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November 22, 2018

Warsaw submits to ECJ in conflict over supreme court

All eyes in the eurozone are on the conflict between Brussels and Rome, but there is arguably another big tug-of-war about the limits on national parliamentary sovereignty that is just as important and groundbreaking. This is the one pitting Brussels against Warsaw. This week, the Polish government decided to obey an injunction by the European Court of Justice, and to suspend the forced retirement of some of its Supreme Court judges by securing the passage of a new law to that effect.

This does not mean that the conflict over Warsaw's planned judicial reforms is over. The ECJ still has to hand down its final ruling, and the European Commission had requested that Poland drop or modify other parts of the reform. The Commission charges the Law and Justice party with seeking to establish political control over the judiciary to a degree incompatible with the EU’s fundamental values. But the government’s decision to submit to the ECJ's injunction, despite continuing to dispute the validity of the Commission's criticism, means that it is bowing to EU supremacy over an area as essential to Polish statehood - and to the political agenda of Poland’s parliamentary majority - as the functioning of its Supreme Court.

We had already noted that a conflict over the limits of state judicial sovereignty is a classic moment in the formation of a federal power. Warsaw’s submission - or not - to EU authority and the ECJ’s writ would mark an important watershed in the constitutional formation of the EU. After this week’s decision, we know how the chips have fallen. The old pattern continues to hold, in that important crisis moments crucial to the EU’s cohesion and stability lead sooner or later to a strengthening of EU authority over the constituent states and their parliamentary majorities. We note in passing that the groundbreaking character of the conflict over Poland’s judicial reforms, and in particular the ECJ’s role in it, is under-reported in much of the media. 

Instead, distinguished columnists like Simon Jenkins in the Guardian today continue to opine that the EU has become too insensitive and brittle – whatever that means - and must quite soon degenerate or disintegrate, as did all earlier attempts at grand continental settlements in European history.

What such analysis misses is the point that, ironically, is perhaps seen most clearly by passionate europhobes. The EU is not a brittle concert of nations, but it is slowly emerging as a federal power. The failure to grasp this fact is the single biggest cause of much flawed analysis and of many political miscalculations that have followed.

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November 22, 2018

Is the roadblock movement setting the scene for Le Pen?

What to expect from this spontaneous protest movement in France, those roadblockers with their yellow traffic vests? The movement seems to have slowed down, as only 10,000 took to the streets yesterday. But they become more targeted with their road blocks, focusing on logistical centres and commercial areas. Transport organisations are already complaining that the costs of the roadblocks are significant. Are the protesters taking a pause before gearing up for their next big day in Paris this Saturday? Some 31,000 declared on Facebook that they are going, some 200,000 clicked interested in going. The gathering won't be illegal, says the government, but it cannot take place at Place de la Concorde as envisaged: a more secure place has to be found. 

Many observers find it hard to classify this protest phenonemon in its historical and sociological context. This grassroot movement is not driven or highjacked by extremists as some news footage might suggest. Political parties on the left and right tried to put their labels on it, but they won't stick. There is no common identity, no anti-immigration profile, no common position on environmental policies. There is no revolutionary undercurrent, no popular front. You cannot even classify them as internet users, since non-users have been spotted among them too.

The demographer Hervé Le Bras found that most of the road blocks last Saturday happened in small towns and rural areas where commerce is dying, public service rationalised, and people are most adamantly calling for a tax reduction. The sociologist Vincent Tiberj pins them down as the lower-middle class, who earn enough to pay taxes but not enough to live comfortably. It is also a question of lifestyle, people choosing to live in rural areas with a detached house and a garden, and with the car as the preferred means of transport.

It is clear that we have not seen the end of this movement yet. Its diversity and lack of common purpose makes it unpredictable. It may inflame people's minds like a fever just to die off eventually. To watch out for is Marine Le Pen. She is measuring her words, not so much to side with the protesters but to harvest their angst and frustration, writes Cécile Cornudet. It could become her platform to re-enter the stage.

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November 22, 2018

May’s double bluff is doing the job - for now

We have argued from the beginning that the UK parliament is delusional in thinking that it can run the Brexit negotiations from the backseat. Even if MPs never read it, Article 50 itself has become the backseat driver of British politics.

Theresa May is carrying out her single-minded mission with admirable clarity, if not brutality. The right is incensed that her government keeps on repeating that no Brexit would be the main consequence of a rejection of her Brexit deal. We doubt that May would ever do the things needed to undo Brexit - initiate legislation to repeal the repeal of the EU Communities Act, to amend the EU notification of withdrawal act, to allow for a new referendum; and a resolution to ask the European Council for an extension of the Brexit deadline. 

But simply by raising the perceived probability of a Brexit reversal from zero to, say, 5%, can do wonders. Pro-Brexit Tory MPs now fear they may not be able to force a no-deal Brexit simply by voting down May's deal. And if you just look at the headlines in the Brexit-supporting Daily Telegraph you see the sense of outrage among their commentators. One talked of treason and revenge, another of culpable naivety. They are realising they won’t be getting the Brexit they wanted. And they are also shocked that they are simply not able to remove her.

We would not be surprised if May ended up using the opposite tactic to pull over some pro-Remain Labour MPs, too. This is why she is framing her warning the way she does: deal, no-deal, no-Brexit. This creates the maximum degree of uncertainty. But we would also note that a strategy of smokes and mirrors, useful as it is for now, is by definition not sustainable. You cannot have a no-deal Brexit and no-Brexit outcomes simultaneously. Parliamentary arithmetic suggests that May first needs to minimise the Tory rebellion - to cut it to 20 or so - and then turn to wavering Labour MPs. She cannot take no-deal Brexit off the table completely. 

Yesterday, she held talks with Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels that will now be followed up by a final marathon of the principal negotiators on both sides. Their task is to finalise the political declaration. The meeting went as well as could be expected, the FT reports. The fact the two did not finalise the outstanding issues is unsurprising, given the technical complexities. The Gibraltar issue remains a headache, but we doubt very much that it will end up frustrating a Brexit agreement.

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