The British Election: the Conservatives’ European nightmare continues

By Jeff Townsend, Head of UK Public Affairs

More than a decade after David Cameron advised his party to ‘stop banging on about Europe’, the morning after the 2017 General Election it’s clear that Europe has torn the party asunder once again.

Why? For the simple reason that yesterday’s election, which feels like a loss even if the Tories got more votes than they have for 35 years, was all about Europe.

It was an election that never should have happened.  The main reason Theresa May in the end decided to go to the country, when the economic indicators didn’t look great and her own honeymoon was coming to an end, was because she feared the circumstances in 2020, when the fixed term Parliament was due to end, could be even worse.  Who would want to try to sell no deal to the British public, or even worse a deal which meant, say, an €80bn leaving bill, when the voters were promised £350m a week extra for the NHS?

Of course, May’s other driver was to try to build a bigger majority so as to sideline the hardline Euro-sceptics and give herself more negotiating flexibility.  But in the end, the opposite happened.  The election was not about Brexit for most people.   Polls showed that most considered it a done deal, and were much more concerned about  the economy starting to turn down t the state of the NHS, crumbling social services and affordable housing.

May and team did not help themselves with the appalling campaign they ran.  The shine has certainly gone from Lynton Crosby.  ‘Strong and Stable’ became a British joke, and the strategy to keep her away from electors and almost de-personalise a decent if uncharismatic woman clearly back-fired.  Keeping out of national debates looked arrogant; the unheard of mid-campaign u-turn on social care was the opposite of strength and stability.

On the other side, Jeremy Corbyn’s warm and personal style and anti-austerity message certainly galvanised the young and the left.  And May’s decision to utterly dismiss, even ridicule, the views of the 48% of the country that voted Remain gave them a strong incentive to vote Labour.  In the old maxim, Oppositions don’t win elections, Governments lose them.

It has to remembered  that Labour still lost, in propitious circumstances, and it remains to be seen whether Corbyn and the Left have the will, or strategic sense, to make the centrist compromises they need to if they want to form a Government in 2022.  (And the night was very bad for the SNP too: the chances of a second Scottish independence referendum are diminishing rapidly).

Mind you, by then, that European problem might have ripped the Tories even further apart.  What happens now, if a Tory Government in partnership with the DUP from Northern Ireland has a Commons majority of just two seats?  What does that mean for membership of the Single Market and Customs Union, which even Brexit Minister David Davis conceded early this morning was now up for debate? Banging on about Europe is going to be the drumbeat for another 5 years – at least.

The world finally seems to be waking up to the problem of plastic in our oceans

By Frans Green, Partner at Aspect Consulting and Paula Calabuig, Consultant at Aspect Consulting

Photo credit: Erwin Zwart / The Ocean Cleanup

The global plastics industry produces over 300 million tons of plastic annually (up from 5 million tons in the 1950s), and the industry continues to grow. Much of this plastic – equivalent to a garbage truck load every minute, according to the World Economic Forum –  works its way into the world’s rivers and oceans, and the projections are alarming: it is estimated that by 2050 there will be more plastic than fish in the sea.

You only need to see images of strangled turtles, and plastic removed from the stomachs of dead whales, to appreciate the damage that plastic is doing to marine wildlife. And people are not immune to the problem, with micro-plastic increasingly working itself through the marine food chain onto our plates.

The issue of marine plastic has been for too long the concern of only environmental activists. For politicians and business, out of sight has meant out of mind. Thankfully, this is now changing, and we may have reached a tipping point in terms of recognising the severity of the problem.

From an inter-governmental perspective, the importance of the issue was recognised in the UN Sustainable Development Goals, which set a 30% reduction target for marine litter by 2020; here, some progress is being made. This includes the Joint Communication on the International Ocean Governance, the UN’s CleanSeas campaign and the European Commission’s upcoming Plastics Strategy, set to be launched later this year.

From a corporate perspective, one of the principal concerns with the issue relates to reputation.  Clearly, there is a growing concern that the plastic washed-up on beaches and floating in the world’s oceans carries the branding of some of the world’s largest FMCG companies. Whereas other companies recognize that there is reputational mileage to be had from being seen to do the right thing.

The search, led by companies such as Procter & Gamble’s, Adidas, Timberland, Danone, Nestle and Origin Materials, is now on to find innovative solutions that allow us to transition from toxic, disposable plastics to biodegradable, recyclable and reusable materials. But some of the most exciting initiatives are being driven by the non-profit sector.

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation, a long-stranding advocate of the circular economy, has been running a three-year “New Plastics Economy” initiative focused on creating a more sustainable system for plastics. It recently launched an international competition, in conjunction with The Prince of Wales’s International Sustainability Unit, to identify solutions for keeping plastics out of the ocean.

