It is Time for Brexit – NOW! Why the EU Should Reject an Extension to Article 50

From Dr Soeren Keil – Reader in Politics and International Relations and Director of the Centre for European Studies at Canterbury Christ Church University.

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It has happened. I finally find myself on the side of hardcore Brexiteers. I agree with the arguments of Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg, the United Kingdom should leave the European Union on the 29th of March 2019 with or, much more likely, without a deal.

I am not a Brexiteer (I was not allowed to vote in the referendum). But the Brexit negotiations and the votes in Parliament between the 12th and the 14th of March have demonstrated the complex, contradictory position of the UK Parliament and the government. Parliament does not want to leave without a deal – yet the only deal in town, the one that Theresa May spent two years negotiating, has been rejected overwhelmingly twice as well (and there is a good chance that it will be rejected for a third time). At the same time, Parliament does not want a new referendum, no indicative votes to see if there is a majority for another deal, and the government has not moved on its red lines. There has also been no majority for Labour’s plan to stay in the customs union either in previous parliamentary votes.

So, why would Parliament want to extend the negotiations and delay the departure of the UK from the EU? With no compromise in sight, there is little hope that Conservatives and Labour will be able to reach an agreement that could carry a majority of votes in Parliament. The parties are too divided and both the Prime Minister and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn are too controversial within their own ranks to act as bridge builders.

We Germans have a saying (and yes, I know it exists in English, too) – better a terrible ending than unending terror. Brexit, if delayed, will be unending terror with absolutely no solution in sight.

So, this is where I agree with the arch-Brexiteers: It is time for the UK to leave. The EU should reject the UK’s request for extension, because the UK is lacking a clear plan on how to proceed. Rather than waste another 3, 6, or 12 months on the Brexit dilemma, let’s focus on the other urgent issues facing the EU. People fleeing North Africa are still drowning in the Mediterranean. Trump’s trade war is beginning to hurt Europe, and there is a general economic downturn – the next economic crisis is not far away. There are new authoritarian tendencies in Hungary and Poland that need a robust response from the EU, and we should not forget about the Western Balkans, the EU’s relations with Turkey, the war in Ukraine, the situation in Syria….and many more issues that the EU should be focusing on.

Yes, a no-deal Brexit is bad for the EU, too. But a no-deal Brexit is still a better option than more months with political insecurity, instability and the EU’s single focus on the Brexit issue. It is time for Brexit, now!

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Deal or no Deal – Third Time Lucky?

From Paul Anderson – Lecturer in Politics and International Relations.

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A week is a long time in politics.

On Thursday – a dramatic third consecutive day of Brexit votes – MPs voted by a majority of 210 to seek an extension to Article 50. In legal terms – at least for the moment – this changes very little; it is still technically possible that the UK will leave the EU by the end of March. Politically, however, this date has been kicked into the long grass.

At some point next week, Prime Minister Theresa May will, for a third time, bring her deal before parliament for yet another meaningful vote. The results of this vote will determine the future course of Brexit. Should MPs ultimately endorse the PM’s deal – an unlikely but possible scenario – the PM has vowed to request a ‘short technical’ three-month extension to Article 50. In the event that MPs once again reject the deal, a longer-term extension is likely to be requested.

The ball, however, is firmly within the hands of the EU and its member states. An extension of Article 50 requires the unanimous support of all 27 countries. It seems likely that the EU will extend the Brexit deadline, but this will be a hesitant rather than enthusiastic move. EU leaders would like to avoid a no-deal scenario, but a prolonged period of uncertainty brought about by a deadline extension is just as unpopular.

So, this begs the question: what next for Brexit?

Approval of the deal? – This would be the most straightforward avenue for the government. If successful in the impending third vote on the deal, Theresa May would request the short term extension to Brexit and if granted the UK would leave the EU with a deal on 30 June 2019.

No deal? – As noted above, Parliament has rejected leaving the EU with no deal, but this remains the default outcome in the event that the EU member states do not agree to extend Article 50.

Renegotiation? – A renegotiation may be on the cards should a long-term extension to Article 50 be granted. Unlike the previous tweaks Mrs May has tried to secure, a significant renegotiation would take time and would necessitate some clear direction – perhaps from Parliament – over the future direction of Brexit. This would involve a series of indicative votes. On Thursday, by a margin of only two, MPs rejected an amendment to guarantee these indicative votes, but David Lidington – Mrs May’s second in command – has suggested this avenue would be explored were the government’s deal rejected again.

A second referendum? – On Thursday MPs voted against a cross-party amendment calling for a second referendum. This was defeated by a huge margin – 334 to 85, primarily a result of Labour’s directive to its MPs to abstain. At face value, the prospect of a people’s vote may be interpreted as dead in the water, but campaigners for a second vote remain optimistic.

General Election? – The PM does not have the power to call a snap general election, but a vote in parliament with the support of two-thirds of MPs – as took place in 2017 – would secure this option. After the PM’s deal was defeated in the second meaningful vote held on Tuesday 12th, Jeremy Corbyn immediately called for a general election. This is, unsurprisingly, not the Conservative Party’s preferred option, but the prospect of a general election in 2019 is looming ever closer on the horizon.

