Mon, 23 Sep 2019

BRUSSELS -- At the end of this week, citizens of all 28 EU member states will elect 751 members to the European Parliament (MEPs). Almost all of them will come from various national party lists with the numbers determined both by the size of the country the MEP is running in (the bigger the country, the more MEPs it has) and what share of the vote his/her party get.

Magdalena Adamowicz (center) attends her husband';s funeral service in Gdank on January 19.

The Mayor's Widow

The eyes of the world were fixed on Magdalena Adamowicz on January 14 as she and her two daughters rushed to the hospital in the northern Polish city of Gdansk. She had come to whisper her final goodbyes to her husband, Pawel Adamowicz.

A few minutes later, the mayor of Gdansk for more than two decades died. He had been stabbed in the heart the night before while on stage at the closing of the Great Orchestra of Christmas Charity, the biggest such fundraising event in the country.

His killer, a man with a long criminal history who just had been released from prison, seized the microphone at the event and claimed false imprisonment and torture at the hands of the previous centrist Civic Platform (PO) government -- a party that Adamowicz had belonged to for most of his career, even if he had been elected as an independent last time around.

For the European elections, it is the slain mayor's widow who is attempting to pick up his political mantle. Like him, she is a liberal who speaks favorably of LGBT rights and immigration -- issues that put the law professor and top candidate for PO in direct opposition to the ruling conservative Law and Justice (PiS) party that currently dominates the political scene in Poland.

Hungarian Justice Minister Laszlo Trocsanyi speaks to reporters in Budapest in September 2018.

Hungarian Ghosts, Past And Present

Viktor Orban, the Hungarian prime minister and 'bete noire' of many liberals in Europe, knows exactly how to troll his many detractors. One way is to nominate his justice minister, Laszlo Trocsanyi, to lead the Fidesz list for the European Parliament vote.

For a country that often is in the EU crosshairs for rule-of-law issues, that is quite a daring move. What is more, it's rumored that the popular support Trocsanyi will get being top of the list (Fidesz is expected to dominate the field) will likely be used as justification for Orban to propose him as Hungary's next European commissioner.

Making matters more delicate, Trocsanyi's law firm, Nagy & Trocsanyi, represents the Hungarian government in almost all important government cases involving legal disputes with the European Union. He has, however, suspended his activities for the duration of his government service and is likely to do the same in Brussels.

Meanwhile, the beleaguered center-left in Hungary is likely to continue their electoral cold streak. The top candidate for the center-left Democratic Coalition is Klara Dobrev, wife of former Prime Minister Ferenc Gyurcsany. Gyurcsany's time at the helm of the country in 2004-09 was a controversial one, with economic struggles and riots in the streets of Budapest and other cities after he was caught on tape saying that his Socialist Party had lied to win the 2006 election.

What's more, Dobrev, who was born in Sofia to a Bulgarian father and Hungarian mother, is linked to the hated communist regime in Hungary via her maternal grandfather, Antal Apro, a Communist Party hard-liner who was the speaker of the rubber-stamp Hungarian national assembly for most of the 1970s and '80s.

Swedish Minister for Culture and Democracy Alice Bah Kuhnke looks on during a meeting at EU headquarters in Brussels in May 2017.

The Disney Girl

In the United States, some of the kids starring in The Mickey Mouse Club TV series in the 1990s became major artists a few years later. Just think of names like Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Justin Timberlake, and Ryan Gosling. In Sweden, the Disney Club, based on its American cousin, produced a politician. Alice Bah Kuhnke was the Swedish minister of culture until recently and is now the top name for the Swedish Greens going into the European elections.

The daughter of a Gambian father and a Swedish mother has made a stellar political career, having founded a think tank and been elected to the boards of both Save the Children and WWF in Sweden.

For cinema fans, her last name might also ring a bell. Her husband, Johannes Bah Kuhnke, played the lead role in the critically acclaimed comedy-drama film Force Majeure that won the jury's prize at the Cannes film festival in 2014.

Silvio Berlusconi waves to supporters in Milan in March 2018.

Brussels 'Bunga Bunga'

Rarely has someone announcing that they are running for the European Parliament been met with such delight mingled with terror in Brussels as when Silvio Berlusconi did so earlier this year.

