Europe and Brexit: 10 Things to Watch in 2019 from SCER

Kirsty Hughes and Anthony Salamone | 14 December 2018

© 2018 European Union

The SCER team have looked into the 2019 crystal ball – predictions from Kirsty Hughes (KH), Director of SCER and Anthony Salamone (AS) Research Fellow and Strategic Advisor, SCER.

(1) Will Brexit Go Ahead on Time?

The big question. It could do either if the Commons voted for something close to May’s current deal, or if there were a majority for a version of ‘Norway plus’ – both would require Labour to come off the fence and support one of these. The EU will only extend Article 50 (unanimously) if the UK has a specific request. In the face of a looming ‘no deal’ crisis, the Commons will probably plump for another referendum on ‘remain’ versus May’s deal meaning Article 50 will need to be extended. So Brexit will not go ahead on time. (KH)

(2) Will ‘Remain’ Win a Second EU Referendum?

Remain will win after a difficult, divisive and probably not very pretty campaign. Migration will be one of the key issues but the ‘remain’ side will talk more about the positives of the EU and more about how to create a more equal, fairer UK than in 2016. Against May’s deal, ‘remain’ may win by much more than many expect – even 60% to 40%. But England’s deep political and social divisions will remain. (KH)

(3) Will May Offer the SNP Incentives to Back her Brexit Deal?

Highly unlikely. May wouldn’t offer a section 30 order for an independence referendum. And at this late stage, it’s not even in May’s gift to offer the Scottish government a differentiated Brexit deal that would keep Scotland in the EU’s single market – nor would the EU negotiate this at this point. The SNP will maintain its pivot away from ‘soft’ Brexit and in favour of another EU vote. (KH)

(4) If Brexit Happens, Will Nicola Sturgeon Call for Another Independence Referendum?

Polls suggest support for independence may go up slightly if Brexit happens (more if it’s a ‘no deal’ Brexit). But the shock of Brexit actually happening will stir up the independence debate in Scotland and opinion could change more substantially. With the clock ticking down during the transition period, while the UK remains in the EU’s single market and customs union until December 2020 (or 1-2 years more) indyref2 pressure could grow. The big question is whether the SNP will lead on this or aim to damp it down – events may sweep them along to the former. (KH)

(5) Will Far-Right Populists Become the Largest Group in the European Parliament?

The pressures from far-right populist parties in a number of EU member states has fuelled fears of a sharp increase in their numbers in the European Parliament elections in May. But they are unlikely to come out top. And Brexit in many ways acts as one countervailing force, showing the perils of turning in an anti-European direction. The far-right populists may gain influence but that means forming a coherent, cohesive group within the EP which could prove tricky. An increase in MEPs from these groups will though be a shock and countering populism will remain a top EU priority across the member states. (KH)

(6) Will US-EU Relations Take Another Nose-Dive?

This looks highly likely. While US-China relations may look much more fractious and concerning in 2019 than US-EU relations, the EU will be strongly hit by a continuing trade war between the US and China. And as the countdown starts to the 2020 US presidential elections, Trump may prove an ever more difficult presence across issues vital to the EU – from trade to climate change to human rights to conflicts in the Middle East. US-EU relations in 2019 are more likely to nose-dive than improve. (KH)

(7) Will Russia Persist as a Troublesome Neighbour?

Russia will undoubtedly remain a significant looming problem on the EU’s eastern flank. It will continue to test EU unity, dividing member states on pressure points such as energy supplies and investment links. However, Russia will scale back its overt operations in the EU for now, avoiding more Salisbury-style incursions. New CDU leader (and likely future chancellor) Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer will keep Germany from going soft on Russia. While maintaining its hold over Crimea and Sevastopol, Russia will look to extricate itself from its direct role in eastern Ukraine. (AS)

(8) Will the EU Find a Constructive Way Forward on Migration?

External migration into the EU from the Mediterranean and land routes will endure as the most salient issue in European politics. Consensus will remain elusive on establishing legal, humane migration routes and on sharing the responsibility fairly across member states. In the face of deadlock on those questions, the EU will carry on hardening its frontiers, building up Frontex and border guards and focusing on transit countries such as Libya. This failure will reflect badly on the EU. Attention will shift to Spain, where migration flows could become more acute. (AS)

(9) Will the EU Match its Climate Ambitions with Action?

The EU will make some progress in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, largely by consolidating gains from the low-hanging fruit of decarbonisation. However, alongside the rise of populism, the European consensus on climate change will come under challenge. The short-sighted desire for cheap, dirty energy among some will trump climate concerns (despite the economic benefits and falling costs of green energy). The EU may struggle to maintain even its rhetorical unity on climate change. If those challenges can be overcome, Europe’s leaders will still find it difficult to take climate action to the next level. (AS)

(10) What Direction Will the Eurozone Take?

Economic growth in the Eurozone will remain subdued, taking its cues from the challenging global circumstances – particularly the US-induced trade wars. Markets will be forced to adjust as an end to the ‘new normal’ of ultra-loose monetary policy starts to appear on the horizon. Germany will continue to resist the completion of the banking union, while the European Commission will face renewed national budget problems with France. A new Eurozone budget will be for now underwhelming. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, with the economy and the pound fluctuating, people in the UK will start using the euro as hard currency. (AS)

Kirsty HughesKirsty Hughes | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Dr Kirsty Hughes is Director of the Scottish Centre on European Relations. She is a researcher, writer and commentator on European politics and policy, and she previously worked for a number of leading European think tanks.

aAnthony SalamoneAnthony Salamone | Twitter

Scottish Centre on European Relations

Anthony Salamone is Research Fellow and Strategic Advisor at the Scottish Centre on European Relations. His research interests include the politics and institutions of the European Union, Brexit, Scottish politics and British politics.