Revelations in Benefits Scandal Make Rutte’s Job Even Harder

Mark Rutte
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte enters a meeting with other European leaders in Brussels, July 21, 2020 (European Council)

Revelations that his outgoing government deliberately withheld information from parliament have made it even harder for Prime Minister Mark Rutte, in power since 2010, to form a new government in the Netherlands.

Cabinet minutes, normally kept secret for 25 years but released after they had leaked to RTL Nieuws, reveal that ministers agreed not to share all relevant files in the so-called child benefits scandal, which caused Rutte’s four-party government to resign in January.

Between 2013 and 2019, some 26,000 parents were wrongly accused of benefit fraud. Many were financially ruined by demands to pay back tens of thousands of euros in child support.

Pieter Omtzigt, at the time a backbencher for the ruling Christian Democrats, had requested internal documents from the tax agency that would disclose when civil servants had first advised ministers of the mistakes.

Withholding information from parliament is a capital offensive in Dutch politics, but Omtzigt’s request was unusual. Ministers are politically responsible for their departments. Parliamentarians have long accepted that civil servants need to be able to make their recommendations in confidence.

Omtzigt argued for an exception. The minutes reveal Finance Minister Wopke Hoekstra, the Christian Democratic party leader, tried to “talk sense” into Omtzigt, who would not relent.

In the election in March, Omtzigt won a third of all votes for the Christian Democrats. His persistence in bringing the child benefits scandal to light has made him one of the most popular politicians in the country — but not necessarily in The Hague, where even some in his own party consider him a loose cannon. Read more “Revelations in Benefits Scandal Make Rutte’s Job Even Harder”

Why Germany’s Greens Are on the Rise

Angela Merkel Annalena Baerbock
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Green party leader Annalena Baerbock in parliament in Berlin, January 16, 2020 (DPA)

Germany’s Greens have for the first time in two years overtaken the ruling Christian Democrats in the polls. Two surveys in the last week gave them 28 percent support for the election in September against 21 to 27 percent for the center-right.

Those polls are still outliers, but the gap between the parties has been narrowing across surveys for months.

I suspect two factors are at play: leadership and a desire for change. I’ll take those in turn before laying out the different ways in which the Greens could take power. Read more “Why Germany’s Greens Are on the Rise”

Conservatives Win Battle for Spanish Courts

Supreme Court Madrid Spain
Seat of the Spanish Supreme Court in Madrid, November 27, 2012 (Wikimedia Commons)

Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez’ left-wing government has withdrawn reforms of the body that appoints Spain’s judges, including those of the Supreme Court.

The climbdown is a victory for conservatives, who have for years blocked the appointment and elevation of more progressive judges through their control of the General Council of the Judiciary.

The council’s five-year term expired in December 2018, six months after Sánchez took power from the conservative People’s Party, but it has continued to name judges to Spain’s highest courts.

Supermajorities of three out of five lawmakers are required in both the Congress of Deputies and the Senate to install a new council, giving the center-right People’s Party and far-right Vox (Voice) — which together hold 40 percent of the seats — a veto. Read more “Conservatives Win Battle for Spanish Courts”

Draghi Has the Right Plans for Italy

Mario Draghi
Italian prime minister Mario Draghi enters a news conference in Rome, March 19 (Governo Italiano)

Two months ago, I argued Mario Draghi understands what Italy needs. Here it is.

The former European central bank chief, prime minister since February, has unveiled €221 billion in proposed investments, spread over six years. €191 billion would come from the EU’s coronavirus recovery fund.

The proposals look good on paper. Read more “Draghi Has the Right Plans for Italy”

German Right Picks Unpopular Laschet to Succeed Merkel

Armin Laschet
Armin Laschet, the minister president of North Rhine-Westphalia, attends an event in Hamm, Germany, September 19, 2020 (Dirk Vorderstraße)

Armin Laschet will lead Germany’s Christian Democrats into the September election. His rival, Markus Söder, bowed out after the executive committee of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the larger of the two “Union” parties, threw its weight behind Laschet in a late-night vote.

Following seven hours of debate about whether and how to vote, 31 of the committee’s 46 members backed Laschet in the early hours of Tuesday.

The alliance of the CDU, which competes in fifteen of Germany’s sixteen states, and Bavaria’s Christian Social Union (CSU) does not have a formal procedure for electing its joint chancellor candidate. Read more “German Right Picks Unpopular Laschet to Succeed Merkel”

Waiting for a Deal in Catalonia

Barcelona Spain
Temple Expiatori del Sagrat Cor on Mount Tibidabo in Barcelona, Spain (Unsplash/Jorien van der Sluis)

Two months after they expanded their majority in the regional parliament, Catalonia’s pro-independence parties have yet to form a new government.

