27 September 2019

Parliament returned this week following the Supreme Court’s judgement that Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s five week prorogation was unlawful. The House of Commons yesterday rejected the Government’s request for a conference recess and will continue to sit next week, while the opposition parties are not yet willing to agree to a General Election. The Government continues to say that the UK will leave the EU on 31 October, but it remains bound by the Benn legislation, which compels it to seek an extension from the EU if it cannot secure a Brexit deal by the middle of October. Even if the Government does come back to the Commons with a Withdrawal Agreement, getting it passed on time would be a challenge. The mood in Parliament this week suggests there is little appetite for compromise.

There are still mixed signals from the EU about whether a deal is possible. The President of Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, has said that he and chief negotiator Michel Barnier were “doing everything possible” to get a deal, but Barnier himself reportedly gave a more pessimistic assessment of the situation to EU ambassadors yesterday.

Time is also running out. In New York this week, both the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and the European Council President, Donald Tusk, indicated the UK would have to submit written proposals on an alternative to the backstop next week if they were to be considered in time for the summit in October. Varadkar said “there is still a very wide gap between the EU and the UK” on Brexit, but also said he had a “good meeting” with Johnson and that “we were able to get into more detail this time”

The Prime Minister also says there has been movement towards a deal. In his update to the House of Commons on Wednesday, he said that “we have moved a long way from the idea that the backstop had to be retained in all circumstances” and identified three areas where progress was being made. First, he stressed the importance of “alternative arrangements” to the backstop, saying there had been good progress recently. Secondly, he spoke of the idea of the “unity of the island of Ireland for sanitary and phytosanitary purposes,” a suggestion which would see Northern Ireland remain in alignment with the EU for agrifood purposes. This is the outline of a package which the Government has been talking about for some weeks. Finally, Johnson said there was progress on the question of “consent” and that resolving this question “holds the key” to unlocking the whole package.

Open Europe’s new report on Brexit and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement looks into the question of consent and identifies a number of ways of addressing what Johnson describes as the “anti-democratic” nature of the backstop. This includes an enhanced “Stormont Lock,” which would see the Northern Ireland Assembly given a greater say over the process by which progress on alternative arrangements could be decided. There are also ways of fleshing out the role for the other institutions established as part of the Good Friday Agreement.

There has clearly been some engagement on the EU’s side with the “consent” question. Ultimately this is not about any side backing down, but reaching a compromise which is acceptable to all sides, including the UK and the EU, the Irish Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland. Finding a way out of the impasse over the backstop is the only way to achieve an orderly Brexit, either before or after 31 October.

News in brief

1.  Parliament returns as Supreme Court rules prorogation “unlawful”
Parliament resumed sitting this week after the Supreme Court unanimously ruled on Tuesday that the Government’s decision to prorogue Parliament for five weeks was “unlawful, null and of no effect.” As a result, Parliament has not been prorogued and the previous session has resumed. Responding to the decision, Prime Minister Boris Johnson said the Court was “wrong to pronounce on a political question” but added that he would respect the decision.

MPs yesterday voted against a Government proposal for a short recess to cover the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester next week.

2. Donald Tusk: “no breakthrough, no breakdown” after Brexit talks in New York
Following meetings with Boris Johnson on the margins of the UN General Assembly in New York, the European Council president Tusk said on Twitter, “No breakthrough. No breakdown. No time to lose.” Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, who also held talks with Johnson in New York, said, “We got to talk about some of the detail of the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop. I think it was a good meeting… However, there is still a very wide gap between the EU and UK in terms of achieving what we need to achieve before October.” This came as EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said the UK had yet to provide “legal and operational” proposals for the Irish border.

3. Labour Party Conference decides on Brexit policy
Labour delegates held a series of votes on the party’s Brexit policy at their annual conference this week. The party will campaign for a second referendum on Brexit if there is a General Election. If it won that election, the referendum would be between “a credible Leave option” which the party would negotiate, and Remain. However, an attempt to ensure that the party campaigned for Remain in that referendum was rejected, with members instead backing leader Jeremy Corbyn’s stance that the party should remain neutral until it has negotiated a new deal.

In a separate vote, party members backed a call to “maintain and extend free movement rights” after Brexit, in a change to previous policy. The successful motion also called for voting rights for elections and referendums to be extended to all UK residents, including EU nationals.

4.Car industry disputes Gove’s claims on No Deal readiness
Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, said that the automotive and retail sectors had “confirmed that they were ready” for a No Deal Brexit in meetings this week. However, attendees from industry disputed the claims. One told BBC News, “We said we are planning as best we can, but cannot prepare for all eventualities and tariffs alone undermine our viability. We want a deal. No Deal is not an option.”

5. MEPs reject Romanian and Hungarian nominees for European Commission
The European Parliament’s Legal Affairs Committee yesterday rejected the nominations of Romania’s Rovana Plumb and Hungary’s Laszlo Trocsanyi to the new European Commission, citing concerns over potential conflicts of interest.

Open Europe in the media

Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe writes in the Telegraph, “Given that Boris Johnson may also adopt a much more radical position on Brexit in the event of an election… he EU would do well to realise a deal with him now is likely to be much easier than one later.”

In a piece for ConservativeHome last week,  Open Europe’s David Shiels assessed the DUP’s position on Brexit, arguing, “For as long as the party holds out for a better deal, it is on safe ground politically. The risk is that Johnson presents them with a deal which in theory meets their demands but exposes them to criticism from other Unionist parties… In the end, the DUP may well prefer to hold out for a General Election – and the likelihood of a Brexit delay – in the hope that something better turns up.”

Reacting to the Supreme Court’s judgment on Tuesday, Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh told Yahoo Finance UK, “While this is an important moment, it is not clear what Parliament will be able to do in three extra weeks that it had not previously done over a period of many months. And with the Benn Act already in law, they have already succeeded in tying the prime minister’s hands… the question is not just whether parliament is sitting but what it is prepared to do.”

Yahoo Finance UK also covered Open Europe’s new report, “Brexit and the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement: Finding a way through the backstop impasse.”