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Florence Post

May 23rd, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized 1 comment

I travelled through the night by train from Vienna to Florence – through regions where borders have been rather fluid throughout history.

I left what Austria’s far-right Freedom Party – the FPÖ – might call ‘old’ Austria; and entered what Italy’s far-right Northern League party (the Lega Nord) would like officially to call Padania – the name given to a collection of northern Italian regions which since 1991 the Lega Nord has been proposing, with greater or lesser impetus, as a separate state.

In reality the Lega Nord, which was founded in 1991 by Umberto Bossi, is a federalist party that is calling for Italy to become a federal state and thereby give the northern provinces greater autonomy.   The underlying, not-so-unspoken message is ‘the relatively wealthy north is fed up with paying for the relatively poor south’.

Sound familiar?

The party is also eurosceptic, anti-globalisation and anti-immigration.  It follows the ‘big tent’ philosophy, which means it welcomes members from all wings of politics – far left and far right – as long as they adhere broadly to the party’s core tenets.  In practice, this is all about bringing on board as many supporters as it can muster, without worrying too much about members’ political pedigrees.

Its current eight MEPs are part of the right-wing, eurosceptic Europe of Freedom and Democracy group, chaired jointly by Nigel Farage (UKIP) and the League’s own Francesco Speroni.

Like most political campaigners, the relatively youthful leader of the Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini, set himself a punishing campaign schedule, on his “We’ve had enough of the Euro” tour.  ‘If it’s 4.15pm on Thursday, it must be Florence.’

After more than ten years of covering the key moments in Italy’s political life, I’m well aware that Italian politics often is a heady operatic mix: that’s soap opera blended with musical-theatre opera.  This afternoon’s setting was just such an example.

A small stage was prepared for Mr Salvini in the stunning Piazza della Signoria; but the backdrop was far more imposing.

It included the 700-year-old Palazzo Vecchio, Florence’s striking town hall; and the huge replica of Michelangelo’s David statue, peering down in all his glory.  And just feet away was the world-famous Uffizi Gallery, with its priceless collection of works of art.

From the loud speakers, a version of ‘O Fortuna’ from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana blasted out.

(The irony of a fiercely proud northern Italian party, based in the region of Vivaldi and Puccini, using music by a German composer to introduce the leader seemed to be lost on the Lega Nord).

The menacing opening section of ‘O Fortuna’ was familiar; less so the Italian pappy-pop section that had been inserted to give it that extra populist appeal.

(As an aside: Carmina Burana was written in Germany in 1937.  The piece is said to be highly evocative; it was embraced by the Nazis; but ultimately, despite its appealing bluster, has no actual meaning.)

As the party workers – many bearing the League’s white flag with its green, circular symbol – prepared for the arrival of their boss, I was once again struck by how the glory of Florence – with its 13th century duomo and renaissance squares – never ceases to impress.  Which is why the streets of central Florence teem with visitors from around the world whenever the sun shines – and often when it doesn’t.

This afternoon was no exception.

Anxious looking, lanyard-bearing global tourists followed raised umbrellas and flags of differing designs, keeping up with yet another language’s version of the history of the centre of ancient Florence, now a World Heritage site.  Much of the scene was being captured by a man taking a shot using his iPad, which was covered by a plastic protector bearing a faux leopard-skin design.

And all this watched over by eager restaurateurs, landau drivers and hawkers.

There were other eyes too.  Various ranks of police officers had started to fill one section of the square.  At least 40 policemen – some riot police, some regular officers, all touting pistols – remained calm and friendly; but it was clear they and their large vehicles were ready for anything.

As time marched on, I did the maths: the police outnumber the League’s own party workers.  And they, for their part, outnumbered the ‘regular punters’ who turned up to listen.

And then there was Angela Merkel.

No – she didn’t turn up in person.  But in line with the Lega Nord’s calls for Italy to ditch the Euro, her name did feature on one of the party’s main placards.

It read: “For Sale: €uro (sic) project.  Enquiries to: Angela Merkel”.  (No mention of ‘one careful owner’….)

And then suddenly there he was – Matteo Salvini, dressed in a road-workers luminous jacket and hard hat.  He was doing interviews beside the stage and was surrounded by party workers – and baffled tourists.  He was given a huge, screaming build up on stage by another young party worker – the microphone squealing with feedback.

