VULCAN VIEW- KEY EVENTS THIS WEEK:
Barnier for Commission President?
Despite being selected as the European People’s Party Spitzenkandidat (lead candidate for the European President position) earlier this month, Manfred Weber is far from crossing the finishing line. Michel Barnier, the European Commission’s chief Brexit negotiator declined to run for the EPP nomination citing his Brexit workload as a deciding factor. On Sunday, at the special convening of the European Council, Michel Barnier was praised by a wide range of EU leaders for his work in the Brexit negotiations.
Mr. Barnier previously attempted to run for the Commission president five years ago. He proposed that the Commission should be focused on more politics and less regulation. Barnier wants the European Union to be a global player, especially in the area of trade, technology and defence. In terms of the future, Barnier would be in the main driving seat for any trade deal with the United Kingdom.
There is concern in Brussels that the EPP Spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber is ill prepared for the position of Commission President. Jean Claude Juncker for example, was a Prime Minister of Luxembourg and his predecessor Jose Manuel Barroso was a Prime Minister of Portugal. Weber on the other hand is currently holding his highest position in office – Leader of the EPP group in the European Parliament. Barnier has served two terms as a European Commissioner and has held senior ministerial posts in France. He has also won plaudits from across the EU for his work on Brexit. In these times, there is a growing view in EPP circles that it would be fitting for the Brexit deal maker to continue to unite the EU27 beyond 2019.
Marine Le Pen repays the European Parliament
On Wednesday, the European Court of Justice ordered Marine Le Pen to repay the European Parliament €41,554 after the funds were wrongly used to pay a bodyguard. The investigation by the EU Anti Fraud Office found that the funds originally meant to be for a parliamentary assistant were misused.
Ms. Le Pen appealed the decision calling the European Court of Justice biased and declaring that the office should be investigated. This is not the first controversy to hit a Le Pen in 2018. Earlier this year, Le Pen’s father and former party leader Jean-Marie was ordered to reimburse over €300,000 to the Parliament. Jean-Marie Le Pen was using Parliament funds which were “unduly” paid to an assistant at the time.
Le Pen will be setting her sights on the future as President Macron’s approval rating has dropped to record lows. The old France with strikes and protests which Macron has tried to move away from has returned with a devastating impact on the image of France across the world. It is ironic that the Yellow Jacket insurgency is a product of the same phenomenon that brought Macron to power.
According to polls, opposition parties have not gained much from the protests. Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally has tried to use the discontent to garner support, but has been kept at arm’s length by grassroots activists keen not to be tarred with an extremist brush. The conservative opposition Les Republicans have attacked Macron as remote and arrogant but landed few punches. The European elections in May will be the French President’s first serious electoral test since winning power.
Tensions are flaring up again between Russia and Ukraine
Tensions between Ukraine and Russia have escalated after a military incident earlier this week. Three Ukrainian Navy boats were trying to pass through the Kerch Strait into the Azov Sea, which separates Crimea and Russia. Crimea has been the cause of conflict between Ukraine and Russia in 2014 when Russia annexed Crimea and has been in control of it since.
Earlier this year Russia finished completing a bridge that now connects mainland Russia with the peninsula. The continued provocation by the President Putin has led to harsh criticism by many European and international leaders.
Donald Tusk, President of the European Council, took to Twitter earlier this week condemning Russia’s use of force. He called for a united Europe to stand in support with Ukraine.
Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko declared martial law in several regions of the country, which was also extended to the waters in the Azov Sea where the incident occurred. He has called on Russia’s president Vladimir Putin to end the provocations but the Kremlin’s has brushed aside all criticism.
Germany’s Minister of Foreign Affairs called the developments “worrying”. He said in an interview that the blockade by Russia was unacceptable. A top Ukrainian diplomat has called on Germany specifically to take a firm stand against the government in Moscow and to impose strict sanctions against the country. So far there hasn’t been much response from Chancellor Merkel, who has called for talks and a de-escalation of the situation. Should the situation worsen it is expected that European leaders will take action against Russia.
Next stop Brexit deal?
The Brexit negotiations have taken another step forward but the biggest hurdle is yet to come. On Sunday, during a specially convened summit, EU leaders approved a Brexit deal with the UK. This came after tension rose when Spain took issue with the treatment of Gibraltar in the deal. In the end Theresa May was able to settle the differences and Spain. However, the EU 27 warned that there could be no meaningful renegotiation of the agreement, even if the parliament rejects it. The UK Parliament is expected to vote on this on the 11th of December. Already there has been much resistance from MPs on both sides of the aisle, with the 100th member of the Conservative party declaring this morning that they will vote against the deal. On these numbers, it seems an impossible task for her to get the necessary majority of 320 MPs needed to pass the deal. Many EU leaders, including Leo Varadkar echoed the sentiment that this will be the final deal offered by the EU.
Wednesday morning saw the publication of the government’s first economic analysis of the impact of Theresa May’s Brexit deal in a bid to win back some of the MPs. This cross government report was coordinated by Department for Exiting the European Union but was heavily influenced by HM Treasury. In media interviews on Wednesday morning, Chancellor Phillip Hammond confirmed that leaving the EU will make the UK poorer, even with Theresa May’s plan. He went on to elaborate that a no deal Brexit would have a “much higher impact on the economy than the deal the Prime Minister has negotiated”. Notwithstanding the economic data, it seems that the Cabinet is failing to convince its own MPs, let alone Labour party members that the deal is necessary to avert financial crisis. The vote on December seems set to fail in a spectacular fashion.