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Open Europe's Anthony Egan explores the considerations weighing on the minds of the Government, opposition parties, and the EU after this week's developments.
Earlier this week, Parliament voted in favour of the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in principle but rejected the Government’s timetable for scrutinising the Bill and final vote. While the Bill has cleared the first hurdle to ratification, which would secure the UK’s negotiated departure from the EU, the path ahead remains unclear for a number of reasons.
Firstly, the Government yesterday said it would only grant Parliament more time to scrutinise the Bill if it agreed to an early General Election on 12 December, announcing it would put a motion before Parliament on Monday under the Fixed-term Parliament Act (FTPA). However, the route to an election is plagued with problems for both the Government and the Opposition. The Government’s motion would require two-thirds of MPs to support it, but opposition parties have raised fears that the Government’s ability to set the election date could lead to an accidental No Deal. Unless they are convinced otherwise, they are unlikely to support the motion.
The alternative route to an early election would be to instead table legislation allowing the terms of the FTPA to be set aside to allow for an election on a specific date. The issue with this option is that such legislation, unlike the Government’s proposed motion, would be amendable. The opposition parties could use this to cause problems for the Government, for example, by extending the franchise to 16-year olds and EU citizens. So the path to a General Election, which the Government has tied (at least for now) to the Bill’s passage through Parliament, remains unclear.
Secondly, the UK is still awaiting the EU’s response to its Article 50 extension request. Reports earlier this week suggested differences of opinion between EU leaders on the length of said extension, and the EU announced this morning that it had not yet reached a decision. While French President Emmanuel Macron is reportedly isolated in his desire for a shorter extension to focus minds in Westminster, the next moves from both the Government and the opposition parties will hinge on the terms of an extension. Yet the EU seems reluctant to decide on an extension until it sees greater clarity from Westminster. It seems that the EU and Parliament have locked themselves in a chicken-and-egg situation, waiting for the other to move before making any decisions.
Thirdly, it is worth stressing that the coalition of MPs who supported the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at 2nd reading on Tuesday is far from stable. As Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh told LBC earlier this week, a number of these MPs made their support conditional on significant amendments to the Bill. The Government may yet have to grant some concessions in domestic law, such as on workers’ rights and extension of the transition period, to get MPs onside.
Finally, if the Government was to set out a timetable for the Bill to be scrutinised that Parliament could support, there is still the risk that certain ‘wrecking’ amendments could topple it. Any amendments that meant the Government was not meeting its obligations under international law would mean the Withdrawal Agreement would not have been ratified.
The Government, the opposition parties and the EU will have lots to consider as they plan their next steps.
1. Parliament and Government at impasse over timetable for Brexit legislation
On Tuesday, MPs passed the Withdrawal Agreement Bill at its second reading by 329 to 299 but rejected the Bill’s timetable for scrutiny. The Government then announced yesterday it would only allow MPs more time to consider the Bill if they pass a motion for an early General Election on 12 December. Such a motion would require a two-thirds majority in Parliament (434 out of 650) under the Fixed-term Parliament Act to be passed.
The Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, told BBC’s Today programme this morning that Labour “was definitely up for an election,” but added that this would require “an explicit commitment” to rule out a No Deal Brexit. “That might mean further legislation in Parliament, I’m not sure. But we want to be absolutely certain,” Abbott continued.
Elsewhere, the Scottish Nationalist Party has called for a 5 December election, leaving the Bill to be considered by the following Parliament.
Separately, the Treasury announced last night that its 6 November Budget will not go ahead.
2. EU remains undecided on length of Brexit extension
The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, announced today that the EU27 has not decided on the length of an extension to Article 50, after meetings between Ambassadors took place this morning, confirming that a decision would instead be made on Monday or Tuesday. Reports suggest there is agreement among the EU27 on the need for an extension, unanimity on the terms of the extension, and that the decision should be taken by a written procedure rather than a special summit.
It was reported earlier this week that French President Emmanuel Macron is insisting that any Brexit extension should last no longer than 15 days, despite President of the European Council, Donald Tusk telling EU leaders to support a three-month delay until 31 January 2020.
Separately, incoming EU Commission President, Ursula von der Leyen, has said she would ask the UK to nominate a Commissioner if Brexit is delayed beyond 1 November. The new Commission is expected to take office in early December.
3. HMRC Chief provides clarity over NI-GB checks required by new Withdrawal Agreement
Reports that the new Brexit deal would require goods travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain complete an exit summary declaration have created confusion about the trading frictions that would be present between the two parts of the United Kingdom under the agreement. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay has said that for goods travelling from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, “there will be minimal, targeted interventions, designed to prevent, for example, the trade in endangered species,” conflicting with statements made by Home Secretary Priti Patel.
HMRC’s interim head, Jim Harra, told MPs on Tuesday that “The UK is free to decide for itself the extent to which it wants to control [goods moving from Northern Ireland into the UK] … [At present,] the only prohibitions and restrictions that will apply on goods moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain, so west to east, are those that are required to fulfil international obligations,” including checks to prevent trade in endangered species.
4. Varadkar “would like to see a united Ireland” in his lifetime
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar today told radio station Today FM that he would like to see a united Ireland in his lifetime, “but only in accordance with the Good Friday Agreement so that’s only with the consent of the majority of people in Northern Ireland.” He added, “I think, if we ever get to that point, we need to make sure that unionists in Northern Ireland and British people in Northern Ireland feel that a united Ireland is a warm place for them.”
Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe wrote for Belgian daily De Morgan, arguing that “the new Brexit deal is a great step forward,” adding, “the EU and Ireland have watered down quite a few demands.” Cleppe also wrote for the Telegraph about how a short extension for the UK to ratify the deal is in the EU’s interests. Cleppe also appeared before the EU Committee of the German Parliament, where he discussed how spending cuts will be needed for the EU’s long-term budget.
Dominic Walsh discussed the Withdrawal Agreement Bill on Al-Jazeera and whether the majority for the Bill in principle would hold together on LBC. Walsh was also quoted in Spanish daily ABC, Yahoo, France24 and German magazine Stern.
David Shiels spoke to BBC Two’s News Special ahead of the vote on Saturday about the prospects for passing the Government’s Brexit deal.
Anthony Egan wrote for The Article about how the economic implications of the new Brexit deal have been misrepresented.