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November 29, 2017

Something has to give

4Tony Connelly warns about the dissonant British and Irish discourses over Brexit, and the ill consequences this may have for the Good Friday Agreement. The British tend to see the problem of Brexit in terms of trade and economics; the Irish see the Good Friday Agreement as a benign entity that bestows peace, prosperity and social healing. And it regards the EU as the central structure behind this process .

The EU task force's paper suggesting that Northern Ireland should remain in the single market and the customs Union, or closely associated with them, is logical to the Irish while it seems reckless to the British. Theresa May's minority government relies on the Northern Irish unionist DUP, which rejects the idea of Northern Ireland remaining in any EU structure. On the other hand, the Irish government believes that Michel Barnier and the rest of the EU stand behind its stance. Prepare for a clash of historic proportions, writes Connelly.

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November 29, 2017

Fitzgerald's resignation buys Irish government time

Frances Fitzgerald resigned in the end. This means no snap elections, as the Irish prepare for the crucial EU summit on Brexit. The minority government has survived this crisis, but the agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil has been stretched to the breaking point. The Fitzgerald case dealt a blow to the trust between the two traditional rivals. Both party leaders were at pains yesterday to explain to the parliament that their agreement will continue. There is a general sense of relief that there will not be elections before Christmas. But, in the longer term, the government is unlikely to last after this episode. Both parties have already started to prepare for elections, and they will continue to do so. Each has reason to not trust the other. Pat Leahy sums it up nicely in the Irish Times:

"The fact that Fianna Fáil claimed the head of the tánaiste (Vice-PM) will be remembered by Fine Gael. The Taoiseach (Leo Varadkar) had to climb down and Fianna Fáil got its way. That will scratch Fine Gael like sandpaper. The rivalry between the two big parties – separated by history and culture more than policy – has always dominated Irish politics. It continues today, even in a changed political landscape. The relationship is different. But the rivalry remains."

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November 29, 2017

On the rise of the centre-right in Italian politics

Corriere della Sera lists the latest Ipsos polls, which show the combined vote of the centre-right coalition rising from about 30% in May to 36.5% in November, just shy of the 40% threshold that would effectively give them an absolute majority under the recently-agreed electoral law. Another pollster, Alessandra Ghisleri, even has the centre-right at 38.1%. The centre-right will almost certainly be the largest bloc emerging from the next election. The main question is whether the majority will be large enough to form a stable government. By next March or May, we may end up with a stable government in Italy, and forever lasting coalition talks and minority governments in Germany (not our baseline - but possible). 

The Ipsos poll has Silvio Berlusconi's Forza Italia at 16.1%; and Matteo Salvini's Lega at 15.3%; while the third party on the right, the Fratelli d'Italia, is at 5.1%. Berlusconi's palace near Milan is once again turning into the headquarters of Italian politics, Corriere della Sera remarks.

The paper's political commentator Massimo Franco notes that, despite the big differences between the parties - and especially between Berlusconi and Salvini - the electoral alliance will hold, at least until election day. On substance, the parties have little in common except for their admiration of Vladimir Putin. The electoral systems favours stable coalitions, and penalises division. The MdP, the break-away left-wing party, shows no signs of readiness to enter into a coalition with the PD. Its main goal is to destroy Matteo Renzi.

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November 29, 2017

What does the EU want from its eastern partnership?

The EU's eastern partnership summit came and went last Friday without much fanfare, and not much by way of conclusions either, so there is no shortage of commentary wondering what the point of it all is.

Already before the summit, a background piece by Jana Kobzová argued that the EU has lumped together two groups of countries - Georgia, Moldova, and Ukraine, on the one hand; and Azerbaijan, Armenia, and Belarus, on the other - that have little in common other than being former Soviet republics this side of the Urals. The former three would like a deeper association with the EU, while the latter are content with close economic ties. And, according to Kobzová the EU has adopted a lowest-common-denominator approach to the Eastern partnership that suits the more detached countries but hamstrings the more ambitious ones.

After the summit, Anders Åslund uses harsher language and gives a starker description of the divide within the Eastern partnership. To him Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine are fledging democracies, while the other three are authoritarian states, and the EU does the former no favours lumping them together with the latter. Both commentators note that the more ambitious countries aspire to EU membership, and lament that it is not really on offer. 

This is all most visible in the case of Ukraine whose EU association agreement was on the brink of failure due to Dutch opposition in a referendum. Although the April 2016 Dutch referendum result was more intended to give the EU a black eye than motivated by any deep feelings about Ukraine either way, opposition to Ukraine's eventual EU accession did become a talking point of the 'no' campaign. This is similar to the bizarre role that Turkey's EU accession played in the Brexit referendum in the UK. The issue with Ukraine is that pursuing its association agreement has cost the country dearly - it led to the Maidan protests, the Russian annexation of Crimea and the breakaway provinces in the Eastern region of the Donbass bordering Russia. As an Atlanticist, Åslund is incensed by the EU's bland language in support of the "territorial integrity of its partners" with no mention of Russia. But Russia is involved not only in Ukraine but also in the Georgian breakaway regions of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, and in Moldova's breakaway region of Transnistria on its border with Ukraine. And let's not forget the dispute between Armenia and Azerbaijan over the region of Nagorno-Karabakh.

What is the EU planning to do about all this? Even without offers of EU accession, the EU's external action has a responsibility to broker some sort of resolution for all these frozen conflicts, if it is to be taken seriously.

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