French democracy in crisis: Macron lacks support, opposition also powerless

One year ago today, Emmanuel Macron was re-elected as president of France. Yet no one seems to be in the mood for a party. Macron is doing badly in the polls: only 26 percent of the French still trust him.

Protest signs against Macron, at a protest earlier this month – AFP

Demonstrations have been taking place across France against Macron’s pension reforms since January. This leads to concerns about the state of the country. “We are in the worst democratic crisis France has seen in decades,” said historian and sociologist Pierre Rosanvallon. Political scientist Adrien Broche sums up: “There is a social crisis, there is a political crisis and more than three-quarters of the French say that French democracy is in bad shape. In short: all signals are on red.”

From day one relatively little support

What’s going on in France? For that we have to go back in time. On April 24, 2022, Emmanuel Macron won the presidential election for the second time. He had already served five years as head of state and was therefore allowed by the voters to stay in office for another five years.\

But it was not a victory with flying colors. Many French people did not vote. As a result, Macron ultimately received the support of only 38.5 percent of all French voters: a minority.
Legally it didn’t matter. The winner is the one with the most votes. But there were warnings about a president with relatively little public support.

Two months later, parliamentary elections were held in France. Macron’s party became the largest, but failed to win an absolute majority. From now on he was forced to negotiate with the opposition before passing bills.

The declining turnout also played a role in the background. The enthusiasm to vote has been decreasing for years among the French. For example, only 46 percent of the French entered the voting booth in the parliamentary elections. By way of comparison: in the Netherlands, the turnout in the last parliamentary elections was 78.7 percent.

President vs. population

In that climate, Emmanuel Macron began his second term in office. Raising the retirement age from 62 to 64 was the first major reform in that new political context: with little public support as president, and without a majority in parliament.

President Macron tried to overcome those obstacles. He initially wanted to raise the retirement age to 65 years, but because of social resistance he made a concession and made it 64 years. The resistance remained the same.,

Macron negotiated in parliament with the conservative opposition to gain support for his plans. That also failed; there was no majority. The result: the president pushed through a plan that the French did not like. He simply sidelined parliament because most MPs would vote against.

Meanwhile, three months of strikes and demonstrations by millions of French people have taken place, making the pension protests among the largest in French history. “The vote of the street should not outweigh the vote of the electorate,” the president said. He meant: the increase in the retirement age was in his election manifesto, so the voter knew what he was opting for. In fact, there is no in-between. But that ‘voter’s vote’ is the 38.5 percent of the French who voted for him. That is what many protesters mean when they say that Macron is not “the people’s president.”

The pension protests exposed the legitimacy problem warned about a year ago. Macron has too little support from the French and too few friends in parliament. Critics say Macron has driven voters away and antagonized the opposition.

Weak opposition

Macron’s opponents cannot make a fist either. The opposition in parliament is hugely divided. They fail to offer an alternative together or in coalitions. And the trade unions have mobilized millions of French people in recent months, but the result has been nil: the protest has had no effect. The pension crisis has only produced losers. “The crisis we are going through has not been good for anyone,” philosopher Florent Guénard said last month. “Democracy is divided and weakened. Emmanuel Macron is our legitimate president. But ‘legitimate’ does not mean you can do what you want. A president has responsibilities: he must listen.”

Emmanuel Macron still has four years left as president. He is now plotting a route for the next hundred days. In that short period of time, new policy plans must be launched, and he also wants to regain the confidence of the French.

Think tank: Putin still firmly believes in complete victory

Russian President Putin still firmly believes in a complete victory in Ukraine. That is what experts from the American think tank Institute for the Study of War (ISW) write in a latest update on the war.

According to them, neither the West nor Ukraine have yet succeeded in convincing Putin that a compromise is needed to end the war. Putin is prepared for a long, drawn-out war to eventually force Ukraine to surrender or to make the West war-weary, leaving Kyiv alone, the ISW writes.

Based on the recent rhetoric and actions of the Russian president, the experts believe that only several successful counter-offensives by Ukraine can force Putin to the negotiating table. But the question is whether Putin will accept the reality on the battlefield.

‘The Netherlands has become a bit more corrupt, because of lobbyists’

The Netherlands became slightly more corrupt last year, Transparency International (TI) reports in its annual corruption ranking. With 80 points, the Netherlands achieved its lowest score ever. The country is still one of the ten countries with the least corrupt public sector. The Netherlands is in eighth place, as in previous years.

Tweede Kamer (Dutch parliament)

The fact that the Netherlands has dropped a few points is mainly due to the lack of political integrity, explains TI spokesperson Andor Admiraal. “For example, there is no good lobbyists’ register, which means there is insufficient supervision of lobbyists. There are also far fewer rules about the financing of political parties than in other countries. Furthermore, a cooling-off period for politicians is not properly arranged.”

