Give Joe Biden a Break

Joe Biden Nancy Pelosi
American president Joe Biden and Democratic House speaker Nancy Pelosi in the Capitol in Washington DC, October 28, 2021 (White House/Adam Schultz)

One year into Joe Biden’s presidency, the media consensus is that he is failing.

The Financial Times reports that the Democrat is trying to “reboot” his “faltering” presidency. The Washington Post believes he is “stumbling”. The Wall Street Journal calls it “flailing”.

Foreign journalists agree. Britain’s The Guardian newspaper writes that Biden is historically unpopular and “much of his domestic agenda is stalled on Capitol Hill.” Here in the Netherlands, EW Magazine wonders if anybody is still happy with the president while RTL reports that he has “blundered” abroad and “broken” his election promises. Read more “Give Joe Biden a Break”

“Repeal” of Spanish Labor Reforms Is Limited

Yolanda Díaz María Jesús Montero José Luis Escrivá
Spanish labor, finance and social security ministers Yolanda Díaz, María Jesús Montero and José Luis Escrivá give a news conference in Madrid, May 27 (La Moncloa)

Spanish employers and trade unions have done a deal with Pedro Sánchez’ socialist government to overturn several labor reforms of his conservative predecessor, Mariano Rajoy.

I argued against repeal. Rajoy’s liberalizations helped bring down unemployment, from a peak of 26 percent to 14 percent before the pandemic, and encouraged business growth. They allowed companies to opt out of collective bargaining agreements and expanded trial periods.

The reforms did not create more precarious jobs. The share of part-time, temporary and self-employed workers barely changed.

Temp work will nevertheless be restricted. Luckily the rest of Sánchez’ changes are mild. Read more ““Repeal” of Spanish Labor Reforms Is Limited”

How to Keep an Empire for a Thousand Years

The Holy Roman Empire: A Thousand Years of Europe's History

Keeping a thousand years of European history readable is no small feat, but Peter H. Wilson manages it.

The Holy Roman Empire touches on everything from high politics to peasant life. Wilson’s central insight: the empire’s perceived weaknesses were its strengths.

The Holy Roman Empire changed composition through the centuries. Its internal organization was in a constant state of flux. Emperors had to negotiate to come to power and compromise to stay in power. Autonomy given to one city or prince did not necessarily apply to another. For a long time, such agreements were not even written down. The empire refused to lay down one law, one language, one religion. It ended up a patchwork of overlapping competencies and jurisdictions that kept bureaucrats, lawyers and politicians busy for centuries. Read more “How to Keep an Empire for a Thousand Years”

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

Israeli parliament Jerusalem
Debating chamber of the Israeli Knesset in Jerusalem, May 30, 2012 (Israeli Ministry of Tourism/Noam Chen)

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 accomplishment, 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”