Cross-party dialogue with Labour disrupted by Parliament vote for another short extension; MEPs controversially call Gibraltar a “colony”
A no deal brexit is “almost inevitable” as MPs failed to pass Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement for the third time on Friday (29 Mar) by a smaller but still considerable margin of 286 to 344 and also failed to break the impasse with a second round of indicative votes held on Monday (1 April). None of the four options got a clear majority.
The closest votes were for a permanent customs union, falling by 273 to 276 votes and a plan for a second referendum, narrowly defeated by 280 to 292. The failure to reach majority was attributed to over 30 MPs who wanted a “People’s Vote” and either abstained or voted against the two options.
To break the deadlock, May has sought cross-party compromise with the opposition Labour Party to pave the way for a soft Brexit. While this move has been condemned by Tory brexiteers, it is seen as an offer of olive branch by Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn. After the televised address in which she revealed she would request another article 50 extension from the EU to gain across party consensus Corbyn added, “we will meet the prime minister. We recognise that she has made a move.”
Donald Tusk has called for an emergency EU summit on April 10 following the announcement that the withdrawal agreement failed to go through for the third time. The UK is expected to ask for another extension on this date.
Stephen Barclay said May’s approach towards a softer Brexit is an unintended result of the “remorseless logic” of MPs consistently rejecting the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal.
A compromise with Labour, which has advocated for a permanent customs union, is seen as economically undesirable for the UK but the government sees it as “the only way” to find a way forward.
However, business leaders see a soft brexit as better than a no deal, especially in the long term. UK business leaders such as Juergen Maier of Siemens has urged “compromise and action” from the Parliament, saying that businesses generally approve of the Withdrawal Agreement. The biggest threat is a no deal which will cripple “our hopes of competing in the fourth industrial revolution”. Maier also signalled that the Political Declaration needs more attention now to determine the policy on future negotiations.
Although talks between May and Corbyn were said to be “constructive” on Wednesday (3 April), the House of Commons voted on Thursday (4 April) in favor of a Brexit delay beyond the April 12 deadline. The votes were in favor by 313 to 312 and if passed as a bill, it would place “a severe constraint on the government’s ability to negotiate an extension” with the EU.
Meanwhile, Jean Claude Juncker has made clear that no short extension will be granted beyond April 12 without an agreement backed by a Parliament majority as it would jeopardize the function and correct running of EU institutions. A longer extension wherein the UK would have to participate in the European elections by law in May is expected by the EU.
In this scenario, the departure of UK would throw the distribution of seats for MEPs into confusion. The 27 seats left open by British MEPs after Brexit will be filled by countries which will take over the British seats but they will have to freeze their elected candidates’ mandate temporarily. Opinion remains divided over whether UK should have influence over the next legislative period.
Meanwhile, European Parliament’s justice committee on Wednesday (3 April) backed a regulation that allows UK citizens visa-free travel to the EU for 90 days with same conditions applying for EU citizens. The document, however, refers to British overseas territory Gibraltar as as a British “colony”, a controversial phrasing that has seen British MEP Claude Moraes removed as the assembly’s Rapporteur. The draft law is due to be voted on in European Parliament on Thursday.
According to polling guru, Professor John Curtis, 85% of those people who voted in 2016 say they would vote the same way in a second referendum. Evidence suggests the remain vote seems to lead against the leave by 54-46%. The Leave vote seems to have softened due to rising pessimism of Leave voters. In 2016, only 1 in 10 thought Britain will be worse off after leaving, but now the number is 1 in 4 .
EU Elections Update
On Friday (29 March), Facebook unveiled a raft of measures ahead of the May European Parliament elections to prevent foreign campaigns from interfering in national elections. However, the plans will complicate pan-European parties’ moves to advertise in countries where they are not directly represented. European parties have been preparing to advertise in member states across the bloc ahead of the May EU elections. However, “if they do not have a representative located in the country in which they want to advertise, they will not be able to do so,” Richard Allen, VP of Global Policy Solutions at Facebook said.
Pan-European parties have been vocal in their criticisms of the new measures. Liberal leader Guy Verhofstadt told the Financial Times that the plans would akin to “killing the idea of European democracy.”
As part of the measures, Facebook will ask all EU advertisers to verify their identity and location by submitting documents and using technical checks. Additionally, Euractiv reports that ads “related to politics and issues on Facebook and Instagram in the EU” will have to be clearly labelled with a “paid for by” disclosure.
These measures come in a time when European populists are dominating much of the online political discussion around the upcoming European election, due to an extremely small group of sympathisers that have proliferated the issue loudly via social media. These findings came from Alto Analytics, a big data and artificial intelligence company. The company had conducted a data analytics project to understand the “public debate and identifying any abnormal attempts to increase social polarization or radicalization across Europe.”