In a parliament filled largely with people unknown to the world outside the EU bubble, this is a bona fide political superstar. Italy's longest-serving postwar prime minister is a billionaire, media tycoon, soccer mogul, convicted tax fraudster, and womanizer. His numerous scandals and links to dubious characters around the world have made him the subject of several films, documentaries, and books.

Journalists are rubbing their hands with joy thinking about what he will bring to Brussels. Civil servants are bracing themselves. There is little doubt that he will get elected even though his Forza Italia party is being outshone by other populists such as Matteo Salvini, who in many ways have picked up the dark arts of Italian politics from Il Cavaliere himself.

The only thing that in fact might stop the octogenarian from taking his seat in Brussels is his bad health. Undergoing complicated heart surgery back in 2016 and currently recovering from a stomach operation have made people question how much 'bunga bunga' Brussels will in fact see.

Raphael Glucksmann attends a TV debate as part of the campaign for the European elections on May 22.

The Fight Of The French Intellectuals

In France, most of the focus will be on whether Marine Le Pen's far-right National Rally will edge out President Emanuel Macron's Liberal La Republique En Marche for the top spot in the European elections in the country. Behind them, the two traditional political forces in the Fifth Republic, the Republicans and the Socialist Party, have followed the old French penchant of elevating public intellectuals to the top of their respective electoral lists.

For the center-right, the intellectual of choice is the 33-year old philosopher and mayor of Versailles, Francois-Xavier Bellamy, whose essay Les Desherites (The Disinherited) about the perceived crisis in the French educational system has been awarded by the Academie Francaise. Seen as a conservative -- a description he rejects -- he is nonetheless in favor of stricter external European border controls and voted against establishing a consolidated EU constitution back in 2005.

In the red corner, you have the 39-year-old essayist and filmmaker Raphael Glucksmann, whose father, Andre Glucksmann, was one of France's most popular philosophers of the 20th century. Glucksmann pere was known for starting out as a firebrand Marxist but later becoming a big communist critic and supporter of Western intervention in places like Serbia and Afghanistan.

His son has traveled in almost the opposite direction. Glucksmann Jr. first started off as a journalist and made his mark with a TV documentary about the Rwandan genocide before befriending the then-president of Georgia, Mikheil Saakashvili, and later becoming his adviser. He was also married to former Georgian Deputy Interior Minister Eka Zguladze, who held the same position in Ukraine in 2014-16. He has however lately denounced his previous support for former right-wing French President Nicolas Sarkozy and in a recent political essay been critical of political liberalism that according to him is leading to both a democratic crisis and an ecological disaster.

In a crowded field of Macronian liberals, old Gaullists and populists on the right and left, Glucksmann will be in charge of renewing the once-proud French socialists.

Nils Usakovs attends a rally in front of Riga City Hall on February 9.

Running From Riga

Usually there are two types of people running for European Parliament: up-and-coming political stars who want to test their wings in European politics before flying back to the home capital to become ministers, or political veterans who have done it all and are looking for one final (good) paycheck before retiring.

In the case of Nils Usakovs, one could possibly find a third category: those who appear to be fleeing justice at home.

When he became mayor of Riga in 2009, he was the first person in that position of Russian descent since Latvia gained independence in 1991. Reelected twice, he had become perhaps the most visible politician from the country's large Russian minority, but his role as mayor became increasingly vulnerable in January when his office and home were raided by anticorruption officers in connection with an ongoing major graft investigation at the Riga municipal transport company.

A month later he announced his intention to run as an MEP for the center-left Harmony party, making a complete U-turn since just days before he had endorsed another candidate and dismissed talk of going to Brussels.

Suggestions that he was trying to evade justice have refused to go away. In April, he was unceremoniously suspended as mayor by the Latvian minister of environmental protection and regional development, citing at least eight legal and regulatory violations -- a move Usakovs described as 'absolutely illegal' and he vowed to fight in court. He is now likely to do so in Brussels, a safe distance away from the city he used to run and is on the run from.

Estonian President Toomas Henrik Ilves married his new wife Ieva in January 2016.

