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March 06, 2019

Weber toughens his stance against Orbán

The expulsion of Fidesz from the European People’s Party looks more likely by the day. Manfred Weber, EPP spitzenkandidat and until quite recently an advocate of keeping Viktor Orbán’s party inside the fold, appears now to be taking the lead in pushing for his expulsion. Politico quotes a letter Weber wrote to EPP President Joseph Daul. In it Weber says he would be pushing for Fidesz’ expulsion on March 20 unless Orbán stopped his campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker, recognised the damage he had done, and resolved the dispute that had forced the George-Soros-financed Central European University out of Budapest. Given that it is unlikely that Orbán, judging by his recent comments, will meet Weber’s conditions, the EPP now appears firmly set on a course to expel Fidesz from its ranks.

Weber, in staking out his tough new position, will obviously have been mindful of his need to reflect the overall mood in the EPP where twelve constituent parties are now calling for the expulsion or suspension of Fidesz. But if the EPP spitzenkandidat and leading CSU-politician Weber pleads for expelling Fidesz on the 20th, it is difficult to imagine the hitherto-cautious leadership of the two German EPP members, the CSU and the CDU, adopting a different position. In any case Manfred Söder, the new CSU party leader and Bavarian state premier, is far less accommodating to Orbán than his predecessor Horst Seehofer had been. And while the CDU’s new party leader Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer has been cautious in her public statements in the early stages of the conflict, we see no good reason for her to swing behind Orbán on March 20 if the overwhelming mood in the EPP, and in large parts of the CDU, is now geared towards expulsion.

This leaves the option for Orbán to engineer some last-minute climbdown. The campaign against Juncker is scheduled to end on March 15, with a campaign against Frans Timmermans, the Commission Vice-President and social-democratic spitzenkandidat, due to take its place. The cynical ending of the anti-Juncker campaign five days before the March 20 vote will hardly be enough to reverse the pro-expulsion sentiment inside the EPP. We would not rule out that Orbán, faced with the prospect of imminent expulsion, could suddenly reverses gear and makes some pacifying gesture ahead of the crucial party meeting. But, given the way the opposition to Fidesz’ continuing membership in the EPP is firming up by the day, we see little room for Orbán to climb down enough to reverse the EPP mood without doing serious damage to his strongman standing with his own electorate. Orbán, a gifted political strategist, is always good for a surprise. But his options have now narrowed to the point where we see the expulsion of his party as overwhelmingly the most likely outcome. A major shake-up of the EU's political landscape right ahead of the European elections in May looks all but inevitable.

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March 06, 2019

The European loneliness of Emmanuel Macron

It is impossible to predict at this stage how Fidesz' now-likely expulsion from the EPP will transform the political landscape on the centre-right, populist right and far right - in the EU and, more particularly, in the European Parliament. What it obvious is that the loss of Fidesz will make the EPP smaller, and deprive it of its biggest member from one of the EU member states in the former Soviet bloc. This might reduce Manfred Weber’s chances to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission president though, at this stage, keeping Fidesz in the EPP might very well reduce them even further.

What is entirely unclear right now is who Fidesz and Orbán might team up with in the European Parliament. Poland’s PiS Party and Matteo Salvini’s Lega belong to different EP groups; on Russia Fidesz is much closer to the Lega, but on EU migration policy it is closer to its Polish counterpart. It appears doubtful whether the existing hard-right and far-right groups in the EP will continue in their present form after the elections, and Fidesz leaving the EPP will all but ensure a realignment. A large alliance federating them all is highly unlikely, if only because some hard-right parties such as Germany’s AfD have refused until now to sit in a same group with Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National. In other words, the possible permutations are so many as to make the outcome anybody’s guess.

So, who will benefit? The social democrats still face the prospect of extremely poor election results in what used to be some of their strongholds, like France. As to Emmanuel Macron’s plans to build a powerful new centrist force, the prospects seen from today look mixed at best. The persistent conflicts between the French and Dutch governments cast some doubt over the potential strength of a centrist-liberal alliance in which Macron and Mark Rutte would be key players. The Spanish party Ciudadanos no longer looks so attractive as it once did, now that it is ready to work with the far-right in Spain. And not much has been heard recently of the rapprochement between Macron’s En Marche and the EP’s liberal group Alde. The EPP may be facing a crisis over Fidesz, but it is a crisis that could turn out to be cathartic. Meanwhile, there is a certain air of loneliness around Macron's European politics which the catalogue of reform proposals published yesterday seems to reinforce rather than to dispel.

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March 06, 2019

You really should not take EU's willingness to extend for granted

One of the dangers of the Brexit debate is that everybody is making hidden assumptions about what others will do. One of these assumptions is that the EU would only be too happy to extend the Brexit deadline. The EU would, of course, extend to give time for ratification of a deal or even to make way for a cross-party deal. But Theresa May would have to make clear pretty quickly that this is what she wants to do after the meaningful vote goes against her for a second time - which may well happen. However, the idea that the EU is willing to accept a long extension, or a semi-permanent one, is fanciful for a number of reasons. The most important relates to power politics within the EU. The EPP has to be mindful of the impact a long delay would have on the balance of power, especially if it were to expel Viktor Orban. If the UK were forced to hold European elections in May it would not send a single delegate to the EPP, which means that the EPP's relative position in the parliament would weaken further. A long delay would almost certain lead to an outcry among Brexit supporters, and could trigger a groundswell of support for Nigel Farage's new Brexit party. 

This is the context in which we read Guy Verhoftstadt's interview with a number of European newspapers. He says the fight against anti-European forces constituted the single biggest issue for centrists like him. And he also reiterated his opposition to a long Brexit delay. We are surprised that the Guardian - one of the papers interviewing Verhofstadt - did not pick up on the connection between the two statements. For a centrist European, there is nothing more toxic than a long Brexit delay.  

British delusions could soon collide with European reality. A number of eurosceptic MPs have persuaded themselves that they need not fear a long delay. In yesterday's briefing we quoted from legal advice by eurosceptic lawyer, Martin Howe QC, whose advocacy of a 21-months-extension in lieu of the transition period has gained influence within the European Research Group of the Tory party. It appears to us that opposition to May's deal among pro-Brexit MPs is hardening again - partly based on those delusions. 

If the meaningful vote is negative - as it may well be - we assume that May would at this point try to reach a cross-party agreement to open up the discussion on the future relationship, by giving the House of Commons the right to pass instructions to the government for the post-Brexit negotiations. At that point, a soft-Brexit majority would almost certainly assert itself. 

In Brussels, meanwhile, the UK-EU talks are becoming more concrete. Tony Connelly writes in RTE that the two sides were working on three separate strands: one on the guarantee of the backstop's temporary nature; a second on the technological solutions that might replace the backstop; and a third on how to change the political declaration. Negotiations are now in the hot phase - with an agreement due probably on Monday. We doubt that the two sides would want to give the British press much time to take this deal apart.

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