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Why Francois Fillon’s success should register on your radar

Despite the fact that the US presidential news has reverberated on a global scale, the debate here in the UK about our upcoming Brexit deal remains far more inward-looking.

Academics, politicians and commentators alike are pulling their hair out over what should take priority, what we really want as a nation, and what it means for the internal dynamics of the Conservative party and government at large. And while figuring out what we want matters a great deal, it is distracting us from who it is we are actually negotiating with.

Of course there is a formal process to pay attention to, within our own courts and those of the European Union. But what doesn’t feature in our debate yet is the shifting political landscape across other European member states, and how these will shape our negotiations.

In the past week, there has been change afoot in two key member states, which will inevitably have an impact on our future Brexit negotiations.

The first comes from France, where the shock result for the first Republican primary saw former Prime Minister Fillon rise swiftly to the top of the ballot. While the competing candidates, Sarkozy and Juppé, both focused on French identity, security and recent terrorist attacks in the country, Fillon fixated on traditional conservative economic and social policies.

Fillon is a free market reformer and a noted anglophile, which could be a beneficial combination for Brexit discussions. The National Front in France, led by Marine Le Pen, have already branded him as the austerity candidate, with moderate, pro-European Juppé fighting him from the other end of the Republican spectrum.  He is fighting this race with stern measures for the French economy, immigration and working conditions which will impact on both France’s voice within the EU and as a mediator with the UK.

The other big, though more expected, announcement this week is Angela Merkel’s intention to run for a fourth term as Germany’s chancellor. Her resolve to radiate strength in her election race, her position within the EU, and her role as a political figure for the liberal West will no doubt be front of mind.

In the past, Merkel has made efforts to visibly negotiate with the UK (we won’t forget quickly her respite with a bag of chips during Cameron’s long pre-Brexit talks earlier this year), but will our shifting position and the more stable but less predictable political landscape of Germany have an impact on this patience?

Finally this week, European Parliament President Martin Schulz’s announced his decision to stand down from his role, and he is hotly tipped to challenge Merkel. His role in that electoral race will have a bearing on how accommodating Merkel can be seen to be towards the UK. It also leaves a pretty big hole in the European Parliament. Candidates will start lining up quickly. For all that we struggle to take the European Parliament seriously in the UK, they have a final say over ratifying the UK’s exit deal, so who is at the top really matters.

Next week’s Italian referendum is also important to note, with Matteo Renzi’s push for crucial economic reforms likely to be rejected. The response to this from the EU and how it shapes Italy’s future politics will continue to sculpt the landscape of our Brexit negotiations.

Brexit negotiations are not yet formally underway but the mood music and indications from our European colleagues are not good. Understanding what influences their negotiating positions is important. The more we consider this in our analysis of possible outcomes, the better prepared we will be.

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