There is also the The Ocean Cleanup, a ground breaking initiative, which is the brain-child of Dutch innovator Boyan Slat. The mission of The Ocean Cleanup is to help rid the world’s oceans of plastic through the development of a passive system that acts as an artificial coastline. It uses the natural ocean currents to catch and concentrate plastic rubbish before it is extracted, stored and shipped to land for recycling. The original aim was to start installing the first full-scale array in the Great Pacific garbage gyre by 2020. Things have gone so well the deployment date has been recently shifted forwards to 2018, with the objective of removing 50% of the plastic from the gyre within 5 years.

The fact that we seem to be waking up to the problem does not mean that we are close to resolving the issue of plastic in the ocean. But, for the first time, there is a feeling of hope.

 Photo credit: Ork de Rooij

European Parliament elects a new president – Antonio Tajani

By Evan O’Connell – Senior Consultant at Aspect Consulting

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Traditionally, the election for the European Parliament’s President has never held much suspense: the two-and-a-half-year term for the speakership of Europe’s directly elected legislature has generally been split between the two largest groups in Parliament (usually the centre-left socialists and the centre-right EPP). Even in the rare cases when liberals or conservatives were elected to the top spot, it was down to an agreement that ensured a solid majority.

2017 saw a rare break from this tradition – and, for the first time, the semblance of an open race. Though the last-minute withdrawal of liberal Guy Verhofstadt and the support of his ALDE group secured the election of the EPP’s Antonio Tajani for the top job, the decision by the Socialists and Democrats (S&D) not to honour their 2014 coalition agreement with the EPP meant he faced a real fight from centre-left Italian Gianni Pittella.

What does all this mean? Well, two things.

First of all, we have seen the breakdown of the traditional “grand coalition” between the centre-right and the centre-left in the European Parliament, which may mean a more confrontational and partisan atmosphere in Brussels from now on. The S&D group has been increasingly willing to take strident positions that clash with those of the EPP – expect this to continue.

This will, ironically, reinforce the Parliament’s fringes. If the EPP and the S&D vote together less and less often, it means that one or the other will have to rely not only on the centrist liberal ALDE group, but also either the far left or the eurosceptic rightwing to get texts passed. It may also mean a more contentious European election in 2019.

On the other hand, the election of a Parliament head who no longer commands an overwhelming majority as Martin Schulz did, and who is a less forceful figure than the outgoing German President of the EP, probably means that the European Parliament will be less willing and able to be a “counterweight” to the intergovernmental approach of the Council – weakening the European Parliament overall.

Antonio Tajani has not been universally praised for his work ethic – nor does he see the European Parliament Presidency as a way to counterbalance the Council. He will probably act more as a traditional European-style speaker and less like an EU equivalent of the US House Speaker. This will ultimately empower Group chairs like Manfred Weber, Gianni Pittella and Guy Verhofstadt, who may gain in power while the EP President takes a backseat.

Finally, what does all this mean for Brexit? Well, that’s not quite clear. On the one hand, a more fractious European Parliament could make it more difficult for the EP to come to an agreement on the issue; on the other, a weaker Parliament President and more divided chamber may actually strengthen the Council and EU Member States, if they themselves manage to speak with one voice on the future agreement with the UK.

Interesting times.

Trump and Brexit: responding to uncertain times

By James Hunt, Managing Partner

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The election of Donald Trump, hot on the heels of the Brexit vote, highlights the need for businesses and industries to respond to uncertain times by actively managing their political interests.

Our UK Public Affairs experts are, predictably enough, currently engaged in a number of areas where the lack of clarity caused by Brexit, presents threats, but also opportunities. The vaping industry, fast growing but hardly a dominant sector of commerce, is a good example of both the sheer weight of work that the British Government will need to manage over the next two years, and how advantages might be created by judicious use of political engagement.

Vapers supported Brexit enthusiastically, because they hoped the UK would exempt e-cigarettes from tobacco regulation the minute it was free to create its own regulatory regime. But faced with the huge Brexit workload, how to persuade HMG to make vaping a priority? Aspect’s UK PA team is currently working to raise the profile of vaping as a key public health issue – and to get it higher up the UK political agenda.

We are doing the same for our clients in the mining sector.  Aspect has run the UK All-Party Parliamentary Group International Mining for many years, with the focus now turning to how a post-Brexit Britain can seize more opportunities across the global mining industry.  Working closely with the new Department for International Trade, we are helping British companies seek out new markets.

If you would like us to help you critically examine the risks and opportunities that Brexit presents for your company or sector in the UK, please contact our Head of UK Public Affairs, Jeff Townsend. Together with our US partners, we can also do the same for you if the wider post-Trump uncertainties are creating turbulence in the United States or your international business.  If you would like to know more about Aspect’s strategic communications and public affairs work in Europe or further afield, do contact me without delay.

