Europe/Americas update: May 26-27 2018



Russian President Vladimir Putin and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe met on Saturday in Moscow to try to end World War II. No, seriously. Japan and Russia/the Soviet Union never signed a peace treaty at the end of that war because they couldn’t agree on the final status of the Kuril Islands, a chain of small islands that run between northern Japan and Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula. The Soviets took them, Russia now holds them, but Japan has never relinquished its claim upon them.

The Kuril Islands (Wikimedia)

Abe and Putin have both suggested joint economic ventures on the islands as a way to share them and put the dispute behind both countries.


Alternative for Germany, the far-right party that now stands as the main opposition in the German parliament, called for a rally in Berlin on Sunday to express anger over its minimal political role despite its main opposition status. It doesn’t seem to have gone the way party leaders expected. About 5000 AfD supporters turned out only to be dwarfed by an estimated 20,000 anti-AfD counter-protesters. There were no reports of any significant violence despite the tension between the two crowds.


As quickly as Italy got its new populist government on Wednesday, it lost that government on Sunday:

Italians had entered the weekend thinking such a government might be just days away from taking power. What they have received instead is what one major paper, la Repubblica, is calling “an unprecedented institutional clash.”


President Sergio Mattarella — given referee-like powers to oversee the formation of governments — refused to approve as finance minister 81-year-old Paolo Savona. In a new book, Savona, described Italy’s adoption of the euro as a “historic error,” according to media accounts.


Mattarella is more pro-European than the two populist parties asking for his mandate, analysts say. His veto of Savona infuriated the leaders of those parties, who on Sunday evening were talking not about presenting fresh proposals to Mattarella, but rather calling for new elections.

Former Prime Minister-designate Giu­seppe Conte resigned following Mattarella’s decision.

Sergio Mattarella (L) and Giuseppe Conte (Wikimedia)

Savona is a member of the far-right League party, which at this point at least seems unwilling to reconsider his inclusion in its coalition cabinet with the Five Star Movement. Five Star leader Luigi Di Maio raised the possibility of impeaching Mattarella, which would probably fail in Italy’s constitutional court even if parliament voted to send his case there because Mattarella hasn’t actually done anything here that’s outside the purview of his office. Mattarella does have the power to approve or disapprove of a given cabinet based on what he believes is the national interest, and right now–but only right now–he can plausibly argue that Italian voters in March’s election didn’t intend for this Five Star-League coalition to take over the government and that he’s protecting their interests. League leader Matteo Salvini doesn’t seem interested in impeachment, but he has said he’ll call for mass protests unless a snap election is called immediately.

Mattarella is expected to name a technocratic prime minister, and he’s summoned former International Monetary Fund official Carlo Cottarelli, presumably to offer him the gig. Cottarelli’s cabinet would then lose a confidence vote in parliament, where Five Star and the League hold a collective majority, at which point it would become a caretaker government meant to carry Italy into a new election later this year. If polling is accurate, that new election would leave Five Star and the League as the two largest parties, with the League in particular doing significantly better than it did in March. And Italy would presumably find itself right back in the same place. But if Mattarella spikes this same coalition a second time, after an election in which voters knew exactly what they were getting, then I think you can make a strong case that he’s deliberately undermining the will of the Italian people.


Thousands of people protested across France on Saturday against French President Emmanuel Macron’s anti-labor, pro-austerity-except-for-rich-people-who-deserve-tax-cuts economic policies.


Though it’s not this blog’s usual focus, I feel I would be remiss in not mentioning the stunning landslide outcome of Friday’s referendum on lifting Ireland’s abortion ban. Over 66 percent of voters chose to end the ban, with Donegal being the only Irish county with a majority voting to maintain the ban. The result paves the way for Prime Minister Leo Varadkar’s government to put together legislation legalizing abortion by the end of the year.



Colombia’s presidential election on Sunday was inconclusive, with right-wing candidate Iván Duque taking around 39 percent of the vote to put himself in a runoff with leftist Gustavo Petro, who took in about 25 percent of the vote. Duque is a staunch opponent of the peace deal current President Juan Manuel Santos reached with the FARC rebel group in 2016 and was groomed to run by former President Álvaro Uribe. Colombian politics traditionally lean right, so Duque probably has the edge heading into the runoff. But he might need to tone down his hostility to the FARC deal to broaden his base.


Whatever Bob Corker said to Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro on Friday must have worked, because Maduro released US citizen Joshua Holt from prison shortly after, and he and his wife arrived in the US on Saturday evening. Holt’s release isn’t expected to change US policy toward Venezuela, in case you were wondering.


Thousands of protesters took to the streets in cities across Nicaragua on Saturday demanding the ouster of President Daniel Ortega. Four protesters were reportedly killed, bringing the number of protesters killed over several weeks of demonstrations to 76.


I mentioned Donald Trump gaslighting everybody on North Korea earlier, and he did it in a very specific way on Saturday:

This tweet is entirely false:

It is not clear whether the president was simply unaware of the actions of his own senior staff or if he knowingly ignored the truth. The source of that sentence was a White House official who held a briefing on Thursday afternoon in the White House briefing room that was attended by about 50 reporters, with about 200 or so more on a conference call.


Reporters often request such briefings to be on the record, which would allow the official to be named. But, in this case, the rules of the briefing imposed by the White House required that the official be referred to only as a “senior White House official.” The Times is continuing to abide by that agreement.


In the course of the briefing, the official was asked about the possibility that the summit meeting could be held on June 12, despite the president’s decision to cancel it a day earlier. The discussion was prompted by earlier statements from the president suggesting that the meeting might still happen.


The official noted that “there’s really not a lot of time — we’ve lost quite a bit of time that we would need” to prepare for the summit meeting.

In fact we even know who the “senior White House official” was:

Reporters get very skittish about using the word “lie,” and the NYT’s Maggie Haberman has basically been in a running Twitter battle all weekend trying to argue that it’s inappropriate to use that word with Trump because it implies intent and Trump is basically the living embodiment of this:

Saying that Trump is “gaslighting” everybody also implies intent, and I think there’s copious evidence at this point that Trump often simply believes things that aren’t true, and when he regurgitates them he’s not intending to lie in the traditional sense of that word. But from a “survival of the human race” perspective I think the prospect of a president who routinely gaslights everybody else is actually more comforting than the prospect of a president who is able to routinely gaslight himself.

That’s actually pretty terrifying, to be honest.

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