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 considers the likely political rollercoaster ahead surrounding the passage of the EU Withdrawal Bill and the EU team analyses the impact of the UK government finally admitting it will need to pay a financial settlement to leave the EU.
Initially announced just prior to Conservative Party Conference 2016 as a means to throw a proverbial bone to the Brexiteers within the party, the Great Repeal Bill was touted as the means to restore “power and authority” to Westminster. In the Queen’s Speech last month, the “Great” was dropped and it became simply the “Repeal Bill”. While less grandiose than the original title, the Bill was still a misnomer, and this is possibly why it was introduced rather unceremoniously yesterday as the “European Union (Withdrawal) Bill”.
In what may pessimistically be seen as a sign of chaos to come, the Bill was published online before being formally introduced in the chamber – a mistake that infuriated Labour backbenchers as a “complete breach” of Parliamentary procedure. A controversial start for a Bill that will be one of the most controversial pieces of legislation in Parliamentary history.
With only a few days left before the summer recess, the Bill will not be debated until the autumn, meaning opposition MPs have several months to consider ways to amend it. Labour Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer has said his party would attempt to defeat the legislation unless major changes are made, including protections for workers and consumers, environmental standards and devolved powers. While Labour votes alone would not be enough to defeat the Bill, the parliamentary arithmetic is such that only a few Conservative MPs would have to vote against the Bill. Given the Bill’s implications for devolved powers, it is possible that any number of the 13 Scottish Conservative MPs could reject the Bill without strong guarantees for Scotland. Scottish Conservative Leader Ruth Davidson said shortly after the General Election that while her MPs will take the Conservative whip in Westminster, they will “vote entirely as they believe they should”.
The Bill’s publication yesterday immediately sparked a constitutional row with the devolved governments, with Scottish and Welsh leaders Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones issuing a joint statement calling the bill “a naked power grab” that undermines the principles of devolution. Significant comments since the UK Government has confirmed that it will seek the backing of the devolved governments through a legislative consent motion. While not legally binding, votes against the Government would be politically awkward for both sides.
All of this is without considering the need to pass the Bill through the House of Lords, and the Lords Constitution Committee has already warned that the Bill “raises constitutional concerns of a fundamental nature” given the use of delegated Henry VIII powers that allow future changes without thorough Parliamentary scrutiny.
For a Bill that is meant to ensure “a calm and orderly exit” it certainly isn’t off to a very smooth start.
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With the second round of Brexit negotiations starting on Monday next week, both negotiating teams are gearing up for what will be the first full week of discussions following the opening of the process on 19 June. So far, the EU has shared 9 position papers with the UK, including one on the essential principles of the financial settlement. The absence of a UK position or even recognition of the existence of their financial obligation to the EU had been perceived by Brussels as a threat to the ability to reach a withdrawal agreement before the October 2017 soft deadline.
Yesterday’s written statement by UK Brexit Minister Joyce Anelay to Parliament merely recognising that “the UK has obligations to the EU” that “need to be resolved”, has been received with a sigh of relief in Brussels. This questionably strategic move from the UK will allow both sides to at least start exchanging views on the methodology to calculate the UK’s liabilities, but the lack of a detailed position will be an impediment to make any tangible progress on the issue in next week’s round of talks. In a context where time is scarce and it is in both parties’ interest – but mainly the UK – to make “sufficient” progress on Phase 1 before moving into Phase 2 on the future relationship, negotiators will aim to seal an agreement on this particular issue in time for the European Council Summit on 19-20 October. However, on top of the financial settlement divergences, a shared view on the “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” principle proposed by the EU is still also up in the air.
The lack of a detailed UK position on the financial settlement is not the only serious hurdle for negotiators. Although the citizens’ rights issue appears to be more advanced in the discussions, the UK’s rejection of the ECJ’s role in protecting EU citizens’ rights remains contentious. Yesterday, German weekly Spiegel reported on a leaked Commission internal protocol of the first technical meeting between Michel Barnier’s Task Force and the UK negotiating team on citizens’ rights. According to the report, the general impression of the meeting from the EU side was that of the UK being indecisive and unprepared. This is consistent with the overall picture of the state of the negotiations and the wide gap in the level of preparation between the two sides just days ahead of the first round of detailed discussions.
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