This Week in Europe: Government collapses in Austria and Ukraine, and more

, by Pascal Letendre-Hanns, Radu Dumitrescu

All the versions of this article: [Deutsch] [English]

This Week in Europe: Government collapses in Austria and Ukraine, and more
Image by Samuel Mork Bednarz.

Members of the TNF team recount big events from Europe from the past week, and point attention to news that may have passed notice. What did we miss? Comment on our Facebook page at !

Austria’s government collapses after far-right corruption scandal

On Saturday, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz called snap elections after just over a year in office. It happened 24 hours after a video was released showing the leader of the far-right party that serves as the junior partner of the ruling coalition, the Freedom Party’s Heinz-Christian Strache, trading public contracts for party donations and aid from an actress posing as a wealthy niece of a Russian oligarch. Kurz’s center-right People’s Party had been governing with the help of the far-right Freedom Party, but the young chancellor argued that “enough is enough” after Strache even claimed to have information that Kurz was engaged in sexual orgies. To shield his party from the scandal and to cleanse the image of the country, Kurz preferred to call new elections. The latest polls showed that 33% of the people still support Kurz’s People’s Party.

Russia returns to the Council of Europe

After a years-long dispute following Russia’s annexation of Crimea, an overwhelming majority of the 47 foreign ministers in the Council of Europe, each representing their state, voted in favor of restoring Russia’s voting rights, which were suspended in 2014. Russia had stopped making membership payments in June 2017 - around 7% of the Council’s budget - prompting the suspension of the country from the Council of Europe. That would have left Russian human rights activists without access to the European Court of Human Rights. Following this week’s agreement, Russia agreed to resume paying membership fees. Germany and France had lobbied for Russia’s welcome back to the Council so “millions of Russians can appeal to the ECHR”, said German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas. The agreement was nevertheless opposed by Ukraine, the U.K., Poland, Georgia, Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania.

ECJ rules that companies must record employees’ work hours

On Tuesday, the European Court of Justice ruled that companies in the EU must record how many hours their employees work every day. Systems that record work hours must exist in each country. This would make enforcing legal limits on working hours more efficient, the court motivated, thus guaranteeing employees’ rights under the EU’s working time directive. Member states would determine specific arrangements for the implementation of the systems themselves, taking into account the different fields and domains of activity of the company. The judgment came after the Spanish trade union CCOO requested a Madrid court to rule on whether the local branch of Germany’s Deutsche Bank, which only measures overtime, had to establish a system to record employees’ working hours. The Spanish court requested a ruling from the European Court of Justice. The ruling was greeted with joy by European trade unions, but the German Employers’ Association BDA criticized its vagueness, saying that flexibility will suffer.

European Commission warns Romania over rule of law, again

This week, European Commission first vice president and the European Socialists’ Spitzenkandidat Frans Timmermans sent a letter to the Romanian president, the government and the heads of both chambers of the Romanian Parliament. In it, the European Commission warned that it will trigger Article 7 proceedings against Romania “without delay” due to major concerns regarding the rule of law in the country. Romania currently holds the rotating Council of the EU presidency. Article 7, as it is known, is the most serious political sanction that the EU can impose on a member country, leading to the suspension of the right to vote on EU decisions. It is not the first time that EU officials warn Romania over rule of law concerns, but Timmermans says that Brussels’ concerns have increased this past year due to new rules adopted by the Romanian parliament which grant de facto impunity for corruption. Government emergency ordinances also cause unpredictability in the legislative process of Romania, the Commission added.

Government collapse may prevent early Ukrainian elections

The People’s Front party has pulled out of the Ukrainian government, meaning that the parties of the country’s parliament now have 30 days to attempt to form a new government. This could cause a major headache for the newly elected President, Volodymyr Zelenskiy. He pulled off a landslide victory against the incumbent in April and had been considering calling early elections. As his party currently has no MPs, this could help shore up his power in Ukraine and would make the best use of the momentum from his own victory in the presidential election. However, the President can only call early elections if they are more than six months away from the scheduled elections. If attempts at forming a new government in the Ukrainian Parliament drag on for too long, Zelenskiy could well miss that deadline as parliamentary elections are already set for the end of October.

European institutions granted reprieve from Facebook’s political advertising rules

Facebook announced this week that the main European institutions (the Parliament, the Council, the Commission, the Committee of the Regions and the European Economic and Social Committee) would be exempt from the platform’s political campaigning rules limiting campaigns to a single country. Facebook had introduced these rules on political campaigning as part of an attempt to prevent outside interference in the democratic processes of various countries. However this naturally caused a backlash when it became clear that it would prevent pan-European campaigning in the upcoming European Parliament elections. Though the change was welcomed, the exemption will not be permanent, running only until the last day of voting on the 26th May, and does not include any civil society groups, meaning that Facebook’s position is still ill-suited to the reality of European politics.

Europeans back the EU but are wary of immigration

Polling by British firm YouGov has shown high support for the EU across the Union. 70% of Germans reported that membership of the EU was a good thing, with the same figure in Poland, 65% in Spain, 64% in Hungary and 57% in Italy. At the lowest end, the view that EU membership was good was held by smaller majorities in Belgium, Sweden (both 55%) and France (51%). Across the countries surveyed, immigration came out as the top concern among voters, with 35%, while climate change came just behind at 29%. Though irregular arrivals of migrants from outside the EU has fallen dramatically since 2015, many voters are still unconvinced that the situation is under control. Attitudes towards migration showed little correlation with arrivals in specific countries however. In Italy and Poland, both showed majorities saying their country should not accept more irregular migrants, even though Poland hardly took any. Meanwhile, though both Germany and Sweden accepted significant numbers, Germans were much more positive than the Swedes. Germany and France were marked out as exceptions in this debate, ranking climate change as a bigger concern than migration.

EU pushes back on US criticism of defence integration

The European Union has tried to reassure the US government that there is no reason to be concerned about Europe’s two new defence initiatives - PESCO and the European Defence Fund. While the letter from the Trump administration argued in general terms, one particular bone of contention has been the decision to exclude non-EU firms from involvement in future EU defence production. America’s lucrative defence industry has been lobbying hard for open access to the European market and the American government has been pushing for this on their behalf. In their response Pedro Serrano, the deputy secretary general of the External Action Service, the EU’s diplomatic body, and Timo Pesonen, the European Commission’s director general for internal market and industry, stated that the new integration measures would facilitate greater interoperability of military systems, overcoming existing divisions within Europe and therefore adding to the NATO alliance. They also pointed out that the US defence market, though not explicitly set out in clear rules, is famously closed to outside producers, including European ones. In 2016 only 0.17% of U.S defense R&D expenditure was awarded to EU companies. The EU market is therefore more open in this area than the American one.

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