Pieter Cleppe: The Commission has to be a neutral arbiter

In every country migration is a very sensitive issue, if you outsource it to the EU policy level, I think it will backfire

Pieter Cleppe

Spitzenkandidat process is something that is taking place in the Brussels bubble, it is not really felt on the ground. People don't know who the “Spitzenkandidaten” are. It's not because they vote for the French centre-right EPP that they necessarily support Manfred Weber as Commission President. There is no real pan-European demos, so politics is national, says Pieter Cleppe, Head of the Brussels office of Open Europe, an independent policy think tank, in an interview to Europost.

Mr Cleppe, what is your analysis on the results of the European elections and was the outcome somehow unexpected?

The analysis is that it's a victory for Eurosceptics, but it is only a modest victory. The direct effect of it will be quite limited, because the mainstream parties still have a comfortable majority in the European Parliament. So for the Eurosceptics it will be hard to try to influence the proceedings in the European Parliament. Many mainstream politicians, I think, will now be more careful when they propose a higher migration quota, for example, or when they propose more transfers of EU policy level, like for example taxation harmonisation or scrapping the veto in that area, and - indirectly - the effects on the mainstream will be felt.

Were the warnings about a huge Eurosceptic surge a kind of tactical move to mobilise more Europeans to go out and vote, rather than a real threat?

I don't think there was a tactic, the debate about Europe has been a lot more polarised in the past. Now we have people like Salvini in Italy. We have the Polish government, we have Orban, and I do think that this has played a role in motivating people to cast their votes in the European Parliament elections. But this was not tactical, this was simply a consequence of reality, of the fact that we have more debate about the direction of the European Union.

Do you think it will be easy for the mainstream parties to form a pro-European bloc, while the EPP and S&D are losing for the first time their majority for a 'Grand Coalition'?

It will not be so hard. They can simply agree with Emmanuel Macron who will be with the ALDE group. Moreover, Macron, his allies and the people that have been elected, many of them come from the Socialist party. So it's true that the socialists have lost partly to Macron. They are the same people. Also, Matteo Renzi, the former Italian prime minister, he will be an ally of Macron, but I don't know whether this is confirmed.

What kind of kingmaker will the Liberals be, according to you?

They are internally quite divided - we have more free market people there, we have more social-democratic minded members. The Liberal group can perfectly feed into either EPP or S&D. I also don't think we shall call the group “Liberal” because there are many centre-left people there, and I don't think they are very friendly to free market ideas and policies. I find it strange that it is still called Liberal group. There are some Liberal parties in it, but otherwise, I don't think this group is very different from the EPP and S&D. The EPP is a little more right-wing, S&D is a little more left-wing, and I don't think there is a need for the group of Macron, as it is not presenting something really different.  

What is your opinion about the Spitzenkandidat process for choosing the next Commission President?

It is something that is taking place in the Brussels bubble, it is not really felt on the ground. People don't know who the “Spitzenkandidaten” are. It's not because they vote for the French centre-right EPP that they necessarily support Manfred Weber as Commission President. There is no real pan-European demos, so politics is national. People discuss the EU, and this is actually very good. The legitimacy of the European Parliament does not really exist, I think. People say, well this place has been directly elected so it is legitimate now, but the reason why it is not legitimate is simply because very important decisions have to be taken in the national democratic politics. For example migration - in every country in the world migration is a very sensitive issue, with debates both for and against more migration. If you outsource that to the EU policy level, I think it will backfire, because the legitimacy of the central policy level to deal with this is non-existent. The European Commission president himself and his bureaucracy, they should be bureaucratic, they should not be political because they have to be a neutral arbiter applying the things that have been agreed by the Member States. They may have commitments to open up their borders for trade, for migration internally, and the job of the Commission is to supervise that, to attack protectionism within Europe and try to open up Europe to the rest of the world for trade, to dealing with other trade blocs and other countries. The political aspect is something that is going against the spirit of what the European Union should be.

What is your comment about the victory in the EU elections in the UK of the Brexit Party, which was launched six weeks ago, with Conservatives and Labour suffering heavy losses?

The British people are very angry that Brexit doesn't happen. That's why the Brexit Party has done so well. The question is how long the British MEPs will be in Brussels in order to prepare the negotiations. But I think the new leader will be a Brexiteer, and it will be easier to convince the British Parliament to vote for a Brexit deal or for an updated Brexit deal, because if you have a hardliner it is always easier to sell the compromise than with somebody like Theresa May who voted for Remain.

