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March 19, 2019

The rules of cricket - abridged

We could, of course, give you a detailed explanation of the archaic rules of the House of Commons. On second thoughts, we would probably do our readers a much greater service if we explained the rules of cricket - if only we knew them.

This leaves us with the dry observation that yesterday was an entertaining, but ultimately not important day in the Brexit process. If Theresa May manages to assemble a majority in favour of her deal, she will also have a majority to overrule Mr Speaker’s decision not to allow multiple votes on the same question. A diminished hardcore group of Tory MPs remains opposed. And the DUP is not yet on board. And, as the Times writes this morning, May can always escalate to the nuclear option of prorogation (don’t ask!).

In substance, we are today in the same place as we were yesterday. If this fails, the choices are relatively small: elections are possible, but the opinion polls are currently all over the place. Elections would be a high-risk option for the government, especially with May as leader. But they may become inevitable. 

The current political dynamics does not favour a second referendum, as MPs are currently under the illusion that no-deal is off the table. Like May herself, the second referendum advocates are relying on the threat of no-deal without which there can be no majority for their preferred option. So, if there is no agreement by March 29, the most likely alternative is to open up the political declaration to include alternative Brexit outcomes like the Norway 2 option. This would not require a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement. Contrary to what some people are saying, that process would not require a long extension - only a second referendum would. We believe the EU would grant a long extension if the UK agreed to a second referendum - which won’t happen by Thursday. We cannot rule out that EU leaders, or some at least, will demand a referendum in exchange for a decision to extend. But we think that a short extension - until June - is the easier option for everyone. At least it gets EU leaders beyond the European elections.

And no-deal is definitely not off the table. No-deal logically happens when the UK parliament refuses either to pass the withdrawal agreement or to revoke Brexit, and the EU refuses to extend. This will not happen on March 29. But it could happen at some later point - even after a long extension.

Most of the confusion about Brexit results from a persistent tendency to mix up outcomes - deal, no-deal Brexit, revocation - with procedures - delay, referendum, elections - as well as a failure to recognise that the decision is not only the UK’s to make.

We end with a correction: in yesterday’s edition we mistakenly referred to Lord Trimble as the former DUP leader. He was, of course, leader of the Ulster Unionists.

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March 19, 2019

It's to be China week in Brussels (not Brexit, sorry Theresa)

UK commentators have been marvelling at the fact that, while Brexit is consuming virtually all of the political oxygen in the UK, it can at times appear almost as something of a side story for the EU. One of the main reasons for this seemingly strange disconnect is on full display in Brussels this week. Simply put, for Europe there are bigger issues than Brexit. 

The EU is desperately seeking a China strategy. As we have been arguing, succeeding in this pursuit is more than just a desirable goal - it is a strategic imperative. And the consequences of failure would be dramatic on several fronts.

Rather than Brexit yet again, the search for new parameters for its relationship with China is to be the main geostrategic topic EU leaders will debate when they meet for their spring summit in Brussels on Thursday. The issue creates fault-lines criss-crossing the EU in various directions. This is hardly surprising given that there is no consensus within the member states themselves, and not even within governments or coalitions.

The European Commission has fed into the debate, by arguing against what it sees as a misguided or at least premature attempt to foster EU industrial champions at the expense of intra-EU competition. But the Commission also argues for a tougher line when it comes to reciprocal market access, provocatively branding China a "systemic rival" in a recent paper. Meanwhile, EU foreign ministers preparing for the EU summit this week have, for the first time in EU-China history, invited their Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to participate in a joint discussion during an informal lunch.

While Federica Mogherini spoke in her usual bureaucratically-bland language, Wang went for comparatively straight talk. He argued that the EU and China had far more interests in common than issues dividing them. As the Chinese economy moved upscale, intensified competition with the EU was a normal part of the game.

He hit out at attempts to freeze Huawei out of EU markets, and produced a ten-point-plan for joint EU-China action ranging from the defence of the post WWII-multilateral system to the international effort to fight climate change. China’s diplomatic offensive towards Europe is set to continue in the coming weeks. President Xi Jinping will visit France, Italy and Monaco this month. The visit to Rome causes particular trepidation given Italy’s decision to sign up to the belt-and-road, China’s new transcontinental investment strategy. On April 9, prime minster Li Keqiang will meet EU leaders for the regular EU-China summit.

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March 19, 2019

Macron gets tough on law and order

In response to the violent riots in Paris over the weekend Emmanuel Macron hardened the security policy response, but no changes are envisaged for the timetable of the grand débat.

They government fired the Paris police chief, a scapegoat that helps to protect the interior minister, a recently appointed close ally of Macron, for a while. The government also promised to shut down rallies on the Champs-Élysées and elsewhere if violent rioters are detected among the crowds. Édouard Philippe said that inappropriate orders were given to reduce the use of rubber bullet launchers in the protest last weekend. He promised to harden France’s law and order doctrine, and to deploy special police squads as anti-riot units. This comes against a background where even French public watchdogs have criticised the excessive use of force and detentions by the police.

For those who join those protests without committing acts of vandalism themselves the government has also increased sanctions, such as fines from €38 to €135 for people attending unauthorised protests. 

The new police chief of Paris Didier Lallement will start on Wednesday with the new measures. Some hard core of protesters have already vowed to cause havoc again next Saturday. The chance that someone gets seriously hurt again, or dies, is increasing.

So what about Christophe Castaner, the ong-time ally of Macron who had no law-and-order experience before becoming interior minister in October? He has been in the opposition's line of fire from for some time now. The police response has been criticised as either too heavy-handed (March 6) or too lax (March 16). Will he get the balance right? The political back and forth about the recent anti-casseurs law suggests that stepping up the security measures will not be enough if it is not backed by a consistent policy stance from the minister. So far the Macroniste ranks are holding behind Castaner. After all, if he falls Macron would be directly targeted. The question remains whether Castaner can survive a next round of violent incidents.

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