Europe has been focused on the latest political crisis in Germany which threatened to tear the recently formed coalition government apart, whilst in Britain the news was dominated by the “brexit dividend” boost in NHS funding, and the latest round of Commons battles on a meaningful parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal. Meanwhile limited Brexit negotiations continued, the two sides issued a joint progress report and Michel Barnier decisively rejected UK participation in the European Arrest Warrant and other crime fighting tools after Brexit.
Europe’s longest serving major head of government, Angela Merkel, faced yet another domestic political crisis this week as the CSU (her Bavarian sister party) threatened to unilaterally close German borders to migrants and tried to force her to sack their leader as Interior Minister. As always electoral calculations were at the heart of the matter, the CSU, who have ruled Bavaria continuously since 1966 is facing a strong challenge from the anti-immigrant AfD in Bavarian elections this autumn. The state has also faced the brunt of the migrant crisis with most arriving on Germany’s south eastern borders. A break between the CSU and the CDU would be unprecedented in modern German politics, partly because the CDU do not stand candidates in Bavaria at all.
However, the CSU quickly began to soften its stance when Merkel promised a special European summit to tackle the migrant crisis at the end of the month, securing her at least a temporary reprieve.
Merkel is undoubtedly in the last few years of her time in power, but she remains adept at retaining power and is likely to weather this storm. However there can be little doubt that as she continues to attempt to defy political gravity her power and political capital outside of Germany is diminishing. The next few years will not be easy, but she will survive, at least in the short term.
Her relationship with Emmanuel Macron will be crucial in this regard, not only to her survival but also to the whole future direction of Europe. This week the two met for the annual Franco-German summit and Angela Merkel relied on the French President to support her plans for the European summit on migration. If he had not agreed then that may have pushed the CSU to bring her down. However he did agree, but not without demands of his own, namely for plans to reform the Eurozone including setting up a specific Eurozone budget.
In politics no action can occur without a reaction and that reaction was swift both in Germany and abroad. The CSU immediately briefed against the proposal (even though it was the cost of getting through the proposals for a migration summit) as did many other EU member states.
Even modest eurozone changes cut to the core of national sovereignty and national interest and will face stiff resistance amongst the euro bloc.
Whilst Europe tries to work out what its future will be without the UK, back in London the week was dominated by the government’s announcement of a budget boost for the NHS and the return of the EU withdrawal bill to the House of Commons.
The British government announced a £20 billion funding increase for the NHS, which would amount to around an extra £384 million per week.
This provoked a divided domestic reaction, with questions being raised, particularly from those on the remain side, about whether savings from Brexit would be enough to fund this increase without tax increases. Free market leave supporters tended to be unhappy about more money being given to an institution they see as in need of radical reform.
However there was no doubt that outside the political bubble the increase was popular, and seemed to deliver on the leave campaign promise of Brexit meaning more money for the NHS.
In the House of Commons the government again faced a series of last minute negotiations on a meaningful vote for parliament and what role the House of Commons would have in shaping Brexit in the event of a collapse in talks or a parliamentary rejection of the government’s deal.
This was a replay of last week’s discussion and involved highly complex parliamentary procedure. The debate was confusing even to MPs. One exasperated member even cried out “What is the meaning of meaning?”
Yet it does matter, and yet again the vote ended in a government victory 319 to 303. However there was again confusion about what the government had actually conceded to the rebels to persuade them to support the government.
It appears that the government recognises that it is up to the speaker to decide whether a motion the government brings to parliament on the final EU deal will be amendable or not. So MPs may have the ability to amend the final deal and have a “meaningful vote” but they also may not.
It is probably academic anyway. If the deal the British government negotiated is rejected by the parliament it is unlikely to matter whether the bill is amendable or not, the government would be in big trouble either way. Similarly if there is no deal agreed by early next year, it is highly unlikely that the UK government would take the no deal option against the will of parliament, given the significance of such an action.
However the big lesson from the whole EU withdrawal bill is that even with only a small majority, the government does have the votes to get its vision of Brexit through the parliament, even if it has to make some concessions on the way. That will be noted in Brussels.
The nature of Brexit though will ultimately be decided by the EU/UK negotiations rather than the manoeuvres in London.
For the last few weeks negotiations have been continuing, albeit on a low key level, and the two sides issued a joint progress report which showed serious divergences remained on Northern Ireland but progress had been made on cooperation on VAT and goods arrangements in the transition period. (The full report is available here: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/717697/Joint_Statement_-_19_June_2018.pdf )
However Michel Barnier also made it clear no compromise was possible on the European Arrest Warrant, (EAW) with no possibility of UK participation without accepting the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.
This is no surprise, the EAW cannot apply to non-EU countries partly because of the ECJ but also because the constitutions in some countries, like Germany for example, don’t allow the extradition of German nationals to non EU countries. To overcome that challenge would be hugely challenging for the EU.
The EAW is controversial, as it puts British citizens at the mercy of the judicial system in all 27 EU member states, some with systems which are nowhere near as robust as those in the UK. However the UK disproportionally benefits from the EAW with many more EU citizens being successfully brought back to the UK to face trial than those going the other way. It has therefore become a very useful tool in the fight against terrorism and organised crime.
So another week goes by with moderate progress but many outstanding issues for the government to resolve on Brexit both in the UK and with the EU. Inch by inch we are getting closer to the crunch moment when many decisions will have to be made, both in London and Brussels. The past few weeks have only delayed when that crunch moment comes, but come it must.