Europe Geopolitics – December 3, 2021

Leo Nelissen | December 3rd, 2021

In today’s Geopolitical issue, we cover Merkel’s goodbye and why the next coalition stands on shaky ground. This includes a tougher tone towards China when the future foreign minister Baerbock gets into office.

We also cover the surprise result from the first election round of the French Les Républicains, which did not end up with a victory for Bertrand or Barnier.

Also, feel free to read the Spiked comments on Ursula von der Leyen who is risking social unrests through a totalitarian approach to get people vaccinated.

Additionally, we take a closer look at the legal situation between Poland and the EU, where Poland just suffered another setback.

1.  GERMANY

1.1 “Thank you from the bottom of my heart” – Grand Zapfenstreich for Chancellor Merkel – Welt

Chancellor Angela Merkel has bid farewell to the Bundeswehr with the Great Zapfenstreich. After 16 years in office, the CDU politician received Germany’s highest military honour on Thursday evening in the Bendler Block in Berlin.

In her farewell speech, which lasted about five minutes before the Great Zapfenstreich began, Merkel called for the defence of democracy against hatred, violence and misinformation. Wherever scientific knowledge is denied, conspiracy theories and incitement are spread, opposition must be voiced, she said.

“Our democracy also lives from the fact that wherever hatred and violence are considered a legitimate means of asserting one’s own interests, our tolerance as democrats must find its limit,” Merkel said.

The time of the Corona pandemic showed “as in a burning glass, the great importance of trust in politics, science and social discourse”, Merkel said. But it also showed “how fragile this can be”.

“I would like to encourage people to continue to see the world through the eyes of others,” said the outgoing Chancellor. “So also to perceive the sometimes uncomfortable and opposing perspectives of the other person, to work for a balance of interests.”

Comment: End of an era. After 16 years, Merkel’s reign will end next Wednesday. Olaf Scholz will succeed her with a coalition consisting of his left-wing SPD, the even more left Greens, and the FDP, a liberal party. It could very well be the most reformist coalition in a generation.

The next coalition has a full plate. The ongoing pandemic, climate goals, shifting demographics, and sticky supply chain issues are just a number of issues Scholz will have to tackle. These issues will define his legacy as they are key to Germany’s position in Europe and the world.

It, therefore, doesn’t help that these parties are very different. The Greens dress down, take public transportation and (in a lot of cases) hate capitalism. FDP leader Lindner loves his Porsche and is known to be a sharp dresser. Scholz will have to manage these differences while making sure that journalists don’t dig up his past. This includes how Warburg Bank defrauded the Hamburg treasury of tax revenues when he was the major of Hamburg.

A critical point in the relationship would come if the Greens were to overtake the SPD in the opinion polls, a scenario we see possible once the CDU has a new leader and regains some of the confidence it lost during the election. The CDU is usually quite good in finding its role as an opposition party. It reinvented itself under Helmut Kohl in the 1970s and early 1980s, and then again under Merkel between 2002 and 2005. Neither of them won on the basis of an agenda. Their pitch was trust. Scholz is trying the same. He will be the managing director of a company in which the Greens and the FDP hold all the important jobs, and where the SPD are the security guards. This constellation is unusual. There may come a time when Greens think they should be in charge.

The first test will be whether the coalition can stem EUR 50 billion in annual investments. As the FDP would rather end the coalition than end the debt brake, there will be a focus on ending certain subsidies to finance investments in green projects. This will be a hot topic as it won’t please voters. For example, the greens want to end the “subsidies” on diesel. The tax load on diesel is lower compared to petrol. This would basically be a tax hike on people dependent on their cars.

While it’s a tough call, the fate of this coalition will be determined in less than 12 months.

1.2 What the Federation and the Länder have agreed on – Merkel speaks of an “act of national solidarity – Handelsblatt

Despite the serious Corona situation, Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU) found a few brief parting words after the federal-state meeting. She would have been more comfortable if the case numbers were significantly lower, she said after the Minister Presidents’ Conference, which was also her last. “The fact that we are once again putting our health system under such strain must spur us all on to break this fourth wave,” she said. She added that work was being done on this – “even though I am no longer here”.

An “act of solidarity” is now necessary, Merkel said, referring to the resolutions she passed together with her possible successor, Olaf Scholz (SPD), and the minister presidents of the federal states. The key points at a glance:

[…] The 2G rule will be extended to the retail sector. Shops for daily needs are exempt.

[…] Gatherings in public and private spaces attended by unvaccinated and unrecovered persons are limited to one’s own household and a maximum of two persons from another household. Children up to the age of 14 are excluded.

