Donald Trump and Europe….

Hello and welcome dear reader!

Always a pleasure to know you are happy, relaxed and ready to sit down with me for a few minutes of your time!

So today I thought I would combine my interest in the USA 2016 Presidential Election campaign with my evident passion for all things Europe.

We now know that the Republican Party has selected the controversial (read ‘absolutely mental’ in my English way of understating things!) businessman, Donald J Trump, as its candidate. Racist, sexist, fraud, narcissist call him what you will (and I often do!) many articles are out there about him but I want to look at what a potential President Trump will mean for our lovely continent of Europe. We already know what a likely President Hillary Clinton or President Bernie Sanders would look like for Europe but Trump is if nothing else a totally unknown entity with no clear policy positions in this policy arena.

So let us start with his first major foreign policy speech a few weeks back. It was characteristically superficial and ill thought out but reading between the lines he was essentially outlining a sentiment shared by some more moderate voices in America that Europe needs to up its defence spending. Since WWII America has maintained bases across Europe, in the UK and Germany most notably, but also along the eastern flank in Poland and Romania as well. In Mr Trump’s underwhelming speech he whinged that “after I am elected President I will call a summit with our NATO allies….we will discuss not only a rebalancing of financial commitments but take a fresh look at how we can adopt new strategies for tackling our common challenges.”

First Mr Trump’s breathtaking arrogance in believing he can just “summon” what are the USA’s oldest allies in Europe like naughty schoolchildren will not go down well.

Second as Sean Kay outlined in a Carnegie Europe article about this 2% defence spending pledge, made at a NATO Summit in 2014, increasing conventional defence spending might buy big tanks and long range missiles but they fail to meet the threats Europe faces today. Europe already has two nuclear powers and a formidable and competitive defence industrial base in Germany, Sweden, France and the UK. However, the threats to security in Europe come from refugee flows, terrorism, cyber attacks, Eurozone economic problems and Russia. Now the latter point, Russia, can no longer be met in a Reagan-esque style arms race. The Russians are using their  intelligence services and populist political proxies across the European continent to undermine a successful Europe and European structures from within.

When President Obama came to office in 2008 the strategic thinking was that the Asia Pacific region would be the new theatre for any instability. President Vladimir Putin of Russia abruptly changed that thinking when he invaded Ukraine and occupied Crimea in 2014. He has since aggressively dispatched Russian sorties into UK, Swedish, German, Polish and Baltic airspace and territorial waters. Mr Obama has since rectified to meet this new challenge and only last week sent top US fighter jets, the F22 Raptor planes (which travel at twice the speed of sound) to Romania, reports the US broadcaster CNN.

Now, Mr Trump, if he is truly interested in helping to refashion NATO into fighting terrorism and handling the migration flows from Africa and the Middle East (as he argues later on in his rather ham fisted monologue), then he should realise that the European Union (EU) is the perfect fulcrum for this, and it has led the way in finding resolutions to these challenges. For example, the European Commission has stated that it has spent a hefty €5 billion since 2011 to date on assistance to refugees. Yet, only today, on the UK’s Good Morning Britain programme, Mr Trump stated that Britain would be fine outside the EU! It beggars belief dear reader!

Away from his speech, which contains little else of interest to my purpose in this article, his crude comments betray his ignorance of world affairs, including Europe. In a show of utter contempt and disrespect, following terrorist attacks in Paris and Brussels, he labelled them “disaster cities” and said they used to be nice but because of their darker skinned residents they were no longer so appealing! If we look at the solidarity shown by European allies after the 9/11 attacks on America and the San Bernadino shootings we can see what kind of a ‘friend’ he’d be to his NATO allies in Europe! Utterly disgusting in my view. European leaders have courageously condemned his proposed ban on Muslims coming to the USA and recently London’s new Muslim Mayor, Sadiq Khan, condemned the proposal and called Mr Trump ‘ignorant.’

This is not to say the perma tanned, thin skinned American businessman doesn’t have allies in Europe. He is popular with his fellow neo=fascists in Rome, Brussels, London and Paris most notably.

