Vulcan Insight | Analysis of the latest EU Developments 14 – 18 Oct 2019

Key Events This Week

A deal at long last
After intense negotiations, a Brexit deal was finally reached between the EU and UK government on Thursday, 17 October. Chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier said that the deal agreed between Brussels and London after days of accelerated talks was a ‘fair and reasonable result’. While it is true that both the EU and the UK have moved, Johnson’s government have on the whole had to come up with more concessions.

It appears that the low-key meeting between Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson last Thursday laid the foundations between a deal that both the UK and the EU27 could agree to. Following the meeting, the UK Brexit Secretary met with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, to discuss the new proposals. On Friday morning the Ambassadors from the EU27 gave negotiating teams from the UK and EU the green light to enter into detailed technical negotiations, aka ‘the tunnel’. Following intensive discussions and much media speculation over the last six days, a revised Withdrawal Agreement was agreed between the two sides on Thursday, 17 October. This was then endorsed by the European Council on Thursday evening, and welcomed by the Irish government. However, according to Senior EU Officials there could be another summit by the end of October as finalizing the ratification by the end of the month could be difficult, even if the deal is agreed by the House of Commons.

Under the terms of the new withdrawal agreement there would be a customs and regulatory border on the Irish sea. This would mean regulatory compliance between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which would be overseen by the ECJ. Northern Ireland would also benefit from Trade Deals the UK make with third parties. Checks on the land border between Ireland and NI would be minimal, with a series of exemptions based on risked based analysis. The new Brexit Deal has striking similarities with that of Theresa May’s Northern Ireland only backstop, which was negotiated two years ago. However, there are some significant changes in relation to Northern Ireland. The new deal states that after four years the Northern Irish Assembly can decide by a simple majority if they would like to stay in or opt out of the system. The simple majority mechanism takes away the veto powers of both Unionist and Nationalist communities. While in May’s deal the NI only backstop was ‘temporary’, the new text envisages a scenario which potentially allows Northern Ireland to have a different customs and regulatory mechanism from the rest of the UK on a permanent basis. The deal contains both legal and practical uncertainties and that some decisions will be deferred into the future is a major concession from the EU.

The Deal will now be brought to the House of Commons on Saturday morning. However, the Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland have already announced that their ten MPs will not back to the deal. Deputy DUP leader, Nigel Dodds, said that the UK Prime Minister was ‘too eager by far to get a deal at any cost’ because of his determination to avoid an extension to the Brexit process.

The DUP’s opposition to any break with the rest of the UK is not unexpected. It would be more surprising if the DUP were to buy into the deal, in which case it is possible that they have been told something or given a concession by Johnson’s government that we are not fully aware of. Ratification will therefore depend on the numbers of the European Reform Group and expelled Conservative MPs in the House of Commons that will agree Johnson’s deal.

Speaking to a committee of MPs on Wednesday, the Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said that Johnson would comply with the Benn Act if the Brexit deal is not approved by Westminster. The Benn Act forces the Prime Minister to ask for an extension in the case of a no-deal and most likely be accompanied by a general election. The deadline for Johnson to call a general election is also Saturday. It may be in the Prime Minister’s political interest to call an election before Christmas as polls suggest he may win back a majority in the House of Commons and defeat a divided remain side. That Johnson managed to re-open negotiations on the withdrawal agreement and successfully agree a deal with the EU can be seen as a short-term political victory, at the cost of DUP support. The Prime Minister may continue to play the ‘blame-game’ and hold the DUP accountable for any additional delay to Brexit if the deal is not passed. With the Prime Minister having lost all but one House of Commons votes during his premiership, the UK’s Brexit fate remains too close to call.

 

Macron on tour again
After Sylvie Goulard, Macron’s first choice for the post of European Commissioner, was rejected on 10 October, the French President appears to finally understand the power that the European Parliament can wield when the urge takes it.

The rejection came as a shock to the French President who had apparently been given assurances from European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen (who would not have the job if it was not for Macron, you might recall) that his candidate would get the green light from the European Parliament. Turns out the Parliament don’t like being told what to do. Even more relevant, turns out the EPP didn’t like Macron’s rejection in May of their Spitzekandidat, Manfred Weber.

After a few days of the blame-game Macron has his focus back. He met with von der Leyen and Merkel earlier in the week and has now set his sights on the European Council summit, where he is holding a series of bilaterals with other European leaders and suggesting some replacements for Goulard who will be palatable to them.

Of course this rejection means that the new European Commission will now not be able to start before 1 December, as opposed to the original start date of 1 November. But the French are not the only problematic member state. The collapse of the Romanian Government, after the JURI Committee in the European Parliament gave their Commissioner-designate her marching orders before she could even go through the official hearing process, means that getting a replacement in the next few weeks looks unlikely. The JURI Committee also subjected the Hungarian Commissioner-designate to similar treatment.

One thing is clear – Macron is not willing to give up the very sizeable portfolio that his candidate was promised. The portfolio – spanning three Directorate Generals – would see the French Commissioner oversee the beefed-up Internal Market dossier. Many MEPs feel that this is far too broad for one Commissioner to manage alone, citing this as one of the reasons they rejected her. Safe to say that we can expect some jostling and perhaps even re-jigging of the current portfolios before the College is confirmed in Strasbourg at the end of November.

 

France blocks further EU enlargement

France has blocked the opening of talks for both Albania and North Macedonia to join the European Union during a meeting of EU ministers at the General Affairs Council on Tuesday.

The French European Affairs Minister, Amélie de Montchalin, explained that further reforms were needed in both countries before accession talks could commence. Albania had undertaken reforms, including undertaking a judicial vetting procedure, in an effort to appease the EU. Albania’s Foreign Affairs minister, Gent Cakaj, said the rejection dismissed those efforts and it could “undermine reform forces in the region”.

Meanwhile, North Macedonia had undertaken a series of reforms at the request of the EU, including changing its name to appease neighbouring Greece. Nikola Dimitrov, the country’s Foreign Minister, highlighted that despite the efforts of the country, EU disunity had continued to delay negotiations.

France raised concerns with the way in which the Commission conducts its accession negotiations and its approach to addressing the brain drain that occurring in the countries during accession. The issue of a reduced talent pool was not addressed in the case of Serbian during its candidacy for accession or during the Eastern Enlargement of 2004.

The rejection by France of commencing accession talks with Albania and North Macedonia has highlighted concerns of a strategic vacuum being filled by Russia, Turkey and China who are vying for influence in the region. Some commentators have suggested that North Macedonia is better equipped for EU membership that Serbia, which is a favourite for accession.

The position of Macron’s government on Macedonia stands in opposition to Merkel as the opening of the talks had been a priority for Germany ahead of the Council Summit of 17 and 18 October. However, it is understood that Germany remains unconvinced about the EU entering into accession talks with Albania.

EU leaders were unable to find agreement at the October Summit with France continuing to oppose the opening of accession talks for both Albania and North Macedonia. A split emerged with the Netherlands, Spain and Denmark proposing to prioritise the opening of talks for North Macedonia, while Italy and Germany opposed this, instead wanting concurrent accession talks for the Balkan countries.

Key Dates 

 

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