May finds more road for can-kicking
Is this the week we’ve reached peak Brexit-madness? There have been votes, amendments, crushing defeats, conventions broken and whipping operations failing spectacularly. At last the Commons voted in overwhelmingly in favour (412 to 202) of a short extension to Article 50, meaning that Britain's departure should now not take place until 30 June.
Before voting on an extension, MPs narrowly rejected the chance to seize control of the Brexit process through a series of indicative votes in the Commons, defeated by 312 votes to 314 an amendment tabled by the Labour MPs Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper, and former Conservative minister Oliver Letwin.
The government’s motion on an extension set out that if May’s plan is approved by next Wednesday, the government will request a short extension, until 30 June to give Parliament time to pass the necessary legislation before we leave the EU.
The government is likely to hold another (yes another) meaningful vote by Wednesday 20 March- the day before the next EU Summit in Brussels. Thirdtime lucky? It is hard to believe she’ll get the same deal over the line after the Commons has resoundingly rejected it twice. And there is concern about the procedure as there is a convention that once something is voted down the same notion cannot come back to the House. So it may be all down to Speaker Bercow next week. And while this week did see a lot of ‘switchers’ (MPs who had previously rejected the deal but then voting in favour of it on Tuesday) currently the numbers do not indicate that Theresa May will indeed get lucky the third time.
Were Parliament to approve the deal next week though, an extension would serve the technical purpose of getting the necessary implementing legislation through- the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. That would be pretty straightforward to grant from the EU’s side. But getting the Withdrawal Agreement Bill smoothly through Parliament is no guarantee- it will have to depend on a stable majority, who time and time again vote with the government. If there is one thing we’ve learned from the past week, indeed the last months is that there is no such guarantee.
The EU has said a longer extension would be more complicated. President of the European Council, Donald Tusk said that a longer extension would require the UK to “rethink its Brexit strategy”. Any decision on how long an extension would have to be taken at next week's EU summit in Brussels. All 27 EU leaders would have to unanimously agree to grant an extension and on its length.If the UK were to request, or be offered, a lengthy extension, UK’s participation in European elections would be another pickle to solve. The elections are taking place between 23 and 26 May and new members will not be sworn until 2 July. Theresa May said this week that a longer extension “would undoubtedly require the United Kingdom to hold European Parliament elections in May 2019”. Legal opinion is divided on whether the UK needs to hold those elections if they are a departing member anyway- here is a good explainer of the issue.
Open Letter to the Brexit minister: the Withdrawal Agreement Bill and the importance of proper legislative scrutiny
The government still hasn’t published- and barely mentioned- the Withdrawal Agreement Bill. This legislation is legally necessary for the Brexit deal to take effect in domestic law. It must be passed in order for the government to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement reached with the EU.
The Alliance have serious concerns that the time available simply is not sufficient to properly scrutinise a piece of legislation that will have significant legal, political and constitutional implications. This week, we wrote to Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Stephen Barclay, asking him to publish the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in draft form as soon as possible. If the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is not published in draft form now there will not be enough opportunities for civil society, individuals and other stakeholders to have meaningful input in the legislative process.
If the EU were to give the UK a short, technical extension to Article 50, the government should still publish the Withdrawal Agreement Bill in draft now, giving parliamentarians as much time as possible to scrutinise its provisions.
Find our open letter here and press release here
Government defeated 3 times over Trade Bill
Meanwhile, in the House of Lords, peers defeated the government on three occasions over the Trade Bill this week. The first defeat came after peers vote overwhelmingly in favour of no new barriers that did not exist before exit day between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.
The second was an amendment making it a negotiating objective to enable all UK/EU citizens post-Brexit to exercise the same reciprocal rights to work, live and study for purposes of provisions of trade in goods and services. At last, peers voted 193-154 in favour of a cross-bench backed amendment that sets out the Trade Bill will not come into effect if there is a no deal Brexit. The Trade Bill has now finished report stage in the Lords and now move onto Third Reading next week.
Brexit, Data Privacy and the EU Settled Status Scheme
“The system is supposedly designed to operate smoothly and effectively. So far, however, it fails to meet either of these objectives”.
Read our latest blog by Amy Shepherd, Legal & Policy Officer at Open Rights Group on why the automated data checks within the settled status scheme are hugely problematic and what the Home Office can do to solve it. Available here.
Rights after Brexit
In the whirlwind of the Brexit drama in Parliament this week, other issues may not have received the attention it needs. The EU Justice Sub-Committee in the House of Lords held an oral evidence session on the impacts Brexit will have on rights, with Murray Hunt, Director of the Bingham Centre Rule of Law and Professor Colm O'Cinneide, Professor of Law UCL Faculty of Laws. Undoubtedly, Brexit brings about uncertainty about the future of our rights. It is Well worth watching this 1-hour evidence session for on how the loss of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights, the government's dilution on commitments to the European Convention on Human Rights in the Political Declaration, the future of the Human Rights Act and more. Available here.
Save the date: All day conference on the social sector post-Brexit
When: 26th April 2019, 9.30-16.30
Where: 17-25 New Inn Yard, London, EC2A 3EA
The Brexit Civil Society Alliance and New Philanthropy Capital are hosting an all-day conference, bringing together the social sector to discuss the potentially momentous Brexit will have on charities, voluntary organisations and communities they champion and represent.
Brexit and Environment: what’s next?
On the 9th April Friends of the Earth, a founding member of the Alliance, is hosting an event in Brussels together with ClientEarth, the European Environmental Bureau, Friends of the Earth Europe and the Brexit & Environment Network. The event will focus on the next stage of the negotiations and will have speakers such as MEPs, academic experts and civil society. More information and registration here.