Archive for the ‘Exit negotiations’ Category

Can a general election be a way out of the Brexit conundrum?  

The mess that UK politics is in cannot be overstated, nor the harm that this is doing to many of its citizens and the economy. Can a general election be a way out of the Brexit conundrum?  It could lead to a change of government and at least would almost certainly mean a new prime minister. In this blog, John Ryan (LSE) explains what might happen, and says that an extension of Article 50 would be necessary to hold a general election. 

In the discussion of how to break the Brexit impasse, the idea of holding a snap general election is suggested by some. This could lead to a change of government and at least would almost certainly mean a new prime minister. Although general election campaigns are inevitably far more wide-ranging than referendums, making them ill-suited to resolving individual policy questions, the fact that it would lead to a decisive change in political leadership could make it an appealing option, particularly for those opposed to No Deal or another referendum.

Any campaign would inevitably be dominated by Brexit, but it is hard to see either of the main parties producing a coherent manifesto on the Brexit question. The Conservative campaign, if led by Theresa May, might well consist of her already rejected deal. The Labour one would very likely maintain the dogged assertions made by Jeremy Corbyn: that Labour would somehow extract from negotiations the benefits of being in the Single Market without the constraints.

The result might indeed be another hung parliament and no end to the Westminster stalemate. Even a government elected with an apparent majority could still struggle to find a majority in Parliament for its version of Brexit.

How could a general election come about? The first option is that a two-thirds majority of the Commons (not just those that show up to vote), or 464 MPs, would need to vote for an election. The second option is that a simple majority (50% +1, so a minimum of 326) of MPs must pass a specifically worded no-confidence motion in the government. This would then be followed by a two-week period when an alternative government could be formed. If such a government could not be formed, there would be a general election thereafter. A final (probably impracticable) option would be to overturn the Fixed Term Parliaments Act itself. This is something that the Conservative manifesto of 2017 pledged to do and would involve the government winning a vote in Parliament.

Holding a general election would take approximately six weeks. The  Electoral  Registration and  Administration Act  2013  requires  25 working days for an election campaign. This is likely to mean that a general election would have to be forced before mid-February to take place at some point before the end of the Article 50 period.

In practice, an extension of Article 50 would be necessary to hold a general election. Although a general election could be called and held relatively quickly, in all likelihood we would end up with a new prime minister who would almost certainly want to renegotiate at least some aspects of the Brexit deal. Theresa May has made a commitment not to lead the Conservatives into the scheduled 2022 general election, but in practice, this probably also applies to any earlier election.

A few weeks ago there were rumours that Tory polling has concluded a snap general election would put Jeremy Corbyn in Downing Street. Senior Conservative officials have privately warned Theresa May that she could face disaster if she calls a new nationwide poll to try to unblock her irresolvable Brexit deal proposal. Confidential party projections put Jeremy Corbyn in No.10, at the helm of a rainbow coalition government including the SNP and the Lib Dems. The internal report says the Tories are completely unprepared for an election, with databases out of date and the grassroots badly demoralized.

A more recent YouGov poll for The Times suggested, however, that Theresa May could win a working majority if a general election was held today. According to YouGov, which had correctly predicted a hung parliament in 2017, Conservatives would gain 4 seats to take 321 seats, while the Labour party would fall to 250 seats, down 12 from 2017. The Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party would both gain 4 seats each. These polls are snapshots and as we saw in the last General Election campaign significant leads can be overhauled.

Labour’s chances of forcing a general election to renegotiate Brexit are now slim according to John McDonnell who indicated that Labour is considering a compromise Brexit deal with the government — or a second referendum. Keir Starmer has poured cold water on pushing for a general election was no longer a “credible option.” Starmer’s intervention sparked a sharp response from Jeremy Corbyn’s office, which insisted an early election remained the party’s “preferred option.”

It is difficult to predict what Theresa May would put in her 2019 election manifesto as the Tories’ official position on Brexit and in fact it is similarly difficult to predict Jeremy Corbyn’s official position. The mess that UK politics is in can’t be overstated, and the harm that this is doing to many of its citizens and the economy. With the possibility of leaving with no deal, UK and foreign firms are having to make decisions to move jobs abroad to avoid the impact of that outcome. That, in turn, reduces the living standards of everyone in the UK. Rather than trying to convince them to stay, the government is actually urging firms and citizens to plan for No Deal.

