Key Events This Week:
As another extraordinary week in the Brexit saga comes to a close, we can finally say that some progress has been made, but whether for better or for worse is anyone’s guess.
The EU 27 agreed on a response to Prime Minister May’s request to delay Brexit and avoid a chaotic split on March 29. They gave her two options. First, a short delay until May 22 for the UK to get its ducks in a row before leaving the EU. The only caveat – this option is only available if lawmakers in the House of Commons approve May’s overall withdrawal deal next week.
Second, if May loses the third ‘meaningful vote’ on her deal, the EU will allow the UK to stay until April 12, at which point it must make a choice: Take part in the European Parliamentary elections in May and seek a longer delay to Brexit, or don’t.
Here is how the week unfolded. On Monday, the speaker John Bercow told May that, having been defeated twice, she would not be allowed to put her Brexit withdrawal deal before the House of Commons for a third meaningful vote.
On Tuesday, she wrote to the EU and asked for an extension to the Article 50 process, to stay in the EU for a little bit longer, to find a way out of this mess.
On Wednesday, the EU Council president Donald Tusk appeared in Brussels to announce that she could only have an extension if the House of Commons voted through her withdrawal deal, in a vote she’s already been told she can’t have.
Effectively there was no way out, so she came out swinging.
Speaking in Downing Street in a televised address, Prime Minister May said the three-month Brexit delay she had earlier in the day formally requested from EU27 leaders was “a matter of great personal regret for me” – and she would not countenance a longer extension of article 50. With just one week now to go before Britain is due to leave the EU, she laid the blame for the crisis squarely at the door of the House of Commons.
In what will no doubt be remembered as one of the most recalcitrant speeches in modern political history, May blamed Members of Parliament for delaying any progress on Brexit and that the ‘tired public’ had had enough. The very people she needed to get on side, she has managed to unite against her.
Looking ahead to next week’s third meaningful vote it’s hard to see the vote passing. Leaving us, once again, in Brexit limbo.
EPP stop short of expelling Fidesz
At the EPP Political Assembly, which took place on Wednesday 20 March in the European Parliament, representatives of the member parties from across Europe voted to suspend Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz party.
The suspension is intended to show voters that it takes criticism of Budapest’s rule-of-law record seriously. But the decision also leaves the door open for Fidesz to regain full membership. Suspension effectively means: no attendance at any party meeting; no voting rights and no right to propose candidates for posts.
The assembly approved the decision with 190 votes in favour and three against. Under the terms of the deal, Fidesz will have to meet various conditions and a three-person panel will judge whether the party is acting in accordance with the EPP’s rules and values.
Orbán considers himself a champion of “illiberal democracy” and has, in recent months, restricted the freedom of education, media and association in Hungary. With his latest political campaign, featuring current Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and American-Hungarian businessman George Soros, he crossed a red line in the eyes of many EPP politicians. Orbán provoked further outrage within the EPP by branding his internal critics “useful idiots.”
Orbán has robustly denied the allegations. To regain full EPP membership, Fidesz will have to end the anti-Juncker campaign; recognise the damage it caused and refrain from similar action; and resolve a legal dispute over the status of the Soros-founded Central European University in Budapest.
“We never had any campaign against Juncker,” Orbán declared in a press conference on Wednesday evening. “What we have in Hungary is an information campaign.”
Orbán concluded by saying that Fidesz would be campaigning for an EPP victory in the European Parliament election.
EU fines Google €1.49B
Margrethe Vestager, European Commissioner for Competition, has fined tech giant Google €1.49B (1.29% of Google’s turnover in 2018).
In a press conference on Wednesday, Vestager said that Google had abused its dominant position by forcing users of its AdSense business to sign contracts stating that they would not accept advertising from rival search engines.
During the press conference, Vestager gave an update on the other antitrust fines that Google have on their table. For example, with regard to its manipulation of shopping search results, Vestager said that changes Google made after the EU’s case increased the visibility of rivals from 6% of search results to 40%.
Google was by far the strongest player in online search advertising intermediation in the European Economic Area (EEA), with a market share above 70% from 2006 to 2016. In 2016 Google also held market shares generally above 90% in the national markets for general search and above 75% in most of the national markets for online search advertising, where it is present with its flagship product, the Google search engine, which provides search results to consumers.
Fines imposed on companies found in breach of EU antitrust rules are paid into the general EU budget. This money is not earmarked for particular expenses, but Member States’ contributions to the EU budget for the following year are reduced accordingly. The fines therefore help to finance the EU and reduce the burden for taxpayers.
Google now been fined a total of over €8.2B in last 2 years by the European Commission. That’s very nearly the UK’s annual net EU budget contribution (roughly €9.0B net).
Former Finnish PM Stubb eyes Artificial Intelligence role
The technologically advanced EPP Spitzenkandidat campaign of Alexander Stubb created waves around Europe. Stubb has set his sights on the European Commission in the capacity as the first European Commissioner for Artificial Intelligence – (A possible Vice President position).
Stubb believes that artificial intelligence is changing the world as we know it. Fake news and meddling in elections are just two reasons for a regulation around artificial intelligence.
At the moment, the former Prime Minister of Finland is a Vice President of the European Investment Bank. Stubb believes that in the current global order, it is better to have the good guys doing the algorithms rather than the bad guys. “Someone needs to regulate those algorithms so they don’t go haywire and I think Europe is quite good at that.”
Stubb wants a Commissioner for Artificial Intelligence: “If I were to have a chance to influence the agenda of the next European Commission, I would even have a Commissioner for artificial intelligence.”
He could face stiff competition from current EU Justice Commissioner Vera Jourova, who also appears to be positioning herself for the same role.
Key upcoming dates
- 25 – 29 March – European Parliament Plenary session, Strasbourg
- 26 March – College of Commissioner meeting, Strasburg
- 26 – 27 March – Informal meeting of Transport ministers, Bucharest
Compliments of Vulcan Consulting a member of the EACCNY