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Eurozone politics: Black, no sugar

 The European Council for Foreign Relations stages a Black Coffee Morning event on European Politics after the EU Summit. I have mine white, but from the general tone of the discussion among thinktankers, politicians and journos the prospects for the Eurozone and the EU could be as dark as the stiffest Italian expresso. Some contributors thought it might not survive a year

Discussion centres entirely on the one large existing member whose stubborn pursuit of its national interest is obstructing a long-term viable EU: Germany. France admittedly got a lot of what it wanted out of the summit, retaining the basically intergovernmental approach, but conceded the German demand for a reformed treaty of austerity-inducing financial discipline.

Germany and German politics are overwhelming what matter and, in some ways summit and the drama of the British veto-that-might-not-be-a-veto are sideshow compared with how Europe’s biggest and most economic powerful member decides to play it.

Photo: Tage Olsin

Was Angela Merkel playing a kind of high stakes poker waiting for the right moment to fold ‘em and concede some form of Eurobonds? Or was her government determined to press ahead to a possibly very bitter end?  German public debate and perceptions across political spectrum are, unsurprisingly, very different from those in many other places in Europe with little appetite for a Berlin bankrolled Euro bailout after painful and divisive economic restructuring (and the earlier costs of re-unification).

Indeed, some in Germany are apparently toying with the idea of partial break-up of Euro producing perhaps a sharp two-year recession followed by prosperous German-centred ‘small Euro’, which could ‘go global’ playing to Germany’s industrial and export strength. Unlikely, said some: anchoring in EU part of the political DNA of the FRG.  Be careful countered others:  re-united Germany was different country where old assumptions about how things work are  no longer always safe.

 The vision of Treaty-bound austerity Union in which a French-German tandem  (with the Germany as the senior partner) – European institutions have lost power and influence in the current crisis and may not regain it –  would run up against the interests of states normally closely economically and politically aligned with Germany in the EU such as Netherlands, Finland, Denmark, Poland and other CEE states (I have the phrase greater ‘Greater Germany’ scribbled down in my notebook – did somebody actually say that?). But none bar Poland  – in the remarkable speech by Foreign Minister Sikorski  – have actually raised these issues openly.

Seems in some ways as if history has run full circle and we back once again discussing the idea of a form of Mitteleuropa, albeit in the context of the more balanced and more democratic structures of the EU (or whatever it turn into)

And those pesky Brits? Well, those British demands were perhaps rather modest – maybe we should give Nick Clegg some credit (did I really just write that?) and in some ways leaning to  greater not less regulation.  The consensus view at the ECFR BCM seemed to be –  diplomatic and strategy of the UK were just a disaster, although the underlying issue of who (EU or UK)  regulates was perhaps the key issue was possibly less easily negotiable

Cameron (rather like Sarkozy) comes out a big short-term winner in domestic politics, but at the more strategic levels the Brits are left needing to improvise ‘creative diplomacy’ to prevent emergence of too starkly Two Speed Europe – perhaps pushing for varied integration, really going against the grain of European politics for more political integration. Underlying British problem is that it wants viable Euro to avoid economic meltdown, but fears the decline in own influence that integration necessary for this will bring.

Perhaps, however, if the politics of Euro rescue were to prove Mission Impossible, integration would painfully rebound, as someone put it, like piece of stretched elastics reverting to something closer to UK vision and/or status quo.

And there was distinct pessimism – reflecting in the dank rainy day visible taking shape outside – as to whether the politics could overcome economic diversity across EU with no underlying European identity or solidarity legitimising redistribution.

We are, it seems, caught in a vicious circle/cycle of technocracy and populism:  populist mood of public anger with elites, politicians and distant, illegitimate looking European institutions leads these elites to, as ever, look for quiet, backdoor technocratic workarounds feeding waves of inchoate (and ultimately unfocused and possibly inconsequential) anti-elite politics.

The weather  outside was dark, dank cold with storm brewing up for later.

EU Czechs and balances

Karel Schwarzenberg Photo: Henrich Boell Stiftung

I’m sitting listening to Czech Foreign Minister Karel Schwarzenberg. I look up occasionally at the map on the wall and wonder what projection it is. Europe seems big and fat compared to the more politically correct/geographically accurate cartography I usually see.

