The Week Ahead: 25 February – 3 March 2018

The Week Ahead: 25 February – 3 March 2018

Right wing populists slated to make gains in Italian elections. New ceasefire comes to Syria. EU budget negotiations spill over. The United Kingdom debates the customs union. All in The Week Ahead. 

ITALY: Right wing and populist parties slated to make gains in national elections

  • This Sunday, Italian voters will head to the polls to elect a slate of Senators and members of the Chamber of Deputies. Polling preceding the mandatory 15-day polling blackout before elections forecast the coalition of center-right political parties, led by the Forza de Italia and Lega Nord, to secure as much as 40% of the vote. With a new electoral system likely to benefit more established parties — at the expense of the 5 Star Movement — it may have just enough support to form a government.
  • Selection of a Prime Minister will be difficult as leader of the FI, former PM, Silvio Berlusconi, is barred from holding the position again following a 2013 conviction. This leads to the possibility that the head of Lega Nord, Matteo Salvini, or a political figure seen as loyal to Berlusconi will be selected as a proxy for the former Prime Minister. On the other hand, the strength of the 5 Star Movement (M5S) is untested in the current environment, and may secure enough support to prevent the right-wing coalition from forming a majority.
  • The M5S has shown little appetite for forming a coalition with either the right-wing coalition or the left-wing one, led by former Prime Minister Matteo Renzi. Some believe that, despite securing only around 21% of the vote in polling ahead of the election, the Democrats may be able to outperform expectations, though there is little to suggest they will be able to secure an outright majority.

GRI Take: There are some suggestions that a grand coalition between the Democrats and Forza de Italia or a coalition of much smaller parties are both possibilities. However, at this point a hung parliament appears the likeliest scenario. Whether that means new elections or some form of minority government, however, is currently uncertain.  The European Union is already making contingency plans.

SYRIA: 30-day ceasefire unlikely to change anything

  • This week, a 30-day ceasefire is slated to commence in Eastern Ghouta, one of the few remaining rebel enclaves near the Syrian capital of Damascus. The vote at the UN Security Council had been delayed several times by the Russian government, with an uncertainty over the reasons why.
  • The main goal of the ceasefire appears to be stopping the recent barrage of shelling in the mostly civilian space, which led to the deaths of over 500 people, including over 120 children, over the course of about a week. Several jihadist rebel groups have been exempted, which will likely limit the ceasefire’s effectiveness.
  • Questions have also arisen, particularly from US Ambassador to the UN Nikki Haley, over whether Syria will comply with the ceasefire. The French UN representative also expressed skepticism.
  • The constant shelling of a community of around 400,000 has led to aid and emergency medical equipment being delayed, so the ceasefire should at least allow some humanitarian aid and medical support to be enter the besieged area.

GRI Take: The ceasefire may have been approved by all UNSC members from a humanitarian perspective, but its durability is in question despite this unanimity, given suspicions that it was only agreed by Assad’s allies to allow their forces to regroup before further incursions into rebel space. The failure of previous ceasefires to lead to progress in negotiations also gives cause to doubt the effectiveness of the latest one.

EUROPEAN UNION: Budget negotiations draw out problems among member states

  • Following the opening of negotiations for the EU budget last Fridayfissures have already appeared among the EU member states, with three distinct issues that will need resolution before a budget is concluded. First, there is an alliance of wealthier, smaller countries, consisting of the Netherlands, Sweden, Austria, and Denmark, that are calling for no increase in spending. Second, there is a core bloc of eastern states, led by Poland and Hungary, which support increasing spending. Finally, there are France and Germany, both of which support at least maintaining and possibly increasing spending in exchange for certain reforms.
  • The budget debate has already touched off a fight among member states regarding those who have refused to take in Syrian/North African refugees, with some suggestions that the budget be adjusted to punish members who failed to comply with the quotas suggested by the EU. Those states have balked at the idea and threatened to withhold support should strings be attached to further development assistance.
  • Overshadowing these discussions are questions over the future nature and goals of the EU budget: the absence of the UK contribution of roughly 14 billion euro per year will blow a hole in broader EU-wide assistance efforts — though some of that will be defrayed by not delivering assistance to the UK.

GRI Take: EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has indicated several times that the EU budget by necessity will have to expand if member states wish it to tackle common security and defense challenges, but as those issues are also not universally agreed by member states, this could also become troublesome for negotiating partners. With all the contentious issues yet to be addressed, clashing national priorities, and the constant Brexit question, it is highly unlikely the countries will agree to anything concrete at this point.

UNITED KINGDOM: Labour hints at change of direction on customs union

  • This Monday, Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn is slated to deliver a “major speech” on Labour’s position on the future of Britain and the EU customs union. Rumors have swirled, particularly following comments from the shadow minister for Northern Ireland Owen Smith that he would prefer the UK remain in both the single market and customs union, that Corbyn would break from the previous Labour ambivalence on the customs union and endorse remaining in at least “a” customs union with the EU, though perhaps not “the” current customs union.
  • Should the Labour Party embrace a customs union approach, this could spell trouble for Prime Minister Theresa May and her efforts to quash a rebellion from Remain Tories in a pro-customs union amendment. Anna Soubry, a leading Conservative Remain supporter, has indicated she will introduce an amendment to the government’s trade bill to call for the government to remain in a customs union.
  • This could reshape the debate over the customs union, as the May government has relied on the Labour Party not maintaining a strong pro-customs union position to allow her the ideological wiggle room to continue negotiations with the end goal of taking the strongest Brexit position possible.

GRI Take: Should Corbyn announce a Labour Party position of remaining in the customs union — or “a” customs union — and side with the rebel Tories and whip the Labour MPs accordingly, this could substantially alter Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations and ultimately her position as Prime Minister. Much of her political future could hinge on the speech Corbyn lays out and how far he is willing to go on the UK’s position in any future customs union.

Stay ahead of the news cycle with GRI. Drawing on expert knowledge and local sources, The Week Ahead provides analytical foresight on the consequences of key upcoming political developments.

This edition of The Week Ahead was produced by GRI Senior Analyst Brian Daigle and Senior Editor Luke Iott.

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