For example, CDA Member of Parliament Raymond Knops announced last week that he will lead the lobby club for the arms industry. Knops is now a deputy member of the Defense Committee of the Dutch House of Representatives.

Earlier there was a fuss about the transfer from Minister Cora van Nieuwenhuizen (Infrastructure and Water Management) to the sector association of energy companies. This raised doubts about conflicts of interest and undesirable political influence.

Admiraal: “Almost half of national former politicians start working as lobbyists when their political career is over. That is a real problem in the Netherlands, because voters must know that people in politics make decisions based on their political ideas. Even the appearance of a conflict of interest is enough to undermine that trust.”

A bill is now being drafted for a national lobbying ban, but only for (former) ministers and not for other politicians.

Japan and US strengthen military relationship due to threat from China

Japan and the United States will strengthen their military ties. The two countries announced this in a joint statement. With the cooperation, they say, they are addressing the threats from China and North Korea in the region. They call China’s role “the biggest security challenge”.

Image: APF

According to Japan and the US, China’s policy is aimed at turning international relations in its favor by, among other things, exerting great political, economic and military pressure. British Prime Minister Sunak also signed an agreement to strengthen military ties between Japan and the United Kingdom.

Tensions between China and Taiwan

In the region, there are particularly high tensions between China and Taiwan. The Chinese army regularly conducts exercises near the island state. The Chinese government sees Taiwan as a renegade province. The Taiwanese have a strong ally in the US.

Last August, top American politician Nancy Pelosi visited Taiwan, which was seen as a provocation by China. In Beijing’s eyes, any visit by a foreign administrator or politician is equivalent to recognition of Taiwan’s independence.

Earlier, US President Joe Biden announced that the US military would defend Taiwan in the event of a Chinese invasion.

The military cooperation includes a new naval unit on the Japanese island of Okinawa, not far from Taiwan. The Americans already have a large base there and will expand the existing army. The site is seen as a strategic location in the region, from which it is possible to react quickly.

Additional troops are also stationed on other islands south of Japan. Both countries will also practice multiple times.

Japan strengthens its military

Last year, Japan announced to significantly strengthen its own defense. It will be the largest reinforcement since World War II. Japan feels the threat from North Korea, which regularly fires missiles, and sees that China has expanded its navy and air force in the vicinity of Japan. According to Japan, Chinese naval vessels regularly sail in Japanese territorial waters.

Russia is recruiting Afghan commandos for war in Ukraine

Russia is trying to recruit Afghan commandos to fight in Ukraine, Sky News reports. According to several Afghan military sources, these special forces could have a major impact on the outcome of the battle, should they decide to join the fight. They are trained by the British and US military.

Afghan commando forces

There is a chance that about 10,000 of these men will join Russia, according to an anonymous Afghan source. “They have no country, no jobs, no future. They have nothing to lose,” the source told Sky News. The soldiers are said to have been approached by Russia via WhatsApp and the encrypted messaging service Signal.

After the last US troops left Afghanistan in August last year, the Afghan commandos were left behind. Only some of them were evacuated when the Taliban took power. The men who remained in Afghanistan had to go into hiding to avoid prison or execution.

The Russian economy appears to be more robust than estimated at the start of the Ukraine war. But the outlook is far from rosy.

Russian gas exports have already fallen sharply, but the oil industry has yet to be affected. The Russian economy is contracting this year and the next, but less sharply than previously estimated. On balance, income from oil and gas exports has increased considerably, which is filling the state treasury. The European oil boycott will put pressure on revenues, while other sanctions will also hurt more.

Russian economy

Is Europe sinking as Russia climbs out of the trough? A Russian journalist recently asked this question during a press conference of the International Monetary Fund. Wishful thinking, the IMF economists clearly hinted in their response. They expect a contraction of -3.4% for this year, -2.3% for next year, while the eurozone is expected to grow slightly in 2023. However, last April, a contraction of more than 8% was expected for 2022.

Energy exports

Where does this relative windfall come from? Earlier analysis of the Russian economy still assumed a financial crisis. This scenario did not materialize because capital movements were restricted. Russian monetary authorities also prevented a bank run by raising interest rates. Friend and foe praise the attitude of the Bank of Russia, which operates independently and paints a fairly realistic picture of the economy. In a recent publication, the central bank stated that the economic recovery stalled in September, while inflation is rising again — partly due to ‘the exodus of suppliers and retail chains from unfriendly countries’.

Higher returns from energy exports keep Russia going. It is true that Moscow has largely turned off the gas tap to Europe of its own accord (exports are 80% lower than a year ago), but the sale of gas before the war ‘only’ accounted for a quarter of oil revenues. Oil is therefore much more important to the Russian economy. The price per barrel is higher this year than in 2021 (the recently announced production cut by the oil cartel Opec sets a new floor), while the export volume has remained stable. The state is likely to receive RR 11,700 billion (€194 billion) from oil and gas sales this year, an analyst estimates, compared to RR 9,100 billion last year (€151 billion).

