Vigil in Barcelona on Aug. 18

-Opinion-

Two European cities, two terror attacks.

In Finland, 18-year-old Moroccan Abderrahman Mechkah is suspected of stabbing two women to death and injuring eight others in the southwestern city of Turku on Aug. 18. Mechkah is believed to have been specifically targeting women but also ended up wounding the men who tried to defend them. In Spain, the manhunt for the driver of a van which rammed into pedestrians in Barcelona on Aug. 17, killing 14 people and wounding more than a 100 others, ended with Spanish authorities shooting and killing 22-year-old Moroccan national Younes Abouyaaqoub. The suspect had been sought throughout Europe, amid fears he might have escaped across Spain's border with France.

The manhunt echoed another haunting episode in Europe, namely, the one in search for the terrorists behind the November 2015 attacks in Paris, when some of the perpetrators subsequently drove to Belgium. How did the Barcelona attacker flee the crime scene — a tourist area — on foot? How was he able to slip through authorities' fingers with such apparent ease? These questions have nothing but painful answers.

This debate could have started at least two-and-a-half years ago.

The first, and obvious, response is to reinstate functioning border controls not only inside Europe but also on its exterior boundaries. This has become all the more pressing as thousands of jihadists, who had left Europe for Syria and Iraq, are now returning to the Old Continent, as reported by journalist Jean Chichizola for the French newspaper Le Figaro. But this, by itself, won't suffice.

Vigil in Turku, Finland, on Aug. 18 — Photo: Zhang Xuan/Xinhua/ZUMA

We also desperately need to have a calm, honest and open debate about immigration and the Islamist ideology that drives terrorists. After each attack, we are told that this has nothing to do with Islam, and we're chided not to paint these portrayals with a broad brush. Yet, the fact of the matter is, the perpetrators of terror attacks — from 9/11 and the Charlie Hebdo shootings to last week's massacres — share a religion, or at least one interpretation of it. This debate could have started at least two-and-a-half years ago, when the current wave of terrorism first hit Europe. Instead, it was deemed easier to avoid it. The result is there for all to see: Attacks have grown even as assailants use cars and kitchen tools like knives to wreak widespread havoc. Statistics released days ago in France show that the number of "radicalized Muslims' has increased by 60% over the past two years.

Vigils, keeping monuments lit up at night, #prayfor hashtags and official statements to "stand in solidarity," are all a reassuring and necessary display of respect to the victims of the war being waged against us. But another way of honoring their memory would be to ensure that they didn't die for nothing, that their names aren't just the latest in a long list that will continue to grow unremittingly while our political leaders endlessly copy-paste the same message about love and tolerance. As morally rewarding as it may be to strike that pose, it looks like weakness to our enemies and it only serves to embolden them.

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Economy

European Debt? The First Question For Merkel's Successor

Across southern Europe, all eyes are on the German elections, as they hope a change of government might bring about reforms to the EU Stability Pact.

Angela Merkel at a campaign event of CDU party, Stralsund, Sep 2021

Tobias Kaiser, Virginia Kirst, Martina Meister


-Analysis-

BERLIN — Finance Minister Olaf Scholz (SPD) is the front-runner, according to recent polls, to become Germany's next chancellor. Little wonder then that he's attracting attention not just within the country, but from neighbors across Europe who are watching and listening to his every word.

That was certainly the case this past weekend in Brdo, Slovenia, where the minister met with his European counterparts. And of particular interest for those in attendance is where Scholz stands on the issue of debt-rule reform for the eurozone, a subject that is expected to be hotly debated among EU members in the coming months.

France, which holds its own elections early next year, has already made its position clear. "When it comes to the Stability and Growth Pact, we need new rules," said Bruno Le Maire, France's minister of the economy and finance, at the meeting in Slovenia. "We need simpler rules that take the economic reality into account. That is what France will be arguing for in the coming weeks."

The economic reality for eurozone countries is an average national debt of 100% of GDP. Only Luxemburg is currently meeting the two central requirements of the Maastricht Treaty: That national debt must be less than 60% of GDP and the deficit should be no more than 3%. For the moment, these rules have been set aside due to the coronavirus crisis, but next year national leaders must decide how to go forward and whether the rules should be reinstated in 2023.

Europe's north-south divide lives on

The debate looks set to be intense. Fiscally conservative countries, above all Austria and the Netherlands, are against relaxing the rules as they recently made very clear in a joint position paper on the subject. In contrast, southern European countries that are dealing with high levels of national debt believe that now is the moment to relax the rules.

Those governments are calling for countries to be given more freedom over their levels of national debt so that the economy, which is recovering remarkably quickly thanks to coronavirus spending and the European Central Bank's relaxation of its fiscal policy, can continue to grow.

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive.

The rules must be "adapted to fit the new reality," said Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño in Brdo. She says the eurozone needs "new rules that work." Her Belgian counterpart agreed. The national debts in both countries currently stand at over 100% of GDP. The same is true of France, Italy, Portugal, Greece and Cyprus.

Officials there will be keeping a close eye on the German elections — and the subsequent coalition negotiations. Along with France, Germany still sets the tone in the EU, and Berlin's stance on the brewing conflict will depend largely on what the coalition government looks like.

A key question is which party Germany's next finance minister comes from. In their election campaign, the Greens have called for the debt rules to be revised so that in the future they support rather than hinder public investment. The FDP, however, wants to reinstate the Maastricht Treaty rules exactly as they were and ensure they are more strictly enforced than before.

This demand is unlikely to gain traction at the EU level because too many countries would still be breaking the rules for years to come. There is already a consensus that they should be reformed; what is still at stake is how far these reforms should go.

Mario Draghi on stage in Bologna

Prime Minister Mario Draghi at an event in Bologna, Italy — Photo: Brancolini/ROPI/ZUMA

Time for Draghi to step up?

Despite its clear stance on the issue, Paris hasn't yet gone on the offensive. That having been said, starting in January, France will take over the presidency of the EU Council for a period that will coincide with its presidential election campaign. And it's likely that Macron's main rival, right-wing populist Marine Le Pen, will put the reforms front and center, especially since she has long argued against Germany and in favor of more freedom.

Rome is putting its faith in the negotiating skills of Prime Minister Mario Draghi, a former head of the European Central Bank. Draghi is a respected EU finance expert at the debating table and can be of great service to Italy precisely at a moment when Merkel's departure may see Germany represented by a politician with less experience at these kinds of drawn-out summits, where discussions go on long into the night.

The Stability and Growth pact may survive unscathed.

Regardless of how heated the debates turn out to be, the Stability and Growth Pact may well survive the conflict unscathed, as its symbolic value may make revising the agreement itself practically impossible. Instead, the aim will be to rewrite the rules that govern how the Pact should be interpreted: regulations, in other words, about how the deficit and national debt should be calculated.

One possible change would be to allow future borrowing for environmental investments to be discounted. France is not alone in calling for that. European Commissioner for Economy Paolo Gentiloni has also added his voice.

The European Commission is assuming that the debate may drag on for some time. The rules — set aside during the pandemic — are supposed to come into force again at the start of 2023.

The Commission is already preparing for the possibility that they could be reactivated without any reforms. They are investigating how the flexibility that has already been built into the debt laws could be used to ensure that a large swathe of eurozone countries don't automatically find themselves contravening them, representatives explained.

The Commission will present its recommendations for reforms, which will serve as a basis for the countries' negotiations, in December. By that point, the results of the German elections will be known, as well as possibly the coalition negotiations. And we might have a clearer idea of how intense the fight over Europe's debt rules could become — and whether the hopes of the southern countries could become reality.

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