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September 24, 2019

Corbyn’s sweet victory, and why it matters

The whole UK media is gearing up for the Supreme Court’s ruling this morning. But, important as the ruling on prorogation may be in the discussion about the future of the British constitution, it is unlikely to have much of a direct impact on Brexit itself - just like prorogation itself. Prorogation did not stop the Benn extension legislation from passing in record time. And, even if the Supreme Court were to rule in favour of the government, parliament will still have time to ratify a withdrawal agreement, or launch a vote of no-confidence in the prime minister, before Brexit. We cannot think of a single Brexit outcome that is critically influenced by procedural and legal arguments.

What is harder to ascertain is the indirect political effect. If the Court were to rule that the prime minister lied to the Queen, there would be calls for his resignation. There might be further Tory MPs ready to desert a sinking ship. A vote of no-confidence could ensue. There are many other scenarios. One scenario is that the Court rules against the government, the MPs return, and Johnson prorogues again.

Yesterday’s Labour Party conference is most likely a more important political event than a Supreme Court ruling on a quaint technical procedure. The party voted to support Jeremy Corbyn’s view to enter the election campaign with no firm position on Brexit, but promising to hold a second referendum six months after coming into power. The party conference defeated three Remain proposals by a vague show of hands, but the direction of the vote already become apparent earlier in the afternoon when the party leadership turned the debate into a vote of confidence in Corbyn himself. Labour delegates were signalling yesterday they are behind Corbyn.

We agree with the observation made by Andrew Duff yesterday that it probably does not matter a great deal whether Labour will campaign for Remain. More important is whether Corbyn will allow a free vote on a withdrawal deal. If a withdrawal agreement were to squeeze through parliament with the help of pro-Brexit Labour MPs, that would be it for the Brexit saga. There would be no majority in the parliament to subject the deal to a second referendum. If that happened, both the LibDems and the Labour Remainers would of all a sudden find themselves with no policy. A second referendum makes no sense after the UK has left the EU. A campaign to re-enter will take many years. 

Another possible scenario is continued parliamentary stalemate. One indirect effect of Labour's decision yesterday is that it might inadvertently delay an election even after an extension is granted. The extension would be at most for three months. The same argument that stopped the general election in October will still hold then. Remainer MPs have no interest in an election they are unlikely to win. Even if Corbyn wins, the result would be seen as an endorsement of his own eurosceptic position. But we are not sure that the Remainers will be able to mount a united opposition to elections this time. The LibDems and the SNP want elections, and so does Corbyn. A November or December election remains our central scenario. But we also think that there is a possibility that Brexit might be settled beforehand.

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September 24, 2019

Redistributing migrants rescued from sea - a first step

Yesterday four EU countries agreed on a distribution plan for migrants who cross the Mediterranean sea to reach Europe. Germany, France, Italy and Malta met in Malta to agree on an automatic distribution of refugees and economic migrants rescued at sea. According to news reports Germany agreed to take 25% of rescued migrants, France another 25% and Italy 10%. Who will take the remaining 40%? Given the current numbers were are talking about a few dozen people per year.

The plan will be formally discussed at the next meeting of the interior ministers early October. At least ten EU countries can be expected to sign on, but probably not more than half of all member states. The rest is likely to hide behind Hungary and Poland, whose governments refuse to take any migrants or refugees.

Unlike the Dublin agreement where the country of first entry had to do all the negotiations, the new agreement passes the burden on to the destination country. They are to assure housing for asylum seekers and the repatriation to the country of origin of those denied, writes Corriere della Sierra. Also, on a voluntary basis, ships can be sent to ports other than the nearest one, for instance to France or Spain instead of Malta or Italy in the case of the Libya route. 

The plan is to agree a fixed budget depending on the number of participating countries. Once this is in place the distribution will start automatically. This means that, when migrants arrive and are registered in Italy, within four weeks they could be transferred elsewhere. Luciana Lamorgese, Italy's new interior minister, said once the concrete distribution plan is in place she will reopen Italian ports to private rescue ships.

This quota will initially only apply to those saved in the Mediterranean by private rescue organisations. That is by far the smallest proportion of all migrants who come to Europe — in 2018, that was only 2200 people according to Deutsche Welle. Today, most migrants avoid Italy and Malta, and are instead heading straight for Greece or Spain. 

There is also a question whether the new quota system could encourage people to make the dangerous oversea journey to Europe. What will happen if quotas are put into place? Will it lead to an increase in people willing to risk the life-threatening sea crossing? Will more people drown, as not everyone can be rescued?  Will the EU be forced to organise another official sea rescue operation to save migrants from smugglers' boats?

Also, in order for the plan to succeed at EU level, it must be clear that those who refuse to accept any migrants will at least have to contribute funds, or show some other form of solidarity. For for the moment, that remains a long shot.

A long-term solution for the tens of thousands of migrants who reach Europe by land — or even a fundamental reform of the European asylum system — is still a long way off. But the agreement on the rescue boats is a first step on that long road. 

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