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March 26, 2019

No, the UK parliament has not taken control

Be wary of blather. Nothing has been taken off the table. Nobody is in control. The UK press hails last night’s passing of the so-called Letwin amendment as the House of Commons finally taking control of Brexit. It certainly demonstrates that the UK government has lost its majority and that elections will probably happen very soon. But the impact on Brexit itself is far less clear. And nobody seems to be in control.

Most of the UK’s political class, including MPs, do not understand the legal status of last week’s resolution by the European Council. It constitutes an official adjunct to EU law. It sets out two clear pathways to avoid a no-deal Brexit - either pass the deal this week, and leave on May 22; or agree to hold European elections and leave later, which would also require a political process.

The majority view of among commentators is that the passing of the Letwin amendment has made it less likely for the meaningful vote to pass this week. We agree. In any case, we have not yet seen any evidence of the DUP shifting position. 

If this scenario prevails, the UK will exit the EU without a deal on April 12 unless one of two things happens: 

  • parliament finds a majority in favour of Brexit revocation; or
  • the government agrees to hold European elections, and simultaneously the House of Commons' indicative votes produce an informal majority for an alternative future relationship.

It is not hard to see how an accidental no-deal Brexit can still happen: Theresa May loses the meaningful vote; indicative votes produce a narrow victory for one of the alternative options; May refuses to honour the vote; May refuses European elections; she goes to Brussels on April 12 with nothing to say; Emmanuel Macron says Non.

Yesterday May explicitly ruled out support for a no-deal, but beware: this is merely her saying that this is not her first choice. She said parliament can stop it. This is true but also misleading. Parliament can stop it by revoking Art 50, or replacing her another leader within the next 14 days. Neither is very likely. 

The combination of May’s intransigence and the Letwin amendment could frustrate one other potential route forward - a consensus in favour of the existing withdrawal agreement with an opening of the political declaration. May yesterday proposed a separation of the political declaration from the withdrawal agreement - a course of action we had advocated before - but this was rejected by Jeremy Corbyn, the Labour leader. 

This means we are still at an impasse. There is no agreement among the supporters of Oliver Letwin, a cabinet minister under David Cameron and now a Tory backbencher, about the voting mechanism for the indicative votes. Letwin himself wants simple votes, with MPs being allow to vote on several options. Others, like Kenneth Clarke, prefer a ranking system that flushes out the least-favoured options, with one clear winner emerging in the end.

But May is under no legal obligation to accept the outcome. She can also refuse to prepare for elections to the European Parliament. Contrary to news reports this morning, we see no chance of the House of Commons taking control of its own timetable to pass actual legislation before April 12. If there were a majority to stop a no-deal Brexit, the only sure way to assert it would be via a vote of no-confidence and the installation of an alternative prime minister through a subsequent vote of confidence. But the time window for that is also closing fast. 

We noted one commentator - Iain Martin from the Times - predicting that events will produce so much chaos that the meaningful vote on May's deal will eventually pass. We would not rule this out, but this will probably not happen this week. So, what if the meaningful vote passes, but after this week’s deadline? It would then be up to the European Council to decide, but we see no reason why the European Council would refuse a technical extension. They only chose this week’s deadline to reduce the possibility of an accidental no-deal Brexit.

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March 26, 2019

Barnier for president?

Is there a coordinated push underway from EU national leaders to build up Michel Barnier as the best possible next EU Commission president? We cannot remember any other comparable European political figure ever to have been showered with so much lavish public praise as Barnier has been at the margins of the EU summit last week. Several top-tier participants went out of their way to salute Barnier’s work as Brexit negotiator, going so far as to attribute the remarkable unity the 27 have sustained during the negotiations in no small part to Barnier himself. With officials in Paris having briefed journalists this week that Emmanuel Macron would have no problem, au contraire, with Barnier succeeding Juncker, the praise he received a few days ago suddenly sounds like rather more than mere gratitude for a job well done.

This is not to say that the tributes weren’t genuine. Barnier is focused, honest, cautious and careful, and free of the flashy brilliance that usually comes with the territory in the upper echelons of Parisian politics and officialdom. This has at times hampered his career in France. But it is precisely this mix of qualities that has enhanced his authority during the Brexit negotiations. Barnier inspires trust, and more than the flashier type of speaker, he has the ability to lay out an argument and win over an audience.

As it happens, Barnier hails politically from the EPP, making him potentially a direct competitor of the party’s spitzenkandidat Manfred Weber. With his impeccable cv and credentials, Barnier is arguably the only EPP politician against whom even Weber’s most dedicated supporters might find it difficult to mount an argument, other than to insist that the spitzenkandidat process must be respected. Macron, however, has made no secret of his hope to sink the spitzenkandidat model, and the latest chill between him and the CDU won’t have diminished that ambition.

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