This week has arguably been the most significant in the Brexit process since the 23rd June. The main event has been the passage of the Article 50 bill, and its Royal Assent, please see article below. However, this has almost overshadowed by the First Minister of Scotland's call for a Second Referendum on Scottish Independence. Whether she has played her hand brilliantly, or overplayed it, only time will tell – Mark Walker looks more at this in his article. Finally, a very significant European Parliament Plenary session in Strasbourg occurred this week, looking at the future of the EU. RPP's man in Strasbourg, Thomas Krings writes about that with some exclusive insight into an upcoming European Parliament "Brexit Resolution".
- Brexit bill passes through Parliament: The Bill giving Theresa May with the authority to trigger Article 50 was passed through Parliament without amendments. The Commons voted down the two amendments added by the House of Lords and the House of Lords did not challenge the Government’s decision The Queen has now given Royal Assent to the Brexit bill and Theresa May now has the all clear to begin the UK’s formal exit from the European Union when she wishes.
- Nicola Sturgeon officially declares she wants a second independence referendum: Nicola Sturgeon has claimed that Theresa May’s refusal to give an inch on special deal between Scotland and the European Union has made a second independence referendum inevitable. The First Minister confirmed she plans to hold a vote between autumn 2018 and spring 2019 unless the government makes some kind of deal with Scotland.
- Theresa May say’s it is ‘not the right time’ to hold a referendum: Theresa May has not ruled out a second independence referendum but says vote would have to take place after Brexit as the government must put “all its energy” into negotiating Brexit. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP did not take this response well declaring it “completely outrageous and unacceptable.”
- David Mundell says Scotland will be stronger as a result of Brexit: David Mundell, Secretary of State for Scotland, has said parliament will emerge stronger after Brexit after a series of attacks on Theresa May’s speech in which the SNP accusing the PM of trying to take power from Holyrood.
- Europe relieved as Dutch reject Geert Wilders’ PVV: The Dutch General Election saw Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s VVD defeat the far-right VVD under Geert Wilders, however there was a clear swing towards anti-immigration policies, with the VVD taking harder lines during the election campaign and the PVV gaining seats. Out of the 150 seats with 2 still to be counted, the VVD won 33 (loss of 8), the PVV coming second with 20 seats (gain of 5), the Christian Democrats (CDA) and the liberal D66 party in joint third with 19 seats each. The biggest losers on the night were the former coalition partners before the election, the Labour Party, collapsing to only 9 seats (loss of 29). A new Rutte Government will take some time to form due to the complexities of the Dutch political system. In 2012, it took 54 days, but with only two parties forming the Government. With the VVD ruling out any coalition with the PVV, they will require a coalition with the CDA, D66 and another party to form a majority Government.
- Lord Heseltine sacked over amendment rebellion: Lord Heseltine has been sacked from his government advisory role for leading the Conservative rebellion in the Lords on the so-called “Brexit bill”. When speaking to the press he said it was a “great disappointment” but continued that some issues were more important than party politics. Heseltine wrote a letter to the Prime Minister over her decision to dismiss him , he wrote: “You say in your letter that I will understand the necessity to end that relationship. Here we disagree. In the referendum campaign it was recognised that so deeply held and so divided were the views on both sides that members of the cabinet and other ministers were free to argue against the government’s European policy without sanction.”
- John Major criticises the government approach to Brexit: Former Conservative Prime Minister John Major has called for the current government to show “a little more charm, and a lot less cheap rhetoric’ in the handling of Brexit and says they have been giving the public unrealistic expectations. Major urged the government to be less combative in their language saying “In my own experience, the most successful results are obtained when talks are conducted with goodwill.”
- Ex WTO chief Pascal Lamy says ‘no deal’ after Brexit negotiations would be ‘extremely bad’: The former head of the World Trade Organisation said the government’s threat of leaving the EU with no deal would “by definition” be worse than any kind of agreement, likening it to “removing the egg from an omelette.”
- CBI chief warns against leaving the EU without a deal: Paul Drechsler, the president of CBI, has said that leaving the European Union without a new trade deal would open a Pandora’s Box for Britain’s businesses. This is in response to Theresa May saying that she would leave the EU with no deal rather than a bad deal.
