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March 15, 2019

The rising significance of the European elections for Brexit

Yesterday was an important day in the Brexit saga, but not because of the shenanigans in the UK parliament. The big news is that there will be a third meaningful vote on Tuesday, but with the added twist that Theresa May is explicitly using the European elections as a weapon - possibly her most potent one yet. A long delay including European elections would be a nightmare for the Tory eurosceptics, and a boon to the new Brexit party. It is also a nightmare for the EU. It falls into the "be careful what you wish for" category. 

There were more concrete signs that the DUP and some Brexiters are shifting their position. The purpose of MV3 is to maximise support on the Tory/DUP side. If that is not enough, and it probably won't, then there could be a cliff-edge MV4 in the last week of March, at which point some Labour MPs might support May. Her deal remains, in our view, the most likely exit route for the UK, followed by a compromise proposal along the lines of the single market. If there is one thing yesterday's amendment has told us, it is that there is no majority for a second referendum. But we knew that already. And we are also fast losing interest in timetabling motions and other parliamentary shenanigans. The course of Brexit will not depend on them.

Is the threat to hold European election for real? Eleanor Sharpston (@akulith), the UK's advocate-general at the ECJ, suggested that it was legally no problem to deprive UK citizens and EU citizens living in the UK from voting in the EP elections in case of a long extension. We noted that Jean-Claude Piris disagreed. More important for us would be the politics of depriving millions of a vote, especially EU citizens who had no say in the Brexit decision. The EU would in a single stroke delegitimise two institutions: the EP itself, and the European Commission which has to be confirmed by the EP. 

Donald Tusk, too, dangled a long extension with the ease of a man who will not have to clean up the mess. We suspect the members of the European Council will be a little less gung-ho about this when they consider the consequences of the UK participating in the elections. No matter what the election outcome will be, the UK will not dispatch MEPs who will support Manfred Weber for the Commission presidency. And do the other leaders really want Brexit to dominate their own election campaign? It would be a gift to all populist parties on the continent. And it will give us another five years of Nigel Farage in Brussels.

Another sign that the EU has not fully thought this through is the lazy suggestion that the UK could be asked to refrain from participating in EU decisions during a long extension period. You don't have to be an expert in EU law to know that Treaty rights supersed handshake deals. In its Brexit revocation ruling, the ECJ made it absolutely clear that the UK remains a full member until the moment it is not.  

The threat of holding European elections is probably May's most important weapon in the days ahead.

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March 15, 2019

Orbán apologises, but only for channeling Lenin

What to make of Viktor Orbán's apology? Just as his chief of staff had announced on the day of Manfred Weber's mediation mission to Budapest, the Hungarian prime minister apologised for labelling his EPP critics as useful idiots for aiding and abetting the work of the evil forces intent on destroying Europe’s Christian civilisation.

Orbán writes that he is really sorry for having caused offence, but he had only been quoting Lenin. It came in the form of letters addressed to the EPP member party leaders who had called for Fidesz’ exclusion from the EPP.

Weber had indeed mentioned an apology from Orbán as one of the three conditions Hungary’s strongman must fulfil to avert an expulsion from the EPP. But Weber had demanded a politically meaningful apology from Orbán to the EPP for his antisemitically-charged smear campaign against Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros, not just a politically meaningless personal apology to those whose feathers he had ruffled with rude language in an interview.

This politically vital distinction was not lost on the recipients of Orbán's missive. Wouter Beke, president of the Flemish Christian Democrats, tweeted that the issue was not the insult to himself. This was about respect for European values and cooperation in the protection of the EU’s external borders. Orbán’s letter offered no change here, which is why the Flemich CD&V would continue to push for Orbán’s expulsion. Other recipients reacted in similar fashion.

In Budapest, meanwhile, the campaign against Juncker and Soros continued until yesterday. Orbán had announced it would end today. In five days, the EPP leadership is set to decide whether to set in motion the process to expel Orbán and Fidesz. Incidentally, Der Spiegel reported that this week that Kornel Döbrentei, a Hungarian author known for anti-Semitic statements, was awarded a distinction called Hungary’s Crown of Laurels by Orbán’s government.

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March 15, 2019

Who is afraid of Marine Le Pen?

If leading the list for Emmanuel Macron into the European elections is about fighting to prevent Marine Le Pen and her RN party coming ahead of LREM, Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau would be an ideal candidate. Feisty and unafraid to take on Le Pen, the former director of the elite Ena school of administration announced in a TV debate last night thather mind had been changed by Le Pen and she now wants to lead the LREM list after all. Macron has not yet revealed the list of candidates. But Loiseau's name, as well as that of health minister Agnes Buzyn, have circulated as possible top candidates in French media. 

Loiseau and Le Pen seem to have found each other as mutual targets. If these two women were to represent the battle between progressives and nationalists in this election campaign, the gloves would be off. Le Pen, no mean rabble-rouser herself, attacks her opponent as a brutal agitator and accuses her of spend her days insulting the opposition. Since January, Loiseau has been targeting Le Pen in various interviews and on twitter. She has denounced Le Pen as a peddler of fake news about the Aachen Treaty, and attacked her for attempting to join forces with Salvini. Loiseau accused Le Pen of taking sides against France by teaming up with someone who is funded by Vladimir Putin.

But the European elections are not a second-round presidential election. The campaign should not be reduced to a fight for first place in the vote, when no party is expected to garner more than 25% anyway. There will also be the conclusions the government draws from the grand débat, which will have to be integrated into the political process, and the question of future alliances after the European elections. There are several different audiences out there. Macron will have to chose whether he wants to fight the elections on Le Pen's ground or over the centre.

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