In Italy, Matteo Salvini, leader of the Northern League, recently visited the USA and had his picture taken shaking hands with Donald Trump. His Twitter proudly displays the image and both share a sympathy towards Mussolini. In Brussels, Mischael Modrikamen, leader of the People’s Party, stated he “fully supports Mr Trump” and released a video defending the Republican Party leader. In the UK, Nigel Farage distanced himself from the ban on Muslims but said “that we are underestimating his (Trump’s) abilities.” Even though their leader might have held Mr Trump’s ban at a distance Mr Farage’s UKIP party supporters backed the proposal by a two thirds majority! In France, even Marine Le Pen, leader of the National Front, called Mr Trump’s ban “a step too far” but her father lavished praise on the American!

The American former reality TV star, has also made overtures to President Putin in Moscow. Arguably a grave, if not the gravest, threat to European unity and success, Mr Trump has said Putin is “widely respected in his own country and beyond” and Putin has described Trump in turn as “talented without a doubt.” A mural of them kissing has even been painted on the side of a Lithuanian restaurant, mimicking the infamous Brezhnev-Honecker embrace.

Conclusion

In essence what I have tried to do is to string together a vision (albeit a pretty scary one!) of what impact a Trump presidency could have for Europe. He would probably have poor relations with European leaders, akin to the Obama-Netanyahu relationship, where the evident loathing of one another would be obvious in summit after summit, and would serve to fray the strong economic, security bonds which have ensured prosperity and stability across the Atlantic for a generation.

I refuse to jump to the conclusion that the friendship would rip apart, as European leaders such as Angela Merkel and Francois Hollande are pragmatists, but there would be an obvious cooling and no chance of a TTIP free trade agreement. You can also imagine a fair number of justifiable snubs from dignitaries and raucous demonstrations by leftists and Muslims whenever the US President crossed the Ocean.

At least we know he would return the selfies with odious individuals such as Salvini and Le Pen Senior and he would feel more comfortable in the gold encrusted fortress of the Kremlin than the ultra modern Chancelleries and official residences in Berlin or Madrid.

I just hope and pray that this article will never come true and that this piece will be my proudest failure!

 

 

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Ireland and Spain: A tale of two parliaments…

Hello and Hola!

This is going to be a double whammy today as I talk about two delightfully fascinating countries – Ireland and Spain. These two are very dear to my heart so I will be kind, never fear dear reader!

The similarities of the two in recent times is quite striking. Both are strongly pro-EU, open minded and prosperous countries who, until recently, were in pretty dire straits. Both, to varying degrees, had to be bailed out by the European Union (EU) when the 2008 economic crash hit. They subsequently voted in dour, centre right leaders with a mission to stablise the country and pay off their respective country’s debt through a dose of austerity measures and tax rises. Never a vote winner in the best of times there were indications things were on the up by the time the electorate next came calling. Then came hung parliaments in both Madrid and Dublin!

However, both have responded slightly differently to the hung parliaments that resulted from their respective general elections.

Let’s start with Ireland.

Ireland

Here a nail biting election resulted in a Parliament (Dail) which saw a huge increase in independent candidates. For decades politics in Dublin had seen either the centrist Fianna Fail or the centre-right Fine Gael come to power. For many years Fianna Fail had held the reins of power under the charismatic but controversial Bertie Ahern and his successor the hapless Brian Cowen.

Without getting into the details, up until 2009, Ireland had been known as the ‘Celtic Tiger’ with near 10% economic growth rates, low taxes, unprecedented foreign investment and a heavy dose of government spending. The skyline of Dublin attests to this era where several districts of the capital city were transformed into glitzy skyscrapers, flash apartment blocks and stylish restaurants.

