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29 January 2024

Iran's role in the conflict

Israel’s war in Gaza changed political power relationships in the region. Iran and Saudi Arabia are playing opposite roles when it comes to defending the Palestinian cause. Saudi Arabia is keeping the door open for normalisation with Israel once there is a fair solution to the Palestinian problem. Iran stands by its categorical denial of Israel and its right to exist, even if this is and always has been more in word than in deed. Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, is trying to take the oxygen out of the conflict.

The longer the war in Gaza lasts, the more weight Iran carries in this chaotic world, where the west looks weak, observes Dominique Moisi in Les Echos. Its militias, the Houthis and Hezbollah, are competing to show who cares most about Palestinians by throwing rockets at ships in the Red Sea or at targets in Northern Israel. Tehran started to flex its muscles too, with a missile attack in Pakistan in retaliation for an attack on Iran’s soil, and another attack into Iraq on what was supposedly an Israeli espionage centre. Their drones are also proving their worth for Russia in its war against Ukraine.

These actions look like advertisements, a reminder of Iran’s presence and military capabilities. Tehran talks loud but acts with prudence. There seems to be no appetite for a forlorn military response on behalf of the Palestinians or a general mobilisation against the West. According to Moisi, the regime has its own survival as a priority at the moment and a military confrontation with Israel and the US would threaten this. The fact that they are getting closer to having a nuclear bomb serves as an insurance policy that is better left unused.

Iran’s more subtle influence is on the rise, however, and it may also play out in the next generation of muslims. The longer the war lasts, the more muslim countries come under pressure from their own people to do something more significant. And Iran’s strong positioning against Israel could be seen as a valve for their frustration given the restrained response from Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states. In that sense, Israel’s war could become a recruiting ground for Iran and its militias.

For Benjamin Netanyahu and his government, a rising threat from Iran and its militias, as well as its increased isolation in the West, helps to justify its hardline narrative. In contrast to this is the prospect of a normalisation with, and recognition of, Israel from Saudi Arabia and other Arab States under the Abraham Accords. Those normalisation efforts remind us of the early days of European economic integration after World War II. It offers an alternative vision of Israel as integrated in the region. For that, however, the Israeli government will have to let go of its extremist elements, which would be the end of the government under Netanyahu.

Geopolitically, China’s mute reaction on Iran is troubling, writes Moisi. China could have pressured Iran in a friendly way to rein in the Houthis. After all, they are disturbing their main shipping routes, which economic costs for China. But instead, China gave priority to ideology, and everything that can be a nuisance for the US and the west, over its own economic interests.

26 January 2024

A farmers' daughter to lead Renew

Farmers are having a moment in France. Spontaneous actions have been erupting nationwide, and a more structured mobilisation is on its way. Their grudge is not only against high costs, but also the avalanche of regulations from the government and Brussels. For example, to raise a hedge around a field, which helps the crop and protects habitats, they would have to consult 10 different pieces of legislation to conform with the law. Over-regulation and shrinking revenues due to high costs and low prices recently brought farmers in several EU countries to the streets.

With only four months to go until the elections, those agricultural grievances are already becoming part of the campaign agenda. The conservative EPP is expected to heavily lean into this issue, in competition with far-right parties, with their claim to be defendants of traditional life.

The liberals too seek to re-discover rural values. There is a long history of pro-agrarian European liberalism. Renew still includes numerous Nordic and Baltic centre parties. They draw much of their support from rural areas, and aim to defend farmers and agricultural life. The group has cemented this more recently by electing French MEP Valérie Hayer yesterday as their new leader.

The liberals could not have found a better candidate to address the rural world. “I'm a farmer's daughter, a farmer's sister, a farmer's sister-in-law and a farmer's granddaughter”, Hayer said yesterday after her election by 100 MEPs from 24 countries. She is the second woman to lead the liberals after Simone Veil, and is the youngest leader, aged 37. Originally from Mayenne, she spent all her weekends in nearby Laval in the Loire region, where she consulted with local representatives from agriculture, companies, local government, schools, and the military on a regular basis. In the European parliament, she quickly became well-known for being an MP who works hard, taking on complicated issues, and possessing a phenomenal memory. She will be Emmanuel Macron's lieutenant in Brussels, while Gabriel Attal is to lead the efforts in Paris in this campaign.

Hayer’s rise to the helm of Renew was only possible after current interim President Malik Azmani, from Mark Rutte's VVD, failed to gain enough support due to worries about his party’s involvement in coalition talks with the far-right in the Netherlands.

