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The Economist: Europe

Europe

Economist.com
Sebastian Kurz is flirting with the far-right Freedom Party

SEBASTIAN KURZ has a problem. On October 15th Austria’s 31-year-old foreign minister scored an impressive election victory, somehow presenting himself as a credible messenger of change even though his centre-right Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) has been in office for 30 years. His energy and charisma kept the Freedom Party (FPÖ), a far-right outfit with neo-Nazi roots, from running the country; it had led in the polls for two years before Mr Kurz took over as chairman of the ÖVP in May. But to govern Mr Kurz needs a coalition partner, and the FPÖ, which came third in the election, is his first choice. Now Europe is left wondering whether Austria’s political whizz kid is fending off a populist uprising, or preparing to lead it.

Mr Kurz spoke to your columnist this week. He was fresh from a day spent discussing the vagaries of coalition politics with Austria’s president, and taking a congratulatory call from France’s Emmanuel Macron. Should he become chancellor, Mr Kurz will be the...

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Alexei Navalny tells Russians they have a choice

Calling on the kids

“HELLO, Khabarovsk!” Alexei Navalny, Russia’s opposition leader and would-be presidential candidate, booms his greeting from a makeshift podium on the outskirts of this far-eastern city, a statue of a victorious revolutionary-era Soviet partisan looming behind him. The young crowd of several thousand, dotted with red balloons and banners reading “Navalny 20!8”, goes wild. After eight rallies across the country the candidate’s voice is hoarse, but he is fired up.

The rally, Khabarovsk’s largest in years, could be part of an American presidential campaign. Tall and charismatic, Mr Navalny looks the part. Russia’s electoral politics have long been neutered by President Vladimir Putin, who decides who can or cannot run; the population assumes the role of a television audience with little say over the show’s content. Mr Navalny’s campaign threatens to change that.

There are five months to go before Russia’s presidential...

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Emmanuel Macron’s employment reforms may not go far enough

TOY robots line Jérôme Veneau’s barber shop in Paris, and a Superman symbol adorns one wall. The decor is appropriate: Mr Veneau’s efforts to earn a living are robotic and tireless. His first 200 haircuts each month, he says, pay for his social charges and taxes. Only then does he make his first cent of take-home pay.

His customers are so plentiful that he regularly turns people away. Yet after 29 years, he remains a solo practitioner. When he falls ill or takes lunch, the shop closes. Why not hire someone to help? “Never, the whole system is a mess,” he says. He once had an employee, but the man claimed to have been injured by repetitive scissor-snipping. A court ordered Mr Veneau to pay €17,000 ($20,000)—some to the worker, some to the state. His family stumped up the cash. “I’ll never hire again,” he says.

Mr Veneau voted for Emmanuel Macron, France’s reform-minded young president, who vows to unblock the country’s labour markets. In a television interview on October...

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Georgia and Abkhazia are making Nutella’s job harder

A few isolated nuts

ISOLATED by the Black Sea and Russia, Georgia has spent the past few decades binding itself closer to the rest of Europe. In this effort, hazelnuts play a crucial role. In 2007 Ferrero, an Italian company, set up a branch in Georgia to supply the key ingredient of its signature product: Nutella, the chocolate-hazelnut paste that is the most European of all breakfast spreads. The country has since become the world’s third-largest producer, behind Turkey and Italy. Hazelnuts are Georgia’s biggest export after copper ore.

In 2014 Georgia and the European Union concluded a Deep and Comprehensive Free Trade Agreement (DCFTA). Yet rather than making Nutella’s supply chain smoother, the DCFTA could render it a bit sticky. About 10% of the hazelnuts Georgia exports come from the Russian-backed breakaway territory of Abkhazia, which has enjoyed de facto independence since its war of secession in 1992-93. Georgia has no formal trade relations...

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Spain faces a constitutional crisis over Catalonia

WITH its mastery of social media and identity politics, the Catalan independence movement is very 21st-century. But the latest chapter in its struggle with the Spanish government has featured an old-fashioned tool: an exchange of letters, delivered by fax. In these Carles Puigdemont, the head of the Generalitat, Catalonia’s government, twice this week refused to clarify or revoke the ambiguous proclamation of independence that he had issued and immediately “suspended” in a speech to his parliament on October 10th. In response, the Spanish government said it will go ahead and seek extraordinary powers to impose constitutional rule in Catalonia.

