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POLITICS

‘Iron weathercock’: Europe reacts to Liz Truss becoming new British PM

European leaders and political commentators on Monday reacted to Liz Truss being elected as new Conservative party leader and therefore succeeding Boris Johnson as UK prime minister, and there were plenty of Margaret Thatcher references.

'Iron weathercock': Europe reacts to Liz Truss becoming new British PM
New Conservative Party leader and incoming prime minister Liz Truss waves as she leaves the Conservative Party Headquarters in central London having been announced the winner of the Conservative Party leadership contest at an event in central London on September 5, 2022.(Photo by Niklas HALLE'N / AFP)

Truss was announced as the winner of the Conservative party leadership race on Monday afternoon, beating Rishi Sunak in a vote by party members.

Her victory, which means she becomes Britain’s next Prime Minister, was expected given her healthy lead in the polls.

Germany’s Chancellor Olaf Scholz was one of the first leaders to react.

Scholz on Monday congratulated Truss on her victory and offered a stock response on how he sees cooperation between the UK and Germany.

“I am looking forward to our cooperation in these challenging times. The UK and Germany will continue to work closely together — as partners and friends,” Scholz said on Twitter.

European leaders hoping for more constructive post-Brexit relations with the UK will be wary of Truss as prime minister given she has frequently raised tensions with Brussels by demanding parts of the Brexit deal be renegotiated and threatened to provoke a trade war between the EU and the UK by triggering Article 16 of the Withdrawal Agreement.

The President of the European Commission Ursula Von der Leyen was therefore understandably prudent in her response to the news. 

“Congratulations Liz Truss. The EU and the UK are partners. We face many challenges together, from climate change to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. I look forward to a constructive relationship, in full respect of our agreements,” said Von der Leyen.

French leader Emmanuel Macron responded by tweeting, in English, his congratulations to the new prime minister on Monday night.

“Congratulations to Liz Truss on her election. The British people are our friends, the British nation is our ally. Let us continue working together to defend our shared interests,” said the French President on Twitter.

Macron recently played down comments from Truss, who had refused to say if the French leader was a “friend or foe” during a campaign event. He said the UK were friends “whoever its leaders were”.

Alexandre Holroyd, the French MP who represents French citizens living in the UK, also appeared to have those comments in mind when he tweeted: “After intemperate campaign declarations, it is time for responsibilities, especially the one of strengthening the friendship – historical and current – that unites our two countries and that is essential to our mutual security and prosperity.”

Media commentators across Europe have been making comparisons between Truss and former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

But instead of calling her the new “Iron Lady” (Dame de fer) French newspaper Les Echos referred to Truss as the Giroutte de Fer – in other words an “Iron Weathercock”, a reference to criticism that the new PM has changed her stance on issues to suit her quest for power. She was once a member of the Liberal Democrats party before switching to the Conservatives.

Elsewhere in Europe there were more direct comparisons between Truss and Thatcher and references to huge job she has to get Britain through the current crisis, which some media blamed on her predecessor Boris Johnson.

Austria’s daily Kurier wrote “Like her role model Margaret Thatcher, the new Prime Minister preaches free market, less state and more patriotism.”

A story by Die Presse also mentioned that Truss was now facing her “big career goal”. It added that she would have to take action soon, especially regarding the energy crisis. 

The newspaper highlighted that Truss’ government would essentially be a continuation of the Johnson years and noted that she, like the former PM, is a “convinced Brexit supporter”.

Much commentary focused around the job Truss has following in the footsteps of Boris Johnson given the country is facing a critical cost of living crisis with inflation and energy bills rising steeply. Many economists say the crisis has been worsened by Britain’s exit from the EU, which was directed by Johnson’s government.

An article in Norway’s Aftenposten simply said “Liz Truss must clear up Boris Johnson’s mess”.

Spain’s leading newspaper El Pais said Truss will continue the populist strategy of Johnson.

She will “promise citizens a rose-tinted future, without clarifying how she intends to achieve it”, the paper said.

Italy’s newspapers focused on the fact she’s the UK’s third female prime minister probably because Italy is about to get its first.

Newspaper Corriere said Truss dresses like Thatcher and her speeches are “robotic”.

The headline in Swedish newspaper Dagens Nyheter read: “When Great Britain has big problems, a woman takes over” but the editorial by Katrine Marçal said “the expectations for Truss as a leader could scarcely be lower.”