But that’s kind of appropriate. Schwarzenberg is, after all, speaking to me – and the rest of a Chatham House lunchtime audience –on the record about the role of smaller EU member sin the post-Lisbon Treaty.

It’s interesting to see Schwarzenberg in person. Presentationally, he conforms to the media stereotype of distracted aristocratic anti-politician:  he looks tired, sports a crumpled-looking bow tie and speaks at  an ambling conversational pace with an unplaceable Central European accent.

 I’ve never bought into all the noblesse oblige hype surrounding Prince Schwarzenberg whose TOP09 party is one of the mainstays of the Czech Republic’s centre-right government and may yet become the dominant force on the Czech right. But a couple of minutes listening quickly highlights that he  has the state of the EU and European politics carefully and subtly thought through.

 The small state angle is a classic Czech motif dating back to Masaryk and beyond, (although as chair William Wallace dry comments the Czech Republic is one of the ‘bigger small countries’ in the Union) but Schwarzenberg uses it to good effect.

 Although it had always had a few small members, until the 2004, he argues, the EU had always functioned – and actually functioned quite well – as a big nations’ club. Eastern enlargement had changed all that bring in an influx small new CEE states, most of which lacked the economic wherewithal to join the Euro.

In harmonious tandem

Paradoxically, however, expansion to 27 upped the power of bigger states, who gained from drive to create more workable decision-making structures, which resulted in the Lisbon Treaty.

 The need for speedy action in current crisis had upped the power of bigger over small states. Indeed, in some sense the euro crisis had made EU governance a tandem of two big states – read France and Germany. (This, Schwarzenberg noted was kind of appropriate given that Maastricht and the Euro were essentially a Franco-German political compromise intended to anchor and clip the wings of a re-united post-Cold War Germany – the contradiction of introducing a common currency without adequate economic governance had been left unaddressed, setting up the current crisis.

 Big states bossing it might be an effective (and necessary) way of running things post-crisis– and the EU had never exactly been run democratically since its foundation – But a big state-driven EU was aggravating an already acute trade-off between efficiency and legitimacy, opening up the democratic deficit (although he didn’t use the term – I have ‘citizenship gap’ in my notebook).

All non-EU traffic turn off here?

 Moreover, the distinct politics of the Euro crisis management being decided by the 17 Eurozone members, splitting the Union into two bloc: although no one had an interest in Euro meltdown, on certain issues the 17 might act as a bloc against the other ten members. As the 17 were likely to adopt steps towards further political/economic governance integration, a two-speed Europe was opening up. As on a motorway, those moving slowly and gradually falling behind might, he suggest, be tempted to turn off at the nearest exit.

 So small states needed some new channels to participate (I presume both in their own interests and for the sake of EU legitimacy, although this didn’t get mentioned). But what channels? One would be to operate in flexible informal blocs. Visegrad (despite having one Eurozone state and three non-Euro states) worked well did similar Nordic, Benelux and Baltic groupings. Another was to be useful and effective especially in niche role: the Czech Republic’s special mission was to be a promoter in human rights – its diplomats had been active over Burma, Cuba. Eastern partnership and the Western Balkans (‘a powder keg’) were also spaces to watch.

 Rather refreshingly Schwarzenberg offered to grand vision or or clear blueprint offered for EU reform. Just the thought – in response to a question from the Swiss ambassador – that the Union had in the fullness time to find itself way to a Swiss style arrangement, but with member states retaining the trapping of traditional statehood (like national armies) for the sake of legitimacy and as part of a system of checks and balance. Democracy mattered less than balance.

Nevedieť, kde je Slovensko, to je také ...

 The Q and A also tracked back to the question of a dual EU with discussion of an inner (Euro-)zone and outer core of members with roughly Danish level of integration. Intriguingly, we didn’t get to hear where the thought the Czech Republic should or would end up, although geography and economics ruled out British style debates about more extensive disengagement.

Overall, it was surprisingly sceptical take for a politician associated with the liberal ex-dissident europhile centre of Czech politics. Indeed, in its basic diagnosis, it didn’t seem that far removed from some of views you could hear Václav Klaus express, at least in his more cautious days in 1990s.

