POLITICO EU Confidential: Sofagate — Central and Eastern Europe’s COVID struggles — Ivan Krastev

A weekly podcast and newsletter featuring keynote interviews, quotes, and weekend reads on the forces shaping Europe.

By Cristina Gonzalez, Andrew Gray and Paul Dallison

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Welcome to EU Confidential, bringing you the latest from our podcast and a satirical look at the week’s news.

CATCHING UP WITH …

Ivan Krastev, Bulgarian political scientist

A conversation with Ivan Krastev is a relaxed affair, peppered with smiles, jokes and chatty asides. But it’s also filled with striking observations on a broad range of weighty issues.

It’s not hard to see why Krastev’s books, such as “After Europe” and “The Light that Failed,” have become required reading for people involved and interested in European politics.

Whether he’s asked about last Sunday’s election in his home country of Bulgaria, the state of liberalism, the impact of the coronavirus on the European project, or the rise of China, Krastev has something pithy to share that often takes a well-known idea and gives it a fresh twist.

Here are some Krastevisms, as we have boldly christened them, that popped up when he spoke to EU Confidential from Sofia, where he is chair of the Centre for Liberal Strategies think tank.

Europe’s biggest division: “While we all are very much focused on the East-West divide, the major divide in Europe is between the big metropolitan centers and the countryside.”

COVID and a new dictatorship: “I do believe if there is one dictatorship in the world, this is the dictatorship of comparisons … trying to compare the performance of your government to the other governments in the world.”

The pandemic and the EU: “You realize how much you rely on the things that are not produced in your own country … You have this nationalization of the sentiment and Europeanization of the interests.”

Europe’s vaccine rollout: “The European Union is a great mechanism to avoid crises, but when the crisis has come, there are two major deficiencies: One is the speed of decision-making. The European Union is sophisticated, serious, transparent, but very slow … And secondly, unlike in many other places, the pandemic very much revealed the risk-averse nature of European decision-making.”

Chinese squeeze: “This type of a systemic competition and rivalry between the United States and China, but also the West and China, is there and for the European Union basically to pretend that this is not the case is going to be very costly. We’re going to be squeezed.”

Technological turf wars: “Tell me what is your 5G provider and I’m going to tell you where your geopolitical loyalties go.”

WHAT WE’RE TALKING ABOUT THIS WEEK 

Eastern struggles: Many Central and Eastern European countries managed the early stages of the pandemic relatively well, compared to their Western neighbors. But with infection rates rising and vaccines slow to roll out, why are they struggling so badly this time around?

Sofa, so bad: A visit to Turkey went awry when Commission President Ursula von der Leyen was given a seat on a sofa rather than a chair alongside her male counterparts, Council President Charles Michel and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan. Much ado about nothing or a revealing glimpse into the relationship between Turkey and the EU — and between two of the EU’s top leaders?

DECLASSIFIED

Welcome to Declassified, a weekly column looking at the lighter side of politics.

Banned: Dolphins, dinner and manners

In a year full of terrible news, things have taken a real turn for the worse … you can no longer own a walrus in Brussels!

Yes, those pesky, meddling bureaucrats have only gone and outlawed dolphinariums in the Belgian capital. And not only does that stop you from having a porpoise or a tusked narwhal in your backyard zoo or bath, but they’ve extended the ban to include marine predators, such as sea lions and walruses. Thankfully, Flanders and Wallonia have no such bans in place.

Asked for comment, John Lennon was so distraught that all he could manage was “goo goo g’joob.” Tragic.

Perhaps the ban is to stop walrus from being smuggled into France and served in a rich butter sauce at swanky, clandestine dinner parties.

France is still reeling after hidden camera footage appeared to show people enjoying caviar and champagne at secret Paris dinners costing up to €490 (the same price as lunch for two without dessert in the EU Quarter of Brussels). It goes without saying that a) despite strict coronavirus measures, there was precious little in the way of masks and social distancing and plenty of bises, and b) despite strict coronavirus measures, government ministers were said to be involved — although the sourcing for that is fairly dubious.

Asked for comment, an Elysée Palace spokesman couldn’t be understood as they were eating a roasted quail.

One of the diners in the footage was later identified as Pierre-Jean Chalençon, a former TV presenter who looks like he plays in the same prog-rock band as controversial doctor Didier Raoult, called something like Hydroxychloroquine For The Eternal Soul, Twilight of the Vaccine Gods or Aqua Nebula Oscillator (one of those is an actual band).

At least the French diners got a seat at their fancy bash, which is more than can be said for Ursula von der Leyen when she and Charles Michel visited Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and she was relegated to the sofa while the grizzly alpha males got chairs (presumably equipped with beer-can holders and built-in fridges).

It was all rather embarrassing, but it could have been worse: The EU pair could have been on a visit to the Kremlin and seen Michel given a large boulder to sit on, with von der Leyen sat on the floor and a shirtless Vladimir Putin encircling them on horseback.

CAPTION COMPETITION

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Can you do better? Email [email protected] or on Twitter @pdallisonesque

Last time we gave you this photo:

Thanks for all the entries. Here’s the best from our postbag (there’s no prize except for the gift of laughter, which I think we can all agree is far more valuable than cash or booze).

“Keep Googling, there’s definitely a good news story about the vaccination program somewhere out there,” by Rob Ramshaw

Paul Dallison is POLITICO’s slot news editor.

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