Spain is thus entering its worst constitutional crisis since the 1930s. It is the culmination of years of rising discontent in Catalonia, one of the country’s richest regions, which has 7.5m people and its own language and culture. Although Catalonia enjoys broad self-government, many Catalans want it to have more money, more powers, and to be...

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The death of a crusading journalist rocks Malta

A flame snuffed out

TWO or three hundred people gathered outside the courthouse in Valletta on October 17th to protest at the assassination the previous day of Daphne Caruana Galizia, Malta’s most intrepid and controversial journalist. It was a modest turnout for what Adrian Delia, leader of the opposition Nationalist Party (PN), called “the darkest moment in the country’s political history”. After a speech by a friend of the dead woman, the crowd sang the national anthem and dispersed, some weeping.

The last words Ms Caruana Galizia wrote on the blog where she routinely excoriated Malta’s elite for its corruption, negligence and incompetence were: “There are crooks everywhere you look now. The situation is desperate.” After posting them, she drove away from her home in the village of Bidnija and was killed by an explosion so powerful it threw her rented car 80 metres into a field. Her son ran to the scene, where the car horn was still blaring...

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Poland’s president turns on his former boss

ON PAPER, Poland has both a president and a prime minister. In practice, there is a third source of authority: Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the chairman of the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS), who is widely seen as the country’s real leader. Since coming to power in 2015, PiS has tried to assert greater control over the country’s courts, its public broadcasters and its state-run enterprises. The European Commission accuses it of undermining the rule of law and has threatened it with the suspension of its voting rights. Yet PiS’s most recent problem with its court “reforms” comes not from EU officials or the opposition but from the president, Andrzej Duda.

In July, following widespread protests, Mr Duda unexpectedly used his power of veto on two controversial laws concerning the judiciary. Last month, he submitted alternative versions for parliament to consider. His draft laws, presented last month, tone down some of PiS’s most troublesome proposals. Rather than giving the...

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The Spanish government calls the Catalans’ bluff

IT WAS a case of trying to have your cake and eat it—and the cake’s owner may end up with nothing. On October 10th Carles Puigdemont, the president of Catalonia’s devolved government, told his parliament that he was “assuming the mandate” of the people to proclaim an independent republic and thus leave Spain. But seconds later he asked the parliament to “suspend the effects of the declaration of independence” to allow for negotiation. All clear?

This baffling manoeuvre followed an unauthorised referendum on independence held on October 1st in which, his administration says, 2.3m (around 43% of the electorate) voted, 90% of them in favour. Those numbers are not verifiable. But for many of the thousands of flag-waving demonstrators who gathered outside the parliament in Barcelona, the Catalan capital, they were enough to declare independence straight away, and the speech left them deflated. Mr Puigdemont’s tortuous formulation reflected the conflicting pressures he is now...

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France’s centre-right offers no serious opposition to Emmanuel Macron

A YEAR ago Les Républicains (LR), the centre-right party in France, looked set to win presidential and parliamentary elections. Today, after many humiliations, they are licking their partly self-inflicted wounds. After François Fillon, an unpopular former prime minister, unexpectedly became its front man thanks to a new primary system, the party doggedly stuck with its failing candidate, long after a scandal about extravagant payments to his wife had obviously doomed his campaign.

That lack of institutional ruthlessness hints at problems beyond a dud candidate who only just avoided coming fourth in the presidential poll. The heart of LR’s difficulty is an ideological split that means it is ill-placed to oppose the government of President Emmanuel Macron.

One faction, associated with Nicolas Sarkozy, an ex-president and inveterate party plotter, yearns for a bold rightward turn. In hostility to migrants, Muslims and gay marriage, it...

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Many eastern Europeans feel nostalgia for the communist era

Those were the days, my friend

“OH MY God! We had all of these!” trills Alina Radu, a 43-year-old businesswoman visiting the Romanian Kitsch Museum. She is admiring crochet doilies, a 1980s TV set, decorative glass fish and the scarves and badges of Romania’s Pioneers, a communist-era youth organisation. “I loved looking like a general!” The museum, which opened in May, has proved a hit.

You can lie on a bed and fling fake bank notes over yourself for a picture—“though not naked, OK?” chortles a lady buying tickets for herself and her 60-something friends. You can examine night-light crucifixes, some of the most tasteless clothes of the past quarter-century and pictures of sceptre-wielding Roma (gypsy) “kings”. But for many the most interesting items are those which date from before the revolution of 1989.

