European Parliament elects a new president – Antonio Tajani

Blog post for Aspect Consulting, published on January 17, 2017. Original piece here.

Traditionally, the election for the European Parliament’s President has never held much suspense: the two-and-a-half-year term for the speakership of Europe’s directly elected legislature has generally been split between the two largest groups in Parliament (usually the centre-left socialists and the centre-right EPP). Even in the rare cases when liberals or conservatives were elected to the top spot, it was down to an agreement that ensured a solid majority.

2017 saw a rare break from this tradition – and, for the first time, the semblance of an open race. Though the last-minute withdrawal of liberal Guy Verhofstadt and the support of his ALDE group secured the election of the EPP’s Antonio Tajani for the top job, the decision by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) not to honour their 2014 coalition agreement with the EPP meant he faced a real fight from centre-left Italian Gianni Pittella.

What does all this mean? Well, two things.

First of all, we have seen the breakdown of the traditional “grand coalition” between the centre-right and the centre-left in the European Parliament, which may mean a more confrontational and partisan atmosphere in Brussels from now on. The S&D group has been increasingly willing to take strident positions that clash with those of the EPP – expect this to continue.

This will, ironically, reinforce the Parliament’s fringes. If the EPP and the S&D vote together less and less often, it means that one or the other will have to rely not only on the centrist liberal ALDE group, but also either the far left or the eurosceptic rightwing to get texts passed. It may also mean a more contentious European election in 2019.

On the other hand, the election of a Parliament head who no longer commands an overwhelming majority as Martin Schulz did, and who is a less forceful figure than the outgoing German President of the EP, probably means that the European Parliament will be less willing and able to be a “counterweight” to the intergovernmental approach of the Council – weakening the European Parliament overall.

Antonio Tajani has not been universally praised for his work ethic – nor does he see the European Parliament Presidency as a way to counterbalance the Council. He will probably act more as a traditional European-style speaker and less like an EU equivalent of the US House Speaker. This will ultimately empower Group chairs like Manfred Weber, Gianni Pittella and Guy Verhofstadt, who may gain in power while the EP President takes a backseat.

Finally, what does all this mean for Brexit? Well, that’s not quite clear. On the one hand, a more fractious European Parliament could make it more difficult for the EP to come to an agreement on the issue; on the other, a weaker Parliament President and more divided chamber may actually strengthen the Council and EU Member States, if they themselves manage to speak with one voice on the future agreement with the UK.

Interesting times.

Village Potemkine pour les élus français en voyage organisé en Crimée

My recent piece in Libération (in French), co-written with Krystyna Biletska, Anna Garmash, and Igor Reshetnyak, can be found here.

Extract:

“Onze parlementaires français se sont rendus en Crimée, du 29 au 31 juillet, sous la conduite du député Thierry Mariani (LR). Le même député avait déjà conduit un groupe d’élus sur place un an plus tôt. Sous la conduite de leurs hôtes russes, les élus auront soigneusement évité d’entendre les témoignages des répressions et de constater le pillage des ressources ukrainiennes en cours.”

To Brexit or not to Brexit?

Also published on the Aspect Consulting blog here.


Evan O’Connell – Head of French Public Affairs and Media at Aspect Consulting, Paris.

Eliot Edwards – Director for Public Relations & Government Relations at Aspect Consulting, Brussels.

One week on from Britain’s momentous decision to leave the EU, things have moved faster than most could have anticipated. Markets have suffered- the UK has lost its AAA rating and more gloom is in store. The two favourites for Conservative Party leadership, Boris Johnson and George Osborne, do not want David Cameron’s job and Theresa May has emerged as the front-runner. The future of the UK – as a political unit as well as its membership of the EU – has never been more unclear. Or at least that threatened to be the case until France and Spain put paid to the idea of Scotland remaining in the EU and instead reprimanded Messrs. Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz for giving Nicola Sturgeon an airing in Brussels.

For the moment at least, we must assume the UK will leave the EU as electors demanded last week. Of course, many still hope there might be a way out of Brexit – that a combination of regret at a misguided decision, economic turmoil and tough negotiating will somehow reverse the result, and the UK will “remain” in the EU. Of course, if the new Conservative leader were to call a snap election, a Labour Party led by an actually electable leader – let us say David Miliband – campaigning on a Remain ticket could, if successful at the ballot box, simply refuse to ratify Brexit. Today, Theresa May might give assurances to her Base that there will be no election until 2020 if she is elected head of the Conservative Party, but who knows what tomorrow might bring?

