With Parliament currently adjourned for the February recess, there has been no concrete Brexit activity in Westminster, however in Strasbourg MEPs have been meeting to discuss the future of Europe. Whilst the reforms proposed may be welcomed by European federalists, people of Eurosceptic perspectives across Europe will perhaps not be so enthusiastic, and this could well be jumped upon by supporters of Brexit to demonstrate that the future of the European Union means more Europe. Please see RPP's Senior Director for Policy & Advocacy, Thomas Kring's excellent article reporting on the events in Strasbourg.
- Tony Blair calls for people to ‘rise up’ against Brexit: Speaking at the European Union today Tony Blair will announce his “mission” to convince those who voted to remain in the EU to “rise up in defence of what we believe.”
- UK warned against ‘special’ deals with member states: European Commission president Jean-Claude Junker said that the UK may want to be more “obliging” to certain countries where they can see potential commercial advantages but said the UK would not be allowed to conduct bilateral discussions in key areas such as finance, telecommunications, or chemicals.
- Theresa May rejects invitation to attend EU summit: The Prime Minister has turned down the invitation to join an EU summit celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome on 25th March. The summit will focus on the future of the EU and therefore it is seen as logical for Prime Minister May not to attend. • Portugal joins bid for EMA: Up to twenty countries have declared their interest in hosting the European Medicines Agency (EMA) due to the benefits it brings to the countries medical and pharmaceutical sectors. Two Portuguese ministers visited the HQ in London this week.
- Justin Trudeau give speech at European Parliament after MEPs pass CETA trade deal: Canadian PM told the European Parliament that a strong European Union is vital the world’s peace and prosperity. This was likely an attempt to distance himself from the anti-EU stance of President Trump whom Trudeau has just been to see.
- Written warnings for Brexit Labour rebels: Labour frontbenchers who defied Jeremy Corbyn in the Brexit vote will not be sacked but have been sent a formal written warning.
- Speaker reveals he voted to remain in the EU: The last fortnight has seen House of Commons Speaker, John Bercow, making two statements that have led MPs to accuse him of breaking the rules regarding impartiality. Firstly, he commented that he would use his power as keyholder of Westminster Hall to not let Donald Trump speak in Parliament due to “opposition to racism and to sexism, support for equality and an independent judiciary.” The following week the Telegraph reported that he told a group of students that he voted to Remain in the EU. Conservative MPs have said that these two moves show he is no longer impartial and a vote of no confidence has been filed against him which will take place next week.
- UK must not be better off outside EU, warns French Senate report: Following an eight-month inquiry, the French Senate said that it must not be possible for Britain to be better off. The 51-page document also says Theresa May’s keynote Brexit speech at Lancaster House was a “mixture of veiled threats and pledges of goodwill”.
- Brexit ‘most dangerous issue for Northern Ireland since partition: At an election debate on Thursday, Colum Eastwood, leader of the Irish nationalist SDLP, warned that any attempt to introduce a hard border between the North and South will be both politically and economically damaging. The debate also contained concerns that Brexit could undermine elements of the Good Friday Agreement.
- Finally, UK scientists working towards greater collaboration after Brexit: Science and research organisations from both nations are discussing ways to make it easier for scientists to work together on big flagship projects.
Written by RPP Head of London Office, Andrew Brown
The Article 50 Bill and the House of Lords
Next week, the Article 50 Parliamentary Bill will move to the House of Lords for further discussion and possible amendments. Will the Prime Minister get the Bill through without any major changes? We shall soon see, with the first debate scheduled for the 20th February. More than 140 Peers have already put their names down to speak next week but at that stage of the process there probably will not be a vote on the main floor of the Chamber. However, there almost certainly will be votes on proposed amendments that will come up at Committee stage a week later. There will be a final vote on the Bill at Third Reading, which is currently scheduled for the 7th March. However, this timetable is not set in stone and still fluid. As it stands, the Prime Minister is still on target to trigger Article 50 by her self-imposed 31st March deadline.
