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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.

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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ITALIAN ELECTIONS

On eve of election, Italy braces for potential far-right win

Italians on Saturday braced for seismic change, on the eve of an election forecast to hand Italy the most right-wing government since World War II.

Out with internationally respected Mario Draghi and in — polls say — with Eurosceptic Giorgia Meloni, head of the post-fascist Brothers of Italy party, who is widely tipped to become the country’s first woman to head a government.

“The country is eager for a change, a new face,” Wolfango Piccoli of the London-based political risk consultancy Teneo told AFP.

Italy is battling a series of crises, from rampant inflation and extreme weather events linked to climate change, to an energy crisis aggravated by the war in Ukraine.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding the Brothers of Italy

The campaign, sparked by Draghi’s downfall in July, wrapped up on Friday, giving Italians a day of reprieve as electioneering is banned until the vote.

People who spoke to AFP in Rome on Saturday said they were unsure the day before the election as the latest polls show that the Brothers of Italy party is likely to win and form a government.

“I am worried by the fact that the polls have the right-wing as the winner, especially Giorgia Meloni,” said Maria Tasca, a 27-year-old student originally from Sicily.

‘No magic solution’

“From what she has said on women’s rights, on young people’s rights, on rights in general, I see things going backwards by at least 50 years,” Tasca added.

“The problems are worldwide, there’s no magic solution. But sometimes you have to change,” said a 75-year-old shop owner, who gave his name only as Dante.

Meloni, 45, has worked hard over the past few weeks to reassure skittish investors and an anxious Brussels that her party’s historic ties to supporters of dictator Benito Mussolini are a thing of the past.

She has softened her tone and posted a video of herself on TikTok making traditional pastries from the Puglia region.

But she channelled warrior Aragorn from Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings on Thursday at the closing rally for the right-wing coalition, which unites her Brothers of Italy with Matteo Salvini’s anti-immigration League party and billionaire Silvio Berlusconi’s Forza Italia.

READ ALSO:Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s League

The self-described “Christian mother” segued smoothly from the fantasy king to blaming the left for the country’s “drug dealers, thieves, rapists and mafia”, adding: “This Italy ends on Sunday”.

Berlusconi, 85, was at her side.

The media mogul — who is on trial accused of bribing starlets not to testify about his allegedly erotic parties — has campaigned mainly online, wooing grandmothers and housewives with promises of stay-at-home salaries.

TikTok jokes

He has also chased the youth vote with some TikTok jokes — including one about not trying to steal their girlfriends.

The race has seen the parties try to win over voters with ideas such as sending goods from northern to southern Italy via tube and fighting climate change with cannabis.

READ ALSO: Political cheat sheet: Understanding Italy’s Five Star Movement

Former interior minister Salvini, 49, campaigned under the slogan “Credo” (I believe), earning him a rebuke from the Catholic Church.

Fearful of losing a significant chunk of his supporters to Meloni, Salvini has tried to stand out by calling for an end to sanctions against Russia and railing against Brussels.

But the end of his campaign was overshadowed by a video clip of him describing a blind League candidate on Thursday as “an eye for Italians”.

The centre-left’s Enrico Letta, head of the Democratic Party (PD), rocked up to his final rally in an electric van — reminding voters of his earlier efforts to promote ecologically friendly transport, when his electric campaign
bus ran out of battery.

His main rival for votes on the left, Giuseppe Conte, head of the populist Five Star Movement, seemed to have more staying power.

He was photographed so often standing head and shoulders above the crowd amid a throng of supporters that the media dubbed him the “travelling Madonna”.

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