Brexit weekly: 5 things

And the verdict is…

You couldn’t miss it. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court ruled the UK Government needs Parliament’s approval to trigger Article 50 to leave the European Union. The decision was expected, but is a minor setback for Prime Minister Theresa May, as it would have been easier for her to bypass Parliament and invoke Article 50 at her own discretion at the end of March, as she had planned. The Government insists it will be able to stick to its Brexit timeline, though Mrs May might have to smooth things over with MPs who didn’t like the sound of last week’s ‘hard Brexit’ speech. Although it’s highly unlikely Parliament will stand in the way of triggering Article 50, it will be interesting to see if pro-European Tories and opposition MPs will join forces to challenge the Government and make demands on the Parliament’s involvement in the Brexit process.

Although the ruling was perceptually a defeat for the Government, there was also a sigh of relief to be heard from Mrs May’s Brexit team. The justices ruled on the extent to which the Scottish, Welsh and Northern-Irish assemblies should be involved in the notification process. The Court unanimously decided that these administrations don’t have to be consulted by Westminster, which means they’re unable to veto the Article 50 notification. In last week’s speech, Mrs May was clear she wanted to keep all the nations fully involved in the Brexit process, but the when, where and how is now completely up to her.

Brexit Bill

Expecting the Supreme Court’s ruling, Brexit Secretary David Davis was quick to present his withdrawal bill to Parliament. At 133 words, the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill is short but sweet with constitutional expert Vernon Bernard Bogdanor saying it has been framed “very tightly”, probably a deliberate move by the Government to have potential amendments ruled out of order. Numerous MPs and peers are still keen to submit amendments, with the SNP vowing to table 50 or more. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats are likely to oppose the Bill entirely, unless there’s a guarantee of another referendum on the final post-Brexit agreement. They’re joined by prominent Labour MPs who may also oppose, though Jeremy Corbyn has insisted his party won’t block the Article 50 notification and has said his MPs face a three-line whip to vote in favour of the Bill. This prompted one shadow minister to quit Labour’s front bench, with speculation others could resign in a seemingly new challenge to Mr Corbyn as leader. With a Conservative majority, the Prime Minister can expect to get the Bill through the Commons. But she faces a more formidable task in the House of Lords, and Downing Street will have to direct efforts at appeasing peers with the potential to disrupt the legislation’s passage.

The Commons will continue its debate on Wednesday, while the Lords will discuss the topic on the 20th. The aim is to have the bill adopted by mid-March, just in time to trigger Article 50 by the end of the month.

A Scottish dilemma

Despite Mrs May’s promise to involve Scotland in Brexit decision-making, last week’s speech indicating the UK will be pulled out of the European single market has angered some Scottish MPs who’ve insisted remaining in the trade bloc is crucial to the nation. In a bid to catch Westminster’s eye, First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she would attempt to give Members of the Scottish Parliament a say on the Brexit Bill anyway, regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision. Scotland’s Brexit minister Mike Russell also said the timetable for a potential second independence referendum could be in the hands of the Westminster government, while former SNP leader Alex Salmond claimed it could happen within two years.

Nicola Sturgeon, however, is unwilling to call another referendum at the short-term. As her party doesn’t have a majority in Scottish Parliament and polls are indecisive, the risk of her losing the independence battle is too high. The nation might have another ace up its sleeve though. While MSPs cannot legally block the Article 50 notification, they could obstruct Mrs May’s Great Repeal Bill that ends the supremacy of EU law in the UK. This Bill will be crucial in the process of leaving the EU, and Scottish consent might be needed as devolved matters are affected. The Westminster government could face a choice between taking Scotland’s interests into consideration more now, or risk getting into a legislative battle in future.

A piece of White Paper

After Brexit Secretary David Davis told MPs it would be too tricky, the PM said she recognised the “appetite” for a White Paper and decided she would publish one that will outline the Government’s plan for Brexit. This U-turn could be interpreted as a sign of weakness, with Mrs May making concession while under pressure from opposition parties and pro-EU Conservatives.  It looked like a second big setback for Mrs May in only two days. But was it really?

The Tories rather cunningly requested the White Paper before Jeremy Corbyn, stealing Labour’s thunder, a victory in itself. And in showing goodwill, the PM can now woo unconvinced MPs more easily to support her Brexit Bill, which was presented following the Supreme Court ruling. Meanwhile, the White Paper due to be published will likely have minimal added value, as the Prime Minister’s spokesperson already indicated the Paper will not go into more detail than last week’s speech. So Mrs May’s impromptu concession – in which she does not concede much –  is very much a manoeuvre to get on with it and remain on Brexit schedule.

Hallo from the other side

Last week did we bid him auf wiedersehen, but he’s already making a comeback to European politics. Martin Schulz stepped down as European Parliament President to return to national politics, but the pro-European German socialist is now set to take on Chancellor Angela Merkel in Germany’s elections later this year. Despite certain differences the two candidates may have, one thing they share is a commitment to the European project and desire to save it in times of political turmoil . Polls indicate Mrs Merkel is in the lead by 17%, with Mr Schulz’s SDP currently polling at 20%, although after 2016 you might want to disregard polls completely. But either result may mean tough times for the UK and its attempt at negotiating a good Brexit deal.

Both candidates will most likely be firm towards the UK, but Mr Schulz might just be on another level. As one of the best friends of European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the German not only has close ties with MEPs but also with the main Brexit negotiator on the EU side, and during his time as European Parliament President, he fought very hard for the institution to gain more powers and to be taken more seriously. As David Davis suggested that the role of MEPs will be “peripheral” in Brexit negotiations, the UK might have actually made an enemy of an important figure on the EU side.