However, the debate in the House of Lords might still prove to be very difficult. For a start, the Conservative Government does not have a Parliamentary majority there. The Lords are also not elected so they do not have to take into account any constituency vote. Also, to some extent, they have greater expertise to draw upon when formulating amendments and constructing arguments. From the Lords perspective, their sole purpose is to scrutinise and improve laws. Amendments expected to be tabled include provisions in the Bill on the protection of EU citizens, something which was rejected when the Bill was in the House of Commons. At the moment, the Government’s position on EU nationals is that they want to secure their existing rights to remain as soon as possible, in tandem with securing the rights of British nationals who currently reside in other EU Member States. Another possible amendment that could be tabled is the requirement for the Government to provide the UK Parliament with more stringent regular reports. However, any amendments beyond the scope of these two issues are not likely to receive the support of a majority of Peers in the House of Lords. In the end, the Article 50 Bill is expected to pass in the House of Lords. The leader of the Labour in the House of Lords, Baroness Smith, has said so herself. The Bill may be tweaked but Conservative and Labour Peers and other Members of the House of Lords will most likely ensure it passes the final vote. Peers expected to oppose the final vote on the Bill include the Liberal Democrats, who have always been very pro-European and who mostly voted against the final Bill when it was at the House of Commons. Some Cross-Benchers, Conservative and Labour Peers will also either abstain or vote against the Bill but in the end the Prime Minister will most likely get her own way. If she does not, there have already been some discrete and not so discrete threats made by MPs over the future of the House of Lords. Whilst the Upper House, absolutely has the right and responsibility to improve legislation, it is difficult to see how they can do so radically with such a short and simple bill. If they try to thwart the will of the House of Commons and the majority of voters in the Referendum, it would certainly result in a constitutional crisis, and likely precipitate further reform of the “other place”.
Written by RPP Director of Policy and Advocacy, Mark Walker
European Parliament sets out vision for the future of Europe
Brexit has clearly made political stakeholders in Brussels and Strasbourg think about the future of the EU and its institutional set-up. A profound discussion has taken place during this week’s EP’s plenary week in Strasbourg. The major conclusions reached by the MEPs were the following: If the EU is to boost its capacity to exercise its power, restore citizens’ trust and make the euro zone economy more resilient to outside shocks, it needs to make full use of the Lisbon Treaty, and undertake fundamental reform. This was the key message of the three resolutions exploring the future development of the European Union approved by Parliament on Thursday. The first resolution, drafted by Mercedes Bresso (S&D, IT) and Elmar Brok (EPP, DE) focuses on making the most of the existing Lisbon Treaty. It proposes, inter alia, that:
- the Council of Ministers should be turned into a genuine second legislative chamber, and its configurations into preparatory bodies similar to Parliament’s committees,
- each member state should present at least three candidates, including both genders, for the role of “its” Commissioner,
- the Council should switch completely to qualified majority voting, wherever this is possible under the treaties, to avoid blocking important draft laws and speed up the legislative process, and
- a permanent Council of Defence Ministers should be set up to coordinate the member states’ defence policies.
The European Union doesn't need a populist revolution. It needs peace and to adapt to the necessities of our time. This means coping with democratic challenges, providing citizens with social, fiscal, and ecological protection, defending their right to safety in a very degraded international context and delivering on our moral obligations to our neighbours.”, said Ms Bresso. “Citizens expect solutions from Europe, and they are angry because they do not see answers being delivered. This is evident in a time with many challenges, but there are many problems that can only be solved together. The Lisbon Treaty offers plenty of possibilities for making the EU more efficient, accountable and transparent, which have not yet been tapped”, said Mr Brok. The resolution was approved by 329 votes to 223 with 83 abstentions.