James Hunt
Managing Partner

Trump: Europe’s nightmare? Maybe we should take a breather.

By James Hunt, Managing Partner

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I have never been a strong believer in the “great man” theory of history.  I think history advances in movements that some people see and some do not – and that some people can successfully exploit, because they and what they stand for captures a mood.

We’ve certainly seen Mr Trump capture a public mood.  It is true America has never been so split.  It is also perhaps true that Hillary Clinton was the wrong candidate at the wrong time.  But certainly Trump’s strong points seem to have served him well.  He is forthright, he says what he thinks and he is an anti-politician when a good half of America is fed up of politicians.  That is the wave of history he is surfing.  And in many ways he is quite good at it: self-confident, will not take no for an answer, and there to fix a big problem.

Europeans are, of course, generally not happy with a candidate (and now President-elect) who seems in many ways to be part of the problem: unpolished and uninterested in detail, and too willing to hold grudges and alienate entire communities. However, given how often Mr. Trump has changed positions in the past, it is difficult to know what a President Trump will actually stand for.

There are a couple of real threats that a President Trump may present on the global stage, if his recent pronouncements become policy. One is to NATO and security in Europe. Champagne corks are popping in Moscow, and many are worried in Ukraine, the Baltics and across Central Europe at the thought of an American President seemingly willing to abandon his country’s longstanding commitment to the Atlantic Alliance. The other is to the future of the planet: Trump is a climate sceptic and seems set on tearing up President Obama’s commitments and rejecting the COP21 agreement.

He will also undoubtedly embolden populists on this side of the Atlantic – Marine Le Pen has already congratulated Trump, though it could be argued that this is also a welcome wake-up call for defenders of liberal democracy everywhere who have perhaps become too complacent.

The biggest problem, though, may be that he has never done this before.  For the first time since Dwight Eisenhower, the US has elected a President who has never served in elected office, anywhere – and the first President ever never to have served in any public service capacity.

So should we panic?  Should business people around the world follow the lead of the markets this morning, and jump off the nearest cliff?

No – and here’s three reasons why.

One – America’s founding fathers practically wrote the Constitution for nights like this.  There is a reason that the President is not popularly elected, but is voted in via an electoral college.  There’s a reason why debate rules allow filibustering.  There is a reason for all the legendary ‘checks and balances’.  Even with a Republican Senate and House, Trump will still find it difficult to push through his ‘programme’ (if we can even call it that).  Democrats will fight it, but so will many Republicans.  Remember, half his own party disowned him, and will not support moves they think will hurt them down the line.  The off-year election in 2018 may well see the Senate swing Democrat once again, particularly if The Donald is allowed to re-open his Twitter account or commits one gaffe too many.

Two – partners like China’s President Xi might have something to say about it.  We live in a multi-polar world now.  Like it or not, the US can no longer call all the shots. A President Trump is going to have to learn to compromise.  He’s going to have to learn that he needs his friends – and that they might tell him that they don’t think it’s a big idea to tell off trading partners for perceived grievances, for example.  International statesmanship is a little more difficult than presenting The Apprentice – indeed, Trump will be the apprentice in international affairs for quite some time.  No wonder Mr Putin is so happy.  Those who were so dismayed by Brexit lamented its pointlessness: no country can be an island any more, and the world is too globalised for any one country to fashion it in its own image – even America.

Third – it’s those historic movements.  What we learn as we get older is that what looks immutable isn’t.  “Stuff happens”, all the time.  Life will move on.  President Trump will face problems and challenges – some brought on by global events, some by domestic; some his fault, some not – that will occupy his time and energy.  Will his election change China’s long-term strategy? Will it fix the Euro? Will it remove a single one of Islamic State’s IED’s, increase the iron ore price, or even save Bristol Rugby from relegation?  No. Societal and historic macro-trends, as well as the unpredictable day-to-day events, are bigger than us all.  Trump may alter the direction a little, but the deep trends won’t alter.

Trump is a victim of these macro-trends as much as the rest of us. Sure, he will create theatre. He will appoint Supreme Court judges that make America more conservative and more fractious. But he alone cannot change a world defined more by technological advances, societal and demographic shifts, and climate change that is ultimately impossible to deny.  No one person can, no matter how great: not any more.  So my message to the international business community would be to hang onto your hats. The ride won’t be fun, but don’t change your plans.

To Brexit or not to Brexit?