The grim decades of Romanian communism draw substantial crowds. Across town up to 400 people a day visit the mansion...

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The EU will not help the Catalan secessionists’ cause

SEPARATISM in Europe these days comes draped in a blue flag with yellow stars. “If in Europe you’re not a member state, you’re nobody,” said Josep Huguet i Biosca, a Catalan politician who favours independence, back in 2004. His quote appeared in a now-dusty manifesto for “An Independent Flanders within Europe”, published in 2005 by a group seeking liberation from the yoke of the Belgian state. The Scottish bid for independence, in 2014, was similarly shrouded in European aspirations. For some of its more starry-eyed advocates, the European Union was supposed to dissolve atavistic nationalisms. In some places, it seems instead to have encouraged them.

The post-national argument was always overdone. The powers that voters mostly care about—taxation, public services, welfare—remain largely in the hands of national governments. One Catalan grievance, for example, is that the rest of Spain lives high on the hog by spending more of their tax revenues than Catalonia gets back...

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The 31-year-old who looks set to be Austria’s next chancellor

A MAN lumbers into a tattoo studio and brandishes a photo of Sebastian Kurz, the young leader of the conservative Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). Then the artist gets to work, eventually showing the man his back in a mirror. Etched onto it is a circle of faces of superannuated ÖVP grandees. The customer is furious: “I wanted Kurz, not the ÖVP!” he yells. “What did you expect?” comes the reply: “Kurz is the ÖVP.”

This popular TV advert by the right-wing Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) plays on enduring questions about the 31-year-old likely to become Austria’s next chancellor. Mr Kurz was made foreign minister in 2013, two years after leaving university, and took over the stuffy, beleaguered ÖVP in May. He has restyled it as the “Kurz List” and propelled it from third to first place in polls ahead of the parliamentary election on October 15th. To his fans he is the Wunderwuzzi (whizz kid), a rare chance for national renewal. To his opponents he is a...

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Ties between Turkey and America are near breaking point

AMERICA’S relations with Turkey have sunk to their lowest point in over four decades. On October 8th the American embassy in Ankara announced it was suspending visa services across Turkey to “reassess” its host government’s commitment to the security of its diplomatic facilities and staff members. Within hours, Turkey countered by saying it would no longer accept visa applications from American citizens. (About 450,000 Americans visited Turkey last year.)

The Turkish lira plummeted as much as 6.6% against the dollar on the news, the biggest drop since the abortive coup of July 2016. Turkish Airlines, the country’s national carrier, saw its shares fall by 8%.

The spark that lit the powder keg came on October 4th, when police in Istanbul arrested Metin Topuz, a Turkish member of staff at the American consulate, on espionage and conspiracy charges. (About 50,000 people have been arrested on similar charges over the past year.) The bulk of the evidence against...

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Why Russia wants to talk about Ukraine

THE proposal came out of nowhere. After years of swatting down Ukrainian calls for international peacekeeping forces, Vladimir Putin changed course ahead of the UN General Assembly last month, putting forward his own plan for so-called blue helmets in eastern Ukraine. Officials in Kiev and the West dismissed the Russian offer as a cynical ploy. The details, diplomats say, betray Russia’s true intent: Mr Putin foresees peacekeeping forces stationed along the front line inside Ukraine, and not along the border with Russia—essentially formalising the internal division of the country.

Yet as unpalatable as the proposal is, its mere appearance hints at important shifts in Russian thinking. “Summoning the United Nations deep into Russia’s historical space is a serious step,” says Dmitri Trenin, head of the Moscow Carnegie Centre, a think-tank.

Until recently, the status quo in Ukraine largely satisfied Moscow. Heading into 2017, the Kremlin saw a rosy...

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An escalating row over the future of Berlin’s most iconic theatre

No crowd-pleasers here

“DOCH KUNST”, or “Art after all”, read the blue banner tagged to the façade of the Volksbühne, a theatre in central Berlin. It was put up by a group of left-wing activists who occupied the building in late September. They want the theatre to be managed by a “collective”. The stunt was part of a wider protest against cultural policies which the occupiers believe favour “mass tourism” and gentrification at the expense of local artists and poorer residents.

The occupation (or “transmedia theatre performance”, as the activists call it) was the latest act in a drama over Berlin’s cultural politics that has dragged on for over two years. At the centre of the row is Chris Dercon, a Belgian manager who ran London’s Tate Modern museum before taking over as artistic director of the Volksbühne (“people’s stage”) this season. The appointment, announced in the spring of 2015, ousted Frank Castorf, a famous East German director who had led the...