Ambitious reform of treaties
The second resolution, by Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE, BE), looks at ways to move further than the current toolbox allows and suggests various reforms of the Lisbon Treaty, in the areas of economic governance, foreign policy, fundamental rights and transparency. In it, MEPs:
- suggest creating an EU finance minister and giving the EU Commission the power to formulate and give effect to a common EU economic policy, backed up by a euro-area budget,
- reiterate that the European Parliament should have a single seat,
- propose reducing the size of the College of EU Commissioners substantially, including by cutting the number of Vice-Presidents to two, and
- state their belief in allowing EU citizens in each member state to vote directly on the European political parties’ lead candidates for Commission President.
“These reports give the blueprint of what a more perfect Union should look like. They do not propose European integration for the sake of it. Once these reports are adopted, the question is: what is the way forward? I know we can have a strong, powerful, respected European union and at the same time have flourishing local and national democracies. In fact, I believe one is not possible without the other”, said Mr Verhofstadt. The resolution was approved by 283 votes to 269 with 83 abstentions.
Muscle up the Eurozone
In the third resolution, Reimer Böge (EPP, DE) and Pervenche Berès (S&D, FR) propose bringing the euro area economies closer together and making them more resilient to outside shocks. They outline a convergence strategy funded by a specific euro area budget, financed by its member states and available under clear conditions. Key proposals include:
- a fiscal capacity consisting of the European Stability Mechanism (ESM) and specific additional budgetary capacity for the euro area, funded by its members as a part of the EU budget,
- a European Monetary Fund (which should gradually develop out of the ESM) with adequate lending and borrowing capacities and a clearly-defined mandate to absorb economic shocks,
- a convergence code: five years to meet convergence criteria on taxation, labour market, investment, productivity, and social cohesion, and
- governance: a bigger role for the European Parliament and national parliaments, merging the functions of Eurogroup President and economic and monetary affairs Commissioner, plus a finance minister and treasury within the European Commission.
“Stabilizing the Eurozone would be in the interests of the European Union as a whole. Our proposals will therefore lay the basis for any further negotiations with the other European institutions. International Monetary Fund experts have also responded positively, showing great interest in our ideas”, said Mr Böge. "Sixty years after the Treaty of Rome was signed, the spirit of the European Union's founding fathers needs to be reignited. Creating a budget for the euro area would be a big step towards this goal, at a time when the need to preserve the euro's integrity has never been more urgent. By delivering solidarity to member states facing an exceptional crisis, absorbing macroeconomic shocks that can affect the euro zone as a whole and promoting upward convergence, such a tool could make the most of the currency, while helping to achieve full employment within the Union", said Ms Berès. The resolution was approved by 304 votes to 255 with 68 abstentions.
All these proposals are part of a package that aims to clarify Parliament’s position on the future of the EU, in time for the 60th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome.
It has to be seen, whether Brexit could also provide a useful impetus to the institutional and political set-up of the European Union. European stakeholders have realized that changes are necessary. Whereas there are many doubts, giving the current political climate in the EU, if there is appetite for another European constitutional convent …
Written by RPP Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Thomas Krings
Heartbreak in the heartlands?
Journey back to 2015 and the European Union was a thorn in the side of the Conservative Party, with a weighty number of MPs and majority of the party membership wanting to leave the European Union, David Cameron was forced to promise a EU referendum in the general election manifesto. Now in February 2016 the tables of turned and Brexit is a major factor in the current identity crisis facing the Labour Party.
Whilst it is true that this can be partly blamed on the leadership, or lack thereof, of party leader Jeremy Corbyn it is also the fault of the Parliamentary Labour Party who scapegoated Jeremy Corbyn’s half-hearted Brexit campaign to launch a coup against him which failed spectacularly. The Labour MPs failed to reflect on the fact that the Labour heartlands had voted to Leave the EU whereas they had overwhelmingly supported remain. MPs should have realised that this division in the Labour Party prolongs the incompetence of Jeremy Corbyn, and his Euroscepticism was more aligned with traditional Labour voters. On 23rd February, Labour will be facing a critical test with two by-elections taking place after the resignation of the two Labour MPs Jamie Reed, MP for Copland, and Tristram Hunt, MP for Stoke-on-Trent Central. Both constituencies are historically Labour seats yet both constituencies voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the European Union.