Still, I guess we’re all eurosceptics now.

Slovakia, in case you wondered, was not mentioned once.

Bulgaria: Anti-Roma protests echo Czech events

Anti-Roma protests in Varnsdorf, Czech Republic

Localised grassroots anti-Roma protests seen in the Czech Republic now seem to be repreated on a somewhat larger scale in Bulgaria: the Novinite agency is reporting clashes between riot police and a crowd of 3000 in the city of Plovdiv resulting in mass arrests with similar confrontations having taken place in the past few couple of days in Varna, Blagoevgrad and Sofia. 

The sequence of events in both countries seems very similar: a violent incident between local Roma and members ethnic majority triggers large-ish scale local protests of hundreds or thousand, sometimes initially peaceful but quickly becoming more unpredictable,  more spontaneous  – Facebook is mentioned in the reports on Bulgaria – and more aggressive, targeting Roma property, local authorities and the police.

The crowds are mostly, but not exlusively young, and mainly male and, unusually, the protests spread. Far right groups are involved and the protests have clearly nationalist flavor with national flags – as well as  predictable  stuff about  Roma crime etc – on display in reports from both states, but there also a  sense of a kind grassroots ‘social movememt’ feel to what seems to be going on, the mobilisation of uncivil society, if you will.  Bulgaria’s far-right party Ataka, for example, seems to have been caught on the hop with calls for emergency measures and hurring to organise its own party-controlled anti-Roma protests.

The question, of course, is why given high and consistent levels of anti-Roma racism in the CEE; huge levels of social exclusion and  the  often dire state of relations between Roma and majority groups, is why such protests have erupted now?  An easy answer , perhaps  rather too easy, is that it is a yet another symptom of the new Europan politics of  Hard Times we seem to be drifting into, a mixture of fear and boredom: an ethnicised East Central  European version of the frustrations and tensions we saw break out on the streets of England cities last month.  Roma are among the socially and most economically vulnerable to price rises, welfare cuts and austerity, but they offer a convenient focus for the frustrations of others feeling the social and economic fallout at first hand.

The Czech news magazine Respekt carries a profile of a young woman, Lenka Zenkerová , arrested during an anti-Roma protest last month for wearing a t-shirt with the home-penned slogan ‘Bring Back Hitler, Gas the Gypsies’.  Such blatant incitement to racial hatred is a crime- triggers action even in the Czech Republic, where anti-racism laws can be somewhat unevenly enforced. Most protesters were savvy enough to frame their sentiments – at least in writing – in terms of crime and social security, rather than repeat this  widely seen Czech skinhead grafitto of 1990s.

Source: Political Capital www.riskandforecast.com

In the profile Ms Zenkerová comes across as odd, but not that odd. Educationally  an average achiever, cut off from her parents in the way some people are. A  few stints at menial jobs, but she can’t stand them or does stick.  Little  money – minimal social security and the odd family handout or bit of internet-based work. Feels bored and trapped in a small town.

The  anti-Roma protests seem for her to be  source of excitement, empowermant and  minor celebrity.

Perhaps in this country she would have just helped trash the local branch of Dixons.  I guess that’s what makes us an advanced democracy.

In CEE, of course, with its weaker parties and institutions  more generally discontented and distrustful citizenry, you have to ask where it will all lead. Whether it will find stronger political expression or just be one of numerous poisonous undercurrents running beneath the region’s social and political development.  Bulgaria came third in the DEREX index of far-right electoral potential put together by the Budapest-based Political Capital Thinktank last year – Turkey and Hungary came top with the Czech Republic mid-table a mere 11th.

As noted in the previous post, far right parties may not ultimately be the big story politically, we darkly image, but  it will interesting , indeed necessary for once to watch  the small town and regional grassroots for  once.

Reykjavík diary

The  decision of the European Consortium for Political Research to stage its biennial (soon to annual) General Conference in Reykjavík has resulted in one of the biggest such events ever, with some 2000 political scientists temporarily boosting the Icelandic capital’s population by around 2%.

And decending through the clouds to Keflavík  airport with fields of basalt below, mountainous coastline to the right and the Atlantic ocean to the left, it was not hard to guess why. Iceland also intrigues  as a small state with economy nearly wrecked by the financial meltdown, a highly distinct language – the closest thing you are likely to hear to what the Vikings spoke – and cultural scene ranging from crime fiction to sculture and dance music.

