Getting to Prague Unsecretly

The McClatchy newspaper company reported yesterday that Michael Cohen, the president’s personal lawyer, was in Prague last August or September. This is important because if true, it would seem to corroborate part of the controversial dossier compiled by British former spy Christopher Steele. The idea is that Cohen would have taken on the role of contact person with Russia after Paul Manafort was fired from/quit the campaign.

For about 25 hours so far, reporter Peter Stone has left out there twisting slowly, slowly in the wind kicked up by his report. No other news organization that I know of confirms his report. That must be uncomfortable.

If the report is true it is important. Cohen made a conspicuous point of denying the trip when the allegation appeared, when the Steele dossier was published by Buzzfeed. He tweeted a picture of the front of an American passport and wrote “I have never been to Prague in my life.”

•••••

Less than half of Americans have a passport, and as recently as 1997 that number was only 15 percent (After 9/11, for the first time “U.S. citizens traveling by air between the U.S. and Canada, Mexico, Central and South America, the Caribbean, and Bermuda were required to have a valid passport,” Forbes reports, which raised the percentage dramatically).

Since so many Americans are unfamiliar with borders and how they work, I think it’s important to point out something that many might not realize: whether Mr. Cohen traveled to Prague in 2016 or not, his passport would not necessarily contain a Czech entry stamp.

Here’s how that works: 26 European countries, comprising some 400 million people, signed an agreement in the town of Schengen, Luxembourg, in 1995. Under the Schengen agreement, entry into any of these countries requires the usual pass control arrival procedures, the glowering official, the uncomfortable silence, maybe the fingerprint thing and all the flourescence and fatigue, but once stamped in, a visitor is not subject to further border checks within the Schengen area.

Here is a list of the Schengen countries: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Greece, Hungary, Iceland, Italy, Latvia, Liechtenstein, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Malta, the Netherlands, Norway, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Slovenia, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland.

It has been reported that Mr. Cohen traveled to Italy in July of 2016, though at a time not consistent with the claims of the dossier. He could have walked from the plane to the Hertz counter, rented a budget sedan and driven from Roma to Prague in about twelve hours with no need for his passport.

Alternately, his evil, opulent-luxury-yacht-wielding collaborators might have put him ashore on a quiet Portuguese beach, from which he perhaps begged a ride from an itinerant fisherman to the train station, and from there made his way to Prague. He might have caught the Delta flight up to Reykjavik, been waved through by a weary pass control clerk at the end of his shift, predawn, when all those flights come in at once, and caught the ferry to Denmark.

Or, of course, for the conspiracy minded, he might have been spirited in and out of the Czech Republic with the help of all those evil, conspiring collaborators. Doing something really mean about Crimea on the way just for the record.

Point is: these days in Europe, a passport needn’t have a stamp for you to have been there.

You can get to Prague with your initial entry stamp from any of these places:

Election Day in Italy

 

How about a morning coffee catch up on today’s Italian elections?

To start, bookmark these two overviews, a general explainer from Euronews and a cheat sheet from an economic perspective.

Now, what people are saying:

Italy’s Election Could Change Everything, Scott B. MacDonald argues. If Eurosceptics win a majority and cobble together a coalition Italy could face a referendum on whether to leave the eurozone.

That’s doubtful. Politico.eu sees things differently.

The Guardian has a long article on Italy’s political fringe, The fascist movement that has brought Mussolini back to the mainstreamAnd Tim Parks writes that just over a month ago the body of an eighteen-year old girl

“was found in the countryside near Macerata in Central Italy. Soon the police had arrested a Nigerian accused of selling the girl drugs. On February 3, a white man, previously a local government candidate for the Northern League, drove through the town firing some thirty shots from his car into immigrant shops and bars, wounding six people.”

And thus the stage was set for an ugly five weeks of immigration-centered contentiousness. At the center of that particular stage is Matteo Salvini, 44, leader of the Lega (formerly the Northern League), a xenophobic, racist bunch who fear an “Islamic invasion” in Italy. (Here is an interview.) Salvini has gathered up all the last minute press with headlines like the most dangerous man in Italy.

At the same time, today’s election is huge for the anti-establishment, poll-leading Movimento Cinque Stelle, or 5 Star Movement, the formerly insurgent party founded by Beppe Grillo, a stand-up comedian who is himself ineligible to hold office because of a negligent homicide conviction.

M5S politician Virginia Elena Raggi is Mayor of Rome, and Chiara Appendino is Mayor of Turin. Because its members now wield actual power, to decidedly mixed results, M5S is in awkward transition, governing while campaigning as insurgents.

Part of the problem is that they aren’t governing all that well. Raggi was indicted two weeks ago on favoritism charges that sound familiar: lying about cronyism. In Raggi’s case it was appointing her former assistant’s brother to be Rome’s tourism chief.

Grillo keeps a lower profile than during the rise of the movement. The party’s hopes are pinned on 31 year old Luigi Di Maio, a Vice-President of Chamber of Deputies in the Italian Parliament. Conventional wisdom holds that even if M5S were to get the most votes it would be difficult for them to cobble together a governing coalition.

