Brexit: What Have We Learnt This Week?
The clock is ticking for Brexit negotiations, and the last week has been a particularly eventful one.
MPs have started to debate the EU Withdrawal Bill (previously known as the Great Repeal Bill), documents presenting government and EU positions on negotiations have been leaked to the media and both EU and UK negotiators are making more combative statements.
With months of uncertainty about to reach a head in October (when the EU negotiators decide if enough progress has been made to start discussing a future trade arrangement) and the government seemingly unwilling to compromise, the stakes are higher than ever.
Here are the two things we took away from this week:
Government faces hurdles in passing EU Withdrawal Bill
MPs started debating the EU Withdrawal Bill this week, and the government could have problems getting it through in its current form.
Although this legislation doesn’t take us out of the EU, it’s a very significant step. Mny have argued that we need a safety net to prevent a cliff edge exit in March 2019; this Bill was advertised as a way to move existing EU law into UK law and do just that. However, Brexit is a complicated process, and the EU Withdrawal Bill is no exception. There are several controversial elements in this Bill, most notably so-called Henry VIII powers.
This would allow government ministers to change legislation with little or no scrutiny from parliament. MPs from opposition parties, and some Conservative MPs, have expressed concerns that these powers are too broad. Our concern would be that Henry VIII powers are used to water down hard-won rights. The government has already signalled that they want to cut red tape post-Brexit, and many are concerned that this will lead to cutting health and safety legislation for workers, consumer protections or rights at work.
The Labour party have already stated that they will be voting against the Bill unless the government amends controversial clauses, including references to so-called Henry VIII powers. Conservative MPs are expected to vote for the Bill at this early stage, but it has been suggested that some will try to make significant amendments later on. The Withdrawal Bill will be one to watch, particularly as the Conservatives have to rely on Democratic Unionist MPs to command a majority in the House of Commons - it could certainly be amended.
The EU and UK are still at odds on big issues
In a previous blog, I set out why the government should stop making promises they can’t keep. Unfortunately, instead of trying to find common ground, the language of both EU and UK negotiators has become more combative.
Leaks of Brexit position papers have demonstrated that the UK and EU positions are still miles apart, with the Irish border still a major sticking point. While the UK has pledged to keep the Irish border open, there remains the question of how the UK can establish the separate customs regime proposed by the government while maintaining an open land border to the EU post-Brexit. The EU position paper makes clear that they consider this to be a mess created by the UK, and they expect the UK to propose a solution.
We also found out this week that Theresa May has rejected an invitation to address the European Parliament, and that MEPs will be voting on whether they think enough progress has been made to start talking about trade during Conservative party conference. After Parliament negotiator Guy Verhofstadt stated Theresa May has ‘poisoned the diplomatic well’ with her stance on immigration, it looks like MEPs could be voting against progressing talks. Although this vote is symbolic, the European Parliament will have the power to veto the final deal, so ignoring MEPs now would be a big mistake.
All in all, Brexit uncertainty will continue to dominate headlines in the run up to the big EU summit in October. As things stand, it’s hard to see that EU negotiators will consider enough progress has been made on a divorce deal to start talking about trade. Beyond that, we effectively have a year left to make a deal - to avoid the disaster of no deal and the impact it would have on working people, the government might need to reconsider their red lines.