Nationwide, access to facilities such as cinemas, theatres and restaurants is to be restricted to the vaccinated and recovered (2G).

[…] Outdoor events are to be limited to 30 to 50 per cent of capacity in terms of attendance and to a maximum of 15,000 spectators. The regulation also affects matches of the German Football League. In addition, masks are to be compulsory. As usual, only vaccinated or recovered persons are to be admitted (2G).

[…] In addition, the vaccination status is to expire if a booster vaccination is not given in time. “The Federation and the Länder will agree by the end of the year, taking into account the vaccination campaign and the vaccines available, on when and how a corresponding regulation should apply.”

The resolution also stipulates that the Ethics Council should draw up a recommendation for general compulsory vaccination by the end of the year. With a decision in the Bundestag, the duty could then apply from February next year.

Comment: Germany is following Austria. New rules include a partial lockdown for unvaccinated people (2G). Also, large events will be banned, and, above all, people are no longer officially vaccinated when boosters are available. This will likely be 9 months after the second dose. Germany is also looking into making vaccinations mandatory, which will likely be tied to financial fines.

On top of this, the liberal FDP is making a U-turn. The party promised to block any attempts to make vaccinations mandatory. Now, the party is upsetting its voter base before taking office. On a side note, Merkel, the SPD, and CDU all said that mandatory vaccinations would not happen in Germany in the months prior to the current upswing in new cases.

1.3 Baerbock announces tougher stance against authoritarian states – Welt

The designated Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock of the Green Party has announced a tougher course towards authoritarian states like China. “Dialogue is the central building block of international politics. But that doesn’t mean you have to gloss things over or hush them up,” Baerbock told Berlin’s “taz” newspaper. “For me, a values-driven foreign policy is always an interplay of dialogue and toughness.”

Baerbock commented on the question of whether Germany would be more confrontational with regard to China with a Green foreign minister. Alluding to the outgoing government under Chancellor Angela Merkel (CDU), the Green politician said: “Eloquent silence is not a form of diplomacy in the long run, even if some have seen it that way in recent years.”

Specifically, Baerbock proposed, among other things, import restrictions for the European internal market. “If there is no longer access for products that come from regions like Xinjiang, where forced labour is common practice, that is a big problem for an exporting country like China,” she said. “We Europeans should use this lever of the common internal market much more.” A common European policy on China is necessary.

Baerbock also did not rule out a boycott of the Winter Olympics in Beijing: “Of course, we should also take a closer look at the Olympic Games. There are different ways for governments to deal with this, which will certainly be discussed in the coming weeks.”

Comment: Baerbock is once again making it clear that she is going to do things differently when it comes to dealing with China. She isn’t even ruling out a boycott of the Winter Olympics. It needs to be seen if she goes through with it – not very likely – but it’s a good start. After all, China cares a lot about the way western countries communicate their relationship with China to the world. She’s also emphasizing the need to relocate supply chains to lower the economic dependence on China. This is easier said than done as China is the core market of German automotive manufacturers.

2.  UNITED KINGDOM

2.1 ‘Only you can solve migrant crisis’: French prime minister blames UK for Channel chaos – The Telegraph

The French prime minister has blamed Britain for the migrant Channel crisis, saying “only you can solve it”, as he rejected Boris Johnson’s proposal for joint patrols.

Jean Castex said Britain needed to deport more failed asylum seekers, open up safer legal routes and crack down on its black market if it was to reduce the record numbers of migrants crossing the Channel and make itself less “attractive” as a destination.

In a letter to Mr Johnson, Mr Castex dismissed his offer of joint patrols as undermining France’s sovereignty, said he could not support the UK’s policy of “pushing back” migrants’ boats and would only accept migrants returned from the UK if it was part of an EU-wide agreement.

The letter caps a week of angry exchanges after the deaths of 27 migrants last week when their boat sank in French waters off Calais. It follows Wednesday’s disclosure that President Emmanuel Macron privately described Mr Johnson as a “clown” and “knucklehead”.

[…] In the aftermath of the tragedy, Mr Johnson set out a five-point plan for closer cooperation including joint land, sea and air patrols and a “bilateral readmissions” agreement to allow all illegal migrants who crossed the Channel to be returned to France.

Responding on Thursday, Mr Castex said the current efforts to stem the crossings, which includes £54 million UK funds for extra beach patrols and surveillance, could only “contain” the flow, “not provide a lasting response”.

“Indeed, much of the solution does not lie in France, but in the UK. Indeed, only you can dissuade migrants who do not intend to settle there from coming to your territory by implementing a more effective return policy,” he said.

