#GE2017 and Brexit – Traincrash vs lucky escape

Unless you’ve been living under a rock or, god forbid, without adequate WIFI for the last day, you will be aware that we are having a snap election in just over 7 weeks’ time on the 8th of June. While seemingly the entirety of the UK population is preoccupying itself by venting their joy and frustration into the bottomless void of Twitter, I would like to take a moment to talk about Brexit and what this means for the upcoming negotiations.

In the short term, it means kicking the can down the road, but fortunately snap elections are… well, snappy. It seems highly unlikely we are going to hear anything major out of the Government over the next 7 weeks, not least because Parliament will be dissolving in 2 weeks time, the pre-election ‘Purdah’ will be kicking in any moment and the Prime Minister is going to be spending most of her time staging awkward photo-ops with nursery children.

My one word of warning, however, is that this ‘Article 50 Road’ is not very long and we are already going to spend the best part of 6 months of it with the French and German elections. Using these potentially crucial, if short, 7 weeks before the German elections start in earnest messing around with our own election might come back to bite us when we are scrambling to get a deal, transitional or not, in 2019.

But on the other side of the channel, the EU27 have an interesting opportunity to throw a spanner in the works if they so wish, as there is a European Council meeting on the 29th of April. Whether or not they will is a speculation too far for this graduate coordinator, but if they believed they might get a better deal out of Jeremy Corbyn than Theresa May, or fancied a 28th member in the form of an independent Scotland, or if they just wanted to make life difficult for Theresa May by pulling a lever or two and forcing her into some manifesto pledges, now is the time for Donald Tusk to start honing his spanner-throwing skills.

With a longer term view, I muse two possible alternatives;

The first and, YouGov willing, much more likely outcome of this election is that May doesn’t have any moving vans arriving outside of No.10. If she wins, it seems fairly likely that the UK negotiating position will stay more or less the same: No European Court of Justice, No Single Market, No Customs union, but with a Free Trade Area and some form of customs agreement that allows for minimal non-tariff barriers, and a hard border in Dover but a soft one in Northern Ireland. Indeed, if as seems most likely she increases the Conservative majority in House of Commons she will treat this as a cast-iron validation of her Brexit strategy. Alongside this the EU27 position is unlikely to change much either unless there is the arrival of the aforementioned spanners.

I suppose there is a chance she has some electoral difficulties: perhaps she becomes concerned about her ‘Brexity’ base being tempted to UKIP or her ‘Remoany’ base being tempted by the Lib-Dems, and is forced into changing the Brexit strategy to appease an aspect of her coalition, but given her batting average of 46% vote share in the most recent Comres poll, this doesn’t seem that likely.

The second and, Ipsos willing, much less likely outcome is that Theresa May cannot achieve a majority. This alternative would be very chaotic and a massive upset to the Article 50 process will ensue. The polls seem to suggest Corbyn has a snowman’s chance in hell of actually getting a majority. So this alternative looks something like a Lib/Lab/SNP coalition or Con/Lib coalition…. here are two Buster Keaton GIFs as to what that might resemble:

 

To sum up, if everything goes according to Theresa May’s plan and the polling is correct, the snap elections shouldn’t affect the Brexit negotiations too much – yet, Trump is in the White House, Marine Le Pen has a shot at the French presidency, Leicester City boasts a Premier league victory and Britain voted to leave the European Union…

Jack Brooks is a 2016 Politics and International Relations Honours Graduate of Canterbury Christ Church University and graduate coordinator at the Centre for European Studies (CEFEUS) at CCCU.

Theresa May’s Three-Way Brexit Fight – And Why She Cannot Win

On the 29th of March 2017, the government of the United Kingdom officially informed the President of the European Council about their intention to leave the European Union within the next two years. This so-called triggering of Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty of the European Union will start a process, which will be complex with many unknown and unforeseen developments, challenges and problems on the way.

Theresa May has made it clear that she wants the UK’s departure from the EU to strengthen the Union, to improve the lives of British people and to work for both the UK and the EU.  However, this seems more and more unlikely. The Prime Minister, and her negotiation team are not just fighting a one-way battle with the EU-negotiation team about the terms of Brexit and a successor agreement that will give the UK access to the European market, they are actually involved in a three-way fight. A fight that is full of contradictions and centrifugal forces, and one that Theresa May cannot win.