A second vote of no confidence? – As took place in January, the opposition could table a motion of no confidence in the government. Were such a motion to pass, the PM would have 14 days to try and win the vote, but if she fails to rally the support needed to continue, and no alternative government could be formed, parliament would be dissolved and a general election date announced.

Revocation of Article 50? – Late last year the European Court of Justice ruled that if it sought to do so, the UK government could unilaterally revoke Article 50 and stop Brexit. According to the Court, Article 50 would have to be revoked by 29 March 2019 at the latest, unless the EU’s 27 member states grant an extension. Unlike an extension, revoking Article 50 does not require the support of the EU, but support for this option among a majority of MPs is muted.

Over the last two years, the debate on EU withdrawal has laid bare divisions in both the Labour and Conservative parties. The series of consecutive votes this week have placed such divisions in the spotlight and not only illuminate a splintered cabinet, but a divided opposition, too. The need for cross-party cooperation on securing an agreed approach to Brexit is the only way forward, but the prospect of this is somewhere between impossible and improbable; Corbyn and May cannot even get their own parties in order.

Will there be food? Brexit explored through the organic sector

From Sarah Lieberman – Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations.

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Brexit is an emotive topic which has seen society divided between those who passionately believe in leave, and those who equally passionately believe in remain. It is the marmite of political topics: no one sits on the fence. However, it is only now, with the government’s Brexit date set and looming, are we starting to see what it might actually mean to give up our membership of the European Union. Some sectors are going to be hugely affected, and it is likely that the food industry is one of them. The organic sector in particular is a small but considerable industry and therefore helps to provide an insight into post-Brexit complication.

What is Organic?

Organic food is grown, raised, or manufactured without the use of chemical or genetically modified additives in the production or post production stage. The EU has a strict legal framework for organic food that protects consumers, farmers, transporters, and importers. Organic food is costly to produce and the EU ensures quality.

The main piece of legislation pertaining to organic food is Regulation EC834/2007. In 2007, when it was signed, organic food was at its height of popularity: pre-credit crunch as well as post-GMO and other food scares. The regulation covers all aspects of organic food production: farming, import, animal welfare, human health, provisions for labelling, etc. The UK adheres to these directly applicable rules that must be applied to be granted organic certification.

Deal or No Deal?

If the UK leaves the EU with a deal, then the Union and its Member States will continue to recognise the UK’s organic certification. An agreement would also allow the UK to import organic grain tariff-free. A percentage of the EU’s external import tariff quota has already been granted to the UK by civil servants in Whitehall and Brussels. Without this, the UK cannot produce organic meat as it does not produce enough high protein organic grain.

If the UK leaves with no deal, it must harmonise standards before exit – and let’s face it, there is hardly time for that now – or it will lose access to the European market for organic produce. The problem is not with the EU, as it knows that the UK is up to standard. The problem is the World Trade Organisation (WTO). If the EU recognises the UK’s organic certification without a deal, then they have to do the same for all non-EU states, regardless of practices.

The UK will also require bilateral trade agreements with non-EU states, specifying the standards for organic produce. The WTO is based on a principle that at all states are treated the same and without the EU’s certification behind it, organic looks simply like a barrier to trade or an extra tariff.  This is not due to EU awkwardness, but rather international law as defined by the WTO. And this is not just organics: substitute the word organic for any other sector and you have the same story.

Let’s be clear: if the UK does not have a deal and it does not have harmonised standards in place, then it does not have trade deals to fall back on. So, when someone asks ‘will there be food’, the answer is actually very complicated.

The Independent Group: A Changing Centre or Drab Disappointment?

From Maw Stafford (PhD Candidate in Politics).

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Over a week has now passed since the biggest split in (two) political parties since the 1980s. The Independent Group* (currently not a formal party but a collection of eleven independent) used the high-drama of visual politics to demonstrate their self-declared new place in UK politics. Three Conservatives and eight Labour MPs uprooted themselves from parties that some of them had been representing since the early 1990s and pitched themselves as the “new face” of a centrist/moderate fightback.

Is this a remaking of the centre or a demonstration by disgruntled MPs who will likely fail to hold their seats at the next General Election? These two elements are not actually mutually exclusive. Ideological differences with their party leaderships, especially around Brexit (and, in the cases of the eight former Labour MPs, the ongoing anti-Semitism crisis) seem more likely to have been the original key motivation for the eleven’s decision to split, rather than a desire to actually form a new party. However, they have given explicit indications that their intention is to do precisely that – and the continued language of “a new direction” and “#ChangePolitics” underline this course of travel. This, of course, is nothing new. If you can cast your mind back to a time before we’d even heard the word Brexit, Nick Clegg spent the 2010 Election promising “Change that works for you” whilst Harold Wilson advocated for a politics that matched the pace of technological change in 1964. All of this, without even mentioning the SDP’s formation in 1981, evokes that Mark Twain adage that, though history doesn’t repeat itself, it does rhyme.

