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April 19, 2018

Greece fears escalation after Erdogan calls snap polls

Amid a new spike in tensions between Greece and Turkey over the Aegean Islands, Recep Tayyip Erdogan's decision yesterday to call snap elections for June 24 intensified Greek concerns over the bilateral relations. Some fear that the nationalistic sabre-rattling could fuel further claims against Greece, others hope that the rise in provocations might ebb away after the elections, so Kathimerini

The latest tensions were caused by Turkey's response to a Commission paper regarding its EU membership prospect. In a letter Turkey condemned the EU for seeking to arbitrate in the case of a territorial dispute with Greece as unacceptable. Turkey insisted that the Imia islets, which Greece considers its territory, is exclusively under Turkish sovereignty. The Greek government responded immediately that Greek sovereignty over Imia is clear and beyond doubt, according to the Treaty of Lausanne of 1923, the Italian-Turkish Agreements of 1932, and the 1947 Treaty of Paris. 

But the government is clearly alarmed about Turkish rhetoric escalation, and nervous not to pour more oil onto the fire. Defence minister Panos Kammenos tuned his own rhetoric down by saying that the government's position is expressed by the prime minister. The government's spokesman also warned Greeks to avoid flashpoints, such as the one apparently created by three young Greeks who placed a flag on a rocky outcrop off Fourni which the Turks claim their coast guard took down – an incident that Athens insists did not happen.

An escalation of tensions with Turkey will be a challenge for Alexis Tsipras and his government for the coming months. It will absorb much of its capacity and reveal the cracks in the coalition. It will be decisive for Tsipras to keep the Greek response on an even keel to avoid lasting domestic damage or even an international incident with unforeseeable consequences, warns Macropolis.

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April 19, 2018

Towards repeat elections in the Czech Republic?

The Czech Republic has been without a proper government for six months, as PM-designate Andrej Babis has failed repeatedly to get the confidence of the parliament. Under constitutional convention common in central-eastern European countries such as Czechia, the old cabinet does not remain as a caretaker but rather the president nominates a PM who then seeks the confidence of the parliament. Thus, Babis has been acting as PM since December, but the situation is still not settled. Babis, an agribusiness and media magnate, is the only plausible PM candidate as his party ANO ('Yes' or action of dissatisfied citizens) won 40% of the seats in the parliament. But his attempts to form a coalition or even get a confidence and supply partner have failed. He is contested strongly because of alleged conflicts of interest with his business, subsidy fraud, and even ties with the communist state security of Czechoslovakia. 

Babis' latest serious attempt was with the social democratic party CSSD. After this latest failure, Babis openly admitted that early elections are possible. They could take place in the autumn along with local and senate elections. The leader of the far-right party SPD, Tomio Okamura, wants to use this opportunity to strike a deal with Babis, however. His party came fourth at the general election and has just enough seats to bring Babis to a minimal majority of 100 seats in the 200-strong parliament. Options going forward, apart from early elections, include a technical government, Babis stepping back for another candidate from his party, Babis ruling with a succession of short-lived cabinets (a constitutional loophole), talks with CSSD being revived for a government with communist (KSCM) support, or a Yes government with support of SPD and KSCM. 

Repeat elections would not solve the impasse, as polls show support for ANO remaining steady, and small gains being made by the mainstream centre-right opposition ODS as well as the Pirate Party, neither of which are more likely to support Babis that CSSD, SPD , or KSCM.

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April 19, 2018

Lords defeat UK government on customs union - but it’s not what it seems

It was interesting to see that the vote in the House of Lords in favour of a customs union arrangement post-Brexit was one of the top headlines in the German media. Yet the story was not nearly as promimnent in the UK. The reason is, of course, that the vote is not binding. The real issue is whether this has any impact on the Commons. The FT says No, while the BBC says perhaps.

In any case, a vote in support of a customs union would not affect the withdrawal agreement itself, but the content of the accompanying political declaration. That document can at most include the promise to negotiate a customs union arrangement with the EU, but there is no way that the EU and the UK will be in a position to negotiate a customs union in time for Brexit.  

The Lords voted 348 to 225 against the government. The FT says pro-EU Tory rebels in the Commons would not back the specific amendment of the House of Lords, but are more likely to hold their fire until the final Brexit deal. This is now expected towards the end of the year. The Lords also defeated the government on another amendment that would curtail the government’s ability to force through new legislation on employment, consumer, and environmental policy, without the involvement of parliament. The customs union amendment was the work of Lord Kerr, a former UK ambassador to the EU, and Lord Patten. 

While the FT was rather downbeat on the political significance of the vote, we also noted a tweet by Laura Kuenssberg (@bbclaurak), the BBC’s political editor, who said there may be up to 50 Tory MPs rebels who could end up voting against the government. 

Expectations, however, seem to have shifted about the political impact of an eventual government defeat on the customs union. There is now no longer an expectation that a defeat would trigger the resignation of the government, let alone a big Brexit U-turn. This is an important issue, but it will not really come to a head until well after Brexit. At this stage the debate is really only about whether to explicitly include in the exit agreement the possibility of a customs union arrangement, or to exclude it, or to fudge the issue. It still matters, though.

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