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April 06, 2017

Could this be a turning point for Le Pen?

There will be no third TV debate ahead of the first round of the French elections. No time and no appetite. The truth is no one wants another surreal scene like the last one. It had all the hallmarks of a reality show rather than a serious political debate. The six small candidates had a field day, and made the big candidates squirm. Candidates promised the sky, and showed no modesty or restraint. And Jean-Luc Mélenchon all of a sudden appeared moderate, and it is no surprise that he got the most attention on social media.

Was this debate harmful for Marine Le Pen? The French press is divided. One of the usual arguments is that the more attacks are directed towards her, the stronger she gets as a anti-system candidate, so Journal du Dimanche. But this time it is different. Thanks to the smaller candidates, Le Pen lost her reputation of being the only radical candidate, writes Françoise Fressoz. About Frexit for example. François Asselineau, credited with 0.5% of the votes, promised to trigger Article 50 if elected. Le Pen’s promise to give herself six months to negotiate with Brussels looks lukewarm by comparison. Asselineau called it a bluff and that she would not get France out of the euro. Nathalie Arthaud and Philippe Poutou attacked her credentials as the candidate defending blue collar workers. They accuse her of using Europe as a diversion while the employers get away. And they also had a go at her using public money for her own purposes and refusing to answer to the police. Jean-Luc Mélenchon also hit her with her abstention in the EP vote over the workers mobility directive back in 2014, which now stands accused of creating distortions in the building and public sectors. 

The other question that emerges is whether the strategy of Emmanuel Macron to be open to all sides and to blend them into a programme so that nothing sticks out could eventually turn against him. A revolution, which he promised in the title of his book, is certainly not what we see unfolding here. True, he now has a programme, but it is hard to identify an outstanding idea or to have any fear of it, writes Cëcile Cornudet. If one proposes the French to shake up their system, one needs to put out other benchmarks, but to sharpen up one's profile is risky and could provoke resistance. Macron’s success relies on the idea that he can get into the second round, and that he will then get all the votes from the left and right to avoid Le Pen. But what if this is not the scenario that will emerge from the first round? Can he still walk to the finishing line against someone like François Fillon?

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April 06, 2017

Three Brexit misunderstandings

The presumption that the Article 50 negotiations will invariably result in failure is now the consensus among UK-based commentators. We think the opinion is based on a dual miscalculation. The first is that the EU needs to be seen to give the UK a bad deal to discourage imitators. The second is that eurosceptic Tory backbenchers would force Theresa May into a corner. The first is wrong because there are no imitators. Brexit has not produced a queue of countries eager to leave. Its impact on the cohesion of the EU has been neutral. As for Theresa May, she needs to deliver Brexit by 2019 and, for as long as she does, she will have political capital not only for an Article 50 deal, but also for a transitional period.

May's willingness to use this political capital was in evidence yesterday when the BBC and other media reported that she has hinted that freedom of movement could be extended into the transitional deal. This makes total sense to us, because the EU will insist on this as a quid-pro-quo for continued membership of the customs union during the transitional phase. And we can see no bespoke arrangement for a transitional deal because it would be too complicated. While the long-term relationship between the UK and the EU will be subject to a bespoke FTA, the intermediate arrangement will have to be off-the-shelf. 

May talks about an "implementation phase" to avoid the impression that Brexit is in any way delayed. But this is just words. If you look at what she said there is no specific reference to immigration. The reporters inferred this on the grounds that she is now openly supporting the transitional period. A transitional period has a further advantage. It means that anybody arriving in the UK before the Brexit vote will be classified as permanently resident under UK law by the time the transition period ends - which would greatly simplify the problem of EU residents in the UK.

We find the UK debate about the EU riddled with misunderstandings, most of them on the side favouring Britain’s rather odd version of EU membership - the one that came with membership of only the customs union and the single market, and almost nothing else. Simon Wren Lewis writes the following in response to Wolfgang Munchau’s FT column on Monday, who argued that if the UK were to rejoin after Brexit, it would have to do so under Art 49, and there would be no opt-outs. Wren-Lewis:

“If I was asked whether the UK should rejoin the EU on the terms in Article 49, which means joining the Euro, I would not know how to respond. Joining the customs union and Single Market is unquestionable beneficial from an economic point of view, but joining the Euro with its current structure is almost certainly bad for the UK.”

We probably agree with the balance of that view - except that we think the impact of the single market was not as strong as British folklore has made it out to be. What is revealing about this comment, though, is the underlying menu-choice mentality, which in our view has been one of the deep causes of the alienation between the UK and the EU. We believe that any attempt to rejoin the EU would require a different mindset. Only EEA membership would give Britain the option of an arrangement limited to the single market and the customs union. 

A third misunderstanding was very nicely addressed by James Crabtree, the FT’s Singapore correspondent, who notes that Singapore cannot seriously constitute an alternative model for the UK for the simple reason that it is absolutely dependent on the free flow of labour in and out. About one third of its population is foreign. And while, Singapore has low taxes, it is a hugely interventionist state with a heavy hand of regulation and state ownership of banks and airlines. The only parallel to Singapore that Crabtree accepts is that of a small island surrounded by larger powers.

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April 06, 2017

Are the interests of Martin Schulz and Sigmar Gabriel really aligned?

Majid Sattar has a note on Sigmar Gabriel, who is now Germany’s foreign minister after resigning as SPD chairman and handing over to Martin Schulz. Gabriel’s strategy is to remain foreign minister, an office he visibly enjoys, but this also means that his interests clash with those of Schulz. In virtually all constellations that see Schulz running a government, the SPD would have to give up that office to a coalition partner. The tradition in German politics is that the foreign ministry is held by the smaller coalition partner.

When Gabriel handed over to Schulz, nobody in the SPD expected that Schulz' impact would be as signficant as it has been. Sattar says there is one constellation - not improbable by any means - in which Gabriel would remain foreign minister: if the election produces the same majorities as last time - with the CDU/CSU ahead of the SPD, and no arithmetic alternative to a grand coalition led by Angela Merkel. While Schulz may be the natural candidate for the foreign office job, he would not be able to do so because the party would insist on a higher profile within the coalition. This would only be possible through an SPD chairman and SPD leader of the Bundestag, who are not members of the government. That would make Schulz the de facto opposition leader within a much more unstable grand coalition that the current one.

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