May faces challenges in wrangling Parliament majority as Tories set to make losses at local elections
Theresa May’s efforts to pass the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) in Parliament still faces challenges as both options and time are running out before the May 22nd deadline for avoiding European elections. In a bid for cross party compromise with Labour, May’s government has included provisions on keeping the UK aligned with EU standards on workers’ rights and environmental protection.
However, this has proven to be difficult; Labour has confirmed that the official party stance would be to demand a second referendum if the party cannot secure a general election or force the government to change its deal with the EU. This puts the public vote as a last resort but also means the party has not changed its stance since September last year.
Meanwhile, Tory attitudes towards May’s deal has hardened and it is projected that May will not be able to wrangle together the support of 30-40 MPs needed to gain a majority. This is due to disagreement over the Irish backstop provision, which the government has refused to remove because of the EU. Moreover, the Conservative Party is very unhappy with May’s leadership and is waiting for her to resign.
May would face another test to her leadership as local elections approached for over 250 counties in England and Northern Ireland. The polls show that the Tories are currently ranking behind Labour in projections for the local elections and also face being unseated at the European elections. POLITICO reports both Labour and the Liberal Democrats will make significant gains across the local elections at the Tories expense. As for the European elections, the Tories face an additional threat from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
Richard Kellaway, chairman of Maidenhead Conservative Association, one of the Prime Minister’s local councils, said the mood among the electorate is “quite volatile” but he is more concerned about “apathy than anger”.
Meanwhile, support for Scottish Independence has seen a rise since 2014 when Scotland voted to stay in the UK. A YouGov poll published on Sunday showed 49 percent now supports independence, a 5 percent increase since June 2018. This is due to a larger portion of Remain voters (54 percent) supporting independence after Brexit.
Nevertheless, the question will not be raised in Parliament before 2021. Scottish National Party (SNP) leader, Nicola Sturgeon announced last week that a second referendum on Independence should be triggered by 2021. Sturgeon wants to reassure voters that it will only take place after “the fog of Brexit” has cleared.
Given the opposition from Westminster government and splits between pro-independence movements themselves, SNP faces roadblock as well. However, they are hoping for a fourth consecutive term in Scottish Parliament in the 2021 elections and will participate in the European elections as well.
EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, in an interview on Thursday (2 May), criticised British politicians for not being “passionate about the EU”. He hinted that UK’s 2016 vote to leave the EU was brought about by British politicians telling voters “for decades” that the EU was primarily about economic cooperation and not common values. Juncker added that this seems to have spawned anti-immigrant rhetoric which has spread throughout Europe.
Highlights from Maastricht debate, Spanish elections, and UK MEP Candidates
On Monday (29 April), the first debate between 5 leading candidates for the European Commission Presidency took place in Maastricht. Notably absent was the major frontrunner for the European People’s Party (EPP), Manfred Weber. The 5 candidates represented the Social Democrats (S&D), Liberals (ALDE), the European Left, Greens and the European Conservatives and Reformers (ECR).
On the topics discussed — sustainability, digital, and the future of Europe — most candidates agreed on one front: the need to regulate technological giants like Google and Facebook.
It was highlighted that Frans Timmermans of the S&D and Guy Verhofstadt of the ALDE clashed on the future of the EU and politics. Verhofstadt called for a “new force, centrist pro-European force” that is further Left from the existing EU’s two-party establishment — the EPP and Party of European Socialists (PES) — hinting at a new coalition between ALDE and Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche.
Timmermans replied to Verhofstadt by questioning the latter’s commitment to improving social policy through minimum wages and social security protections.
In an outburst while talking about environmental policy, Timmermans proclaimed “Go vote Green”, inadvertently advertising the Green Party’s motto. Green party candidate Bas Eickhout took the opportunity to put on the record that mainstream parties must change their approach to economic policy in a world facing an environmental emergency.
The ECR’s Jan Zahradil, however, had a different take on climate change, one that is compatible with the Conservative agenda and putting the nation-state at the centre. In an interview with EURACTIV, Zahradil said EU must lead by example to widen the global impact, as it only accounts for only 10% of overall carbon emissions. Zahradil disagreed, however with European Commission’s proposal to aim for climate neutrality by 2050 as going “too far, too fast and too insensitively” and this might “undermine the very fundamentals of Europe’s economies.” He did agree that Europe should abide by terms of the Paris Agreement and reshuffle budget priorities to make more room for research and innovation.
