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November 20, 2017

Showdown over Northern Ireland

Ireland’s tougher stance on Brexit is a politically bold and risky move. The Irish want the UK to come up with a clear proposal at the December summit on how they plan to avoid a border, otherwise they risk an Irish veto on moving into the second phase of the Brexit talks.

The Irish need reassurance that there will be no regulatory divergence on either side of the border, as concluded by the task force paper that caused so much uproar when it was leaked to the newspapers. The provocative tone clearly lit a fuse in the UK. The British feel that this undermines the Brexit vote, and the Sun tabloid newspaper even suspects Sinn Fein of being behind it all, while Council officials and Brexit negotiators shake their heads at the leak.  But Ireland is aware that, once they move to phase two, they no longer have leverage. And, despite London’s lukewarm promise of a "frictionless, invisible border", there is no trust that they will deliver on this once the details become clear. The UK insists that they can only meaningfully deal with the border issue in phase two when they talk about trade and customs. If the Irish - or the EU, as Dublin emphasised - were to veto the second phase of talks, expect divisions to emerge inside the EU.

Tony Connelly from RTE has an excellent recount of what led up this high noon in Brexit diplomacy. So far the British only offered some technical fixes on trade and customs to avoid a hard border in its 27 pages paper published mid August. But the Irish question is not just about economics. There is the Good Friday Agreement, too. The resulting North-South cooperation relied on a joint EU membership by Ireland and the UK, and is thus adversely affected by Brexit. Mapping the areas concerned, the Commission came up with 142! These include environment, health, agriculture, transport, education including higher education, tourism, energy, telecommunications, broadcasting, inland fisheries, justice and security, and sport. This was reflected in the task force working paper. Its conclusion according to Connelly is that:

“taken altogether, in order for the EU and UK to protect the Good Friday Agreement, and meaningful North-South Cooperation, and the all-island economy, there cannot be any "regulatory divergence" from the rules governing the single market and the customs union. Therefore, to avoid a hard border, both sides of the island would have to maintain the same rules as codified in the EU customs union, and the single market.”

Ireland has a clear interest in raising the stakes before the December summit. But there are risks not only for Ireland and the EU, but for the UK too. The Irish position is that it is possible to have a separate customs space within a state, and that all-island regulatory arrangements are possible too. These solutions are, however, rejected by the Northern Ireland unionist DUP, which supports Theresa May’s government. If May goes along the lines suggested by Ireland, the DUP may drop its support for the government, and then we are looking at new UK elections which, given the current state of the UK government after all those scandals, the Tories might well lose to Jeremy Corbyn. Would the DUP soften its stance? After all, a majority of 56% in Northern Ireland voted to remain. Unlikely. Back to square one.

The positions are now quite assertively out in the open. Theresa May has just two weeks to come up with a plan for the Irish border. Prepare for a showdown.

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November 20, 2017

Castaner and his list confirmed

Christophe Castaner was elected at the helm of the LREM party. He was the only candidate, handpicked by Macron, ultra-loyal, and delivering a smooth and unpretentious speech. His list for the executive arm also obtained an ample majority in an open vote at the party congress, with three-quarters of the votes. But the internal debate is not over. 

Earlier this week 100 anonymous members of LREM said they were leaving, in an open letter accusing the party of "contempt and arrogance". None of the signatories were lawmakers, but the letter underscored bitterness within a movement composed of more than 300,000 grass-roots members. Castaner's uncontested election may further accusations that the party is turning away from internal democratic principles. Some say that the gap between the different lists for the executive arm would have been smaller if the vote had been secret. Castaner promised to work with all the lists, as it will be his job to put the party on a trajectory towards winning the next elections.

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November 20, 2017

Gennimata to lead the new left alliance

We also note that Fofi Gennimata, the Pasok leader, was elected to lead the new alliance between Pasok, and Potami, the Democratic Socialist Movement and the Democratic Left. She won the second round of the leadership contest with 56% of the votes. The parties will keep their independence at least until the next elections, but will form the new umbrella in time to challenge Syriza then.

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November 20, 2017

Brexit‘s ultimate irony

In his FT column, Wolfgang Munchau argues that the real discussion needed in the UK is not whether Brexit will happen or should happen, but how to succeed after Brexit - a discussion that neither the Brexiteers nor the Remainers currently seem to have much interest in. In the post-Brexit environment, the UK will be faced with two opposing visions: Jeremy Corbyn‘s socialism; or the post-industrial vision which Theresa May briefly appeared to champion after she became prime minister, but which she has since cast aside as British politics is now fully absorbed by the messy Brexit process itself.

In this environment, Munchau argues, Britain will no longer be able to pursue the rentier economy model the country has pursued during its membership of the EU, acting as the financial centre of a monetary union it has no intention to join, and attracting hot foreign money into a property market with prices held high by artificial supply constraints. In the new world, the UK will have no alternative but to secure rising living standards with policies to increase productivity, which in turn requires an emphasis on innovation. In this world, Britain‘s antiquated school system and universities will need to change, too. The ultimate irony is that for the UK to succeed in this environment, it will need to became much more "European".

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