After an eight-month hiatus, the EU looks finally set to have a new Commissioner in charge of its flagship, the Digital Single Market (DSM) agenda. Mariya Gabriel is a former MEP, and it showed, in an effective hearing before the European Parliament, which is now certain to rubber stamp her appointment. This support matters for Gabriel as she will need to mobilise MEPs to publicly back her agenda, particularly on issues where member states in the Council are proving intractable. Gabriel acknowledged that she had two years remaining in the post, and, rather than proposing a slew of additional reforms, her primary responsibility will be in cajoling MEPs and member states into finalising proposals that are already on the table. Her main task will be implementation rather than policy formulation.
I listened this week to SSM head Danièle Nouy defending the sale of Spain’s Banco Popular to Banco Santander in front of the ECON committee of the European Parliament. It was notable how hard Spanish and Italian MEPS in particular pushed her on the ECB’s declaration that the transfer of ownership had been a success for the SSM and the EU’s new approach to resolution and recovery. Nouy implied that the SSM process couldn’t have been more seamless: producing a win for the bank’s depositors, Spain’s taxpayers and, ultimately, the ECB.
Much has been written at the launch of Brexit negotiations today about the time remaining for negotiators. Michel Barnier has set a deadline of October 2018 for agreeing a withdrawal treaty, which may or may not include an outline of the future UK-EU trading relationship. This is to allow ratification by the European Council, European Parliament and – where necessary - national parliaments in the EU27. The UK parliament also plans to vote on the deal before the legal deadline of 31 March 2019, and the current balance of power in Westminster makes that far from a formality.
Yesterday marked the entry into force of the EU’s ban on data roaming charges. Former England footballer and sports broadcaster Gary Lineker tweeted “Well played EU”, which was just the kind of high profile validation that EU policymakers are looking for. But it’s worth remembering that when the DSM was created in 2015, the strategy was built around three broad objectives: deepening of the single market, cross-border liberalisation and consumer protection. Two years on, the first two have presented less to tweet about.
Migration has drawn the most serious division line between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ EU member states in a decade. This week’s European Commission infringement decision against Poland, Hungary and Czech Republic for their refusal to pledge to accept refugees is just another strong indication of that.
It’s only been three weeks since Trump’s visit to Saudi Arabia, but the repercussions could be felt the moment he left. Only a few hours after his departure to Israel, Bahraini security forces stormed a Shiite village where protesters had staged sit-ins in support of a top Shiite cleric, who Manama accused of supporting foreign interests, meaning Iran. A week later, Egypt’s President Al Sisi enacted a new law restricting NGOs. Up until then, he had been reluctant to sign the law because of pressure from US Congressmen. And a week ago, Qatar was isolated by half a dozen Arab states, not least because its critical Al Jazeera news station has annoyed their leaders for many years.
At the start of the election campaign, 2017 was meant to be the election that delivered Theresa May a strong mandate for Brexit as both Leave voters and pragmatic Remainers trusted her to get on with the job of implementing the referendum result. Meanwhile, Labour was supposed to be headed for a 1983-style defeat under the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn, losing Remain voters to the strongly pro-EU Liberal Democrats. The outcome of course was very different.
On Thursday, self-proclaimed deal maker Donald Trump turned ‘deal breaker’, as he announced his decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement. The decision provoked condemnation from an extraordinary spectrum of political and business leaders, and the US now appears on course to leave at some point towards the end of 2020. Soon after the announcement, some European commentators made the counterintuitive case that the Trump decision may actually be an opportunity for European climate leadership. Do they have a point?
On Tuesday, US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross gave the clearest sign yet that the US administration might have an interest in reviving the TTIP negotiations. Ross told media that it “makes sense” to continue negotiating the deal that slipped into a coma just before the Obama administration left office.
Attention in the European Council has turned from unity over Brexit to whether France and Germany can find a unifying policy direction for the EU27. The view in Paris is that Franco-German compromises offer a realistic balance between the interests of member states in the west, east, north and south, and that a joint platform is more achievable without the need to take account of a London outlier, especially on economic policy and defence cooperation.