Brexit 5: EU bites back

Rocky road in the Lords

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill sailing plainly through the House of Commons, it was expected to ride that same wave through the House of Lords – following Johnson’s election victory and 80 MP majority. But, this isn’t being realised. The Withdrawal Agreement Bill concluded its committee stage on Thursday – this will follow a Lords report stage over two days on Monday 20th and Tuesday 21st of January. This will provide a chance to examine further the bill and make changes. Although the Lords cannot prevent the Bill becoming law, they can continue to make amendments, keeping it in state of ‘ping pong’ where it swings back and forth between the Lords and Commons.

With Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s large majority, Boris has already taken the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through the low road in the House of Commons – with no bumps along the way. The House of Lords were predicted not to scrutinise the bill with same vigour as opposition MPs in the House of Commons, this has not been the case. The Lords have already put forward several amendments to the bill, covering issues like protection of rights for UK citizens residing in the EU, EEA or Switzerland; an implementation period negotiating objectives for the Erasmus+ programme; EEA alignment, retaining EU citizenship and a number of other issues. Peers have also voiced concerns about the UK/EU joint committee, which decides details of the Withdrawal Agreement and isn’t subjected to Parliamentary oversight. Other controversial issues are the removal of protections for refugees, workers and students. These are all likely to be covered further during the final stages next week.

So, despite the bill comfortably clearing the Commons, the road through the Lords is full of potholes.

EU gets brash on Brexit

With the Brexit story attention turning toward talks on the UK’s future relationship with the EU, both sides are beginning to finalise how they intend to navigate trade negotiations. The EU have been issuing stark warnings about how tough the talks will be. European Commissioner for Trade Mr Phil Hogan dismissed Boris Johnson’s self-imposed end of 2020 deadline for a post-Brexit trade deal as “just not possible” saying it was “brinkmanship”. He argues that if this was the line chosen by the UK then only a subset of the agreed Brexit political declaration would be up for detailed discussion, and that would be needed by June 30. This implies the EU may be planning to prioritise and not follow the mandate from the EU27 for UK-EU talks, this reflects the mood in the EU that it will be nearly impossible to have a complete trade agreement drawn out without an extension.

France’s EU minister also took up arms in opposition to Britain’s trade deal optimism – claiming that a quick trade deal solely depends on the Brits, according to Amélie de Montchalin, France’s state secretary for EU affairs. De Montchalin said that “the more divergence” the Brits seek from the EU, the longer the talks will take. With what we know already regarding Prime Minister Johnson’s red lines in these negotiations (like Britain’s sovereignty over fishing waters and immigration) they are likely to prove disruptive. This speaks to the EU rhetoric regarding the unlikelihood of achieving a free trade agreement by the December 2020 deadline.

This could prove a very bitter pill to swallow as Boris’ do or die strategy refuses to die. This means the UK must choose its strategy: does it pursue other talks with the US, and how at the World Trade Organisation does it assert itself alongside the already dominant US-EU-China states.

Will Boris have to dig another ditch?

As the clock continues to tick – Boris is still adamant that a comprehensive trade deal with the European Union is “epically likely” by the end of the year. This was said on Tuesday in his first major television interview since his landslide victory. But, this is starkly different to the rhetoric of the European Union which believes the Conservative Party has not realised the trade-offs and compromises that will be necessary to achieve a completed trade agreement. A key worry of the EU is having the UK economy on its doorstep like plans to undercut costs by reducing standards. Cabinet ministers close to future trade talks plans to seize two advantages: divisions within the EU, despite the EU being previously united around money, citizens’ rights and Northern Ireland; but the 27 EU member states will now have different and even competing interests. Member states could break away on issues that benefit them. Boris could create a divisive environment between the different members.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson also has his personal favourite, the threat of no-deal but, will the ghosts of Brexit past come once again to haunt him as they did that fateful Halloween? Will he once again have to dig another ditch as he continues to refuse requesting an extension but, in the end, concedes? Failure to reach a deal in the trade talks would have fewer grave consequences for Britain than no deal without a withdrawal agreement last year. This could be his ammunition to stick to his guns this time round in negotiating the trade agreement, furthered by the power he holds in the House of Commons. Only time will tell.

Barnier doesn’t play ball

More contradicting statements continue to arise out of the EU, as chief negotiator Michel Barnier states goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain after Brexit will be subject to checks and controls. He told the European Parliament on Tuesday “Implementation of this Northern Ireland protocol foresees checks and controls for goods entering the island of Ireland” where as Johnson has insisted such controls would not be introduced under his Brexit deal with Brussels, doubling down on this point during a press conference on Monday. This issue of the transportation of goods between Northern Ireland and Great Britain was one of the most contentious issues during the Brexit negotiations, with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party making clear there should be absolutely no divergence in rules between their region and that of the U.K.

Brexiteers plan goes bells up

After Johnson stated the government was looking into having Big Ben ring out to mark Britain’s departure from the EU. It was revealed that the clock is currently being refurbished and would require £500,000 to “restore the clapper” for the bell to ring on January 31 and that he was investigating a way to raise funds. After Boris Johnson called on the public to “bung a bob”, more than £150,000 was raised on the Go Fund Me crowdfunding site. However, much to the Brexiteers dismay the House of Commons Commission – chaired by the Speaker – announced the six-figure donation from Brexiteers could not be used because of parliamentary rules on financial donations. This sparked a blame game in Westminster, with Brexiteers accusing the Speaker and his Remain-heavy committee of bias.

The Whitehouse team are experts in the potential impact of Brexit, providing political consultancy and public affairs advice to a wide range of clients, not only in the United Kingdom, but also across the member states of the European Union. More information about our Brexit experience can be found here, or, if you have any questions, please contact our Chair, Chris Whitehouse, at