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May 02, 2019

Ahead of a meeting with Salvini, Orbán brands the EPP as suicidal

We see three ways to read Viktor Orban's interview in La Stampa yesterday calling on the EPP to cooperate with the far right rather than risk, as he put it, suicide by working with the left. The first is that Hungary’s PM is simply saying what he thinks. The second is that this kind of statement, which Orbán knows full well flies in the face of everything the EPP’s current leadership has publicly said, keeps him in the news. The third is that Orbán is preparing for a scenario where the EPP would be turning, or be about to turn, the current suspension of his Fidesz party into permanent exclusion. As always with Orbán, the safest way to interpret his intent is to assume that he is keeping his options open, and that all three readings mentioned above are therefore equally true.

Orbán has called on the EPP to work with the hard right rather than with the centre left in the past. His interview in La Stampa is noteworthy only because it came a day before his meeting with Matteo Salvini today. Salvini’s ongoing attempt to build a new political grouping of all of the EU's nationalist right depends crucially on Orbán taking his Fidesz party out of the EPP and into the new hard-right alliance. Orbán has repeatedly gone out of his way to praise Salvini in the past while also stating that, if he did not remain in the EPP, his closest political ally would be Poland’s ruling PiS. In other words, keeping all options open in the classic Orbán way.

Is there any chance that the EPP might heed Orbán's call after the European elections, and look to work with the far right rather than seek a political majority with social democrats, liberals, centrists, and possibly Greens? The answer for the foreseeable future is no. Both Manfred Weber, the spitzenkandidat, and other EPP hopefuls for the job of Commission president such as Michel Barnier, have made clear that they see the national populists as the political enemy, and the pro-EU political forces as future allies. While Orbán’s preferred political course of centre-right plus hard right vs the left is fully espoused at the national level by EPP member parties, such as Spain’s PP, the EPP’s internally firmly-anchored European strategy is to continue its cooperation with political forces to its left. Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, the CDU party leader, reacted to Orbán’s interview yesterday by saying there would be no way back for Orbán if he moved further away from the EPP, and that his and his party’s influence since its suspension was nil.

So what will Orbán do? His political proximity to Salvini is evident. On the other hand, his role as the EPP’s far-right maverick guarantees him political singularity and therefore a level of public attention he would risk losing if he took Fidesz into a national-populist alliance. Also, if Salvini’s Lega does well in future elections, and even more so if Salvini were to rise to the position of prime minister, Orban would be perceived as playing second fiddle - not a position he would be comfortable with. Much of his political appeal at home rests on the projection of a strongman image: a truth-telling Orban defiantly strutting the European stage. 

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May 02, 2019

What role for trade unions amid gilets jaunes?

May Day in Paris was not like any other, and certainly not like last year. There was a significant turnout with an estimated 40,000 marching in Paris alone, and crucially there was no escalating violence. 

Traditionally May Day is a big day for the trade unions. This time, though, the marches have been taken over by gilets jaunes and radical anarchists called black blocs. Emmanuel Macron's strong security presence and pro-active interventions did help to prevent violence and escalating destruction. With less than a month to go for the European elections Macron needs to keep voters on the right on-side, and this May Day was reassuring to them. 

What it means for trade unions is less clear, though, writes Cécile Cornudet. The FSU was prevented from participating in the marches, and CGT chief Philippe Martinez even disappeared from the protests for a while, later blaming police tear gas. But the alchemy between trade unions and gilets jaunes that Martinez had hoped for certainly did not happen. Nor could Jean-Luc Mélenchon and his political left get any traction with the gilets jaunes in Marseille.

Sidelined by the gilets jaunes on this May Day, trade unions might find their role diminished as intermediary between politics and employees. Trade unions used to channel the people's anger and mobilise society around certain reforms. Is this still the case? Or are the gilets jaunes diluting the unions' mandate? Who is channelling public anger and stopping violence now? This is a question Macron is yet to face and which goes well beyond May Day.

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May 02, 2019

The church vs the EU

An interesting legal case is currently unfolding in Germany where the German constitutional court could overrule the Court of Justice of the EU. If this were to happen, Germany, not Poland, would become the principal legal outlaw state in the European Union. The issue at stake this time is not monetary policy, but the relationship between state and church.  

FAZ has the story of a woman who has sued the protestant church in Germany, over not being considered for a job in the church's social-welfare organisation on the grounds that she is not a member of the church. From that description it is not hard to see the basis of her legal case under EU law. The CJEU did not blink before ruling in her favour on the grounds of the EU's non-discrimination law, which does not allow discrimination on grounds of gender or religious belief.

German legal thinking, one is not surprised to hear, is far more complicated than that. The case reminds us of some of the arcane legal arguments used by some German constitutional lawyers in the various European cases the German constitutional court has been looking at over the last 26 years, from the Maastricht ruling in 1993 all the way to a recent pronouncement on the ESM and asset purchase programmes.

In Germany, as in other EU countries, the relationship between church and state is complex, and has evolved historically. The German legal view is that the state accepts value judgements of the church as a fundamental right. All other considerations follow from this. 

The protestant church's social-welfare organisation has now hired one of Germany's top EU lawyers, who claims that the church's fundamental rights under the German Basic Law have been violated. The church makes the ultimate legal claim you can possibly make under German constitutional law: that the CJEU acted "ultra vires" - beyond its powers. The lawyers specifically argue that the CJEU violated Art. 17 (1) TFEU, which states that the EU respects the status of the churches. The ruling would produce a shift in the relationship between member states and the EU, he argues. 

FAZ notes that the church's legal complaint could be accepted by Karlsruhe, though this would depend in part on the justice assigned to the case. It quotes one justice - Peter Huber from the court's second Senate - who said the case had a chance to succeed. Huber won't be the responsible justice, but the case could go to Peter Muller, a former Saarland premier, who specialises on this aspect of the law inside the constitutional court. As FAZ put it, the court has to make a value judgement between two conflicting propositions. The German court could interpret that the CJEU has simply made a mistake, which it would tolerate. Or the ECJ ruling could constitute a violation of a basic pillar of German constitutional law. It is interesting that the sheer possibility that the CJEU might be right is not even considered.

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