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August 27, 2019

Remain’s narrowing pathway

No, there really isn’t any Brexit news. The situation is the same as it was two weeks ago - indeed the same as it was in April when we wrote that the probability of a no-deal Brexit was high. 

This morning we think it useful to look at the strategic choices for the Remain-supporting MPs in the UK parliament, ahead of today’s meeting between Jeremy Corbyn and other opposition leaders. Anybody who ever bothered to read Art. 50 would know that there is no provision for "stopping no-deal". This is not a technical detail. If parliament does not ratify a withdrawal agreement, or revokes Brexit outright, then no-deal Brexit is the default. So, what can parliament do?

As of this morning, there is no agreement within the Remain camp about the right course of action. This does not surprise us since every course of action has its potential traps. 

Before we went on holidays, MPs seemed to favour the option of a confidence vote. That lasted until they realised that the fixed-term parliaments act, combined with the prime minister’s prerogative to set the election date, could be potentially self-defeating. Boris Johnson could, if he wanted to, hold an election on Brexit day itself, or the day after before chaos sets in - as we also pointed out before the holiday.

An alternative approach, which appears to have gained ground over the holidays, is to vote for another Cooper/Letwin-style piece of legislation to force the prime minister to ask for an extension. Let’s presume that this is technically possible, and parliament finds the time to do it. Even then, it is not a fail-safe mechanism. We should remember that Theresa May was a willing accomplice both times when she asked the European Council for an extension. In addition, the EU has to accept a request by unanimity. We don’t think it is possible for the parliament to water-proof this legislation. The prime minister might threaten to veto EU business if EU leaders were to agree to an extension. EU leaders might agree an extension on conditions the prime minister could reject. Both the prime minister and the EU could argue that the conditions for an extension are not given. The EU made it clear in the April decision that an extension would have to be accompanied by a way forward. It is not a unilateral decision for the UK to take. If the UK parliament merely forced the prime minister to ask for an extension, but without the prospect of an election or a second referendum, the request might be null and void. All of this tells us that MPs really didn’t read, or comprehend, Art. 50 when they voted to trigger it. It really sets a guillotine. 

And of course, it is quite possible that MPs might simply leave it too late. Angela Merkel may have misjudged the snake pit of British politics when she made her off-the-cuff remark about an alternative deal within 30 days. All she said was that in EU politics things can happen in 30 days that are impossible over longer periods. This is clearly true. The main consequences of this useful misunderstanding - useful for Johnson - is that Tory MPs may hold their fire while talks are going on. Once the process drags into the political conference season at the end of September, parliament will have run out of time to play the usual games. We agree with Zoe Williams in the Guardian this morning that Labour's choice for Labour is whether to back outright revocation. 

What about the other side? We noted one story in the Daily Mail according to which Downing Street is gaming a number of scenarios, including one of an October 17 election, to capitalise on Johnson's good polling numbers. Still, it would be a high-stakes gamble: they could lose both power and Brexit. 

Another difficult scenario would be a narrow victory for Boris Johnson in a vote of confidence, with parliament trying to force him to extend Brexit. This would be the scenario of uncertainty. He might threaten prorogation. Or a policy of the empty chair. Nothing will be what it seems.

The events to watch out for are today’s meeting of opposition leaders, followed by Jeremy Corbyn’s decision on whether or not to go ahead with a confidence vote. We think he will. The drama will unfold then.

A further factor to consider is legal action. No UK court can revoke Brexit, since Art. 50 is EU law. But the courts can rule on issues such as prorogation.

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August 27, 2019

Macron's diplomatic masterstroke

A daring Emmanuel Macron hosted the G7 in Biaritz. He arranged a surprise visit by Iran's foreign minister Mohammad Zarif for bilateral talks that Donald Trump could do nothing about. He threatened Jair Bolsonaro with France not signing the EU deal with Mercosur unless Brazil figths the fires in the Amazon rainforest. And he sided with G7 opponents by criticising the format of the meeting. By putting diverging topics like Iran and climate change on the G7 agenda Macron united the European forces, even managing to keep Boris Johnson firmly in the European camp, and played the maître du monde for three days. A masterpiece of stage-setting. The French press was full of accolades.

And yet, what has actually been achieved? Donald Trump signalled he would meet Iranian president Rouhani if circumstances are right, which passes the baton back to the US president. Brazil's president rejected the offer of $20m aid and told Macron to mind his home and his colonies, turning this important climate issue into a battle of egos on twitter and through the press. The US trade conflict with China has, if anything, been further cemented. And Macron will have to cut corners to preserve the tax on digital giants like Google and Amazon. The return of Russia to a G8 summit remains open and, despite the efforts of Macron and Angela Merkel, there was no progress on the Sahel crisis. The actual outcome of this G7 is therefore far from being clear. Then again, the G7 did not end up being a useless waste of time as it often is, but addressed real issues and divergences among the G7 leaders. 

What is more or less certain is that the G7 meeting will benefit Macron at home. By putting climate change, trade agreements and inequality on the agenda he appealed to his left critics. By being a powerful and daring broker and engaging diplomatically on the international scene he appeals to the right. In that sense he is not much different from Trump, who uses foreign policy to please his constituency. It's only that the French president is more subtle and elegant in his pursuit. We shall see how well Macron's diplomatic masterstroke will be perceived by the public and what this means for the the protest rallies in the autumn. It is one thing to impress at first sight and quite another to keep that appreciation going. 

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