Jamie Reed resigned from his seat in Copeland on 21st December to take up a job in the nuclear industry. Whilst Mr Reed said that his departure had “absolutely nothing to do with Jeremy Corbyn” it is no secret that he was critical of his policies resigning to the backbenches when Corbyn became leader. In 2015 Reed only won with 42% of the vote – just 2,56 more votes than the Conservative Party.
The Conservative Party has understandably seen Copeland as a seat they can win. With the significant rebranding of the party since Theresa May began her premiership the party seem confident that they can swing the 2015 results and snatch the seat. The Tories have been campaigning rigorously in Copeland, with Theresa May having visited the rural constituency with Conservative candidate Trudy Harrison. They have been capitalising on two divisive Labour issues – Brexit and nuclear power (Jeremy Corbyn has been in favour of nuclear disarmament throughout his career and Copeland is the nuclear capital of the UK). With regard to Brexit, Copeland voted 62% in favour of leaving the European Union – like many Leave constituencies it is has a stronghold of socially conservative working-class voters – a demographic Theresa May has been trying to court since becoming party leader. Her patriotic rhetoric concerning Britain’s future, her pledge to help the “just about managing” families, her promise to invest in British productivity, her attacks on globalisation and push for more communitarianism is expecting to play well with the voters of Copeland.
Alternatively, the current state of the Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn could play poorly with this demographic. Firstly, the divisiveness of the party makes the party look incompetent, uninspiring and anarchic. Secondly, the MPs who seem unwilling to accept the referendum are defying the will of the British electorate, essentially telling them they answered the question incorrectly. Thirdly, the influx of young socialists into party distances it from the people of Copeland. The bulk of party members are now socially progressive, strongly in favour of immigration and exclusively from London or big cities. If there is a Labour victory in Copeland it will be down to their well picked candidate Gillian Troughton - local councillor and former doctor and ambulance driver – who has been campaigning on the Conservative Party’s biggest weakness the NHS. Stoke Central
Labour MP Tristram Hunt resigned from his seat in Stoke-on-Trent Central to become director of the Victoria & Albert Museum. Mr Hunt was another fierce critic of Jeremy Corbyn although he, like Jamie Reed, insisted this resignation was not to “rock the boat” for Corbyn. Labour fared better in this constituency in 2015, with a majority of 16.7%. However, in this by-election Labour’s major challenger is not the Conservative Party, although a Conservative victory would not be unrealistic, but UKIP, who have placed their new party leader Paul Nuttall as candidate. This urban constituency voted overwhelmingly in favour of leaving the EU with nearly 70% of the vote and in the 2015 election UKIP came in second place to Labour.
The Labour candidate is Gareth Snell, a local councillor and remain supporter, he has come under negative publicity after right-wing blogger Guido Fawkes surfaced some misogynistic and anti-Brexit tweets. His campaign has distanced himself from Jeremy Corbyn, unsurprisingly stating that we need tighter controls on immigration. Likewise, UKIP's candidate, Paul Nuttall has been embarrassed by evidence of claims that he has made over being a professional footballer, having a PhD and having close friends who died in the Hillsborough disaster, being found to be exaggerations or untruths.
Like all parties, UKIP is finding its footing in post-Brexit Britain. Now the UK is leaving the EU their raison d’etre has disappeared, however they have harnessed the disconnect between the current Labour Party and the traditional Labour voters to become a new political power in the Labour heartlands. This by-election is of vital importance to both UKIP and the Labour Party. If the Labour Party loses to UKIP it will be a clear sign that their traditional safe seats entering elections can no longer be depended upon – following the loss of their safe seats in Scotland to the SNP – losing the Northern heartlands will make an election victory impossible. Similarly, if the party leader of UKIP cannot win an election in a constituency labelled “Brexit Central” can they win a seat anywhere or are they just an anti-EU pressure group rather than a political party? Let's not forget that Nigel Farage tried and failed seven times to win a Westminster seat!
Written by RPP London Policy Researcher, Lucy Kerr