No Brexit or hard Brexit – Series of Votes in British Parliament prolong uncertainties
On Monday (11 Mar), Theresa May, with backing from the EU, revealed a separate “joint legally binding instrument” that would act as “an insurance policy” for Britain. Jean-Claude Juncker said the instrument “complement[s] the Withdrawal Agreement without reopening it”. The arrangement, consisting of three additional documents to the withdrawal agreement and political declaration, is meant to reassure MPs that the backstop which keeps the UK in the EU customs union is only temporary. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the new documents would “provide additional clarity, reassurances, and guarantees” to put down “unreal concerns” from Brexiteers of being trapped in the customs union without an exit clause.
The first additional document sets out that the basis for a formal dispute to be launched by the UK through “independent arbitration” if the EU breaches the terms of the withdrawal agreement. As per the original text, it aims to replace the backstop with a permanent solution by December 2020. The second document adds to the political declaration and lays out a number of commitments to “enhance and expedite the process” of bringing into place the future relationship. Thirdly, according to Theresa May, the UK can take a “unilateral declaration” to instigate measures to diss-apply the backstop, if the EU-UK relationship broke down completely.
However, according to U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s published legal opinion, among others, the additional assurances do not change the legal risk that the UK could remain trapped in the Northern Ireland backstop indefinitely. Cox said that the instrument does not include an “internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements” if the UK and EU cannot settle their differences by the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. This has had resounding implications for the Tuesday Parliamentary vote, which sank the government’s deal.
Parliament voted down Theresa May’s deal for the second time on Tuesday (12 Mar) by 391 to 242, to which May expressed “profound regret” but affirmed her commitment to “deliver the results of the referendum”. This launched two more days of consecutive voting, which opens the possibility of Brexit delay and calls for second referendum from the opposition. Following this defeat for May, MPs voted by a 321 to 273 margin to rule out a no-deal Brexit in any circumstances on Wednesday (13 Mar) and on 14 Mar, British MPs voted by 413 to 202 votes for the government to delay Brexit.
The latest vote in favour of a delay of Brexit or extension of Article 50 opens up even more scenarios as to what might come next.
In any case, Brussels reactions to the Brexit drama in the UK was of disappointment but not surprise as Juncker and Donald Tusk issued a statement that expressed regret and insisted “On the EU side we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement.” Officials also said that while EU will consider an extension of the March 29 deadline with a “reasoned request” from the UK, the onus is on London and decision will be only be reached via unanimity of the EU27. Across the board, EU leaders have said negotiations will not be reopened and a decision by the UK is the key to moving from the impasse. However things are also getting heated in Strasbourg as EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier questioned the point of the extension to MEPs. Barnier declared, “We are at a critical point. The risk of a no deal has never been higher.” Brexit shadow secretary Guy Verhofstadt added he is “against any extension of Article 50, even for just 24 hours” without a solution for a way forward put together by UK.
There were also calls for May to resign as a public opinion poll shows that only 32 percent think she should stay as opposed to 50 percent to the contrary. The poll also shows a clear support for MPs rejecting a no-deal and extending Brexit to find a better deal. Votes were also split along party lines as 67 to 18 of Labour voters favored a general elections while only 16 to 76 percent of Tory voters do. Moreover, poll also showed 56 percent of Tories support the PMs deal and only 27 percent said MPs were right to reject it.
In the event of a no-deal, UK will cut tariffs on 87 percent of imports to prevent “potential price spikes” for consumers. This will include agricultural imports and cars and will remain in place for 12 months. The UK will also protect preferential arrangements with exporters in developing countries for goods like bananas, raw cane sugar and some kinds of fish. As a temporary measure, checks on goods crossing the Northern Ireland border will be waived while the government enter talks with the EU and the Irish government to find a long-term solution. UK officials acknowledged that this new regime would enable the unmonitored flow of goods and exploitation of the new system by smugglers.
EU toughens up in “Action Plan” on engagement with China
The European Commission has launched an action plan on Tuesday (12 Mar) to “deepen its engagement” with China, while emphasising the importance of partnership between the two global powers. EU Foreign Affairs Chief Federica Mogherini followed up in a statement that EU and China will “pursue strong bilateral and multilateral cooperation on files where we share interests”.
The joint communication released by the Commission acknowledged China’s status as an “economic competitor” and “a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance”. In light of this, the Commission laid out 10 concrete actions for discussion and endorsement by the European Council. These actions cover broad areas such as climate change and multilateralism, international peace and economic development, as well as cybersecurity, EU-China trade and investment deficit, and strengthening EU’s critical infrastructure.
The Commission’s plans are in keeping with the call by MEPs to step up cybersecurity measures in light of worries that Chinese 5G networks can be used to compromise European infrastructure and obtain unauthorised access to data. Hence, Parliament also urged the Commission to give the EU’s cybersecurity agency, ENISA, the authority to ensure that the future rollout of high-speed telecommunication networks meets the highest standards and is resilient to backdoors. In addition, MEPs formally adopted the EU Cybersecurity Act by 586 votes to 44 on Tuesday. The legislation is meant to upgrade Europe’s role as a global player in cybersecurity and will enter into force in less than a month.
The Commission’s action plan came at a time when, a leaked memorandum, revealed that China plans to cooperate with Italy in infrastructural developments, seeking synergies between the Chinese Belt and Road initiative and the EU investment plans. It also detailed framework for commercial links between China and the Italian port of Triestes. Addressing US concerns about the cooperation between Italy and China, Italian Interior Minister Luigi DiMaio has commented that this move is for economic and not political purposes. However, this has not stopped the Commission from taking a jab at Rome by saying: “Neither the EU nor any of its member states can effectively achieve their aims with China without full unity.”
