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March 13, 2019

Not really all that meaningful

It is interesting to note that there exists an inverse relationship in no-deal expectations: the more the UK rules it out, the more the EU expects it to happen. We are on the side of the EU. We are also alarmed whenever we hear soothing comments that backbenchers will in the end take no-deal off the table. What Brussels see in much sharper focus is that this is just an avoidance strategy. Since there is no majority for a long Brexit extension - i.e. a second referendum - Brussels concludes, logically, that the impasse would result in a no-deal Brexit.

It is not all over yet. The chances of the so-called Norway-Plus option have also risen. And Theresa May’s own deal is also not quite so dead as it seemed last night. A final meaningful vote is still possible, indeed likely.

There is a charming honesty in the precise wording of today’s motion - on taking no-deal off the table. It is worth savouring this for a while:

"This House declines to approve leaving the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework on the Future Relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this House and the EU ratify an agreement."

They might as well have said: “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.”

We agree with Stephen Bush in the Spectator that the only way to take no deal off the table is with actual legislation - not a show of hands on silly motions and amendments. He notes that none of the MPs who have brought legislation forward to stop no deal have done anything even remotely close to that.

Today’s motion will, of course, pass. So will tomorrow’s meaningless vote on extending Art. 50. But Theresa May is right that the EU will not extend Art. 50 unconditionally, a message MPs find hard to understand. 

She is also right when she said that the UK parliament would need to make a positive decision by March 299 between the known options: unilateral revocation, second referendum, Norway Plus, customs union. We expect to see a third and final meaningful vote in the last week of March. No matter what is decided, or not decided, inevitably there will be a short extension - of no longer than until May 22, and possibly a bit shorter for reasons we explained yesterday. This will be either to prepare for no-deal, or to make the necessary technical preparations if the deal is approved. A long extension is becoming increasingly unlikely since the EU would only agree to it if the UK were to propose a second referendum. 

Despite the approaching deadline, Tory Brexiters are still chasing unicorns. Remember the Malthouse amendment? There is now the Malthouse compromise, which rests on the notion that the UK leaves the EU without a deal on May 22 and then start talks with the EU on the future relationship. We never cease to be amazed how UK parliamentarians keep on misreading the EU’s intentions and constraints. If the UK crashes out without a deal, the EU will insist that the content of the withdrawal agreement be unilaterally adopted by the UK as a condition for further talks. And yes, that includes the Irish backstop. In other words, the UK would effectively have to erect a customs border in the Irish channel before the EU starts any trade talks. 

We see no majority in the UK Parliament for this nonsense, nor will there be any majority for the customs union, if only because this is the official position of the Labour Party. The UK Parliament will not revoke unilaterally without a second referendum, and there is no majority for that option either. The only conceivable alternative would be Norway-Plus, which has the additional advantage that it would be consistent with the withdrawal agreement and would only require changes to the political declaration. A Norway-Plus Brexit can be drafted relatively quickly, and we see no reason why such a deal cannot be reached before March 29 - with a subsequent short technical extension.

So this leaves us with the following sequences of meaningful events:

  1. indicative votes on the alternative options. If Norway Plus is close to a majority, Theresa May could proceed with it.
  2. If not, she will retable a meaningful vote in the last week of March.
  3. If parliament rejects for a third time, UK leaves EU without a deal, but with a short extension for preparations. 

One other intruding event are elections. It is possible that Theresa May concludes that there is no alternative solution to get over the impasse than through elections.

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March 13, 2019

Will the EPP merely put Orban on probation?

Manfred Weber met Viktor Orban in Budapest yesterday – and has refused until the time of writing to say what, based on the talks, he would recommend the EPP should do about Orban’s and Fidesz continued membership. More deliberations within the EPP were needed, he said. What the EPP needed to be able to do was to guarantee that Fidesz was committed to the party’s values. In other words, we don’t know what Weber will now push for, and he may well not know it himself.

