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October 11, 2019

Referendum numbers are edging up - slowly

Three cheers to Alan Wager, a research associate at the think-tank The UK in a Changing Europe, for having done the actual UK parliament headcount on a second referendum. We have looked at the numbers, too, but not in quite the level of detail he did. The bottom line of his analysis is that the second referendum advocates have been gaining support since April, but probably not enough. One possible consequence of the Johnson-Varadkar meeting yesterday is that the remaining fence-sitters are likely to stay on the fence. The bigger the risk of a no-deal Brexit, the greater the chances of a second referendum. 

In his analysis, Wager starts off with 280 MPs who voted in favour of a second referendum in the second indicative vote in April. 292 voted against and 66 abstained, including cabinet ministers. 

Of those 66, 11 are still in the cabinet, and another 3 support Brexit. This leaves 52. To get above the hurdle, referendum supporters would need to add 40 out of the 52 in that group. 

Is that feasible? Of the 22 Tory MPs whose whip was withdrawn, 9 already voted for the referendum in April, and  3 voted against, leaving 10 MPs as potential switchers from abstaining to favouring a second referendum. Some of those, like Amber Rudd and David Gauke, might well support a second referendum.

Another that also split in the past is the SNP, with four of its MPs abstaining. 

And finally, there is the group of 16 Labour MPs who abstained. Some of those are now in favour of a second referendum, but not all of them. Wager adds it all up and arrives at a number of 25 potential switchers. This would bring the total up from the previous 280 to 305, still 15 MPs short of a majority. We think this is an optimistic number, more of a ceiling than an average. There are Labour MPs who also want to get Brexit over and done with. And we are not sure that a Brexit referendum is in the SNP's best interest either. 

Wager's conclusion is that a second referendum is possible but only if the still loyal one-nation Tory MPs were to rebel on the issue and risk expulsion. We think the high point for that has passed.

Wager makes another interesting point. If a referendum were passed with a tiny majority, it is far from clear that it could be implemented with active government support. In other words, you may still need a change in government. Several issues would require primary legislation - like the referendum question, the franchise,  various rules and the referendum date. Would the majority still hold, we wonder? A referendum would require a budget allocation. Wager said it would be theoretically possible, but difficult, to drive the entire process from the back benches.

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October 11, 2019

Goulard's foreboding rejection

The European parliament's second rejection of Sylvie Goulard as French commissioner is a major blow not only for Emmanuel Macron but also for Ursula von der Leyen. Despite Macron's heavy lobbying in recent days, Goulard only got 12 more votes outside her party. We cannot help but note parallels with the revolt against Mario Draghi (more on that story below). Pro-Europeans are divided more than ever about the way forward. 

With three open posts yet to be renominated it is unlikely that the new European Commission will start working on November 1. One positive side effect is that Jean-Claude Juncker continues to be the counterpart during the crucial final phase in the Brexit negotiations. Could von der Leyen be destabilised further? Macron passed the blame on to her, saying that she had assured him that Goulard would get the backing from EPP and PES. Both parties denied having been consulted before the nomination. It is a double whammy for Macron, who was the one suggesting von der Leyen as commission president. A weak commission president who cannot deliver on her promises does not bode well for the future. Remember also that von der Leyen was confirmed only by a narrow margin of nine votes with at least 40 of her own party the EPP voting against her. 

The move to kill Goulard's nomination will also make it more difficult for the European Parliament to build majorities in the future. The EPP and PES and the Greens voted unanimously against Goulard yesterday. But the EPP and PES, the two largest parties, have lost their joint absolute majority in the parliament and will need partners like Renew, the liberal party. Some see the vote as a revenge move by EPP chief Manfred Weber for being deprived of the job as commission president under the spitzenkandidaten model. Others see it as a move in retaliation for the refusal of two candidates from the EPP and the PES.  Goulard's failure is not only about her ethics or unconvincing performance. So, be prepared for trouble down the line. An atmosphere of mistrust and righteous quid-pro-quo thinking will have to be overcome first for the wounds to heal. 

To be clear, Goulard was not a clean home-run. She was not Macron's first choice and he took his time to confirm her. She resigned as defence minister under Macron out of ethics concerns but considers the job of Commissioner consistent with the ongoing investigation about fake employment and her high paid consultancy arrangement with an American think tank in her time as MEP. In essence she was telling MEPs with her responses that the commissioner job is not as serious as that of a defence minister responsible for the French army. You could easily see how this would not go down well with MEPs who are determined to show that the European parliament matters even if the spitzenkandidaten model was abandoned. 

Macron is the big target behind Goulard. The outright rejection of the French candidate is a first in the history of the European Union. It directly challenges him and his grip on European policy. Remember his big speech on the future Europe in Strasbourg? What is left from it? His ambitious eurozone budget proposal came up to nothing as we reported this week. Macron lobbied hard in recent days to get support for Goulard's confirmation. Killing Goulard could be seen as a resurgence of the European parliament's parties against him, the most pro-European French president in a long time. 

Macron has now to pick another French candidate for the vast portfolio that is waiting to be passed on to a French candidate or to be split up and redistributed. Several EPP members lobby for Michel Barnier, the outgoing commissioner for the single market, who is well respected and well versed. The only problem is that he is from the conservative EPP and not the liberal Renew party, and that he is a man not a woman, thus skewing the gender balance of the commissioner designates. 

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October 11, 2019

Turkey advances in Syria and threatens Europe

This was the second day of Turkey's major military operations in north-eastern Syria, accompanied by hundreds of airstrikes against Kurdish forces. Recep Tayyip Erdogan insists that Turkey wants to establish a terrorist-free corridor and a safe zone for the refugees in Turkey to return to Syria. His foreign minister yesterday said that they would not go further than 30km into the country. He also said if there are Isis prison camps in that zone Turkey would take responsibility for them.

Fighting with the Kurds is underway with a reports of casualties and of about 60.000 Syrians about to flee their homes.  If Erdogan's aim was to secure land to move refugees back from Turkey, unleashing another wave of refugees looks more like compounding the problem as some might well end up in Turkey to escape the battlefields in Syria. 

As for the political response, we are still in the stage of threats and counterthreats. The UN Security Council called on Turkey to cease the operation but failed to agree on a common statement due to internal divisions. The US threatened economic sanctions against Turkey in case of ethnic cleansing or significant civilian casualties. But remember that for Donald Trump all that counts is to get American troops out of Syria and at first blush the Turkish operation helps him to achieve just that. 

The Europeans have to deal now with a clear counter-threat from Erdogan, who warned yesterday that if they continue to call this an invasion he would open the borders and send the 3.6m Syrian refugees towards Europe. Imagine how this reverberates in the European Council where refugees have always been dividing member states. Also, what response is Europe capable of delivering? Without a clear plan or the capacity to back it up, the displayed outrage is just a face-saving exercise that will not change a thing on the ground. And Erdogan knows that.

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