This Week in Europe: AfD, Italian Populists & more

, by Pascal Letendre-Hanns, Radu Dumitrescu

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

This Week in Europe: AfD, Italian Populists & more

Members of the TNF team recount big events from Europe from the past week, and point attention to news that may have passed notice. What did we miss? Comment on our Facebook page at !

EU gets new ambassador to U.S.

David O’Sullivan, EU’s ambassador to the United States, is set to leave his post next month. He will be replaced by Stavros Lambrinidis, a former Greek foreign minister. Relations between the EU and the U.S. are at a low point due to disputes with Donald Trump and his administration over trade. In this context, O’Sullivan’s status in Washington was downgraded. Since late 2016, O’Sullivan had been ranked in seniority among national ambassadors, rather than included with the envoys from international organizations, who fall into a secondary category on the protocol list.

The Trump administration reversed that state, counting him as an envoy of an international organization. It is still unclear if the change was intentional or accidental - and communication has been stifled by the government shutdown ongoing in the US. Moreover, the EU was not notified of the change in O’Sullivan’s status. Ever since 2009, when the Treaty of Lisbon entered into force, EU envoys enjoyed a higher level of diplomatic treatment, expanding the Commission’s policymaking role in foreign affairs, trade and other domains. With O’Sullivan’s replacement, the EU hopes to reset relations with the United States. Aside from this protocol fiasco, Trump and his administration have repeatedly been at odds with European leaders on a number of issues - military spending, trade negotiations and others.

U.S. sets out objectives for trade negotiations with EU

The US Trade Representative has set out the country’s negotiating objectives for a trade deal with the EU as part of its notification of Congress. Controversially the objectives include negotiations on trade in agricultural products. The US has long pushed hard for the EU to open up its market to US agriculture but concerns that the EU market would be swamped by such a move and EU producers driven out of business or taken over have meant that the EU has always refused such demands. The USTR notification marks the new start of EU-US trade talks following the abandonment of TTIP. It is likely the EU will publish its own objectives soon.

Italian populists encourage Yellow Jackets

On Monday, Italian deputy prime minister and leader of the 5Star Movement Luigi Di Maio told the French Yellow Jackets protesters that they should not give up in their battle with the government. A movement originating in the protests against rising fuel prices, the Yellow Jackets have spread to several countries, including Belgium. In his blog post, Maio said that the Yellow Jackets are asking for nothing more than participation in the democratic life - a demand that has fallen on deaf ears in the past in France and Italy. He also cited the success of his own party as proof that the voiceless can obtain political triumph and offered assistance to the Yellow Jackets in picking candidates for the coming European elections.

However, this week a poll by Ifop for Paris Match showed that French president Emmanuel Macron’s popularity increased due to the measures his government has taken to soothe Yellow Jackets’ anger. Former supporters of Macron’s La Republique En March and the conservative Les Republicains favored Macron and PM Edourad Philippe again, leading to a rise in approval ratings - 28% for Macron and 33% for Philippe. The measures included a €100 increase in the minimum wage, cutting taxes on overtime wages and encouraging company bosses to hand out bonuses ahead of the Christmas period.

Populist Italo-Polish axis formed

On Wednesday, the populist leaders of Italy and Poland vowed to “counter the Franco-German axis with the Italo-Polish axis.” Matteo Salvini, leader of the far-right League and author of the abovementioned quote, met with Jaroslaw Kaczynski, chief of Poland’s governing Law and Justice (PiS) party. They discussed the formation of a new parliamentary group in the European Parliament after the elections in May. After the meeting, Salvini argued that they talked about giving a new sense to the European dream, “which has been killed in Brussels in the last years.”

Salvini also met with Polish PM Mateusz Morawiecki, and said that the new alliance will lead to a new “European spring”. PiS is a founding member of the European Conservatives and Reformists — the European Parliament’s third-largest grouping. However, the looming departure of the U.K. Conservatives thanks to Brexit will dramatically shrink the group, sparking a need for Italy’s far-right MEPs. According to Politico, PiS could take 24 seats, while the League could get 27. However, Salvini is openly pro-Putin, while Kaczynski has built himself an image of a anti-Russian nationalist.

AfD splits & MP hospitalized after politically-motivated attack

On Monday, a German member of parliament for the far-right Alternative for Germany, Franz Magnitz, was hospitalized after being seriously injured in an assault. Several people attacked Magnitz in Bremen in a “politically motivated act”, according to the police. He was beaten with a piece of timber and kicked in the head until he lost consciousness. While the perpetrators escaped, the AfD immediately posted a picture on Twitter with an injured Magnitz and his massive head wound. Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini tweeted in support of the AfD, saying that he hopes that the attackers “rot in jail.”

In the same week, the former leader of AfD in the eastern state of Saxony-Anhalt, Andre Poggenburg, announced that he will leaving the party and forming a new one called “Aufbruch deutscher Patrioten - Mitteldeutschland.” Poggenburg and other disentanched AfD members left after a series of controversies in which he described people of Turkish origin as “camel drivers.”

Croatia sees drop in press freedom

In 2018, Croatian media saw a rise in libel convictions of journalists - all in favor of state officials. According to EURACTIV Croatia, 2018 had the highest number of court rulings against the media, with some being bizarre and illogical. After journalists showed that Deputy Parliament Speaker Milijan Brkic plagiarized his bachelor thesis, a court ruled that Brkic was entitled to a €2,000 compensation, seeing as the article contained insulting information about Brkić which could lead readers to make conclusions about his moral character. Aside from insult and slander, Croatian courts have been following a criminal regulations that introduce shaming as a criminal offense. The fine for a journalist who shames someone is worth his or her salary for an entire year. Moreover, it is a subjective decision of the judge whether or not the publication followed up on accurate claims or if it had the deliberate intention to destroy a politician’s reputation. For the Croatian media, 2019 is not looking any better.

Interim head of Romania’s anti-corruption agency resigns

Anca Jurma, the current head of Romania’s National Anti-Corruption Directorate, has stated that she is stepping down from the post due to the hostility she has faced in the post. Jurma took over in mid-2018 after her predecessor was controversially removed by the government. Romania’s continuing struggle to deal with corruption and the seeming attacks by the government on the rule of law come at a bad time as the country takes over the EU’s rotating six-month presidency. Romania has long been subject to special monitoring to ensure its judiciary was improving and there are fears that recent changes pushed by the government are leading to backsliding in this area. Since 2016, the issue of corruption in Romania has regularly been a focus of anti-government protests.

French prosecutors call for trial against former PM

On Friday French prosecutors announced that the case against former prime minister and 2017 presidential candidate, François Fillon, should go to trial. Two years of investigations into alleged embezzlement and misuse of corporate assets by Fillon and his wife Penelope have been compiled by prosecutors. The scandal was widely seen as part of the reason that Fillon, who went into the presidential contest as a favourite, was knocked out in the first round.

Ukrainian Orthodox Church becomes independent from Russia

The leader of the Christian Orthodox Church presented the head of the Ukrainian Church a decree marking its independence from Moscow. The split of the Ukrainian Church from the Russian Orthodox Church has been heavily opposed by Russia and is yet another indication of the battle being waged across every part of society for Ukraine to affirm its independence from Russia. Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko even compared the event to Ukraine’s 1991 referendum on independence from the Soviet Union. Ukraine’s political leaders seen church separation as essential to help combat the spread of Russian propaganda in the country.

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