Ilves Vs. Ilves

Toomas Hendrik Ilves is one of the most recognizable Estonians. President of the small Baltic state for a decade, he also served as his country's foreign minister and is one of the sharpest commentators on current affairs on Twitter. The bow-tied polyglot also briefly served as a member of the European Parliament when his country joined the EU back in 2004 before returning back to Tallinn two years later to become head of state.

Now two of his wives hope to follow his European footsteps -- running in two different countries. His second wife, Evelin Ilves, appears on the Green ticket in Estonia. The former first lady and marketing director might be joined in Strasbourg by the current Mrs. Ilves, Ieva, who is running as one of the top candidates for the Latvian liberal alliance Development/For!

A career diplomat who was part of the team that successfully made Latvia a NATO member, she recently worked as the head of the cybersecurity division in her country's Defense Ministry. There are no reports yet whether Ilves's first wife, the American psychologist Merry Bullock, is eyeing a European Parliament seat.

Sarah Wiener delivers a speech during the EU election rally in Vienna on April 27.

Organic Wiener

The canteen in the European Parliament is already considered the best of all the EU institutions (although you hear plenty of grumbling about the offerings there as well...) but if Sarah Wiener is elected and she decides to offer a few tips and tricks, it will for sure be even more popular among the wheeler-dealers of parliamentary politics.

The German- Austrian chef is already a household name in both her countries, where she owns several restaurants and bakeries. Like many other food celebrities these days, she has become even more famous after several successful TV shows, newspaper columns, and popular cookbooks. Some would even credit her with triggering interest in ecological and healthy food on the German-language market, so it is quite natural that she chose to represent the Austrian Greens when she finally decided to make the jump into politics.

As Vienna is rocking due to the fall of the coalition government following the emergence over the weekend of secret footage showing and far-right leader and Vice Chancellor Heinz-Christian Strache discussing sensitive business issues with an alleged Russian investor, the pro-EU Greens might gain considerable support in the upcoming vote. If that's the case, be sure that Wiener, who was once the Berlin taekwondo champion, will suddenly have bigger fish to fry.

A truck passes a ruined house in Vukovar in October 1992.

Remembering Vukovar

The battle of Vukovar has a very special place in the history of Croatian nationhood. The 87-day siege of the city by the Yugoslav National Army (JNA), supported by Serbian paramilitaries, which started in August 1991, was at the time the most protracted battle seen in Europe since 1945, with shells and rockets fired into the town at a rate of up to 12,000 a day.

Despite the fact that nearly 40,000 JNA soldiers participated in the siege against some 2,000 soldiers from the Croatian National Guard (ZNG) and civilian volunteers, the final result was a city in ashes and a Pyrrhic victory for the exhausted JNA.

It was the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia, but it also shaped the life of two Croatian candidates for the European Parliament who ended up on different sides of the political aisle. It made a hero out of volunteer Fred Matic, who was a prisoner of war in three Serbian war camps and later became a Social Democrat defense minister in the young country.

For Marijana Balic it was a personal tragedy. Over 1,000 civilians were killed in the battle, including both of Balic's parents. Just 10 years old at the time, she became one of the 'Vukovar orphans.' Having worked as an assistant in the European Parliament, she now wants to return as a lawmaker for the center-right HDZ.

Divided by politics, the lives and fates of the war hero and the orphan are nonetheless still intertwined with what happened in eastern Slavonia 28 years ago.

Nigel Farage addresses supporters during a Leave Means Leave rally in Solihull in September 2018.

Leaves Means Stay

He was the face of Brexit, railing against the 'elites' in Westminster and Brussels, praising his friend U.S. President Donald Trump and admiring Russian President Vladimir Putin. Nigel Farage was first elected to the European Parliament in 1999 and was returned with big numbers every five years, having built up a big following on social media, mainly thanks to his vicious mocking of various EU leaders in the Strasbourg chamber over the years.

After achieving his lifetime goal of Britain voting to leave the bloc in the 2016 Brexit referendum, Farage stepped down as leader of the U.K. Independence Party but continued to be engaged via the movement Leave Means Leave.

Now it seems that leave, in fact, means stay. Britain didn't quit the bloc on March 29 as foreseen. The new date is for the moment is October 31, which means that Britain will hold European elections. It also means that Farage will return to the EU politics he claims to loathe. This time he is doing so with the newly formed Brexit Party that is topping the polls ahead of both Labour and the Conservatives, vowing to once again punish the political establishment that he says has betrayed his Brexit dream.