The influx of ECPR delegates is, seemingly, almost too much for airport shuttle bus and the capital’s hotels, full to capacity and sometimes overbooked.  Arriving at mine, alongside strip of unprepossessing low-rise office blocks and light industrial units that stretch along the sea front, we are asked to move to a hotel in a small town just South of Reykjavik with a jacuzzi and hot tub.

I get a free bus pass and a cup of coffee for compliantly agreeing, but then while waiting for a while for a taxi that never came and a certain

Photo: Jóhann Heiðar Árnason

amount of confusion, I’m told I can stay after all.  I check in, getting to keep the bus pass, and go out to admire the view of mountains and sea across the bay.

There is a garage with a shop, actually more of a kind general store, and diner serving sandwiches and burgers. I rapidly come to understand the role of the garage as local social centre that had puzzled me so much wartching Night Shift and the importance of the hot dog in Icelandic life.  And there are free coffee refills.  Too good to be true.

…….

Iceland University is a 20 minutes bus ride away on the other side of town, but our panel, where we are analyising new anti-establishment parties in Central and Eastern Europe using Qualitiative Comparative Analysis is only in the afternoon and before that we have a date at the City Hall.

Iceland’s financial and political shocks have seen the country’s voters turn to some new anti-establishment parties of their own, including the Best Party of actor and comedian – and star of the Night Shift, Jón Gnarr. Starting as a  satirical protest , the party’s runaway momentum saw it win last year’s muncipal election and Mr Gnarr (or Jón , as I should say, as he’s that kind of guy, and besides first names are the proper form of address in this country, I think) is now mayor of Rejkjavik, although the realities of office has seen his popularity fall back from 34% to 19%.

We get to speak to the Best Party’s competent and thoughful campaign manager and learn a lot, seeing a lot of unexpected parallels between Best and anti-establishment protest parties we are more familiar with in CEE.

Gnarr: The MovieAlthough mainly reported as a joke party – and having detractors in other parties and the media, who see them as incompetent showmen  – we come away the impression of serious political outfit, which has its tactics quite well thought through.

On the plane back we learn more, watching  the story of the 2010 election campaign on the in-flight documentaries , Gnarr – The Movie, and learn some more.  The party is clearly built around Jon Gnarr, whose deadpan outrageous humour totally floors Iceland’s decent but worthy party politicians.

It is also hilarous. The guy in the next seat on the plane, who is quietly reading an a collection of John Stuart Mill’s writings, seems initially disconcerted as we  degenerate into helpless laughter beside him.

….

Despite time issues – not the least with our presentation – and our panel and paper (on paths to  anti-establishment parties’ breakthroughs  in Central and Eastern Europe) went well.  The other three papers had an interesting mix of approaches and strengths and weaknesses and, I later realised, we probably had the basis  for a great workshop, rather than a 90 minute panel. Chair and discussant Carsten Schneider, however, provided a tour de force critique of all four papers in 10-15 minutes.

Some of the other panels were a bit more frustrating, as paper overload killed off any real prospect of audience questions or discussion. Even with the most efficient time-keeping, five papers and two formal slots in a 90 minutes  for discussants reduces a room full of well informed specialists from all parts of the world  to a cast of dumb onlookers.

I wondered why in one of the biggest political science conference in Europe and one of most wired countries in Europe, no one had thought of a smarter way of doing things than the traditional panel format, which seems to date from another era.  If there are time pressures and many speakers , could we not a least tweet questions and comments?

President Olafur Ragnar Grimsson - Photo Sebastian Derungs/World Economic Forum

In the evening we are bussed to Reykjavik’s newly opened Harpa concert hall to be formally welcomed by the President of Iceland, Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson, a former professor of political science now in his fourth term as head of state. The President’s plenary lecture stressed that markets and economics should not take precedence over politics and that Iceland was a laboratory both for the dangers of market forces and the way politics and political consensus could avert them.

Iceland’s process of constitutional reform was a model, part of new wave of citizen-driven democratic change driven by the internet and social media, being played out against a background of shifting techtotic plates in global society. India and China were on the rise, while Iceland would become part of the New North.

