Monday

21st Jan 2019

Column / Brexit Briefing

Brexit and the moral high ground

  • Peers of the House of Lords in their traditional red robes. (Photo: parliament.uk)

Most politics students in the UK are taught that the House of Lords is like a guard dog without any teeth. If not nursing a bite mark, Theresa May will certainly be feeling nibbling at her ankles after suffering her second Brexit defeat in the House of Lords on Tuesday (7 March).

Peers backed calls for a meaningful parliamentary vote on the final terms of withdrawal, by 366 votes to 268. To the Lords, "meaningful" is code for veto.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 18 year's of archives. 30 days free trial.

... or join as a group

It’s not the first annoying setback for the government on the Article 50 bill. The Lords also passed on 1 March an amendment guaranteeing the rights of EU citizens last Wednesday.

The government has argued that while it hopes to strike a reciprocal rights agreement with the EU, it won’t accept the amendment.

Ping-pong peers

MPs are likely to vote this week to strike out the Lords’ amendment, and a game of parliamentary ping-pong is probably going to take up most of March. Any plans to trigger Article 50 at this week’s European Council summit have had to be delayed.

The main parliamentary committee on Brexit has scarcely been more helpful to the government.

A report published by the cross-party Exiting the EU Committee on Sunday (5 March) unanimously agreed that the government should immediately guarantee the residency, pension and healthcare rights of EU nationals living in the UK.

For the moment, the various amendments and committee reports are a series of little, nagging headaches. The government wants a clean and unamended Article 50 bill, and it will get it if it hangs tough.

The Lords will eventually have to back down since they only have the power to delay the process by a matter of weeks if the government protects its majority among MPs.

Even so, none of the amendments or the recommendations in the various committee reports can be wished away.

One of the questions facing May and her ministers is whether to offer any concessions before the Article 50 process begins in earnest. This would buy some good will from dozens of Conservatives who are nervous at the government’s drift towards a ‘hard Brexit’, with Britain potentially falling back to a World Trade Organisation trading relationship with the EU.

It would also make it harder for the Labour party to oppose the government on every vote.

Finding a balance on how much control and influence MPs will have over the final agreement is the toughest compromise.

There is a certain irony that having campaigned to "take back control" and restore parliamentary sovereignty, MPs and Peers will be offered a "take it or leave it" vote on the Brexit deal, with no recourse to send ministers back to improve a bad deal. This "Hobson’s choice" is unsustainable, but don’t expect any concessions any time soon.

For the foreseeable future, ministers will be able to argue that promising MPs a veto could incentivise the EU-27 to offer a bad deal.

Individual rights

The most painless concession would be for the UK to guarantee the rights of EU nationals.

Brexit secretary David Davis has said the government had wanted to secure an agreement from other member states on the issue at the European Council in December "but we couldn't get everybody to agree at that point".

However, that offers little consolation to the three million EU nationals living in the UK, or to their UK counterparts living all across Europe.

“The result has left them living under a cloud of uncertainty. They are understandably concerned about their right to remain, and their future rights to access education and healthcare,” said Hilary Benn, chair of the Exiting the EU Committee.

“EU nationals in the UK and UK nationals in the EU… should not be used as bargaining chips,” he added.

The government is going to face dozens of close votes, make concessions and suffer defeats as it tries to implement Brexit. There will be two years of this - possibly more.

At the start of a hugely complex and arduous process, Theresa May’s team needs to make a bid to claim the moral high ground, and it should start by beating the EU to guarantee residency rights.

"Any deal is bound to be full of compromises which one group or another in Parliament finds difficult to stomach,” says William Hague, foreign secretary to David Cameron, and a former Tory party leader.

The sooner the UK government realises that all sides will have to compromise, the better.

Benjamin Fox, a former reporter for EUobserver, is a consultant with Sovereign Strategy, a London-based PR firm, and a freelance writer.

Column / Brexit Briefing

End of Brexit phoney war? Wait and see

There is a strong chance that the House of Lords will send Theresa May’s Article 50 bill back with some unwelcome extras, such as Northern Ireland's open border and EU citizens rights.

France's Macron issues Brexit warning

The centrist presidential candidate tells talented Britons to come to France and warns against giving the UK "undue advantages" after Brexit, in a speech in London.

How to troll the European Parliament elections

The May 2019 European parliament elections will take place in a context which make a very promising ground for protest votes and extreme views, aided by bots and algorithms.

On Morocco, will the EU ignore its own court?

If the European parliament votes in favour of the new Morocco agreement without knowing that it complies with the European Court of Justice judgement, how can it demand that other countries respect international law and their own courts?

News in Brief

  1. EU trade commissioner asks for green light for US talks
  2. Slovakia's commissioner takes unpaid leave to run for presidency
  3. Minority elects Lofven as prime minister of Sweden
  4. Putin opposes EU prospects of Serbia and Kosovo
  5. Tsipras launches campaign to ratify Macedonia deal
  6. US-EU meeting in doubt after Trump cancels plane
  7. Germany and China to sign pact on finance cooperation
  8. Labour divided on second Brexit vote plan

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. International Partnership For Human RightsKyrgyz authorities have to immediately release human rights defender Azimjon Askarov
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersSeminar on disability and user involvement
  3. Nordic Council of MinistersInternational appetite for Nordic food policies
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersNew Nordic Innovation House in Hong Kong
  5. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Region has chance to become world leader when it comes to start-ups
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersTheresa May: “We will not be turning our backs on the Nordic region”
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsOpen letter to Emmanuel Macron ahead of Uzbek president's visit
  8. International Partnership for Human RightsRaising key human rights concerns during visit of Turkmenistan's foreign minister
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersState of the Nordic Region presented in Brussels
  10. Nordic Council of MinistersThe vital bioeconomy. New issue of “Sustainable Growth the Nordic Way” out now
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersThe Nordic gender effect goes international
  12. Nordic Council of MinistersPaula Lehtomaki from Finland elected as the Council's first female Secretary General

Latest News

  1. Aachen treaty and Brexit endgame This WEEK
  2. Germany led way on EU rights protection
  3. How to troll the European Parliament elections
  4. MEPs in Strasbourg: everywhere but the plenary
  5. Brexit delay 'reasonable', as May tries cross-party talks
  6. MEPs allow Draghi's membership of secretive bank group
  7. EU parliament backs Morocco deal despite row
  8. Barnier open to 'future relations' talks if UK red lines shift

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic design sets the stage at COP24, running a competition for sustainable chairs
  2. Counter BalanceIn Kenya, a motorway funded by the European Investment Bank runs over roadside dwellers
  3. ACCACompany Law Package: Making the Best of Digital and Cross Border Mobility,
  4. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil Society Worried About Shortcomings in EU-Kyrgyzstan Human Rights Dialogue
  5. UNESDAThe European Soft Drinks Industry Supports over 1.7 Million Jobs
  6. Mission of China to the EUJointly Building Belt and Road Initiative Leads to a Better Future for All
  7. International Partnership for Human RightsCivil society asks PACE to appoint Rapporteur to probe issue of political prisoners in Azerbaijan
  8. ACCASocial Mobility – How Can We Increase Opportunities Through Training and Education?
  9. Nordic Council of MinistersEnergy Solutions for a Greener Tomorrow
  10. UNICEFWhat Kind of Europe Do Children Want? Unicef & Eurochild Launch Survey on the Europe Kids Want
  11. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic Countries Take a Stand for Climate-Smart Energy Solutions
  12. Mission of China to the EUChina: Work Together for a Better Globalisation

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us