Political Fragmentation Hasn’t Weakened Germany

German parliament Berlin
Debate in the plenary chamber of the German parliament in Berlin, July 1, 2020 (Pixabay)

When Germany’s Christian Democrats and Social Democrats — who frequently split up to 90 percent of the votes between them during the Cold War era — fell to a combined 50 percent support in the federal election in September, alarm bells went off across the Atlantic.

The New York Times saw “messier politics” and “weaker leadership” ahead. The Washington Post feared a period of “limbo” as a result of Germany’s “Dutchification”. Harold James, a professor at Princeton University, lamented that Germany had acquired “the most destructive features of politics in neighboring countries.” The consequences, he argued, would be “complexity,” “endless negotiations” and “inevitably complicated coalition agreements.” Damon Linker, a columnist for The Week, predicted forming a “stable” government would be “challenging” and “decisive action” more difficult.

Some people never learn. We saw the same reaction after the European elections in 2019, and again when Stefan Löfven lost his parliamentary majority in Sweden this summer. Yet Christian Democrats, Social Democrats and liberals were able to quickly form a working majority in the European Parliament and Löfven remains prime minister.

Germany’s liberals and Greens — who can help either the Christian Democrats or Social Democrats to a majority — have already done a deal between them, clearing the biggest hurdle to a three-party coalition. Negotiations are now underway. Olaf Scholz, the Social Democratic Party leader, could become chancellor in a few weeks. So much for the “limbo” we were told to expect. Read more “Political Fragmentation Hasn’t Weakened Germany”

The Return of European Social Democracy

Olaf Scholz
German Social Democratic Party leader Olaf Scholz attends a conference in Berlin, June 25 (PES)

Olaf Scholz has given German social democracy a new lease on life. For the first time in sixteen years, his Social Democratic Party (SPD) — Germany’s oldest — has defeated the center-right Union of Christian Democrats. Support for the SPD went up from 20.5 to 26 percent in the election on Sunday. Still below its pre-reunification heights, when it would routinely win up to 40 percent, but enough to make Scholz the most likely next chancellor.

His counterparts in Portugal and Spain have been equally successful. António Costa was reelected with 36 percent support in 2019. Pedro Sánchez won two elections that year. Both govern with the support of the far left. Four of the five Nordic countries are led by social democrats. The fifth, Norway, soon will be, after Labor won the election two weeks ago.

It wasn’t so long ago that commentators ruminated on the “death of European social democracy,” myself included. Now it’s back in swing in the north, south and center. What changed? Read more “The Return of European Social Democracy”

What Sánchez Should Do Next for Catalonia

António Costa Pedro Sánchez
Prime Minister António Costa of Portugal greets his Spanish counterpart, Pedro Sánchez, in Lisbon, July 2, 2018 (Governo da República Portuguesa/Clara Azevedo)

Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez has pardoned the nine Catalan separatists who were imprisoned for organizing an unsanctioned independence referendum in 2017.

The pardons fall short of an amnesty. Former regional vice president Oriol Junqueras and the other politicians who were convicted to between nine and thirteen years in prison for “sedition” against the Spanish state and misuse of government funds are still barred from holding public office.

“Sedition” remains a crime. (Although Sánchez’ government is looking into revising the arcane statute.) A vote on Catalan independence would still be illegal. It’s why I argued a month ago a pardon was the least Sánchez could do.

Here’s what he should do next. Read more “What Sánchez Should Do Next for Catalonia”

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

Sebastian Kurz Emmanuel Macron
Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz and French president Emmanuel Macron speak on the sidelines of a summit in Brussels, April 10, 2019 (BKA/Arno Melicharek)

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)”

Europe Doesn’t Need a Biden

Joe Biden
American 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”

Netanyahu’s Rivals Must Do Deal with Arab Parties

Israel’s center-left has a chance to eject Benjamin Netanyahu after twelve years of right-wing government — if they are willing to make a deal with Arab parties.

Deals with non-Zionist parties are almost taboo in Israel, which is 75 percent Jewish. This permanently excludes the 20 percent of Israelis who are Arab from power.

