Nebulous, hell… Brexit impasse continues
Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar engaged in a game of shadow boxing this week with both leaders making separate trips to Belfast and Brussels. In a bid to assure communities in Northern Ireland, May and Varadkar reaffirmed their commitment to maintaining an invisible border on the island. However, during the PM’s two day visit there were no new alternatives put forward to break the impasse. In an interesting comment during her press conference, the Prime Minister confirmed she was not seeking to remove the idea of a backstop but rather wanted to achieve legally binding changes such as the ability for the insurance policy to be time limited. This statement is unlikely to satisfy members of the European Research Group, many of whom want rid of the backstop in its entirety.
It was in meetings with EU leaders in Brussels which proved to be the most controversial. Speaking alongside the Taoiseach, EU Council President Tusk said “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”
In a joint statement issued after the PM’s meeting with EU Commission leader Jean-Claude Juncker on Thursday, the two sides promised to meet again before the end of the month. However, Juncker once again outlined his full support for the negotiated backstop and rejected any attempt by the UK to reopen negotiations. While manoeuvre in terms of the future relationship remain open, should the UK change their red lines, there was no sign of any breakthrough as May returned empty handed to London.
Meanwhile in the UK Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn wrote to the PM to present his party’s conditions for support for a Brexit deal. Labour’s policy of a permanent customs union goes against one of Theresa May’s core red lines, to have an independent trade policy. While No 10 is expected to alleviate Labour concerns on the issues of worker’s rights, it remains unlikely to attract enough opposition support without movement on a customs union.
Looking to the week ahead, all eyes will be on Downing Street as the PM ponders whether or not to pull the meaningful vote on February 14th . With little indication of any appetite among the EU to reopen the withdrawal agreement, attention once again will turn to the role of MPs who may launch a fresh bid to set the course for Brexit.
Crisis in Venezuela leads to a crisis in the EU
Many EU countries, including the bloc’s major powers of France, Germany and the U.K., officially recognized Juan Guaidó on Monday as Venezuela’s interim president after President Nicolás Maduro ignored a demand to call new elections.
Not all countries have been united. Italy blocked a joint statement by the EU — leaving the high representative for foreign affairs, Federica Mogherini, to issue a tortuously complex statement. It began with an unconvincing: “There is a common European Union position on Venezuela, and we have expressed it very clearly and together, all the 28.”
Mogherini, in her remarks, did stress the point on which all EU countries agree: that there should be “a democratic and peaceful solution to the crisis in Venezuela.” The EU has called for new elections but only some EU countries were willing to impose a Sunday deadline for Maduro to do so. In any event, he ignored that deadline. That prompted several EU powers to issue forceful statements condemning Maduro and recognizing Guaidó.
Adding to the inconsistency coming from Brussels, the European Parliament last week recognized Guaidó, adopting a resolution, by 439 to 104 votes with 88 abstentions, that expressed “full support to the National Assembly, Venezuela’s only legitimate democratic body, whose powers need to be restored and respected, including the rights and safety of its members.”
EU officials said further economic sanctions are being considered but they are concerned about the risk that the country’s assets will be plundered amid the chaos. The struggle to adopt joint statements on Venezuela (as well as the INF Treaty and the Arab League) will likely prompt renewed calls for the EU to use a treaty provision allowing some foreign policy decisions to be made by a qualified majority, without the unanimity of all member countries.
Vestager blocks proposed Alstom – Siemens merger
In a move that has angered both French and German industrialists, Margrethe Vestager, the European Competition Commissioner, has blocked the proposed Alstom – Siemens merger.
The merger, which would have created the world’s second largest signalling and high-speed train company, was seen as a necessary counterbalance to the growing might of CRRC, a Chinese rail company.
Vestager said that there was no threat of CRRC obtaining a beachhead in Europe “in the foreseeable future” and that the merger would distort the market. “Competition policy ensures that we have fair and open competition,” she said. “A company is not going to be competitive abroad if it does not face competition at home.”
The block was described as a “mistake” by Manfred Weber, the EPP Spitzenkandidat to replace Jean-Claude Juncker as the head of the European Commission.