At a recent campaign stop, as she high-fived school children through the bars of their classroom windows, the rising star of Spanish politics linked the surge in her support to Madrid’s yearning to be free.
“It’s a little bit like an explosion, from every social class, from every corner of society, in favour of freedom, in response to such a difficult time,” Isabel Díaz Ayuso told the Financial Times, referring to the pandemic’s impact on Madrid and voter fatigue at government restrictions.
The 42-year-old is a phenomenon, eclipsing the national leader of her conservative People’s party, Pablo Casado, whose series of attempts to reposition himself contrasts with Díaz Ayuso’s clear ideological message, charisma and semi-sceptical stance on Covid curbs.
“Freedom” is the motif of her campaign — the single word fluttering on her party’s banners as she seeks re-election as head of Madrid’s regional government in a May 4 vote overshadowing everything else in national life.
The polls suggest that Díaz Ayuso will virtually double her tally of seats in the regional assembly — increasing the PP vote by almost 20 percentage points — although she may need the far right Vox party to secure a majority. Analysts argue that the consequences of such a success will be profound, and felt at the national level.
“The Madrid election is set to determine the future of the right in Spain,” said Máriam Martínez-Bascuñán, a political scientist at the autonomous university of Madrid. “Ayuso is putting forward her own model of conservative politics — further to the right, even Trump-style in the way she comes out with attention-grabbing statements that distract from discussions about policy.”
Two themes stand out in Díaz Ayuso’s discourse: the inferiority of the left and the superiority of Madrid.
When Pablo Iglesias, the leader of the radical left Podemos grouping, quit his post as deputy prime minister to run in the Madrid race to shore up his party’s flagging fortunes, Díaz Ayuso exclaimed: “Spain owes me one”. On another occasion she joked that “when people call you a fascist you know . . . you are on the right side of history.”
She has previously complained that it is “very unfair to treat Madrid like other regions” and last week said that part of what made Madrid so free was that “you can change partners and your ex will never find you again.”
“You shouldn’t compare Ayuso to Thatcher or Merkel but more to Reagan,” said a former PP cabinet minister. “She connects with people, she comes out with memorable phrases, she has charisma.”
Díaz Ayuso was little known when she first won the Madrid post two years ago after an election in which the Socialists topped the poll but proved unable to form a coalition.
Ridiculed in the past as the woman who among other duties had run the Twitter account of a previous Madrid boss’s pet dog, in this race she has trained her fire not on her Socialist rival but his party’s chief: Spain’s prime minister Pedro Sánchez.
Díaz Ayuso is one of the few regional leaders in western Europe who has bridled against what she depicts as excessive coronavirus curbs, moving closer than many of her counterparts to the sceptical stance taken by the governors of Texas, Florida and South Dakota in the US.
Her critics say she let infection rates get out of hand after a long period of PP rule during which there was insufficient investment in the health system.
While at the beginning of the pandemic the 6.6m-strong greater Madrid region had some of the worst coronavirus infection and death rates in Europe, at present incidence is among the highest in Spain but well below levels in countries such as France, the Netherlands, Sweden and Poland.
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“Madrid’s population density means that if we had a zero level of infection, people wouldn’t have a living,” Díaz Ayuso said. “So we’ve opted for an intermediate model that’s working, so that people can go on living their lives and aren’t ruined for life — but where there still are restrictions . . . For example, it is very tough for Madrid to close down at 11 o’clock at night. Probably in other provinces, everything finishes at 8pm.”
Díaz Ayuso triggered the election after two years of an uncomfortable coalition with the centrist Ciudadanos party. In this race, that grouping’s support appears to have collapsed, with the PP grabbing almost all of their votes. The election also looks set to deliver sombre news for Iglesias and the leftists of Podemos, now running in fifth place.
Meanwhile, opinion polls suggest that the Socialists are losing votes to an upstart leftwing party called More Madrid. A humbling defeat to Díaz Ayuso in such a high profile race would do nothing to increase the Sánchez’s government political capital, though the left still holds out hope that the combined forces of the PP and Vox will fall short of a majority.
The Socialists are now saying that the election comes down to a choice between “fascism and democracy” — a reference to the possible crucial role Vox could have in propping up Díaz Ayuso after the vote.
The turbulence caused by the race could also hit Díaz Ayuso’s own PP, a party in which her profile seems set to rise still further. One poll last week indicated that in a general election Casado, the PP’s national leader, could only command the support of three quarters of Díaz Ayuso’s voters.
