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October 18, 2018

Disorder, disorder....

We had originally planned to spare you the details of arcane UK parliamentary procedures for the ratification of a Brexit withdrawal deal, because we believe that those procedures will never be triggered. We still think that. But, as we follow the UK debate, we realise that they might matter for a different reason. The rules might give MPs a mistaken incentive to reject a withdrawal deal.

The issue came to light in the context of a bullying scandal involving the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow. The formerly bewigged Speaker is not only the master of ceremonies but has the right to decide what parliamentary amendments are deemed admissible and which are not. After the rejection of the so-called meaningful vote amendment, the Speaker now has the right to decide whether the House could vote to take matters in its own hand if there is no deal by January. In extremis, this could involve the House calling on the government to ask for an extension of the Article 50 deadline to allow for a second referendum. 

In the more likely event of a deal, the issue involving parliamentary procedures is going to be a different one. It is about whether, when, and to which extent parliament has the right to pass amendments to the withdrawal treaty. Dominic Raab, Brexit secretary, yesterday sent a letter to MPs outlining the government’s preference for a more streamlined ratification process. But in the end, it is Mr Speaker who will be in charge. Never underestimate the tendency of imperial overreach in the House of Commons. 

There are amendments that could invalidate the treaty, and whose passage would constitute outright non-ratification. This includes an amendment to subject passage to a future referendum, because this could only happen if the European Council were to agree to an extension of the Article 50 deadline. When Brits discuss the second referendum or alternative deals, they always tend to take the EU’s position for granted. 

We doubt very much that the EU would be much impressed in an open-ended referendum process, especially one forced upon it by a reluctant UK government. The timetable of Article 50 and the unanimity requirement for an extension are the reasons why we think the UK parliament is ultimately facing a binary choice - between accepting a deal or a no-deal Brexit. The talk about parliamentary procedures serves mainly to prop up the egos of dejected MPs, but in reality constitute a diversion. Those who hyperventilate have either not read, or failed to comprehend, Article 50, or if they do, they misjudge the interests of the EU. 

In this context, we noted a comment by Fabian Zuleeg. He writes the EU would of course welcome a decision by the UK to reverse Brexit. Whether this is legally possible is another, as yet untested issue. For the sake of argument let us assume that it is. 

But this would have to be the result of a genuine change of heart - not an opinion poll. He said it is unlikely this will happen inside the remaining time. He writes that from the perspective of the EU27, the option of a Brexit reversal has disappeared from the radar screen. 

The speaker of the House may get away bullying his staff, but he has no means at his disposal to bully the EU.

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October 18, 2018

Tsipras sacrifices Kotzias - but what's the end game?

In any other country, the resignation of the foreign minister who brokered a historic deal over a decade-long dispute with the neighbouring country on behalf of his government, and this just when the deal is to pass a critical vote in parliament, would constitute a major political crisis with international repercussions. In Greece, the situation after the resignation of Nikos Kotzias is beyond crisis, it is simply absurd: the foreign minister, who with the prime minister is backing the Macedonia agreement, resigns, while Panos Kammenos, the defence minister who promised to vote against the deal in parliament, stays in government.

What is at stake here is the political survival of Tspiras. He can ill afford the departure of the junior coalition partner, Anel, on which he depends for a majority in parliament, especially now that everyone is gearing up for elections next year. Before going to the polls, Tsipras needs to improve his record, which is why he wants everyone to focus on the stimulus measures that are due to be voted in November so as to boost Syriza's poll ratings in December. Every political upheaval before then would be counterproductive. 

What about the deal with Macedonia on the name change? This was one of Tsipras' flagship foreign policies. But the deal may not even pass through the parliament in Skopje, which increases the uncertainty about its ultimate success. Tsipras needs to prepare for a no-deal, and the fact that he accepted the resignation of Kotzias could be seen as part of a strategy to redirect blame to the former foreign minister if the deal is indeed off the table, writes To Vima. It could also explain why Tsipras is not ready to let go Kammenos just yet.

The defence minister would be in an untenable position if the Macedonia deal were to pass in parliament. How can he be part of the government and at the same time vehemently oppose its most historic foreign policy deal? He is not at all a neutral player: Kammenos undermined the government's position on his recent visit to the US, telling US officials that there is an alternative plan for Macedonia to join Nato without the need for a name change. Under normal circumstances it should have been Kammenos who needed to go. But Tsipras decided otherwise, apparently hedging his chances. 

The other reading in the media is that there has been a rift between Tsipras and Kotzias, one already building up before, and that Kotzias' resignation as well as Tsipras' acceptance is just the final straw in an already strained relationship. Both men were on the same page when it comes to Macedonia, but had very different views on other dossiers including on Russia. Tsipras is due to visit Moscow early December and his pro-Russian stance may no longer be hampered by the much more Russia-critical diplomacy of his former foreign minister.

Looking to the future, Macropolis wonders: how dangerous can Kotzias become outside the government? He is a man of his own mind, with significant influence in the Syriza party as part of its left wing, and the founder of his own movement called Pratto. Could he be inclined to carve out some political space to attack Tsipras from the left? Pratto is a movement, not a party, and thus unlikely to become a rival. But he could build up his support inside Syriza to challenge Tsipras.

Meanwhile, the opposition is having a feast. It points out that more than ever, Tsipras is blackmailed by his far-right coalition partner.

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