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January 24, 2019

A gilets-jaunes list for the European elections?

How to transform public anger into a political project? There has been a second attempt by the gilets jaunes to build momentum for the European elections. Ingrid Levavasseur, a very visible representative of the movement, is leading a list with ten members already and aiming to reach 79 candidates by mid-February through an application process that is open to all French citizens.

The first time some of the gilets jaunes attempted to politicise the movement was in November, around a controversial singer, but that attempt seems to have died off. Will this initiative of the popular Levavasseur succeed? Will her popularity and the open selection process be enough to get the endorsement of other gilets jaunes? Not clear. Her influential but controversial colleague Maxime Nicolle alias Fly Rider warns already that she is about to betray the faith of hundreds and thousands of gilets jaunes in her, writes Le Monde

What if Levavasseur's list were to come together and run in the European elections? Pollsters expect a gilets jaunes list to mobilise voters who normally would abstain, and it also might pick up voters from the the far-right and far-left contingents. The Elabe poll's prediction that a gilets jaunes list would come third with 13% of the votes would, however, require that they are recognised as legitimate representatives for the gilets jaunes movement, which might or might not be the case for Levavasseur's list.

The other trend to watch out for is the convergence of the gilets jaunes with trade unions. The CGT has called for a general strike on February 5, in support of more redistribution of wealth. This call seems to have tempted some gilets jaunes to join in, originally against any association with trade unions. The alliance is the subject of a controversial debate on the social media platforms of the gilets jaunes. One advantage of such an alliance would be that it brings judicial protection to the gilets jaunes protesters, which is only granted if there is a national strike called by a trade union according to Journal du Dimanche.

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January 24, 2019

Let's take "off-the-table" off the table

It was about time for the EU to start interfering in the ill-informed UK debate about "taking no-deal off the table". Next Tuesday, the House of Commons will in all likelihood vote for a bill by Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles that would compel the prime minister to seek an automatic extension of the Art. 50 deadline unless a deal is agreed by the Commons on February 26. The government will lose the battle on Tuesday, but we do not believe that this amendment will end up having a big impact. It sounds like a clever wrecking technique, and the less you know about the EU the more impressive it appears. 

Michel Barnier yesterday gave a brutal assessment of the impact of this bill. He confirmed that the default position is a no-deal Brexit, and it cannot be taken off-the-table except by agreeing a deal or a procedure that might result in revocation. He said the problem in the UK was not a lack of time, but a lack of decisions. EU ambassadors have been put on high alert that their countries need to unroll their hard-Brexit contingency plans. In other words, the risk of a no-deal Brexit is higher than the taking-no-deal-off-the-table rhetoric would suggest.

But Barnier's words are no consolation for Theresa May either. There are absolutely no signs that the EU is about to reopen the withdrawal treaty. Barnier said the EU is ready to tear up the political declaration and start all over. It is also our assessment that the EU cannot agree to anything nearly as crude as a time limit on the backstop, or a unilateral UK withdrawal procedure, but we believe that the current arrangements can be improved upon. We have pointed out, for example, that Art. 50 does not allow a permanent trading relationship being agreed through the backdoor. There should be no reason why the EU cannot codify what is, after all, its own legal interpretation of Art. 50, and give an outright legal guarantee that the backstop cannot be used to keep the UK in a permanent bind. 

What if the UK parliament cannot agree a deal? The alternatives remains another deal, based on the same withdrawal agreement; elections; or second referendum. It is possible that the House of Commons agrees a compromise as part of which the future relationship is determined, say through a referendum or an election, but that the withdrawal agreement itself is passed into law. Elections could produce more clarity, but are not certain to. We noted a polling analysis on ITV last night, which suggested that the outcome of an election would be another hung parliament. An internal assessment for the Conservatives suggests that the party is less prepared to fight an election than Labour. The tracker polls puts the two parties neck and neck, but we would assume that a campaign closely focused on Brexit could produce big swings in either direction.

Polling is a very tricky business in the current environment, and we should exercise extreme restraint in interpreting any data or swings. The psephologist John Curtice made the observation that you get significantly different results whether you ask people about a second referendum or a people's vote. Curtice's conclusion is that a second referendum might still happen after all the alternatives are exhausted, but polling data suggest that there is no appetite for it among voters.

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January 24, 2019

Why Italy's centrist parties gain no traction

In his column in Corriere della Sera, Antonio Polito makes a number of pertinent observations about the failure of Italy's centrist parties to gain any traction against the populist government. He notes that both the centre-right and the centre-left have failed to develop a coherent language. He quotes the US linguist George Lakoff, who studied the emergence of the political right in the US, and found that if you rail against the elephant - the symbol of the Republicans - the image of the elephant immediately enters people's minds. At this point you already lost. This is what happens when you attack populism, because voters associate it with "people", especially in countries with languages descended from Latin. 

On top of this, the centrists are scoring very obvious own goals. An example is a comment by Maria Elena Boschi, a former PD minister, who said the citizens' income meant that people could lead a permanent life on holiday. We would add that this is not only insulting but also factually wrong, as evidenced by the German experience of Hartz-IV, which is very similar to what the Italian government has just introduced. The problem with the citizens' income, according to Polito, is a vicious circle whereby the government's economic policies will drive ever more people into poverty, and into becoming recipients of the citizens' income - and potential supporters of Five Star. He said the centrists should be more clear-headed in their attacks on the government, and not revert to slogans themselves. The trouble with Europe's centrist parties is a lack of programmes that bring hope. He is critical of the newly re-emerging Franco-German axis precisely for this reason. It is too defensive, backward-looking, led by one leader who is on her way out and another who lost his shine. The axis is strong enough to hold together, but not sufficiently strong to draw back into the political centre those who have left it.

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