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June 09, 2016

Greens threaten to block German asylum law

The German asylum law that was recently agreed by the Grand Coalition was a difficult piece of legislation. It was stuck in committee for a long time, and the coalition partners only managed to agree after marathon negotiations. One of the provisions was to shorten the time for asylum applications. Another aspect was a widening of the list of countries deemed to be safe, to include the Maghreb states.

The Greens, which are not part of the coalition, have threatened to block the legislation in the Bundesrat, the upper house. This piece of legislation requires dual approval. While the Grand Coalition has an overwhelming majority in the Bundestag, the majority in the Bundesrat is less clear-cut. the Greens are part of 10 of the 16 Länder governments, and it is customary that approval to any legislation requires the consent of all coalition partners of a state government.

The Greens argue that the law violates the German constitution. The Maghreb states persecute homosexuals, journalists, and bloggers. And some of those states use torture. The Green party in Northrhine-Westphalia is categorically opposed, but the federal government still hopes to persuade the Green PM of Baden-Wuerttemberg, whose position is that he would only accept the legislation if the constitutional concerns were addressed - which is not the case at the moment. This is one to watch.

The Greens are the only effective opposition party in Germany right now - and for once they can influence a policy outcome. If they persist, and bring down the legislation, it would constitute another setback for Angela Merkel's desperate attempts to extricate herself from her open-door immigration policies, especially now that her Turkish friends are threatening to rescind the refugee agreement unless they get visa-free travel without any further conditions.

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June 09, 2016

The escalating Turkish problem

The war of words between Turkish and European politicians over Merkel’s migration deal continues to escalate. A short note by Reuters reports that the Turkish foreign minister Mevlut Cavusoglu told a TV station that Turkey would have to pull out of the agreement unless visa-free travel is implemented, as well as demanding that the German government distance itself from the Bundestag resolution on the Armenian genocide. But Erdogan has opened a new front in the dispute on whether Turkey conforms to European human rights standards by signing into law the end of parliamentary immunity from prosecution. This is widely seen as intended to remove the Kurdish MPs from the Turkish parliament. The People’s Democratic Party HDP fears that most of its MPs may end up jailed due to their political views, and has announced it will challenge the new law before the European court of human rights.

Meanwhile, the EPP group of the European Parliament had a retreat in which the issue of permanently barring Turkey from EU membership was discussed. The party is divided between those who believe cooperation with Turkey is essential to the migration crisis, and those who are worried the country is moving away from European ideals. The draft position paper under dispute, however, argues that EU member states “must be geographically entirely located in Europe” which excludes Turkey.

The geographical argument against Turkish membership is absurd – it would have excluded Spain, Britain, France and Denmark from EU membership if it had applied in the past – but also avoids the issue of values which supposedly motivates those putting it forward. This is a party that has in the past attempted to write it into the treaties that Europe is a Christian continent, but of course excluding Turkey on religious grounds is also arguably against European ‘values’. But the issue of whether Turkey can ever be a member of the EU is prominent even in the Brexit debate, where the Leave camp scaremongers with imminent accession and the Remain camp argues that it can never happen.

The actual human rights situation in Turkey should be a source of concern. Not only is free speech insufficiently protected but now it will be possible to remove inconvenient political opponents from the parliament. The HDP is a particular thorn on the side of Erdogan as it temporarily derailed his plan towards presidential government by denying the ruling AKP a majority the general election a year ago. This forced a repetition of the election in November, when Erdogan got the majority he sought. The European Commission collaborated by delaying publication of its annual enlargement report – critical of Turkey’s backsliding on media freedom, judicial independence, and Kurdish peace talks – until after the election.

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June 09, 2016

Conspiracy theories in Austria

What ultra-right wing parties have in common is a tendency towards conspiracy theories. They are the narratives on which these parties thrive. There is no fundamental difference between the story that German soldiers were stabbed in the back during the First World War by the elites, or the right-wing conspiracy in Austria which suggests that the recent presidential elections were manipulated.

The FPÖ, whose candidate was narrowly defeated at the presidential elections last month, has lodged a constitutional complaint against the result. The charges are almost too trivial to take seriously. In a sample, the party found that a few polling cards were pre-sorted, some were opened before the end of the official end of the elections - all technical issues that are very unlikely to have material results on the outcome, but which may yet be considered legal grounds for a successful challenge.

Karin Riss comments in Der Standard that there is nothing wrong with a court checking these accusations. Nor is there anything wrong if a court were to declare the election to be invalid, and order a repeat. However, if the court decides that the vote is correct, the FPÖ will not rest. It will then start to attack the court as a co-conspirator. They will continue to challenge the foundations of democracy.

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June 09, 2016

Why Leave means Leave

Charles Grant makes an interesting point in a rebuttal to all those who argue that Leave does not mean Leave. He argues that Remain is as good as Leave because Britain has already so many opt-out and will gain more - that staying in the EU is essentially tantamount to getting the special deal the Leavers are calling for. The longer the UK stays, the more special its status will become. The reason is that David Cameron managed to gain an opt-out from the principle of ever-closer union and further political integration, Grant writes.

He also dismissed the argument that Out may not mean Out. He cites three reasons. First, David Cameron cannot afford to allow any wiggle-room after a Brexit campaign. His party would be in open revolt. Second, the Art. 50 procedure does not allow any flexibility. And finally, even if Britain managed to obtain a treaty change that would lay out a new arrangement, the others would veto it.

We agree with Grant's three rebuttals, especially the last point, that there is no political will in favour of a treaty change in several countries. But that also means that parts of Cameron's deal - the one Grant mentioned in particular - cannot be implemented either. The commitment to political integration and ever closer union is laid out in the preamble to the treaties. This cannot be negotiated away by the European Council, powerful as that body may be. Cameron will probably get his secondary legislation allowing him to curtail in-work benefits for a limited number of years. But Grant's conclusion is wrong: the relationship between the UK and the EU is not going to change a great deal.

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