(M5S background here from Bloomberg. The Atlantic explains How Italy’s Five-Star Movement Is Winning the Youth Vote: “They can’t find jobs, and the centrist parties have failed them, opening space for the populists.”)

The former PM Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party (PD) polls in second place but it ain’t got no juice. Slim Odds.

•••••

And then there’s this, from a different Tim Parks article titled Whoever Wins Won’t Govern:

“We are the country of … the decree that never becomes law and the investment that is always inadequate; in the rare event that everything goes smoothly and parliament gets something done we are the country that can rely on the courts to undo it. Italian power is impotence.

Whoever wins, they will not govern. All will go on just the same. Most key policies will be decided outside Italy.”

By which he means the European Union.

•••••

The EU is a wholly fascinating polity. Choose your corner. In the northwest and southeast the United Kingdom and Greece slash and tear at Brussels’ rule. In the northeast, Finland is grateful the EU has its back, given its long Russian border, while in the southwest Portugal appreciates the €1.8 billion more that it receives annually than it contributes to Brussels (2016). And in the middle, the yet-to-be initiated Balkan countries both want in and don’t.

My Italian friends were the first to assure me, seriously, that Donald Trump could become the American president. This was nonsense, I assured them, but they had seen it. They had lived the Silvio Berlusconi experience. Now as usual, Italy faces a dizzy field of Communists, anarchists, stuntmen, the common paralysis and … Berlusconi.

The prospects of a return of Berlusconi invite despair.  One would hope that having once elected a clown parody of a statesman, the good people of (insert your country name here) would run him out of town.

This election is worth staying up late to watch. Happy election day.

Speaking of morning coffee, got time to buy me a cup?

Enjoyable Series on Europe

Have a look at the British journalist Matthew Engel’s current series of travelogues in The New Statesman

The most recent is Slovenia – the happy country that should be even happier. The previous two in the series are
Travels in Belgium, the dysfunctional, fractured state at the heart of the EU and The slow train to Tallinn, about Estonia.

(Photo is Tallinn, capital of Estonia. Click to enlarge.)

The European Question

In light of German politicians’ inability to form a government, the German Question has been turned on its head. Post-Cold War, the German Question asked how the unification of East and West Germany might be achieved without creating an economic and political juggernaut, with all the baggage that prospect carried.

Suddenly now, wonders Handelsblatt Global, is Germany “becoming incapable of assuming enough leadership to guide and champion Europe in a globalized world?” In the same week, Matthew Engel’s Travels in Belgium, the dysfunctional, fractured state at the heart of the EU reminds us that that country “went 589 days in 2010-11 without a fully-formed government.”

Meanwhile, Brexit still means Brexit and we can all see how that’s working out. Just ask, (among just about anybody else) anyone living along the once and future Republican/Northern Irish border.

Can European governments govern? That is the new European Question.

Quotes: Brexit

During the Brexit referendum, a distinction was made between sovereignty and power. An institution can, like the Moldovan Parliament, be sovereign with limited powers; another, like a multinational company, can be powerful without being sovereign. The Westminster Parliament, some Leavers argued, was no longer sovereign: hence the language of ‘taking back control’. They weren’t swayed by forecasts of a loss of international influence because they were concerned with sovereignty, not power.

Parliament, as a sovereign body, can legislate as it likes. The effects of its legislation are a function of its power. The Article 50 notification may take back sovereignty; it gave away power.

It’s Show Time for French Elections

This will get you up to speed on the state of things one month before the French election: The center-right Républicains and center-left Parti Socialiste have dominated French politics since the founding of the Fifth Republic in 1958, and this year neither may advance to the final round. Among the Républicains, the two best known candidates went down in turn. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy’s comeback attempt was turned back early, then in the primaries’ second round, Alain Juppé was defeated by former Prime Minister François Fillon, who promptly became embroiled in a scandal that has brought his poll numbers down to 18%. He is currently polling in third place.

President François Hollande’s hapless governance has brought the center-left Socialistes’ prospects down with him, and the Socialistes have chosen to radically shake up their status quo. As on the center-right, the expected standard bearer, Manuel Valls, fell decisively in the primaries to a harder left candidate named Benoit Hamon, who proposes shortening the work week to 32 hours, and a tax on robots. He languishes in last place, most recently polling 14.1%.

The candidates most likely to finish one-two are Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen. Macron has positioned himself squarely in the center, having left the Socialistes to form a party called En Marche, meaning sort of “on the move,” or “let’s go!” While Macron, 39, is accused of a lack of policy heft, he is just about tied atop the polls with the leader of the Front Nationale, Marine Le Pen. Le Pen has worked hard on the “de-démonization” of the anti-EU, law and order party she inherited from her father, the holocaust denier Jean-Marie Le Pen. The firebrand populist hopes to benefit from the rise of nationalism in the west, and from the “Trump effect.”

Here is one in a series of election ads (with English subtitles) that seeks to show Le Pen’s steely determination and patriotism:

The first round of the elections in Sunday, 23 April, with the top two candidates moving to a runoff two weeks later. Conventional wisdom suggests the rest of the political spectrum will close ranks against Le Pen, behind whoever emerges as her opponent in the second round, to be held Sunday, 7 May. More on that then.