And then he began a fast, furious and succinct speech.

It was peppered with calls for an end to the Euro and for Italy to take back control of its own affairs.  Salvini described the Euro project as ‘dead’.  (In the past he has referred to the Euro as ‘a crime against humanity’.)

“Give me Italian tomatoes instead of Euros any day”, he said.

He was vociferous in his criticism of bailouts, banks and fiscal pacts; and he called for tighter immigration controls.

And then came a finale of support for the leader of France’s Front National, Marine Le Pen, due on French television a few hours later.

With the Lega Nord’s support dropping – as voters turn to new fringe parties that have emerged since the last European elections – the party is predicted to lose half its MEPs this time round.  This is despite a growing disaffection in some sectors of Italian society with the European project; and an economy that has teetered on the brink of disaster.

Erica, Anna, Francesca and Giorgia are all in their 30s and work in fashion retail.  They have good jobs and some money to spend on fun, which is what they were having in this afternoon’s Florence sunshine.

They are worried about the economy and the environment.  Anna tells me that Italy is light-years behind other European member states when it comes to protecting the environment or developing sources of renewable energy.  That, says Anna, is why we need the EU.  And all of the women want tougher controls on illegal immigration.  (The stories of some-times tragic attempts by illegal immigrants to enter the EU often come from Lampedusa, an Italian island temptingly close to the north African coast.)

Erica and Anna admit they don’t yet know who they’ll vote for when Italians go to the polls this Sunday.  Francesca and Giorgia are a little more clear: they think they’ll vote for the 5-Star Movement (a relatively new populist, environmentalist but also softly Eurosceptic party).

They all say they still want to hear what the different parties have to offer.

So there’s still time for the anti-Euro Mr Salvini and his party workers – who have little time for Frau Merkel – to don their luminous vests and hard hats and continue to blast out a few more bars of Germany’s ‘O Fortuna’.

Tomorrow: Berlin and the final rally of the ‘Alternatives for Germany’ party

Tags: LegaNord, Italy, EUElections2014, MatteoSalvini

European Elections 2014: Budapest to Brussels – Vienna Post

May 21st, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

It’s 100 Years Since Austria Changed The World

This Sunday Austrians go to the polls to elect their MEPS.

The date is little more than one month short of the 100th anniversary of an Austria-related event that re-shaped the world forever: the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Princess Sophie in Sarajevo; which led to the events that culminated in the First World War.

While Sunday’s vote will not of course have such a dramatic impact on the future of Austria or the EU, the anniversary does perhaps give Austrians cause to reflect on the tumultuous last century of their country – a former empire and monarchy; and on how those events have created the Austria we see today.

Eye-Catching Politics

As Viennese voters wait for trams on the Ringstrasse, the wide and traffic-choked boulevard that encircles the historic centre of the old imperial capital, they are treated to a visual onslaught of political posters calling on them to vote for this party or that.  It would perhaps be unkind to suggest that all the party machines were struggling to come up with the catchiest slogan, but forgive me if I plead ‘fair comment’.

“Too much EU is stupid” – FPÖ (Freedom Party)

“Your Europe can do so much more” – (Green Party)

“We look beyond the end of our noses” NEOS (Liberal Party)

“Together for a better Europe” – ÖVP (Conservative Party)

“Vote for social change” – SPÖ (Socialist Party)

(My own translations; shown in alphabetical order of party name)

In a world where superficiality usually wins out over substance, a bit of star-quality glamour seems to be more eye-catching – and on the street hoardings of Vienna the competition is between the piercing blue eyes of the leader of the FPÖ, Heinz-Christian Strache; and the coy smile of Austria’s bearded, transvestite Eurovision sensation, Conchita Wurst.

But – with the exception of the FPÖ – the messages do seem broadly to share one theme: Austrians need to engage with the EU more and fight their corner in its institutions.  Of course each party’s view of how best to fight that fight and what that corner should contain is different – sort of.

The Trouble With Success….

The Austrians have undoubtedly done well out of the EU (Austria is reportedly the second wealthiest member state – after Luxembourg).  But there is a strong Euro-skeptic climate in the seat of the old Hapsburg empire, although in the main no party is calling for the country to leave the EU.

