Vulcan Insight | Analysis of the latest EU Developments 21-25 Oct 2019

Key Events This Week

Brexit – so close yet so far
Saturday’s special meeting of the UK Parliament resulted in Prime Minister Johnson having to reluctantly write to EU Council President Donald Tusk to seek an extension until January 31st 2020. President Tusk has recommended that EU27 leaders grant the extension request. This is likely to be done by ordinary written procedure, without any additional European Council summit. After a meeting of EU diplomats in Brussels on Wednesday afternoon, officials have stated that there was general agreement to extend the date. Therefore, it is likely that the new deadline for Brexit will be January 31st 2020. However, resistance from President Macron – as was seen earlier this year – could throw a spanner in the works.

On Thursday, Johnson wrote to Jeremy Corbyn asking him to agree to an election on 12 December. If Labour agrees to this, Johnson has offered more parliamentary time – up to 6 November – for MPs to scrutinise his Brexit Bill. Johnson needs two thirds of MPs to vote for an election under the Fixed Term Parliament Act. Corbyn is making it clear he will not support an election until no-deal is taken off the table. Likewise, Brussels has been holding back on deciding on the extension to see how events in Westminster pan out.

Adding to the awkwardness of the prolonged Brexit process, European Commission President-elect Ursula von der Leyen has said that she will ask the UK to nominate a Commissioner if the deadline is extended beyond November 1st. Johnson has previously stated that he will not nominate a Commissioner.

Top EU negotiators stay in the political game
Outgoing-European Council President Donald Tusk won’t be leaving the European political stage after his tenure as President of the European Council finishes at the end of the month. He has been nominated as leader of the European People’s Party, the centre-right political grouping in the European Parliament, home to Ireland’s Fine Gael and Germany’s CDU. The news of Tusk’s nomination for EPP President comes after speculation that he could run in next year’s Polish presidential election.

Tusk has been widely praised for his role in the Brexit negotiations between the EU and UK. He has chaired many a late-night summit between the European leaders who had to find unity on granting extensions to the Brexit procedures. Tusk hasn’t hesitated to be outspoken or poke fun at the British government’s Brexit strategy, or lack thereof, but is widely regarded as being a friend of the UK. Tusk has also has publicly noted his desire to see the Brexit decision reversed.

On the other side of Rue de la Loi, a new EU-UK Task Force is to be set up with the aim of rebuilding ties between the two blocs post-Brexit. Michel Barnier, who has led the negotiations between the EU and the UK to-date, will lead the Task Force. The new department will oversee future trade negotiations as well as cooperation in judicial affairs, defence, and foreign policy. The EU will be keen to continue cooperation with the UK, especially on security and defence policy, given the UK’s considerable clout in this field.

Like Tusk, Barnier has won universal praise from the EU27 for his handling of the negotiations. He has secured not one, but two agreements with the UK, and the EU is seen as having conceded relatively little in the talks. Speaking to members of the European Parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday, Barnier referred to the “unpicking of 45 years of co-operation” which Brexit has brought with it. He will have Herculean task ahead of him, but will be bolstered by his ample experience.

Macron nominates Thierry Breton as European Commissioner
Following the European Parliament’s rejection of his first candidate for European Commissioner, Sylvie Goulard, Emmanuel Macron has nominated Thierry Breton for the post. Goulard was rejected by the Parliament over concerns she could not sufficiently clarify fraud allegations against her.

If all goes according to plan, Breton will take on the sizeable internal market portfolio which also covers defence and digital issues. Breton said that he fully realises “the importance of what’s at stake with this portfolio for Europe and European citizens”. Breton served as French Economic, Finance and Industry Minister under Jacques Chirac and currently leads a multinational IT firm, Atos, which has profited from EU funding.

There are already some question marks over whether Breton will be the best fit for the role. The Élysée Palace said in a statement, “if we are proposing this candidate, he is suitable”. However, a French official is quoted as calling Breton “brilliant, very smart…but he is a man of utmost arrogance and that ego has harmed him a lot in his career”. Some MEPs have also made the argument that his private sector background and holding of shares in Atos could pose a conflict of interest. His appointment would also mean that Ursula von der Leyen’s final Commission is unlikely to be gender-balanced.

What is clear is that Macron is keen to have a big personality in the role to match the clout of the large Commission portfolio. He has been eager to re-build the influence of France in the EU after the lacklustre performance of his predecessor François Hollande. In July Macron blocked an EPP initiative to decide who would become the next Commission President. When it comes to Brexit, Macron has pushed against his EU colleagues for a tougher stance towards the UK government, regarding the granting of Brexit extensions.

If the Parliament approves Breton’s appointment, he will take up the role on 1 December, one month later than originally planned.

Key Dates 
  • 7 November: Eurogroup
  • 8 November: Education, Youth, Culture and Sport Council
  • 8 November: Economic and Financial Affairs Council

Compliments of Vulcan Consulting, a member of the EACCNY