Brussels ViewPoint 2019 European Moments

A view of a European flag in front of the European Commission in Brussels, Belgium. EPA-EFE/STEPHANIE LECOCQ

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Denise Grech takes a glimpse at the most memorable moments in Europe this year.

Austria’s Ibiza-gate

Ibiza-gate was a political scandal in Austria where the then chancellor of Austria Heinz-Christian Strache and leader of the Freedom Party (FPO) Johann Gudenus, were caught discussing receiving positive news coverage in exchange for government contracts.

The discussions, which were taking place in Ibiza, were held with a woman calling herself Alyona Makarova, who was posing as a niece of Russian businessman Igor Makarov. Strache and Gudenus also hinted at corrupt political practices involving other wealthy donors to the FPÖ in Europe and elsewhere. Unbeknownst to them, the conversation was a set-up: Makarova was pretending to be Makarov’s niece and the interaction took place after lawyer Ramin Mirfakhrai commissioned the investigation, which was then published.

Military ceremony for Austrian outgoing President Heinz Fischer in Vienna

The scandal caused the collapse of the Austrian governing coalition on 18 May 2019 and the announcement of an early election. In a no-confidence vote on 27 May, Sebastian Kurz was voted out of office as Austrian chancellor by Parliament, and on 28 May a caretaker government was appointed.

The scandal exposed just how far politicians’ will go for media influence and positive coverage. The Freedom Party is attached to conservative, populist views that often promote patriotism and nationalism. However, Ibiza-gate showed how political parties will stray away from the ideology to promote their own interests.

Nigel Farage’s launch of the Brexit party

 “I know what I’m going to do,” Farage told supporters in April. “I’m going to set up a party. I’m going to call it the Brexit party.”

The Brexit party, launched prior to the European Parliament elections scared the conservatives and pushed their policies closer to a Hard Brexit. Political commentators believe it played a role in the conservatives pushing for Boris Johnson and take a tougher line on Brexit.

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage delivers speech at Boxing gym with Dereck Chisoura

It was launched as former UK Prime Minister Theresa May was done for, and the conservatives were unsure of who to go for next. The launch and popularity of the Brexit party helped confirm that the conservatives needed their own ‘Mr Brexit’ if they were going to have any chance of electoral success.

Farage then handed over the seats to the Conservatives, helping Johnson secure a majority in Parliament.

EU leadership dealings broadcast on Facebook

 In October, a marathon summit was held in Brussels that was set to decide who the next leaders of the three main EU institutions should be. On one of the many long nights of the summit, former vice-president of the Socialists & Democrats goes off to meet Bulgarian Prime Minister Boyko Borissov, in a final bid to secure the post of Commission President.

Televised debate of leaders from all the nation-wide election committees

Borissov and Timmermans are both very different characters. Timmermans spent years in Brussels building a reputation as a polished diplomat and a sophisticated power player. Borissov, on the other hand, is a former fireman and club bouncer who isn’t impressed by bureaucrats and polyglots.

The two came together in the Bulgarian diplomat mission to discuss negotiations on who will lead the Parliament and the Commission. Unbeknownst to them, however, the exchange was being broadcast on Facebook live.

Borisov, representing the centre-right’s European People’s Party tells the S&D that the EPP will give them the Commission if they get to keep Parliament. Borisov then lists a number of priorities for Bulgaria, including becoming part of the Schengen zone.

The Facebook live broadcast goes on, until Timmermans realises and says: “I understand what you’re saying, I’m just not sure we should be recording all of this.” The screen then goes dark.

Of course, things eventually played out differently: Ursula von der Leyen became leader of the Commission and David Sassoli now heads the European Parliament.

But for a few fleeting minutes, we got a glimpse at the backroom dealings that take place between the EU’s most powerful players.

Muscat’s rise and fall

Prime Minister Joseph Muscat started 2019 on a high – he was leading one of the fastest growing economies in the EU, he was helping co-ordinate burden-sharing deals with major power players like France and Germany and he was even aspiring to lead the European Council.

European Council summit in Brussels

No one could have foreseen the quick succession of events that led Muscat to announce his resignation in December. News that business magnate and 17 Black owner Yorgen Fenech was arrested led to an avalanche of revelations that implicated Muscat’s office with obstruction of justice in the Daphne Caruana Galizia’s murder.

This led Muscat to announce his resignation after his chief of staff resigned in disgrace. Maltese people took to the streets in successive protests as the country came to a standstill.

Muscat’s reputation took a hit, with journalists at the last Council summit keeping an eye out to see which EU leaders were still talking to the Maltese PM and his chances of a career in Brussels were gone.

Denise Grech is the Corporate Dispatch’s Brussels Correspondent

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