By Evan O’Connell, Senior Consultant, and Eliot Edwards, Director for Public Relations & Government Relations at Aspect Consulting

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One week on from Britain’s momentous decision to leave the EU, things have moved faster than most could have anticipated. Markets have suffered- the UK has lost its AAA rating and more gloom is in store. The two favourites for Conservative Party leadership, Boris Johnson and George Osborne, do not want David Cameron’s job and Theresa May has emerged as the front-runner. The future of the UK – as a political unit as well as its membership of the EU – has never been more unclear. Or at least that threatened to be the case until France and Spain put paid to the idea of Scotland remaining in the EU and instead reprimanded Messrs. Jean-Claude Juncker and Martin Schulz for giving Nicola Sturgeon an airing in Brussels.

For the moment at least, we must assume the UK will leave the EU as electors demanded last week. Of course, many still hope there might be a way out of Brexit – that a combination of regret at a misguided decision, economic turmoil and tough negotiating will somehow reverse the result, and the UK will “remain” in the EU. Of course, if the new Conservative leader were to call a snap election, a Labour Party led by an actually electable leader – let us say David Miliband – campaigning on a Remain ticket could, if successful at the ballot box, simply refuse to ratify Brexit. Today, Theresa May might give assurances to her Base that there will be no election until 2020 if she is elected head of the Conservative Party, but who knows what tomorrow might bring?

So where do we stand today one week on from the referendum? Britain has a lame duck Prime Minister, Scotland is threatening to hold an independence referendum, Sinn Féin is calling for a referendum on a United Ireland, and there is a dearth of real political leadership on all sides of the political divide at Westminster. Neither is there clarity on when Article 50 will be invoked or who will be in the government presiding over negotiations. Across the Channel, no unanimity exists on exactly how conciliatory or tough on the UK the EU27 should be. At least one continental foreign ministry has today suggested to us that, even after invoking Article 50, the UK could change its mind up until the very last day.

On one side of the spectrum, in the run-up to a presidential election, François Hollande needs to show the French electorate that anyone who leaves the EU will pay a dear price in order to deter them from voting for the National Front. “Contagion” from Brexit must be avoided at all cost. Whilst in the run-up to a General Election in Germany, the Finance Minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, stresses the need to learn the lessons of Brexit and confidently asserts that “More Europe” is not the answer to every problem. Of course, Germany fears losing vital trade ties with one if its biggest markets.

Yet there is some agreement on the Continent: all agree that the UK cannot have full access to the Single Market without respecting the “four freedoms”, including freedom of movement. Or do they? Cracks are even appearing on that fundamental principle as Michel Sapin, the French Finance Minister, claimed that everything will be on the negotiating table.

The EU27, publicly, expect the UK to invoke Article 50 the day a new Prime Minister is sworn in – yet several candidates, including frontrunner Theresa May, have suggested the UK may wait until the end of the year before officially beginning negotiations. This delay might allow for some stability to return to the UK’s politics and take the emotional sting out of the debate but drawing out the process might further sour relations with the EU and, perhaps, prolong uncertainty on the markets.
How can businesses protect their interests in such uncertain times? For now, the priority has to be for companies to lobby those who will inform negotiating positions in UK, EU27 and Brussels to make them appreciate the damage hasty, ill thought-through negotiations could bring. They must push for calm, well thought-out negotiations that will lead to the least disruptive situation possible for trade and investment in the long term. A message must be sent to German, French and Italian officials, in particular, that the UK be treated fairly and a constructive approach taken. Companies from the outside Europe, the UK and the EU27 need to come together and collectively leverage political support on the ground in key EU Member States calling for a non-punitive approach to negotiations.

Business must focus on the post-Brexit reality as it stands today: the UK might have been the key opinion former inside the EU on technology, trade and single market issues, but it might be gone tomorrow. Therefore, they must look increasingly to themselves to defend their own interests. If Brexit indeed comes to pass, it will fundamentally change the EU’s internal dynamics. The EU’s biggest champion of free trade and market liberalisation will be gone and more protectionist tendencies remain unchecked. Sadly, unless everyone sees sense, there is a real danger of a “lose-lose” outcome that will only serve to undermine the standing and attractiveness of both the UK and EU27 economies.

Aspect Consulting on Brexit in the French media

Our lead public affairs and communications consultant in France – Evan O’Connell – has spoken on Brexit in several French media outlets over the past two weeks. Media appearances include:

  • France 24 (in French), June 30th (Part 1, Part 2)
  • Médiapart Live (in French), June 26th (link)
  • RFI (in French), June 24th (link)
  • France 24 (in English), June 20th (Part 1, Part 2)

As a company with strong British roots and a presence across Europe, we are ideally placed to help guide corporates through this tumultuous time from a regulatory, political and communications standpoint. One of our key strengths is our ability to communicate the British political situation to foreign audiences, and to communicate and lobby on behalf of clients on issues connected to Britain’s relationship with Europe.