After the summer calm of Brexit and the last couple of weeks of starting to develop negotiating positions, Brexit suddenly started to feel a lot more "real" again this week with the European Parliament holding its "State of the Union" debate, and the Bratislava Summit attended by all the members of the EU, except the UK. Whilst there has understandably been a lot of tough talk towards the UK regarding Brexit this week, once the negotiations begin there will be strong pressures on both sides to ensure Brexit is as painless as possible. Ultimately nobody truly knows how Brexit will evolve over the coming years, but for the next few months at least, we will see a lot more posturing and positioning ahead of the crunch negotiations. There will also likely be some changing political circumstances for European politicians to negotiate as well.
- Former President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy has this week said that he doesn't think talks will begin in earnest until September 2017, after important elections in several European Member States, including France and potentially most importantly, Germany.
- One of the areas that has been suggested for compromise, between the UK and EU is the Freedom of Movement of People. Whilst that is a key component of the EU's doctrine, some people believe there could be flexibility over this to both help keep the UK and EU's relationship as close as possible, and to help reduce some of the migration challenges facing many European countries at the moment. A big obstacle to this however, has been made very clear this week. The Visegrad Four Group, made up of the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia want to guarantee that their citizens ‘are equal’ before agreeing to any Brexit deal, which could include the rights of their citizens to live and work in Britain. Robert Fico, Prime Minister of Slovakia, said: "Unless we feel a guarantee that these people are equal, we will veto any agreement between the EU and Britain".
- The impact of Brexit on the important financial services sector has also been in the news again this week. Representatives of US banks have written to the US Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew, to raise their concerns about Brexit negotiations. They have asked that they are transparent and that the business community should be actively consulted, that arrangements are in line with global standards and that transitional arrangements minimise uncertainty. They also raised the importance of "pass-porting" for financial services between the EU and the UK post-Brexit. This point was also made by Jens Weidman, Head of Bundesbank, who warned against a "hard Brexit", saying that "pass-porting rights are tied to the single market and would automatically cease to apply if Great Britain is no longer at least part of the European Economic Area."
Written by RPP Head of London Office, Andrew Brown
Notes from the EP Plenary Session Week in Strasbourg
Guy Verhofstadt appointed as European Parliament Representative on Brexit
The Conference of Presidents (comprising the EP President and the Leaders of the Political Groups) of the European Parliament has appointed Guy Verhostadt, the Leader of the Liberal Group (ALDE) as its representative for Brexit matters. He will be the counterpart to Michel Barnier who is the chief negotiator of the European Commission for the Brexit process. Senior Belgian diplomat Didier Seeuws will be in charge for the Council from a Brexit perspective. Verhofstadt, who has also served as Belgian Prime Minister in the past, has been tasked to keep the Conference of Presidents informed about the developments of the Brexit talks and he will also help to prepare the EP position in the negotiations, in close cooperation with the other Group Leaders. The European Parliament will have to approve a possible agreement regarding the conditions for the UK leaving the European Union. Various sources from the Christian-Democrat section of the EPP group underlined that Verhoftstadt role is not meant to be the role of a rapporteur, his role shall more be some kind of a “liaison officer” between EP and Commission. Knowing the group leader of the ALDE Group and his outstanding political skills, he will certainly make most of his new role.
Parliament endorses Sir Julian King as Commissioner for Security Union
The Civil Liberties Committee (LIBE Committee) of the European Parliament last Monday quizzed the new UK Commissioner-designate Sir Julian King in order to assess his candidature. After the hearing various MEPs expressed that they are very satisfied with the performance of the Commissioner-designate during the hearing. In a meeting on Tuesday morning the coordinators of the LIBE Committee expressed that the candidate possesses the necessary competence and determination to do the job, and that King was well prepared for the hearing and understood the great challenges of that portfolio. They came to the conclusion that Sir Julian King would act as a guardian of the Treaties and in the best interest of the EU and that he should be appointed as EU Commissioner for the Security Union. During the hearing the Commissioner-designate was repeatedly asked by various UK MEPs about his views regarding the Brexit process. He emphasised several times that he is not a representative of Her Majesty’s Government or British interests and therefore declined to talk about Brexit. He started by delivering his introductory statement in perfect French and by highlighting that “terrorism is multinational and needs a European response and that the only way to defeat it is by working together.”
Based on this positive recommendation from the EP LIBE Committee, the Conference of Presidents of the House has decided that the hearing procedure has closed and put that forward to the full House to vote on that individual appointment on Thursday. Parliament backed the appointment of Sir Julian King as Commissioner for the Security Union by 394 votes to 161, with 83 abstentions, in a secret ballot.
N.B. In his capacity as Commissioner for the Security Union, Julian King will support the implementation of the European Agenda on Security and help to build-up an effective Security Union. He will work under the guidance of Commission First-Vice President, Dutch Socialist, Frans Timmermans and by complementing the work of the EU Migration, Home Affairs and Citizenship Commissioner, Dimitris Avramopoulos from Greece.