But does this all mean that a new centre-ground party couldn’t emerge? No, it doesn’t. British politics has long been unusual in European parliamentary systems in that it lacks a viable centrist party that could regularly play a role in government. Of course, the Liberal Democrats have had recent experience of this but once in thirty years of party history is by no means a high frequency of success. Take Norway, Finland and The Netherlands – all of them have a centrist party in government (through coalition). Obviously, as is well-documented, the UK electoral system used in General Elections (“First-Past-The-Post) has a tendency (though not certainty) to favour a two-party reality. However, a real “Centre Party” (or however it chooses to eventually call itself) could still have an impact.

On Brexit, the Independent Group favour a “People’s Vote” and are heavily associated with Remain. More broadly, however, their policy platform is extremely light. New parties have that rare opportunity that they can’t afford to miss – the chance to craft new narratives and political strategies that are not dictated to by historic internal membership structures or machines. Could they, then, take up this opportunity by having a “post-Brexit Britain” (assuming Brexit happens) policy launch following Exit Day? The other new party on the block (Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party) are tied to the only game in town at the moment: leaving the EU. However, our existing parties will have to almost recraft themselves following Exit Day – “What did we believe before? Is it still relevant? How do we move forward without just warming over old phrases and slogans?” A new party could be well-placed to seize the mantle of this national future-gazing and pitch itself as the unifying voice of a divided majority that find current politics too volatile and without sufficient form beyond the Brexit debate.

This might all sound woolly – but then that’s because it is. Few things throw up “What ifs” than a new political faction, formed from former rivals, who have yet to establish a change-based agenda (beyond a few oddly-familiar slogans). Are they to be a purely parliamentary movement or will they root themselves in local politics too? Who will or should lead them if they do become a party? Will they even last beyond the next General Election? Can the Tories or Labour unite sufficiently-enough, internally, to take enough seats at the next election to not only obtain a majority but reassert the idea of two-party dominance within UK politics? At this stage, we might have better luck answering the question of “Where does the spare sock go in the wash?” than squaring the root of these multi-layered political problems! What is certain, though, is that the Independent Group presents a large and immediate identity crisis to both of the main parties. And that could still yet result in further defections.

So, at a time when Brexit requires us to set our feet firmly on stable ground, we find that our parties’ houses have been placed on the sand.

* The name “Independent Group” is in itself interesting. Though it’s not suggested that these MP’s are deliberately seeking to echo the precedent, this name has long been connected with a 1950s group of artists who sought to breakaway from the dominant artistic paradigm and make art more inclusive. Those interested in where art and politics overlap might be interested to see Prof. David Bates and Katerina Hill’s (CCCU) recent work on art and politics (partnered with the Tate).

Is Brexit Sexist? A Feminist Perspective

As we edge closer to ‘Brexit Day,’ Dr Laura Cashman (Senior Lecturer in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University) writes about how a feminist analysis can help us to look at the issues from an alternative point of view, where the personal is always political.

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The typical starting point for feminist analysis is to ask where are the women and what are they doing? First of all, does it matter that a woman is leading the Brexit process? In my view, yes it does. Some have argued that the elevation of Theresa May to the leadership of the Conservative Party disproves claims of a glass ceiling in politics. However, there is something else going on here. The impossibility of delivering a version of Brexit that will please anyone, never mind everyone, reflects a different problem of feminist leadership – the glass cliff. Theresa May is not the first woman to feel obliged to clean up a mess created by others, or to be ‘awarded’ responsibility for a task deemed too toxic for a man to touch.

There are, of course, women and men in both the Leave and Remain camps but men tend to be in the spotlight. The media reflect wider social biases, which still prioritise men’s views and opinions and present men as the default experts. Male Brexiteers talk about sovereignty and control. Male Remainers talk about economic crisis and security threats. All of this is the stuff of so-called “high” politics. Women on both sides have been talking about issues such as access to health and social care and rights for working families. They argue about whether the EU has been a positive or negative influence on women’s lives. The point here is that these problems tend to be categorised as “low politics” despite the fact that their consequences will be felt more acutely and by more of the population.

And then to the voters. We know women voted in greater numbers than men to remain and that even now, women fear a hard Brexit more than men. This may be because women recognise and value the rights and opportunities EU membership afforded them. (More women than men study European languages and participate in Erasmus exchanges). It might also be that women are turned off by the noisier (male) advocates of Brexit, who hark back to a time which men of a certain class and ethnicity may remember fondly, but few others do. Women also rely more heavily than men on public services which are at risk in the Brexit process. Mary-Ann Stephenson of the Women’s Budget Group makes this point very clearly: Women use these services, they work for them and when they are reduced, women devote their ‘spare’ time to fill the gaps.

On a personal note, one reason why I have become so frustrated with the whole Brexit fiasco is because I feel that all the energy which has consumed the nation for two years now, could have been put to such better use. Politicians and citizens have become so fixated on this issue that other, arguably more important, questions are being neglected. We are not giving due attention to problems at home such as homelessness and air pollution or abroad (wars in Yemen and Syria, the refugee crisis in the Mediterranean). I fear that in years to come history will not judge us kindly for this self-indulgence.