Heinz-Christian Strache, the 44-year-old former dental technician and head of Austria’s right-wing, populist FPÖ, is a politician who likes to enjoy a beer with his supporters (British readers may recognise this campaigning tactic!).  And despite the party’s Euro-skeptic position, the FPÖ is trailing the Socialist and the Conservative People’s Parties by just a few percentage points.

There’s no doubt Mr Strache is going all-out to win Sunday’s poll – and that victory is not beyond the realms of possibility.

The FPÖ’s popularity may be difficult to explain, given Austria’s enviable GDP and low unemployment figures.  (At just under 5 percent, unemployment in Austria is among Europe’s lowest).

But there is clearly a general dissatisfaction with the status quo and with what many Austrians see as interference from Brussels in domestic matters.

Many Austrians view their country as a haven of wealth and prosperity – and many feel this is under threat from refugees and cheap foreign labour.

And like a sizeable number of working class Hungarians (, ‘regular’ Austrians feel their voice is not being heard or is being ignored by the establishment and ruling classes.

This might be a sentiment with which UKIP’s Nigel Farage would concur – although in a heated radio interview on LBC in London last week, the head of UKIP made it clear he would not be prepared to join an alliance with future FPÖ MEPs in the European Parliament.

United States of Europe?

I went to an election debate hosted last night (Tue 20 May) in Vienna by the Federation of Austrian Industries (IV).  In the Federation’s palatial, gold-encrusted and marble-festooned meeting room, a portrait of Emperor Franz Josef (1830-1916) took pride of place, towering over the politicians on the stage.  There was no doubting the sense of history that forms the bedrock of the Austrian establishment; nor the importance of the national identity, however Austrians choose to interpret that.

So how would the five candidates (from the People’s, Socialist, Green, Freedom and Liberal (NEOS) Parties) respond when asked if the EU should evolve into a United States of Europe – something of which Emperor Franz Josef might have approved, on his own terms of course?

In most cases the answers (under the rules of the debate: strictly one minute 30 seconds long) were nuanced, but broadly in favour, up to a point, with lots of caveats about more democracy and transparency and a clearly defined on-going role for the nation state.  But from the Freedom Party candidate came a clear ‘no thank you’.

‘We need more democracy, less bureaucracy; the EU should stick to making the economies of the Member States more competitive,’ said Barbara Kappel, a 49 year old economist and member of the regional parliament of Vienna.

Eyes To The Right…?

Europe has, in the recent past, fallen out with Austria over its willingness to form coalitions with right-wing parties.  With stormy weather predicted for the weekend in part of Franz Josef’s former realm, many in Brussels will be wondering if a political storm could be brewing, should the political map of Austria – and several other member states – edge yet further to the right.


Tags: EUElections2014, Austria, ÖVP, SPÖ, Die Grünen, NEOS, FPÖ, BXLSeanK

Hungary Post – 19 May 2014

May 19th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet

Sunshine and High Water, but Little Enthusiasm for European Elections...

In the Budapest sunshine with the Danube rushing menacingly south towards inundated Serbia, the political climate is less frenetic.
As Hungarians prepare for Sunday’s vote to the European Parliament, there’s a sense of election fatigue. Only last month, there was a general election here, won by Hungary’s conservative Civic Alliance Party, Fidesz, led by the controversial figure, Viktor Orbán.

Predictions and Indifference

On Sunday, the turnout here is expected to be low.
The latest predictions are:

Fidesz (Hungarian Civic Alliance, national conservative party): 56%
Jobbik (Movement for a Better Hungary – radical nationalist party): 17-18%
MSZP (Hungarian Socialist Party): 14%

There are questions about whether or not the smaller Hungarian parties will reach the ‘magic’ threshold of 5% needed to send an MEP to Brussels. And in some cases, Hungarian voters are being kept in the dark about which Brussels political groups their politicians will join if they are indeed voted in.

So, a spirit of indifference to this week’s European elections is in the air. And for that reason you are hard pushed to see the faces of the EU’s ‘star’ politicians smiling at you from campaign posters: in Hungary, the faces are very much local.
(It was quite the opposite when I was in Berlin last week, and saw mug-shots of Messers Schulz and Juncker peering at me from many a billboard).