“Only you can weaken the channels of irregular immigration by opening legal immigration channels to those who have legitimate reasons for wanting to come to your country. Only you can ensure that your labour market is sufficiently controlled to discourage applicants for illegal work.”

2.2 Old Bexley and Sidcup: Conservatives retain southeast London seat in by-election prompted by death of MP James Brokenshire – Sky News

The Conservatives have held on to the southeast London seat of Old Bexley and Sidcup after a by-election prompted by the death of MP James Brokenshire in October.

Mr Brokenshire, who represented the area from 2010 until his death from lung cancer, had held the seat with a majority of almost 19,000.

Thursday’s by-election, however, was tighter, with local Tory councillor Louie French gaining 11,189 votes, over Labour councillor Daniel Francis, who secured 6,711 votes.

Mr French was deputy leader of Bexley Council from 2018 to 2021, and Mr Francis is a former leader of the council’s Labour group.

After his win was announced, Mr French praised his predecessor, saying Mr Brokenshire had “made an enormous impact on everyone who lives here” and promising to “work tirelessly to build on everything he achieved”.

He told Sky News: “I’m absolutely delighted to become the first home-grown MP for our local area.

“It’s a great privilege, I’m deeply honoured to be wearing the ribbon.”

3.  FRANCE

3.1 Ciotti-Pécresse: the surprise duel of the outsiders – L’Opinion

Eric Ciotti-Valérie Pécresse: this will be the poster child for the second round of the Republican congress, from which the party’s champion for the Elysée will emerge on Saturday. With 25.59% (28,844 votes), the deputy of the Alpes-Maritimes came out on top by a narrow margin. The president of the Ile-de-France region follows him with 25% (28,179 votes). Only 665 votes separate her from Eric Ciotti. Michel Barnier came third with 23.93% (26,970 votes). Xavier Bertrand was second last with 22.36% (25,213 votes). There is only a 3,631 vote gap between him and the first. Philippe Juvin came last with 3.13% (3,532 votes). The turnout was 80.89%. 139,742 members were called to vote.

[…] While the second round will start this Friday, Valérie Pécresse is now clearly the favorite to be the candidate of a party she left in June 2019. Very quickly after the announcement of the results, Xavier Bertrand, Philippe Juvin and Michel Barnier successively called for her to vote. The first two even stood next to her during her speech after the results in order to materialise this gathering. Eric Ciotti was not surprised. “In any case, they will all be against me”, he had confided to a close friend the day before, referring to the hypothesis of his qualification.

At the end of the campaign, the tension notably went up a notch with Xavier Bertrand. On Wednesday, when Politico wrote that if he passed the first round, he would withdraw, the deputy of the Alpes-Maritimes saw behind this rumour the hand of the team of the boss of Hauts-de-France. Eric Ciotti then swears that if he is not in the second round and Xavier Bertrand is, he will never call to vote for him. Even if he fails on Saturday, the elected representative of the South-East will nevertheless not be seen as a loser. By coming out on top in the first round, the former lieutenant has already won a lot.

Comment: This was somewhat unexpected as Les Républicains went with surprise over predictability. The race is not between Bertrand and Barnier but Ciotti and Pécresse. He’s a hardliner, she’s more moderate.

What’s interesting to see is that the top four candidates had very close results. This means that even the “losers” have a large impact on the second-round tomorrow. Bertrand and Barnier are encouraging their supporters to make Pécresse the first female to lead the party in an election. 

The question is what this means for Macron? The answer – for now – is not much. LR first need to make sure that neither Le Pen nor Zemmour make it into the second round of next year’s election. While Macron does have issues, he is ahead in the polls. The next few weeks will show how the new candidate of LR will do in the polls. After Saturday, LR can focus on a single candidate and work on a strategy that lures right-wing voters away from Le Pen and Zemmour while combatting Macron.

3.2 Michel Barnier out, hard-Right backer of Eric Zemmour in for final run to lead French conservatives – The Telegraph

A hard-Right MP who wants to build a French Guantanamo is a surprise finalist nominee to represent France’s main conservative party in next year’s presidential election.

In a bombshell first-round result, members of the Republicans Party placed Eric Ciotti – who has said he “shares” most of far-Right polemist Eric Zemmour’s views – in first place with 25.6 per cent of the vote.

Valérie Pécresse, moderate head of the Ile de France regional council that oversees parts of Paris, came a close second on 25 per cent, meaning the pair will face off in next Saturday’s runoff.

