Author Archives: Shane Heneghan

From top: US president Donald Trump and former Taoiseach Enda Kenny in the White House last year’ Leo Varadkar with actor Arnold Schwarzenegger during a visit to Santa Monica, Los Angeles yesterday; Shane Heneghan

Ahead of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s first visit to the White House this week.

Shane Heneghan writes:

It won’t be easy, will it? It’s not going to be one of your best photo ops. In fact, it will probably have your liberal east coast fan base up in arms- and shaking hands with the entire Choctaw nation won’t change that. It’s probably best to concede that the St. Patrick’s day rendezvous with the Donald is a necessary evil. But is it?

When your predecessor, John A. Costello, inaugurated this paddy wackery by giving Eisenhower a bowl of shamrock in the 1950s, the atmosphere was very different.

Ireland was going through it’s toughest decade economically of the 20th, century and immigration was threatening to push the population below two million. America’s economy, by contrast was roaring ahead and national self confidence was still sky high after victory in world war two.

But Taoiseach, you are no John A. Costello and, it goes without saying that Trump is not Ike.

Does it really have to be a given that our head of government has to slavishly kow-tow to the President of the United States on our national holiday every single year regardless of who holds either office?

Surely other countries on the radar would be just as accommodating. I have a few suggestions on your alternatives.

Berlin: You came to power seeking to lead a government of the “European centre” so for Paddy’s day why not go to the centre of Europe? Poor auld Angie has had a rough few months putting a coalition together. I know you can sympathise with this and we all know she has a green pants suit she’s just dying to wear for the occasion.


London:
Not a conventional choice, I grant you. But our Theresa is another women in dire need of a break and could do with putting things into soft focus for a while- it just might help ease the brexit tensions. Plus, if you ask nicely, I’m sure she’ll let you see the Hugh Grant staircase again too.

Edinburgh: By contrast you could seek to emphasise older Celtic links as Nicola Sturgeon is hugely popular in Ireland and in general. The optics of a visit to Scotland would just scream “Hey Theresa, I got a hard border for ya, it starts in Berwick-on-Tweed!” Plus a photo of you in a kilt will totes break the internet- you can’t buy that.


Paris:
We all know you want another chance to spring some more leaving cert French on us and the reflective glow factor from Emmanuel Macron is massive, I don’t need to tell you that- but be careful of being burned a la Icarus by flying to close to the sun (king).

Ottowa: You know who you’re real ideological soul mate in North America is and he doesn’t live on Pennsylvania avenue. We can bet he’s got a pair of green socks just waiting for the occasion.

Joking aside, politely refusing to meet Trump for just one year out of his four year term could send a powerful statement around the world about your government’s values. Think about it. It might be one of the most powerful diplomatic tools you have at your disposal.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Pics: Rollingnews/Leo Varadkar

From top: Forza Italia’s Silvio Berlusconi, and Lega’s’s Matteo Salvini at a press conference last Thursday; Shane Henegahn

With most governments since the second world war lasting scarcely more than a year, Italy can be described as the Mexican soap opera of European democracies.

The election today marks the debut of a new electoral system in which around 37% of seats will be allocated under a British style first past the post system, the remainder being allocated under a proportional system.

Despite this, for a number of reasons, it looks as though stability may remain illusive. For starters, the country is unique in that a government must maintain a majority in both houses of Parliament.

This election presents the standard plethora of parties loosely arranged into blocks that may or may not be able to form a government.

The outgoing left-wing government seems unlikely to be re-elected despite having provided relative stability and Prime Minister Paolo Gentoloni’s relative popularity.

The single party that is likely to come out with the largest amount of support will, according to polls, almost certainly be Movimento 5 Stelle (5 Star Movement), founded by comedian Beppe Grillo in 2009. Despite often being characterised as populist, the party has also embraced environmentalism amongst other issues.

The party began life with a eurosceptic slant but has since abandoned plans for a referendum on the euro and now says the “European Union is the Five Star Movement’s home” .

