Brussels Behind the Scenes: ‘Change places!’

Brussels Behind the Scenes: ‘Change places!’
Credit: Wikimedia Commons

BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES
Weekly analysis and untold stories
With SAM MORGAN

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‘Change places!’

Europe’s political landscape resembled the Mad Hatter’s tea party this week, as government leaders changed places at an alarming rate. A worrying lack of stability aside, it has at least reminded the rest of the continent of a few important lessons and home truths.

Certain European governments – who shall not remain nameless – did their best this week to distract us from the omicron Covid uncertainty that has added another unwanted layer of worry to the pandemic.

Sweden kicked off the week of instability, as designated prime minister Magdalena Andersson faced a second vote of confidence. She had already resigned once days before, just mere hours after the first vote.

Not only did it make Andersson a pub quiz answer – ‘what do Sweden’s first and second female prime ministers have in common?’ – it also shone a light on how Sweden actually does politics.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


 

Andersson was confirmed as prime minister despite the number of votes against her far outstripping the votes in favour. However, because the ‘no’ camp did not reach the required threshold, she got the job with just one vote to spare.

Her undoing came later, as parliament voted for a budget proposal put together by nationalist parties. That was anathema for her coalition partners, which quit the fragile alliance, prompting Andersson’s resignation.

Another vote on Monday yielded the same narrow ‘win’ for the former-future PM, making her head of government, again. She is, however, obligated to implement the divisive budget and will have at least 10 months in the job before fresh elections next year.

Most of us following the news were probably initially baffled by the fact that a vote of confidence can pass so long as a majority does not vote against, a quirk of Swedish politics, or that minority governments are not unusual.

All of this provides a small but valuable insight into how the country works. That is important. The EU’s “united in diversity” motto only makes sense if some of the more nuanced diversities are acknowledged. People are not just different depending on where you look, politics are too.

That will again come to the fore next week when EU ministers meet for a summit on employment and social policies. The European Commission’s plan for an adequate minimum wage directive will top the agenda; disagreements are guaranteed.

Sweden and Denmark have been the most prominent critics of the proposal, as wages have traditionally been brokered using collective bargaining. Their governments fear that the directive would erode that right, undermining unions and upsetting the apple cart.

A compromise will have to be crafted somehow and there is already some hope for a deal, as Sweden has come around to the Commission’s plan. Exemptions that will protect the collective bargaining system look to have convinced Stockholm of the directive’s merits.

Here we have an example then of member state peculiarities taken into account and incorporated into EU policymaking. Now the minimum wage’s advocates just have to convince the Danes. No easy task…

Alpine mess

Sweden was not the only country generating headlines normally reserved for Italy’s often mad political arena. Austria also uncharacteristically provoked a bit of mirth.

Former chancellor Sebastian Kurz, who resigned amid scandal earlier this year, announced that he was stepping away from politics altogether, under the pretext that he wants to spend more time with his family.

“I’m neither a saint nor a criminal,” Kurz said before riding off into the sunset. As a few commenters already quipped, Austria’s legal system still needs to decide one way or another on the latter point.

The so-called Wünderkind of Austrian politics is only in his mid-thirties so expect a comeback at some point. But Kurz’s auf Wiedersehen was made more notable by the resignation of his successor, Alexander Schallenberg.

“I firmly believe that both positions – head of government and leader of the Austrian party with the most votes – should soon once again be held by the same person,” he said in a statement announcing his decision.

Schallenberg was considered a Kurz-proxy and has already been replaced by interior minister Karl Nehammer. The next round of elections are due at the latest by 2024.

All of this happened against the backdrop of the government imposing another lockdown, setting a vaccine mandate for February and Vienna hosting tense talks about reviving the Iran nuclear deal.

Essentially, not even some of the world’s most pressing problems could eclipse an old-fashioned political scandal, which was triggered by an anti-corruption probe and allegations of cronyism.

The Austrian government’s teetering also demonstrates yet again how rough a time the European Peoples’ Party is having. From pan-European powerhouse to leading just a handful of governments in just a few short years, the slide has been rather remarkable.

There she goes

Nothing is more illustrative of the EPP’s change of fortunes than pictures taken in Berlin on Thursday, as Angela Merkel took her leave as chancellor after 16 years to the tune of a military band playing songs by punk legend Nina Hagen.

Germany’s socialists, liberals and greens managed to put together a coalition, allowing Merkel to hand over the reins just in time for Christmas. Olaf Scholz will be confirmed as chancellor next week on 8 December.

Behind the Scenes has written before about how Merkel has handled the transition of power and how that is an indispensable part of the democratic process. Now it has actually happened, that point rings even truer.

As a side-note, your Behind the Scenes correspondent was half-hoping that a mini-crisis in Luxembourg would add a fourth example to this analysis; however, Prime Minister Xavier Bettel, still reeling from a plagiarism scandal, has managed to keep his government together.

So far anyway. As this week has proved, political life comes at you fast.


BRUSSELS BEHIND THE SCENES is a weekly newsletter which brings the untold stories about the characters driving the policies affecting our lives. Analysis not found anywhere else, The Brussels Times’ Sam Morgan helps you make sense of what is happening in Brussels. If you want to receive Brussels behind the scenes straight to your inbox every week, subscribe to the newsletter here.


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