[…] Initially seen as a rank outsider, Mr Ciotti, MP and head of the powerful Alpes-Maritime LR federation, stood out via his hardline views on “authority, identity, liberty” during several TV debates dominated by immigration and security.

His claim to fame during debates was to be the “only candidate who didn’t vote for Macron” in his runoff versus far-Right rival Marine Le Pen in 2017.

Aping the far-Right, Mr Ciotti has warned against a “war of civilisation” if France fails to tackle immigration and Islamism, and has called for national preference when it comes to jobs and employment, as well as a French Guantanamo for convicted terrorists who have served prison time and are released but still pose a threat to national security.

An economic liberal, he is calling for an “end to inheritance tax”, a flat tax on businesses of just 15 per cent and wants to cut 250,000 civil servant posts.

Speaking after the vote, he said: “I am the only candidate who can bring about the rally of all Right-wing voters from wherever they come, just like Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007.”

Ms Pécresse, meanwhile, is a former higher education and budget minister in the Sarkozy administration.

Calling herself “La Dame de faire”, a play on words with “Iron Lady” and the “Lady who gets things done”, she says she wants to “restore French pride”. The mother of three did well in debates, coming across as pugnacious and down-to-earth.

Speaking afterwards, the mother of three said: “I carry an unabashedly Right-wing project as France has no time to lose”.

“I am the only one who can beat Emmanuel Macron. I am a woman who wins and who acts. Have the audacity to choose a free woman who is passionate about France.”

[…] Whoever the Republicans field, their champion faces an uphill struggle beating far-Right rivals Marine Le Pen and Mr Zemmour, both of whom, current polls suggest, stand a far higher chance of reaching the runoff next April against Mr Macron who remains firm favourite.

3.3 Emmanuel Macron is an elite-level troll – The Spectator

French president Emmanuel Macron is reported in this week’s Canard Enchaîné – the French equivalent of Private Eye – to have called Boris Johnson a ‘gougnafier’Gougnafier is an intriguing term with many linguistic roots. It is a nightmarish word to translate. Can you find one word in English to convey someone both rude and useless? That is what gougnafier means.

[…] It’s easy to dismiss this as another chapter of Macron’s tantrum diplomacy, to which the only dignified response might be to call his latest intervention unhelpful. Or perhaps not. Macron is showing an almost Johnsonian rhetorical skill. His characterisation of the Prime Minister has set a high

semantic bar for a return of service by Johnson.

The Times this morning offers the translation ‘knucklehead’, which does not do justice to the layered contempt contained in Macron’s chosen insult. Macron also called the PM ‘un clown’, for those unable to grasp the subtlety of gougnafier.

[…] Thirty-five years ago, during UK rebate talks, French president Jacques Chirac called prime minister Margaret Thatcher a ‘mégère’ which was mistranslated by British journalists who thought he’d said ménagère. The full quote subsequently conveyed in the British media and into history was: ‘What more does this British housewife want from me?’ He went on to ask: ‘My balls on a platter?’

That’s not what he meant. He didn’t accuse her of being a housewife, but as a cantankerous, nasty, vicious shrew and his reference was to Shakespeare: La mégère apprivoisée. The Taming of the Shrew. In the long sweep of Anglo-French relations, the instant war of words may be forgotten before Agincourt, Trafalgar and Waterloo, but at least it has introduced an interesting new French insult to anglophone students of francophonie. For this, at least, we ought to show some appreciation to Emmanuel Macron. What can Boris say in reply?

3.4 Eric Zemmour’s big weakness has been exposed – The Spectator

[…] Le Pen is doing her best to exploit the situation. Recently, while Zemmour was outlining why he wants a law compelling new-borns in France to be named from the Christian calendar of saints or given names from ‘ancient history’, she was telling an interviewer that, should she become president, her six cats will live with her in the Elysée.

A poll earlier this week had her approval rating at 20 per cent, a climb of three points in a month, while Zemmour had fallen by the same number to 13 per cent. Furthermore, Zemmour is not well regarded by the majority of French with arrogance and authoritarianism listed as his greatest flaws.

[…] Zemmour might regain some of those points when the electorate is next canvassed, if they approved of the video with which on Tuesday he launched his bid for the presidency. Then again, he might have dropped a few more. Giving the finger to a female demonstrator has not gone down

well with the average voter, and nor has his live interview on the primetime news on Tuesday evening. It wasn’t so much what he said but his petulant reaction afterwards, which was widely reported in the print

and broadcast media. Zemmour claimed that the presenter was more like a ‘prosecutor’ who had committed an ‘intellectual swindle’ by bringing up quotes from some of his books instead of questioning him about his

presidential campaign.

