Brexit Update 20th September 2019

By October 2, 2019Brexit Updates

Top 3 developments

  • Government awaits verdict of Supreme Court hearing into legality of prorogation
  • Britain has formally tabled proposals for alternatives to the Irish backstop, in an attempt to secure a Brexit deal.
  • The Liberal Democrats have positioned themselves as the pro-Remain party, after agreeing to campaign to revoke Article 50 without a referendum if they formed a Government.

UK Update

Lord Pannick! At the Disco

This week the Supreme Court heard appeals from the contradictory rulings from the courts in England and Scotland on the prorogation of Parliament. The High Court in London concluded that it was not a matter for courts to intervene in. Whereas the Court of Session in Edinburgh ruled that the prorogation was illegal as it was a political tactic to avoid parliamentary scrutiny and interference in the Brexit negotiations ahead of 31st October.

The Court’s involvement in the current political dilemma signals that the UK may be moving towards a more American structured system, becoming more of a legal democracy as opposed to a political one. Should the Supreme Court side with Parliament, it would essentially be shifting power over political matters from Parliament to itself over future disputes. However, Government has argued that even if the Supreme Court ruled prorogation illegal, Parliament can remain suspended as they are not legally obliged to follow the Court’s rulings and it would have “very serious practical consequences and bring forward the Queen’s Speech”. Yet, this may create issues with future Governments should the Conservatives set a precedent of disregarding the Courts ruling.

Lord Pannick, who is representing Gina Miller in this case, has argued that John Bercow, the Speaker of the Commons, and Lord Fowler, the Lords Speaker, could bypass Downing Street and recall Parliament themselves, should the Court side in their favour.  The Supreme Court finished hearing the cases of appeal yesterday and the President of the Supreme Court, Baroness Hale of Richmond, has stated that the judges will publish their decision early next week. 

Boris gets UN last shot at a deal

Boris Johnson is preparing to use the UN General Assembly Summit in New York next week as an opportunity to sell his new all-Ireland regulatory area solution to EU leaders, after he officially submitted alternative proposals to Brussels this week. Summits such as these are convenient for politicking as it provides a rare opportunity for the world’s leaders to all be in the same vicinity at the same time. Johnson is planning to use the side lines of the Assembly to court heavyweight EU leaders to get behind his compromise solution; namely EU Council President Donald Tusk, French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

The pressure has been raised significantly on Johnson, as Macron and Finland Prime Minister Antti Rinne publicly confirmed that the UK had only until the 30th September to find a solution to the Irish border. Talks between the EU and UK are happening on three levels now: technical talks are taking place daily between the PM’s Europe Adviser David Frost and EU officials, political discussions are happening twice a week between Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and EU Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier, and now the top-level discussions are going to take place between Johnson and his EU counterparts.

The EU want the principles of a deal agreed by the 30th September so that they have a clear run to negotiate the technical parts of a deal by the EU Summit on the 17th October. If a deal is to be passed before the 31st October, a withdrawal agreement and political declaration needs to be agreed at this Summit, and then passed in the EU and UK Parliaments between the 17th October and the 31st October. In order for this to be realistic, it will be crucial for Johnson to get the blessing of these EU leaders at the UN, and their judgement will be the litmus test to see whether the UK’s proposals are achievable or fantasies. It will also be symbolic that the Brexit logjam might finally be cleared at the UN, as the Good Friday Agreement – which provides a legal guarantee to keep an open border on the island of Ireland – is a bilateral international agreement precisely because of the fact that it is registered at the UN.

Will the Lib Dems’ new policy sink or Swinson?

The Liberal Democrats gathered for their annual Party Conference last weekend, Jo Swinson’s first Party Conference as Leader of the Liberal Democrats. The Party debated and agreed on a radical approach to Brexit should they find themselves in Government: revocation of Article 50 and cancellation of Brexit without a fresh vote. This strategy appears to be in response to fears that Jeremy Corbyn has become more appealing, as Remainer MPs rallied behind him against Boris Johnson’s prorogation of Parliament. The idea of cancelling Brexit altogether without a public vote is meant to offer Remain voters the reassurance that the Liberal Democrats are preparing an instant solution to the Brexit dilemma, in a stark contrast to Labour who appear to want to offer renegotiation, followed by a referendum where there they may campaign against their own deal to remain in the EU.

