Andrew Duff -  On Governing Europe

Running Commentary VII

Mrs May makes her speech

Reverberations continue over Prime Minister May’s London speech of 17 January. She wants a comprehensive free trade agreement with a few add-ons plus political cooperation in security matters. This has all the hallmarks of a future Association Agreement between the UK and the EU 27, but without the institutional mechanism required to make it work.

May succeeded in corralling her own cabinet behind her, but criticism of her speech was widespread elsewhere, particularly in Berlin. The prime minister needs to clarify three things before the Article 50 talks can start: these concern the timing of the negotiations, the nature of the transitional arrangements, and the role of the European Court of Justice.

But it’s not only the UK which needs to do more work on Brexit: the EU 27 must start to define where they too want to end up once the Brits have left.

I have written at length about May’s speech and reactions to it for the European Policy Centre here and for Policy Network here.

In the article I examine the threat posed by Brexit to European solidarity, and warn that the more the UK wants a ‘bespoke’ arrangement the more complicated it all becomes for the rest of the EU, not least where the dismantling of the EU budget is concerned. The degree to which everyone can reach early clarity on the definition of Britain’s future landing zone will make or break the Article 50 negotiations.

But it’s up to Parliament

In its landmark judgment (24 January) the UK Supreme Court found that the government needs an Act of Parliament before it can trigger Article 50. That much was anticipated, and the government has introduced a short and simple Bill today (26 January).

The opposition parties make a song and a dance of this, and will now get a white paper next week on the terms of the negotiation. The government should use the white paper to clear up the ambiguities left by the prime minister’s speech.

But Parliament at Westminster may be digging itself into a hole. MPs in the Commons will be exposed if they vote against the will of their constituents, and the Lords and Ladies in the upper House make improbable champions of democracy. Moreover, the fact is that the Remainers cannot agree among themselves on an alternative prospectus for Britain’s place in Europe. (That the Brexiteers cannot agree among themselves either we take for granted.)

Tim Farron, the feisty leader of the Liberal Democrats, says that the UK should join the European Economic Area in order to retain membership of the single market. The problem is that EEA membership implies the most massive loss of national sovereignty since 1066, carries a large EU budgetary burden and involves free movement of workers — all of which the voters thought they were rejecting in the Brexit referendum.

Farron also wants a second referendum on the final deal — although he does not specify if he means a referendum on the Article 50 withdrawal agreement, or on May’s FTA + deal as and when it is agreed a few years later, or on something in between. This is dangerous talk, and will almost certainly split the small troupe of Lib Dem MPs when it comes to voting on the Bill.

Labour is equally confused. It will amend the Bill, it says, warning of ‘hand-to-hand’ combat — but it will not vote against it in the end. Jeremy Corbyn speaks of ‘access to the single market’, which is what Theresa May also wants. But he is reticent about how much more access he wants to hers, and at what extra cost. And Labour casts a heavy veil over where it stands on the matter of immigration.

The Commons will shortly discover that if it plans to vote down the Article 50 treaty, the EU will simply leave the UK behind without a deal in place. If the largely technical Article 50 agreement can be negotiated, it will surely be a satisfactory deal. Opposing it at the end of the two-year period will not summon up anything better. The patience of the EU 27 will have been exhausted. The European Council will never agree (by unanimity) to prolong the Brexit agony.

In any case, the Article 50 Bill is expected to pass through all legislative stages of both Houses of Parliament by mid-March in time for May to post her ‘Dear Donald’ letter at least a week before the EU 27 leaders gather in Rome to celebrate, sottovoce, the 60th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

And there’ll be no differentiated disintegration

The EU committee of the Scottish Parliament was in town this week to explore reactions to Nicola Sturgeon’s proposal that Scotland could remain in the EEA while England pulled out. The SNP majority on the committee was disappointed (though it can hardly have been surprised) to discover that differentiated disintegration does not seem to be on the agenda of the EU institutions. When it comes to accession, membership and secession matters, the EU deals only with states.

Compounding the rebuff to the Scottish Nationalists in Brussels, the Supreme Court unanimously judged that none of the UK’s three devolved parliaments would get to veto the invocation of Article 50. Scotland is a nation but not a state. The UK is not a federal state. Devolution is not federalism.

May ventures abroad

Meanwhile, eyes turn to Washington where Theresa May’s controversial early, ill-judged and ill-prepared meeting with Trump is watched with great concern in Europe. A precipitate trade deal between the UK and US will further poison the Brexit well.

From DC May flies, of all places, to Ankara where Erdogan is certain to seize his chance further to undermine the European Union.

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