Here there was plenty of tweeting and Facebook comment from those listening and – as it was intended to – the speech seems to havedown well with the mass ranks of political scientists.

But hang on.

Surely politicians, including long-serving ones such as the President himself (a man of the social democratic left, presiding until 2009 – over centre-right governments), were responsible for the lax regulation, which alloed the insane hubris unleashed by financial sector? Indeed,  Ragnar Grímsson is on record pre-crisis as praising the dynamism of the country’s unconventional (and as it turned out dangerous and pointless) financial sector.

Hard not to feel that, while perfectly OK  as democratic  counterveiling mechanism, his hugely popular stand against the Icesave Laws  –   rejected twice by voters in presidentially initiated referenda – is not altogether a principled stand against The Markets, but also one  against small savers and local authorities in the UK unlucky enough to have their money in duff Icelandic financial institutions and taxpayers like me.

 A small country like Iceland clearly cannot pay for massive losses of the crisis in toto – take a Reykjavik bus  (and with my free bus pass I took plenty) and you always see  a few people,  poorly dressed and look worn out and beaten up by life.

On the other hand unemployment, having peaked at 10 per cent, is 7.5% , similar to that in the UK, although low by East or Southern

Photo: James Cridland

European standards and  the Icesave  sums payable after assets sales are, it is reported, relatively small, suggesting that the whole Icesave has just served as convenient safety value for popular anger.

You wonder, however, whether the four-term President might have done his country a favour by perhaps his own political responsibiliy- and the malfunctioning (as elsewhere) of domestic democratic institution – stepping down to allow deeper political renewal, rather than  stoking the fires of  national grievance.

And is the rise of the internet really akin to the transition from feudalism? And the rise of the Scottish National Party part of the same New North ? I leave the Ragnar Grímsson’s address sceptical and disappointed.

Let’s hope Jón Gnarr runs for President. At least the jokes will be funnier.

….

On my last day I walk through Reykjavik again. It is the calmest and most peaceful capital city  I have ever been in. I decide to hire a bike and cycle along Seabraut taking in a view of mountains and sea.Then I get lost and end in an industrial estate beside a toilet factory.

Way out West

Cycling around the Icelandic capital is safe and easy. Laws allowing cycling on empty pavements are eminently sensible and cycle paths run beside main roads . The  view is mixed but interesting: large villas, blocks of flats small shops, mountains, small residential streets with whimical statues, a broad vista West with mountains and motorways, then mutlicoloured traditional houses.

With quite realising it, I circumnavigated the city and  done a Leif Ericson, discovering interesting places I didn’t mean to go to and had never heard of, although admittedly he had a longship while I only have a well used bike in low gear.  Appropriately enough, I finish up by the Leif Ericson statute and go for a cup of coffee.

>They say cutback, we say… червен картон

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Sofia, 26 March 2011 Photo: BSP TV

According to news reports, some 16,000  marched through the streets of Sofia under the auspices of the opposition Socialist Party to protest against unemployment and depleted public services. Allowing for differences in population size, this equates to a march about half the size of the Saturday’s  250, 000 strong trade union sponsored protest in London, but not all bad for a relatively a weak civil society stemming from all the usual post-communist legacies. And a mildly imaginative rouch with the theme of giving Bulgaria’s government a red card (червен картон). A day later there are blockades by car drivers angry about the price of fuel following the next day and demonstration about nuclear power plant construction are also in the pipeline no pun intended). Characteristically, perhaps all three are organised by political parties, rather than civil sociery organisation and, unlike in London, the radical left,  marginal in the region at the best of times and workerist, so there are no anarchist casseurs or direct action activists occupying smart shops in Sofia – and Socialist leader Sergei Stanishev is no Ed Milland (although possibly that should be the other way round)

