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News & Insights on Europe

News and Views on Europe – 17 May 2019

posted by eucentresg


British politics become more divisive as Brexit Party leads poll
On Tuesday (14 May), a Downing Street official announced that British Prime Minister Theresa May will bring her Brexit deal back to Parliament by June 3. This will not be a fourth vote on the Withdrawal Agreement itself, but on key legislation needed to enable UK’s departure from the EU.

The announcement came after weeks of cross-party talks between May and Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn had failed to produce any tangible outcome so far. On Tuesday, Downing Street called talks between May and Corbyn “useful and constructive”. However, Labour officials insisted that there is still no agreement to support the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in a vote in the Commons.

Corbyn added that “there has been no big offer and the red lines remain in place”. Gaps still exist between the government and opposition and disagreements remained with regards to the EU custom union. All these developments further threaten to pull apart May’s Conservative Party.

Senior Tory representatives have told May in a letter not to give in to Labour demands for permanent membership of a customs union as it would give them no say in making trade arrangements outside of the EU.

Moreover, there is still concern that May will not be able to deliver on her cross-party promise even if it was achieved. Labour wants a confirmatory vote on Brexit as well as to win “working class Leave seats” at the next general election after Brexit.

A large number of Labour MPs is expected to not back the deal without a confirmatory vote. Labour party representatives have said that their party still aims to “remain and reform”, making it very difficult to push through a deal without public consensus. The only way to avoid a second referendum would be at the discretion of the Labour shadow Cabinet if a cross-party agreement was reached.

Despite May’s and Corbyn’s efforts, politics in Britain have become more challenging and many officials are expressing frustration at the divisive status quo.One Conservative minister commented he prefers a hard Brexit: “I feel more and more pressure for a full Brexit as fear of doing one [a deal with Labour which] would enfranchise [the] Brexit Party for ever.”

The June date for passing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill will be a big test for May as many believe she should resign if her deal fails to go through Parliament yet again. In this confusing time, former foreign secretary Boris Johnson has declared that he will step up and replace May as leader of the Conservative Party.

This fear is reflected in the numbers at polls as it shows the public is growing weary of the establishment. According to the latest opinion poll, Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party has 34% of the vote for the upcoming European elections while Labour has 21%, Liberal Democrats have 12%, and the Conservatives are at fourth place with 11%. Britain still hopes to leave the EU by the end of October.

French politics heat up as European election draws nearer; EU and Facebook work together to combat disinformation and hate speech
With less than two weeks left to the EU elections, Emmanuel Macron’s La Republique en Marche (LREM) party published its European election programme in Berlin titled ‘Renaissance’. The international program is targeted at both French people abroad such as the 150,000 French citizens who are registered in Germany and Austria as well as other EU citizens.

The Renaissance banner contains Eight European parties most of which belong to the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats (ALDE) group. Representatives from these parties including German Free Democratic Party (FDP), Ciudadanos from Spain and centrist Hungarian party Momentum hope to form an alliance of at least 100 MEPs and become the third largest group in Parliament. Meanwhile in France, LREM is neck-to-neck with Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (NR) at 22%. Both are projected to win about 22 seats each in the elections.

In the case of British departure by the October deadline, 27 of the 73 British seats in the European Parliament will be redistributed to 14 other EU member states equitably according to population. France is set to gain 5 more seats to have 79 MEPs in the next Parliament. The French National Assembly has passed a bill designating that the last five seats of the allocated 79, will be retained based on the proportional representation with the highest average.

French politics prior to the May elections is also heating up as Macron’s leading candidate Nathalie Loiseau went head-to-head with two of her rivals in televised debates. On Monday (13 May), she debated François-Xavier Bellamy, the lead candidate for the traditional right-wing party, Les Républicains (LR), and disagreed over the suspension of Viktor Orbán from the European People’s Party (EPP). While Loiseau rejected ever working together with Orbán and his party, Bellamy warned that closing him out would play into Italian populist Matteo Salvini’s hands.

On Wednesday (15 May), Loiseau clashed with far right candidate, Jordan Bardella from NR, over Macron’s immigration policy. The two had starkly different visions of Europe as Bardella pointed out he “wants France to break out of Schengen,” and “restore national borders” to stop immigration.

Meanwhile, the last debate between the 6 candidates vying for European Commission President was held on Wed (15 May) and touched upon climate, migration, economic policy and Europe’s rising nationalism. In the exchange, Frans Timmermans stood out for his call to unite the European left through a coalition of the Greens, Liberals and Socialists.