What did he expect? An easy ride of the sort he’s experienced for the last couple of years on CNews, the French equivalent of GB News, where he enjoys star attraction status? A thick skin is required for politics but Zemmour came across as a bit of a cry-baby. If France is in the dire state he says it is, then it requires a leader of tough, steely resolve. Not a whinger.

Many right-wing voters compare and contrast Zemmour’s behaviour with Le Pen’s. She is not a talented politician and her flaws are numerous. Yet she has a rhinoceros hide. Not many politicians would have recovered from the humiliation she suffered in the televised debate on the eve of the second round of presidential voting in 2017. Fewer still would have been able to endure the personal and physical abuse she has received over the years, which included a firebomb attack on the Le Pen home in 1976 when

she was a child.

[…] Publicly, at least, Le Pen still believes she can win the election, and she has more chance than Zemmour. But both could fail to make even the second round if the centre-right Les Republicans (LR) enjoy a renaissance.

3.5 France’s Old Bigotry Finds a New Face – NYT

[…] Éric Zemmour, a far-right polemicist who officially declared on Tuesday that he is running in next April’s presidential election, is the loudest and most extreme voice of French racism today. While his poll numbers have started to slide from their highs earlier this fall, Mr. Zemmour’s divisive campaign has resonated with a significant portion of voters and he is still among the leading candidates. He is capturing national headlines and unleashing vicious bigotry into the mainstream in a way unseen in years.

The great irony is that Mr. Zemmour, twice convicted of inciting racial hatred and discrimination, is a Jew — a member of the very community once targeted by the racists whose traditions he inherits and invokes. He has updated France’s oldest hatred for a new era.

The roots of the current French far right can be understood only in the context of its prehistory.

Religious antisemitism was long a staple of reactionary thought in France. In the 19th century, that turned into economic and political antisemitism, taking its definitive form around the time of the Dreyfus Affair, the scandal involving the Jewish military officer, Alfred Dreyfus, who was falsely accused and convicted of passing secrets to Germany. The battle between Dreyfus’s supporters and his accusers came to define French politics. The period brought with it the appearance of antisemitic newspapers like “La Libre Parole,” whose masthead featured the slogan “France for the French,” still a favorite of the French right. This movement lived on well into the 20th century. Its final chapter was the Nazi-aligned Vichy government and French participation in the roundup of Jews for deportation and murder.

After the Holocaust, antisemitism was no longer viable as a political movement — though it was never entirely expunged from society. With the advent of mass immigration from France’s former colonies, antisemitism was largely replaced by anti-Black and, especially, anti-Arab racism. Since the 1970s, the political voice of this racism has been the far-right National Front party, now rebranded as the National Rally as part of an attempt to enter the mainstream. This party has twice reached the second round of the presidential elections, in 2002 and 2017. Mr. Zemmour is now outflanking it from the right.

[…] Mr. Zemmour is not blind to this historical legacy. He is not just a demagogue; he is also a writer and a popular historian. He regularly quotes from reactionary political figures, writers and thinkers from French history, particularly the time of the Dreyfus Affair. Among his many revisions of French history, Mr. Zemmour most famously continues to assert a claim he first made in 2014 that Philippe Pétain, the leader of the French collaborationist government, protected French Jews during World War II, only helping to deport foreign Jews.

He has also revised the history of the Dreyfus Affair. Mr. Zemmour says that the French General Staff, where Dreyfus was posted and from which he was supposed to have stolen documents, was justified in suspecting Dreyfus of espionage because he was a German. This is false. More outrageous, though, is his claim that both sides in the Dreyfus Affair had “noble” motives. Never mind that Dreyfus was exonerated. His accusers, Mr. Zemmour says, were driven by their concern for “the nation.” The nobility of those who condemned Dreyfus has long been a marginal opinion. No longer.

[…] As Mr. Zemmour presents himself as the voice of France, as its “savior,” his Jewishness serves him and the far right well. By defending Vichy, by defending Pétain, by defending French colonialism and even its massacre of “Arabs and certain Jews,” as he recently did, he, as a Jew, absolves the French right of its worst stains and helps give it new life as it wages war against Muslims.

4.  EUROPEAN UNION

4.1 EU drops legal proceedings against Germany – Frankfurter Allgemeine

The conflict between the EU and Germany over the Federal Constitutional Court’s ruling on the European Central Bank’s (ECB) bond purchases has been settled. The EU Commission closed its infringement proceedings against Germany, which it had initiated in June, on Thursday. It justified this by stating that the German government had recognised the “primacy and autonomy” of European law in a declaration in August. Germany had also agreed to recognise the authority of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), whose rulings are final and binding. Berlin had also pledged to use all available means to avoid further “ultra vires” rulings.

