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July 01, 2016

Brexit will happen

We are following the Brexit details in detail because it is highly relevant for the future of the EU as well as the eurozone. But we are not bringing you blow-by-blow accounts of what is happening inside the Conservative Party, an organisation we consider as mercifully outside our reservation. We note, however, that yesterday's political events have virtually eliminated the last strands of hope - or fear - that the next prime minister might fudge his or her way out of Brexit with either a second referendum or a technical device to overturn the referendum result. We note that some Labour commentators like David Aaronovitch in the Times, economic commentators like Martin Wolf, and loads of newspapers on the continent, have been getting rather excited by the possibility that this referendum result might just fail to become reality. We disagree.

One view was that Boris Johnson, if he had become prime minister, would have switched position. We don't know that this is true, but in any case it is now irrelevant speculation since he decided not to run. The two most probable candidates to emerge from the first round of the leadership contest are Theresa May, the interior minister and a reluctant supporter of Remain; and Michael Gove, the justice minister and one of the leaders of the Leave campaign. May is the front-runner, but she made it clear yesterday that "Brexit means Brexit". She is also taking a tough line on immigration controls. While she left it open what she had in mind specifically, that position would appear to rule out the option of the UK joining the European Economic Area. That would grant Britain full access to the single market, but require continued openness to the free flow of labour. Gove does not even care about single-market access. So this is a choice between a middle-of-the-road version of Brexit and a hard Brexit.

As a Remain supporter May is aware of the need to reunite her party - which is absolutely necessary if she has any chance of winning the 2020 general election. It is our view that, if elected, she is likely to succeed as the Tory Party's survival instinct will ultimately keep it together. A failure to implement the Brexit vote would destroy the party, and either lead to a surge for UKIP, or to the establishment of a new anti-EU party - an English National Party on similar to the SNP in Scotland, but on the right. A further complicating factor is the turmoil in the Labour Party, which may not be resolved any time soon. Labour might split, which might trigger a realignment of the political system. But it is far from clear that a strong pro-European party might emerge in time that could somehow revert Brexit. Most informed commentators see that as a post-Brexit scenario.

May said that she does not want to trigger the Article 50 procedure before the end of this year, but we have no indication that this is a delaying tactic. She said she wants to create a ministry for Brexit to prepare Britain's negotiating position in some detail. We assume that the timetable is for Art 50 to be triggered in the first half of 2017. Exit would formally conclude in 2019, about one year before the next parliamentary elections. 

One of the many complications that the new government will need to sort out is how to deal with Scotland and Ireland. We noted a comment by the constitutional expert Jo Murkens, who rightly warns that Scotland and Northern Ireland have a veto, and who wrongly concludes that the primary goal of this entire process will be to preserve the unity of the country, rather to execute Brexit. May would destroy her premiership if she, as a Remain supporter, risked a politically devastating row with the Tory eurosceptics. That said, there are formidable obstacles that need to be addressed. If Scotland concludes that it would accept nothing less than the EEA, and if May concludes that she cannot deliver that, she will have to concede an independence referendum. It is possible that Britain might then negotiate two deals - one for the UK or what's left of it, and a separate hypothetical EEA deal for Scotland. If Scotland voted to become independent, the EEA would then become a platform for an independent Scotland to apply for EU membership under Art 49. These obstacles are formidable. We do not think that the House of Commons would withhold support for an Article 50 process. But, since such a decision would trigger immediate elections, it would risk the total annihilation of both the Conservative and Labour Parties. We do not think that the Tories in particular would take such a risk. And we would assume that the majority of pro-Remain Labour MPs would abstain in such a vote. It is easy for commentators to demand that a referendum be ignored. Politicians find this harder.

In the meantime, more Brexit facts on the ground are being created. We noted a story that the number of EU citizens in the UK who are applying for a British passports is rising dramatically. People are entitled to do so after five years of residency. The more passports are granted, the easier it will be for the new government to take a hard line on the question of free movement of labour, since fewer people would then need to leave the UK.

For some light entertainment, note this cartoon in Le Soir. No more free coffee for Cameron at the Council.

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July 01, 2016

Austria's presidential elections to be repeated

Der Standard reports this morning that the constitutional court is likely to order a re-run of the second round of Austria's presidential elections, in which the Green Party candidate, Alexander van der Bellen, narrowly beat the FPÖ candidate, Norbert Hofer. The paper writes the court will announce its decision by noon today, some six days ahead of the deadline. The FPÖ has challenged the election on the grounds that there had been irregularities in 94 out of 117 electoral districts. The legal complaint appeared solid. Irregularities did emerge during the court hearings. Some absentee votes had been counted prematurely, and some polling stations counted with an insufficient number of staff. The legal question to be answered is whether an irregularity had occurred, and whether this irregularity could lead to a manipulation of the result. The point is that it is not necessary for the FPÖ to demonstrate that manipulation actually took place. The legal complaint did, in fact, not claim that. 

