Parliament takes control of Brexit but fails to reach consensus; May offers to resign for her deal
On Monday (25 Mar), a Parliamentary debate was to decide on next steps for Brexit. House of Commons voted by 329 to 302 in support of an amendment that gives MPs control of parliamentary agenda, with 30 Conservative MPs rebelling against Theresa May.
Following this, 8 indicative votes were held on alternative plans for Brexit to see which, if any, would command majority support. The alternative plans included proposals for single market or customs union membership, a ‘no deal’ Brexit, and the revocation of Article 50 followed by a second referendum.
On Wednesday (27 Mar), MPs voted no to all 8 amendments, with no one proposal getting a majority backing. While the votes did not turn up any clear choices, the two “best supported proposals” were for the UK to remain in a permanent customs union–narrowly defeated by 264 to 272– and another demanding a “confirmatory referendum”–rejected by 268 to 295. MPs will reconvene on Monday (1 April) for a second day of debate and votes in a bid to reach a compromise.
The timeline agreed to by EU for a Brexit extension is April 12 for UK to propose an alternative plan or to leave without a deal and until May 22 if they ratify the withdrawal agreement negotiated by May. May was unable to hold another vote for her deal this week as it seems there is insufficient support for it to be passed.
As an ultimatum, the Prime Minister offered her resignation to the Parliament as a trade-off for supporting her deal. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said the results of the Parliamentary votes showed that the government’s deal is the best option and May has indicated that any option voted for by the Parliament will have to get EU’s approval as well. May’s offer for resignation have moved hard Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg to supporting her deal but the other party needed to gain a majority, the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), still refuse to support the deal.
House of Commons will hold another vote on the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by PM May on Friday (29 March) in an effort to secure the extension deadline of May 22 offered by the EU. While the vote would not ratify the agreement, if approved, it would give MPs the time needed to pass legislation in order to make an orderly Brexit. However, failing that, the UK would have a much shorter timeline–until April 12–to come up with an alternative plan (which has to be approved by the EU) or leave without a deal. Should an extension be requested beyond May, the UK would have to take part in the European elections.
Meanwhile, the Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn has praised Parliament for “taking back control” of the negotiation process. However, Corbyn has yet to come out and clearly support a second referendum. In support of this option, about a million people joined what they called the “Put it to the People” march in London. According to one protestor, the choice is clear: either revoke article 50 or get the people’s vote. While Labour remains divided over this issue, May’s position is that she is opposed as a second referendum would go back on the results of the first.
EU leaders are urging British lawmakers to back an alternative Brexit plan or leave without a deal. Many have expressed impatience with the UK. Green MEP Philippe Lambert says cross-party consensus is “possible” but any changes to the withdrawal agreement to stay in the customs union would not happen overnight.
European Council President Donald Tusk also lamented that after Brexit, both Britain and China would become EU’s rivals, which compounded worries about Europe’s aging population and controlling smaller share of the world economy. There are also concerns about disinformation, hacking and cyberterrorism undermining established democracies.
While EU worries about maintaining its soft power in a changing global order, the more important threat, according to a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Amanda Sloat, is that Brexit is taking focus away from the bigger issue of EU having a coherent policy towards China. While Brexit overshadowed EU’s concerns about Beijing at last week’s European Council Summit, the next summit in April is set to focus on China-EU issues.
EU to balance relations with China; Commission rejects Huawei ban but launches Cybersecurity framework
The EU has told China that it no longer sees the latter as a developing nation and China needs to rebalance relations with the rest of the world. At a meeting with the Chinese President Xi Jinping on Tuesday (26 Mar), French President Emmanuel Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, and Commission President Jean Claude Juncker reinforced the message that EU and China are trading partners but also systemic rival and the EU expects reciprocity and openness of access to Chinese markets.
Macron again stressed the importance of European unity and respect for European values while Merkel, whose country relies mostly on exports, pointed to the importance of EU-US-China relations. “Multilateralism without the US is not possible,” she said during the press conference on Tuesday.
This took place a day after France signed multiple contracts with China worth billions in trade and investment. These deals include nuclear power, cultural exchanges and clean energy, as well as poultry exports from France and a huge aircraft deal with Airbus. The initial order of 184 A320s for 13 Chinese airlines was increased to 290 Airbus A320s and 10 A350 airliners.
In total, the deals amount to some $40 billion, and is especially sensitive given that US based Boeing 737 aircrafts were grounded around the world after two fatal crashes. The deals also have geopolitical implications as well and this was acknowledged by Xi who said “a united and prosperous Europe corresponds to our vision of a multipolar world.”
