A gust of instability unsettles European politics

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Good morning. Some business from last week. In response to our poll, which asked “Should European leaders release EU recovery funds to Poland?”, more than half of you said no, 19 per cent were on the fence and 27 per cent voted in favour.

On that and other matters you can find me at tony.barber@ft.com.

This weekend I’m in the middle of what feels like a gust of instability blowing through European politics. Will it harm Europe’s support for Ukraine? Is Kremlin influence over the internal affairs of EU countries partly to blame?

The week began with a serious setback for President Emmanuel Macron in France’s National Assembly elections. It ended with the fall of Bulgaria’s reformist government. In between, a parliamentary vote in Rome triggered a split in the Five Star Movement, a party in Prime Minister Mario Draghi’s national unity coalition.

Some experienced commentators are worried. Judy Dempsey writes for the Carnegie Europe think-tank:

President Vladimir Putin need only look at the unfolding political and economic developments in Europe to see how his fortunes are shifting.

Yet the Atlantic alliance seems strong. European confidence in US President Joe Biden, though dipping a bit, is still high, as this Pew Research Center chart shows:

I’ll look at France, Bulgaria and Italy in turn.

France

The French election deprived Emmanuel Macron of his legislative majority and boosted the radical left under Jean-Luc Mélenchon and the hard right under Marine Le Pen. Both are known for their hostility to Nato and the EU and have a record of sympathising with Vladimir Putin’s Russia.

Yet the vote was not a popular outburst against France’s support for Ukraine’s war of self-defence. Macron ran a poor campaign and is on the back foot because of his haughty leadership and France’s economic difficulties — some of which, such as inflation, are associated with the war.

Under the Fifth Republic, the president controls foreign policy. If French support for Ukraine were to cool down, it would not be because of parliamentary pressure but because Macron himself has repeatedly signalled that he doesn’t want to burn all bridges with Russia.

His stance arouses concern in the US and most countries in central and eastern Europe. Yet French support for Ukraine is more solid than Macron is often given credit for.

Watch out for: Economic pressures and social discontent in France. Will they intensify to the point that Macron pushes for an early negotiated settlement of the war, possibly to Ukraine’s disadvantage?

Bulgaria

In this Balkan state, Russian influence is not only palpable but in some quarters welcome — there are enduring memories of the tsarist empire’s support for Bulgarian independence in the 19th century.

No sooner had the invasion of Ukraine started in February than Kiril Petkov, Bulgaria’s pro-western premier, sacked Stefan Yanev as defence minister for preferring Moscow’s description of its aggression as a “special operation” rather than a war.

Still, Petkov’s government did not fall this week primarily because of dark Russian deeds. Nor is the instability fundamentally about a dispute over Bulgaria’s blocking of EU membership talks for North Macedonia, with which Sofia has longstanding quarrels over history and identity.

Rather, the key to understanding what’s going on in Bulgaria lies in the determination of former premier Boyko Borisov and Delyan Peevski, a businessman and power broker sanctioned by the US Treasury for corruption, to regain influence and neutralise reformers such as Petkov.

Watch out for: snap elections in which Borisov and maybe Yanev make political comebacks.

Italy

What about Italy? Mario Draghi comfortably survived a parliamentary motion on Wednesday that challenged his pro-Nato, pro-EU stance on the war. That motion reflected a certain public mood against the war, amplified perhaps by the extraordinary access to Italian media enjoyed in recent months by Russian propagandists.

After the vote, the Five Star Movement, Italy’s largest party after the 2018 elections, split in two. More than 60 deputies sided with Luigi Di Maio, foreign minister, who backs Draghi and is now set to form his own parliamentary group. A majority remain, for the moment, with Giuseppe Conte, the Five Star leader and former premier.

There are two lessons. First, Italy’s pro-Ukraine policies aren’t about to weaken. Second, Draghi’s national unity government is clearly fraying at the edges — and with elections due next year, the disarray in Five Star, a largely left-leaning party, makes it hard to see how the Italian left as a whole can win.

Watch out for: A slowdown of economic reform if a rightwing coalition takes power after Draghi leaves office.

Notable, quotable

Innovations in these unexplored and uncharted territories put consumers at risk . . . the lack of regulation is often covering fraud, completely illegitimate claims about valuation and very often speculation as well as criminal dealings — European Central Bank president Christine Lagarde

Speaking before the European Parliament on Monday, the ECB president called for tighter controls on crypto lending.

Tony’s picks of the week

The biggest barrier to Africa’s economic development is lack of energy access, says Fatih Birol, executive director of the International Energy Agency. In an interview with the FT’s Tom Wilson, he calls for €25bn in annual investment to deliver universal energy access for Africans by the end of the 2020s

Germany’s fragmented party politics is deceptive. There’s still a strong centrist dynamic to the parliamentary system, and political extremists of right and left are either isolated or wield little real influence, writes Barbara Donovan of Wesleyan College for the American Institute for Contemporary German Studies

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