The paper said it is possible that the court will restrict the re-run to the districts where grave irregularities occurred. So, it will be interesting to look at the numerical impact in some detail. If this concerns just a few districts, it is not likely that the overall result will be overturned. But, given the narrow margin of victory, anything is possible.

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July 01, 2016

Five Star overtakes PD in polls

Italy is confronting three simultaneous crises in the next few years. A banking crisis - about which we are writing virtually every day; an economic crisis, where a lacklustre recovery is now giving way to another downturn; and a political crisis. Matteo Renzi may well lose his referendum in October on constitutional changes.

An opinion poll by Demos in La Repubblica paints a dramatic shift in public opinion towards the Five Star Movements and its likely candidate for the job of prime minister, Luigi Di Maio. The party has, for the first time, overtaken the PD in total support - 32% vs 30%. But with the new electoral law that came into force today, the more important question is how would Five Star Movement would fare in a direct run-off against the PD. We got a hint of that in the recent regional elections where they won 19 out of 20 second round polls, including in Rome and Turin. The nationwide run-off would be 55 to 45 in favour of the Five Star Movement. The chart below shows the shift since February.

Matteo Renzi is not doing to badly personally - his approval ratings are still 40%. But he is now eclipsed for the first time by Di Maio. Even Beppe Grillo, the eccentric party leader, is almost as popular as Renzi. Grillo is a fuming eurosceptic, and has pledged a referendum on the euro if and when elected. This is in the party's platform - though it unequivocally supports EU membership, as do most Italians. Below are the polling results in respect of the euro specifically. 32% of Italians support the abolition of the euro. 52% said the euro was necessary for Europe, but brought some difficulties.  Here are the results: the first on the euro, the second on EU membership.

We note that the categories on the euro are not mutually exclusive, and hence the poll is potentially misleading. The 52% who responded that the euro was necessary for Europe despite complications may not necessarily vote in support of the euro in a referendum. Their turnout might be lower, and some might conceivably vote against. We think that an anti-euro number of 32% is very high. This is where the Leave campaign in the UK started.

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July 01, 2016

Brexit will dominate the French presidential elections

Francois Hollande and Marine Le Pen are both convinced that Brexit and 'the European question' will dominate the presidential campaign in France next year. By making this the centre of the campaign they link their fate and that of France with the events around Brexit. Immediately after the vote last week Marine Le Pen jumped on the Brexit train, promising Frexit if elected. The British vote gave her the springboard to sharpen her position on the EU, which was much more nuanced before. After Brexit, there is now a way to exit the EU, Le Pen argues.

François Hollande on the other hand uses the same events to argue the opposite, writes Cecile Cornudet. Hollande would be mad to give any concessions to the British. His interest is to maximise the British difficulties while Le Pen’s interest is to minimise them. In this context it is also clear why Hollande was refusing any advance deal with Scotland. And Hollande will want to show that the price for an EU exit is high. He warned in the council that the UK will go through stark political turbulences and risks further divisions. The political events in the UK these days support Hollande’s take, but will it continue so next year?

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  • Deflating hopes of a frustrated Brexit
  • August 23, 2016
  • Sarkozy launches candidacy in a book
  • Rajoy plans to try again in October
  • Turkey recalls ambassador from Austria
  • August 15, 2016
  • Sarkozy to declare his candidacy
  • Do intra-eurozone current account deficits matter?
  • On the failures of modern macroeconomics
  • July 26, 2016
  • The limits of May's freedom of manoeuvre
  • Don't misread the lack of visible panic in Germany
  • July 20, 2016
  • Brexit illusions
  • Ringfencing the refugee deal
  • Electioneering after Nice
  • Saving the world as we know it
  • On inequality in Germany
  • July 15, 2016
  • Celebrations in an age of terror
  • Shadows of a deal
  • Poland blames Germany for Brexit
  • What's behind Gabriel's impending boycott of TTIP
  • July 11, 2016
  • Towards Brexit outside the EEA
  • On the EU's deteriorating relationship with Russia
  • July 06, 2016
  • The second Brexit shock
  • Brain drain and the right to vote
  • The plan that never saw the light
  • What will happen to Northern Ireland?
  • July 04, 2016
  • Hard women, hard Brexit
  • We'll miss the EU when it's gone