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May 24, 2019

Rising campaign stakes are a double-edged sword for Macron

Emmanuel Macron's presence in the campaign increased the French interest in the European elections. The projected participation rate is finally picking up by 4pp, to reach 44%. But mobilisation is not necessarily benefiting Macron's LREM. Macron's greater engagement mobilises voters both for and against him. Which is the bigger constituency? The latest poll says that Marine Le Pen's RN is now at 25%, ahead Macron's LREM with 23%. It seems that the newly-participating voters are dividing themselves between the two frontrunners. The gilets jaunes are preparing for a big rally in Paris tomorrow, with a call to turn this election into an anti-Macron vote. This in turn may also mobilise those who would come to Macron's rescue on Sunday. What seems not to be happening so far is a rise in support for a third party. Les Républicains are so far not catching up with Le Pen's RN. The only shift we are seeing is on the left, where the Greens are picking up and have surpassed Jean-Luc Mélenchon's list as the main third party on the left. With climate change such a prominent theme of this campaign, the EELV is finally reaping the benefit of greater credibility in this domain . 

Could there be a surprise turn of events? The French polls were quite reliable in the presidential elections but, as we saw in the Netherlands, polls for the European elections can be less reliable.  And, since there are no clear confrontations that divide French voters, there is room for last-minute surprises.

Cécile Cornudet makes the observation that this campaign is one that appeals to two fundamental fears: about climate change and about migration. All parties positioned themselves somewhere on this spectrum, but without a clear confrontation between them unlike in 2014. Voters cannot blame the parties for not speaking about their deepest fears. The question is whether voters believe that a party can do anything about them. This election is about credibility.

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May 24, 2019

So May is going. And now what?

So this is it. Theresa May will today announce the date when she will formally resign as leader of the Conservative Party. The day is expected to be in the week of June 10. Her resignation will trigger a Conservative leadership election, with a first round among MPs and a final run-off between the two winners among Tory members. 

May will remain prime minister until her successor is elected. The polls have Boris Johnson in a very strong lead. The leadership contest could, in theory, go on all the way until the end of July. But it could end early if the other candidates conclude that they stand no chance of beating Boris. In this case, he could be prime minister before the end of June.

The FT cites sources that May was in a fragile state during the discussions yesterday, which were attended by her husband Philip. The date was chosen so that she would still be prime minister and party leader during the state visit by Donald Trump on June 3-5. 

The second reading of the withdrawal agreement is now indefinitely off the table. The Times reports that May could be using her remaining time in office to kick-start legislation on the less controversial parts of the withdrawal agreement bill, those focusing on citizens' rights and the transition period. The Telegraph reports that the latest events were precipitated when Jeremy Hunt, the foreign secretary, told her to drop the bill as he would not be in a position to support it. 

So this detail of UK politics is settled. And now what?

The UK's political class will discover that the majorities in the House of Commons are what they are. The UK parliament still has no majority for a Brexit deal, and it might put up obstacles for a no-deal Brexit. A new Tory leader has yet to regain the voters the Tories will have lost in yesterday's European election. 

We noted the discussions on both sides are once again drifting off into unicorn-land. A conservative commentator yesterday expressed confidence that Johnson would resurrect the Malthouse Compromise. We had hoped never again to report on this wretched idea of dropping the Irish backstop, but here we are. And the Remain side seeks comfort in the illusion that there is no majority in the House of Commons for a no-deal Brexit, conveniently ignoring the fact that it is the legal default position. 

Most of those commentators do not have a clue about EU law or EU politics. The danger of a no-deal Brexit remain significant. The only tools the UK parliament has at its disposal to prevent it are passing of the withdrawal bill, unilateral revocation of Brexit, or a successful no-confidence vote. We see no majority for any of these. 

Our main scenario is that Johnson will become PM and that he will try, and fail, to re-negotiate the withdrawal treaty. At this point he will confront the House of Commons with a straight choice between deal or no-deal. If May had done this, the Commons would have passed her bill, and she would remain prime minister.

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May 24, 2019

It's beginning to look a lot like Brexit in Switzerland

Eurosceptics want to renegotiate the draft agreement with the EU, while the EU insists it will not reopen negotiations and business demands clarity. Sounds familiar, but this is Switzerland, not the UK.

After several years of negotiations, last November the EU and Switzerland agreed on a new framework agreement to govern their relationship. But the Swiss federal council could not agree to ratify it because of concerns from cantons and labour unions, and opposition from the Swiss People's Party (SVP), the largest in the country and traditionally anti-EU. In December, after mutual threats of exclusion from financial markets, the Swiss gave themselves six months for a stakeholder consultation. That consultation ran its course in April, but the federal council has not published its conclusions which worries Swiss business leaders.

Points of contention include so-called flanking measures protecting the Swiss labour market since 2004, which the EU considers contrary to the principle of free movement of workers in the single market to which Switzerland belongs; also the process of adoption of EU legislative changes; and state-aid rules. The two SVP members of the seven-strong federal council, including its current chair Üli Maurer, continue to block the signature of the agreement as it stands, and want a fundamental revision.

The impasse led to mutual threats of partial exclusion from financial markets at the end of that year. The European Commission threatened to withdraw regulatory equivalence from Swiss exchanges, to which Switzerland countered with the threat to make it illegal to trade Swiss stocks off-exchange in EU trading venues. In the end, the EU relented and agreed to Switzerland's proposed six-month stakeholder consultation, which has now run its course. Several EU figures, including the head of the civil service Martin Selmayr and the chief spokesperson Margaritis Schinas, have warned Switzerland in recent days that the EU's patience is exhausted, it will not renegotiate the agreement, and the Brexit process has strengthened the unity of the member states.

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