Prime Ministers Theresa May is lacking authority and credibility, unable to listen or lead. Indeed, having led the first government to be found in contempt of parliament, May now finds herself in contempt of the people: is her intransigence paralysing the country, the economy, the political system the country and its economy perhaps for years to come. Now the endgame threatens the preservation not simply of the British government, but of modern Britain. The Brexit process revealed the weakness of Westminster’s insular politics. The UK Parliament is seemingly incapable of running a modern economy and society. Westminster’s politics are becoming more not less dysfunctional.  Whether a general election could provide a way out of this mess, hangs in the balance.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics. Image © Copyright ceridwen and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence.

Professor John Ryan is a Visiting Fellow at LSE IDEAS. He was a fellow at the St Edmund’s College, University of Cambridge and the German Institute for International and Security Affairs, Berlin, Germany. John is working as a senior partner in consultancy as a Brexit adviser for EU, Gulf and Asian clients.

Why has Corbyn remained so ambivalent about Brexit?

Having sat on the fence for so long, Jeremy Corbyn must be feeling uncomfortable. Unless he moves swiftly to shift the impasse at Westminster he will be consigned to political irrelevance, writes Graham Room (University of Bath).   

Why has Corbyn remained so ambivalent in this Brexit saga?  He has a long history of Euroscepticism, rooted in the view that the EU is a neo-liberal project of global corporations.  In addition, however, he wants, as Labour Prime Minister in waiting, to be free from EU regulations that might constrain him in rebuilding public institutions in this country, from the health and welfare services to local industrial strategies and community revitalisation.

The rhetoric of the Brexiteers contrasts ‘us’ and ‘them’ – the freedom-loving Brits versus the rigid and punitive Europeans. Corbyn similarly risks contrasting the green and pleasant land, which his policies will foster, and the hostile neo-liberal environment from which Brexit will free them. He is also, of course, sensitive to the pleas of those Labour MPs who represent Leave constituencies and who are understandably wary of the accusation that Labour might ‘steal’ their referendum victory. In many ways, therefore, his position is as unenviable as that of Theresa May – a Remainer, but tasked with holding together a party torn between the hard Euroscepticism of its membership and the much softer Parliamentary party.

C00 Public Domain

There are three tasks that Corbyn faces, if he is to resolve this set of interlocking dilemmas, with advantage for his party, the communities they represent and the country – and indeed, for his own place in history.

  1. He should first recognise that the EU cannot be reasonably described as a neo-liberal project of global corporations. Those corporations have indeed accumulated a position of considerable power, shaping the EU’s rule-based systems of economic governance, but this is a continuously contested terrain. The labour movement of the last 150 years developed precisely to engage in that contest, at national and international levels.  To imagine that the sort of democratic socialism Corbyn espouses can be built in one country, even one separated from its neighbours by the sea, goes against all that experience.
  2. Communities across the UK have suffered from the financial crisis of 2008 and the austerity that followed. Here lies much of the sentiment that was skilfully mobilised by the Leave campaign, as hostility to Brussels and the EU.  Disempowered and with little hope, working-class communities across England’s traditional industrial heartland seized on the promise of ‘taking back control’ and resisting the influx of outsiders.  This was not however unique to the UK.  Across Europe, austerity produced similar sentiments of disenchantment and populist revolt. Now if ever, there is surely an opportunity to re-affirm the social democratic promise of social solidarity and economic justice.  As yet, however, social democratic parties have found themselves on the defensive, nowhere more than in Germany, the heartland of the European project. The debates around immigration and refugees have swamped critical discussion of the destructive effects of austerity.

In the UK Corbyn did succeed, in the 2017 General Election, in generating a public debate around alternatives to austerity, sufficient to deny the Conservatives a majority.  His second task is thus to frame a similar reform project that goes beyond these shores and offers hope to communities across Europe.  It means articulating a vision for the reform of EU social and economic governance, which can enable the citizenry to ‘take back control‘.   It means an alliance with other progressive parties who share that vision.