The background to this is that the Federal Constitutional Court had opposed the ECJ for the first time with its ECB ruling, which the Commission saw as endangering the primacy of Union law. The ECJ had previously declared the bond-buying programme to be lawful. However, neither its assessment nor the ECB’s considerations convinced the German constitutional judges, who then applied the ultra vires review that had been developed over the years. From Karlsruhe’s point of view, this control applies when a European institution exceeds the powers delegated to it by the member states. The judges in Karlsruhe classified both the bond-buying programme and the ECJ’s decision as such an “ultra vires act”. The central bank had overstepped its monetary policy mandate and undermined the budgetary control rights of the German parliament, the constitutional judges said. They demanded a justification that would also make a judicial review of proportionality possible. The central bank then explained its programme in more detail to the Bundestag. The German parliament approved it and the Federal Constitutional Court was satisfied.

A year later, the Commission nevertheless initiated infringement proceedings. In its August statement, the German government pointed out that the Constitutional Court had accepted the ECB’s explanations in the Bundestag and its approval there. Moreover, the Karlsruhe jurisprudence had long been favourable to European law. 

Comment: A win for the EU, which made clear that European law is superior to national law – for the sake of European cohesion. It will make it unlikely that Germany poses a “threat” to i.e., the ECB’s operations.

5.  COVID

5.1 What is Ursula von der Leyen playing at? – Spiked

Compulsory Covid vaccination could become the norm across Europe. That was the alarming message that came from European Commission president Ursula von der Leyen on Wednesday. She told reporters in Brussels that there must be a ‘discussion’ about mandatory vaccination to avoid an ‘enormous public-health cost’.

Her words confirmed what Fraser Myers predicted last month on spiked: that Austria’s enforcement of compulsory jabs would have a domino effect, encouraging the adoption of this authoritarian policy across Europe. But von der Leyen’s intervention also marked a stunning turnaround for a woman who, just months ago, was cynically fanning scepticism about the efficacy and safety of vaccines.

There’s an obvious reason why von der Leyen is now talking about compulsory vaccination – too many Europeans are hesitant to get vaccinated. It is estimated that around a third of Europeans have still not had the jab.

[…] After all, she personally sowed doubt about both the safety and the utility of the vaccine earlier this year. For example, in February, as the UK raced ahead of Europe with its vaccine rollout, von der Leyen defended the EU’s lethargy. She claimed that member states and the Commission had ‘agreed not to compromise with the safety and efficacy’ of the jab. Countries that were further along with their vaccine programmes, she implied, had put people’s health at risk. ‘Yes, Europe left it later’, she said, ‘but it was the right decision. I remind you that a vaccine is the injection of an active biological substance into a healthy body. We are talking about mass vaccination here, it is a gigantic responsibility.’

[…] It was not just the smears that exacerbated vaccine hesitancy. Brussels’ sheer incompetence also played a part.

The EU began by royally botching its vaccine procurement. Which was hardly a surprise given the department responsible for the rollout was normally concerned with food labelling. Then, in trying to make up for this disaster, the EU utterly humiliated itself by claiming it was all the UK’s fault. People across Europe saw the EU desperately flailing around and lost faith in its ability to keep them safe.

[…] Brussels has let down the people of Europe. They have already had to tolerate prolonged lockdowns due to the EU’s painfully slow vaccine rollout – now they face having to give up their freedom once again.

Comment: An excellent article on terrible vaccine mismanagement in the EU. However, the bigger issue here is that some people do not want to get vaccinated. End of story. The reasons don’t matter when looking at the bigger picture. How to deal with these people? The answer EU politicians have found is to force them. The next few months will show how well that works out. Protests in Rotterdam were a start of something that could quickly escalate. After all, people will lose their jobs and social security when deciding not to get vaccinated. The EU is risking significant social unrest, all while failing to provide booster shots for the most vulnerable prior to the seasonal upswing in COVID cases.

5.2 Europe’s omicron panic has left the Continent in a very dark place – The Telegraph

It may be tempting fate to say it, but Britain is perhaps the best place in Europe to spend this Christmas. Bavaria’s winter markets have closed, France’s bistros won’t let anyone in without a pass sanitaire, Belgium has banned private parties and Ireland’s pubs are all under curfew. But in Britain, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated can walk, work, eat and drink where they like. Unless the omicron variant changes everything, we may well see in the New Year having overcome the virus and upheld the basic values of liberty.