Whilst it is unlikely that this strategy will translate into a huge swathe of seats turning yellow, it will provide clear blue water between the Lib Dems and Labour and offer concrete support to Remain voters who have been disappointed with the direction of Government since the 2016 referendum. Following the Liberal Democrats surge in both the European and Local Elections this year, signs are pointing towards the party returning as the ‘the third party’ of the UK.

However, as the Remain vote is split between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, such a pro-Remain stance may also put off those voters who would be concerned about the democratic implications of ignoring the 2016 referendum result. Sir Norman Lamb has stated his concern over such an issue, arguing that the party risked breaking the “social contract” with voters and some Liberal Democrat MPs have expressed their caution over such a radical move.

EU Update

I wouldn’t Bettel on it

Boris Johnson travelled to Luxembourg on Monday to meet with the EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker for the first time as Prime Minister. Ahead of the trip, the PM had outlined his hope that a deal was achievable following his positive talks with the DUP last week about an all-Ireland regulatory zone. The Prime Minister’s trip appeared to mark a real ramping up of efforts between the UK Government and EU to find a deal.

Reports of the meeting were encouraging, as Juncker and Johnson pledged for the UK and EU to speed up talks and to have daily meetings about agreeing a compromise deal. Perhaps most revealingly, Juncker referred to these talks as “negotiations” for the first time. This indicates that there is something on the table to actually discuss, which again confirms that the proposal for an all-Ireland regulatory border – removing the need for a backstop – has legs. Additionally, Juncker described the meeting as “rather positive” and even went as far as stating that “we can have a deal” in the next few weeks.

However, despite these positive developments, the overarching image that will define this trip is the Luxembourg PM Xavier Bettel belittling Johnson in front of an empty podium. The two Prime Ministers were due to have a joint press conference, as is traditional for any foreign visits such as this, but Johnson pulled out at the last minute due to extremely vocal protesters being in the vicinity. Not wanting to embarrass Bettel, Johnson pulled out so that there was no footage of the Luxembourg PM being drowned out by anti-Brexit protesters.

However, Bettel took this opportunity to criticise Boris when he wasn’t there to defend himself, accusing him of putting “party political gain” over the interests of civilians and mocking his attempts to prorogue Parliament. Bettel benefited from a huge public awareness boost by the image of him at the empty lecterns being splashed on the front page of most major papers in the UK and Europe. Although he was strongly criticised by Remainers and Brexiteers alike for his unstatesmanlike conduct and his deliberate ambush of the UK PM, the damage was already done.

Northern Ireland Foster a Deal

The leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, has signalled that the party is softening its position on the Brexit negotiations, facilitating potential for a deal to be made ahead of the EU October Summit and reducing the likelihood of a Brexit extension or no deal. Foster has emphasised that the DUP are not a no-deal party, as has been argued, but rather are committed to finding a “sensible” deal.

The leader is arguing that such a deal would have to recognise Northern Ireland’s unique historical and geographical position and the fact it will be the UK’s only land border with the EU. This is a stark contrast to previous comments from  Foster which argued against treating the region as differently to the rest of the UK. Another stark contrast saw the leader refer to a joint letter co-authored with the late leader of Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness, in August 2016, which has not been referred to for a few years. The letter can be characterised as a plea for a soft Brexit as it envisaged a deal that would ensure new arrangements did not disrupt the peace process and accommodated the markets within the border regions. It also noted it was critical that businesses were protected on the border and did not incur additional costs, suggesting the DUP could accept regulatory alignment if a Stormont assembly had a say in what EU rules would apply.

This is a notable shift from the DUP and could allow for some serious progress in Brexit negotiations. However, Foster did continue to outline the party’s opposition to the backstop as it stands and the re-emergence of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. The backstop continues to be the red-line for both the UK and EU27, with the time and opportunity to find an alternative closing in.

Upcoming Key Dates

  • 21st-25th September: Labour Party Conference
  • w/c 23rd September: Supreme Court announce their verdict on prorogation
  • 29th September – 2nd October: Conservative Party Conference
  • 14th October: House returns
  • 17th October: EU October Summit
  • 31st October: Current Brexit Deadline.
  • 31st January 2020: Proposed Brexit deadline, if Article 50 is extended.


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