Their leader, 31 year old Luigi Di Maio, is described as a pragmatist- despite this the party rules out the idea of going into coalition or joining or forming an electoral block.

Of course, it just wouldn’t be an Italian election without a contribution from the bauld Silvio Berlusconi and despite being barred from holding office for six years in 2013, the former Prime Minister is dominating the campaign.

His centre right block has designated incumbent European Parliament President, Antonio Tajani to be the candidate for premier- presumably until Silvio can take office again next year.

There has been at least as much focus on government formation as there has been on actual policy during this campaign- perhaps lamentable in a country with the second highest level of public debt in the Eurozone.

The 5 star movements refusal to consider a coalition has led to speculation of a grand coalition between the left and right wing blocks. As this is Italy, this would be more like a coalition of coalitions and this will be far from straight forward.

It’s quiet likely, for instance that the right wing, euroscpetic “Lega” party will not wish to serve with the left wing block’s “More Europe” faction. Expect to see a few of the more extreme parties on either side pass up the opportunity for power in this scenario.

A less likely outcome is that the 5 star movement may be convinced to consider a confidence and supply agreement to get either of the two established blocks over the line.

Such a decision would require a vote of the full membership of the movement and how appealing their 135,000 partisans consider the idea of becoming Fianna Fail a la carbonara is unclear.

Given Italy’s aforementioned electoral history, the clearest prediction one can make is another election following this one before too long.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Pic: Getty

Update: Voters deliver hung parliament in Italian election (RTÉ)

From top: German Chancellor Angela Merkel; Shane Heneghan

Despite being in a position of unprecedented weakness, reports of Angela Merkel’s political demise are greatly exaggerated.

Shane Heneghan writes:

As noted previously, government negotiations in Germany take time. The numbers thrown up by September’s election were bound to exacerbate this especially when we consider that the three groupings in question had never worked together at the federal level before.

The Liberal Free Democratic Party FDP abandoning negotiations removes what had been seen as the only viable option from the table but it does not mean government formation impossible.

A deal with the Social Democratic Party (SPD), where this party either extracts a high price from ‘Mutti’ for their help in bailing her out, or perhaps where the party supports a minority Christian Democratic Union (CDU)/Christian Social Union (CSU(/Green coalition from outside government (an Irish solution to a German problem), would seem like her next best option. A similar deal might also be possible with the FDP once their leadership has had a chance to cool off.

It should be noted that Germany has never had a minority government in the post war period and the Chancellor herself is on record as saying she would prefer fresh elections to such a messy arrangement.

With this in mind, however, she will also be aware that it is very hard for fresh elections to be called in Germany without the consent of the sitting Chancellor and the President- so it might not be as unstable an option as we think.

It is remarkable, and perhaps also more evidence of how much Germany values stability that no major contender within the CDU (or CSU) seems to have yet made indications that they wish to challenge her for the leadership and even if the current impasse leads to fresh elections in the new year, for the moment at least, it’s almost impossible to see her party not prevailing in one form or another.

I think for the short- to medium-term she is irreplaceable,” said Jürgen Hardt a leading CDU member of the Bundestag. There seems to be a general realisation of this even within Germany where despite the uncertainty people remain calm and markets remain steady- the Frankfurt stock exchange even rose slightly yesterday.

This is in stark contrast to her embattled counterpart in the UK were chatter of Theresa May leaving downing street has been bubbling under the surface since the exit poll was released at the end of the last election.

Speaking of the UK, perhaps even more unfounded is the notion that Merkel’s difficulties are an opportunity for an embattled Theresa May to “divide and conquer” in Brexit negotiations.

