This Week in Europe: Slovak elections, Berlin’s 21% public transport reduction and more

, by Pascal Letendre-Hanns, Radu Dumitrescu

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

This Week in Europe: Slovak elections, Berlin's 21% public transport reduction and more
Image by Samuel Mork Bednarz.

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 !

UK MPs vote for Article 50 extension

After again rejecting the UK government’s negotiated Brexit deal and symbolically voting against a no-deal exit, UK MPs voted in favour of the principle of extending the Article 50 period. The motion presented before MPs set out that a short extension would be necessary if the deal were approved very soon, otherwise a longer extension would have to be requested. The government is likely to try to pass the deal again Tuesday 19th March, hoping that the pressure of an extension will convince Brexiteers to support the deal. In any case the government will likely request an extension on the 21st, when the European Council will be meeting. There is no guarantee that the UK will have its request granted as the decision will require unanimity among the EU27 but the risk of No Deal means it has a good chance of being approved, even if the EU27 may push the UK government for a clearer plan going forward before giving their approval.

Polish government uses campaign to target LGBT rights

Ahead of the European Elections at the end of May and parliamentary elections later this year, the Polish government and its allies have launched fresh attacks on LGBT rights. The government is politicising the issue in the hope that it will mobilise its heavily conservative base and allow the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party to maintain its position. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of PiS, angrily rejected the right of LGBT people to marry and to adopt during a convention of party activists. The openly gay leader of the new party Spring, Robert Biedron, called out the stated concern for children’s welfare from PiS leaders as hypocritical in the light of PiS’ ties to the Catholic Church and recent revelations surrounding Catholic priests committing acts of paedophilia. PiS holds a strong position in the national polls though it struggles in Poland’s big cities and a coalition of opposition parties will be working together to push PiS out of first place in the European Elections.

Italy looks to join China’s Belt and Road Initiative

The Italian government is looking to sign a deal with China covering a wide range of sectors, securing Chinese funding in projects based in Italy. The deal is likely to cover pipelines, engineering companies and even important banks - around 23 agreements in total. This push however has proved controversial. Within Italy the deal is another policy area highlighting splits between the ruling populists, being mainly supported by Di Maio and M5S, while Salvini and Lega remain more sceptical. Various states in Europe and North America have also expressed concern around the deal as China’s spying activities have come under ever greater scrutiny. Many governments feel that it would be a strategic mistake to give China greater access and control over European infrastructure, with some going so far as to ban Chinese companies from sensitive areas like the development of new 5G networks. The deal will likely make progress during an Italy-China summit next week though Lega could still try to derail the plan and prevent projects from reaching completion.

Progressive anti-corruption campaigner leads Slovak election

Zuzana Caputova has come out on top in the first round of Slovakia’s presidential election with around 40% of the vote. The ruling party, the Social Democrats (Smer-SD), were delivered a big blow last year following the murder of an investigative journalist. This scandal generated massive protests and the movement has backed Caputova, who is a critic of the government and high-ranking member of the Progressive Slovakia party. Her platform revolves around a commitment to cracking down on political corruption, supporting further LGBT rights, opposition to nationalism and promoting further European integration. Meanwhile, European Commissioner Maros Sefcovic, backed by Smer-SD, came in a distant second with around 20% of the vote. If Caputova wins the presidency, it will still be a challenge for her party to come into government in the next parliamentary elections (set for March 2020) as for now Progressive Slovakia is only polling at around 9%.

Environmentalist protests take over European cities

On Friday, thousands of protesters took to the streets of Europe in order to pressure politicians into tackling global warming. Marching in 2,000 cities in 120 countries from all around the globe as well, protesters demanded action against climate change. Commission Vice President Valdis Dombrovskis agreed with the protesters in Brussels, which has already seen weekly protesters led by students skipping school. In total, about 30,000 people marched in the Belgian capital, many of them carrying school bags. People spoke about deforestation, CO2 emissions, and governmental inaction. In turn, politicians point to protests such as France’s Yellow Jackets movement, which can make change difficult to implement.

Berlin offers women 21% transportation discount to reflect gender pay gap

For the entirety of March, women will ride Berlin’s public transportation system - metro, trams and buses - at a 21% discount. BVG, the city’s mass transit operator, said the “Frauenticket” will be understood and supported by most men. The discount is symbolic - from €7 to €5.50 - but, according to BVG, the small gesture of solidarity “is disproportionate to what women are deprived of in income on a yearly basis.” The move comes weeks after the local government of Berlin made Internationa Women’s Day a public holiday. Germany’s gender pay gap is among the widest in the EU, followed by Estonia and the Czech Republic. At the same time, BVG apologizes for any men who feel discriminated, but asks “ho apologizes to the women who earn on average 21 percent less?”

Slovak police charge businessman for journalist Ján Kuciak’s murder

On Thursday, police in Slovakia revealed that they had charged businessman Marian Kočner with the murder of investigative reporter Ján Kuciak and his fiancee Martina Kušnírová. Kočner had ordered the murder of the journalist because he was close to uncovering how people close to the Italian mafia were operating in Slovakia, enjoying political protection as well. The businessman was taken into custody over alleged fraud, but now he is also charged with the murder of the 27-year old journalist who was found shot in his home in Bratislava in February.

Commission calls China a “systemic rival”

On Tuesday, the European Commission took a firm stance against China, naming it a “systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” and laying out 10 proposals for dealing with Beijing’s influence in Europe. Moreover, the Commission condemned countries like Italy that have already aligned with Chinese projects such as the One Belt, One Road program, which is set to make China the leader of international trade. Previously, the EU had taken a soft approach to China. Now, the EU is employing a more defensive strategy towards European industry, protecting European champions in communication and heavy engineering. “We want to avoid competing with public subsidies”, said European Commission Vice President Jyrki Katainen, “we are not in favor of subsidized economy.” EU representatives fear that China may play European countries against each other, making use of its commercial reach - especially in the southern parts of the continent.

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