What a month dense of events has been the last one around Brussels, hasn’t it? Here I analyse the most relevant ones; feel free to skim the page and take what interests you the most!
- Brexit is going on
- Poland steps back on judicial reform
- European Election 2019 Spitzenkandidaten
- European Defence: Maybe you don’t know that…
Brexit process goes on
Everyone is talking about Brexit, not only in the United Kingdom but also all-around Europe. What happened exactly in the last 30 days? What will happen? To answer the first question is undoubtedly easier. To rapidly go through the last month events: on 14 November the UK cabinet backed the Brexit deal. It was a decisive but not easy step, since on the same day two ministers of the cabinet resigned, Brexit secretary Dominic Raab being one of the two. Then, on 25 November, the agreement was endorsed by the European leaders at a special meeting of the European Council. The Brexit deal consists of the withdrawal agreement, a 584-page legally-binding document, and the 26-page political declaration on future EU-UK relations, which accompanies and is referred to in the withdrawal agreement. On 10 December, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) ruled that the United Kingdom can unilaterally withdrawal from the Article 50 procedure and remain in the European Union. To answer the second question, what will happen now, is much harder. The agreement will be voted in the House of Commons in the coming weeks. If the outcome is a yes, the document will pass through the votes of the European Parliament and European Council and a transition period will follow suit until December 2020, during which the UK will still be subject to EU rules and the future relationship will be defined. If the outcome is a no, many scenarios can take form, among which government elections, another referendum, re-negotiation and leave with no deal. To avoid speculation in such an uncertain scenario, I will discuss the outcome in this newsletter next month.
Poland takes a step back on judicial reform
Deputies of the ruling Law and Justice party passed a bill in the last week of November allowing two dozen Supreme Court judges to return to work after they were forced into early retirement earlier this year. In fact, in a previous law Polish government lowered the retirement age of the Supreme Court judges from 70 to 65, affecting the tenure of 20 judges. The European Commission, afraid that the Polish judiciary system could lose its independence from the government, activated last December an Article 7 procedure against Poland. Article 7 is a process that could lead a Member State to be deprived of its voting rights if it is found to breach the core values of EU. Later on, failing to see any concrete results, the European Commission referred Poland to the European Court of Justice in September, which in turn ordered Poland to stop the judicial reforms. Pundits explain the recent choice of the Polish government on the basis of recent election results, which saw Law and Justice party perform lower than expected in big cities as well as in some smaller towns, presumably because of the strong stance of the government taken against the European Union. In fact, the European Union remains highly popular in Poland, as shows the chart. The change of direction has been described as a “positive opening” by the European Commission Vice-President Valdis Dombrovskis; however, EU officials say that it is not enough to end the stand-off. This was only one of the issues concerning the independence of the Polish judiciary system. Law and Justice’s judicial reforms include power given to politicians in lower courts, in the constitutional tribunal and in the National Judicial Council, which appoints judges. The EU ambassadors decided by majority to launch another Article 7 hearing on Poland at the next General Affair Council meeting on December 11. The General Affair Council (GAC) is the organ made up of the European affair ministers whose task is to coordinate the preparation for the European Council meetings.
European Election 2019 Spitzenkandidaten
In last month’s newsletter I broadly outlined the process to choose the lead candidates for the European Election of 2019, or Spitzenkandidaten. In the meanwhile, many of these political figures have been selected by the respective parties. I remember you that the Spitzenkandidat is not a legally defined process and that the European Council can propose also other people for the role of the European Commission President; nevertheless, it was first used in 2014 when the European Commission President Jean-Claud Junker was appointed and will probably be used again in the coming election. Let’s see who are for the moment the lead candidates. The current biggest party, the European People Party (EPP), voted Manfred Weber on the occasion of the Helsinki EPP congress on November 8. Manfred Weber is a Bavarian politician, member of the Bavarian party CSU and long-lasting Member of the European Parliament. He is also the current group leader of the EPP. Frans Timmermans, current First Vice President of the European commission and former Foreign Minister of The Netherlands, is the lead candidate of the second largest group in the European Parliament, the Party of European Socialists (PES). He is the only front-runner for his party since Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič left the race to endorse him. The Greens have been performing outstandingly in recent elections, and at the moment have suggested two names. On November 24, at the Council of Berlin, they elected Ska Keller of the German Greens Bündnis 90/Die Grünen and Bas Eickhout of the Dutch Greens GroenLinks. The Alliance for Liberals and Democrats for Europe (ALDE) has still not chosen a single Spitzenkandidat but has adopted an electoral manifesto on November 10 in Madrid, which any candidate would have to stick to. On Wednesday November 28 the Czech politician Jan Zahradil was formally unveiled as the Spitzenkandidat for the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR). As for now, Macron’s La République En Marche ! (LaREM) does not endorse the Spitzenkandidat process and therefore did not appoint any lead candidate. European United Left-Nordic Green Left (GUE/NPL) has not indicated a lead candidate either. Two more interesting facts. Volt could be the first pan-European party. It now operates in 30 countries (EU28 plus Albania and Switzerland) and will decide a lead candidate in March. Varoufakis, the former Greece Finance Minister and outspoken critic of austerity during the years of the crisis, will run for the European Commission presidency for Democracy In Europe Movement 2025 (DiEM25), quite interestingly, from Germany.
European defence: Maybe you don’t know that…
A European Intelligence School is going to be set up. It is only one of the 17 projects adopted by the Council on November 20 in the framework of PESCO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation on security and defence. The list comprehends Mutual Assistance in Cyber Security and Cyber Rapid Response Teams, specialised Helicopter Training and the creation of a European Military Space Surveillance Awareness Network among others. The aim of PESCO is to raise cooperation on defence among the 25 participating EU Member States – all except the United Kingdom, Malta and Denmark – and coordinates 34 projects.