The separatists for the first time won more than 50 percent of the votes in the election in February. The formerly center-right Together for Catalonia (Junts), which now presents itself as a big tent, lost two seats. But the Republican Left and far-left Popular Unity Candidacy (CUP) gained six, giving the three parties, which have governed Catalonia since 2015, a comfortable majority of 74 out of 135 seats.

The Republican Left and CUP quickly did a deal, which would pull the anticapitalists into government for the first time. (They previously supported minority governments of Junts and the Republican Left.)

An agreement with Junts has proved elusive. Read more “Waiting for a Deal in Catalonia”

Don’t Panic About Macron’s Reelection (Yet)

Lars Løkke Rasmussen Emmanuel Macron
Danish prime minister Lars Løkke Rasmussen is greeted by French president Emmanuel Macron outside the Elysée Palace in Paris, June 9, 2017 (Facebook)

One constant of Emmanuel Macron’s presidency has been Anglo-American handwringing about his popularity.

This started almost immediately after he defeated Marine Le Pen in 2017, when Macron’s support fell from 66 percent in the election to just over 50 percent in the opinion polls.

The Guardian called it a “precipitous decline in approval ratings.”

It was about to get worse. Read more “Don’t Panic About Macron’s Reelection (Yet)”

The Silent Reform of Spanish Pensions

Pablo Iglesias María Jesús Montero José Luis Escrivá
Pablo Iglesias, María Jesús Montero and José Luis Escrivá, the Spanish ministers of social rights, finance and pensions, deliver a news conference in Madrid, May 29, 2020 (La Moncloa)

Spain has a critical and essential employment problem: high chronic unemployment and job insecurity. Both of these are among the key causes of an embarrassing inequality, one of the worst in Europe.

Then, to complicate the solutions, comes the problem of the high public deficit, which has increased over the last decade as an inevitability. A debt aggravated by its dependence on external financing with a bias toward instability. And at the heart of this debt is the chronic deficit accumulated over the last decade in the pension system, which widens its deficit every year. Read more “The Silent Reform of Spanish Pensions”

Söder Can Give Germany’s Christian Democrats Fresh Start

Markus Söder
Bavarian state prime minister Markus Söder delivers a news conference in Munich, Germany, March 9 (Bayerischen Staatsregierung)

Bavaria’s Christian Democrats have called for a poll of elected party officials to select the conservatives’ joint chancellor candidate for the election in September.

Leaders of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), which competes in fifteen of Germany’s sixteen states, have thrown their weight behind Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia.

But many conservatives across the country think they stand a better chance with Markus Söder of Bavaria, who leads the state’s Christian Social Union (CSU).

They’re right. Read more “Söder Can Give Germany’s Christian Democrats Fresh Start”

Europe Doesn’t Need a Biden

Joe Biden
Ameican president Joe Biden boards Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, February 5 (White House/Adam Schultz)

European leaders are “weak”, the American president is “bold”. It’s a trope so old, at this point it tells us more about the people who perpetuate it than about elected officials on either side of the Atlantic.

Romano Prodi was “weak“. José María Aznar was “weak“. François Mitterrand was “weak“. His successor, Jacques Chirac, lacked “gravitas“.

A year before the election of Donald Trump, Robert Kaplan disparaged the “grey, insipid ciphers” who wandered Europe’s halls of power. An article in Foreign Affairs accused the continent’s “cowardly” leadership of rendering the EU “irrelevant”. A 2005 op-ed in The New York Times lamented the “weakness” of European leaders at the very time President George W. Bush called for a “renewal” in transatlantic relations. (The same George W. Bush who two years earlier had created the deepest crisis in transatlantic relations since the end of the Cold War by invading Iraq.)

Here we go again. Jef Poortmans, a commentator for Belgium’s Knack magazine, compares Joe Biden’s “zeal” with Europe’s “washed out” leadership. Timothy Garton Ash, whose expectations the EU has never met, argues the bloc faces “one of the biggest challenges of its life” (again). Philip Stephens contrasts Biden’s “ambition”, “audacity”, “energy” and “resolve” with the “defensive incrementalism” of his European counterparts, in particular Angela Merkel.

The “real significance” of Biden’s agenda, writes Stephens in the Financial Times — a $1.9 trillion coronavirus rescue program and a $3 trillion education and infrastructure bill — “lies in a bold reassertion of the responsibilities of government.”

His mistake is to assume America and Europe are starting from the same point. Read more “Europe Doesn’t Need a Biden”