The big blow

Western sanctions are potentially disastrous for Russian industry, which relies heavily on imports of machinery and technology. So far, Moscow has succeeded in limiting the effects with a bit of trickery and wizardry. As soon as the stocks run out, it is expected that major problems will arise. In the meantime, the combination of robust energy exports, falling imports and strict monetary policy is resulting in a strong ruble. This also dampens inflation, as imported consumer goods are relatively cheap as a result.

Normally, the strength of the currency says something about the strength of the underlying economy. But in the case of Russia, this is misleading. Analysts still expect the war to cost the country 10% to 15% of GDP, although this bill is spread over several years. The biggest blow will be the European boycott of Russian oil, which will take effect in December.

Emigration wave

This impending intervention has already led to shifts in trade flows: less to Europe, more to Asia. But can the entire decline of exports to Europe (accounting for about half of Russia’s oil exports before the war) be absorbed by, for example, China? It would then have to import more than twice as much Russian oil. Given the limited supply of tankers, this is only possible if new pipelines are built — and that costs time and money. Bofit, the think tank of the Finnish central bank, foresees an ‘exceptionally large drop’ in Russian exports before 2023. Finnish economists expect a 4% contraction for the Russian economy this year and next, making them more pessimistic than the IMF.

Oil and gas sales account for 40% of Russian government revenue. Lower exports will push up the budget deficit. In view of the low, largely domestically financed government debt, this is not an acute problem.

The decline of the Russian economy is happening in slow motion. This not only concerns the effects of the sanctions, but also of the wave of emigration as a result of the mobilization. Demographers expect a declining birth rate, accelerating the population decline that started in 2018. Bloomberg economists now estimate Russia’s potential economic growth at 0.5% annually — up from 2.5% before the war.

#AI: Manufacturers will soon be liable for damage caused by artificial intelligence

Manufacturers will soon be liable for damage caused by artificial intelligence. That is what the European Commission is proposing today. This means that in the future, for example, damage caused by self-driving cars can be recovered from the manufacturer.

At the moment it is not always clear who is exactly liable if there is damage caused by, for example, a robot or algorithms. With this proposal, the Commission wants to give manufacturers and consumers more clarity.

Not just physical damage

The Commission also believes that damage should go beyond physical or material damage. For example, if you are discriminated against by an algorithm, the manufacturer is also liable. Take, for example, employment agencies that use algorithms to find suitable candidates and can systematically exclude people through the algorithm.

The problem is that it is often difficult for the consumer to prove whether the error is caused by artificial intelligence. For this reason, the Commission wants the burden of proof for people and companies to be lighter. If a victim can demonstrate that the damage is caused by the device or software, the manufacturer will be liable.

It may take a while before these rules really take effect. The European Parliament and the EU countries have yet to consider them.

Russia is getting stronger, the West is weakening

While Russia is gaining ground in eastern Ukraine, there was also positive military news last week. With the weapons received by the West, Ukraine has launched a number of successful attacks against the Russian army and is preparing a counter-offensive against southern cities like Kherson. Ukraine also launched its first attack on a Russian naval base in Crimea.

In addition, a new study by scientists at Yale showed that the sanctions are effective and have now paralyzed the Russian economy.

With the beginning of the transit of food from the Black Sea, the image may arise that Russia would be ready for an agreement. However, this is implausible. The country is already preparing for a long-term conflict and unfortunately Russia’s position vis-à-vis the West could improve significantly in the near future.

First, we must realize that Russia is expanding the conflict to more and more stages. In space, for example: Russia has indicated that it would stop collaborating on the International Space Station, which may endanger the entire project. This also applies to the maritime level: Putin this week approved a new maritime doctrine against American dominance of the world’s seas.

Not to mention the diplomatic scene, where Russia is very active and is trying to influence its image worldwide. In the former Soviet sphere, Putin has visited Tajikistan and Turkmenistan and has held summits with leaders in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan. Important consultations have been held with regional powers Iran, Turkey and Saudi Arabia. In Uzbekistan, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov met ministers from the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation, an Asian bloc led by China and Russia.

The same Lavrov also visited Africa, where he disseminated the Russian perspective on the war in Egypt, Uganda, Ethiopia and Congo. This ties in with anti-Western sentiment and with the economic concerns of many African leaders, as already demonstrated by Macky Sall, president of Senegal and currently chairman of the African Union.

In Africa, Russia has other instruments. In recent years, the Russian private army, the Wagner Group, has gained influence in countries such as Mali, the Central African Republic, Libya and more recently Burkina Faso. This could cause unrest on Europe’s borders.