- Chancellor delivers Autumn Budget: Last week the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond MP, delivered his first Budget. The Government is clearly sticking to their commitment to make Britain a leader in research and innovation after the UK exits the EU. The funding dedicated to the field included £250 million over the next few years to go towards improving British skills in the sector by providing more PhDs and fellowships for those working in STEM subjects. £100 million will also be allocated to attract science and research professionals to the UK. However, the Chancellor was also forced into an embarrassing u-turn on his plan to increase national insurance for self-employed workers.
- EU watchdog pushes for transparent Brexit: European Ombudsman Emily O’Reilly is urging the Commission to avoid backroom Brexit deals. Ms Reilly wrote to Commission President Jean-Claude Junker saying she has already received complaints “arising from requests for public access to documents connected to the UK referendum.”
- No Brexit bill for Britain, says Lords: The House of Lords EU Financial Affairs sub-committee has released a report stating that the UK government would be on strong legal ground to not pay anything when exiting the EU. However, they say that if the government wants goodwill from EU countries and access to EU markets an agreement on some type of budget will be important.
- Polls show 60% of EU doctors are considering leaving UK: The General Medical Council warned the Health Select Committee that that we could face a serious depletion of the workforce due to EU doctors feeling the undervalued following the Brexit vote.
- Nigel Farage in public spat with Douglas Carswell, the sole UKIP MP: UKIPs former leader has accused Mr Carswell of preventing UKIP from becoming a radical anti-immigration party. He has called for Mr Carswell to be expelled from the party as he is a “Tory party posh boy”.
- Steep drop in Labour party membership: The Times have reported that 26,000 Labour members have revoked membership of the part since last summer. They have produced figures showing that 7,000 have left since Corbyn imposed a three line whip on voting in favour of the government’s Brexit bill.
- Finally, the FTSE 100 is currently closing the week at its highest ever levels: the FTSE 100, the index composed of the 100 largest companies listed on the London Stock Exchange, is at 7,443.17. In comparison on the 24th June, the FTSE 100 closed at 6,138.69. The FTSE 250 & 350 are also at record levels.
Written by RPP Head of London Office, Andrew Brown
The End of the Beginning – Parliament Passes Article 50 Bill
The European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, which gives the Prime Minister the power to trigger Article 50, has passed through Parliament without any amendments. Whilst the Bill is a short one clause bill it has received many days of debate in both Houses as is probably the last time Parliament will get to flex its legislative muscles before Theresa May heads to Brussels to negotiate. Many MPs and Peers used the legislative debate to have their say on Britain’s decision to leave the European Union.
The Government made clear that they were not willing to accept amendments to the bill, which they said was an extremely simple bill about the process of leaving the European Union. Downing Street got its way in the House of Commons with the bill being voted through untouched.
As largely expected, the Bill’s journey through the Lords was bumpier and Theresa May faced her first major defeat in Parliament with the Lords voting for two amendments to the Bill. The first amendment gave the government three months to secure the rights of EU nationals living in the UK independent of what the UK’s continental counterparts do regarding UK citizens’ rights in the EU. It was argued by those in favour of the amendment that it was unprincipled to treat members of our society as bargaining chips, whereas those on the other side said it was damaging for UK nationals living in member states to make the commitment to EU nationals in the UK until other member states have guaranteed reciprocal rights to UK nationals. The amendment was passed with a healthy margin of 357 votes to 256 with 30 Conservative peers rebelling.
The second amendment passed was based on Parliament receiving a “meaningful vote” on the final negotiated deal reached between the UK and the EU – the government has given assurances that Parliament will get a vote on the final deal but with the caveat added that this would be a take it or leave it vote, meaning that Britain will still leave the EU but simply without a deal if Parliament voted down the divorce settlement.