It is notable that with the exception of the Alternative For Germany (AfD), the entire political spectrum in Germany has a similar attitude to the talks and will be keen for the country to continue its current line albeit at slower pace due to domestic difficulties.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Pic: Getty

Previously: Stability Über Alles

From top: German Chancellor Angela Merkel yesterday congratulates German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schaeuble (foreground) during Schaeuble’s 75th birthday next to Christian Democratic Union (CDU) vice chairperson Thomas Strobel (third right) and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker: Shane Heneghan

We’ve already seen the finales of the American and British version of this boxset – in which the well-connected, competent, elite, slightly-less-than-likeable female politician who seems all but assured of a solid and somewhat boringly predictable victory has her hopes dashed at the very last minute.

Of course, it would be far too simplistic to think that the same thing could happen in Germany on Sunday for Angela Merkel as she is a much stronger certainty for victory than either May or Clinton.

For one thing, the German voter has a strong and consistent love of stability – Merkel is one of just three people to hold the office of Chancellor since 1982. In addition, she has presided over a relatively prosperous country even if it is not without its problems.

This does not mean that Sunday’s vote is boring.

Merkel’s centre-right CDU-CSU alliance is currently in a grand-coalition (or GroKo) with their traditional left of centre rivals, the Social Democrats.

Their candidate for Chancellor and Merkel’s main rival, Martin Schulz is struggling to make an impact despite an initial bounce when he won his party’s nomination.

This is due largely to how close the two main parties have become in recent years. It’s a familiar story- as the centre ground parties move closer together the fringe parties become more attractive.

In terms of polling, the CDU-CSU remains in a static yet solid lead on about 36%, but the interesting area of movement in terms of opinion polls is the race for third place.

The once poorly organised Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is certain to be the first far-right wing movement to enter the Bundestag since the 1930s. This will be the headline “shock to the system” particularly if they can manage to break 10%.

The Greens have been resurgent, the far-left Die Linke remain stable and the liberal FDP party remain on course to storm back into Parliament.

Recent polls have these four options bumping along between 8 and 11% each. The extreme right and left will almost certainly be left out of government formation negotiations.

Which brings us to the crux of the matter. The interesting element this time in Germany will be coalition formation. If the election does not result in a continuation of the current GroKo set up, Angela may put something together with the liberal FDP party whom she is reasonably close to ideologically and whom she has experience of dealing with in the past.

The party will be wary of another stint in government with Merkel however, as last time they had one they lost all of their seats in the Bundestag at the subsequent election. As such, they may be ready to exact a higher price.

Alexander Hahn, a member of the FDP national executive, told Bild. “The FDP should enter no government in which it cannot name a finance minister,”.

This ministry is arguably one of the most powerful economics portfolios in Europe today and is currently held by Merkel’s right-wing ally, 75-year-old Wolfgang Shauble.

A divisive figure, what happens to Schauble post-election is probably a more interesting plot line, and in the long run for Europe, a more relevant one.

He has been a staunch defender of the ECB’s strict orthodoxy in managing the EU debt crisis and change here would not be without repercussions.

There are many in the Greens and Social Democrats who would also like to see the back of him.

The process of negotiations takes time- last time it was nearly three months before all was agreed so there are bound to be some high-profile casualties in that time.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

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From top: French president-elect Emmanuel Macron; Shane Heneghan

In a conciliatory speech yesterday evening, Emmanuel Macron greeted his unexpectedly strong victory of 66% to Marine Le Pen’s 34% in a slightly more sombre mood than some might have expected.

There are several reasons for this. Perhaps he has the current incumbent, Francois Hollande in mind – a man who came to power five short years ago on a message of hope and change who shall leave the Elyse Palace next weekend with negligible approval ratings and without having made any serious dent on an unemployment rate of 10%.

That 34% of voters choose a Fascist, with a capital F, over him will also be in the back of his head and despite the Front National’s loss, obtaining over a third of votes cast remains a remarkable achievement for a party that begin life as a ragbag of Vichy apologists and holocaust deniers.

Yet more sobering for the President elect is the number of people who did not bother to vote at all. At 74%, turnout was at a near record low (though by contrast, it’s worth noting that only one Irish election has reached this level in the past 35 years).