Fight Number 1: The European Dimension

The UK government will spend the next two years negotiating with an EU delegation on the terms of Brexit. Some of the negotiations will be relatively simple, such as on air traffic rules and even the rights of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens in the EU will be secured relatively quickly as there are no major obstacles on a solution for these issues on either side. Other issues, such as which access the UK will get to the European single market, the size of the final bill that the UK will have to pay and the future of free movement will be much tougher. The European Parliament has already announced that they will veto any deal that will phase out free movement early, and countries in Eastern Europe will likely veto anything that will affect financial contributions promised to them in years to come. There is still an ongoing debate about whether no deal would be a good deal. However, the complexity of reaching a deal becomes obvious when one thinks about the key priorities for the European side. There are three priorities the EU negotiators will focus on. First, the rights of EU citizens in the UK. This will be secured relatively quickly as it just needs an insurance that Brits in the EU will treated the same way. Second, the final bill the UK has to pay before leaving, for example for pension contributions to British staff that served in the Commission. Here agreement will be hard to find and a lot will depend on Germany as the now even bigger contributor to the EU to pick up some of the bill and give the UK a “better” deal. However, the third key priority for EU negotiators and linked to a trade deal with the UK, is the issue of demonstrating that leaving the European Union has serious consequences. Many saw Brexit as a first step to the EU falling apart. Germany, France, and most countries in Eastern Europe will want to prevent any impression that this is the case and that a country can leave the EU, stop paying into the budget but still enjoy all the benefits. The Germans particularly will want to set an example and Angela Merkel has announced this immediately after the Brexit vote. So, it is by no way clear that there will be a deal, and what kind of deal it will be.

© stuart anthony via flickr.com

Fight Number 2: The Home Front

On the 28th of March 2017, the Scottish Parliament voted in favour of a new referendum on independence. This vote, a day before the triggering of Article 50 by the British Prime Minister, will set the tone for months and indeed years to come. While the UK government has dismissed the Scottish request for a second referendum within a decade, it will not be able to uphold this ignorance for long. Scottish people might not (yet) be convinced that independence is the better option, but most of them are convinced that Scotland should have the choice and that the UK government should not decide on Scotland’s future. There is a good chance that by the time Scotland will have a second referendum on independence (and this is just a question of time), there might be a majority for independence. In addition to the constitutional crisis in regards to Scotland, Brexit has also opened up old wounds in Northern Ireland, with Sein Fein using the topic to mobilise support for a referendum on the unification of the Irish island. The potential of a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland might create new potential for conflict, but most importantly it will create huge disturbances for people and businesses on both sides of the border. In light of this, who knows, maybe the people in Northern Ireland can easier live with a united Ireland than a new hard border.

Finally, the business community in the UK will put pressure on the government to ensure access to the European market, or in case this cannot be received, to receive special deals. A special deal has already been agreed for Nissan, it is hard to see why other car manufacturers in the UK will not demand the same terms of a deal from the government.

With a constitutional crisis fully evolving, a fragile economy that has to be preparing for the worst, and many regions, Councils and communities in the UK expecting whatever affect the Brexit deal will have on them, it is hard to see how the government will be able to deal with all of these competing and in some cases contradicting demands and find a solution that everyone can live with.

Fight Number 3: The International Dimension

Finally, Brexit will force the UK government to think about the UK’s international role. This of course offers a lot of opportunities. However, in reality that international environment is about as hostile as it could be to the UK as a new actor in trade and world influence. In the USA, President Trump is about to divide his country and the international community with it. In Russia, President Putin is probing the patience of NATO. In China, the Communist Party, while formally committed to free markets, is preparing for a more competitive and protectionist era in world trade. At the same time, the UK will only be allowed to formally negotiate trade deals once it has left the European Union (until then, this remains a competence of the EU Commission). While trade deals with some countries will be signed relatively quickly, especially trade deals with the major UK markets outside of Europe (such as the US, Canada, Australia, India, etc.) will take years to negotiate. Even if trade agreements can be negotiated, even if the time span is shorter than expected, it is nevertheless hard to see how the current international environment and the limited ability and experience that the UK government has to negotiate new deals will not have an impact economically, politically and socially.

It Burns, Burns, Burns – The Ring of Fire

Brexit is the result of an ill-informed and unnecessary referendum. The British people will now have to live with the consequences. However, as has been demonstrated above, there are at least three major fights the government has at its hands in order to make any Brexit deal work and ensure a better future post-Brexit. The centrifugal forces that will hit the UK, the economic impact of the Brexit negotiations, and the future development of the international system will all have substantial impacts on the UK in the near future. Even if the UK had the best negotiators in the world (and it does not), even if Europeans wanted to give the UK a good deal (and they do not), even if the international environment was more receptive and positive (and it is not), even if all of these circumstances were met, it would still be hard to see how Theresa May and the UK government can win the fight on all these three fronts. What has happened is that in recent months more and more fires were lit by the government and fire does, what fire does – it spreads and grows out of control. Eventually, it burns.