So where do we stand today one week on from the referendum? Britain has a lame duck Prime Minister, Scotland is threatening to hold an independence referendum, Sinn Féin is calling for a referendum on a United Ireland, and there is a dearth of real political leadership on all sides of the political divide at Westminster. Neither is there clarity on when Article 50 will be invoked or who will be in the government presiding over negotiations. Across the Channel, no unanimity exists on exactly how conciliatory or tough on the UK the EU27 should be. At least one continental foreign ministry has today suggested to us that, even after invoking Article 50, the UK could change its mind up until the very last day.

On one side of the spectrum, in the run-up to a presidential election, François Hollande needs to show the French electorate that anyone who leaves the EU will pay a dear price in order to deter them from voting for the National Front. “Contagion” from Brexit must be avoided at all cost. Whilst in the run-up to a General Election in Germany, the Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, stresses the need to learn the lessons of Brexit and confidently asserts that “More Europe” is not the answer to every problem. Of course, Germany fears losing vital trade ties with one if its biggest markets.

Yet there is some agreement on the Continent: all agree that the UK cannot have full access to the Single Market without respecting the “four freedoms”, including freedom of movement. Or do they? Cracks are even appearing on that fundamental principle as Michel Sapin, the French Finance Minister, claimed that everything will be on the negotiating table.

The EU27, publicly, expect the UK to invoke Article 50 the day a new Prime Minister is sworn in – yet several candidates, including frontrunner Theresa May, have suggested the UK may wait until the end of the year before officially beginning negotiations. This delay might allow for some stability to return to the UK’s politics and take the emotional sting out of the debate but drawing out the process might further sour relations with the EU and, perhaps, prolong uncertainty on the markets.

How can businesses protect their interests in such uncertain times? For now, the priority has to be for companies to lobby those who will inform negotiating positions in UK, EU27 and Brussels to make them appreciate the damage hasty, ill thought-through negotiations could bring. They must push for calm, well thought-out negotiations that will lead to the least disruptive situation possible for trade and investment in the long term. A message must be sent to German, French and Italian officials, in particular, that the UK be treated fairly and a constructive approach taken. Companies from the outside Europe, the UK and the EU27 need to come together and collectively leverage political support on the ground in key EU Member States calling for a non-punitive approach to negotiations.

Business must focus on the post-Brexit reality as it stands today: the UK might have been the key opinion former inside the EU on technology, trade and single market issues, but it might be gone tomorrow. Therefore, they must look increasingly to themselves to defend their own interests. If Brexit indeed comes to pass, it will fundamentally change the EU’s internal dynamics. The EU’s biggest champion of free trade and market liberalisation will be gone and more protectionist tendencies remain unchecked. Sadly, unless everyone sees sense, there is a real danger of a “lose-lose” outcome that will only serve to undermine the standing and attractiveness of both the UK and EU27 economies.

55 députés votent leur allégeance à Vladimir Poutine

My recent piece in Libération (in French) can be found here.

Extract:

“Le 28 avril 2016 restera longtemps dans les livres d’histoire. L’Assemblée nationale a choisi le camp de Vladimir Poutine plutôt que celui du droit international en votant une résolution pour la levée des sanctions européennes contre la Russie – sanctions imposées lors de l’annexion illégale de la Crimée ukrainienne en 2014, toujours occupée par Moscou deux ans plus tard […] la réalité est pourtant simple. La Crimée est toujours occupée et les droits de l’Homme s’y trouvent bafoués depuis l’invasion russe de ce territoire. La Russie est militairement présente dans l’Est de l’Ukraine et responsable de 9 000 morts dans le Donbass selon l’ONU – des morts dont M. Mariani évite soigneusement de parler. Vladimir Poutine n’est pas un partenaire fiable puisqu’il montre depuis des années qu’il n’a aucun égard pour le droit international. Lever les sanctions contre le régime russe reviendrait à pardonner M. Poutine pour ses abus et l’encourager à aller encore plus loin. La France doit rester ferme et déterminée et ne pas céder.”

Monsieur Porochenko, quelle justice pour les morts du Maïdan ?

Piece originally featured on Mediapart here, released on 22 April 2015.

Aujourd’hui,  Petro Porochenko, le président ukrainien, est en visite officielle en France. Anna Perehinec, porte-parole de la pétition Justice pour les manifestants ukrainiens, Alexis Prokopiev, président de l’association Russie-Libertés,  Pierre Tartakowsky, président de la Ligue des droits de l’Homme, Boris Najman, maître de conférences à l’Université Paris-est Créteil, Anna Garmash, militante ukrainienne, Igor Reshetnyak, militant ukrainien et Evan O’Connell, militant européen profitent de l’occasion pour l’interpeller sur l’enquête sur les morts du Maïdan.