25 January 2024

Italian constitutional questions

One of the more consequential, disputes taking place within Giorgia Meloni’s coalition is her proposed constitutional reforms. It is one that could help determine whether the reform actually passes.

The setup the government proposed last year is billed as a directly elected premiership. But it doesn’t exactly work like this in practice. What happens is that voters elect the prime minister and there are parallel legislative elections. In those legislative elections, the party or coalition which the elected prime minister belongs to gets a majority bonus, which allows them to govern in the legislature.

But under the current proposals, the winning party or coalition’s legislative faction would be able to depose the prime minister. The faction could then replace them with someone else from within their own ranks. This effectively changes the system from a semi-presidential one, in the style of France, to a parliamentary system that forces each coalition to assign a prime ministerial candidate. The prime minister is basically a figurehead, since the real power to dismiss them lies with their supporters in parliament.

Now, Fratelli d’Italia wants to change this. It is saying, instead, that a vote of non-confidence in the prime minister should automatically trigger new elections. Doing this would tilt the balance of power significantly in favour of the prime minister. The parliamentarians couldn’t just sack the prime minister and change them out if they were doing badly in the polls, or had disagreements over policy.

Lega, one of FdI’s coalition partners, wants to keep things as they were before. The reasons for both parties taking the positions they have on this issue are pretty obvious. If the system FdI wants was introduced and the current coalition held, Meloni would have a lot more power. Nobody could get rid of her without calling a new election. Lega’s preferred system would give the party much more influence, since the prime minister would still need to command majority support.

We will still have to wait a bit longer to see who prevails on this. The deadline for amendments in the Italian Senate will expire this coming Monday. Only after that will we move closer to a vote on a final text. We also expect that, whichever way this debate goes, it will affect the chances of this proposal succeeding in a referendum. That would be necessary for the reform to become law.

24 January 2024

Turkish delight - Nato edition

The Turkish parliament approved Sweden’s accession to Nato. Once Recep Tayyip Erdogan signs off on this, Hungary’s parliamentary approval will be the only hurdle left.

The vote comes one and a half years after Sweden and Finland applied for membership. Erdogan negotiated a price for lifting his objections against their Nato membership, moving the goal posts as it seemed fit. Finland’s bid was eventually approved, but Sweden had to wait. Officially it was about how Sweden handled terrorism in law and practice, but the US sale of F-16 fighter jets played a role too.

Whatever Erdogan and Joe Biden agreed on in their private phone conversation last month seemed to have paved the way for approving Sweden’s bid. Could one of the concessions have been the silent approval of Turkey’s recent airstrikes into northeastern Syria? If this were to have been part of the deal, it means more trouble ahead. As for the fighter jets, Congress and the Senate still have their say over final approval. One of their grievances was Turkey's dire relationship with Greece. Over the past months, however, Erdogan and Kyriakos Mitsotakis have displayed a united front, and Turkey’s fighter jet overflights over Greek territory have ceased.

Hungary is the only country left to approve. And it seems to enjoy this role. Victor Orbán had the audacity to invite Ulf Kristersson, Sweden’s prime minister, on X, formerly Twitter, to come to Hungary and negotiate Sweden’s Nato bid. Looks like Orbán learned from Erdogan how to take this matter to the extreme. The official letter from Orbán's office was more formal than that, however, and did not mention any negotiations. The charade continues.

23 January 2024

Anti AfD demonstrations likely to backfire

The right to demonstrate is fundamental to a democracy - and that includes demonstrations against decisions that were taken by elected governments. But it is absurd to demonstrate against an electoral outcome, or worse, against polling.

This is what's happening with the mass demonstrations that took place against the far right in Germany in the last few days. The demonstrations were triggered by a horrendous meeting of neo-Nazis in Potsdam, who were planning a mass deportation of people who don't look German. Some AfD members participated in that meeting. We agree with Olaf Scholz that this is a matter for the country's security services and the police. What they did is criminal under German law. 

But are demonstrations that are directed primarily against the AfD a smart response? We recall the anti-Brexit demonstration in the UK, which fired up EU supporters in the UK to push for a second referendum even though all the political parties had previously committed to accepting the result. The demonstrations, and the massive reporting in the European media, also emboldened the EU to bet on a U-turn. The combined political misjudgements produced a version of Brexit that is harder, and harder to overturn.  

We see the German demonstrations backfiring in a similar way. The polls have the AfD stable at over 20%. The party is on course to achieve good results in three eastern German state elections, and the EU elections this year. What's the point of demonstrating against a political party, we wonder? Should the focus not be on defeating them at the polling booth - maybe through policies? Or a change of government?  