That was the message that came through during the Madrid boss’s recent campaign stop, at a Catholic school. “I like what she does for Madrid; my husband still has work because she hasn’t closed the hospitality industry,” said Maria, a member of the kitchen staff who had just posed for a photo with Díaz Ayuso. “Compared with Casado, she would definitely win more votes.”
Greece sets tone for Europe’s summer travel
Kalimera and welcome to Europe Express. Tourists from the UK, Germany and other countries started arriving on Greek islands over the weekend, after Athens lifted all restrictions for Covid-19 negative or vaccinated travellers (Russian vaccine included), no matter where they come from. We will look at how this early experiment is shaping up and what difference the EU’s “green certificate”, expected to be rolled out next month, will make.
We will also explore how Finland got back on track towards giving its formal assent to the EU’s recovery fund borrowing, after a four-day filibuster that included the recitation of fairy tales and Bible excerpts.
But first, news from Brussels, which is working with African capitals and EU member states to boost vaccine manufacturing capacity in Africa. Ursula von der Leyen, European Commission president, is expected to lay out her plans to support the effort at a global health summit she is co-hosting in Rome on Friday, European officials said.
Before then, France’s president Emmanuel Macron will tomorrow host several African leaders at a summit in Paris to discuss the economic fallout from Covid-19, including the burden on public finances.
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While the EU is ironing out the details of a digital platform aimed at simplifying travel this summer, countries including Greece and Portugal already have national systems up and running, write Eleni Varvitsioti in Athens and Valentina Pop in Brussels.
Greece was among the first EU countries to formally welcome foreign visitors last week, as it seeks to double the revenues of its tourism industry, a vital sector that has been heavily hit since the pandemic brought travelling to a halt.
Tourists arriving in Greece no longer have to quarantine if they provide proof that they have been fully vaccinated (including with Russia’s vaccine), a negative Covid-19 test or documentation that shows they have recovered from the virus.
Since the EU-wide digital green certificate (nothing to do with energy consumption on appliances) that will incorporate national systems is not ready yet, individual member states are putting their own systems in place.
What is the EU’s digital green certificate?
Digital proof valid in all EU countries that a person has tested negative, was vaccinated or has recovered from Covid-19
Format is a QR code in the national language and in English
EU affairs ministers last week gave their green light to the scheme, but final details are still being ironed out, with some countries taking part in pilot trials aiming to have the final system set up by the end of June.
Meanwhile, negotiators from the European parliament, commission and member states are seeking to thrash out a deal on the final details of the certificates. Last week, one of the sticking points was the parliament’s insistence that Covid-19 tests should be free to avoid adding hundreds of euros to the cost of family vacations. The price of a Covid-19 test ranges from zero in France to about €200 in Finland.
Visitors arriving in Greece have to declare their contact information and final destination in electronic form so they can be traced if needed.
“Greece has an internal green pass operational already and will be there from day one, June 1, participating in this important European achievement,” tourism minister Harry Theoharis told Europe Express.
Over the past weekend, the number of arrivals at Greece’s 14 regional and national airports was 23,455, according to the Ministry of Tourism, showing signs that the country’s most profitable industry is gearing for a comeback.
Last year, the number of visitors to Greece was down roughly 80 per cent to 7.4m, from a record 34m in 2019. Greece’s finance ministry is hoping to reach about half its pre-pandemic tourism revenues in order to keep the country’s budget on track.
Given how important tourism is for a swath of European economies, other capitals will be watching early experiments in re-opening very intently.
Chart du jour: All flights lead to Greece
Greece has been the only summer destination in Europe attracting more flights than in previous years — at least of British tourists. Some southern European countries are rethinking their tourism strategies (Find out why).
FI, for filibuster
Finland’s parliamentarians last week made some headway dispelling rumours that theirs is not a talkative population, writes Valentina Pop.
For four days, members of the Eurosceptic Finns party not only voiced their opposition to taking on any common debt with other EU nations, but they also filled speaking time by reading out fairy tales, hymns and Bible passages.
It was a classic filibuster move, even if the procedural manoeuvre is not as common in Europe as it is in the US Senate. “This is a once in a decade kind of thing,” said Johanna Vuorelma, a political scientist at Tampere University. Previous filibusters occurred in the 1990s in the run-up to Finland’s EU membership and in the early 2010s around bailouts in the eurozone financial crisis.
