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November 27, 2018

Responding to the yellow-vest protest

How to respond to the gilets jaunes, the yellow-vest demonstrators? Emmanuel Macron will give his response later today after promising a change of method yesterday. Bruno Le Maire already announced measures for those businesses most affected by the strikes. This protest movement cannot be ignored even if the numbers drop. It continues to be virulent.

One of the main challenges is that this is a protest movement without an intermediary, as no political current or trade union represents its causes. Emmanuel Macron himself rode a wave of grass-root power to break the ranks of traditional politics and land in the Élysée palace. As president, though, he seem to have forgotten about the citizens' platforms that were so prominent during his campaign, and instead concentrated on reinstating vertical power throughout the existing system. Now he faces the same genie he once called upon.

Nicolas Beytout calls for some bold moves for public confidence to return. Macron should not change the carbon tax but instead launch a strong fiscal stimulus package with visible tax cuts to get the French out of their pessimistic slumber, he writes. This would reinvigorate the sense of innovation and audacity that marked Macron during his campaign. On the left we have Laurent Mauduit advocating an immediate moratorium on the diesel and petrol tax to give space for a dialogue out of the stand off. Eric Le Boucher and Cécile Cornudet argue that this is a proper crisis of democracy where people no longer trust or listen to their leaders. Just to reduce the stand-off to a question of carbon tax would be too simplistic. There is more at stake here. We agree.

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November 27, 2018

The New Hanseatic tensions are a foretaste of things to come

We had already noted that there is nothing new about a Dutch government behaving like Germans on steroids when it comes to building, developing and managing the eurozone. Nothing new either about German governments using their Dutch neighbour as a convenient – albeit often temporary – brake on grand French ambitions. Dutch intransigence shields the Germans from the awkward charge of being the most conservative and least flexible member of the eurozone. Even more importantly, it puts Berlin in the enviable position of being the ultimate arbiter of compromise.

In some ways, the current tug-of-war around the New Hanseatic League, a Dutch-led club of eight to ten eurozone states taking a unforgivingly Calvinist approach to fiscal sinning, conforms to that playbook. The New Hanseatic League’s strict orthodoxy and resistance to Macron’s reformist ambitions are shared by more than a few German officials and policy-makers, many of whom find it irksome that the imperative of fuelling the Franco-German engine keeps pushing Germany beyond its political comfort zone.

What is new is that The Hague has managed to take leadership of a whole group of heterogeneous but sufficiently like-minded governments, and that the government in Paris is now faces the problem of dealing with a united front of smaller economies that reject its approach to eurozone reform. As the FT reported, Bruno Le Maire took the unusual step of venting his anger at a dinner with his Dutch counterpart Wopke Hoekstra in the presence of journalists - a dinner that had originally been touted as an attempt to facilitate a Franco-Dutch rapprochement. With an increasingly unpopular Emmanuel Macron facing difficult European elections, coordinated resistance to thwart the French president’s reform plans for Europe is the last thing the French government needs.

The Dutch attempt – successful so far – to boost the Netherlands’ weight by steering the New Hanseatic League has rightly been interpreted partly as a way for the Hague to compensate for the loss of its close EU-ally, the UK, following Brexit. What The Hague may not have expected is the extent to which this could become a significant problem with France, with Paris charging the Dutch government with overstepping the mark of what is acceptable. We see this conflict as a foretaste of things to come in the first years after Brexit. A leading EU power is about to leave the field; power relationships between the players will have to be rebalanced, and small and major tensions as a result are guaranteed.

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