Again, we see a danger of the media misinterpreting the demonstrations. Bild, for example, attribute a fall in the AfD's polling support from 23% to 21% in the last week to those demonstrations. We note that this discrepancy is within the normal fluctuations of its very noisy polling reports. Also remember, we have another party, Bündnis Sahra Wagenknecht. The polls are all over the place because the BSW acronym is not well-known yet, whereas everybody knows her name. This is a classic situation where the answer you get depends on the question you ask. Her party's numbers range from 3-14%. The number we look at is the sum total of AfD and BSW. This is the metric of votes that are not available for the formation of a government, and for constitutional change.  

What is noteworthy in all of the polls is that the SPD, the Greens, and the FDP all keep on falling. They are not 30%, all three together, which is less than the CDU/CSU. If you are really worried about the far right, would it not be smarter for demonstrators to push the government to make political changes?

Another absurdity in the German political discourse is the debate about whether to outlaw the AfD. This is not going to happen, so we are not wasting our time discussing the highly intricate legal issues involved in such a process. Peer Steinbrück, the former SPD finance minister, said the other day that it was pointless to outlaw the AfD because you can't outlaw unhappiness. This is how we see it too. Within the period of a decade, Germany has lost its economic model, because of a combination of factors that built up over years. There is also unhappiness about the Green agenda. We ourselves held out the hope that Germany may at the very least command a leading role in Green tech. We are not sure that this is happening either.

We often write in our briefing that the unsustainable ends. It is still shocking to realise when that actually happens. We see the demonstrations as a sign of national confusion about the AfD. The political centre should not demonstrate against the AfD's existence. The job is to beat them.

22 January 2024

Germany's Farage

It is far too early to tell whether Sahra Wagenknecht's new political party has legs. We think that the political environment is moving in her favour. We knew that BSW, as her party is known, would favour an immediate stop of weapons deliveries to Ukraine and resume gas supplies from Russia. We also knew her position on immigration. One of the things we did not know is the deep euroscepticism, as has just been revealed in her party's European election manifesto. It is a version of Euroscepticism that is reminiscent of the Vote Leave campaign in the UK. Europe is not much of an issue in the German political debate - not even in the European election campaign. But as we saw in the UK in the last 50 years, Europe falls into the category of things that do not matter until they do. And when they do, nothing else seems to matter much. 

The manifesto's main statement is that European integration, as represented by the EU, had failed. Her big gripe is that the EU has become too green, too bureaucratic, and too American. The lurch back into Atlanticism under Ursula von der Leyen is hard to dispute. It opens the EU to a new form of opposition from the left. Wagenknecht's party wants to scale the EU down to size, and strengthen the role of member states. She also categorically rejects EU enlargement. 

Moreover, it advocates active resistance to the implementation of EU rules in areas that run counter to Germany's economic interests, social justice, peace, democracy, and freedom of opinion - in other words in all areas in which the EU is active. She is basically calling for a path of resistance that would essentially kill the EU if applied over a certain period of time, as FAZ noted. 

Euroscepticism comes in different guises. Eurosceptics are not all alike. The main force of Euroscepticism in the UK was the right, but without the tacit support of the Left Vote Leave would never have secured a majority. We believe that in Germany, the left-wing version of Euroscepticism is potentially the more dangerous one. The AfD has more supporters than Wagenknecht in total, but Wagenknecht has one potential trump card. Unlike the AfD, she could become a member of a coalition government. Her party does not allow former AfD members to join. Like the other political parties, she too has categorically ruled out any alliances with the AfD. If the parties of the centre eventually form perma-coalitions with each other, she could become a potential partner - possibly for a CDU/CSU/FDP led government. 

She will obviously not be able to implement her most radical European pledges, except maybe on enlargement. She is dangerous in the sense that Nigel Farage was dangerous. He did not gain power, but his narratives infiltrated the political discourse. 

Even the pro-European FAZ noted that in some respects her criticism of the EU was justified. 

As long-standing readers will know, our own discourse of the EU also changed over the years, especially after we realised that the high watermark for economic and fiscal integration had passed and given way to vacuous symbolism. There is a fair argument to be made that political power needs to be concentrated - either at the European or the national level. Pro-European and anti-European positions are not always that far apart.