Many of those voters who sat this one out may be eager to take part in next month’s Parliamentary election and frustrate the new President’s efforts to put together a coherent majority thus hamstringing his ability to deliver on his promises.

But perhaps, one notable detail of the result is likely to stick in his mind. Unlike Brexit and Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen has remarkably strong support among younger voters. T

his will perhaps be firmly in his mind when dealing with a youth unemployment rate of nearly 24%- if he finds time to do this between restructuring the euro and reforming the French public service.

Don’t get me wrong. The rise of this guy has been meteoric. He was unknown five years ago. His party didn’t exist 14 months ago and on Sunday, he will take charge of the world’s fifth largest economy and get the codes for Europe’s largest nuclear arsenal.

But his demeanour at the very least seems to show us a man who also sees the writing on the wall. Macron has five years to succeed where Hollande failed or he will hand Le Pen the Presidency in 2022.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Pic: Getty

frenchelections

shane

From top: Emmanuel Macron Francois Fillon and Marine Le Pen; Shene Heneghan

With four candidates within 3% of one another in the polls, France’s presidential election remains volatile. The two most dramatic statistics frequently ignored in the past few weeks, however, are the high level of undecided voters (as much as one third) and those who say they won’t vote (about 28% in a country where 80% turnouts are the norm).

All this, together with the tragic shooting of a policeman in central Paris just days before voting make this easily the toughest French presidential election to call in the history of the 5th republic.

A year ago, many pundits would have said the election of Marine Le Pen as president was considerably more likely than that of Donald Trump or a vote for Brexit and she has done her best to make the most of these two events.

Her campaign has been scandal-ridden from the off with allegations of misappropriation of funds from the European Parliament to loan agreements with those close to the Kremlin in Russia. Despite all this, and despite her party’s poor record in other recent elections (the FN was expected to make breakthroughs in the most recent regional elections but failed) she is still the woman to beat.

If she wins, France’s place in the euro and the EU itself are both very much up for discussion and without France, the continued existence of both is unlikely.

Her main rival began this campaign as an outsider, but as a man who fell in love with, then subsequently married his secondary school French teacher, Emmanuel Macron is used to overcoming the odds.

Apart from a brief stint as economy minister under President Hollande he has no government experience. He left government to set up his own centrist, grassroots, staunchly pro-EU political movement, “En Marche” which has since gone from strength to strength. He now has a strong chance of meeting it through to the 2nd round.

Another candidate firing up his party base is veteran left winger Jean-Luc Mélenchon- who is perhaps best described as a French Bernie Sanders. Like Sanders, he has been drawing big numbers to rallies recently – even to ones where he appears by hologram. Though turnout with the far left is always an issue and most polls have him a few points behind he cannot be ruled out from getting through on Sunday.

The early favourite for this contest was the centre-right’s Francois Fillon who saw poll numbers tumble when it emerged he may have been paying his wife around half a million euro a year to do more or less nothing.

Despite this fall from grace, he is still hovering around 20% in polls, doing very well among the over 60s and Catholics (two groups with consistently high turnout) and benefits from a well-resourced campaign. Staunchly opposing adoption rights for same sex couples and in favour of limiting immigration and stronger relations with Russia, Fillon can be described as being on the right of his own party.

One of the main advantages Fillon would have over his rivals if he were elected is the ability to form a Parliamentary majority after the election. Officially speaking at least, none of the other three can count on more than a handful of MPs in the Assemblee Nationale.

The legislative elections that happen within a few weeks of the second round of the presidential election are bound to give the incumbent a boost but it would be highly unlikely that any of these three movements came close to an outright majority. Fillon himself has his rivals in his own party and may not always get his own way in Parliament.

We can say therefore that the next President of France is likely to be a weak figure whose tenure may change the relationship between Parliament and Presidency for the foreseeable future.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Update: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen estimated to be through to second round (Guardian)

may:corbyn
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From top: Theresa May; Jeremy Corbyn; Shane Heneghan

Further to the announcement of a UK General Election on June 8…

Shane Heneghan writes:

On paper, Theresa May’s decision to seek a general election makes sense. Her party enjoys an historic lead in the polls ahead of Labour and the given wisdom is that the Conservatives will make very strong gains.