In Finland, the “own resources” decision needed to fuel the EU’s €800bn recovery plan already has a higher hurdle to pass than in most countries. A previous attempt by the Finns party-led opposition to thwart the initiative was successful in imposing a two-thirds threshold for the actual vote.
But if the vote goes ahead as planned tomorrow, pundits including Vuorelma expect it to pass — even though some members of the ruling coalition have indicated they may oppose it. Passage would be met with considerable relief in Brussels, which has anxiously watched the progress of national votes on its unprecedented recovery fund borrowing powers.
A more consequential delay was averted last week when the chamber’s vice-chair from the Finns party, Juho Eerola, was sidelined. He had admitted that he could have used procedural quirks to delay the own resources vote until autumn — which would have created a massive problem for the bloc.
“It showed that they are willing to go quite far, this is a strong ideological position for them,” Vuorelma said. With municipal elections in June and the Finns party having polled first in the weeks prior to this debate, the filibuster may have also had tactical intentions. “It certainly raised their profile, even if some party members resented the move,” she said.
Two things to watch today
European parliament resumes its plenary session
European affairs ministers hold an informal council
. . . and later this week
France hosts a number of African leaders for a summit on Tuesday, and on Friday, Italy and the European Commission host a Global Health Summit in Rome
EU finance ministers meet in Lisbon on Friday and Saturday for informal talks
The EU and US are expected to announce a temporary truce on Monday in their dispute over Trump-era steel and aluminium tariffs. The deal would mean the EU would shelve plans to boost tariffs on certain US products next month, giving the sides space to negotiate a settlement to the metals dispute. (Bloomberg)
Italy’s digital transition minister tells FT Rome correspondent Miles Johnson why he wants to roll out a nationwide digital platform for public services as part of the €248bn recovery plan designed to reignite the eurozone’s third-largest economy.
Marine Le Pen is allegedly at the core of a fraudulent scheme funnelling EU funds from the European parliament, according to a French police report seen by Journal du Dimanche.
The UK is not very keen on Joe Biden’s global minimum corporate tax proposal, arguing that a digital tax should come first. (Read more here)
The Polish government has put forward a plan, in part funded by the EU, to boost health spending and cut income tax.
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Bullying Russia yearns to be treated as a great power
The writer is the author of ‘Putin’s Russia’ and a member of the Liberal Mission Foundation
At their Conference on the Future of Europe, which opened on May 9, EU leaders invited citizens to “join the debate” on the path ahead. In Washington, President Joe Biden has called for “togetherness” as he announces ambitious plans to transform the US economy and society. For the west, the way to deal with crises is to build images of a better, shared future.
By contrast, Russia is turning to the past in its search for unity. At a Red Square military parade, also held on May 9, President Vladimir Putin asserted that the Soviet people had fought “alone” on their road to victory over fascism in the second world war. In this way, he confirmed that Russia and the west are on opposite trajectories.
Putin’s emphasis on his nation’s past achievements could secure stability in Russia for a while. His rule benefits from the fact that the Kremlin today faces no serious internal or foreign threats. Why, then, is Putin acting like some geopolitical Alfred Hitchcock and creating suspense in international relations, forcing western leaders to play “who blinks first”?
As Russia’s chief decision maker, Putin’s personal moods obviously matter. However, more important is the logic of the Russian system of power, with its demand for recognition on the world stage of the nation’s great power status. According to this logic, Russia cannot be ignored and must be a member of the global concert of powers. It believes macho bullying is the entry ticket to the concert.
Despite the crackdown on domestic dissent and the anti-western rhetoric of state propaganda, the Kremlin’s policies are aimed at preventing Russia from turning into a sealed-off fortress. For in order to be a great power, Russia has to sit at the same table as its peers. To satisfy its global aspirations and conform with the logic of its domestic power arrangements, Russia has to be simultaneously with the west and against it.
In a sense, Putin is getting what he wants. Biden has suggested holding a US-Russian summit, and EU leaders are trying to keep open lines of dialogue with Moscow despite low levels of mutual trust. However, if western governments hope to find a modus vivendi with Russia, they may be disappointed.
For the price that the Kremlin is willing to pay for the risks its policies are incurring is higher than the costs that the west is ready to impose on Russia for causing disruption. In effect, the west is pursuing a dual-track policy towards Russia of containment and co-operation. In recent times, however, this policy has run into the problem that co-operation stalls every time the west feels a need to deter Russia. If they want their approach to work, western countries will have to do a better job of compartmentalising the two tracks.