Meanwhile, Orban had given instructions prior to Weber’s visit to take some of the antisemitically charged posters against Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros down, but reportedly only those which could be seen by Weber's convoy. An end of the poster campaign is one of the conditions Weber has said Orban must meet to avoid expulsion. Orban also had his chief of staff Gulyas Gergely say that Orban was ready to extend an apology to those of his EPP critics who felt hurt by the prime minister’s description of them as "useful idiots".  We note that this offer to say sorry does not really live up to what Weber has asked for as his condition number two: a much broader, politically more significant apology for the campaign against Juncker, Weber’s predecessor as the EPP’s spitzenkandidat. 

Nothing filtered through about what was said about the Central European University, launched and financed by Soros, which Weber visited yesterday with rector Michael Ignatieff. The plans for a relocation of much of the universities’ activities in the next academic year due to the negative pressures from the Hungarian authorities were unchanged, said Ignatieff. In an unexpected turn of events, Weber told the Bavarian newspaper Augsburger Allgemeine that the Bavarian government has declared its readiness to finance two academic chairs at CEU and back the endowment of a third. Bavaria’s ruling party, the CSU, has long maintained close ties to Orban and Fidesz, even if the new party leader and state premier, Markus Söder, has been far more critical of Orban than his predecessor Horst Seehofer. Weber, a CSU member himself, has mentioned a safe operation for the CEU as his condition number three.

So what to make of it all?

First, we note that the CSU seems to be bending over backwards to facilitate Fidesz’ continuing membership in the EPP. Second, we suspect that Orban has continued to taunt EPP emissary Weber with his usual mix of provocation and conciliation, all the while gambling that the EPP will stop short of taking things to the brink and beyond. Third, the EPP now has exactly a week to make up its mind about Fidesz at its March 20 meeting – unless it postpones the decision, with Orban effectively put on probation; or unless Orban takes matter in his own hands and breaks with the EPP before it can break with him. 

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March 13, 2019

Why AKKs riposte to Macron is deeply disturbing

Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer's bizarre riposte to Emmanuel Macron's latest European reform proposals may well have been primarily targeted towards the right wing of the CDU's membership and electorate ahead of the European and subsequent German regional elections, all with the aim to build up and secure her leadership. And it may tell us little what she will do if and once she takes over from Angela Merkel as chancellor. 

But we are concerned that such European back-pedalling threatens the momentum for reform at a critical time for Europe when the EU desperately needs a common strategy. We agree with Sylvie Kauffmann that amid the chaos of Brexit and the EU's geopolitical challenges the discrepancy of European ambition between the two nations is deeply disturbing. 

AKK's op-ed in Die Welt reads like a confused jumble of ideas without the coherence of a common vision. It amounts to a putdown of Macron's quest for a European reboot. And it targets France aggressively too. Why bring up now the idea for the EU to have a permanent seat on the UN security council, forcing France to give up its seat, at a time when Germany is far from living up to even its own defence and security commitments ? And would an AKK-led Germany really want to open up the European Treaty to take the European Parliament out of Strasbourg, creating a huge domestic policy problem for any French president? With the ink under the Aachen Treaty still wet, such proposals can only be read as gratuitous provocations in Paris, a strange way for AKK to leave her first European calling card. How could AKK's chose to ignore that in the Aachen Treaty, France committed to help Germany, not the EU, winning a permanent seat in the security council, but without giving up its own?

The answer from Paris to this direct attack was clear: No, France will not give up its seat in the UN security council. And no, France will not give up on Strasbourg. 

What AKK's reference did do is give electoral ammunition to the far-right in France. Months ago Marine Le Pen's Rassemblement National and other far-right groups falsely attacked the Aachen Treaty as a tool to force France to share its UN seat with Germany. The French government fought hard to clarify that all the Aachen Treaty implies is that France will support the enlargement of the security council to include Japan, India, Brasil, two African countries and Germany. 

And here comes AKK saying that actually we do want you to give up your seat, not for Germany of but for the EU as a whole. With friends like this, who needs enemies?

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