The centre right candidate Manfred Weber from EPP was again the subject of attacks from the other candidates on his climate policy and austerity measures on Portugal. Weber pushed back against Timmermans on his proposal for standard minimum wage, stressing that young people want “jobs, good paying jobs.”

Media regulation on disinformation campaigns was also a vital concern for the European election candidates. It was found that a vast network of automated social media accounts controlled by Russian based actors have been promoting content produced by far right movements on topics like immigration and Brexit. According to US agency, SafeGuard Cyber’s analysis, around 240 million people in Europe may have been exposed to such news via online platforms such as Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

In Brussels, this has led to more vigilance to safeguard against fake news and protect media freedom at the national level. As social media platforms have disrupted traditional journalism, EU leaders are calling on the next Commission to make a media strategy a priority agenda.

Heeding the Commission’s call to do more, Facebook said it took down numerous Italian accounts that “violated our authenticity policy” and “pages that repeatedly spread incorrect information”. Human rights organization Avaaz said the accounts taken down had over 2.46 million followers and were shown to be supportive of populist parties like 5-star and the League.

Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg met Emmanuel Macron on Friday (10 May) and showed his support of Macron’s efforts to increase regulation of big tech on disinformation and hate speech. Macron’s plan, produced in a report, emphasizes “regular oversight by regulators” over the processes of removing hate speech. It also gives French authorities more access to Facebook’s algorithms. Macron hopes to recommend his approach to other countries as well.

Testy Transatlantic Ties over Iran, EU defence funds and trade
Transatlantic ties between the US and the EU appear to be deteriorating over Iran’s nuclear deal escalation, as well as EU-US bilateral trade discussions.

EU states have expressed regret over the re-imposition of US sanctions on Iran, which have caused Iran to experience an outflow of international investments and loss of the economic benefits it was promised under the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). This is despite the EU enacting a blocking statute to forbid European companies from complying with US sanctions in an attempt to nullify the effects of US withdrawal.

The European ministers who signed the 2015 accord have all publicly criticised the hardline US approach, with the UK and German foreign ministers issuing warnings that the escalation strategy pursued by the US might push Iran back towards developing nuclear weapons.

Iran’s hard-line faction argues that the country should leave not just the JCPOA, but also the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, in order to regain negotiating power vis-à-vis the US. However, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani has succeeded thus far in persuading Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei that Iran would lose from such a course of action.

Rouhani has instead issued a 60-day ultimatum, asking for prompt reaction to protect its oil and banking sectors from the sanctions. France, Germany and the UK have rejected Iran’s demands as an unacceptable ultimatum, but hope to avoid any escalation and preserve the deal, strongly urging Iran to continue to implement its commitments under the JCPOA in full.

The European Union’s diplomatic chief Federica Mogherini in her meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has stressed that dialogue was the “only and best way” to avoid escalation in the Middle East after US President Donald Trump stated that he would confront Iran with military action if necessary. Jan Zahradi, a Czech Member of the European Parliament vying for the post of president of the European Commission, expressed his view that Donald Trump’s stricter approach to Iran is more successful than the bloc’s current policy of “appeasement”.

Also testing transatlantic ties was US push back against EU’s desire to achieve strategic autonomy through Permanent Structured Cooperation (PESCO). It was reported that Washington sent a letter to Mogherini this month to express its concern over the “approval of the European Defence Fund (EDF) rules” and PESCO that would result in “duplication, non-interoperable military systems, diversion of scarce resources and unnecessary competition between NATO and the EU”. Fundamentally, the US was concerned that American companies would be shut out of defence contracts within the EU.

Another source of tension in EU-US ties is the bloc’s insistence on excluding agriculture from bilateral trade talks, which are moving forward despite France’s objection to initiating any trade negotiations with countries outside the Paris climate agreement.

A French official has expressed that this is a matter of “values” and that “Europe must be exemplary and firm in its defence of the climate”. The Commission had hoped to avoid such controversy by striking a simple deal in eliminating industrial tariffs, promising almost equal gains on both ends, while excluding any talks on the contentious area of agriculture.

Members of the US Congress from both the Republican and Democrat parties have voiced strong opposition to any agreement which does not include agriculture. Republican US Senator for Iowa Chuck Grassley is among one of those opposed to negotiations which exclude agriculture as a “nonstarter” and wrote in a Politico article that setting a huge sector of the economy as “off limits from the start..erodes trust between us [the US and EU]”.

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