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July 01, 2019

The questions we will be asking tomorrow

By the time you read this, the European Council may have reached a deal. Or not. 

The events of the last few days raise questions that will not be answered today - more important than who gets what. The first issue is what the process so far is saying about the leadership of the EU itself, and the effectiveness of the broad centrist coalition. The wrangle on the spitzenkandidaten is an indication that it is much harder to build large cross-party coalitions at EU level than at national level. We have written before the the loss of the cosy EPP/SD duopoly in Brussels and Strasbourg is highly significant because many of the decision-making structures that developed in the last few decades are no longer viable in the new context. That goes for the spitzenkandidaten, a German concept tailor-made for the German political system; but also the Osaka-style government by directorate, to which other member states objected to; and the assertiveness of the previously-compliant parliamentary groups themselves.

The second is where does the decision leave the ECB. It faces two primary challenges: to regain the traction of monetary policy it has lost since the crisis, and to have a strategy in place to act as a lender of last resort in the next crisis. We don't think the OMT, ingenious as it may have been in 2012, is the way forward. Has the European Council really given any thought to what the next ECB president should do - as opposed to whether the person should be French or German, or man or woman? 

The third issue is the political fallout in Germany. We all note that Angela Merkel is no longer the dominant force in European politics that she once was. It looks like Angela Merkel is not fighting any more. One of the German news reports said she could live with all the candidates under discussion. And we don't get the sense that she is pushing for Jens Weidmann either. She seems oddly deflated - even beyond what we would have expected after she announced her decision to step down as leader. 

Last night, German television commentators were in shock when they suddenly realised that Merkel had given up on Weber as Commission president. On Saturday, FAZ contemptuously spoke that Weidmann might get the ECB job as a consolation prize for Merkel's failure to deliver Weber. We would not consider the ECB as a consolation prize. But Germany might not get the ECB job either.

In Brussels, the debate is how to allocate the five jobs between candidates fulfilling various criteria. What is not sufficiently understood in Brussels is that outside of their own little fishbowl people don't care so much about the minor jobs - the high representative, the EP presidency, and even the presidency of the European Council. The latter is more of a co-ordinating than agenda-setting role. We think all these jobs are important. But they all fade in comparison with the ECB and Commission presidencies. A trade-off is interpreted outside the fishbowl differently from inside the fishbowl.

We fear that Federico Fubini (@federicofubini) is right with his glum tweet this morning: that the EU is drifting; and that the centre does not hold. 

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July 01, 2019

What category of diplomatic accidents is Sea Watch 3?

If you thought that immigration was no longer the big issue in Europe, just witness the diplomatic spat between Italy and Germany right now, after the arrest of the Sea Watch 3 captain who docked her refugee boat in the port of Lampedusa. Matteo Salvini yesterday accused Carola Rakete of a being a war criminal and told the German president not to encourage German citizens to break Italian law. A well-known German TV satirist has started a campaign of donations, which passed the €1m mark in no time. The Green Party is asking the government for active interference in the case. 

The German public, media and political leaders have been shocked beyond incomprehension by Italy's treatment of Rakete - who enjoys a cult status in Germany. Italian police put her under house arrest, and she is facing up to ten years in jail. We saw a story last night that she might be extradited to Germany - but we are not sure that this is legally possible since Germany has no legal case against her. Given the political escalation, the legal case is not getting easier.

France has joined Germany in the condemnation of Salvini's actions, which prompted a threat by Salvini to divert refugee boats to the port of Marseille "given that the French government is so generous with immigrants". It is not hard to see that, even in the fast-moving 21st century, a relatively small incident at sea can turn into a major diplomatic crisis.

Immigration and EU fiscal rules are the two issues that managed to turn Italy, which used to be the most pro-EU nation in Europe, into its most eurosceptic. The tide of immigration from the Middle East and Northern Africa has been receding, but incidents such as Sea Watch 3 keep the issue at the top of the political agenda. What we see here is the long-term political fallout from the Dublin regulation that makes border countries primarily responsible for asylum seekers. The quid-pro-quo is that these countries are now acting unilaterally. However, Salvini himself is now more careful in the way he personally interferes in law-enforcement decisions after a prosecutor brought criminal charges against him in relation to an incident in his early days as interior minister.

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