Top 3 developments
Trading the Union The Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has told Westminster that she intends to ask the UK Government for permission to hold a second referendum on the issue of Scottish independence. In the EU referendum last year 62% of the Scottish people voted to remain in the Union. Since then the Scottish Government have repeatedly called on Westminster to consult the devolved administrations on the Brexit negotiations. Yet, Sturgeon claims that “the UK government has not moved an inch in pursuit of compromise and agreement”. As such, she has indicated that between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 would be a “common sense time” to hold a referendum. In a statement to the Commons May said now is not the time to “play politics or create uncertainty or division”. She is widely expected to refuse Sturgeon’s request, but is waiting until she receives formal notification before she responds in full.
Queen signs Brexit bill Theresa May’s Brexit bill has received Royal Assent after having passed through both Houses of Parliament on Monday. MPs voted down the two amendments made to the bill in the House of Lords – one guaranteeing the rights of EU nationals post-Brexit, and another ensuring that Parliament has a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal. Peers did not offer any further resistance after MPs defeated the amendments by a majority of 48 and 45 respectively, meaning the Prime Minister is now free to trigger Article 50. The government has indicated that this will happen in the last week of March, so as to avoid the 60th anniversary of the Treaties of Rome which created the European Union. It had previously been thought that the Prime Minister may trigger Article 50 as early as this week – however, Nicola Sturgeon’s intervention is thought to have delayed May, who would not want to appear cavalier in the face of Scottish opposition (although Number 10 strongly denies this). In spite of the defeat in the Lords, Peers are seemingly gearing up for a fresh challenge to May’s Brexit plans. Today Labour has given notice of two new motions; one would force ministers to update peers on EU citizens’ rights by the end of the Parliamentary session, whilst other calls for the establishment of a Joint Committee of Lords and Commons to consider and report on the ongoing. The motions are likely to be debated in the coming weeks.
“Nether gonna give EU up” The centre-right VVD Prime Minister, Mark Rutte, has secured a third successive term in the Dutch elections. In doing so the country has rejected what Rutte calls “the wrong kind of populism”. Rutte is now entering into coalition talks after the VVD won 33 out of 150 seats – losing 8 seats from the previous parliament – but still easily beating the anti-immigration Freedom party which has advocated for ‘Nexit’. The election results come as a rebuttal to the anti-EU feeling emanating from Britain after June’s referendum, and is likely to raise EU spirits ahead of the 60th anniversary celebrations next week.
Whitehall’s Burning Civil servants will be pushed “to the limited” by the Brexit workload according to a joint report by the Institute for Government (IfG) and the UK in a Changing Europe think tank. The analysis suggests that more officials will be needed in Whitehall to cope with the workload as the Brexit process unfolds; “the pressure of Brexit will be felt right across government and delivering it alongside existing commitments will test capacity to the limit”. The paper also says that Whitehall will need to be clear on what projects can be “delayed or dropped” in order to free up the resources needed to deal with Brexit. The report comes after a Cabinet Office memo was leaked last November suggesting the UK will need an additional 30,000 civil servants to handle the UK’s exit from the EU, and a report by the Lords EU Committee. The Lords report has this week warned that International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, does not have enough staff and resources to secure new trade deals whilst also negotiating a Brexit deal with the EU. The report says that securing trade arrangements with the 15 countries (including Canada, China, India and South Korea) identified by ministers “seems to be far beyond the Government’s current staff resources”.
Say no to WTO Research produced by Open Britain – an organisation advocating for continued ties with Europe post-Brexit, has warned that a no-deal Brexit would immediately make the UK a less favourable trading partner compared to other major industrialised nations. The findings fly the face of the Government’s ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ rhetoric, by pointing out that all other G20 member states have bilateral arrangements (if not full free trade agreements) in place with the EU. The report warns that the Government’s rhetoric “betrays a dangerous complacency” on trade – though it has, as yet, not curbed the Government’s line.
Davis’s real deal Brexit Minister, David Davis, has admitted to the Commons Exiting the European Union Committee that he has not yet “quantified” the impact of leaving the EU without a deal. His admission comes amongst a climate of increasingly aggressive rhetoric from ministers arguing that the UK would be better off without a deal with the EU. Davis told the committee that he would get to the specifics of how a no deal arrangement would work “later on”. Davis agreed with Labour’s Hilary Benn that leaving the EU without a deal would mean the imposition of WTO tariffs for trade with the EU and border checks. However, when asked if an assessment had been made of the overall impact of this on the economy, Davis admitted an assessment hadn’t been made since the referendum campaign. David said that such an assessment may be possible “in about a year’s time”. Davis’ admission leaves the Government’s Brexit team open to criticism of complacency.
Jean-Claude-van-dammed Jean-Claude Juncker, President of the European Commission, has expressed his hopes that the UK will re-join the EU at a later date. He told journalists “the day will come when the British will re-enter the boat, I hope”. He made the comments in a press conference after last week’s EU summit in Brussels. However, he was careful to add that “Brexit is not the end of the European Union”. Nigel Farage couldn’t resist a caustic response – tweeting “the ship will have sunk by then”. Meanwhile, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, has said that British citizens should be allowed to keep the benefits of EU membership, including freedom of movement and the right to vote in European elections, after the UK leaves the Union.
Post-Brexit BFFs? The European Council president Donald Tusk has warned against the government’s increasingly threatening rhetoric that the UK would be better off leaving the EU without a deal. In his last address to the European Parliament before the Prime Minister triggers Article 50, Tusk said “a no deal scenario would be bad for everyone, but above all for the UK”. Tusk sought to see off May’s aggressive rhetoric, and emphasised that the EU “will not be intimidated by threats”. He reiterated that the ultimate goal of the Brexit negotiations is a smooth divorce with the UK and EU remaining “good friends”. It remains to be seen whether the UK-EU divorce will be an amicable one. However, Tusk was careful to point out that “the EU’s door will always remain open for our British friends” – a comment which comes just days after Jean-Claude Juncker expressed his hope that the UK will re-join the EU at a later date.
No early Brexit bill figure The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michael Barnier, has said that the UK will not have to agree the exact sum of money to be paid to the EU in the early stages of the Brexit process. The message is said to have been passed through informal channels to top civil servants in David Davis’s department. Barnier indicated that the UK would first have to agree the broad principles of the payment, before the exact figure of the divorce settlement is agreed. Barnier also argued that the final sum would be determined by the EU’s Court of Auditors – indicating that the UK will have no say over the final figure. Boris Johnson has meanwhile told a BBC documentary that the UK should reject any EU demands for a £50bn exit bill, and that Theresa May should follow the “illustrious precedent” set by Margaret Thatcher. Barnier and Johnson’s comments are the latest in the continuing row over who should foot the bill for the UK’s departure.
Tusk Time Donald Tusk has told journalists that the EU will be ready to respond to the UK’s triggering of Article 50 within 48 hours. Emphasising that the EU is “well prepared for the whole procedure”, Tusk said he has “no doubt” that the EU could respond in such a timeframe. Tusk is keen to show that the European institutions are ready to react to Theresa May’s end of March deadline.
- 25th March – 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.