Peers set up the second amendment to give Parliament a “meaningful vote” that will give them the power to stop the government leaving the EU without a deal and giving them the authority to send the PM back to the negotiating table. Peers arguing against the amendment argued that this would incentivise those in Brussels to offer a bad deal if they knew Parliament had the power to block Brexit in the wake of an unfavourable deal. This amendment also passed in the Lords by 366 to 268 with 12 Conservative peers rebelling. The Tory rebellion was seen to be led by Lord Heseltine, a former big beast in the Conservative party, as a result of his disloyalty the government dismissed him from his long-term role as a government advisor.
Downing Street were quick to announce that they would be attempting to vote down the amendments when the Bill came back to the Commons. The two amendments voted through in the Lords were originally Labour amendments in the Commons which were voted down in the committee stage. Therefore, it was unsurprising that the same results occurred on 13th March when the Commons voted against the two amendments. The first on EU nationals by 335 to 287 and the latter on a “meaningful vote” was voted down by 331 to 286.
The Bill was sent back to the Lords which accepted the decision of the Commons by 274 to 118. Theresa May now has the authority to trigger article 50 when she so pleases. The media have been tipped that this is likely to be in the last week of March. Whilst Parliament remains in position to scrutinise the government throughout the Brexit negotiations, this bill was the last opportunity to make concrete changes to the Brexit process. The government’s desired result of getting the Brexit bill passed through Parliament untouched has in many ways given them carte blanche in the upcoming negotiations with Europe.
Written by RPP London Director of Policy and Advocacy, Mark Walker and Policy Researcher, Lucy Kerr
Scotland the Brave – will Brexit result in Scottish Independence?
Scottish Independence is once again at the top of the UK political agenda. Scotland (and Northern Ireland) voted to stay in the EU whilst England and Wales voted to come out. The UK is divided on the issue of Brexit and one of the most important ramifications of this is that there will most likely be a second vote on Scottish Independence within the next 2 to 3 years, following the first vote in September, 2014.
First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon MSP, was widely seen to have taken the initiative when she announced on Monday 13th March, that she wished to hold a second Scottish Independence referendum. Monday was the day that the Article 50 Parliamentary Bill passed all of its Parliamentary stages in the UK Parliament and received Royal Assent. This certainly stole some of the Government's Brexit thunder, and complicated, and even potentially delayed the triggering of Article 50.
The First Minister said that the UK Government had failed to heed the warnings that Scotland’s desire to remain part of the EU’s Single Market had not received proper consideration. The proposals, outlined in the Scottish Government’s consultation document, ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’, was published in 2016 and the UK Government insist that they have been taking it seriously. The strength of feeling was outlined in the introduction to the document, where Nicola Sturgeon MSP says that ‘On the 23rd June, the people of Scotland voted categorically and decisively to remain within the EU’. The First Minister goes on to say that there had been a ‘stark divergence in the democratic will between the different nations of the United Kingdom demands a reappraisal of how political power in the UK is exercised’. Strikingly, in the document, the First Minister also says that ‘the way in which the Westminster Government responds to proposals put forward by the devolved administrations will tell us much about whether or not the UK is indeed a partnership of equals’.
Following the publication of the ‘Scotland’s Place in Europe’ document, the perceived lack of a response from the UK Government and the move towards a so-called ‘Hard Brexit’ has prompted the First Minister’s announcement on Monday 13th March. The response from the UK Government is that a second independence referendum is not necessary and that the First Minister is ‘playing politics with the British constitution’. A more developed response will be outlined shortly but the UK Government did not automatically say they would block the move. What is more likely is that the UK Government will say that they might back the Scottish Government’s calls for a second vote but that it would have to take place after the Brexit negotiations have taken place, meaning late 2019 at the earliest.
It should be said that the last independence referendum was billed by the Scottish Nationalist Party as a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity’. This will be a key argument in the referendum campaign, if it happens, as will the fact that the global oil price has declined dramatically since the last independence campaign. Other questions likely to come up are whether Scotland will need its own currency and whether it will get automatic membership/ entry to the EU or NATO if independence is achieved.
