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November 28, 2016

And now what Monsieur Fillion?

Francois Fillon is running for the French presidency as the Republican candidate. Last night he received undeniably strong backing of 66.5% of the votes, leaving Alain Juppé with 33.5%. With a high participation of around 4.5m, Fillon proved that he can mobilise voters and that his surge was not only about eliminating Nicolas Sarkozy.

After this fulminating victory last week that no one had seen coming (though, with hindsight, his campaign manager was Patrick Stefanini who managed a similar feat getting Jacques Chirac elected in 1995 against all odds), all eyes are now on what he will do next with the party (selecting a leader), his former adversaries (his message for now is that he needs everyone), his negotiations with the centre (will Francois Bayrou run?), and on what his chances will be against Marine Le Pen next year (the latest poll suggest he would lead in the first round and win the second against Le Pen). But a lot can happen until April next year.  

The most imminent question is what impact Fillon’s victory has for the left, given that their primaries are on January 22 and 29. Yes, Fillon’s strong liberal economic programme and conservative social values might mobilise the left. But this does not change the fact that the left is divided and at risk of imploding. François Hollande might decide to run, and Manuel Valls might run too. Valls crossed the red line, and is now talking publicly about running himself in an interview with the Journal du Dimanche. Could the president and his prime minister both be candidates in the same primaries, the leading Socialist politician Claude Bartolone wonders? This would be a first, and would not look good for party unity. A further problem for Hollande is Sylvia Pinel, leader of the moderate and social-liberal Radical Party of the Left, who announced her candidacy bypassing the Socialist primaries. Jean-Luc Mélenchon also wants to run outside the Socialist primaries, even if Daniel Cohn-Bendit thinks he could actually win them. And there is of course Emmanuel Macron. The centre looks crowded, the left divided. 

The primaries will help Fillon financially, according to LeLab. Voters had to pay €2 for voting. With 4.3m voters in the first round and at least as many in the second round, the party received €17.2m, minus costs and other repayments which mean that between €6m-€8m will be available for Fillon’s presidential bid. The irony is that the left supporters helped to finance this through their decision to participate in this primary: about 15% of the electorate were left supporters according to BFMTV, which means €2.6m alone from the left. Will the socialist primaries in January be a financial success like this? We doubt it.

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November 28, 2016

The inescapable logic of an interim agreement

In our writings about Brexit, we always made one implicit (and often explicit) assumption: that there would have to be an interim agreement if only because the whole thing is mindbogglingly complex - with the exceptions of the two corner options of an EEA agreement or a hard Brexit with no agreement whatsoever, none of which are likely to happen. The Project Fear campaign and its economic forecasts were premised on a hard Brexit with an FTA after two years, which we presume must be due to ignorance of how the EU works.

The debate in the UK has taken quite a long time to embrace reality which is that, yes, Brexit is happening; but no, Britain's won't have cut its ties with the EU in 2019. We are looking at an interim agreement - similar to the EEA - followed by looser new arrangement in the future, which could take one of several forms.

We noted that Mark Carney is about to tell the European Commission that it should offer the UK a transitional agreement, not out of kindness to the UK, but because the EU's financial system itself would be facing a shock under a scenario of sudden Brexit. Carney's proposals are moderate - he is only seeking a two-year interim period, from 2019 until 2021. According to the Daily Telegraph, Carney recently told the Treasury Select Committee in the UK that regulatory changes such as the next Basel rules and the Vickers banking reforms would take several years to implement, and would complicate the transition for the financial sector. Accepting a short transitional agreement was not the same as remaining in the EU for an extended period. 

The Guardian, meanwhile, reports on a speech by the formidable Lord Kerr, who was during his time an influential diplomat in Brussels, and the quintessential example of a Sir Humphrey. Kerr said in a speech at the London School of Economics that the chances of an orderly exit from the EU within two years are less than 50%, and that a phased departure over a decade is both preferable and much more likely. He predicts that the crunch point in the negotiations would come in the autumn of 2018. The UK government's proposals for a Brexit will be immediately rejected by the EU. He said it is possible that the UK and the EU-27 fail to reach agreement as the fog in the channel is already growing thicker, and there is a chance that the European Parliament - in its final months before the 2019 European elections - might refuse to ratify the agreement. With respect of the interim agreement, Kerr said that it was only realistic once you have a final agreement because no one would concede anything in the interim agreement that they would not concede in the final deal. 

It was on UK politics, however, where Kerr was most interesting. He said a decision to revert Brexit is only possible in theory, but not in practice:

“The number of us in parliament who will have the guts to vote against triggering article 50 is very very small. There is Ken Clarke and there is probably someone else. It is quite difficult when the people have just spoken for us to say: ‘OK people you voted, you got it wrong, we are not going to pay any attention.’ It is very difficult, and impossible in the House of Lords. We are not democratic at all. I have never been elected.”

Even if the public were to change its mind by 2019 due to the negative economic effects, a reversal would still not happen because any election would focus on Jeremy Corbyn, and the subtle arguments about European policy would be "lost in the woods".

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November 28, 2016

On Germany's foreign policy post-Trump

There is a duplicity in the German position which we were reminded of in Berthold Kohler's excellent commentary in Frankfurter Allgemeine this morning. There has been a lot of criticism of Donald Trump because he questioned Nato's Article 5 defence commitment. As Kohler put it, the mere act of casting doubt strengthens your opponents. What Kohler omitted to point out is that Frank-Walter Steinmeier, still foreign minister, did exactly the same earlier this year when he criticised the rather small Nato operation in eastern Europe as sabre-rattling. If Vladimir Putin ever attacked a Nato member states, there is no way the likes of Steinmeier would vote in the Bundestag for Germany to participate in a Nato operation against Russia. One of the unintended side effects of Trump is to expose the duplicity of the German position, which consisted in hiding behind the US's own commitment to Nato and to Europe's defence. This is going to have important consequences. Kohler writes that, if Trump sticks to his position, the Germans have to do all of the following: raise defence spending, re-introduce military conscription, and develop a common European nuclear deterrent - the unthinkable for Germans brains, as he put it. But there would be no alternative, since the British and French nuclear arsenals are too weak, while the Russians are developing their military capabilities.

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November 28, 2016

How to lose against the populists

In March of this year, Wolfgang Münchau wrote a comment for the Infacts website - a British pro-EU-membership campaign site - in which he outlined how to lose the referendum: through scaring the voters and failing to make a case for the EU based on identity as opposed to utility. When he resigned from that organisation shortly after the referendum, he noted that the Remain campaign, and most of the pro-EU commentators, had followed his advice to the letter.

In his latest FT column, Münchau focuses on the question of the battle against populism and notes that, once more, the liberal establishment is well on the way to losing. He gives three examples of the establishment doubling down on positions that have had a positive impact on the populists. One example is the return of the scary economic forecast, discredited during the Brexit referendum but reinvented just ahead of the US presidential elections and, last week, by the Office for Budget Responsibility in the UK. Münchau argues that the economic impact of Brexit is unforeseeable. It will depend 100% on the agreement that is eventually reached, including and especially the transition arrangements. Two other examples of doubling down are Italy's constitutional reforms and the latest EU trade deals. The interesting question is why the establishment does this. Münchau argues that the western liberal elites are constitutionally incapable of a tactical retreat because they are essentially uncoordinated, and in competition with one another - like the European Commission and the European Council. What they need to do is simply to state, but hard to accomplish: solve the problems that were created by excessive financial liberalisation. This would require a change in policies - a change in the fiscal-monetary mix, the dumping of socially corrosive investment agreements like TTIP and Ceta, and a change of policy towards finance and banking.

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