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September 07, 2017

Northern Ireland and Brexit - a diplomatic nightmare

A diplomatic incident about Northern Ireland showed how easy a derailment could happen between Ireland and the UK. The UK Foreign Office jumped the gun quickly on remarks of the Irish foreign minister Simon Conveney, who said "there can be no British-only direct rule". Was this just a blunder or a calculated remark? The UK obviously did not think it was innocent, and shot back saying in a statement they never agreed to arrangements such as a joint authority.

To give a bit of a context to our readers: Northern Ireland’s government collapsed in January and there is pressure from all sides for Sinn Fein and DUP to overcome their differences, as otherwise British direct rule returns.  Sinn Féin claimed in January that the alternative to devolution was not direct rule but "a form of joint authority".  This goes back to an agreement between Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair in 2006, stating that if there is no government London and Dublin would use their “joint stewardship of the [peace] process” to develop "British-Irish partnership arrangements along the functions and functions of the Belfast Agreement". DUP voters, on the other hand, would have no problem with a British only rule.

The British government’s hasty reaction might be linked to its dependence on the DUP. There are also questions about Coveney’s motivation to state something like this. Dublin could be siding with Brussels to use Northern Ireland as a Brexit bargaining chip, writes Newton Emerson. It might be political, to prepare the ground for a Fine-Gael/Sinn Fein coalition as some in the DUP suspect. Or it could be just a blunder. The point remains that Brexit and Northern Ireland are an explosive mix for the relationship between Ireland and the UK.

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September 07, 2017

Can Macron succeed where Balladur failed?

Emmanuel Macron has a grand design for the French labour market in mind and, if he succeeds to implement his reforms, he will indeed transform France. He is setting out to prepare the labour market and the social security systems for careers that are much more fractured than in the past, with in- and out-of-work experiences and career changes throughout a working lifetime. The aim is to protect better while encouraging more flexibility, so l'Opinion. A flexicurity model in all but name. 

With this reform agenda Macron would also succeed ideologically where previous administrations failed. Already in 1986 Édouard Balladur and Alain Juppé dreamed of initiating: "an economic democracy where everyone is free and responsible", Françoise Fressoz recalls in her op-ed. But the electorate was not ready for this then. And, according to a Cevipof study last year that asked people during the labour law reform under Francois Hollande, they still are not: only one third declared themselves as liberal in an economic sense.  

Emmanuel Macron can now claim that he was elected with a clear mandate to reform. But remember he was only backed by 24% of the voters in the first round. He is thus one of the least backed presidents in French history. 

The rest is semantics. Macron is careful not to use the word “liberal” or attempt to popularise liberalism as Balladur did, Fressoz points out. Instead he highlights the desolate state the country is in, and the failures of the previous government. The ministers stay clear of ideological formulas and rely on pragmatism instead, in pursuit of what works. Flexicurity also allows talking about balance and justice, thus dislocating equally the Socialists and the Republicans. The result is a polarisation with Jean-Luc Mélenchon as the main political opposition leader. 

Macron has to prove the success of his reform agenda in the next two-and-a-half years without elections. If he is successful and the economy produces sufficient growth and employment, the French might reconciled with the idea of liberalism, or else they might turn radically against it. This is the bet.

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September 07, 2017

ECJ upholds relocation of asylum seekers

The ECJ yesterday fully dismissed the cases brought by Hungary and Slovakia against the refugee relocation plan adopted by the European Council in September 2015. As usual, this decision confirmed the opinion of the court's advocate general, which was issued at the end of July. The substance of the court's ruling is mostly procedural. The question is how this ruling will affect policy going forward. 

According to a slide presentation by Corriere della Sera, the European Commission has started contacts with the mostly eastern-European countries that still refuse to take part in the relocation scheme. The European People's Party is also said to be dealing informally with Hungary's Viktor Orbán, whose Fidesz party is a member of the EPP. In addition to the soft approach, the ECJ's ruling gives the Commission a firm legal footing to initiate infringement proceedings against recalcitrant member states, which might eventually lead to fines. In the longer term, the refugee relocation scheme might form the basis of a Commission proposal to reform the Dublin regulation which, this time, would have to follow a legislative procedure and involve the European and national parliaments. Migration and Home Affairs Commissioner Dimitris Avramopoulos told a press conference yesterday that a proposal from the Commission will be ready within the year. Avramopoulos also said that the confirmation of the refugee relocation scheme also removes the justification for mostly northern European states to suspend the application of the Schengen agreement, so border controls should also be lifted. The Commission is also working on a legislative proposal on this aspect of the crisis.

Despite Slovakia and Hungary taking the lead in challenging the relocation scheme, other counties are also in violation of their relocation commitments. According to the Commission's latest relocation progress report, from June, Austria Hungary and Poland have relocated no refugees from either Italy or Greece. In total, under 25,000 refugees have been relocated so far, out of an initially foreseen commitment of over 98,000. However, as reported in the spring, the initial estimates of eligible asylum seekers have been revised down, to about 33,000 from an initial estimate of 160,000. So despite perceptions to the contrary the relocation scheme has not been a total failure. As to the Turkey resettlement agreement, there are nine member states that have failed to relocate any refugees, though in the aggregate over 17,000 have been resettled out of a commitment of under 23,000.

Back to the ECJ's ruling, Slovakia and Hungary were arguing that the Council's decision was effectively an amendment of the Dublin regulation on asylum applications and so should have been adopted by a legislative procedure. They also argued that the European and national parliaments should have been involved, and that the June 2015 Council conclusions calling for "consensus" required unanimity in September as opposed to qualified majority voting. The court dismisses all of these arguments, as well as the argument that the relocation scheme is either inappropriate or disproportionate to the issue being addressed, which was the need to help Italy and Greece cope with the 2015 migration crisis. 

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