Over in France, leading candidate Nathalie Loiseau and the other 29 top candidates on the “Renaissance” list of the French La République En Marche party (LREM) launched their campaigning on Saturday (30 March) in Aubervilliers. Besides Loiseau and second-in-command Pascal Canfin, ex-minister of development and former MEP, the top candidates are a motley crew of unexpected profiles and political newcomers. They range from oceanographers to journalists, and even a Charolais beef farmer. A connection to the EU acts as their common denominator. Some analysts have sought to compare the LREM list to ALDE in terms of diversity. “I believe in the polyphony of professional backgrounds,” said Stéphane Séjourné, Macron’s former advisor, director of the LREM campaign and candidate for the European elections. To promote transnationalism and diversity, the LREM list also included two non-French Europeans, including Sandro Gozi, former minister of European affairs of the EU. However, LREM, the centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron, has continued with the suspense and claims that an alliance with the liberal ALDE in the European Parliament will not be necessary.
The Aubervilliers meeting agenda was to launch the electoral campaign, as well as present Loiseau, a relatively unknown former minister of European Affairs, to the general public. According to POLITICO EU, the meeting also portrayed unity with LREM’s political partners. They include François Bayrou of MoDem, Franck Riester of Agir, and Laurent Enard of the Radical Party, all of whom made the trip to Aubervilliers.
The topic of a European climate bank is a central theme of the team, who are also eager to work on digital issues. During the meeting, climate change factored greatly in their campaign speeches. The environmental question took centre-stage in the speech of Pascal Canfin and sailor/journalist Catherine Chabaud. “Why has the free woman that I am decided to commit? Because of two crises: the climate and Europe,” Chabaud said. Canfin prioritised ecology at a European level in his speeech, notably regarding the issue of changing the food production model.
Alternative for Germany (AfD)’s chief candidate for European elections, Jörg Meuthen, expects big gains for nationalist parties in the upcoming elections, but believes that they will have trouble forming a united front to advance an agenda in parliament.
On Thursday, (4 April), Meuthen said that disparaging agendas and conflicting personalities would likely prevent a “patriotic alliance” from forming after the May polls. “I expect that conservative forces will be clearly strengthened in the elections and that social democratic forces… will be heavily weakened,” Meuthen told AFP. He believes that it would be possible for the Right-wing to block certain measures advanced by the conservative European People’s Party, who currently holds the majority. To ensure that this happens, however, the far-right, right-wing populist, and right-wing nationalist parties must “work together because they can’t do anything as individual parties”, said Meuthen. The AfD is currently polling at around 10%.
Visions for Europe on the 70th Anniversary of the NATO alliance
On the 70th anniversary of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), experts share of their visions for the alliances’ future in a changing global order in a POLITICO interview.
Nathalie Tocci, special adviser to Federica Mogherini, said NATO must adapt to a multipolar future where US hegemony is quickly fading. It is important to reconfigure the “social contract” of the EU-US transatlantic alliance in order to preserve a liberal order amidst illiberal forces.
A senior visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States Ulrich Speck agrees and adds NATO must rethink its mission, especially with regards to Russian aggression in the region while the USA is preoccupied with China and its nuclear policy towards Russia.
NATO was formed in 1949 and cemented EU and US as allies against various threats from the Cold War to post 9/11 war on terrorism. Despite 70 years of solidarity, the alliance has faced some new challenges, including the fissures in diplomacy exposed by US president Donald Trump.
According to former deputy secretary-general of NATO, Alexander Vershbow, with US withdrawing from the international stage, Europe needs to “backfill” and strengthen its membership in the alliance. While US provides the lion’s share of military capacities, Europe should steer NATO’s “higher level of ambition” and focus more on partnerships in the Mediterranean with countries in the South. Former secretary-general of NATO George Robertson also stressed the point of sharing burdens “equitably” and sharing intelligence between members.
On Tuesday, (2 April) Trump met Nato Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg in Washington where Stoltenberg cited $100 billion in defense spending that NATO allies are planning to put in. This comes after Trump’s called out the shortage of defense spending at last year’s NATO summit.
Moreover, serious questions remain for NATO’s ability to deal with Russia given Trump’s tendency to flout a multilateral approach such as pulling out of the nuclear treaty with Russia.
Julianne Smith from the Bosch Academy in Berlin made the point that in looking to the future, NATO must strengthen its capabilities in new areas, such as cyber and space. He mentioned China as the target as Beijing is making huge investments in Artificial Intelligence and European infrastructure.
Meanwhile, Germany has also come back as officials reassured that Berlin intends to fully meet its NATO “capability” goals by 2024. Stoltenberg also added that of the $100 billion, $30 billion will be contributed by Germany.
Europe is also looking to go another direction in terms of defence as Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron has both called for a common European Army to complement NATO. According to German Minister Katarina Barley, who is from the Social Democratic Party, the army should “be bound to the vote of the European Parliament” and consistent with the creation of proper defense committee in the European Parliament. The aim of such an army would be to ensure European countries never go to war with each other again.
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