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May 07, 2019

… while Macron’s European troubles have already begun, and might get even worse

We have already noted how a patently absurd debate has taken hold in France, whereby Emmanuel Macron’s Renaissance list of MEP candidates in the forthcoming European elections would be deemed the winner if it is even a percentage point or two ahead of Marine Le Pen’s Rassemblement National, and the loser if it is even a percentage point behind. The main reason for this grotesque state of affairs is that French commentators are used to viewing every election through the distorting prism of the French way to elect the president. In an open field of candidates, the best-placed two make it to the run-off. This can easily lead to a candidate enjoying only limited original core support, such as Macron, making it to one of the most powerful offices in any Western democracy. And this in turn creates a need to re-legitimise constantly the comparatively exorbitant presidential powers through good enough opinion polls and a good enough showing of the president's political allies in intermediate elections.

This uniquely French model now threatens to turn the upcoming EU elections into a political juggernaut further debilitating Macron’s presidency, already much shaken by the gilets jaunes protests. A number of current polls put the RN candidates ahead of Macron’s Renaissance list, with each credited with about a fifth of the vote. The problem is compounded by the fact that the lead candidate of the RN, the 23-year-old Jordan Bardella, has emerged as the wunderkind of French politics. Bardella seems perfectly at ease both in interviews and larger meetings, deftly mixing political attack lines with a reassuring manner. Meanwhile, Macron’s hand-picked candidate Nathalie Loiseau has stumbled from self-inflicted mishap to mishap, triggering a series of negative headlines and a debate about the need for Macron to remove her in extremis. She extended an official invitation to journalists to join her for Palm Sunday mass, before withdrawing it after a public outcry with even government ministers expressing their consternation. She prevaricated and then mismanaged the communication about her student candidacy on a right-wing electoral list with several members of the extreme right. She used the unfortunate expression of having been "received like a gypsy"  to describe the way she was treated when she joined the elite school Ena. All of this has entirely obscured the Renaissance list's political messaging. The problem is compounded by the fact that the list, hand-picked by Macron, is a politically little more than a motley crew even by En Marche standards.

Add to this fact that Macron has placed European policy, and an ambition to reform Europe, at the heart of his presidency; and that the third-placed list in the polls, from Les Républicains under the other political newcomer François-Xavier Bellamy, is also doing unexpectedly well; and the extent of Macron’s potential trouble becomes fully apparent. Bellamy might entice part of Macron’s electorate back to the traditional conservatives, while Loiseau’s serial mis-steps might demobilise other Macron voters. French media have widely reported that Macron gave his government ministers what amounted to a vigorous dressing down, warning them of a major reshuffle if they did not help turn things around. Less than three weeks ahead of the European elections, Édouard Philippe’s position as prime minister no longer looks assured. Whether a major reshuffle under a new PM would suffice to revitalise Macron’s presidency enough to sustain his reform effort in France is another matter. Macron is the only glue holding his En Marche movement together, and the further his political fortunes sink as the time for his re-election approaches, the greater the danger that things come unstuck.

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May 07, 2019

Don't discount a Brexit deal

The local election losses were much bigger for the Tories than we estimated on Friday morning, but the story has ultimately not changed. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn interpreted the election result as a message from voters to get on with the Brexit negotiations. There was a hiccup over the weekend, as Labour was irritated by May talking to them through an article in the Daily Mail. The accident potential remains huge. But, in contrast to what some of the news reports suggest, we do not believe that the deal is dead. 

The Sunday Times attempted to translate the local results into constituency-level national data, and found both the Conservatives and Labour at 31% of the vote - both short of a Commons majority. It will get worse in the European elections because the Brexit Party, and to a lesser extent Change UK, will eat into the votes of the other parties. If Brexit is not delivered before the next general elections, we would expect the Brexit Party to have a big impact - on both the Conservatives and Labour.

What we can say with some certainty is that the incentive for May and Corbyn to strike a deal remains massive. We urge our readers to inoculate themselves against bouts of media frenzy. Newspapers on both sides of the debate increasingly mix their editorial line with their news judgment. For example, we note that the Guardian keeps on reporting that Labour MPs oppose what the paper considers to be a stitch-up. We know, of course, that the second-referendum extremists will never compromise, just as some EU-hating Tories won't. There will be a sizeable chunk in both parties who will not support a compromise. It is clearly possible that May and Corbyn might not find a workable majority between them. But so far we have no evidence either that the two extremist groups can jointly constitute a majority. There were about 100 MPs - from within Labour and other opposition parties - who warned Corbyn that they won't support the deal. We read another story in the Guardian with an estimate that two-thirds of Labour MPs would not support it. That could indeed kill the deal off. But we are not sure that this number is correct.

One aspect to consider is the dynamics of the European elections if no deal is reached before then. The Brexit Party would then most likely win by a large margin. May and Corbyn therefore really need to conclude a deal before the European elections with a view to finalising Brexit by end-June. The European elections would still be held, but would lose much of their political significance if  the elected MEPs would not take their seats.

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May 07, 2019

Is Tsipras too complacent?

The Greek government called a confidence vote after New Democracy filed a censure motion against alternate health minister Pavlos Polakis, another episode in the long history of political stunts in Greek politics. Alexis Tsipras is expected to win the vote for his minority government, writes Kathimerini. But there will be three days of heated debates starting tomorrow, with the vote scheduled for Friday night. 

The trigger was Polakis' blunt attack on Stelios Kymbouropoulos, ND's prominent lead candidate in the European elections and a well-known physician campaigning for equal opportunities for people with special needs. Polakis tweeted that, if Kymbouropoulos really supported equal opportunity, he would have applied under the normal procedure to get a job in a state hospital rather than making use of procedures designed for people with special needs. 

The attack on Kymbouropoulos, who works in a low-income suburb of Athens, provoked a backlash even from some Syriza supporters according to the FT. But Polakis is a close friend of Tsipras, who dismissed the comments as one of a hot-tempered Cretan. The question is how much of a reputational damage the debate will leave on Syriza, so shortly ahead of the European and local elections.

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May 07, 2019

Costa - the fiscally responsible Socialist

António Costa is about to emerge as a winner from his political confrontation with the opposition. Costa threatened last Friday to resign after the PSD and the CDS on the right teamed up with the Left Bloc and the Communists. In a parliamentary committee the opposition adopted a proposal to compensate teachers for a nine-year pay-and-promotion freeze introduced as part of austerity measures under the bailout programmes.

Over the weekend the right-wing parties pedalled back, realising that they had left the Socialists to portray themselves as the only fiscally-responsible party in the country. On Sunday the PSD made their support for the teachers' back pay dependent on not undermining balanced public finances. The left and the right opposition claimed that this has no impact on the 2019 budget, a claim Costa refuted. In an interview yesterday, Costa did not take the threat of the government's resignation and new elections off the table, saying he will wait for the final vote in parliament which is expected in mid-May.

The episode is not only a stand-off with the opposition. It also reveals a rift between Socialists, who strongly oppose the teachers' demands for compensation, and the Left Bloc and Communists on which support the minority government depends. This may not yet come up in the European elections, but it may matter in the Portuguese parliamentary elections later in the autumn. Costa said yesterday that he is aware the decision could cause him to lose the teachers' votes, but said their demand was neither fair nor doable without fiscal impact.

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