Received wisdom is not doing all that well these days, however and a few potential pitfalls seem to leap off the page.

The most predictable of these is perhaps Scotland. Nicola Sturgeon remains one of the most popular women in the British isles and continues to campaign for a second independence referendum with great gusto.

If the SNP do as well as they did last time (and we have no reason to think they won’t) then their demand for another referendum can hardly be ignored. Theresa May’s increased majority could come at the cost of the very existence of the United Kingdom.

Perhaps even more obvious is the threat of political fatigue.

This will be the fourth national poll in the UK in three years. This will depress turnout. That does not necessarily make it difficult for the Tories, (unless the fact that May promised there would be no early election becomes an issue) but it will make things a little more unpredictable.

And then there’s Corbyn. The man they said was doomed from day one. Both figures and pundits put his chances at getting to Downing Street at slim to none.

In such unpredictable times we can never completely rule him out, of course, but let’s consider a Labour wipe out where they lose up to 100 seats. This leaves the far left of the Labour party discredited for a generation and allows for a more centrist and ultimately more electable leader to emerge.

If, on the other hand, Labour under Corbyn make modest gains, then the left of the party holds on to some credibility and causes some Tory blushes even if the leader has to stand a side.

With such great expectations, the real risk is that the gamble falls flat. Imagine if Theresa May comes form a majority of 12 to just 20.

Tory backbenches would not be best pleased at having just fought a seven week campaign for next to nothing. She’d look weak and any potential opponents within the party she has would be bolstered.

Today, the media is full of a sense of palpable inevitability. Remember what happened the last time there was such a feeling around a female candidate?

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Earlier: Snap!

Montage: Daily Telegraph

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From top: European leaders assemble yesterday in Rome, Italy; Shane Heneghan

Cheap phone calls on holiday are of cold comfort to the jobless youth in the South.

Europe needs more.

Shane Heneghan writes:

This weekend EU leaders (what’s left of them) gathered in Rome to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome which began the process of European integration as we know it.

In an atmosphere of much mutual backslapping, the story of the European Union was celebrated and a brief declaration on the future of Europe was signed.

Yes, this anniversary comes at a time when the second biggest donor in the club is about to leave, but the declaration signed at Rome tries to make this look as much as possible as an opportunity as well as a difficulty.

The declaration and the celebration itself were, of course, peppered liberally with certain myths. The underlying narrative that European integration has been plain sailing since the late 50s is the easiest one to debunk.

If you go back into the newspaper archives of the 50th, 40th, and 30th anniversaries you will find the Union in various different midlife crises each time. In 2007, for example, the club was desperately trying to salvage something from the failed constitution project- which eventually became the Lisbon treaty.

Even the signing of the Treaty itself was done in a general atmosphere of malaise in the wake of the French Parliament rejecting the proposed European Defence Union a few years previously.

Perhaps this should serve as a warning to those so eager to see the EU gain a defence policy as a reaction to the Trump White House.

The declaration contains an admission that some states may wish to move forward at varying different speeds of integration – like this is something new – that this was even written down is an insult to the intelligence of anyone who has had half an eye on what has been going on in the past 60 years.

We have a multispeed Europe perhaps since day one – or at the very least since the signing of the Schengen agreement on free movement in the 1980s.

But of course, the most interesting thing about informal declarations like this is what is not mentioned.

Earlier this week, Greenpeace and other environmental actors lamented the fact that the text has no mention of climate change. This is missing an open goal. Even eurosceptics can sometimes be convinced that environmental issues like this need to be tackled at an international level.

Here Europe has a chance to make itself more cohesive and also, ya know, save the world. As a former Finnish Prime Minister once put it, the EU is like a shark- it must keep moving or it will sink. It needs a big idea.