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Preserving Bialowieza

Where the bison still roam

DAWN in Bialowieza forest, and the bellowing of deer in rut competes with the buzz of chainsaws. The rival rackets sum up an increasingly ill-tempered argument over the Polish half of the ancient woods that straddle the frontier between Poland and Belarus. The row has reverberated beyond the forest’s borders, and indeed beyond Poland’s. It pits competing visions of environmental stewardship and economic development, and of Poland’s path under the right-wing Law and Justice (PiS) party.

Last month the European Commission asked the European Court of Justice (ECJ) to fine Poland for ignoring an earlier order to halt logging in parts of the forest protected under EU law—in effect, nearly all of the 60,000 hectares of it that lie in Poland. In July UNESCO, the guardian of the planet’s human and natural wonders, urged the government to end logging or risk Bialowieza’s demotion from a world heritage site to one “in danger”, causing...

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The EU’s Eastern Partnership

THE question of where Europe’s eastern border lies has bedevilled statesmen for centuries. It has proved equally difficult for the European Union, which must decide how to deal with countries to its east that would like to join the club. In 2009 the EU launched the Eastern Partnership, meant to handle the European aspirations of Belarus, Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia, Armenia and Azerbaijan. The idea was to promote economic integration and European values, and to fend off Russian influence—but with no promise that the partner states could ever join. Now, with a summit between the EU and the partners coming up in November, they are growing dissatisfied with the arrangement.

“Without a light at the end of the tunnel, completing the process will be very hard,” Tamar Khulordava, who chairs the Georgian parliament’s committee on European integration, told a conference in Riga last week. The six Eastern Partnership states have promised to meet 20 new targets before 2020, including...

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Trade deals between the EU and Japan only get you so far

AKIRA SHIMIZU of Keidanren, Japan’s main business lobby, has a theory about Brexit. The first one, he says, came in 1534 with Henry VIII’s decision to break from the Catholic church. This rupture sparked a period of free-thinking innovation that culminated in James Watt’s invention of the steam engine 250 years later and the advent of the Industrial Revolution. With luck, chuckles Mr Shimizu, Brexit the Sequel will spur a somewhat quicker reinvention of Britain’s economic model.

But even Mr Shimizu thinks Britain may face “five to six” years of pain after it leaves the European Union, and more if it fails properly to adapt to the change. Britain accounts for nearly half of Japanese investment in the EU, so Japanese firms have more to lose than most from a messy divorce. Japan’s car plants in Britain rely on complex supply chains that span Europe; its London-based banks use “passporting” rules to operate across the EU. If Britain leaves the single market, some of this business may...

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An imminent threat to the unity of Spain

WHEN Mariano Rajoy pledged that the referendum on independence organised by the Catalan government for October 1st would not take place, it always looked like a hostage to fortune. And so it has proved. As riot police used force to evict activists from polling stations, pictures of elderly citizens bloodied by truncheon blows caused dreadful damage to the image of Spanish democracy. And the vote mostly went ahead regardless.

For Mr Rajoy, Spain’s conservative prime minister, it was the worst of both worlds. It leaves a question-mark over the future of his government, and even of his country. On the back of the vote, Carles Puigdemont, the Catalan president, said the region’s parliament would issue a unilateral declaration of independence (UDI) in the coming days, in accordance with a law it rushed through last month. Spanish democracy faces “very grave times”, declared King Felipe in a rare televised address on October 3rd. He was right.

The referendum took place...

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A bad night for Angela Merkel

AT THE headquarters of the free-market Free Democrat Party (FDP) on September 24th activists gasped as the first exit poll results were read out: Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats (CDU) and the Christian Social Union (CSU), their Bavarian sister party, were on just 32.5%, much lower than any poll had suggested. Then, a few seconds later, came a gargantuan cheer. The FDP had almost doubled its vote share to 9%. “If you keep cheering after every sentence this will be a long night!,” a visibly delighted Christian Lindner, the FDP leader, told the crowd.

Such was the story of the night. The CDU/CSU and their Social Democrat (SPD) coalition partners both did badly. Their joint vote share fell from 67.2% to 53.5%, its lowest ever (see chart 1). So grim was the SPD result that party leaders immediately announced that they would not be available for a second “grand coalition” with Mrs Merkel, even if asked. The FDP’s stellar result saw it comfortably clear the 5% hurdle needed to join (or...

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