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Croatia’s two main parties are neck-and-neck in polls before Sunday’s parliamentary election, which will be dominated by concerns over coronavirus and its impact on an economy that relies heavily on tourism.

Surveys give both the ruling conservative Croatian Democratic Union (HDZ) and the Restart alliance led by the centre-left Social Democrats (SDP) between 25-30 per cent, well clear of the nationalist Homeland Movement that could be a kingmaker for the new government.

Prime minister Andrej Plenkovic (50) hailed Croatia’s reopening to holidaymakers last month as evidence of the HDZ government’s competent handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and a positive sign for a country where the travel industry accounts for about a fifth of gross domestic product.

A subsequent spike in infections has fuelled fears of a resurgence, however, and on Friday the country of 4.2 million people reported 96 new cases of the disease – equalling the record daily rise of April 1st. Officials say 3,008 people in Croatia have now been confirmed with the virus, 112 of whom have died.

SDP leader Davor Bernardic (40) has accused Mr Plenkovic of endangering public health by calling the election during a pandemic. The prime minister has also faced criticism for refusing to self-isolate after meeting Novak Djokovic at an ill-fated tournament organised by the Serbian tennis star on the Croatian coast, after which he and several other players tested positive for the virus.

Mr Plenkovic says he has tested negative several times, and argues that Mr Bernardic does not have the experience to guide Croatia through such a difficult period.

“This is not the time for political charlatanry . . . nor for those who are inexperienced and whose programme is a kind of wish list, without any real budgetary or political basis for implementing it,” he said.

“Right now we have a slightly increased number of infections but, like elsewhere in the world, in the time ahead we will need to balance between protecting public health and maintaining the economy and tourism.”

Neither main party is expected to secure a majority, and they rule out forming a “grand coalition” together.

Mr Bernardic, who says his government would focus on fighting corruption, modernising and streamlining the economy and reforming healthcare, accuses the HDZ of being mired in corruption and quietly planning to join forces with the far-right Homeland movement of folk singer Miroslav Skoro.

Homeland is expected to take about 11 per cent of votes, and claims to be the only real alternative to a political establishment long dominated by the HDZ and SDP.

Analysts say the HDZ’s traditionally strong nationalist following is not enamoured of the centrist Mr Plenkovic and may vote instead for the populist Mr Skoro, potentially paving the way for a coalition deal that would ring alarm bells among liberals at home and abroad.


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President Emmanuel Macron has replaced Édouard Philippe, his prime minister of three years, with Jean Castex, a virtually unknown high-ranking civil servant who shares many of Mr Philippe’s characteristics.

Mr Philippe gave his resignation to Mr Macron on Thursday evening. The dissolution of the government was announced by the Élysée on Friday morning, Mr Castex’s appointment three hours later. He will form a new government within days.

A source at the Élysée said “a new conductor” was needed to orchestrate Mr Macron’s “change of direction” for the last two years of his term. During the Covid-19 crisis, Mr Macron said he intended to “reinvent” himself. Ten French newspapers on Friday published an interview in which he sought to outline “a new path”.

Mr Macron said improving the hospital system, ensuring the well-being of the elderly and giving hope to the young are his three top priorities. The young “will be the first victims of the [coronavirus] crisis”, he said, promising to offer incentives to employers who hire them.

Mr Macron’s new path does not appear to be substantially different from the old one.

Laurent Jacobelli, spokesman for the far-right Rassemblement National, described the new prime minister as “the perfect clone of Édouard Philippe”.

The RN is not known for sound political judgment, but the outgoing and incoming prime ministers have a lot in common. Both are white, middle-aged, high-ranking civil servants and graduates of the École Nationale d’Administration, which Mr Macron promised to dismantle because it is perceived as elitist. Both left the conservative party Les Républicains to serve Mr Macron.

The main difference, Le Figaro noted, is that Philippe was a protégé of the former conservative prime minister Alain Juppé, while Castex is close to former president Nicolas Sarkozy. Mr Macron has repeatedly sought advice from Mr Sarkozy, and some see Mr Sarkozy’s hand in his appointment.