Well meaning defenders of the project point to successes such as the abolition of roaming charges as justification. Cheap phone calls on holiday are of cold comfort to the jobless youth in the South.

Europe has a single currency now – it’s in our pockets. This is the big leagues. It’s insulting to the citizens to serve up low level issues like this and present it as progress.

We need a common treasury and we should look at increasing the amount of money the EU spends on infrastructure.

The structural funds are arguably one of the best examples of well managed public spending you are likely to find. If this was to be scaled up, even modestly, could have a very strong effect economically.

Speaking as an unrepentant Federalist (I knew I’d work the f bomb into this somehow) I’m so tired of PR exercises like what we saw in Rome. We need more.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

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From top: Dutch political party leaders Geert Wilders (PVV), Emile Roemer (SP), Mark Rutte (VVD), Lodewijk Asscher (PvdA), Alexander Pechtold (D66) and Sybrand van Haersma Buma (CDA) at the offices of De Telegraaf newspaper earlier this month: Shane Heneghan

The Netherlands heads to the polls on Wednesday with 2017’s first test of the wave of populism that dominated 2016.

Shane Heneghan writes:

So far, the main international headlines concerning the Dutch general Election deal with the potential electoral comeback of the far-right wing PVV under the leadership of their founder, Geert Wilders.

Staunchly pro-Israel, and pro-US (particularly under its new management), strongly anti-immigrant and anti-elitist, Wilders’ brand of populism has many echoes of the rise of UKIP, the Front National and Donald Trump.

Wilders is seldom vague in his rhetoric- frequently branding whole groups of emigrants as “Moroccan scum” and referring to Islam as the “ideology of a retarded culture”.

It should be remembered, however, that no opinion poll taken this year has seen his party on more than 23% of the vote and that the more recent polls see them as unlikely to be the largest party.

This brings us to the real story in Dutch politics in recent years.

There has been a kind of Balkanisation in the wake of the decline of both the centre-right VVD and the centre-left Pvda which has led to a mushrooming in small and single issue parties that opinion polls indicate may make forming a government after the election supremely tedious.

The political pallet is vast.

The country now has the world’s only Animal rights party with representation at the national level, a party dedicated to the issues affecting those over 50, a pro migrants party and a reformed evangelical Christian party all of which currently have representation in Parliament and all of which are expected to increase that representation at this election.

Worth watching is the rise of the radical liberal party, D66. A smaller party, with several stints in government under its belt over the past 40 years, they can claim credit for some of the more liberal reforms post war Holland is famous for including euthanasia, drug decriminalisation and same sex marriage.

The party is currently expected to take as many as 20 seats and a swing between now and polling day coupled with their centrist position economically could theoretically leave their leader as the first ever D66 prime minister.

Perhaps more radical if much less likely would be the prospect of the Dutch electing the world’s first Green Prime Minister in the form of Jesse Klaver, a 30 year old family man with Indonesian and Moroccan heritage who is expected to bring his party from four seats to the low 20s.

Given that the next government may involve up to five parties, the process of government formation is in itself is worth examining.

The Dutch monarch appoints an informateur, who – and this could prove to be crucial – may be an MP or senator from any party, who then begins negotiations between potential partners while keeping the King informed in a process that has long been criticised for its secrecy. As this is the 1st election since his mother’s abdication in 2013, it will be interesting to watch how King Willem-Alexander approaches this process.

This election is probably the most unpredictable I have come across in sometime and I include everything 2016 has put us through when I say that. One poll over the weekend suggested that there may be as little as 6% between the top six parties.

Given how badly I performed on these pages when examining the Irish election and the Brexit vote last year I won’t dare make a prediction. But I do think the result may very well set the tone for elections for the rest of 2017 with consequence for France and to a lesser extent Germany.

Get the popcorn.

Shane Heneghan is a Brussels-based election and poll watcher. Follow Shane on Twitter: @shaneheneghan

Top pic: Getty