Brexit is a luxury for the few; the EU is a necessity for the many
In a major series of four in-depth articles "Brexit is a luxury for the few - the EU is a necessity for the many" published in Liberal Democrat Voice, Liberal Democrat European Group Chair, Nick Hopkinson, examines the propsects for fighting Brexit in 2018.
In his first article he looks at the prospects for Brexit legislation in the UK Parliament:
2018 is the year we need to #stopbrexit. Opposition to Brexit throughout 2017 was remarkably constant and evenlysplit. Private polling however suggests some 'Releavers' (effectively the softer remain half) have rejoined hard Remainers, and there is now a small percentage of 'Bregretters'. Some leading pollsters argue 60% plus opposition to Brexit is needed for six consecutive months for enough Parliamentarians to start speaking out.
So the current direction of travel is towards Brexit even though some leading groups, notably half of EU27 ambassadors and High Commissioners in London, reportedly believe Brexit won't happen. The May minority government has been longer lasting than many anticipated and to date has been able to progress Brexit legislation relatively unscathed. However, Brexit can still be reversed so the real question is how we might do so.
In this four part series, I shall briefly examine legislative developments and the upcoming timetable, prospects for the EU negotiations, mobilising public and political opinion against Brexit, and the prospects for a referendum on the terms.
To date in Parliament, there has been one significant victory with the narrow passage of Dominic Grieve's Amendment 7 to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Clause 9 of the Bill is now "subject to the prior enactment of a (separate) statute by Parliament approving the final terms of withdrawal". This presents Parliament with additional opportunities to shape the terms of departure, including possibly to remain in the Single Market and Customs Union, and to provide for a referendum on the terms. The recently relatively quiet hard Brexiters could also cause trouble for the Government on the £40 billion settling of accounts. However, it appears the ideological EUphobes are ready to accept Brexit at any price as long as they secure their long-cherished 'Independence' day.
Critics of the significance of Amendment 7 argue Parliament has limited ability to send the Government back to the EU negotiating table, and it is unlikely a sufficient number of Tory and/or Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MPs would risk bringing down the government. It will also be difficult for a vote on a no deal Brexit to be scheduled (in part why hard Brexiters favour this option). Pressing for the withdrawal of the Government's (Article 50) intention to leave the EU would be a better option.
The passage of Amendment 7 will embolden the House of Lords to introduce more amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill before Easter, some of which could ultimately be agreed by the Commons. Faced with a minority Government, the Lords will feel less bound by the Salisbury Convention. However, Lord Malloch-Brown, who is spearheading efforts to increase co-operation between leading anti-Brexit organisations, notes: "we have a right to send some of the worst aspects of the bill back to the Commons. But I think ultimately we have to defer to them" (Sunday Times, 7 January 2018). It is furthermore feared the Prime Minister will stuff the Lords with more peers than recommended by the agreed Burns committee (which suggested only one new peer is created for every two who died or retired).
The government is hoping for Royal Assent of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill by the summer so it can bring forward a raft of secondary legislation. The Government Brexit White Paper estimates between 800 and 1,000 statutory instruments are required to ensure newly 'retained EU law' functions after 29 March 2019. The Bill returns any powers pooled within EU structures to Westminster. Clause 11 prevents devolved administrations from modifying the new category of 'retained EU law'. Yet there are 111 policy areas where EU and devolved powers intersect, notably agriculture and fisheries. The Government has hardly thought through how these powers will be allocated and operationalised, and has not fully included Parliament and devolved administrations in the process from the outset. That devolved administrations are being asked to consent to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on the basis of ministerial promises risks exacerbating tensions, and reopening the question of Scottish independence and even a United Ireland.
Among the seven other Brexit bills, of particular note is an Immigration Bill, due to be published rather late in the day in Autumn 2018. How the Bill balances the interests of businesses, wanting to attract skilled and unskilled workers from the EU, and anti-immigration forces will stir the public debate at a time the Brexit deal is due to be finalised. Any attempt to have a less restrictive regime desired by business could incur the political wrath of those opposing EU immigration.
Delays in Brexit legislation are bogging down Parliament and risk paralyzing the civil service. In short, the Government's tight legislative timetable (constrained by the 2019 departure date) and administrative workload could prove to be as problematic as the EU negotiations themselves. Brexit may be defeated by Brexit.
* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.