Whilst the First Minister and the SNP have a strong argument relating to Scotland being forced to leave the EU against its will and this being a cause for a second referendum, it is on shakier ground in other areas. Recent opinion polling has shown support for Scottish independence is falling, with majorities against independence in four polls this week, and that support for the SNP generally is perhaps starting to wobble, based on a growing impression that having been in Government in the Scottish Parliament since 2007, their complete focus on Independence has resulted in public services starting to suffer. Other opinion polling this week has shown that a majority of Scots are against another referendum being held. The question is whether Sturgeon can use the Prime Minister's refusal of a referendum on the SNP's timetable, as a grievance by which to stoke support for Independence.
The next few weeks and months will determine if there will be a second independence referendum and what course the UK Government decides to take. So far, Theresa May has resisted agreeing to a second referendum and has ruled out any such vote before the negotiations on Brexit have been concluded and the Scottish people know what the final outcome is. An upcoming Scottish Nationalist Party (SNP) Conference will also offer insights from the Scottish Government perspective.
Written by RPP London Director of Policy and Advocacy, Mark Walker
Summit conclusions & future of the EU headline Wednesday’s plenary debates in Strasbourg
Leading MEPs from Parliament’s political groups reacted on Wednesday to last week’s European Council and outlined their priorities ahead of the Rome declaration which will focus on the future of the EU. The majority of MEPs stressed the need for member states to set the EU on a course to tackle the immediate needs of citizens. Council President Donald Tusk opened the discussion by saying “If you want to go fast, go alone, if you want to go far, go together”. He promised to strive, in the Brexit talks, for political unity among the 27, whilst ensuring that UK and EU stay “close friends”. “Doors will always stay open for our British friends”, he added, but he rejected “claims, taking the form of threats, that ‘no deal’ would be bad for the EU. It would be bad for both, but for the UK in particular”. Speaking in Dutch, Mr Tusk expressed solidarity with the Netherlands, a “place of freedom and democracy”.
Commission President Jean Claude Juncker warned against narrowing the future of Europe to a “two-speed” scenario: “I don’t want a new 'iron curtain' in Europe”. Mr Juncker raised the Turkish attacks on the Netherlands saying these were “totally unacceptable” and that those responsible were moving Turkey away from the EU. He also noted that the new US trade policy was raising expectations for the EU to become the new world leader of multilateral free trade, but stressed that all free trade talks must include social partners and civil society. If we do not reduce unemployment and leave the EU countries alone at the frontline of the migration crisis; if we give in to nationalisms and leave behind the weakest, “there will be no citizens’ trust in the EU”, said Italy’s Prime Minister Paolo Gentiloni. On the “two-speed EU” debate, he said: “No to two Europes, big and small, east and west (...), but yes to one in which each country has its own level of ambition and can choose to join (...) at any time, now or later, and everybody is involved in the common project”. For the Council Presidency, Deputy Prime Minister Louis Grech said that the current times demand decisive action from the EU and member states’ leaders. He also warned against falling into negative mind-sets. On the EU’s future, Mr Grech said that the Rome declaration must be followed up concretely, but stressed that there should be “no second class citizens, no quick-fix solutions, and no knee-jerk reactions”. Guy Verhofstadt (ALDE, BE) accused Turkey's President Erdoğan of cynicism for advocating "freedom of speech" while journalists are imprisoned in Turkey. "Let's freeze the negotiations on Turkey's accession now, this is the only thing we can do now". He also advocated launching a process of the "rebirth" of the EU while celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Rome Treaty, in Rome.
As to the Brexit file, RPP has been informed that former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt in his capacity as the leading MEP for the Brexit file, is currently working on a draft for an EP “Brexit” resolution. It is meant to be adopted and voted by the EP during the first April plenary in Strasbourg (3-6 April) and it is also meant to be “timewise” in line with the expected “triggering” of Art. 50 of the British government. According to our sources, the Political Groups in the EP are in the lead re. the drafting process of the resolution, with Verhofstadt as the main draftsperson. In-depth discussion of the political groups is expected to take place during the upcoming two weeks. Therefore, the text is not supposed to include the various detailed findings regarding “Brexit” from the EP Committees, but it is expected that the Conference of Committee Chairs will contribute to the drafting process of the resolution text.
Written by RPP Senior Director of Policy and Advocacy, Thomas Krings