Franco-German Assembly to be launched amidst differences between France and Germany on future of Europe
The text enshrining the cooperation between the French and German assemblies was adopted by the French National Assembly on Monday (11 March). The new Franco-German Assembly will be inaugurated on 25 March. Improved cooperation between the lawmakers of the two countries is an important cornerstone of the Aachen Treaty, which was designed to improve and fortify Franco-German relations, and was a renewal of the 1963 Elysee Treaty that set the path and cement a new partnership between France and Germany. However, the Aachen Treaty has already been criticized by the far right in France and was plagued by fake news that claimed that it would result in France “handing back Alsace and Lorraine to Germany”. At the same time those on the left of the political spectrum expressed disappointment that the treaty did not go far enough and the derided the new assembly’s merely advisory role.
The launch of the Franco-German Assembly is further confounded by seemingly cooling relationships between the two nations less than two months after the Treaty was signed.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel on Monday (11 March) backed key European reform philosophies from her presumed successor, CDU party chief Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer. These ideas were at odds with French President Emmanuel Macron’s “Renaissance” vision for Europe. One of the most contentious was a call for a single EU permanent seat in the UN Security Council (UNSC), where France is among the five permanent members. Kramp-Karrenbauer also called for the European Parliament to sit solely in Brussels and do away with the second seat in Strasbourg, an arrangement she called an “anachronism”.
Speaking at a press conference, Merkel said that a shared EU seat on the UNSC was “a very good concept for the future” and a means to gather together “European voices.” Merkel did, however, acknowledge France’s scepticism about a European seat at the UN.
Kramp-Karrenbauer’s reply to Macron’s vision is indicative of Merkel’s increasing deference to her successor. Kramp-Karrenbauer is set to maintain status quo: “we have the chancellor we want – and I, at the head of the party, want that Angela Merkel remains chancellor,” she said.
Although Merkel signalled that she would remain until the end of the legislative period, analysts are predicting that the government will dissolve before 2021. Many are predicting that a new general election in the middle term would take place, amidst junior coalition partner Social Democrats’ (SDP) struggles to offset their falling support. A poor showing for the SPD at the ballot box in the coming could hasten the government’s collapse. A common critique of the SPD is that after years of governing with Merkel, the party has become almost indistinguishable from the chancellor’s CDU.
EU Election Updates
EU interior ministers on Thursday (7 March) failed to conclude an overhaul of the bloc’s migration policy. No further progress can be expected on a dossier expected to take centre stage at the European elections under the Juncker Commission. “It is the official day to conclude that there’s no agreement on asylum,” an EU diplomat told reporters in Brussels, according to POLITICO. Despite the falling absolute number of immigrants entering Europe, public perception on the issue remains high. In the Eurobarometer survey, around 40% of Europeans believe that immigration is one of the most important issue that Europe must address.
Additionally, Europe’s military operation in the Mediterranean could end soon following Italy’s refusal to take in any more rescued migrants. While the government has not taken a final position, insider sources posit hard-liner Interior Minister Matteo Salvini as determined to halt Operation Sophia when its mandate is due for renewal come March 31. Germany, however, wants to keep the mission going. “I want Sophia to be continued and will do what is in my power to support the operation,” German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer told journalists on Thursday (7 March) in Brussels on the sidelines of talks among EU interior ministers. Seehofer’s statement comes despite Germany’s pulling out of the operation in January over Italy’s reluctance to allow rescued people to disembark.
Meanwhile, Manfred Weber arrived in Budapest on Tuesday (12 March) to negotiate with Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán regarding possible solutions to avoid Fideszʼs expulsion from the European Peopleʼs Party (EPP). Weber is the leader of EPP and its candidate for the European Commission president in the upcoming May election. Weber has previously called on Orbán to end and apologise for his government’s ad campaign in Hungary against the EU’s migration policies. This comes before the EPP gathers on March 20 to vote for Fidesz’s expulsion or suspension.
Weber has previously said that he had heard “very different signals” out of Budapest. “Today in my talks with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán we had a constructive atmosphere, but problems are not yet solved,” Weber told reporters in Budapest.
Although the government has already stated that it would remove the billboards attacking Juncker after the March 15 holiday, Minister of Foreign Affairs and Trade Péter Szijjártó has refused to apologize for the campaign, according to Hungarian news sites. “A party should only apologize if it has made false statements about another party and we have not done that. Our goal is to have an anti-migration majority within the European Parliament,” said Szijjártó. However, contradictory reports have also appeared with regards to the apology. According to Orbán’s Chief of Staff, Gergely Gulyás, Orbán had made clear to Weber that he had not intended to hurt anyone and is ready to apologize if he has done so.
Orbán says that he hopes Fidesz stays in the EPP and achieves “the transformation of the People’s Party so there is room inside it for anti-immigration forces like us.” He also hinted that the dispute may have revealed that the party’s true place could be elsewhere. If Fidesz is expelled from the EPP, Orbán said he would seek a possible new alliance with Poland.
While Weber is confident that the campaign will come to an end, he said that broader issues must be addressed as well. “What we want to guarantee is that Fidesz is committed to the EPP values, and Hungary is a clear pro-European country which sticks to the European values,” he said.
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