There had been speculation that Mr Macron would appoint a woman or a Socialist, but Mr Castex is from the same mould as most of Macron’s entourage, including Alexis Kohler, the wonkish secretary-general of the Élysée, to whom Mr Castex is reportedly close.


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In the race for the Eurogroup presidency, the Brussels eurocracy has a clear favorite, and she’s one of their very own: Spanish Finance Minister Nadia Calviño, who spent 12 years in top civil service jobs at the European Commission.

Venture beyond the bubble, however, and enthusiasm for Calviño as the next leader of the exclusive club of EU finance ministers starts to fade. More fiscally conservative or liberal capitals are especially leery of replacing one Iberian social democrat, the Portuguese Mário Centeno, with another — especially at a moment when the EU is contemplating a coronavirus recovery plan that would require taking on up to €500 billion in collective debt.

or these skeptics, including the so-called frugal countries that are resisting the recovery package, either the conservative Irish candidate, Paschal Donohoe, or the Luxembourgish liberal, Pierre Gramegna, would be safer choices for one of the eurozone’s most influential posts.

Some EU powerbrokers are also reluctant to award yet another top EU job to Spain, which is already represented in the bloc’s upper ranks by foreign policy chief Josep Borrell.

Calviño’s boosters argue that she is precisely the right woman at the right time: a master of EU finances who can navigate Brussels bureaucracy with her eyes closed, who hails from one of the countries hardest hit by the coronavirus.

“It is no secret that there is support for Nadia Calviño’s candidature in the German government” — Angela Merkel, German chancellor

As a woman at a moment when gender balance is a top priority, Calviño’s candidacy raises the tantalizing prospect of the first-ever female head of the Eurogroup joining the first-ever female president of the European Commission and the first-ever female president of the European Central Bank — an idea already enthusiastically promoted by Angela Merkel, the EU’s most influential leader (and the first-ever female German chancellor).

“It is no secret that there is support for Nadia Calviño’s candidature in the German government,” Merkel said in a recent interview with a consortium of newspapers. “I am always pleased when women get leading political roles, and the Eurogroup has never been headed by a woman.”

 


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Emmanuel Macron led a group of eight infuriated member-states in scolding the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier last month. The French President accused Mr Barnier of compromising “too much” with the his British counterpart, David Frost. He singled out the area of fisheries, where it is suggested that Mr Barnier was willing to back down on the EU’s original red lines.

The shock confrontation between the two came during a “difficult meeting” with the so-called ‘group of eight’ EU member-states who want status quo access to British waters after the transition period.

Tony Connelly, RTE’s Europe Editor, mentioned the meeting during a conversation with the IIEA, where he offered his insights on the latest state of play in the negotiations between the EU and the UK.

Connelly said: “Barnier apparently had a fairly difficult meeting with the Group of Eight fishing countries, of which Ireland and France are a member.

“They told him to stick to the mandate and warned him it is not the time to comprise on their red lines on fisheries.”

He continued: “The UK wants an annual negotiations with the EU on the share-out of quotas, and the EU has said, ‘Absolutely not, that will never work’.

“The UK has pointed to the annual negotiations the EU have with Norway.

“But the EU says they share seven species with Norway, but over a hundred with the UK so annual negotiations on that scale are technically impossible.

“That is the deadlock we have on fisheries. The UK believes it is being reasonable, accepting some quota for EU fleet but not the status quo.

“Barnier has signalled that the EU could compromise on the demands but he was called out by the member-states.”

Connelly added: “In the negotiating mandate, fishing was the one area where member-states sent the draft back, insisting they wanted a tougher line from the Commission.

“They want the status quo to remain but Britain wants to be in the driver’s seat, and have control over who comes in and how much quota they get.”

This comes amid news that French fishermen could create blockades in the English Channel after Brexit is finalised as they are expected to be unhappy by the quotas.

The latest round of Brexit trade talks finished 24 hours early due to “significant differences”.

Last month, it emerged that Mr Barnier was under pressure not to fold in his battle to retain control over Britain’s fishing waters.

He had to promise politicians closely linked to French President Emmanuel Macron that EU negotiators would not budge until their UK counterparts dropped their own demands.



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