Little wonder Arab turnout is consistently low and fell below 50 percent on Tuesday, according to estimates. Read more “Netanyahu’s Rivals Must Do Deal with Arab Parties”

America Needs a de Gaulle

Charles de Gaulle
French president Charles de Gaulle visits London, England in April 1960 (Hulton Archive)

Charles de Gaulle’s great achievement, to paraphrase his British biographer, Julian Jackson, was that he reconciled the French left to patriotism and the French right to democracy.

The history of France since 1789 has been a consistent struggle between a universalist left and the conservative right; between republic and monarchy; the Enlightenment and Catholicism; labor and capital; Paris and La France profonde.

History hasn’t ended. Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen embody opposite visions of France today. But de Gaulle narrowed the divide and helped Frenchmen and -women think of each other as opponents rather than enemies.

That America could use a whiff of Gaullism isn’t my idea. Ross Douthat, the conservative columnist of The New York Times, called for an American de Gaulle two years ago.

I suspect he envisaged an authority figure on the right. Instead we have Joe Biden. Can he play the same role? Read more “America Needs a de Gaulle”

Merkel’s Party Doesn’t Need More Ideology

Angela Merkel
Angela Merkel delivers a televised address from the chancellery in Berlin, Germany, November 18, 2015 (Bundesregierung/Sandra Steins)

Saturday’s election for the leadership of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU) is also a debate over the future identity of the party.

Friedrich Merz, the darling of the right, would arrest Angela Merkel’s twenty-year slide to the center and take the fight to the far right with small-government and law-and-order policies.

Armin Laschet, the prime minister of North Rhine-Westphalia, and Norbert Röttgen, a parliamentarian, fear Merz would throw away Merkel’s gains with younger and women voters. They argue for continuity (critics might say muddling through), with Röttgen proposing a slightly more modernizing program.

Waiting in the wings are Jens Spahn, the ambitious health minister, and Markus Söder, the prime minister of Bavaria. Neither man is in the running for the party leadership, but they may yet hope to be nominated for the chancellorship. Spahn is a younger version of Merz, Söder a more solid version of Laschet. Read more “Merkel’s Party Doesn’t Need More Ideology”

First Things First: Vote the Authoritarians Out

Viktor Orbán Benjamin Netanyahu
Prime Ministers Viktor Orbán of Hungary and Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel speak in Brasília, Brazil, January 2, 2019 (Facebook/Viktor Orbán)

Left-wing Americans weren’t happy when the Democratic Party nominated the center-left Joe Biden for the presidency, but, unlike in 2016, few sat out the election.

Nor there were major spoiler candidates on the right. Voting for Hillary Clinton was apparently too much to ask of five million Donald Trump skeptics in 2016, who voted for libertarian Gary Johnson or conservative Evan McMullin. They could have tipped the election in Clinton’s favor.

In 2020, Democrats wisely nominated the least divisive old white guy they could find and anti-Trumpers voted like the republic depended on it. Biden won fifteen million more votes than Clinton and flipped five states, handing him a comfortable Electoral College victory.

Hungarians and Israelis hoping to get rid of their “Trumps” must take note. Read more “First Things First: Vote the Authoritarians Out”

Rutte’s Liberal Party Shifts to Center in Netherlands

Mark Rutte
Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte makes a speech in the European Parliament in Strasbourg, June 13, 2018 (European Parliament/Fred Marvaux)

The Netherlands’ ruling liberal party has further moved to the center in its manifesto for the upcoming election, arguing that the coronavirus, climate change, American disengagement and instability in the European periphery call for a stronger state and a stronger EU.

It’s not sudden shift. The traditionally anti-statist and mildly Euroskeptic liberals have become more middle-of-the-road during the ten-year prime ministership of Mark Rutte, who will be seeking a fourth term in March.

They have overtaken their traditional rivals on the right, the Christian Democrats, who are polling at a mere 8-10 percent compared to 25-28 percent for the liberals — faraway in first place, but short of an absolute majority.

The manifesto therefore won’t be implemented in full, but it is telling the party is already signaling a willingness to move to the left in a future coalition.

The draft has yet to be approved by members. There are liberals who complain Rutte has been too willing to compromise with left-wing parties and left a space on the right for Forum for Democracy and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party, which are polling at a combined 15-19 percent. But liberal rebellions against the party leadership are rare.

Here are the manifesto’s highlights. Read more “Rutte’s Liberal Party Shifts to Center in Netherlands”