Things are rather different in Germany, where hospitals are filling up and the government is planning to lock down the unvaccinated. Olaf Scholz, the incoming chancellor, favours making vaccinations compulsory and Ursula von der Leyen, president of the European Commission, is suggesting that all 27 EU members consider doing the same. Freedom should not mean freedom to infect others, runs the fairly clear argument. So it’s time for governments to take back control.

[…] The arrival of booster jabs makes the idea of compulsion harder still: if top-ups are needed every three to six months, how will this affect vaccine passports? Will people have to receive every top-up for the ongoing right to enjoy their liberty? Otto Schily, a minister in Gerhard Schröder’s government, yesterday pointed out that even Communist China isn’t considering mandatory vaccines. So where, he asked, will Merkel’s idea lead? Will Mr Scholz now yield to the activist lawyers advocating prison sentences for vaccine refuseniks?

The politics of all this is just as divisive in Italy, now in its 19th consecutive week of anti-restriction protests. Next week, it will bring in a “super green pass” where a negative test is no longer enough. Austria will start issuing fines for the unvaccinated from February, as Greece will do next month (but only for pensioners). Even Sweden, having defied the world for so long by rejecting mask-wearing and lockdowns, has now succumbed to vaccine passports. Britain is starting to look like the new Sweden: keeping calm and carrying on.

[…] Nothing is ever certain with Covid, and bumps (like yesterday’s case spike) are a reminder of how quickly things might change. Inside No 10, there are plenty of people ready to reach for vaccine passports, given half an excuse. But even Sturgeon had to give up on her plan to roll them out when the evidence showed they didn’t work. There are plenty in Government who think ending lockdown in summer did enough to “save Christmas” and don’t want it imperilled now.

Last time around, Britain locked down longer and harder than anyone else in Europe. This time, Javid’s instinct is the opposite: not to jump too soon, trust the boosters and see what happens. Quite a gamble. But this time, it’s one the Government is willing to take.

6.  EAST EUROPE

6.1 Poland and Hungary suffer setback in legal challenge to EU’s rule of law – FT

Hungary and Poland’s legal challenge to the EU’s crackdown on rule of law breaches has suffered a serious setback after a legal opinion recommended their claim should be dismissed.

The EU’s advocate general found that the new rule of law conditionality mechanism, which seeks to protect the bloc’s budget from violations by member states, was legally sound and compatible with the EU treaties.

The conditionality mechanism was agreed by the EU last year as part of the budget deal that ushered in the bloc’s €800bn recovery fund. Poland and Hungary subsequently launched a legal challenge calling for the rules to be annulled, claiming they were not compatible with the treaty and breached principles of legal certainty.

The European Commission’s main concern regarding Poland centres on threats to the independence of the country’s judiciary by the ruling Law and Justice party, the subject of a long-running battle between Brussels and Warsaw.

[…] Thursday’s recommendation by Manuel Campos Sánchez-Bordona, the advocate general, is not binding on the European Court of Justice, but it is an indication of where the court’s ultimate decision could go. The opinion, if affirmed by the court in the coming weeks, would remove a political roadblock to the commission beginning formal proceedings against either or both Hungary and Poland for jeopardising EU funds because of alleged rule of law violations.

That would put in question tens of billions of euros of EU funding to the countries.

The advocate general found that the new regulation did not clash with existing sanctions mechanisms under Article 7 of the EU treaty, and that it established a “sufficiently direct link” between rule of law breaches and the implementation of the EU budget.

[…] Assuming the ECJ follows the advocate general’s opinion, this should clear the way for the commission to commence formal proceedings under the conditionality mechanism. Brussels sent letters last month to both Poland and Hungary setting out a detailed list of questions on possible breaches to the rule of law, in an informal step in that direction.

Hungarian justice minister Judit Varga said on Facebook: “The opinion ignores the fact that the conditionality regulation suffers from a number of obvious legal errors, each of which already justify its annulment. Its legal basis is incorrect, it circumvents the treaties and it violates the fundamental requirements of the rule of law, in particular the principles of legal certainty and clarity.”

6.2 Russia has no say in Ukraine joining Nato, Moscow told – The Times

Nato has told Russia that it cannot veto Ukraine’s membership, rebuking President Putin as Moscow accuses Kiev of sending more than 100,000 troops to the Donbas conflict zone.

Putin, 69, said yesterday that he was seeking “strong, reliable and long-term” guarantees from Nato that it would cease its eastward expansion and would not deploy weapon systems to Russia’s immediate neighbours. He said that Russia could be forced to target hypersonic weapons at western countries if Nato did not undertake to cease its expansion.