Can we expect a new Brexit referendum, as the deputy leader of the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats - who gained 16 seats in the EP - said, the result should “give hope to all of the people out there who want to stop Brexit”?

For a new Brexit referendum - there is more and more people believing in that, because people in the United Kingdom think that the Conservative Party will now be so afraid of new elections that if they really don't have any other alternative, they will go for a referendum. But I don't know if that is a wise thing to do. I think it's actually quite dangerous if you say, “We are going to have a referendum”, and then when it is not possible to implement the results - partly because of the EU side - to then say, let's rethink it. I think it's very dangerous, and the results of the European elections now proved it.

Was the resignation of PM May really a surprise, and to what extent was she responsible for the Brexit deadlock?

Not at all, it wasn't a surprise. It's surprising that she survived that long. I think Theresa May does deserve some respect because of the deal she negotiated. It is not a bad exit deal, and I think it's a relatively balanced exit deal with one very problematic aspect, which is the Irish backstop. This is the arrangement that the EU can decide when the United Kingdom recovers its trade powers, which is of course a very excessive concession made by Theresa May. So, I can understand why people are so angry about it.

Boris Johnson, who is among the eight candidates that already threw their hats into the ring to replace May as PM, said the UK will leave the EU by the end of October, with or without a deal. Do you think that the next PM should be a staunch Brexiteer or someone more moderate?

I think the new Prime Minister should absolutely be a Brexiteer, because it is important to implement the result of the referendum. If you don't have somebody that is in favour of Brexit, it is very hard to implement it. Because if every time concessions are made, it will not be credible. If you look at any conflict, in Northern Ireland for example in the 90s, or Israel when there was a peace deal between Rabin and Arafat. These were two hardliners from both sides, and they came together. Typically, to sell a difficult compromise it is better to have a hardliner.

Three months ago, Open Europe recalled the four examples when the EU revisited deals they had already signed off. Is it possible in the meantime that Brussels agrees to renegotiate the Irish backstop?
It is possible for Brussels to renegotiate the Irish backstop, but they don't want to. And they don't want to because Ireland will not allow them to. I am not sure how wise this is from the Irish side, because their interest is to have good relations with the United Kingdom. I understand the Irish of course, there is a conflict but I think they are playing with fire. They are really contributing to radicalisation of the British public opinion on this topic, which was now seen in the European Parliament elections, and there are ways - thinkable, considerable - to avoid border checks in Ireland. But if Ireland plays so hard that it radicalises the UK, it will be very hard for the UK to sell concessions by the Commons. I don't think that Irish diplomacy is doing a good job here, and even if things don't turn well, they are taking huge risks and they should think more long term. The UK is going to leave the EU, because if they stay in the EU, every time there will be decisions at the Brussels level, the people will be angry. I don't think it is sustainable. In Open Europe we always were in favour of British EU membership, and we always said that the EU has to be reformed, but it was not possible. If you are so sad that Britain leaves, you should have done reform five years ago, not now. Now it is a bit late. Maybe if there is a complete reform of the EU, then it is a different ball game, but they don't want to do it either.

For the future EU-UK partnership, what deal after Brexit will be better for Britain and for the Union - the Swiss, Norwegian or Canadian model?
I think the Swiss model is indeed the best approach, because Switzerland is similar as it is not in the Customs Union of the EU, and it is also not in the single market. It has negotiated where it still keeps market access and on the other hand where it will align in regulatory terms with the EU. That is the only model considerable for the future, because if the EU tells the British: “Look, you can only have access if you take over 100% of the rules, not 50% or 75%, or 25%, it's not possible, it's either 0% access for 0% rule-taking, or 100% access for 100% rule-taking” - this could be a very dangerous game. It will affect the trade between the EU and the UK quite badly. So, I don't think there is any alternative than the Swiss deal. This means perpetual negotiation, because sometimes the rules change. When the Swiss change the regulation on something then it has to be renegotiated to the extent to gain access to the EU market, but I think there is no other model than this.



Pieter Cleppe is the Head of the Brussels office of Open Europe, an independent policy think tank providing an intellectual framework for thinking about Britain's new relationship with the European Union and its role in the world. He is a frequent contributor to the debates on the EU reform, the refugee crisis and the euro crisis. A trained lawyer, Pieter Cleppe previously practiced law in Belgium and has worked as a cabinet adviser to the Belgian State Secretary for Administrative Reform. Prior to this, he served as an analyst at Belgium's Itinera Institute, which he helped to establish. He received his legal training at the Catholic University of Leuven and has also studied law and economics at the universities of Hamburg, Bologna and Vienna.


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