The Cicero Brexit Insights team is producing regular updates, comment and insight on both the broad themes and the technical detail of Brexit. We aim to give readers a clear view of the issues and challenges as they are seen in Brussels, London and Member States. This week the UK team looks at the parliamentary arithmetic following the Queen’s Speech vote and the EU team assesses the level of preparation of both sides at the start of the Brexit negotiations.
The deal between the Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party has finally been confirmed this week. As anticipated, the arrangement takes the form of a ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement, whereby the DUP agrees to support the Government on all motions of confidence, and on the Queen’s Speech, Budget, finance bills and money bills. Significantly, the DUP has also agreed to support the Government on legislation pertaining to the UK’s exit from the EU, meaning Theresa May can count on an extra 10 votes when trying to pass her eight Brexit related Bills through Parliament.
Following this, the Government passed its first major test as the Queen’s Speech cleared the Commons after MPs backed the legislative programme by 323 votes to 309. For now, the Conservative whip holds strong. In comparison, it was the Labour Party that was in disarray over its position on Brexit last night. 49 Labour MPs rebelled and backed an amendment by Chuka Umunna, which went slightly beyond the Labour manifesto and called for “proposals to remain within the customs union and single market”. Three frontbenchers were subsequently sacked by Jeremy Corbyn, and one resigned over his decision to vote against the whip. Even after uniting behind their leader after the relative success of the election, the Labour Party remains divided on Brexit.
While Theresa May won the vote, the Government did have to make a late pledge on funding abortions in England for women from Northern Ireland amid fears of a Conservative rebellion. Labour backbencher Stella Creasy’s success in using an amendment with cross-party backing to force a Government climbdown demonstrates the shift of power within the Commons following the election. Rather than risk a defeat, the Government has shown that it is willing to make concessions when threatened by rebellion from its own backbenches. And on the other hand, backbenchers who can garner significant cross-party support on an issue can put the Government under real pressure.
The Labour party has an opportunity to split the divided Tories, but it will remain unable to fully exploit this while its Brexit policy remains incoherent. Meanwhile, Conservative backbenchers who favour a softer Brexit will be looking to Stella Creasy’s success and the 101 MPs from other parties that backed Chuka’s amendment, and will likely be thinking hard about their position in the numerous Brexit related votes that will take place over the next two years.
Senior Account Executive
A consistent theme of the negotiations has been the apparent gap in the level of preparation between the two sides. Yesterday’s publication by the Commission of a further six position papers further reinforces the impression that the EU is far more advanced in its level of preparation. These follow an earlier publication of a paper on Euratom and cover issues ranging from future arrangements for policy and judicial cooperation to goods placed on the market under union law (which prompted the eye-catching FT headline “Bull semen contains seed of discord for Brexit talks”). The papers were discussed at the Council’s Article 50 working party meetings on 27 and 29 June, which is the main forum through which the Council will hold technical discussions on the content of the Commission’s negotiating position. The impression from Brussels is that the EU machinery is quietly getting on with the largely technical process of the negotiation.
We have not yet seen, or had any indication, that the UK will develop corresponding positions as quickly as the EU prepared its own position. The UK is yet to respond publicly to the Commission’s paper on the financial settlement for example. The EU’s positions in the most recent papers largely describe the rules and procedures that will no longer apply after the UK leaves, and propose an arrangement for how to respond to the UK’s withdrawal. In some cases, this involves explaining the conditions under which goods will no longer be accepted as compatible with EU law, in others it clarifies the current cooperation arrangements that will cease to apply. Ignoring the fragile domestic political situation (where attention currently seems to be focused on the competing visions of a metaphor about cake), the UK’s position on each issue will be far more difficult to establish. It may involve the construction of entirely new frameworks, rules or structures, or remedies for firms that might find themselves shut out of EU markets. Identifying alternative arrangements in each area will be a slow, complex and ultimately political task. The UK’s position may be shaped by the future trade agreement or the length and format of a transitional relationship. Further political discussion and consensus is needed before the UK can provide real clarity on their position in these areas.
Michel Barnier told the College of Commissioners on 13 June that he hoped for the opening round of negotiations to take place over two days. In the end, only one day was scheduled, possibly because the UK was not ready to put forward detailed positions in each area suggested by the Commission. If negotiations are to stand a chance of being completed on schedule, their intensity will need to increase markedly. The pressure on the UK bureaucracy can only be expected to grow.
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