Uncertainty mounts in Brexit as Labour MPs and Tory MPs quit to form “independent group” in Parliament and businesses leave UK
Theresa May lost a non-binding, symbolic Parliamentary vote on her Brexit strategy on Thursday (14 Feb). While the vote does not count towards making legal changes to the withdrawal agreement, the lack of Parliamentary support could diminish her standing in Brussels. The vote was lost 303 to 258 with Conservative backbench European Research Group abstaining and Jeremy Corbyn led Labour opposing the motion. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay also confirmed on the day itself that Britain will leave the EU even if there is no deal ratified. While they did not support May in the vote, Conservative Brexiteers were willing to keep the option of a no-deal on the table.
The UK government is still seeking changes to the Irish backstop as May plans to speak to every European Union leader before returning to the House of Commons for another vote next week (27 Feb). She is expecting to present a new agreement supported by Parliament to EU leaders at the March Summit whereupon the deal would be ratified. There are growing worries in Brussels that May is misreading the EU’s willingness to concede. According to two senior EU officials, the only way for May to see a breakthrough in negotiations is if she narrows her demands to a single concrete proposal plus a “technical extension” to Article 50 at the March 21 meeting. Fear and uncertainty is also present in her own Cabinet; some British ministers believe that the March timeline is too close and she needs to make an offer to Brussels by early March.
UK heads for more fragmentation as seven Labour MPs have left their party and formed a breakaway group called Independent Group. The reasons for their departure include displeasure with Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, anti-Semitism, as well as disagreement on Brexit. The Independent Group are backers of a second referendum are unlikely to pass any deal unless it is done through a public vote.
However, they have deliberately kept their branding vague and encouraged MPs from other parties to join them. Although 39 days away from the withdrawal date, they hope to influence Labour’s decision over Brexit but it could also have the opposite effect of hardening Labour’s frontbench resolve to not resort to a referendum. Three Tory members and one more Labour member have since joined the Independent Group, making them eleven strong.
On the EU side, Jean-Claude Juncker said an extension to Britain’s EU membership beyond the European Parliament elections in May cannot be ruled out. He added that if the political deadlock persists and the UK asked for a time extension, “no one in Europe would oppose it”. This also means that the UK would also have to hold the European Elections in May in conformance to the treaty.
May and Juncker met Wednesday evening (20 Feb) and as signs that not much progress has been made, they issued a joint statement pledging to continue exploring “alternative arrangements” to the controversial Irish backstop. The focus seemed to be on the Political declaration, the non-legally binding document that accompany the detailed Withdrawal Agreement. This is seen as a signal that May has accepted the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened; and instead looking at some sort of “assurance” in the Political declaration that the backstop would be temporary in nature.
As uncertainties continue on, the number of businesses leaving the UK or making U turns have increased, sparking fears of mass layoffs across the country. Companies such as Honda and Nissan have already announced plans to relocate their production outside of the UK while Airbus warned of catastrophic no-deal Brexit and British regional airline Flybmi has filed for bankruptcy due to Brexit and fuel costs. Similarly, Ford and Jaguar have plans respectively to relocate and cut down costs, affecting thousands of jobs. Honda confirmed on Tuesday (19 February) that it will close its UK factory in Swindon as it plans to move back to Japan partly due to a free trade agreement that allows tariff-free access to the EU single market.
Migration and cybersecurity concerns raised amidst changing political formations in the EU
The political crisis of migration in Europe continues, even though numbers of asylum applications are at the lowest and have returned to its pre-crisis level.The EU remains divided over how to deal with migratory flows, and how to integrate new migrants in their countries. The Commission’s efforts to overhaul the EU’s immigration and asylum laws will remain until after the May European elections.
However, Greek MEPs have pushed for urgent action and support from the EU to alleviate conditions at overpopulated migrant centres. Migrant centres in Lesbos and Samos have been holding refugees many times over their original capacities and the local population has been strained as 60 to 70 new migrants arrive daily. Socialist MEP Eva Kaili said “long term solutions” are needed rather than “painkillers” as it is not the first time over-congestion of the migrant centres has been brought to the attention of the EU executive.
Meanwhile, the French President has reopened the question of reinstating annual migrant quotas for France in the “great national debate”, which was a response to the yellow jackets movement. This is seen as an attempt by Emmanuel Macron to regulate migration in France and the quotas set would be separate from asylum obligations. However, Macron’s act of resurfacing the quota system, deemed ineffective and unconstitutional, has been criticised by EU officials like Sylvie Guillaume, a Vice-President of the European Parliament, who maintains it has no impact on illegal migration and does not deal with the current impasse in the EU asylum system. Pointing to the Dublin regulation, discussions which have stalled, she believes that efforts from member states like France would be better spent by entering into the discussion at European level instead of putting in domestic quotas.
