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December 06, 2018

There can be no deal as long as delusions of easy alternatives persist

We noted a seasoned political reporter of the BBC talking utter nonsense last night about the political options available after next week's vote in the House of Commons. He suggested there was kind of a readily available menu choice between new elections, second referendum, a second vote, or a new deal. He ended with the usual assertion of the intellectually lazy UK journalists, namely that no-deal is unlikely because there is no parliamentary majority in favour of it. 

We would like to draw readers' attention to a new ComRes poll out yesterday showing that the British are simultaneously against staying in the EU, against the withdrawal treaty, against a no-deal Brexit, and in favour of renegotiating. Now what can possibly go wrong!

The unfolding events suggest to us that a second referendum remains unlikely - unless the prime minister supports it. We noted a Guardian story that Len McCluskey, the leader of the Unite trade union and one of the main backers of Jeremy Corbyn, has privately told a group of Labour MPs not to back a second referendum, on the grounds that voters could see it as a betrayal. The Labour Party is split on this issue, but it would require a high degree of party unity for an effective second-referendum-coalition to emerge. 

We continue to see an uncomfortably large probability of a no-deal Brexit. It is what happens if nothing else happens. And it would be consistent with the above poll.

We are also concerned about some counter-productive news now coming out of Brussels. One was the suggestion, contained in a Reuters story, that May could go back to negotiate some cosmetic changes to the withdrawal treaty. Cosmetic changes will not shift majorities in the UK parliament. We note a tendency among some EU officials, especially those who allow themselves to be quoted anonymously, to belittle elected national representatives. 

We also thought the apparent EU offer, as reported in the Times this morning, of a three-month extension not to he helpful either, as it might encourage Remainers to vote against the deal in the hope that something better might come up later. The pathway for a potential compromise is very narrow - much narrower than in usual EU-level negotiations, including most recently on eurozone reforms. We believe that more than just cosmetic changes are needed to save the deal.

One possible way forward would be to add clauses to the backstop that protect both sides against an abuse of the procedure by the other side. Ironically, we think the EU is more at risk of abusive action by the UK than the other way round. But given the mutual mistrust, it would be a good idea for both sides to think about how such abuse can be prevented. We think, for example, that the provisions for binding arbitration are problematic as it is not a legal procedure. If one side had legitimate reasons to believe that the other side is dragging its feet in the negotiations over a trade deal, then that party should have access to some form of legal redress.

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December 06, 2018

What do the gilets jaunes mean for green fiscal policy?

The French government’s forced retreat on the fuel tax following the violent gilets jaunes protest is not just a bad omen for Emmanuel Macron’s ability to continue with his reform agenda. It is also very bad news for all those who believe that fiscal policy must be an essential tool in the arsenal to fight the catastrophic acceleration of climate change.

Predictably, Donald Trump, grand master of the needling tweet, seized the occasion to aim a double hit at Macron and the Paris agreement on climate change. He wrote that the French U-turn validated his own decision to pull out of the Paris accord. More importantly, as Le Monde reports, Macron’s decision has sent shock waves through the COP24 climate conference under way in Katowice. It has delivered the starkest possible reminder that green fiscal policy is a difficult democratic proposition at times of economic and social strain. Increasing the cost of energy consumption hits the poorest disproportionately hard, and will easily trigger strong opposition and even social unrest unless governments find ways, fiscal or otherwise, to offset the financial impact on the less well-off.

The government that has just taken office in Luxembourg – the same three-party-coalition as before, led by Xavier Bettel – has taken that lesson on board and gone for a radical measure which seems to be to be a global first: starting next summer, all public transport by rail and road is to be entirely free for people. Meanwhile, 65.000 people have marched in Brussels last Sunday to call for more action against climate change. Given deeply worrying news regarding the pace of global warming, expect increased calls for urgent action in the more prosperous EU member states, and increased tensions in countries struggling with a large percentage of their population feeling disenfranchised or left behind.  

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