These reforms might involve four elements:

  • Rejuvenate the European economy, with public investment and a positive industrial strategy for all regions, revitalising local communities;
  • Promote security and creativity for all citizens, through strong welfare systems and investment in skills;
  • Re-think free movement, by reference to communities that are losing their population, because of economic desertification, and others facing large influxes of newcomers, without the infrastructures they need;
  • Empower local and national communities to work together across national boundaries, forging their own scenarios of development, with real political choices and trade-offs.
  1. Corbyn’s third task is to take such a message to communities across the UK, particularly those that voted Leave in the referendum. He has been assiduous in countering their readiness to blame their woes on immigrants; he must be equally assiduous in confronting their hostility to the EU.  Both of these scapegoats were skilfully demonised by the Brexiteers; both tactics must now be exposed as false.

So must the claim that even a no-deal Brexit would involve only minor and temporary difficulties, which resilient Brits will cope with, just as heroically as they did the Blitz.  The disruption of any sort of Brexit will be substantial and will hit these Leave communities particularly hard.

Corbyn will need to show how the EU reform programme sketched above can benefit communities across the UK.  Labour MPs from communities that voted Leave have been tempting Theresa May with offers of their support, in return for investment packages for their areas.  Packages of this sort would be central to the EU-wide reforms suggested above – but as a system-wide transformation, not just a short-term political fix for a Prime Minister in need of a few votes.

In conclusion, therefore: Corbyn has been widely criticised and ridiculed for the stance he has taken in the Brexit process and the tragicomedy unfolding at Westminster.   It is, however, arguable that he is the one person who might snatch a positive outcome from the present impasse – for the Labour Party and the country, but also indeed for the EU as a whole.

Cometh the hour, cometh the man.  Maybe.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.

Graham Room is Professor of European Social Policy at the Department of Social and Policy Sciences, University of Bath.

Why Ireland’s resolve must hold

For Ireland, the EU and the UK, Brexit is uncharted territory. Therefore, Ireland’s resolve over the EU Withdrawal Agreement must hold, writes Brigid Laffan (EUI). She argues that keeping the backstop in the deal is at the core of the country’s national interest.

Ireland is a small state with no illusions concerning the limits of its power and influence in shaping the world beyond its borders. It has a preference for multilateral institutions governed by treaties and law that serve to take the hard edge off raw power. Irish politicians and diplomats are most comfortable when part of an emerging consensus in EU and international negotiations. Like all states, Ireland strives to protect and promote its interests. This has rarely required Irish interests to be at the epicentre of highly charged and contentious multilateral negotiations.

Brexit alters this as it goes to the heart of Ireland’s political, economic and geo-strategic interests. The Irish government and diplomatic service have had to put Irish interests at the core of the EU agenda, keep them there and engage in very conflictual negotiations with our near neighbour, the United Kingdom. The stakes could not be higher. For Ireland, the EU and the UK, this is unchartered territory as Ireland is a remaining EU state and the UK a departing one. Resolve, determination and nerve have characterised Irish responses to thinly disguised pressure from the UK side. This resolve and determination stem from the conviction that these negotiations are profoundly important to the future of the island.

The Irish government has invested enormous state capacity and resources in ensuring that all member states and EU institutions understand the implications of Brexit for Ireland. That they succeeded in placing Ireland as one of three issues to be addressed in the Withdrawal Agreement, is evidence that Ireland’s EU partners accepted their case as compelling and substantive. Member states earn the backing and solidarity of their partners, it does not come automatically. As a departing member state, the UK government underestimated the seriousness with which the EU would pursue Irish interests as collective EU interests in the negotiations.

Shamrocks alongside Irish troops serving with the EUFOR mission in Bosnia. Image by Óglaigh na hÉireann, (CC BY 2.0).

Now that the endgame in the Brexit negotiations has arrived the focus is once more on Ireland as the backstop has been framed by the UK government and House of Commons following the Brady amendment as the obstacle to the agreement. Prime Minister May has been sent back to Brussels to get rid of the backstop and agree ‘alternative arrangements’ to solve the Irish border conundrum.

