest party only four years after its foundation, would be a turning point in postwar German history, notes the WSJ. Never since the 1950s has a far-right party cleared the 5% hurdle. According to the recent polls, the AfD could get as many as 89 out of 703 seats. With its xenophobic and nationalistic rhetoric the party breaks taboos in a country that has resisted right-wing populism for decades. To be fair, these numbers are still small compared to Austria where the Freedom party is polling 25%, or France where Marine Le Pen received 34% in the presidential run-off. But for Germany it is a major shift.

Angela Merkel, meanwhile, continues to run as the guarantor of stability, nourishing the image that she is the only one who can take on men like Donald Trump or Recep Tayyip Erdogan. And, like in the past two elections, she avoids controversial subjects that could stir up emotions ahead of the vote. If she wins, she may well be tempted to become even more cautious, so Rocard. This depends on the AfD’s success and what lessons Merkel draws from the other EU countries’ experiences. In this case, it would become even harder to agree a meaningful EU reform agenda.

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September 19, 2017

May's total Brexit power grab

We are in the middle of the first real Brexit crisis - this in the original Greek meaning of the word crisis as a turning point. Theresa May will, hopefully, clarify her position on the transitional deal and the Brexit bill on Friday.

Rachel Sylvester tells us this morning in her political column in the Times that they are still drafting the speech - not just the words but the actual policy. They still have not decided what they want. And behind this lies a monumentally confused and divided administration. 

Sylvester notes that the position has not yet been agreed by senior cabinet ministers. There has not even been a cabinet-level discussion on any of these issues. So May is not only trying to sideline the parliament but also the cabinet. It is therefore no surprise that Boris Johnson is filling a vacuum.

The story very much confirms the view of May as a fear-driven leader, but it does not mean that the strategy is doomed to failure. Thatcher was not a particularly inclusive leader, either. 

Speaking from Canada yesterday, May insisted that she will continue to be in charge of the process, and this intention was underlined by the move of Oliver Robbins, the permanent secretary of the Brexit ministry, towards No 10. 

This smacks of a prime ministerial power grab. She wants to be in control of the negotiations.

The fact is that the prime minister's position in the UK is very strong until becomes untenable. We are nowhere near that point, as George Eaton reminds us in the New Statesman. He makes the argument that the loss of the parliamentary majority is ultimately the reason for what we are seeing. The government is in a position to deliver Brexit, not its own preferred version of Brexit - the free market, hard Brexit version - which is the one that Boris Johnson alluded to in his now infamous article. But now there is no majority for that in the parliament. There is no financial room of manoeuvre to deliver the pledge of £350m in extra funding for the NHS per week, since the UK net budget contribution to the EU was only £250m. Fulfilling the pledge would require tax increases. Nor can the Tories easily change their leader. If Johnson were to replace May, he would want to call an election. But Tory MPs will not vote for an early election because of the risk of a Labour victory.

The implication is that nothing much will change.

Laura Kuenssberg of the BBC notes that Johnson's real concern is not the payments to cover the transition period - which will be similar, if not identical, to the UK's current contributions. They are worried about the payments afterwards. 

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