Nationalist Radicals In Alleged Spying Debacle

Meanwhile Hungary’s radical nationalists have hit the headlines in recent days.
One of Jobbik’s three MEPs – Bela Kovacs – was accused in the pro-government newspaper, Magyar Nemzet (15 May 2014), of spying for the Russians.


A Quick Reminder: Who Are Jobbik?

Five or six years ago, Jobbik was a relatively unknown entity. But in 2009 it won 14.6% of the vote in the European Parliamentary elections and sent three MEPs to Brussels. Shortly after that election, at a meeting in Budapest of like-minded European parties, it formed the Alliance of European National Movements. The founding members included France’s Front National (which has since left the Movement); Italy’s Fiamma Tricolore (MS-FT); Sweden’s National Democrats; and Belgium’s National Front (which has since been dissolved).
In last month’s general election in Hungary, Jobbik won 20% of the vote. Like its euro-sceptic allies, Jobbik wants Hungary to leave the EU. One of its European election posters declares: “Hungary’s economy = Income for Europe”. (It’s worth noting that Hungary is not a net contributor to the EU, so this slogan needs some explanation from Jobbik….)

Mr Kovacs – who is number three on Jobbik’s election list and therefore highly likely to be returned to Brussels – has a long both professional and personal relationship with Moscow. He is also well-known in the corridors of the European Parliament for arguing strongly the case for Gazprom. Some of his fellow parliamentarians have indeed expressed surprise that an MEP should spend so much time focusing his attention on a company that hails from a country outside the EU. And there have long been rumours and allegations in Hungary – hotly denied by Bela Kovacs – that Mrs Kovacs (a dual Russian-Austrian national) may have worked for the KGB.

Today Hungary’s Parliamentary Committee on National Security summoned Mr Kovacs to answer the spying allegations. On television last week Prime Minister Orbán accused anyone engaged in promoting the causes of Russia to the detriment of Hungary of being a traitor. Mr Kovacs and his party cry foul. They claim the allegations are politically motivated. This is of course hardly surprisingly, given the timing of the allegations and the closed-door meeting today at the parliament – within just days of the European elections.
After the three-hour meeting, a somewhat dazed looking Mr Kovacs left the parliament saying little more than he had important election campaigning to do. His party leader defended him; others said sufficient evidence of an improper relationship with Russia had been presented to the committee; and yet others said the meeting was strictly private and refused to comment further. The upshot: the committee will look further into the allegations – nothing is definitively resolved.
So – either Jobbik is damaged by the allegations; or its supporters and waverers will be sufficiently incensed by what they may see as political inteference to turn out and vote in even greater numbers for Jobbik on Sunday. All will become clear next Sunday evening/Monday morning.

The Sun Sets – But The River Flows On…

As the sun sets, creating a dramatic orange night sky across the hills of Buda, the tourists, students and musicians continue – seemingly unconcerned – to amble, sing and drink on Liberty Bridge. Perching on the bridge supports, beer cans in hand and looking up river into the orange glow bathing Buda Castle, Mark and Patrick, two 19-year-old Hungarian paramedic students, are clear about where to put their crosses on this week’s ballot paper. “We’ll be voting Jobbik,” Mark says, without hesitation. “Fidesz and the Socialists have destroyed this country over the last twenty four years [an allusion to the time since the collapse of communism]; Jobbik knows how to keep this country’s agricultural sector going; and it rejects globalisation.”
Meanwhile in Fovam Square, two young amateur musicians prepare to perform using only hand clapping to create sound. Dominic and Gary are both in their twenties, both have jobs – and both are equally disillusioned with the political system. “We have no real political choice in this country,” Dominic says. “Fidesz has all the power – too much power – and they support globalisation.”
Gary adds “Decisions are made in Brussels – so our voices simply aren’t heard.”
They’re both undecided if they’ll actually bother to vote on Sunday – and if they do, they may leave it until they’re in the voting booth to decide where to put their crosses.
No one I spoke to had heard of Britain’s UKIP and Nigel Farage.

The sun disappears, and the final illuminations of the day are gone. The Danube pounds inexorably southwards, its flotsam and jetsam smashing against the bridges of the Hungarian capital. And Hungarians ponder, more resigned than enthused, more disconnected than engaged, about what the next chapter of the EU will deliver to them.

EU Elections 2014 Tour: Budapest to Brussels – Hungary Post

May 19th, 2014 Posted by Uncategorized No Comment yet