It is crucial to remember that the departure of the UK from the EU, notwithstanding the fact that a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain, was always going to be extremely challenging but it is the manner of the UK’s departure that has made it so difficult to address the complex problems it generates.

The problem lies squarely in the preferences set out by PM May in January 2017 in her Lancaster House speech. There she outlined a set of incompatible preferences-departure from the single market and customs union while at the same time no hard border on the island of Ireland, which would be the UK’s only land border with the EU. Her pledge to Ireland was reiterated in the Art.50 notification letter of March 2017 where she stated that the UK’s departure should not damage Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The Irish government is determined that the UK live up to these commitments.

The prospect of a disorderly UK exit is becoming ever more likely as negotiating time runs out and the UK still does not know what it wants or what can be agreed in the Commons. Given the costs and consequences of a no deal for Ireland including the Irish border, it is inevitable that the backstop comes into play again. What should or could the Irish government do in these highly charged circumstances?

The Irish government must stick to its core demand of no physical infrastructure on the Irish border because any visible change that alters exchange across the border would not receive the consent of those who live on either side. Memories are too recent and too raw to countenance any change. The backstop was negotiated to address this by ensuring that the necessary checks and regulatory alignment would continue to avoid a hard border ‘unless and until’ the backstop is superseded by agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. In a major concession to the UK, the EU offered to enchase the backstop in a UK wide customs union.

Now let’s see what the ‘alternative arrangements’ mentioned in the Brady amendment might mean? The first thing to say is that during the 18 months of negotiations, the UK government offer was a paper in summer 2017 and later the Chequers proposals in summer 2018. Both were rejected by the EU as way beyond anything that the EU might agree and in any case, they were deemed unworkable. Moreover, the negotiators examined in a very thorough manner all so-called ‘alternative arrangements’ and concluded that there was no border on earth that could be handled with what was on offer from the UK side.

When PM May phoned Donald Tusk following the Brady amendment, she was asked what ‘alternative arrangements’ she proposed; her reply was that London was still working on it. The fact that the PM voted against her own deal in the Commons and cannot outline what her alternative proposals are in a credible manner less than 60 days from exit completely undermines her credibility and trustworthiness as a negotiating partner. Inevitably, this makes the Dublin government really nervous but also reinforces their belief that a backstop is absolutely necessary.

The Irish government will hold firm to its core objectives which are to ensure no hard border on the island and the protection of the EU’s single market. It is in Ireland’s interest that the UK exits the Union in an orderly manner, but as PM May has reiterated many times in the course of these negotiations, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, the same holds true for Ireland.

The Irish government will continue to be open to reasonable and credible requests from London but this will not extend to believing in the fantasies perpetuated by the right of the Conservative party or the DUP which is not fully representative of opinion in Northern Ireland. This could extend to a serious attempt to find alternative arrangements over the next 2 years but in the context of the backstop not as a substitute for it. Ireland finds itself in an uncomfortable and tense environment but this will not deter the Irish government from pursuing what are vital national interests.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.

Brigid Laffan is Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (EUI), Florence.

Why Ireland’s resolve must hold

For Ireland, the EU and the UK, Brexit is uncharted territory. Therefore, Ireland’s resolve over the EU Withdrawal Agreement must hold, writes Brigid Laffan (EUI). She argues that keeping the backstop in the deal is at the core of the country’s national interest.

Ireland is a small state with no illusions concerning the limits of its power and influence in shaping the world beyond its borders. It has a preference for multilateral institutions governed by treaties and law that serve to take the hard edge off raw power. Irish politicians and diplomats are most comfortable when part of an emerging consensus in EU and international negotiations. Like all states, Ireland strives to protect and promote its interests. This has rarely required Irish interests to be at the epicentre of highly charged and contentious multilateral negotiations.

Brexit alters this as it goes to the heart of Ireland’s political, economic and geo-strategic interests. The Irish government and diplomatic service have had to put Irish interests at the core of the EU agenda, keep them there and engage in very conflictual negotiations with our near neighbour, the United Kingdom. The stakes could not be higher. For Ireland, the EU and the UK, this is unchartered territory as Ireland is a remaining EU state and the UK a departing one. Resolve, determination and nerve have characterised Irish responses to thinly disguised pressure from the UK side. This resolve and determination stem from the conviction that these negotiations are profoundly important to the future of the island.

