Europe Dispatch – 3rd March 2017

A weekly round-up of the biggest news from across the Old Continent

Britain – Two by-elections held this past week confirmed the power of Theresa May’s Conservative Party in post-referendum Britain, with both Labour and UKIP the largest losers. In Stoke-on-Trent Central, a West Midlands constituency held by the Labour Party since 1950, local councillor Gareth Snell held the seat for Labour with 37% of the vote at 38% turnout. The seat, characterised by poor economic prospects, political dissatisfaction, and a strong vote to leave the European Union, had been targeted for capture by UKIP. The party’s leader Paul Nuttall contested the seat, but finished in a disappointing second place following a campaign defined by a series of gaffes, and the revelation that a party website had falsely stated close personal friends of Nuttall had died in the 1989 Hillsborough disaster. A vote was held the same day in Copeland, a similarly working-class and pro-leave Cumbrian constituency held by the Labour Party since 1935. A seven-point swing to the Conservatives led to former Parish Councillor Trudy Harrison winning the seat with 44% of the vote, marking the first time the government has gained a seat in a by-election since 1982. The inability for the Labour Party to hold a traditional Labour seat against the government in a by-election has led to another round of speculation over the future of party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

The Prime Minister’s Brexit Bill experienced a setback in the House of Lords as peers voted by a majority of 102 to amend the document giving Theresa May power to trigger Article 50. The amendment, backed by Labour, the Liberal Democrats, and some Conservatives, seeks to guarantee the rights of EU citizens currently residing in the United Kingdom. Despite the large majority in the Lords backing the amendment, the government has not shifted from its position that the Bill should pass without any amendments; No. 10 expects the provision will be voted down when the Bill returns to the Commons, despite Conservative peers urging MPs to defy the party whip. In mid-February, Brexit Secretary David Davis predicted the Bill would likely ‘ping-pong’ between the two houses of Parliament for some time before passing.

The Father of the House, Sir Gerald Kaufman, has passed away aged 86, triggering a by-election in his constituency of Manchester Gorton. Kaufman first entered Parliament as the Labour MP for Manchester Ardwick in 1970, serving until it was redistricted to Manchester Gorton in 1983, which he had held ever since. He sat on the Labour frontbench as Shadow Home Secretary and Shadow Foreign Secretary under Neil Kinnock’s leadership, before gaining a reputation as a passionate and outspoken backbencher, particularly in his criticism of the Israeli government. Manchester Gorton is a safe Labour seat; Kaufman won 67% of the vote in the 2015 general election with the Green Party in second place, while the constituency voted strongly to remain in the European Union in the 2016 referendum.

France – The candidacy of former Prime Minister François Fillon looks more imperilled than ever before; the centre-right candidate is losing key supporters and campaign advisors following the news that Fillon has been placed under formal investigation regarding the fake jobs scandal. Fillon had previously pledged to drop out of the race if placed under investigation, but now pledges to fight on, accusing the judiciary of carrying out a politically-motivated attack on him at the behest of the incumbent Socialist government. Former agriculture minister and Republican primary candidate Bruno Le Maire resigned from the Fillon campaign, along with Fillon losing the endorsement of the centre-right Union of Democrats and Independents (UDI) political party. Amid this disarray, some French Republicans are attempting to gather the necessary signatures to field former Prime Minister Alain Juppé as a candidate before the March 17th deadline, though this process has been made more difficult by Fillon’s insistence he will stay in the race. Fillon is currently polling in third place behind the far-right Marine Le Pen and the centrist Emmanuel Macron, and would likely be eliminated in the first round of voting.

Slovenia – The Central European country of two million became the latest nation to legalise same-sex marriage, following fellow EU member states such as Spain, the Netherlands and Norway. The law, passed in early 2016 and taking effect this week, grants same-sex couples many of the same rights as heterosexuals, including recognition of marriage. Notably absent, however, is the right for same-sex couples to adopt children. In December 2015, Slovenian voters rejected a proposal to give same-sex couples full equal rights, including that of adoption, with 64% against in a referendum at 36% turnout

Italy – A group of left-wing rebels have quit the governing Democratic Party (PD) over anger at the leadership of former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi, establishing the left-wing Progressive and Democrat Movement (DP). The party, made up of defectors from the centre-left Democratic Party and the Italian Left, is being led by Roberto Speranza, former head of the Democratic Party in parliament, and Tuscan President Enrico Rossi. The party is likely to support current Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni through the full parliamentary term ending in February 2018; Renzi has advocated for an early election this year, likely as a pathway to taking office as Prime Minister once again following his December resignation. The DP’s presence also holds the potential to fracture the left of centre vote at the ballot box, giving the anti-establishment and populist Five Star Movement an easier path to forming a government.

Polls:
France (IFOP-Fiducial): First round – Marine Le Pen (National Front) 25.5%, Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) 24%, François Fillon (Republican) 21%, Benoît Hamon (Socialist) 14%, Jean-Luc Mélenchon (Unsubmissive France) 11%, others 4.5%.

Second round – Marine Le Pen (National Front) 38%, Emmanuel Macron (En Marche!) 62%.

Germany (Civey): CDU/CSU 34.3%, SPD 31.4%, Left 8.1%, Greens 7.1%, FDP 6.4%, AfD 8.4%, others 4.3%.

United Kingdom (YouGov / The Times): Conservatives 42%, Labour 25%, UKIP 12%, Liberal Democrats 11%, Scottish National Party 6%, Greens 4%, others 1%.

Italy (EMG): Five Star Movement 28.4%, Democratic Party 28%, Forward Italy 12.2%, Northern League 13.3%, Italian Left 2.4%, Brothers of Italy 4.9%, New Centre-Right/Popular Area 2.7%, Democrats and Progressives 3.8%, others 4.3%.

Five things to read this week:

1. This column from The Economist’s ‘Bagehot’s Notebook’ blog, setting out the case for moving the UK’s capital city from London to Manchester.

2. This Financial Times feature on Turkey’s upcoming constitutional referendum, one of 2017’s most pivotal – yet overlooked – votes.

3. The European Commission has released a White Paper on the future of Europe following the UK’s departure, laying out five different possibilities for paths the EU can take now. So far, it has mostly raised eyebrows in the European press for the mooted possibility of replacing the Union with nothing more than the Single Market, though the whole White Paper, available here, is worth the read.

4. This Al Jazeera piece on French Muslims who are still unenthused by Emmanuel Macron’s candidacy for the Élysée Palace

5. An article from German public broadcaster Deutsche Welle, on how the growing popularity of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) is pushing the Alpine nation’s governing grand coalition further to the right.

 

Also watch:

This short video report from Reuters on the rising support for a new outsider candidate for President of France – Barack Obama.

 

  • Taran Molloy, Capital Hardtalk

 

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