Wagenknecht's main political adversary is the Green Party, which is popular in large cities, especially in those with large student populations. Olaf Scholz' traffic light coalition is largely a Metropolitan government. The population is now revolting against the two main planks that define this coalition: the Green agenda and an open immigration policy. We wrote about farmers' protests. Farmers, unlike industrialists, do not have effective political representation in Germany. Right now, they take to the streets. There is nothing particularly rural about Wagenknecht. We would put her in the town/suburban category of political geography. But her openly anti-Green and anti-EU stance would be very attractive to several sections of German society, farmers included.

19 January 2024

Orbán wins

Viktor Orbán is running rings around the EU, as the saying goes. The EU had massively underestimated not only him, but also the political impact of the rule-of-proceedings against Hungary. Yesterday he doubled down on his refusal to agree to the EU's Ukrainian aid package: €33bn in loans and €17bn in grants over a period of four years. He said he will not consider the issue before the European elections in June. In other words, this is now very unlikely to happen, given the parliamentary majorities in Brussels are likely to shift. Writing on X, formerly Twitter, he said member states should do this on a multilateral basis each year and outside the EU budget.

We previously reported on a plan to bring Orbán's party into the fold of the European Conservatives and Reformists, the right-wing political group that includes Giorgia Meloni's Fratelli d'Italia and the Polish Law and Justice Party. The idea was to allow Orbán a face-saving way to agree to the Ukrainian aid package. This is now not going to happen. We should also note that Orbán disagrees with the mainstream view within the ECR on Russia and Ukraine. Unlike Orbán, Meloni also performed a U-turn on China, by dropping out of the Belt and Road project.

Orbán, by contrast, is selling his country as a Trojan Horse for Chinese companies to evade EU sanctions. BYD, the world's largest car maker, is building a plant in Hungary to service the European market for electric cars. Not only will this allow BYD to escape the threatened EU electric car tariffs: Orbán even managed to re-route some of the money from the Repower EU programme on supporting BYD. The irony is that Repower EU was intended to make Europe less dependent on others. In the process, Europe has made itself very dependent on Orbán. If a European leader, with a solid political majority at home, has a veto on foreign policy and the EU budget, there is simply no way you can successfully pursue a policy of sanctions against that politician.

18 January 2024

The misrule of law

The pursuit of your political opponents through the legal system is what Vladimir Putin does. It is not worthy of western democracies. 

Worse, it is backfiring everywhere. Democrat district attorneys are going after Donald Trump, whose popularity is positively correlated to his legal troubles. It is far too early to make any predictions about the US presidential elections, but right now he is the man to beat for the race to the White House. 

In Germany, there is a debate now about banning the AfD, after a couple of AfD minions attended a conspiratorial meeting of Neo-Nazis preparing for the mass deportation of people who don't look German to them. 

Several members of the previous Polish cabinet have been arrested on corruption charges since the victory of the centrist coalition under Donald Tusk. 

The EU itself has a rule-of-law procedure against Viktor Orbán, and has ended up giving him an unprecedented degree of blackmail opportunities. 

What all of these cases have in common is that they end up strengthening the opponents of liberal democracy. The smartest thing Joe Biden can do right now is to declare that, if re-elected, he would pardon Trump. And leave the Europeans to deal with Ukraine. That won't happen, of course.

The EU should not neither pursue Orbán, nor cut deals with him, but isolate him and anyone with whom he is in an alliance with him. The EU has instruments available, such as enhanced co-operation. The rule of law is quite predictably turning to a Doomsday Machine for European disintegration. 

The German debate is particularly illuminating. The AfD is a party that is currently polling at 22%, the result of multiple political failures by successive governments. The attempt to outlaw it will not succeed. The barriers are far too high, and the party has taken multiple precautions against this. 

Another crazy suggestion is to deprive Björn Höcke, the most extreme of the right-wing AfD supremos, of this citizen's right, including the right to be elected. What can possibly go wrong? We are about the give the AfD its own Kaczynski character, the Godfather who pulls the strings in the background.

The legal pursuit of Trump will fail either in the Supreme Court or in the polling booth. There are a lot of people out there, who simply think that the law proceedings are a witch-hunt. 

If western democracy can only survive if it bans its opponents, it will die a death of political suicide.

17 January 2024

Niger turns to Russia

Niger’s new junta government seal yesterday a deal with Vladimir Putin for military cooperation. It increases Russia’s influence in francophone West Africa, a region which has been the object not the subject in many European conflicts and economic exploitations over past centuries. It is now likely to become once more the object and place for another cold war confrontation between the west, Russia and China.