As part of his tour around multiple European capitals, President Xi also attended an official state dinner hosted by his French counterpart Emmanuel Macron on Monday (25 Mar), days after Italy signed a memorandum with China to be part of the large scale infrastructure Belt-and-Road Initiative on 23 March. Xi had also visited Monaco before the state dinner in France and discussed “economic and environmental issues”. This is seen as a move by Xi to establish China as a global player and reassure Europe about the BRI, which Xi insists would be “a two-way street” of investment and trade.
The EU remains guarded, though open to their “systemic rival”. There have been warnings from European leaders like Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte, who told reporters “We should not be naive” and Macron himself, who spoke of “a common strategy” at the press conference on Tuesday.
The Chnese BRI agreement with Italy also received criticism from EU’s budget commissioner, Günther Oettinger called for a European veto and German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas warned that “short-term lucrative business deals with China will have a bitter taste”.
On account of this deal and concerns about Chinese 5G networks in Europe, Italian Interior Minister and 5 star movement leader Luigi DiMaio said the agreement between China and Italy does not include 5G. This is meant to reassure Washington as well as Brussels.
European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, addressed EU leaders at the European Council summit and expressed that 5G network standards is fundamental for security as those “who design and construct these infrastructures potentially obtain the control over a great many functions, not only of a commercial nature.”
In addition to screening Chinese investments, EU has also stepped up cybersecurity measures. Citing espionage activities by the Chinese state government, USA has lobbied for a complete ban of Huawei products in Europe. However, the EU has rejected the ban and decided to leave it to individual countries to decide on national security grounds.
On Thursday (28 Mar), the UK government’s Huawei Cyber Security Evaluation Centre (HCSEC) oversight board, claimed it identified “significant” issues in Huawei’s engineering processes, that poses new risks to the UK telecommunications networks. It emphasized that these issues were not due to state interference from China and has therefore urged Huawei to enhance their software engineering capabilities to address these issues.
This came two days after the European Commission announced, on Tuesday (26 Mar), “a common EU approach to the security of 5G networks”, which covers national risk assessment to be done by June 2019, leading to EU wide measures. It also reiterates right of states to restrict market access for telecom companies. Although the EU wide framework is short of a ban requested by USA, the clear targets are Chinese companies like Huawei and ZTE. This move is to be held in tandem with the recently adopted Cybersecurity Act and other individual initiatives led by Berlin, Rome, and Paris. The EU also looks forward to coordinating the national approaches in the near future.
Amidst the alarms, European telecom company Nokia said it mistakenly sent customer data to China in a “single batch of Nokia 7 Plus phones,” intended to be sold elsewhere. The Finnish data protection agency is investigating the claims for breaches that involved “personal information”.
Members of European Parliament Agree to Overhaul Copyright Laws
Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) on Tuesday (26 March) backed historic measures to reform European Union (EU) copyright laws. These rules are designed to “bring tangible benefits to citizens, all creative sectors, the press, researchers, educators, and cultural heritage institutions,” the European Commission said in their press release. This move is set to have an extensive impact on the rights for content creators and artists across the region, and comes more than two years after the initial directive was tabled by the European Commission.
The controversial overhaul was passed with 348 votes in favour and 274 against.
“Today’s vote ensures the right balance between the interests of all players — users, creators, authors, press — while putting in place proportionate obligations on online platforms,” the Commission said. “The Directive will improve the position of creators in their negotiations with big platforms which largely benefit from their content.”
Under the new directive, tech giants like Facebook and Google will have to “negotiate licensing agreements with rights-holders — such as record companies, collecting societies and media companies — to publish their content on YouTube and Google News.” They are now also required to monitor their sites for any copyright-infringing content and removing any that falls under those licensing deals. Creative sectors that have lobbied for years for changes have welcomed the outcome of Tuesday’s votes.
According to POLITCO Europe, most lawmakers who supported the directive capitalised on it as their chance to assert European sovereignty over tech giants that have dominated Europe and clashed with regulators in the process. “These companies pillage our personal data, private lives and the work of Europe’s artists but it’s somehow accepted because it’s digital,” French MEP Virginie Rozière had said before the vote.
The vote was not without its controversies as the narrow margin reflected. Tuesday’s results came days after thousands of protesters, led by German MEP Julia Reda, took to the street in Germany to protest against the highly controversial Article 13, also termed as the “upload filter.” The article governs the commercial relationship between the creative industry and platforms like Google’s YouTube, and will hold tech firms responsible for all copyrighted materials used and published on their platforms without copyright consent, with the exception of memes and gifs (stills, animated, or short video clips from existing media content that go viral on the internet) and several other exceptions. Changes were made to the law to make memes acceptable “for purposes of quotation, criticism, review, caricature, parody and pastiche.” A big problem with Article 13 is that it would be humanly impossible for tech firms to check through every single content uploaded by its users for copyright violations. For example, 400 hours of content are uploaded to Youtube every minute, necessitating the need for costly algorithms that can make mistakes. Smaller tech firms may also be unable to afford the capacity and capital to run these checks.