Macron’s “great debate”, which is to go on for another month, has had some impact domestically by allowing citizens to come together and air their collective grievances Nevertheless, the size of the exercise–3000 debates have already taken place–presents further challenges in synthesizing the information and forming concrete solutions to the issues presented. The results are to be put to a referendum in May, along with the European Elections.
The migration issue is expected to help far right parties made gains in the European Parliament in May elections. However a survey by the European Parliament projected that the centre right, European People’s Party (EPP) group, will still remain the biggest grouping. The biggest single party will be Germany’s Christian Democrat CDU/CSU alliance party with 29 seats followed by Italy’s far right party, The League, with 27 seats.
After British MEPs leave, the EPP is projected to take 183 out of 705 seats (26% of the new chamber) while the centre-left Socialists and Democrats, where the British Labour Party sits, would only have 135 seats (19%). UK’s departure will reinforce the far right as it is expected to grow to 14% from the current 10%. This projection reflects gains for Italy’s League, Germany’s AfD, and Marine Le Pen’s French National Rally.
This means that the traditional centrist coalition will lose its absolute majority as well as bring an end to half-term EPP and S&D presidencies. As the traditional alignment of parties shift, new alliances need to be formed to make majorities needed to pass legislation. Meanwhile, the third biggest grouping of centrist Liberals (ALDE) is set to increase from 68 to 75 MEPs. Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche party is expected to take 18 seats though he remains unclear about joining his potential allies in ALDE.
Besides the growing presence of populist and nationalist parties, cybersecurity concerns abound as former NATO Secretary-General and ex-Danish prime minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen warned that Russia will use unprecedented means to disrupt the upcoming elections by exploiting existing political divisions to create unrest and social instability, Rasmussen said some European national governments are ill-equipped to counter those efforts–which he listed as involving “deep fakes”. He has teamed up with Microsoft and political leaders worldwide to put social media companies on alert and raise general awareness.
Munich Security Conference and Fraying Transatlantic Ties
Over 600 politicians and world leaders gathered last Friday (15 Feb) for the 55th Munich Security Conference (MSC). Demands for a stronger EU and foreign policy, more commitments to NATO and concerns over Russia’s assertiveness were the major themes of the 3-day conference.
The MSC begun at the height of the Cold War to address severe military challenges, with an overarching objective to “build trust and to contribute to the peaceful resolution of conflicts by sustaining a continuous, curated and informal dialogue within the international security community.” Over the decades, MSC debates had focused on a largely unified Western front championing a liberal international vision focused on open markets and strong security institutions like NATO. However, the election of Trump and the current US administration has challenged existing global order, as the United States pursued policies of withdrawal from overseas conflicts and eschewed multilateral institutions for unilateral actions or bilateral agreements.
“The whole liberal world order appears to be falling apart- nothing is as it once was,” Wolfgang Ischinger, chairman of the Munich Security Conference, wrote in his introductory note. “We are experiencing an epochal shift; an era is ending, and the rough outlines of a new political age are only beginning to emerge,” he proclaimed. Ischinger also urged European leaders to take security matters in their own hands and to “speak with one voice” when facing “a new era of wholesale rivalry between the United States, China and Russia.”
The MSC also saw increasing demands for a greater European presence in NATO. “We Europeans need to throw more weight in. The American call for more fairness in burden-sharing is justified,” German Defence Minister Ursula von der Leyen said in response to US appeals for all NATO members to spend at least 2% of their economic output on defence. Von der Leyen maintained that NATO remains “the first choice for our security”, and that it is “a political alliance”, heralding a clear commitment to transatlantic relations with the United States. “Our partnership is strong – and it strengthens our sovereignty,” she said.
Iran tensions featured prominently during the MSC as well. US Vice President Mike Pence said that Iran was using the 2015 nuclear deal to “openly advocate another Holocaust,” calling on Washington’s European allies again to follow the US by pulling out of the nuclear deal. This was immediately countered by German Chancellor Angela Merkel who argued for the staunch defence of the landmark agreement, saying it was worth preserving, and that the pact allows the West to exert pressure on Tehran on other issues.
