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‘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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MIGRANT CRISIS

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers met in Brussels on Friday to discuss the latest migrant crisis – a move that was precipitated by Italy's controversial clash with France over the handling of refugees.

EU ministers hold crisis talks after migrant ship row between Italy and France

European interior ministers gathered for crisis talks on Friday as an ugly row between Paris and Rome over how to handle would-be refugees forced a EU migration reform back onto their agenda.

New arrival numbers haven’t yet hit the levels of 2015 and 2016, but European capitals are concerned about new pressure on sea routes from North Africa and overland through the western Balkans.

And now, with winter temperatures descending in eastern Europe and Ukrainian cities facing power cuts under Russian bombardment, the European Union is braced for many more war refugees.

The bloc has been struggling for years to agree and implement a new policy for sharing responsibility for migrants and asylum seekers, but a new dispute has brought the issue to the fore.

READ ALSO: Why are France and Italy rowing over migrants and what are the consequences?

Earlier this month, Italy’s new government under far-right leader Georgia Meloni refused to allow a Norwegian-flagged NGO ship to dock with 234 migrants rescued from the Mediterranean.

The Ocean Viking eventually continued on to France, where authorities reacted with fury to Rome’s stance, suspending an earlier deal to take in 3,500 asylum seekers stranded in Italy.

The row undermined the EU’s stop-gap interim solution to the problem, and Paris called Friday’s extraordinary meeting of interior ministers from the 27 member states.

Migrants in Lampedusa, Italy

Earlier this month, France suspended a deal by which it would take as many as 3,500 refugees stranded in Italy. Photo by Filippo MONTEFORTE / AFP

Complaints from Mediterranean countries closer to North African shores like Italy and Greece that they were shouldering too much responsibility for migrants led to the previous plan.

A dozen EU members agreed to take on 8,000 asylum seekers – with France and Germany taking 3,500 each – but so far just 117 relocations have taken place.

‘Nothing new’

After Italy refused responsibility for the Ocean Viking, France has declared that it no longer wants to not only allow ships to arrive from Italian waters but also take in thousands of other migrants.

On Monday, in a bid to revive the mechanism, the European Commission unveiled another action plan to better regulate arrivals on the central Mediterranean route.

“Obviously the meeting was set up following the spat between Italy and France over the migrants aboard the Ocean Viking,” a European diplomat said.

“The action plan that was shared with member states is perfectly fine, but contains nothing new, so it isn’t going to solve the migration issue.”

Stephanie Pope, an expert on migration for the aid agency Oxfam, dubbed Brussels’ plan “just another reshuffle of old ideas that do not work”. 

“It is a waste of time,” she said.

The plan would see a closer coordination between EU national authorities and humanitarian NGOs on rescues of migrants whose make-shift, overcrowded boats are in difficulty.

And it would see Brussels work more closely with Tunisia, Libya and Egypt to try to stop undocumented migrants boarding smuggler vessels in the first place.

READ ALSO: Italy arrests suspected trafficker over deaths of seven migrants

France would like a new framework within which NGO boats could operate – neither a total ban nor a carte blanche to import would-be refugees.

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse the humanitarian charities of operating without respect to national authorities and of effectively encouraging immigration.

Migrants on a boat arriving in Italy

Italy, Greece, Malta and Cyprus often accuse NGOs of operating with disregard to national authorities. Photo by Gianluca CHININEA / AFP

Other member states, including Germany, argue that there can be no limits on humanitarian operations – all seafarers are obliged by the law of the sea to save travellers in danger. 

Ahead of the talks, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi, warned: “With almost 2,000 people having already died or gone missing so far this year alone, urgent action is needed.”

Grandi welcomed the European Commission’s draft plan for state-led rescues and predictable ports of disembarkation, adding: “While states point fingers and trade blame, lives are lost.”

Border force

While France and Italy argue about high-profile cases of dramatic rescues in the central Mediterranean, other EU capitals are more concerned about land routes through the Balkans.

Almost 130,000 undocumented migrants are estimated to have come to the bloc since the start of the year, an increase of 160 percent, according to the EU border force Frontex.

On Thursday, the Czech, Austrian, Slovak and Hungarian ministers met in Prague ahead of the trip to Brussels to stress that this route accounts for more than half of “illegal arrivals” in the bloc.

Austrian interior minister Gerhard Karner said the EU should finance border protection and give members “a legal tool to return people who come for economic reasons”.

Diplomats said France and Italy would try to dominate the talks with complaints about sea arrivals, while Greece and Cyprus would point fingers at Turkey for allegedly facilitating illegal entries.

Central and eastern countries would focus on the Balkans route and, as one diplomat said, “Hungary and Poland don’t want anything to do with anything in the field of migration.”

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