His comments came shortly before Russia’s FSB state security service said it had arrested three Ukrainian spies and accused one of them of plotting a terrorist act.

Jens Stoltenberg, the Nato chief, said: “It’s only Ukraine and 30 Nato allies that decide when Ukraine is ready to join Nato. Russia has no veto, Russia has no say and Russia has no right to establish a sphere of influence to try to control their neighbours.”

Antony Blinken, the US secretary of state, said yesterday that Russia was “putting in place the capacity” to invade Ukraine. Kiev has said that Russia has amassed about 100,000 troops near its border. Blinken, 59, is due to meet the Russian and Ukrainian foreign ministers today for separate talks in Stockholm.

[…] Moscow says that it has no intention of invading Ukraine. Maria Zakharova, the foreign ministry spokeswoman, said that Ukraine had moved half of its army, about 125,000 troops, into the Donbas region, where Kremlin-backed separatists have established two breakaway republics.

Analysts are concerned that Moscow could order a military operation on the pretext of protecting Russian citizens in Donbas, where Moscow has handed out half a million passports to residents in recent years. More than 14,000 people have been killed and more than a million displaced since fighting erupted in the coalmining region in 2014.

Comment: NATO is messing with Putin. Ukraine is not joining NATO because it lacks both money and military capabilities. Besides, including Ukraine is a red line for Putin.

7.  AUSTRIA

7.1 Austria’s Chancellor Schallenberg announces resignation – Frankfurter Allgemeine

Austrian Chancellor Alexander Schallenberg is stepping down from office after barely two months. The politician of the conservative ÖVP made the announcement after his predecessor Sebastian Kurz announced his retirement as ÖVP party leader on Thursday.

“I am of the firm opinion that both offices – head of government and federal party leader of the party with the largest number of votes in Austria – should quickly be reunited under the same authority,” Schallenberg said, explaining his move. It had never been his goal to lead the ÖVP. He said he was ready to step down as head of government as soon as it was clear who would lead the chancellor’s party in the future.

Austrian media are talking about Interior Minister Karl Nehammer as a possible next ÖVP leader and chancellor. Vice-Chancellor Werner Kogler of the governing Greens emphasised in a statement on Friday that he and Nehammer had a good basis for discussion and work.

Schallenberg had moved from the post of Foreign Minister to the Chancellery in October, after Kurz had initially withdrawn as head of government in view of corruption investigations. At the very beginning of his time as chancellor, Schallenberg emphasised that he would remain closely associated with Kurz.

Comment: A new Chancellor was announced this morning, and it is to be interior minister, Karl Nehammer. Note that he will be the sixth chancellor in 5 years (more than Italy in the same time period!).

7.2 The unholy Sebastian Kurz – Frankfurter Allgemeine

If everyone who rejoices in fatherhood were to quit politics, things would look different in parliament and government, and not only in Austria. But Sebastian Kurz was honest enough to state the probably decisive reason for his withdrawal. The accusations and proceedings against him would have been a heavy burden for a political comeback, especially if they were protracted.

But the ousted chancellor seems to have reckoned with that, and he also had the nerve to say that he was neither a saint nor a criminal. In other words, even he does not consider the circumstances under which he took over the party leadership to be flawless. Only the judiciary can clarify whether they were also illegal.

The meteoric rise of this young politician is exemplary for the insecurity of the bourgeois camp, not only in Austria. Earlier than other conservatives, Kurz recognised the social explosive power of unregulated migration. The fact that he turned the honorary party ÖVP into a movement tailored to him personally would hardly have been possible without the refugee crisis in 2015.

His fall, in turn, shows that even supposed saviours are not immune to the temptations of power. Kurz is stepping down, but his model lives on, for example among the Republicans in France. Only the Union in Germany continues to look to the left.

Comment: Sebastian Kurz was on the short list to become a Wunderkind. After all, Vienna is known for its Wunderkind, Mozart. He started young, had a terrific career thanks to his communication skills and the team he put behind him, but all of it lasted just four years.

Kurz’s departure came in two stages. First, he resigned as chancellor over allegations of false testimony and for breach of trust and corruption but kept his mandate in parliament. This week, Kurz cut the cord from all his political positions. Something he categorically excluded only weeks ago. Perhaps becoming a father changed his assessment.

He managed to come to power on an anti-immigrant campaign after the 2015 migrant crisis without having to close the borders to the Balkan route. Now, he leaves on the same day as Merkel. Merkel after 16 years, Kurz after just 4.

Ironically, “Kurz” means “short” in German.