London, 26 March 2011 Photo: Ben Hall
The Czech Republic does rather better in terms of turnout and civil society capacity with a 40, 000 strong protest against government austerity in Prague last September, which allowing for the CR’s 10 million population, compares well with Saturday’s TUC march  – and strikes toboot. Perhaps, however, that should be less a source of pride for the Czech labour movement – which plays a smart game, but is in structural decline (as Martin Myant, a far from unsympathetic observer, outlines in the latest issue of Czech Sociological Review than a warning for Brits: Prague’s centre-right coalition government has pressed on regardless, more sensitive to its own internal tensions and a beating from the electorate, than to the massed ranks of the Czech public sector on the streets of the nation’s capital. The UK’s – or perhaps I should say England’s – more rampantly anti-statist traditions make it still more easy to shake off the concerns teachers, nurses, social workers and students, especially when it is pitched vaguely a march for The Alternative that no one can meaningly and identify anarchists and UK Uncut add to the fog of war. No one, thankfully, has quite persuaded the bulf of Czechs that the social market and the welfare state belongs on the scrapheap of history.

>Czech Republic: Elections to be held as scheduled shock

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I’m sitting in my parents-in-laws sixth floor flat in Brno with a glass of my father-in-law’s red wine at one elbow and Czech-English dictionary at the other. Having spent all summer finishing various conference papers at short notice, I’ve been a conference on 20 Years of Czech Democracy at Masaryk University in Brno. We have an interesting first panel discussion of pinpointing the reasons for stability and longevity of the Czech party system; learn how the Czech Social Democrats have terrific and well focused political marketing and how Czech voting is stably class-based and generating right-wing suburbs on the periphery of Prague and Brno, while those left in the city centres toy with various centrist and populist parties. I disagree with the keynote address which frames Czech democracy in terms of democratic consolidation, admittedly broadly conceived. I think we should starting thinking about democratic quality and how well democracy works, not bracketing the CR with Serbia
While all this is going on the Czech parliament is passing an amendment to the Constitution allow it dissolve itself – the Constitutional Court (“the last guarantee of democracy” as one of my fellow panelists – possibly ironically – put it) which is practically next door to the Faculty of Social Studies where we are conferencing had struck down the previous one-off constitutional law shorterning the parliamentary term, so they have to pass a sensible general amendent along the lines they should have published years ago. Early elections postponed from October to November. Or so we thought.
Today brings the news that the Social Democrats don’t want early elections at all, despite what they spent the last nine months saying. So terrified are they of the possibility of another successful challenge in the Constitutional Court to the latest amendment that they helped pass that they would rather the current caretaker government of technocrats formed in May continued for another nine months when scheduled elections can take place. Oh, and the technocrats will also get to make swingeing cuts to balance the budger including 3% salary cuts for public sector employees. The fine Social Democrat marketing campaign to be promisng decent living standards for ordinaty people wound up. Parliament isn’t to be dissolved. The inter-party pact between the main parties of left and right that brought the caretaker government into exisitence is null and void. Topolnek resigns as a deputy in protest, pointlessly and rather riskily I thought. The technocrats in the ‘non-political’ government – whose leverage is increasing by the minute – want a new one to give them a democratic mandate (of sorts) but will only agree go on if they are allowed to rein in the budget deficit and cut public spending.
‘Politologové jsou zaskočeni’ the TV news says. Damn right we are. We should have been discussing issues of consensus, competition and the problem of building stable majorities yesterday, not waxing lyrical about the institutionalization of parties, although I suppose their stability as individual organizations add to the instability (or perhaps I should call that finely balanced nature) of the Czech party system . The current turn of events poses some pretty sharp questions about the Czech model of democracy and readiness with which politicians can chop and change the rules of the game when they put their minds to it and, having created in political system in which parties rule the roost, flee from government in times of economic crisis and hand over to a team of technocrats for a year does have a whiff of South America or Serbia about it.
I am going to another conference on the 1989 next. Unwise in many ways, as I am not a historian, but perhaps safer in some as the dull certainties of Czech political crisi management seem to be collapsing around us. The next 20 hours of Czech democracy are a lot harder to understand than last last 20 years