There are important differences with the cold war era of Soviet-western confrontation. In those decades, the Soviet Union unintentionally consolidated western unity by behaving in ways that strengthened the west’s commitment to principles of liberal democracy and the rule of law. Nowadays, post-Soviet Russia undermines the west by mimicking its liberal principles and getting “inside” western societies through its political and economic elites, business operations and powerful lobbying machines.
Partly for these reasons, the west finds it hard to set clearly defined “price tags” for what it deems unacceptable Russian behaviour. The Kremlin’s recent military build-up on Ukraine’s borders was evidently no red line for the EU. Yet to accommodate Moscow simply encourages its assertiveness.
Nevertheless, a bitter irony may lie in store for Russia. Putin’s international bullying beefs up his image as a strong leader at home. Yet the Kremlin’s continual testing of western patience serves to undermine Russia in more subtle ways.
After the Soviet Union’s collapse, Moscow learnt to use the west as an economic and technological resource. The Russian elite made the west its home. But to preserve the west as a resource, Russia needs the trust of western partners. Instead, the Kremlin’s Hitchcock-style games of suspense provoke western suspicions and an instinct to fall back on deterrence.
There is a potential trap for the west, too. Its dual-track policy helps Russia’s power structures, as they have evolved under Putin, to limp on. The Kremlin and its agencies engage in international behaviour that the west finds disagreeable. But the west can hardly try to undermine them without running the risk that Russia would plunge into instability. Is the west really prepared for the huge uncertainties of a world in which the existing power structures in Moscow unravel before any domestic alternative is available to take their place?
PiS unveils ‘Polish Deal’ to lift economy
Poland’s conservative-nationalist government has set out plans to boost health spending and cut income tax, as part of a sweeping programme designed to bolster the economy in the wake of the pandemic.
The so-called Polish Deal, which will include support for housebuyers, pensioners and families, as well as tax cuts for low and middle-earners, is widely regarded as an effort by the ruling Law and Justice party (PiS) to set out its stall ahead of parliamentary elections due at the latest in 2023.
Like most countries in the EU, Poland has been ravaged by Covid-19, with the pandemic claiming more than 70,000 lives and tipping the economy into recession for the first time in three decades.
Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the Polish Deal — which will be buttressed by loans and grants from the EU’s recovery fund — was a chance to fulfil Poles’ dreams of catching up with richer countries in western Europe, as well as to expand the country’s middle class.
“We have a huge opportunity in front of us,” he said. “[In the past] we always had to worry about freedom from external oppression. But today, we can care about the freedom to decide about the rules of social and economic growth on our own sovereign Polish conditions.”
As part of the changes announced on Saturday, PiS and its two smaller allies plan to boost spending on the underfunded health system, parts of which have been overwhelmed by the pandemic, from 5 per cent of GDP in 2020 to more than 7 per cent in 2030.
The tax system will also be rejigged. The income-tax-free allowance will rise to 30,000 zloty, and the threshold at which Poles start paying the higher 32 per cent rate of tax will rise from 85,000 to 120,000 zloty per year.
Mortgage rules will also be revamped and guarantees will be provided to make it easier for the young to buy property, while the rules around building permits will be relaxed. There will also be further benefits for families with young children, and pensioners, as well as a programme of investments that PiS claimed would create 500,000 new jobs.
Morawiecki and his fellow speakers at the congress of the ruling camp gave few details on financing for the tax cuts.
Jaroslaw Gowin, deputy prime minister and head of Agreement, one of PiS’s two junior coalition partners, conceded richer Poles would have to pay more taxes, but did not go into detail. He also said the state budget would be hit.
Poland’s finance minister Tadeusz Koscinski told the FT that the tax cuts would partly be funded by faster growth. However, he added that the fiscal shortfall would also be partly covered by higher social security payments from workers and business, resulting from changes that would push more workers from self-employment to full employment contracts, and from the removal of a cap on social security payments for the self-employed.
Koscinski said the annual net cost to the state budget of the tax cuts would be about 7bn zloty. He added that there would be a further 3bn zloty in subsidies to co-finance investments by local governments that had lost revenue as a result of the tax changes.
Adam Czerniak, an economist at Polityka Insight, said the government’s assumptions about faster growth helping to cover the cost of the government’s plans were “optimistic, but I think they can happen”.
However, he expressed concern that the changes around housing — which include state guarantees on home loans for young borrowers — could cause a booming market to overheat.
“Guarantees on down payments are very risky at this point in the business cycle in the housing market,” he said.
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