Protesters have argued that Article 13 will destroy user-generated content and threaten the free internet and freedom of speech. “We now risk the creation of a more closed society at the very time we should be using digital advances to build a more open world where knowledge creates power for the many, not the few,” said the chief executive of campaign group Open Knowledge International, Catherine Stihler. Tech companies have also argued that artists are already paid fairly under the current system, with Google saying that the new law would “change the web as we know it,” and “harm Europe’s creative and digital industries.” Germany’s Justice Minister Katarina Barley told EURACTIV after the vote that she “regrets” the European Parliament did not take a stance against Article 13, adding that the reforms passed by the European Parliament “must not be at the expense of freedom of expression.”
A second article that passed, Article 11, also stirred strong sentiments from actors across the field. Known as the “link tax,” the article is about the “protection of press publications.” Article 11 seeks to protect newspapers and other outlets from the use, without payment, of their material by internet giants like Google and Facebook. While welcomed by many, each individual country has to decide what an “insubstantial part” of a news report would be – and anything else would need a licensing agreement. This proposal fuelled fear that this could lead to problems such as the linking of small sentence fragments to other new outlets. It would also be problematic for links on companies like Facebook that allows for a thumbnail and short summary to give users a quick summary about the link’s content.
Europe’s Future: Local elections and updates on Fidesz and European elections
On Wednesday (March 20), Netherland’s far-right populist newcomer Forum for Democracy (FvD) stunned the Dutch political establishment after winning the most votes in the provincial elections. Strong gains were also made by both the Eurosceptics and the Greens, setting Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte on course to lose control of the upper house of parliament. The biggest winner from the election is FvD’s leader Thierry Baudet. Baudet has called for less immigration, improved relations with Russia, and for the Netherlands to leave the EU in his manifesto in 2017. He has also campaigned against what he refers to as “climate-change hysteria.”
Meanwhile in Italy, the centre left party lost its hold on the southern region of Basilicata to a right-wing alliance in a regional election on Monday (25 Mar). The coalition won 42 percent of the vote, followed by the centre left with 33 percent. The alliance includes Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini’s League party. The populist 5Stars came in last with 20% of the votes. The outcomes of the Basilicata elections resembles results from previous regional elections in Abruzzo and Sardinia in February, where the right also ousted the centre left from regional governments, and the 5Stars declined in comparison to the 2018 general election. 5Stars leader Luigi Di Maio dismissed claims that the populist movement is losing ground to its far-right partners in government: “We beat everyone, we’re the first party in Basilicata, back in 2013 [at the last regional elections] we had 8 percent,” he said.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán once again lashed out at “Brussels bureaucrats” on Sunday (24 March), accusing them of being out of touch of reality by punishing Budapest for its hardline anti-immigration policies. “We must not be frightened of Brussels bureaucrats in their offices… who in sly ways want to force on us what they conceived above our heads in Brussels,” he said, days after his Fidesz party was indefinitely suspended from the European People’s Party (EPP), the EU’s largest and most influential political grouping. Fidesz had faced calls of expulsion from the group after the litany of anti-immigration campaign posters put up by the Hungarian government, accusing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and liberal US billionaire George Soros for plotting to flood Europe with migrants. EPP members had worried that an outright expulsion of Fidesz from the EPP will drive the party to join up with Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini, leader of Italy’s anti-immigrant League party, or Poland’s governing right-wing PiS party to create a rival group in the European Parliament. In response, Orbán had said that “after the European elections, we will decide within Fidesz what is good for Hungary, if we should continue inside the EPP, or whether our place is rather in some kind of new party alliance.”
On the same day in Brussels, roughly 1000 people took to the streets to urge pro-EU forces to remain united in order to challenge the rising extreme-right populism and stop the “Orbanisation” of European societies ahead of the May EU elections. The rally was part of “The European week for democracy” organised by the social democrats in the European Parliament (Socialists & Democrats). According to Euractiv, NGOs and other political movements, such as Volt Europa and the European federalists, also took part in the march. On Saturday, 23 March, the chief of Socialists and Democrats (S&D), Udo Bullmann, had also participated in a massive pro-EU demonstration in central London that called for another EU referendum in the UK, which is due to leave the bloc in the next few weeks.
On Tuesday (26 March), French President Emmanuel Macron’s political party revealed its top candidates for the upcoming European Parliament elections. According to POLITICO, lead candidate Nathalie Loiseau, France’s outgoing Europe minister, said Macron’s La République En Marche (LREM) party and its allies want to be “the unavoidables of Europe” — a group whose participation will be essential to get anything done in the EU. LREM is projected to come in tops in France and win 24 seats. Although the LREM is only standing for elections in France, Macron has been keen to ensure a pan-European representation in his party.
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