Then came the crash and the moment of reckoning and the EU and IMF were eventually called in to bail out the country as it tried to swim through the heavy treacle of debt.  In came the smooth Enda Kenny, leader of Fine Gael, who swept to power in 2011, with a landslide victory and a comfortable majority, vowing to clean up Ireland’s finances and return the country to the good old days. In coalition with the Labour Party he pushed through a mixture of painful austerity measures, which included a cut of €18.5 billion worth of investment in healthcare over six years and a €1.3 billion cut in funding for local authority housing in 2013 alone, says the Irish Examiner newspaper.  There followed tax increases in cigarette duty and alcohol levies in the annual budgets. By the time it came to elections in February 2016 Ireland had seen 7.8% GDP growth in 2015 (the fastest in the Eurozone), unemployment rate drop to 9% and inflation of 0% according to European Commission statistics.

All this success on paper, which was widely applauded in Brussels and with the IMF in Washington, failed to convince voters and even though he ended up with largest number of seats in the Dail, Mr Kenny was still 30 seats short of majority to form a government. Labour had only a humiliating 8! Seven weeks of horse trading followed in the bucolic grounds of Leinster House, the seat of government. Just this week a deal was hatched between Fine Gael, the gaggle of independents and the urbane Michael Martin, leader of Fianna Fail which allowed Mr Kenny to take up his post again. Last minute wheeling and dealing over the future of the Irish Water utility and the divisive water charges saved the deal. The deal envisages a confidence and supply arrangement where there will be no formal coalition but an acceptance that Fine Gael can go for three budgets and reshuffles without a vote of confidence bringing it down before then.

In conclusion Mr Kenny lives to fight another day, for at least three years! All’s well that ends well? I leave that hanging with you dear reader!

Now, onwards to sunny Madrid……….

Spain

Last but by no means least, Spain is effectively the same play but with different actors. The mercurial Mariano Rajoy in place of Mr Kenny and the photogenic Pedro Sanchez in place of Mr Martin. Long a two horse race, rather than seeing the rise of an array of independents, the Cortes (Spain’s Parliament) saw the once dominant conservatives, Popular Party (PP) led by Mr Rajoy, and the Socialist Party, led by Mr Sanchez, record less than 50% of the seats in Parliament combined. Newcomers were Podemos, staunch left wingers, and Ciudandos, liberal centrists, and a variety of much smaller regional parties who also came to prominence.

For the PP it was punished basically because of a series of corruption scandals, which had seen the police arrest dozens of senior party officials, including the party treasurer, and again the pinch of austerity which had made Mr Rajoy less popular than he should have been.

Meanwhile, the Spanish have been voting with their feet and the National Statistics Institute (NIE) recorded a 56.6% increase since 2009 in Spanish citizens living abroad. According to the European Commission, GDP economic growth was 3.2% in 2015, unemployment a still high but falling 22% and inflation at -0.6%. Things were improving under Senor Rajoy but the lack of trust in the mainstream parties and allegations of corruption drained support and the Spanish electorate, justifiably, looked for alternatives. Much like Ireland.

A December 2015 election duly reflected that sentiment and until today the new look Parliament saw highlights such as a breast feeding deputy and an MP sporting dreadlocks (of course all from the radical Podemos I hasten to add!) and only one election, that of the Socialist Patxi Lopez, as Speaker. No government, unfortunately, and Mariano Rajoy has continued in a caretaker capacity, often avoiding the fractious Cortes altogether.

After many false starts, with Ciudandos and the Socialists signing an accord which ended up going nowhere, and warnings from economists that the markets and investors won’t wait much longer for a government to be formed the pressure was on. All efforts ultimately proved fruitless and in early May, King Felipe VI dissolved Parliament and called fresh elections for 26th June. This as warnings came from Brussels that Spain’s public deficit to GDP ratio has exceeded an agreed target  of 4.2% and hit 5% instead. Fines may be imposed on Madrid and a full in tray will await a new PM.

Let’s hope the next round will concentrate minds and keep Spain on the path of recovery.

Conclusion

Ireland did well to secure an agreement for government but it is fraught with danger and the pressure will still be on Mr Kenny over the next three years.

My hope is that Spain can emulate the same formula with either Mr Rajoy or another returned. Compromise may not be pretty but it will be necessary as the mood has changed little since the last inconclusive election, so we may end up with such a rainbow of party flags in the Cortes once again!

Rest assured Madrid and Dublin will not be dull over the next few years!