>Croatian greys quit government

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Javno.com reports that the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU) have quit the ruling coalition. As they have one deputy that may not make much immediate different but seems is an interesting and direct impact of financial crunch, which has moved down the headlines recently – at least in relation to Eastern Europe.
“ZAGREB, CROATIA 24 July 2009 – The president of the Croatian Pensioners’ Party (HSU) Silvano Hrelja announced today that the party was leaving the leading coalition.
In a conversation for Javno.com, Hrelja revealed that HSU will now join the opposition parties in a battle against the Cabinet’s tricks.
HSU reminds that on Thursday they sent a clear message to the Cabinet that they will not accept a larger tax than the one agreed upon, and that they accept the Cabinet taxing only the difference for amounts over three thousand kuna, at a maximum rate of three percent.
“Considering that the Cabinet did not find the calculation to plug the hole in the budget, they later said that they need to tax the entire amount of all of the salaries and pensions that surpass three thousand kuna, we considered the negotiations over. This sort of burden would mean nearly a four times larger burden for workers and pensioners” say sources from HSU. They consider that the latest Cabinet proposal to also be unacceptable, considering that it is considerable less favourable than the one they had already agreed upon.
“Considering that the Cabinet was at least nine months late to react, and considering that the Minister of Finance Ivan Suker has been deceiving not only the media, and coalition partners, but the whole Croatian public, HSU has brought the unanimous decision to leave the coalition, defending our reputation and continuing the fight for the rights of Croatian pensioners” it says in the report by the central HSU committee, which also seeks the resignation of the Minister of Finance.”

>CEE and the Euro-elections: Left behind?

>So the results of the Euro-elections are in.

Having missed out the chance of TV stardom on the BBC Euro-election results programme – half of SSEES seem to have been rung up by various BBC researchers looking for a pundit on Eastern Europe (in the end they did without one) – I can’t resist a brief bit of instant(ish) analysis.

The story as generally reported from a West European perspective is that centre-right incumbents have heldon; the centre-left – opposition or incumbent – has not made expected gains against the background of global recession and social insecurity; Greens, the far right and the anti-market left made modest gains, scooping what there was in the way of Europe-wide radical protest electorate.

A quick glance suggests that CEE suggests that region looses mirrors this trend: only Robert Fico’s Smer in Slovakia (as ever) has really bucked trend of social democratic under performance. Most surprisingly for me -was the performance of the Czech Civic Democrats who managed to avoid the predicted photo finish with the Social Democrats and win the Czech euro-election comfortably with 32% of the vote. The Czech Social Democrats (ODS), however, recovered from the electoral meltdown of 2004 and pulled in a more than respectable 24%, which should enable them to walk a bit taller in the depleted Socialist Group in Brussles. (They will, I suspect, be rather harder to beat in the October parliamentary elections, but, hey, this is the Czech Republic we’re talking about, so the smart money should perhaps be on political deadlock).
However, closer examinations suggests something of parallel narrative in CEE. Indeed, the much discussed erosion of Social Democracy in Western Europe does not seem (as yet) to playing out in the region. Although the Hungarian Socialists were predictably whacked (losing 4 MEPS) and the Estonian social democorats too seem to have lost a seat, other social democratic parties in the region seem to have more or less held their own: as noted, the Czech Social Democrats won’t be crying into their beer too much and leaders Slovakia’s Smer could reasonably crack open the champagne. The Bulgarian Socialists held their own as did the Romanian and Slovenian social democrats. Even the marginalised post-communist left in Poland has undergone a minor revival.

This may perhaps be because there are few if any centre-left parties in the region can really claim to authentically social democratic. But to my mind the regional disparity seems more to interpretable in terms of CEE’s less post-industrial, fragmented and multi-cultural societies posing less acute strategic dilemma.

The grand narrative of social democratic decline/crisis has been academically well set out in Herbert Kitschelt’s 1994 classic The Transformation of European Social Democracy and put across in more digestable form by academic commentators such as Simon Hix in commentaries on the Euro elections. The basic story is this: social change, globalization and economic restructuring are generating competition pressures in the political arena as the big centre left parties struggle to cope with the break up of helectoral coalitions that underpinned them: Greens eating into their support among left-liberal public sector professionals, the populist far-right (and in some places workerist radical left) making inroads among working class voters in deindustrialized, credit crunched former heartlands.

Central and Eastern Europe’s Greens – never a very strong electoral force – seem again to have bombed entirely. This was in part – but only in part – due to the smaller populations and hence smaller numbers of of MEPs elected in CEE states which raised the effective threshold of votes. But even in a largeish state like the Czech Republic where a mere 5% would have done the trick the Green Party (SZ) failed. The SZ gained miserable 2%, as internicine factional infighting seemed at last to have taken an electoral toll – although cynics will note that the political support of Václav Havel, which always turns out to the kiss of political death for any new party.

