Juncker’s State of the Union emphasizes EU’s global role; Left and Right politics heat up for 2019 European elections
In anticipation of the European Parliament Election next year, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s speech on Wednesday (12 September) addressed the core issues of migration and European sovereignty. Many were expecting him to inaugurate the creation of a centralized European Border and Coast Guard (Frontex) service with new federal powers. However, after chiding by member states, Juncker scrapped this part of his speech and merely mentioned that Frontex would be strengthened with an additional 10,000 border guards. The existing framework for Frontex established in 2004 is subject to national authorities as they operate within sovereign territories. He also highlighted that Europe must be unified in international affairs and condemning human rights violations globally.
Juncker also reiterated the importance of building true reciprocal partnerships with Africa, rather than viewing Africa through the lens of development aid. Helmed by Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the EU-Africa Summit which is to be held in Vienna in December will hopefully provide long term solution to migration. This summit will focus generally on development cooperation between EU and Africa but will also deal with innovation and digitisation to enhance Africa’s economy and job market. Many of the 22 million refugees within the EU originate from African nations such as Eritrea and Somalia. Thus, a partnership with Africa is crucial to stem the migration crisis in Europe. Kurz is also meeting with Spain, Germany, and France to talk strategy before a “migration compact” is to be decided in an EU summit in Salzburg on 19 and 20 September. The Salzburg summit will follow up on the implementation of migration policies made in the Council meeting in June.
Meanwhile, the left-right politics in European Parliament heats up as coalitions begin forming. In a bid to counter the rise of anti-immigrant nationalist movements and the purported “Orbánization” of the EPP, which signals a move towards the right, French President Emmanuel Macron is seeking a left-wing coalition by enlisting progressive democrats from various EU countries. The so-called “Macronist” front is contrary to the Spitzenkandidat system where a lead candidate for the Commission President position is selected by party backing. The current bid is by Manfred Weber, who is a centre-right leader of the European People’s Party (EPP). The Spitzenkandidat system is considered anti-democratic by some and Macron is pushing for “truly European elections” by leaving it up to the people to vote.
Greek politician and Syriza MEP Dimitris Papadimoulis supported a wide coalition to stand against the Eurosceptic right wing and the nationalist far right altogether, supporting the Macron movement as a “democratic deepening of the EU unification”. He advocated for a convergence strategy not only with democrats and socialists but also with the Liberal Democrats (ALDE) and the moderates in EPP. He also said the focus on social issues could be narrower and all parties must change some of their stances to foster cooperation.
European Parliament Votes To Trigger Article 7 Against Hungary; Weber To Deal With Growing Divide Within European People’s Party
On 12 September, the European Parliament passed a motion based on the Sargentini report (448 for, 197 against, 48 abstentions) which declared that Hungary is at risk of “breaching the EU’s core values”. The Sargentini Report cites numerous violations of EU democracy standards by Hungary, such as the impingement of many freedoms as well as the undermining of the constitutional system and judiciary independence. This vote triggers an Article 7 process which may lead to disciplinary actions where Hungary may lose its voting rights in the Council of Europe. However, observers believe that such a follow-up is unlikely to happen as it requires an unanimous vote among the other 27 member countries that is difficult to achieve.
Nevertheless, the vote reflects a divide within the EU, between those who sees the EU as a community of liberal values and those who are in the same camp as Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who promoted the concept of an “illiberal democracy”. During the Parliamentary plenary, Orbán showed no contrition and argued against the Sargentini report. Orbán described Hungary as a defender of conservative Christian values and “refused to offer any concessions to his critics”. Orbán also argued that the Sargentini report “insults Hungary” and does not “give due respect to Hungarians”. He argued that those who “inherited” democracy fails to understand countries such as Hungary which “[earned]” it. Orbán also framed the vote as a “revenge” by pro-migration politicians against Budapest’s hard-line migration stance.
This recent motion also complicates European People’s Party (EPP) leader Manfred Weber’s run for European Commission presidency. The vote increases pressure on the EPP to expel Orbán’s Fidesz party from the grouping. Weber initially characterised himself as a “bridge builder” and called on conservatives to “listen” to populist leaders to “find compromises”. Weber also defended keeping Fidesz inside the EPP grouping as he hopes to moderate Fidesz’s views from within the grouping. However, Weber eventually publicly backed the motion as Weber noticed a clear majority growing against Orbán in the European Parliament; if Weber is to obtain the top job, he require the support of an absolute majority of MEPs next May. Presently, Weber’s political challenges are far from over as he would now have to politically manoeuvre his way around the impending move to expel Fidesz from the EPP.
Johnson hits out at Chequers plan again amidst Tory internal split
Over the weekend, former British foreign secretary Boris Johnson, in the latest of a series of criticisms against the government’s Brexit approach, likened Prime Minister Theresa May’s Chequers Plan to a “suicide vest” which would make Britain a “vassal state”. On Tuesday (11 Sep), he added that the Chequers plan has “a particular economic risk” in it and would make the UK “substantially worse than the status quo”. Johnson made those remarks at a Westminster event launching the Economists For Free Trade report backed also by other leading Tory Brexiteers. The essence of the report was to put the economic case for the UK leaving the EU without an agreement on trade, suggesting that the UK had “nothing to fear” from a “clean break” from the EU and using WTO rules. This could give an £80 billion to the tax base and cut prices by 8% according to the report.
In a critical sense, the report which pits a no-deal Brexit against the prime minister’s Chequers plan is yet another indicator of the split within the UK’s ruling party. Steve Baker, a former Brexit minister resigned over the Chequers plan, warned on Monday (10 Sep) of a “catastrophic split” if the Tories were not able to unite around an alternative arrangement. He also revealed that up to 80 Tory MPs were prepared to vote against the Chequers plan if necessary. Since Ms May is likely to stick with the Chequers proposal, hard Brexiteers are “loosely” plotting to force her to stand down from the leadership post. If Brexiteers could take power, they would push for a proposal to solve the Irish border issue using “established” technologies to ensure a seamless “hard border”.
Apart from the opposition from within, the extent to which the Chequers plan is acceptable to the EU is also questionable. Though the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier clarified his position that he did not say Ms May’s Brexit plan is “dead”, Phil Hogan, European Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development (of Irish origin), said “if the UK attitude is Chequers and only Chequers, there will be no agreement before March next year.” Knowing the link between the rigidity of the Chequers plan and Ms May’s political troubles at home, the EU would want to “throw her as much of a lifeline as possible” to break the current deadlock. And if there are to be breakthroughs in the next six to eight weeks, the EU is willing to call an emergency summit in mid November to sign off on the final Brexit deal for ratification.
The current stalemate and the rising prospect of a no-deal Brexit have also thrown some seemingly settled negotiating issues into question. In this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, responding to MP Chris Philip’s call that the UK must not lock itself into any financial obligations with the EU unless there are guarantees from Brussels that the UK would run a truly independent trade policy, Ms May said the current Brexit negotiation is being conducted on a single undertaking basis, meaning nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. She made it clear that the £39 billion Brexit bill agreed earlier by both sides will be reconsidered if there is no deal on future trade relations. More broadly, she confirmed that the UK is linking the details of the withdrawal agreement with the future relationship (a position firmly opposed by the EU since day one).
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