The Irish government has invested enormous state capacity and resources in ensuring that all member states and EU institutions understand the implications of Brexit for Ireland. That they succeeded in placing Ireland as one of three issues to be addressed in the Withdrawal Agreement, is evidence that Ireland’s EU partners accepted their case as compelling and substantive. Member states earn the backing and solidarity of their partners, it does not come automatically. As a departing member state, the UK government underestimated the seriousness with which the EU would pursue Irish interests as collective EU interests in the negotiations.

Shamrocks alongside Irish troops serving with the EUFOR mission in Bosnia. Image by Óglaigh na hÉireann, (CC BY 2.0).

Now that the endgame in the Brexit negotiations has arrived the focus is once more on Ireland as the backstop has been framed by the UK government and House of Commons following the Brady amendment as the obstacle to the agreement. Prime Minister May has been sent back to Brussels to get rid of the backstop and agree ‘alternative arrangements’ to solve the Irish border conundrum.

It is crucial to remember that the departure of the UK from the EU, notwithstanding the fact that a majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain, was always going to be extremely challenging but it is the manner of the UK’s departure that has made it so difficult to address the complex problems it generates.

The problem lies squarely in the preferences set out by PM May in January 2017 in her Lancaster House speech. There she outlined a set of incompatible preferences-departure from the single market and customs union while at the same time no hard border on the island of Ireland, which would be the UK’s only land border with the EU. Her pledge to Ireland was reiterated in the Art.50 notification letter of March 2017 where she stated that the UK’s departure should not damage Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). The Irish government is determined that the UK live up to these commitments.

The prospect of a disorderly UK exit is becoming ever more likely as negotiating time runs out and the UK still does not know what it wants or what can be agreed in the Commons. Given the costs and consequences of a no deal for Ireland including the Irish border, it is inevitable that the backstop comes into play again. What should or could the Irish government do in these highly charged circumstances?

The Irish government must stick to its core demand of no physical infrastructure on the Irish border because any visible change that alters exchange across the border would not receive the consent of those who live on either side. Memories are too recent and too raw to countenance any change. The backstop was negotiated to address this by ensuring that the necessary checks and regulatory alignment would continue to avoid a hard border ‘unless and until’ the backstop is superseded by agreement on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. In a major concession to the UK, the EU offered to enchase the backstop in a UK wide customs union.

Now let’s see what the ‘alternative arrangements’ mentioned in the Brady amendment might mean? The first thing to say is that during the 18 months of negotiations, the UK government offer was a paper in summer 2017 and later the Chequers proposals in summer 2018. Both were rejected by the EU as way beyond anything that the EU might agree and in any case, they were deemed unworkable. Moreover, the negotiators examined in a very thorough manner all so-called ‘alternative arrangements’ and concluded that there was no border on earth that could be handled with what was on offer from the UK side.

When PM May phoned Donald Tusk following the Brady amendment, she was asked what ‘alternative arrangements’ she proposed; her reply was that London was still working on it. The fact that the PM voted against her own deal in the Commons and cannot outline what her alternative proposals are in a credible manner less than 60 days from exit completely undermines her credibility and trustworthiness as a negotiating partner. Inevitably, this makes the Dublin government really nervous but also reinforces their belief that a backstop is absolutely necessary.

The Irish government will hold firm to its core objectives which are to ensure no hard border on the island and the protection of the EU’s single market. It is in Ireland’s interest that the UK exits the Union in an orderly manner, but as PM May has reiterated many times in the course of these negotiations, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’, the same holds true for Ireland.

The Irish government will continue to be open to reasonable and credible requests from London but this will not extend to believing in the fantasies perpetuated by the right of the Conservative party or the DUP which is not fully representative of opinion in Northern Ireland. This could extend to a serious attempt to find alternative arrangements over the next 2 years but in the context of the backstop not as a substitute for it. Ireland finds itself in an uncomfortable and tense environment but this will not deter the Irish government from pursuing what are vital national interests.

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of LSE Brexit, nor of the London School of Economics.

Brigid Laffan is Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University Institute (EUI), Florence.

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