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June 22, 2020

What we learned from Trump in Tulsa

It was interesting that the German press, even the serious papers, focused on the empty chairs in Tulsa, Oklahoma, rather than the bits of Donald Trump's speech that related to Germany directly. We put this down to the classic confirmation bias that feeds much of journalism these days. We are looking out for further clues whether Donald Trump is turning transatlantic relations into an election theme. But more importantly, with more than four months to go until the US elections, Trump could pull off a few nasty surprises on trade, Nato and assorted sanctions in the meantime. 

Trump's ire is directed almost entirely against Germany, not the EU in general. What struck us is the explicit link between Nord Stream 2 and the threatened reductions in US troops stationed in Germany. We thought it would be useful to transcribe the relevant passage to get a sense of how Trump is turning this into an election theme. The following is a slightly abridged quote from a transcript. Please note that the number he cites below are wrong. 

"When I take soldiers out of countries, then because they are not treated properly. I have German heritage, but
let's get it down from 50,000 to 25,000 because they are delinquent, they haven't been paying what they are supposed to have been paying. They are paying 1% instead of 2%, and 2% is a very low number. They say, yes we think by 2030, maybe 2032. I said No Angela, Angela please, Angela - you know what I am talking about. Nice woman by the way, very good negotiator. I said Angela, this is a long time. She said this in 2019. I said, No Angela this is not working. I said what about the last 25 years, the money you owe us. You've forgot about that. What about the trillion dollars. So we are negotiating, let's see. Remember this, we are supposed to protect Germany from Russia. But Germany is paying Russia billions of dollars for energy coming from a brand-new pipeline, so they pay the country we are supposed to protect them from billions of dollars. How does that work?"

In his FT column, Wolfgang Münchau said he expects the various transatlantic disputes to come to a head in the next few months. Normally, US election campaigns provide some reprieve from foreign policy conflicts, but not this time. In the quoted part of his speech, the audience reacted with spontaneous applause when he criticised Germany for giving money to the country the US is protecting Germany from. Rhetorically, this was the most successful part of this section of his speech. Trump is an instinctive orator. The theme that got him elected in 2016, America being exploited by nasty allies, still works for him and his audiences. 

We take no views on the US elections themselves. We'll leave that to others. But, in the meantime, expect transatlantic relations to get worse. We also don't think that Biden can or will position himself in this campaign as a protector of the transatlantic alliance.

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June 22, 2020

Greece seeks EEZ deal with Egypt to counter Turkey

The delineation of economic zones in the Mediterranean sea has turned into a geopolitical power game between the EU and Turkey, with big implications especially for Greece and Cyprus.

It started with the maritime border deal Turkey struck with its ally in Tripoli in December 2019. Ankara is using that deal to justify its drilling activities near Cyprus, aiming now to start drilling only six miles off the Greek islands of Crete, Rhodes, Kassos and Karpathos. 

In response, Greece is intensifying its efforts to reach agreements on its exclusive economic zones with other neighbouring countries. Rome and Athens signed an agreement of intent two weeks ago. Negotiations also resumed with Egypt that had been going on since 2011. This could be a game changer for Greece, practically annulling the Memorandum between Turkey and Libya's Government of National Accord (GNA).

The timing could be ripe for a deal. Egypt is flexing its muscles against Turkey over Libya, with an attempt to broker a peace deal which Turkey and the GNA have refused to accept. Libya and the delineation of EEZ zones could become two intertwined subjects about influence in the region. Last week, in a symbolic gesture, the Greek foreign minister not only met his counterpart in Egypt but also the president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi.

What deal can Greece and Egypt achieve? The two countries have different approaches politically and practically, writes Macropolis. Egypt prefers a partial deal that leaves certain islands including Crete out. So far it seems that Egypt was unwilling to resolve the matter, to avoid conflict with Ankara. This may change with the evolving stance over Libya. 

Whatever the outcome, even a partial deal that leaves out problematic zones would help Greece. For Athens the urgency is to seek a deal with Egypt over the disputed areas included in the Turkish-Libyan memorandum. But Turkey is not likely to sit bck watching Greece seek its own deals in the the region. The Turkish foreign minister insisted on Saturday that there can be no agreement in the eastern Mediterranean without Turkey. At a tourism forum Mevlut Cavusoglu said that what Turkey has not been able to explain in words, it expresses with its actions. Turkey is open to dialogue with everyone including Greece, he said. How far would Turkey go? Given their successes in Libya, Ankara may feel confident to continue its expansionary moves in the Mediterranean. But the Turkish economy is weak and there is pressure to have early elections this year. This may weaken the mandate for Recep Tayip Erdogan and his vision for the region.

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June 22, 2020

Political pressure on French judiciary in Fillon probe?

Remember François Fillon? He was the conservative candidate who rose to the top of the polls, and was set to win the French presidential election in 2018 only to falter over a scandal about fake jobs. He is now on trial for employing his wife as assistant for a total salary of €500,000, despite her apparently doing negligible work in such a role. A prosecutor's testimony now resonating in the media suggests that there has been political pressure to conclude the case quickly.

Penelopegate, as the French press dubbed the scandal at the time, was the end of Fillon's impressive ascent. Hardly any pundits had predicted his rise, yet with his charisma and liberal reform programme he overtook Alain Juppé in the primaries and became the presidential candidate for Les Républicains. Once Fillon was out of the race, Emmanuel Macron emerged as the front-runner and won the elections. 

Now the latest twist in this story is a prosecutor's statement that suggests there was political pressure behind the fast conclusion of Fillon's case. Elaine Houlette, head of France’s office of financial prosecution at the time, said that she was put under enormous pressure and very tight control by her boss, Paris Attorney-General Catherine Champrenault, during the Fillon investigation in the early months of 2017. Houlette later rowed back, saying this was a misunderstanding of what she said to a parliamentary committee on a confidential basis.

However, these allegations by the prosecutor come at a tricky time, just before a verdict is expected in Fillon's trial. Macron reacted promptly and ordered the Supreme Judicial Council, the independent body regulating the justice system, to launch an inquiry to remove any doubt about the independence and impartiality of the judiciary in the Fillon case. Macron's opponents have used the testimony to seed suspicions that the judiciary was not independent and was influenced by political considerations. 

Fillon has consistently denied any criminal wrongdoing, saying that he was the victim of a politically-motivated dirty-tricks campaign, although he has admitted making mistakes. The verdict is expected on June 29. This may well go down as one of the most sensational conspiracy stories in recent times. 

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