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September 20, 2019

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Focus on the deal, not on procedure or prorogation

For a short moment last night, it appeared that the whole Brexit process was about to be solved. We don’t normally care much about interviews here at Eurointelligence, but Jean-Claude Juncker was well worth watching on Sophy Ridge's show on Sky News. 

He confirmed that a deal is possible. He said no-deal was catastrophic also for the EU. He was very clear that a deal would be based on a single market for agrifoods, with borders checks away from the border. He said the backstop was not sacrosanct, only a means to an end. And he said that he works on the assumption that Brexit will happen.

It looks to us that we are moving towards a deal vs. no-deal scenario by the end of the month. The whole dispute currently unfolding about prorogation and the Benn legislation is very much a sideshow. We will report on the UK Supreme Court's ruling next week when it happens, but we are thinking the political process is much more important than procedure.

If a deal were agreed, we assume that the EU will agree to a demand by Boris Johnson to foreclose formally the option of an extension - except a short technical extension to make time for ratification. We have been arguing that the main loophole in the Benn bill is not procedural but political. The biggest loophole in the legislation is the European Council, whose operations are poorly understood in the UK, and not understood at all by the legal profession which obsesses with domestic procedure. 

What would the UK parliament do? Would they try to test whether the EU is bluffing? This is quite possible, but that game is dangerous. They could vote against the deal, and the next day pass a vote of no confidence in Boris Johnson. But Johnson is at that point under no obligation to resign. Under the fixed-term parliament act, the parliament could pass a vote of confidence in another MP with a specific mandate to seek an extension for an election. But would they? Would the EU relent, having committed itself in a Council conclusion not to do so? We cannot answer these hypothetical questions, but note that this would be a risky course that might backfire on those who take it. Would that course of action really advance the election prospects of Jeremy Corbyn?

Maybe the answer to all these questions is Yes. Stranger things have already happened in the Brexit process. But time is playing against hardline Remainers. We also get a sense from Juncker's interview and other reports that the EU’s patience with the Remainer strategy is wearing thin. We think what tipped the balance was the EU’s gradual awareness of Labour’s policy that it would negotiate a deal only to allow Labour ministers to campaign against it. Labour obviously formulated this policy having not even consulted with the EU.

The big question is: could an agreed withdrawal agreement find a majority in the House of Commons? The math of this situation is the same as it always was. Johnson will need to get the DUP on board, quell his own rebellion, have a larger number of Labour MPs to support the deal. He can probably count on the group around Stephen Kinnock. Kinnock and Caroline Flint MP yesterday visited Michel Barnier to talk about the chance of a new deal. The hard-core group of Labour MPs in favour of a deal is around a dozen, but there may be up to 20 or 30 Labour MPs who could support a deal.  

But we don’t think the Labour Party or the other opposition parties will come to Johnson’s rescue. The Remain campaign yesterday issued a dossier to warn Labour MPs against the right-wing policies that would follow a deal.

One possibility is that MPs might choose to abstain. In doing so they would still distance themselves from Johnson's deal, but without being accused of triggering no-deal.

Our other stories

We also have stories on the very real threat of violence in Northern Ireland; on the stress in the US dollar repo market not going away; on the Herculean task of cleaning up Greek banks' balance sheets; on the limits of upper-middle-class support for Macron; and on how Germany's climate targers conflict with its social and fiscal priorities.

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