Last year, a democratically elected president was overthrown by the military. Last month, the junta government scrapped two key military agreements that the West African nation signed with the EU for the purpose of fighting jihadist groups in Africa’s Sahel region. In response to the coup in July, western nations, including France, imposed sanctions on the new government. This only seems to have emboldened the military. Since then, they have gravitated further towards Russia.

The developments in Niger are not only a military and security concern for Europe. It could also affect raw materials exports. French nuclear fuel cycle group Orano (formerly Areva) has been operating uranium mines in Niger for the past four decades.Niger is one of France’s top exporters of uranium. To operate the fifty-six nuclear reactors in France's eighteen power plants, operator EDF requires an average of around 8,000 tons of natural uranium every year.  This raw material comes from various countries: the three top suppliers are Kazakhstan, Niger and Uzbekistan.

Niger represented 20% of France’s uranium imports in 2022 and a fifth of Europe’s imports. It is thus not nearly the same category of dependency than Germany was from Russian gas. Uranium stockpiling and the long gaps between refuelling also mean there is a different dynamic to gas, and France uses recycled fuel for some of its power needs. But it will not be a smooth transition either.

Like many other countries in West Africa, Niger is a country rich in raw materials, but its population is poor. This is at the core of those repeated coups in the region. Other coups happened in Mali, Gabon Guinea and Burkina Farso. Like Mali and Burkina Farso, Niger also turned away from Europe and towards Russia. West Africa is about to become the new battleground for geopolitical influence. Africans may have a choice between the big powers for their protection, but will they be enabled to move up the value chain? It looks like old-style power politics so far.

15 January 2024

Airstrike diplomacy

The US and the UK launched two air strikes against the Houthis in Yemen last Friday opening a new front in Israel’s war against Hamas. From a US perspective, this was a concise operation in retaliation of Houthis’ attacks on international commercial ships passing through the narrow straits in the Red Sea. The Houthis suffered considerable material damage, and the strikes reduced their capabilities to create havoc in the Red Sea. But they also gained political credibility from this attack, as a militia ready to accept sacrifices for the Palestinian cause.

Defending Palestine is a foundational principle of militia groups like the Houthis in Yemen, Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza. Their propaganda feeds on anti-US and anti-Israel slogans, while they are militarily equipped by Iran. The US air strikes are a political gift for them, showing to their potential supporters that they are being taken seriously. It is unlikely to stop them in the Red Sea either, even with reduced capabilities.

As long as Israel’s war continues, those militias compete to show their support for Palestinians. For them, it is not about their own interests but about relationships, and how to prove their loyalty. Hezbollah has so far shown restraint in this tit-for-tat exchange with Israel, throwing rockets but at the same time accepting the loss of two senior Hezbollah leaders and a high ranked Hamas leader on their soil. With their low level attacks, Houthis and Hezbollah can show their support for Hamas without immediately escalating it into a regional conflict that would draw Iran in. Neither the US nor Iran have an interest in a direct confrontation, but tensions are heating up. Badly calculated accidents can and will happen.

Benjamin Netanyahu said yesterday that nobody, not even the Hague, will stop Israel. So where are the red lines in this military operation? And what is the role of Arab states, the US and EU countries in all this?

Antony Blinken’s mission on last week’s visit in the Middle East was to separate the two fronts in Gaza and Lebanon. This is unlikely to happen. Najib Mikati, Lebanon's prime minister, toed the same line as Hezbollah, saying that as long as there is a front in Gaza, there will be one in South Lebanon. So there is no solution until there is one for Gaza.

In Europe, there have been some noticeable shifts last week. France, Italy and Spain refused to participate in the operation against the Houthis, arguing that it might compromise their mission to help de-escalate in Gaza and Lebanon. There is some change in rhetoric too. Germany’s Annalena Baerbock on her visit in Egypt insisted that Gaza and the West Bank belong to Palestinians. The Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez went the furthest, saying that Spain would unilaterally recognise the state of Palestine during this current legislative term if the EU or other member states do not.

Acknowledging Palestinians’ rights to have their own state is starting to become a priority. And so it should. Waiting for after a ceasefire has been agreed gives only an additional incentive to continue the war. Western diplomacy often follows a sequential logic that to get to the next stage one has to pass through a ceasefire first. But in reverse order, a plan for a Palestinian state could help to discredit the extremist versions of the future, and thus contribute to a de-escalation of violence. An alternative to Hamas’s vision can give Gazans hope for another future next to Israel. Israel is just starting to open up to talks about post-war scenarios. This is where of our diplomatic efforts should go into.