Even more important than Russian diplomacy is that Western unity threatens to crumble. First, take the US. After the summer, the mid-term elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate will take place there and it is very likely that Biden’s position in Washington will weaken. Ukraine is currently not a major topic in the US. Foreign news in the US is about China and Saudi Arabia. However, the main topic on the news is inflation. Rising prices combined with a recession do not bode well for the incumbent government and its ability to conduct coherent foreign policy.

Consider Europe. Here we see a similar dynamic. The pain of higher prices is becoming more and more apparent and this is causing political tensions. Italian Prime Minister Mario Draghi was the first prominent victim of this when he resigned after clashing with the Five Star Movement over aid packages. After new elections, a right-wing coalition that favors a more positive relationship with Russia could come to power. Everywhere, including in rich countries such as the Netherlands, economic problems will put a lot of pressure on politicians in the coming months.

Tensions will also increase between European countries. The new Italian government will take office at a time of rising interest rates, which will bring renewed concerns about the debt burden of southern European countries. And also think of Eastern Europe. Viktor Orbán, prime minister of Hungary, stated last week that the European sanctions policy is failing and that the EU should not align itself with Ukraine, but between Russia and Ukraine. Impending energy shortages will sharpen the dividing line between countries that are more and less dependent on Russian gas.

So it is quite possible that Western unity and support for Ukraine will come under great pressure in the coming months, let alone possible disruptions such as a new corona wave.

This does not mean that Russia is going to win the war or that the West should push for an agreement with Russia now. This is not feasible. But it does mean that we have to think now about what we will do with a weaker position. And that it is time to look more outwardly and launch our own EU diplomatic offensive.

Read the original piece written in Dutch by Haroon Sheikh here

The Netherlands has the highest gas price in the EU

Last month, the Netherlands had the highest gas price of all countries in the European Union.

Dutch households paid 283 euros per megawatt hour (MWh) of gas in July, more than twice as much as the average EU household. Gas is also about half the price in neighboring countries Germany and Belgium. A month earlier, gas in Sweden was more expensive than in the Netherlands, but in July Swedish households paid 237 euros per MWh.

(Bigstock/JKLS photography)

Purchasing power crisis

Energy prices have been rising rapidly for some time due to the war in Ukraine. Food and rent prices are also rising sharply. There is currently a purchasing power crisis that we have not experienced in decades.

The energy prices are the average rates (including taxes) that energy companies charge for a new energy contract. 283 euros per MWh comes down to 2.76 euros per cubic meter.

People also pay relatively high amounts for electricity in the Netherlands: 419 euros per MWh, including taxes and a reduction in energy tax. Only in Italy and Denmark prices are higher.

An average household that has to renew its energy contract has lost about 3700 euros per year extra compared to last year. The Dutch Budget Information Service Nibud warns that one in three households will run into problems as a result. “Some just need to cut back a bit, but there is also a large group who can’t get by even if they budget well.”

High prices also affect middle incomes

People with a low income can apply for an energy allowance of 1300 euros in the Netherlands. “That is not enough to keep people afloat”, according to Nibud. “We see too many groups who have too little income structurally to make ends meet. This also applies to people with a regular income.”

Companies make record profits

What we are seeing now is that inflation is impoverishing citizens while companies are making record profits. There’s plenty of money, but it all flows to companies.

The Boris Johnson era and Brexit will cost Spain 18 billion euros

MADRID – The United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union was the major political claim during British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s term in office. However, the consequences have been disastrous for international trade, especially for Spain.

Brexit has cost Spain 18 billion euros in trade with the United Kingdom. In 2021, the first full year of Brexit – exports of goods and services from the United Kingdom to Spain amounted to 13.1 billion pounds (about 15.3 billion euros).

Less than during the pandemic

That is even a lower volume than the 14.1 billion pounds of 2020, the pandemic year. UK exports to Spain are a long way from the record £19.5 billion reached in 2019, before Covid and Brexit.

Imports from UK

Something similar is happening with regard to imports from the United Kingdom of goods and services from Spain. In 2021, shipments from Spain to the United Kingdom amounted to £22.4 billion (€26.2 billion). Trade from Spain to the United Kingdom in 2021 was comparable to that of 2020 (22.2 billion pounds). In other words, Brexit has prevented trade from recovering from the pandemic.

The 2021 data is a long way from the £31.6 billion foreign trade record Spain had with the UK in 2019. Between what has been lost in imports and exports on both sides since 2019, total trade between the UK and Spain is now €18 billion less than in 2019, data from the UK’s National Statistics Office shows.

Spain is UK’s sixth trading partner

Spain is among the six European countries with the most commercial exchanges with the United Kingdom, after the Netherlands, Germany, France, Ireland and Italy.