Greek Finance Minister Yanis Varoufakis arrives for a meeting at the office of the prime minister in Athens in July 2015.

Yanis The German

He was the leather-clad biker turned Greek finance minister from the left-wing Syriza party who drove his European minister colleagues crazy during negotiations on the third bailout package for his country during the summer of 2015.

As an economics professor specializing in game theory, he loved to lecture both the media and especially northern eurozone member states about the perils he saw in too much austerity. At the height of the summer that year, as the Hellenic Republic was on the brink of crashing out of the common currency, he was replaced and Greece hurriedly agreed to the new stringent economic conditions for Athens.

The heavy-handedness of Brussels and fiscal hawks in Germany during the Greek crisis ensured that Yanis Varoufakis became something of a poster boy for leftists around Europe with his rebellious attitude and characteristic look -- something he has capitalized on through numerous speaking engagements and books since then.

Three years ago he also created DiEM25 (Democracy in Europe Movement 2025) a pan-European movement launched with the aim of drafting a democratic constitution to replace all the European treaties that are in force today by 2025. Other ideas include live-streaming European summits and meetings of the European Central Bank and 'a new green deal for Europe' that has won praise from former Baywatch star Pamela Anderson, who appears on their posters in Germany.

And it is in Germany, his former sparring partner, that Varoufakis is a candidate for the European elections. Although not a German citizen, he registered as a resident of Berlin some time ago and German law says that a European Parliament candidate must be a citizen of an EU country and have resided in Germany for at least six months.

Another German quirk is that unlike the Bundestag elections, there is no vote threshold for entry into the European Parliament in Germany, meaning that even Varoufakis's modest outfit has a change.

Carles Puigdemont speaks to the press in Neumuenster in April 2018.

A Catalan In Exile, A Catalan Imprisoned

Carles Puigdemont was the president of the government of Catalonia when he was removed from office by the Spanish government in Madrid in the autumn of 2017 following the unilateral Catalan declaration of independence. He fled Spain and came to Belgium, where he lives in the Brussels suburb of Waterloo, the setting of Napoleon's final defeat.

Rather than accepting defeat, Puigdemont is instead plotting a comeback from the historical location. Not in Spain, where he risks arrest if he sets foot, but in European politics.

But it remains far from clear if he will ever appear in the European Parliament even if he manages to get elected. In April, Spain's Central Election Commission barred him from appearing on the ballot, arguing that he was not residing in Spain. The Spanish Supreme Court, however, overturned that decision a few week later.

But to be sworn in -- and to get the immunity as an MEP -- Spanish law says he would need to travel to Madrid. Puigdemont has said that if he still faced arrest, he would not return to Spain but would fight to be sworn in remotely.

For his deputy, Vice President Oriol Junqueras, the situation is even more uncertain. In prison for over a year after having refused bail over accusations of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of public funds in the wake of the referendum, he is more popular than ever after the impassioned speeches he made during his trial, which started earlier this year.

He was briefly an MEP from 2009 to 2012, but is now somehow aiming to return to the chamber. Whether it is from exile in Waterloo or a Spanish prison cell, the Catalan separatist battle is taking a European turn.

Lithuanian grandmaster Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen

Chess Mate

If it is true that politics is about strategy more than anything else, then Viktorija Cmilyte-Nielsen might be just perfect in the parliamentary corridors of Strasbourg.

The Lithuanian became a chess grandmaster in 2010 and a year later she won the gold medal at the European women's championship after several runner-up positions in the previous decade.

For good measure, she has also been married to two chess grandmasters. Her ex-husband is the Latvian-Spanish player Alexei Shirov, who in the early '90s was ranked No. 2 in the world and was in line to face the then-world champion, Garry Kasparov. Her current partner, Peter Heine Nielsen, is a five-time Danish chess champion and the second (a sort of assistant plotting opening chess moves) of the current world No. 1, Magnus Carlsen.

After four years in the Lithuanian parliament, Cmilyte-Nielsen is now trying her luck in European politics as one of the top candidates for the liberal movement.

Copyright (c) 2018. RFE/RL, Inc. Republished with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Ste 400, Washington DC 20036

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