Sweden’s Svenska Dagbladet headline pointed to the many problems facing the new Prime Minister. “Truss takes over: everything apart from Armageddon awaits”.

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SPAIN AND ALGERIA

Business anxiety grows as Spain-Algeria trade deadlock lingers

Six months after Algeria cut ties with Spain following a spat over disputed Western Sahara, trade between the two countries remains paralysed, much to the dismay of the worst-hit companies.

Business anxiety grows as Spain-Algeria trade deadlock lingers

With sales blocked, investment frozen and projects at a standstill since June, businesses are struggling.

“We can’t export or import anything, all our operations are on standby,” said Julio Lebrero, head of Aecomhel, a Spanish company specialising in the manufacture of machinery for public works.

The firm, which owns 40 percent of the Algerian group Europactor, conducts almost all of its business operations in Algeria, which has left it in a difficult position.

“We haven’t brought in a single euro over the past six months, which is completely unsustainable,” admitted Lebrero, who said he was “very worried”.

Dozens of other small-and-medium sized Spanish firms (SMEs) are in the same boat, their business activity slowed because they cannot sell their products in Algeria.

Similar struggles have beset SMEs in Algeria whose businesses are dependent on raw materials and spare parts that are “made in Spain”.

The problem began in mid-March, when Spain suddenly reversed its decades-long stance of neutrality on the Western Sahara conflict, saying it would back Morocco’s autonomy plan for the disputed region as it sought to end a lingering diplomatic spat.

READ ALSO: Why Spain’s Western Sahara U-turn is a risky move with no guarantees

Spain’s move, widely seen as a victory for Morocco, infuriated its regional rival Algeria, which has long backed the Polisario Front, Western Sahara’s independence movement.

In response, Algiers suspended on June 8 a cooperation treaty with Madrid which had been signed in 2002, later moving to restrict commercial transactions and to freeze bank operations.

The freeze on business ties, announced by Algeria’s Association of Banks and Financial Establishments (known by its French acronym, ABEF), has had “a major impact on business transactions” between the two countries, said Alfonso Tapia, head of Omnicrea Consulting, which specialises in the Algerian market.

‘Everything has stopped’

To get around the problem, some firms have managed to supply their products through third countries, but that has proved impossible for small companies given the added cost.

Spain has paid a high price, with trade ministry figures showing exports to Algeria reached just €138 million ($145 million) between June and September, compared with €625 million for the same period a year earlier — a loss of some nearly €500 million in just four months.

And the slump has hit everything from agribusiness to chemicals, as well as textiles and the construction industry.

“Everything has stopped,” Djamel Eddine Bouabdallah, head of the CCIAE Algerian-Spanish trade and industry association, said, adding that some companies had even been forced to close.

The only exception is gas. Spain depends on Algeria for natural gas and deliveries by Algeria’s state-owned energy giant Sonatrach have continued untouched, albeit at a higher price.

As to how long the situation would continue, nobody knows. In June, the Spanish government appeared confident its relationship with Algeria was solid. But since then, it has said little.

State of uncertainty

For the companies hit by the freeze, Madrid’s silence does not bode well.

“We’ve asked the authorities to come up with solutions, but they’ve not come back to us,” said a spokeswoman for ANFFECC, which groups Spanish producers of ceramic glazes, pigments and glass-like materials.

In this sector, which is very dependent on the Algerian market, the freezing of business ties has already cost it some €70 million.

READ ALSO: Algeria suspends co-operation with Spain over Western Sahara dispute

And many fear it could lead to a permanent loss of market share to its French and Italian competitors.

“The Spanish government is acting like there’s no problem, they have left us completely on our own,” said Lebrero.

His view is shared by another Spanish business owner who, speaking on condition of anonymity, denounced the “passivity” of the government and accused Algiers of blowing “hot and cold”.

In a statement at the end of July, Algeria’s Association of Banks and Financial Establishments announced the end of the restrictions with Spain.

But nothing changed, leaving companies in a state of uncertainty. “There are currently negotiations ongoing between the two governments, because they cannot leave the situation like this,” said Bouabdallah, his words echoed by Alfonso Tapia.

“The current situation is no good for anyone. We need to get back to normality,” he told AFP, calling for a “quick resolution” of the deadlock.

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