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March 19, 2018

Waiting for Germany

There will not be a Franco-German EU agenda for the EU summit this week, but there may be one in June. At least that is what Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron confirmed after their meeting last Friday. There was plenty of goodwill on display, but the question is whether the so-called technical difficulties, which are more political difficulties, can be overcome by June. 

Macron was diplomatic enough not to point fingers. But everyone is now waiting for Germany to come up with a proper response to Macron's proposals. We know what the Germans don't want, but not what they do want. After years of EU crisis management, how could the Franco-German partnership renew its vision for Europe? And how can Merkel rally the eurosceptics in her party behind such a proposal? 

One of the problems pointed out by Michaela Wiegel in FAZ is that the German debate reduces this initiative too easily to the question of money. Every proposal about immigration or security policy evokes the suspicion that the other member states are all after German money. This instinct is so deeply rooted that even if France is now becoming the poster child for fiscal prudence and economic reforms, it won't convince the Germans yet that they are in the same boat. Even the grand coalition contract cements the idea that all that is requested from Germany is more money. The debate is focusing on how much the German contribution to the EU budget should rise and on the conditions for the banking union. But there is so much more that needs to be discussed.

A Franco-German agreement is necessary but not sufficient, Hubert Vedrine once said. This is true also this time, as there are plenty of challenges. In Italy a political majority of anti-euro parties was elected, the Dutch premier Mark Rutte has assembled a coalition of mostly Baltic and northern European states around him to resist a possible Franco-German leadership claim, and the Visegrád states won't go for it either.

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March 19, 2018

Russia’s friends

The use of a nerve agent on a British soil is one of those political events that intrude. In Germany, it has opened an old political conflict that has been papered over in the grand coalition, about the country's bilateral relations with Russia. And in the UK it has massively weakened the position of the Labour Party.

One of the biggest political dividing lines in Germany has been between those who seek closer relations with Vladimir Putin, and those who want to maintain the current sanctions. The dividing line cuts across parties. We know that Angela Merkel is supporting a rules-based approach to Russia, based on the Minsk process. The new foreign minister, Heiko Maas, supports Merkel on this point. 

His predecessor, Sigmar Gabriel, has called for an end to the sanctions, and openly criticised the government's policy to support the UK in its diplomatic stand-off with Russia. We have reported before that the SPD's old leadership consisted of a circle of politicians with close links to Vladimir Putin. That included Gerhard Schroder, but also his two closest aides - Gabriel and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who is now Germany's president and largely out of the picture. 

This is not a left-right division. The most pro-Russians in the SPD are on the right. The Left Party is pro-Russian, unsurprisingly, but so is the AfD. Wolfgang Kubicki, one of the most prominent FDP politicians, also demanded a relaxation of the sanctions, and warned against a return to the Cold War. Kubicki made the same point as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK: that it was premature to blame Russia. More evidence is needed, he said.

The division of opinion in the UK is much simpler. It is Jeremy Corbyn versus the establishment. The FT argues in an editorial that the clear position of the US, Germany and France in support of the UK throws an odd light on Corbyn's feeble response. The UK's most important Nato allies agree that there was no plausible alternative to the conclusion that Russia is behind the attacks. By failing to acknowledge this, Corbyn is playing Russia's game. His comparison with the west's premature conclusion that Saddam Hussein hoarded weapons of mass destruction, appeared superficially plausible but does not withstand further scrutiny. There is no doubt that the nerve agent, Novichok, exists, and that it is produced in Russia. The comment concluded with the observation that this was not a failure of judgement. Corbyn's entire world-view has been shaped by a suspicion of the west and of the US in particular. 

The commentators who ridiculed Corbyn before the last elections are now returning to that position. The UK's establishment slowly but reluctantly warmed to Corbyn over the last year - perhaps in the hope that a Labour-led government could either reverse or soften of Brexit. This is despite the fact that Corbyn himself has ruled out a second Brexit referendum. All those hopes have now disappeared. If the House of Commons were to defeat Theresa May over the withdrawal bill or the trade bill, she may well resign and/or trigger new elections. But with the Labour Party now more divided than ever before, there is no chance of a Labour majority of any kind.

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March 19, 2018

Can the Commons force an extension of the Art 50 period?

UK parliamentarians have a tendency towards imperial overreach. They are in ultimately control of the UK government. They could, as we understand, force the government to change its negotiating mandate. They can ask the government to adopt a specific negotiating position in any international negotiation. But there is one thing they cannot do: they cannot influence the negotiation strategy of the other side. 

This is why we do not think that we need to pay too much attention to the House of Common's Brexit committee, which came out with a recommendation that the UK should seek an extension of the Article 50 period, as well as of the subsequent transitional period. We, too, have argued that a transitional period of 21 months is too short. But the EU has, so far, shown no appetite for an extension. If this were to change, we would expect the extension to be short and itself time-limited. As far as the two-year Art. 50 period is concerned, we see no need for an extension, which would have to be accepted by the European Council in a unanimous decision. We agree with Mark Rutte's recent observation that the purpose of an Article 50 renewal would be not to prolong the negotiations, but to deal with short-term emergencies. Prolongation, if agreed, would not be for another period of two years, but a matter of days or weeks. However these are not the circumstances envisaged by the Brexit committee, which seeks extensions if substantial aspects of the deal have not been ratified by October.

We think this is unlikely. If an agreement is reached, but not ratified by the UK Parliament, the UK government would then prepare for Brexit without agreement or, more likely, force elections. As we noted in a comment above, the only constellation that could force a real political shift - a Labour-led government supported by parties that oppose Brexit - is now less like than before.

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