31 July 2019

Open Europe’s Director Henry Newman gave evidence to the House of Lords EU select committee on 23 July. He discussed the state of Brexit negotiations alongside Professor John Curtice from the University of Strathclyde and the campaigner Gina Miller. You can view a recording of the proceedings here and read the transcript here.

Commenting on the state of Brexit negotiations, Newman said that there have been some changes on the EU side following the election of a new Prime Minister and a reshuffle of the Cabinet in the UK.

He said, “There are discussions happening inside the European Commission about surgical changes of the Withdrawal Agreement… This does not mean they are ready to make these offers but they are looking at what could be done in that direction,” adding that EU officials and leaders are ready to give Boris Johnson a “proper hearing.”

Newman noted that there are now four basic Brexit options, and each has its own challenges.

  • Leaving with a deal, which requires a majority in the Commons. Achieving this option by 31 October (as Boris Johnson has promised) would be challenging. To pass a new deal through the Commons, the Attorney General’s advice would need to change.
  • Extending Article 50: It would require the unanimous approval of the EU27. Moreover, Johnson has “staked his credibility on not seeking an extension, so it would be unlikely for him to pursue this path” unless Parliament forces him to.
  • Revoking Article 50, which would be “extraordinarily unlikely.”
  • Leaving without a deal.

When asked about the issue of a No Deal Brexit, Newman noted that there is still a strong possibility of miscalculations by both sides which would lead to a situation where the UK leaves without a deal.

As to what would happen in such a scenario, on the UK side, it is unclear whether enough Conservative MPs would be willing to bring down the Government in a potential vote of no confidence. Newman noted, “A majority would quickly be found to pass crucial legislation and mitigate the worst things that have not yet been able to get on the statue books…

But it completely depends what attitude both the EU side and the UK side took and whether No Deal is seen as a deliberate policy choice or a miscalculation by one side or the other or both.

On the issue of what could happen between July and October to avoid a No Deal, Newman said “there is a pathway for a deal to be reached with the EU,” adding that most of the 600-page Withdrawal Agreement “is acceptable…We are talking about narrow, surgical changes…which can be difficult.” He listed some of these possibly achievable changes, including:

  • Substantially rewriting the Political Declaration on future UK-EU relations in order to move towards the direction of a Canada-style free trade agreement (FTA).
  • Seeking further clarifications from the EU’s side about alternative arrangements to the Irish backstop.
  • Adding protections to address the concerns of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), including international law to protect against checks in the Irish Sea.
  • Securing some sort of unilateral exit on the Irish backstop, for example one where the UK could leave the backstop as a whole and retreat into a Northern-Ireland only backstop. The Northern Ireland-only backstop could then be left or retained following a referendum in Northern Ireland.
  • Other key changes that would make the Attorney General modify his legal advice about the backstop and help a deal pass through Parliament.

Finally, he noted that an important question is as we get increasingly closer to a No Deal Brexit, to what extent would both sides be willing to agree separate arrangements to mitigate the impact? The EU has so far ruled out ‘side deals’, but there is also a sense in the EU27 that there is no possibility to reverse Brexit. So would they be willing to move and accept changes to the current deal, or to mitigate No Deal?