3 June 2019
London – ¡No pasarán!
As MPs return to Parliament after the Spring recess for Mrs May’s last week as Leader of the Conservative Party, the ramifications of the European Elections results loom large. What do they mean – if anything – for Britain’s negotiating stance with the EU over the next five months?
The results are the conclusion of a reductive process that began on 23 June 2016. At the time of the EU Referendum, it was remarked that the people had not spoken with one voice to Leave, but 17.4 million different voices. Over the subsequent three years, politicians of all persuasions attempted to put together their own interpretation of what the British people had meant on that seemingly decisive day.
Increasingly, the various interpretations have all fallen by the wayside until just three remained prior to the European Elections: No Deal, No Brexit and some form of ‘Soft Brexit’ epitomised by the Prime Minister’s Withdrawal Agreement, the compromise she valiantly negotiated with the EU.
As she said in her resignation speech, quoting the great humanitarian, Sir Nicholas Winton, ‘Never forget that compromise is not a dirty word. Life depends on compromise’. The electors, however, felt in no mood to compromise.
Those parties representing No Deal (The Brexit Party, UKIP) scored around 35% of the vote; those representing No Brexit (Lib Dems, Greens, Change UK & the Nationalist Parties) achieved 40%; whilst the traditional political powerhouses, representing the middle ground of a ‘Soft Brexit’ (Labour and Conservatives) could muster up a measly 25% of the vote combined, both suffering their worst results in living memory.
What next? In short, not very much, at least as far as the negotiations go. Mark Francois MP is stating the obvious when he says that the Withdrawal Agreement is as dead as a dodo. It will not formally be put forward to Parliament as a Bill. The EU, however, immediately and categorically stated that it would not renegotiate the Agreement that took so long to agree in the first place.
Instead, the country will continue to tread water until at least the end of July, when the Conservatives’ 100,000 members chose our next Prime Minister for us. We will look at that extraordinary contest in more detail another day, but given the narrowness of the electorate (many, possibly most, of whom did not even vote Conservative at the Elections) it’s difficult to see beyond a Hard Brexiteer taking up the reins. They are unlikely to be in compromising mood with the Brexit Party snapping at their heels.
On the other side, Labour is mired in its own internal struggles. The party looks set to move inexorably to explicit backing of a Peoples Vote either at its Annual Conference in September, or a specially convened gathering beforehand. A likely drubbing in this week’s Peterborough by-election (a seat it currently holds) will heap further pressure on its beleaguered leader to take a stand, or stand down.
A new Prime Minister, or even a new leader of the main Opposition (the resurgent Lib Dems also chose a replacement for Sir Vince Cable over the Summer) will do nothing, however, to alter the Parliamentary arithmetic. Like the people at large, the House too has been in no mood to compromise and there remains no majority for any option and a very substantial majority opposed to No Deal at any cost. MPs have already shown their appetite for Parliament to take back control of the business of government and enact their own legislation. Alternatively, they may force another Prime Minister from office in a Confidence Vote.
So, maybe Jeremy Corbyn has been right all along: that a General Election before the end of the year may be the only way through this impasse. But then again, that may change nothing either.
Brussels – Scrambling for the top jobs
Despite the Thursday bank holiday, last week was a long one in Brussels. European Parliament results came in on Sunday and Monday, followed in quick succession by meetings of the European parliamentary groupings and of the European Council, as both institutions tussled to stamp their authority on the narrative for top jobs.
As for the election results, arguably the main story in Europe is the sharp increase in centrist liberal (ALDE & En Marche) MEPs, and the strong showing of the Greens, who are now increasingly considered part of the pragmatic centre-ground in European politics. These impressive results mean that despite the poor showing of the main centre-left (S&D) and centre-right (EPP) parties, a pro-EU coalition will be found. The liberals and the Greens will play a big role in shaping the EU’s strategic direction in this parliamentary term and it will be difficult for EU leaders from the main blocs to ignore them when it comes to picking top EU jobs.
With a couple of exceptions, the predictions of a surge in support for populist and Eurosceptic parties did not materialise. The exceptions are notable. In Italy, Salvini’s Lega did very well, and are likely to capitalise on their strong showing by seeking to form a government without the 5 Stars, which performed badly. Orban’s Fidesz (Hungary) and Kaczynski’s Law and Justice Party (Poland) also did well. However, Le Pen’s Rassemblement Nationale (France) did worse than expected, despite narrowly pipping En Marche to the post, and populists performed poorly elsewhere, such as in Finland and Denmark.
Where does this leave us on the top jobs? We are currently seeing a tussle between Parliament and Council for influence over who decides the top jobs. Ultimately, the Council is likely to prevail, as constitutionally it need only ‘take account’ of the Parliament. The high voter turnout will, however, boost the Parliament’s case. The pro-EU parties hold around two-thirds of seats but abstentions, no-shows, UK and Hungarian MEPs all need to be factored in. The Commission is very keen to get the top jobs sorted out soon, as it fears a delay will damage the EU’s credibility. However, there is no sign of an agreement being reached and the process could well remain unresolved into the autumn.
As for the leading candidates, as always there is a lot of speculation flying around, and it would be foolish to make a confident prediction at this stage. Things are not looking great for the EPP’s candidate, Manfred Weber. It is true that Merkel has supported him publicly – it would be impossible for her not to given he is a fellow member of her CDU/CSU party – but the prevailing view in Brussels is that Weber will not make the final cut. He is not popular with the S&D or the Greens, and the liberals object to actual the Spitzenkandidat (whereby European political parties appoint their ‘lead candidates’) process itself.
Others in the mix include: Michel Barnier (French, so might satisfy Macron, and Barnier Jnr ran for Macron’s En Marche; not an official candidate but highly-regarded for his handling of Brexit); Margrethe Vestager (has faced no outright opposition from any leader and could well end up being the compromise choice; some argue she became unacceptable to the French and Germans when she faced down the Alstom/Siemens merger last year); Frans Timmermans (regarded as an expert orator but perhaps too divisive in his style); and Christine Lagarde (perhaps the dark horse). So far there is little sign of consensus emerging.
Finally, a less noticed development this week (though important, from the UK’s perspective) was Sabine Weyand’s appointment as Director-General of DG Trade. Weyand will be in the hot-seat if and when trade negotiations start. She is a formidable negotiator with an impressive grasp of detail.
Tamlin Vickers is a Partner at DRD Partnership in Brussels
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