To get back to centre-left, CEE social democrats have it a little easier. They face little competition from eco-liberal parties – whose support is small and would probably not have gone to them in the first place – leaving economic populists and anti-establishment novelty parties as the main challenge. There is also perhaps a larger constituency demanding social protection making brusingly pro-welfare positions a safer political bet (at least when campaigning in elections). There is, I suppose, less of ‘core vote’ to fall back – the Czech Social Democrats’ vote, for example, has rollercoasted wildly over the past decades despite the engrained social market preferences of a huge chunk of the Czech population – but in sense the lack of one is perhaps almost an advantage. After all, what you don’t have can’t be eroded.

I am fed up being rung up by journalists and asked about the far-right in CEE, so I’m not going so say much about this particular dog that doesn’t bark (much) Given the very healthy vote for the Front National, Danish People’s Party, Austrian Freedom Party, Dutch Freedom Party and, of course, and our own BNP, I am eagerly awaiting Polish and Hungarian journalists getting onto the phone up to ask wave of right-wing extremism of sweeping Western Europe threatens democracy in the region.

>They’ve passed the Lisbon Treary – and they’ve got a NERV

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The centre-right Topolánek government, recently toppled in a vote of no confidence the Czech Republic, and now replaced by caretaker government of technocrats and worthies at least goes out a bright(ish) note, having managed to get the Lisbon Treaty ratified by the Czech Senate. In the end, an unexpectedly large minority of the Civic Democrat (ODS) senators (12) backed the Treaty, while 20 against and it passed with the required 2/3 majority with one vote to spare (supported by 54 of the 79 legislators present). This was good news for supporters of the Treaty, but probably bad news for ODS underlining the split in the party over European issues that seems to dividie it down the middle. One prominent ODS deputy has already quit the party in protest. And, of course, we’re not out of the Treary ratification woods yet. President Klaus seems likely to find all kinds of pretexts not to sign it, not least the fact that he doesn’t agree with it.
The vote also highlighted divisions in the Czech Communist Party (KSČM): two of whose three senators voted against, while one voted for. However, for them Lisbon is more of pragmatic call than the cause celebre it is on the right.
One of the parting acts of the Topolánek government was also to give a big publicity plug to its lesser known legacies to Czech politics: the National Anti-Crisis Plan (NPP) and the National Economic Council (NERV) of economic experts it set up February to deal with the impact of the global recession on the CR. In form NERV is one of plethora of technocratic-cum-representative government advisory bodies covering everything from Roma integration to EU policy and the ageing population, but clearly greater things are expected of it. Along with the new caretaker government, it should afford a bit of political cover for whatever consensus the major parties can scrap together on managaing the economic crisis.

The campaign itself is, however, rather feeble even by Czech public information standards with the usual billboard cast of typical social types (Worker, Pensioner, Self-Employed Person etc) and the bathetic slogan: ‘We’ve got a solution’ (Máme řešení). I suppose that might be more naturally rendered into English as ‘We’re dealing with it’- and in a break with tradition the overall-clad plumber or carpenter depicted is a woman- but even then… It also has rather odd echos of the 2006 Communist election campaign slogan – KSČM campaigning is also known for its sparkle and pazazz – ‘We’re got a different different solution’ (Máme jiné rešení). The National Anti-Crisis Plan also has a website, which goes under the more snappy if very paternalistic moniker http://www.podrzimevas.cz/, which I guess translates as something like BackingYou.cz.

>Political consequences of the economic crisis in Eastern Europe

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And for those who can face more writing by me, there’s a short piece in Chatham House’s World Today magazine on the possible political consequences of the global economic crisis in Central and Eastern Europe. Journalists and economists were making all the running on this – and sometimes not very good running, I felt – so I thought I stick my oar.The piece is downloadable here until the end of May, longer if you are a CH member. As one of my colleagues has already pointed out, I underestimate the extent to which the crisis will push CEE elites towards support for further European integration even if they feel the need to make populist forays into bashing Sarkozy.