Dr Soeren Keil is Reader in Politics and International Relations at Canterbury Christ Church University.

The Saga continues – The UK Supreme Court Ruling on Article 50 and the Evolving Constitutional Crisis in the UK

By Paul Anderson and Soeren Keil

The wait is finally over. The Supreme Court ruled on 24 January 2017 that ‘by a majority of eight to three … [the] government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament to do so’. Theresa May and ‘Team Brexit’, unsurprisingly, expressed their dismay and disappointment in the decision. Despite much of the hype surrounding the legal implications of the decision (remember when The Daily Mail labelled the judges of the High Court as ‘enemies of the people’), one thing remains certain: the UK will withdraw from the European Union. What is not clear, however, is whether the Supreme Court’s decision will delay the triggering of Article 50, how much opposition will ensue in the immanent debates in Westminster and whether opposition parties will be able to dilute the ‘Hard Brexit’ position through a cascade of amendments. The decision indisputably has significant legal ramifications, but the effect of this landmark ruling on the UK’s constitutional edifice cannot be understated.

Meeting of the Joint Ministerial Comittee on 30 January 2017 | image via gov.uk
Meeting of the Joint Ministerial Comittee on 30 January 2017 | image via gov.uk

As well as ruling that Article 50 must be triggered by an Act of Parliament, the Supreme Court also dismissed the need for the British Government to seek the legal consent of the devolved legislatures. This is, of course, much to the chagrin of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish governments and will no doubt further strain the tenuous relationships between the British government and its devolved counterparts. The Brexit debate has firmly moved from the legal arena back to the political realm.

Although the Westminster Parliament is no longer alone in her own State, she remains the most powerful legislature in the UK. Despite the rolling programme of devolution in the late 1990s, the Westminster Parliament has not, in theory, relinquished any of its sovereign power. It has merely authorised the devolved legislatures to enact laws on a limited number of matters. As Enoch Powell infamously remarked, ‘power devolved is power retained’. The establishment of the Sewel Convention, however, ‘limits’ the possibility of Westminster interference in devolved affairs. The convention states that the UK parliament will not normally legislate on devolved matters or indeed on matters which affect the legal powers of the devolved parliaments without the consent of the legislature involved. The decision to withdraw from the EU has brought the issue of the Convention back into play. According to the Scottish Government, leaving the EU will explicitly affect devolved policies – such as agriculture. It is necessary, they argue, that the devolved legislatures be officially consulted – as the Sewel Convention attests – before the triggering of Article 50 takes place. Failure to do so, according to Nicola Sturgeon, ‘not only undermines the Sewel Convention’ but demonstrates that both the Convention itself as well as promises to embed it in Statute ‘were not worth the paper they were written on’.

While the Supreme Court’s decision rules out any legal obligation to consult the devolved legislatures on Brexit, the fact that the UK is a multinational state means that there is a political obligation to do so. Pursuing an agreed approach to the issue of Brexit, that is, one that has the support of the all devolved nations, is of crucial importance to impede the constitutional crises that look set to unfold should the British Government impose a Brexit strategy on the devolved administrations. This would be an unequivocally irresponsible and reckless move that could potentially embolden the claims of separatists in Scotland.

What is more, while the majority of MPs backed Theresa May’s “Withdrawal from the European Union (Article 50) Bill” on the 1st of February 2017 (with a vote of 498 for and 114 against), the White Paper published the following day did not clarify many of the issues previously raised. While it highlights the UK’s aim to reach a positive agreement with the rest of the EU in the departure negotiations, it does not address fundamental questions about the UK’s internal structure. It does not elaborate on the position of the devolved nations in the negotiations and their involvement, and it does not give the option for any of the Home Nations to reach alternative agreements with the EU, an option also suggested by leading Scottish Nationalist Party officials. Although, as has been pointed out elsewhere, a special deal for Scotland is unlikely.

What this means is that while the Supreme Court has confirmed that the UK remains a Parliamentary Democracy (and Theresa May cannot rule by decree as is currently done by the President of the USA, who seems to have forgotten about the division of powers), the ruling did not contribute to overcoming or halting the emerging constitutional crisis. As we have argued previously, with Theresa May pushing for a “Hard Brexit” i.e. departure from the Single European Market, this will antagonise and push the Scottish leadership to seriously consider their chances in a second independence referendum. Should the effects of the Brexit vote and the negotiations begin to demonstrate negative economic, social and political consequences for the UK in general, and for Scotland in particular, then there is a good chance that the SNP and its allies might just win a second independence referendum. In which case Theresa May will be responsible not only for withdrawing the UK from the EU, but moreover, as the prime minister who destroyed the Union.