After weeks of meetings, press conferences, private functions and a huge flurry of reporting, Brexit seems to have come to a shuddering halt. There have been five rounds of negotiations, yet it appears the UK and EU representatives have reached an impasse until the UK’s financial commitments have been settled.
Issues surrounding the Irish land border with the UK and the rights of EU citizens (both here and the millions of Brits abroad), have been reported frequently. The real issue that’s caused everyone to scuttle back to their respective corners though has to be – money.
While Prime Minister May’s Florence speech did address some of the financial concerns, it didn’t give the EU the reassurances it wanted, or the clarity the Europeans were asking for. There may be other chances to get things moving again before December, but in general the process is becoming mired down in the fine print over who owes what.
Slow and steady
Legally, there’s been very little movement at all on Brexit, with the Great Reform Bill still plodding its way through the legislative process. It’s been superseded by other parliamentary work, but is still on the agenda. The trouble is, that until the situation in Europe is clearer, proceeding with debating and then legislating the GRB into the statute is a moot point.
Is the Bill supported?
Fundamentally, the bill is designed to simplify the legislative ‘conscious uncoupling’ between the UK and Europe. In reality, it’s a copy/paste exercise that allows Parliament to take its time sorting out the details over the coming years, while giving the economy, business and individuals the same rights as they had while we were still part of the EU. There are issues, though, that could cause problems.
Firstly, while it’s unlikely that the GRB will be thrown out wholesale, there are plenty of MPs who are happy to try and trip it up at every given opportunity. This process of amends being tabled could slow its progress down to a crawl. That is already annoying the law makers, as there is enough uncertainty as it is without the potential for our entire legal system to be thrown into confusion if the Bill isn’t passed by the time we exit Europe in 2019.
Secondly, PM May’s ultra-skinny majority of just 16 could compound that problem, especially as many backbenchers are unhappy with the mass transfer of so much legislation into UK law without a really good pick-through first.
Thirdly, and this is the real bane of the Bill – there’s the House of Lords to consider. They’re notorious for bouncing bills unceremoniously straight back to the lower House. And with around a 5:1 majority in favour of remaining in Europe, their lordships could be surprisingly belligerent towards a bill that sounds the death-knell for EU/UK ties. The Lords also see themselves as the constitutional guardians of civil rights, and with so many legal experts sitting in the Lords, you can be sure that while the Bill may not be rejected outright, it will certainly be challenged.
Then there is the question of whether the devolved parliaments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland will ratify the bill, especially as PM May relies on the support of the Northern Irish DUP to maintain her majority. That could bring the issue of the land border with Ireland sharply back into focus somewhat unexpectedly later on in the process.
An Admin exercise
So is the bill just a bit of Brexit admin, or does it have wider implications? With so much confusion and slow progress dogging the negotiations, it would be unsettling for the economy and especially the legal system if our legislative process were also thrown into chaos with a Bill that gets bogged down at every turn.
The next few months are going to be tough for the Brexit team, both in Brussels and here in the UK.