Written by RPP Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy, Thomas Krings
"State of the Union” Debate in Strasbourg
Migration crisis, the shape of the European economy, the Euro, terrorism and Brexit…. The European Union is currently facing a lot of challenges and therefore a lot of topics to be dealt with in this year’s State of the Union debate in Strasbourg. This State of the Union format since 2010 “traditionally” takes place during the first plenary debate in September. It is an opportunity for the MEPs to discuss the direction for the EU with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. The Commission President’s State of the Union speech this week was a “tour de force”, addressing the many challenges the EU is currently facing. In his words: “Our European Union is, at least in part, in an existential crisis”. In the words of the German news magazine ZEIT online: power is more than ever with the member states than with the EU.
Juncker started his speech by mentioning the biggest challenges the EU is facing now: populism, fragmentation, unemployment and social injustice. Referring to Brexit, he pointed out that “we do respect and regret the UK decision, but EU as such is not at risk…we would be happy for the request for Brexit to take effect as soon as possible.” He also emphasised that the new nature of the EU-UK relations will certainly not include an “á la carte” access to the Single Market. Otherwise he did not significantly touch upon Brexit matters.
President Juncker also set the scene for the political priorities for the coming months:
- swiftly ratifying the climate change agreement
- further free trade agreements with third countries, such as CETA with Canada
- fighting tax evasion
- data protection
- building an effective capital union
- access to high speed internet (WIFI coverage in urban areas by 2020)
- more job-creating investment (in that context he announced that the EFSI fund for strategic investment would even be doubled)
Referring to the refugee crisis, he claimed that more solidarity is needed and he suggested to create an EU solidarity corps and also a new investment plan for Africa in that context. On the fight against terrorism, he underlined the need to improve the exchange of information between the police authorities of the EU Member States, by reinforcing Europol at the same time. He also claimed that a European Defence Fund would be needed.
The response regarding his speech was mixed. Many MEPs claimed that they would have had expected a more visionary tone in his speech, one Liberal MEP expressed, that it would have been time to come up with something such as a 10 Point plan how to solve the current problems in the EU and to bring the EU again closer to its citizens.
Socialist Group Leader, Italian Gianni Pittella thanked Juncker for his balanced speech and deplored that UK Prime Minister May had kept the EU “in a stalemate” already for three months and stressed the need for the EU to respond.
ALDE group leader Guy Verhoftstadt said there is a split between generations on Europe, with the younger in favor and the older more sceptic. “Populists preach a false sense of security, that with walls and fences we solve all the problems, but how do you keep climate change or terrorists out of your country? With fences or with European policies?”, he asked, adding that “Europe is the cure for the cancer of nationalism” and that Brexit is an opportunity for Europe!!! Whereas Syed Kamall, the Leader of the ECR Group, stated that the “EU could do less, but better.”
The EU is facing unprecedented challenges, but first and foremost must fight uncertainty, emphasised Ivan Korcok, State Secretary of the Slovak Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs, saying that the Bratislava summit of 16 September will be "an opportunity for a frank and open discussion" in the aftermath of the UK referendum and "will kick off a process" of finding "common ground" in "migration, internal and external security".
Written by RPP Senior Director of Policy & Advocacy, Thomas Krings
Bratislava Summit: Hiding Post-Brexit Divisions
The informal Bratislava summit was intended to develop an agenda towards a “vision of an attractive” EU. Together the European Commission and the Council wished to publish a Bratislava Declaration and a roadmap for the next 12 months. Even though the summit was orchestrated to demonstrate unity between the remaining 27 EU member states the result showed emerging divisions between the countries rather than a common vision for the EU.
Advancement on the roadmap was primarily made on those points where the UK was previously blocking any progress. On migration and external borders, it was foreseen to bolster the European Boarder and Coast guard. Topics such as the distribution of refugees were not touched upon. In internal and external security, the Commission will look into introducing a European visa system similar to the US’s ESTA. In External Security and Defence, the 27 agreed to move ahead with a proposal to establish a EU military operations headquarter. This policy field was previously blocked by UK opposition. In Economic and social development as well as youth the European Fund for Strategic Investment will probably be extended. The smallest common denominator for Brexit remained: No special deals, no cherry-picking, no messing with freedom of movement rules, no talks before Article 50 is triggered. The Visegard states Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia are even ready to veto any Brexit deal that would limit their citizens’ rights to work in Britain.
However, the deep divisions between different states remain. Cleavages run along two lines. First, there is the apparent division between central European states and Southern European states. Topics of conflict are mainly the refugee crisis and the economic situation of the periphery. This division became ever more obvious with Renzi avoiding the joint German-French press conference. Renzi himself is facing a constitutional referendum, which means he must present results for the Italian electorate quickly, while Germany and France cannot give in due to upcoming domestic elections as well. The second cleavage ran between EU centralists and supporters of a nation-state driven EU. While Bettel Xavier, the Luxembourg MP, emphasised that the EU is the solution, not the problem, the five Visegrad countries could not agree less. Especially Warsaw and Budapest advocate for a future Europe with more nation-state influence rather than less.
Brexit negotiations are not supposed to start before February. Ideally consensus on the future EU should be reached by March 2017, although that date is now looking very optimistic. The date marks the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome. A symbolic choice to re-invent the EU. However, given the division described above a common vision for Europe seems even farer apart than before the summit.
Written by RPP Group Manager Corporate Office, Daniel Fischer