In a follow up poll, the audience showed they favored Timmermans (43%) and Eickhout (36%) over Verhofstadt (9%), Zahradil (7%) and Tomić (5%).
Politico in a report speculated that the new European Parliament is set to come down hard on tech issues, especially with regards to privacy and cyber-enabled election-meddling. This is a shift away from older, less pressing issues like copyright and digital trade. The new crop of MEPs includes firebrands for user data protection like German Justice Minister Katarina Barley and Patrick Breyer from the German Pirate Party. France Unbowed’s Manuel Bompard wants to make Artificial Intelligence (AI) algorithms transparent. Other new MEPs are also expected to look out for national interests against cyber espionage and foreign meddling.
In the UK, neither the Conservative Party nor Labour Party has officially launched their campaigns, as they are still hoping for Britain to leave the EU sooner rather than later. However, the list of candidates for both parties have been confirmed this week. Representing new parties formed within the Brexit chaos are Nigel Farage and Annunziata Rees-Mogg of the Brexit Party as well as Rachel Johnson and Gavin Esler from Change UK.
Long standing regional representatives from the Conservative Party like Geoffrey Van Orden and Sajjad Karim also top the list. Liberal Democrats, Green Party and UKIP are also represented.
Esler said his priority is to get a second referendum and “fix” Brexit before joining a group in the European Parliament. In the long run, Esler wants to break up the UK’s two party system.
Meanwhile, Spain’s general elections on Sunday (28 April) saw Socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez regain power after a rocky first term. Preceding the election, Spain was hit by a disinformation campaign over WhatsApp that sought to discredit the Socialist Party and Sanchez. The Socialists won 123 of the 350 seats in parliament, gaining 38 seats since 2016 and placing ahead of the Popular Party with 66 seats. Sanchez welcomed the results and said that he will form a “pro-European government to strengthen and not weaken Europe”. Sanchez’s minority government would need to rely on a coalition of smaller Catalan and Basque parties as well as with the leftist Unidas Podemos which won 42 seats.
It seems Podemos, which emerged in the wake of the anti-austerity indignados movement has been plagued with infighting while Sanchez’ government ensured policies that saw 22 percent rise in the minimum wage and new subsidies for unemployed people while also keeping good relations with the business community and Brussels.
Popular Party which ruled Spain since 1979 as Alianza Popular also saw its centre-right vote split by Ciudadanos which won 57 seats in this elections whereas PP only managed to garner 66 seats. Also for the first time, the far right party Vox garnered more than 10% of the popular vote and will enter Spanish Parliament with 24 seats.
The 26th EU-Japan summit took place in Brussels on 25th April. At the summit President of EU Council Donald Tusk, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reaffirmed their support for free trade, multilateralism and an international order based on the rule of law.
At the summit, both sides welcomed the implementation of the EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement (EPA) which came into force early this year. The EPA is being heralded as “one of the greatest achievements in EU-Japan relations”1. It sends a strong signal on the strengthening of EU-Japan bilateral trade and investment ties and reflects their common stance against protectionism.
The EU-Japan Strategic Partnership Agreement (SPA) once ratified by EU member states, will open a new door for EU-Japan ties in cooperating on issues ranging from climate change to technology and terrorism, boosting both sides’ cooperation in the area of security2. Both parties are also committed to enhanced cooperation in areas such as data protection, energy, transport, research and innovation. On data protection, Japan and the EU aim to create “the world’s largest area of safe data transfers” being “based on a high level of protection of personal data and privacy, a core set of individual rights and enforcement by an independent data protection authority”3.
Both sides also expressed commitment and resolve to tackle climate change, in accordance with the Paris Agreement, by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and tackling other environmental issues such as plastics in the ocean.
The strengthening of ties comes ahead in preparation of the G20 Summit that will be held in Osaka, Japan on 28-29 June 2019. Ahead of the G20 Summit, the EU-Japan meeting also sought to reform the current WTO rules seeking to enact rules on electronic commerce, industrial subsidies, and increasing cooperation in the handling of technology transfers.
However, on the issue of reforming the appellate body of the WTO, Japan did not endorse Brussels’ proposal to unblock the nomination of new judges. This was in part due to the US pressure on Japan, and hence only a vague reference to “cooperate in order to ensure the proper functioning of the Appellate Body” was contained in the final summit statement.
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