Ce mercredi 22 avril le Président ukrainien Petro Porochenko sera à Paris pour une visite officielle. La rencontre entre les chefs d’Etat français et ukrainien a lieu dans un contexte international difficile et un cessez-le-feu fragile dans l’est de l’Ukraine. Il est évident que l’Ukraine ne pourra pas défendre l’intégrité de son territoire sans le soutien de ses alliés européens et que son destin sera déterminant pour l’avenir de l’Europe.

Alors que la paix reste toujours menacée, le Conseil de l’Europe publiait le 31 mars dernier unrapport du Comité consultatif en charge d’observer l’enquête sur les crimes commis il y a plus d’un an contre les manifestants ukrainiens sur la place Maïdan à Kyiv. Les conclusions du rapport sont très claires : seule une commission d’enquête internationale et indépendante permettra de faire la lumière sur ces événements tragiques. En novembre 2013, le peuple ukrainien s’était soulevé pour protester contre le régime corrompu du Président Ianoukovitch qui, contre toute attente, avait refusé de signer l’Accord d’association avec l’Union Européenne. Leur combat pour la liberté et la démocratie s’est heurté à une violence effroyable.

Un an après la tuerie de Maïdan, la question d’une justice impartiale est plus que jamais d’actualité. Il en va de la responsabilité du Président de l’Ukraine de montrer que les principes des droits humains, pour lesquels des  centaines de citoyens ukrainiens ont donné leur vie, sont les fondements mêmes de la nouvelle Ukraine démocratique qu’il souhaite bâtir. La communauté internationale se doit également de soutenir l’Ukraine dans le processus de mise en place de cette nécessaire enquête internationale et indépendante.

Monsieur le Président de l’Ukraine, près de 80.000 personnes se sont déjà mobilisées autour d’une pétition (« Justice pour les manifestants ukrainiens ») pour soutenir et défendre l’idée fondamentale que seule une justice impartiale permettra de rendre aux Ukrainiens leur dignité. Le nombre de signatures  ne cesse de croître jour après jour. Il en va de votre responsabilité de ne pas laisser les crimes commis contre les manifestants du Maïdan, contre le peuple ukrainien, impunis.

Does honesty matter? The example of Nigel Farage

Also posted on Labour International Paris’s blog, here.

“Cheeky chappy”.

“You’d have a pint with him.”

“The others ones are such odd twats.”

Every single reasonably aware British voter has heard these phrases – or similar versions thereof – with regards to Nigel Farage, leader of the UK Independence Party, that seemingly unstoppable political juggernaut currently on 20-30% in most national polls for the upcoming European election in May, closely behind Labour. This improbable party leader, this Eurosceptic husband of a German wife, this former commodities trader now seen as a “man of the people” figure by many Britons, is such a Teflon politician that he even experienced a bump in popularity when it was revealed that he may well have been conducting an affair with his longstanding spokeswoman Annabelle Fuller (an affair that was an open secret for many UKIP members).

This comes despite much talk of expenses scandals, a lack of commitment to parliamentary duties, and the regular nomination of what more than one Tory has called “swivel eyed loons” as candidates for office at a European, national and local level. One look at current and recent Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) is enough to see that apart from Mr. Farage himself, UKIP’s elected representatives in Brussels have made sexist comments and been accused of sexual assault, been convicted and jailed for expenses fraud, and in the case of Ashley Mote held onto an MEP position despite actually serving prison time while still in office.

One might think any mainstream political movement would have long disappeared if it had UKIP’s record and elected officials. Yet even in polling for the upcoming general election in 2015 – national elections being notoriously bad for third, fourth and fifth parties – UKIP is polling at 10-15%, often ahead of the Liberal Democrats, and certainly high enough that it is now systematically counted as a “big” national party and not a fringe movement. How is this possible?

Well, let’s call it the “Berlusconi factor” – or perhaps the “Rob Ford factor”, after the crack cocaine-smoking drunkard who is currently mayor of Toronto. This factor is one that I remember all too well from my teenage years (in the early 2000s) in Dublin, when the obviously corrupt and incompetent Bertie Ahern (who once, as I remember, declared that drink driving rules shouldn’t apply to him as he ‘could drive just fine after ten pints’) was Prime Minister (or Taoiseach, as the Irish would say). The general populace had little to no trust in Ahern, yet he was elected in 1997 and re-elected twice thererafter. One might also call it the “George W Bush factor”, after that famous teetotaler who was voted into office as the candidate that the electorate would like to have a beer with.

That factor decreases with time, as voters actually see what such obvious populists can and will do once they actually get into power. However, it’s a slow process – Berlusconi is only now being gradually pushed to the sidelines – and the damage in terms of the destruction of public trust in their elected officials as obviously bonkers politicians exercise public office in the meantime is potentially awful. Little to nothing suggests that UKIP’s popularity is waning even as light is shed on the inner workings of the party. When and where their progression will be stopped is not clear.