The spirit of multilateralism was a focal point in Merkel’s speech, as she warned of global political disintegration. Wrangling with transatlantic ties, Merkel directed several specifics at the US. She ridiculed the Trump administration’s trade declaration that German cars represent a national-security threat to the United States. She also refuted Washington’s jabs that the EU was weak on Iran, questioning the astuteness of a precipitous US withdrawal from Syria and Afghanistan and arguing that this would empower the Iranians.
Merkel’s lamentations that the US led global order “has collapsed into many tiny parts” drew raucous support from the attending delegates. They rose to give Merkel a standing ovation, with the notable exception of Pence and Ivanka Trump, the president’s daughter and a top advisor to the Trump administration.
The increasingly fragmented relationship and contradictory viewpoints between the traditional transatlantic allies was in full display at the MSC. It tore away the charade that the Europeans have kept up over the last two years, with the Europeans barely concealing their contempt for the Trump administration. Ian Bremmer, president of the Eurasia Group, commented that “there’s a lot more openly displayed anger about the fact that the relationship is broken,” and that “the Trump administration doesn’t understand that it’s not just about how much people pay. It’s about a relationship, trust, how you communicate, shared values. That all matters.”
In an attempt to alleviate the strains from the conference, House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi, sought to reassure Europe of Washington’s continued commitment to transatlantic ties and NATO during a visit to Brussels on Tuesday (19 Jan). Speaking at a press conference in Brussels, Pelosi reaffirmed the US’ commitments to the Transatlantic Alliance and NATO, and their respect for the EU.
As Ischinger remarked in his concluding speech, “critiques might argue that some of the speakers were less interested in putting the pieces back together than in creating more disarray in our international system.” Analysts picked up on the end of the charades, remarking that the American position is collapsing under the weight of its own contradictions, and that the Europeans are defaulting to nostalgia for a multilateral order. It is imperative to the US and EU for their alliance to hold, as Russia and China gain ground and challenge their western-centric liberal ideals. It is also important for the two to resolve their individual domestic affairs before they can strategically place themselves at the forefront of international leadership again.
EU pushes back against Washington’s call to repatriate ISIS fighters
Donald Trump on Sunday (17 Feb) called on Britain, France and Germany to repatriate and put on trial its citizens who have gone to fight for ISIS in Syria. The US has captured some 800 such fighters, and the president has threatened to release them if the UK and other European nations do not take them back. The UK, France and Germany have been reluctant to bring home ISIS suspects, fearing that they would pose a security threat upon their return.
“It is certainly not as easy as they think in America,” German foreign minister Heiko Maas said in response to Trump. “These people can come to Germany only if it is ensured that they can immediately be taken into custody.”
This comes after Trump decided to withdraw US troops from Syria, raising the question of what they should do with the people that have surrendered or been captured by the troops. Under international law, former combatants that have been held as prisoners of war should be repatriated to their countries of origin upon the end of the conflict. However, many of the people captured by US and Kurdish forces are non-combatants, but rather the wives and children of the militant fighters.
The British government on Monday snubbed Trump’s call to repatriate alleged UK jihadists captured in Syria and try them at home. “Foreign fighters should be brought to justice in accordance with due legal process in the most appropriate jurisdiction,” Downing Street said. “Where possible, this should be in the region where the crimes had been committed.” The urgency of the issue was elevated by the re-emergence of Shamima Begum, a British 19-year-old who ran away to join the Islamic State when she was 15. On Tuesday (19 Feb), Britain decided to revoke her British citizenship. Bangladesh and the Netherlands, two other countries that she may have had a right to settle, denied her as well.
France’s Justice Minister Nicole Belloubet also snubbed Trump’s, stressing that Paris would take back militants on a “case-by-case” basis. Belloutbet stressed that France will not be “changing our policy,” despite acknowledging that the withdrawal of US troops from the war-ravaged nation would bring about a “new geo-political context.” France has thus far committed to only repatriating the children of ISIS fighters, categorically ignoring ISIS combatants and their wives. French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian brands them “enemies” of the state who should face trial in either Syria or Iraq.
Swedish terror expert Magnus Ranstorp cautioned Sweden on Monday (18 Feb) against heeding Trump’s calls and repatriating Swedish ISIS fighters captured in Syria. “The main problem is that Sweden doesn’t yet have the laws in place, and so we can’t prosecute them [here yet],” Ranstorp said in an interview, stating that it’s not just the jihadists themselves who pose a security risk, but also their partners and children. The militant wives and children could pose significant security threats to the Nordic country in decades to come, and Sweden’s psychiatric system is “not fit to deal with that.” Sweden’s Interior Minister Mikael Damberg also stated Monday that the country had no immediate plans to repatriate any Swedish jihadist.
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