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October 03, 2018

Ironman Stubb wants to succeed Juncker

If triathletes are proud addicts to discipline, then the European People’s Party Alexander Stubb is a great case in point. The fabulously fit-looking polyglot Finn is the latest aspirant to throw his hat in the ring for the succession of Jean-Claude Juncker. And just in time too: the Stubb, as he is known amongst some journalists, intends to bolster his candidacy for the EPP’s spitzenkandidat in 2019 by projecting himself as a member of a new generation of European leaders - even if he has fallen on the wrong side of 50 earlier this year. But then it is true that the candidate’s outward appearance, toughened in Ironman competitions, detracts from any notion of advancing middle age.

Stubb’s youthfulness belies an impressive cv which could easily belong to a much older man. An alumnus of the College of Europe, the elite breeding ground for senior EU officials, he has successively served as a member of the European parliament, a minister of foreign affairs, of European affairs and trade, as prime minister, and as finance minister. Currently Stubb, who says he has closed the chapter of Finnish politics, works as vice-president of the European Investment bank.

So what are his chances against Manfred Weber, the German candidate to lead the EPP into next year’s European elections? While Weber, despite his latest turnabout, embodies the politics of compromise with Viktor Orbán, Stubb stands for a clear demarcation line against the hard right, and describes himself as a natural ally of Emmanuel Macron as he shares his keenness for an agenda of further European integration. With Weber and Stubb, the EPP will be faced in November with a clear political choice. A problem for Stubb could be his well-known record as a super-hawk during the eurozone crisis: his insistence on ironman-like discipline has cost him many friends in the south. The lively and eloquent Stubb is a favourite with journalists and an adept practitioner of 21st-century communications. But some will question whether a northerner proudly espousing the triumph of principle over practice would be the right man to steer a fractious EU through the difficult years and waters ahead.

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October 03, 2018

Don’t think for one moment that Tories are rallying behind May

We are not sold on the marketing message from Birmingham that the Conservative party is backing May. Boris Johnson delivered a strong and calibrated speech yesterday in front of a packed hall that treated him like a rock star. The best outcome for Theresa May’s speech today would be a polite reception. The Tories might manage that, but Johnson and Rees-Mogg have large sections of the party behind them. 

There are more bad news for May. The DUP said it will categorically reject any controls in the Irish Sea, including regulatory controls. Arlene Foster, DUP leader, said the party would vote against Chequers if it contained such provisions. 

May has recently been hardening her position on immigration with the announcement of a skills-based immigration policy that treats newly-arriving EU citizens the same as everyone else. And she is softening on regulatory controls, which are fiercely opposed by DUP. We doubt that this trade-off will be enough for her to strike a deal with the EU. It does not address the EU's concerns about the integrity of the single market. The EU will also object to a skills-based immigration policy as it indirectly discriminates between member states, those with predominantly-highly-skilled workers like France, Italy and Germany, and those with low-skilled workers.

We think therefore that the risk of a failure to reach agreement in the European Council is higher than generally acknowledged. A deal would only happen if May makes further concessions, as the EU is not moving. Our impression is that the hard Brexiteers are happier to sacrifice Brexit itself than to accept Chequers. They will live to fight another war. We should not overestimate the extent to which people’s preferences are linear.

The best hope for a deal by March 29 lies in the following sequence: May agrees to a customs union in all but name, with lots of smoke and mirrors. Deal fails in parliament. May sits it out: no elections, no second referendum. As the UK nears the cliff edge, Parliament votes for a second time - this time in favour of a deal with the support of Labour MPs. May resigns immediately after Brexit. 

What about a second referendum? We noted a strong disagreement on this matter by two Conservative Lords. The Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein wrote not too long ago that a second referendum would never happen. Now he sees it as the most plausible option. His scenario is the following: deal gets defeated; utter chaos in the Tory party; May sees 2nd referendum as only way out because elections would be a disaster for her. William Hague, however, argues that a second referendum would be a mighty mess for the Tory Party, which would have failed to deliver on the Brexit referendum result. There would be endless rows and legal challenges about the question to be asked, so the process would take a long time to agree and carry out. And the result would not settle anything, especially in a three-way referendum. 

We would also not rule out a second referendum, but we disagree with Finkelstein in one important aspect. If May's deal were defeated for good, her political future would be over at that moment. At that point, she would have miscalculated twice: on the 2017 elections and on the Chequers Plan. She is not in a position to lead a second referendum campaign, either. So the question becomes whether a second referendum is in the interest of the party, or the next leader. We struggle to see how it can be.

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