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Is a Pledge of a Brexit Referendum within Six Months Credible?

The election on 12 December will require the political parties to set out their positions on Brexit. Already, Labour is pledging in its ‘Plan for Brexit’ that it will negotiate ‘a sensible deal within three months of being elected’. More dramatically, it also claims it will hold a further Brexit referendum within six months of the election ie sometime in May 2020.

On the first pledge to renegotiate a ‘deal’, this will focus on a new customs union, a close relationship with the Single Market and ‘guarantees of rights and protections’.

What is noteworthy is that these all relate not to the Withdrawal Agreement but to the future relationship which will be negotiated once the UK leaves the EU. These are the sorts of things that have been discussed in the context of the non-binding Political Declaration that will set the framework for those future negotiations.

The EU could be open to that discussion as long as it does not transgress the stipulation laid down in the latest Article 50 extension decision that the EU will not renegotiate the Withdrawal Agreement during the extension period. The problem for the Labour leadership, however, is that means being unable to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement during the period of the current extension.

We have been here before, however, and the second extension decision which kept the UK in the EU to 31 October also contained the same stipulation that the:

‘extension excludes any re-opening of the Withdrawal Agreement’.

Yet following a change in Government in the UK and Boris Johnson’s insistence that the text of the Agreement as it stood would not be passed by the UK House of Commons did lead to a revised agreement being reached during the period of the extension. Nonetheless, the EU might be more insistent on the non-negotiability of its second Withdrawal Agreement especially if it will be asked for a further extension to facilitate another Brexit referendum.

The second claim by Labour in its election pitch is that within six months of being elected it will hold a further referendum. This is more problematic.

As I have explained before, the barriers to a further referendum are numerous, but one of the most obvious ones is time itself. There will need to be time to legislate for a referendum; they don’t just happen. The referendum legislation for the 2016 referendum took seven months to pass. In a further referendum, the issue may be more complicated if moves are made to give voters a wider range of choices than between a Remain option and that of Leaving on a Labour-negotiated deal. Complaints that the referendum would not offer electors either a No Deal option or the choice to approve the Johnson vision of Brexit could both bog down the legislative process and raise issues as to the legitimacy of the referendum. At the limit, voters could be urged to boycott a referendum if it was considered to have rigged the available options.

The question to be put in the referendum would also need to be road-tested by the Electoral Commission. If there was agreement on the structure of the options to be presented to voters that could be done in parallel if the referendum bill also empowered ministers to insert or change the referendum question via statutory instrument. But if there is dispute over how to present the options, then the Electoral Commission might need to wait until a decision was finally taken before then turning to the specific wording of the question.

Even assuming all that could be expedited, far more challenging is the Electoral Commission’s previous best practice approach which anticipates that referendum legislation should be fully in place six month before it is implemented. Note this is before any referendum campaign gets underway. That would see a referendum then being held more than a year after a December 2019 election.

One reason why this six-month gap between completing the legislative process and its implementation might be particularly necessary would be if the franchise were to be extended to 16 and 17 year olds. Time would be needed to mount a registration campaign to ensure that this new group of electors were informed of their right to vote and duly registered. Back in 2016, the website for registration to vote in the EU referendum crashed forcing an extension to the deadline. In order to avoid a reoccurrence of the problem, the Government would need sufficient time for a public information campaign to highlight eligibility to vote and to maximise voter registration.

A request for a further extension to hold a referendum would clearly be necessary given that the current extension expires on 31 January 2020. Once again, the issue for the EU27 will be whether to grant such an extension and for how long. An extension for a further referendum would be difficult for the EU27 to decline. However, a key difficulty for the EU27 would be what might happen if the UK once again voted to leave the EU.

Even assuming that the UK would be in a position to hold a May 2020 referendum and to implement a result to leave the EU – for the sake of argument on 30 June 2020 – the UK and EU would jointly have to decide by 1 July 2020 whether to extend the transition period scheduled to expire on 31 December 2020. To do otherwise would be to leave the EU and UK less than six months to negotiate, agree and conclude agreements on their future relationship. Given the impossibility of that, the UK and EU would face a new No Deal Brexit deadline of 31 December 2020.

One view might be to offer an Article 50 extension to 30 June 2020 on the assumption that a Leave vote could be implemented smoothly and a transition extension also agreed. Others might, however, wonder whether another referendum might trigger yet more domestic politics that would make it less clear whether the UK could leave and enter into a transition period starting on 1 July.

But given what was said earlier, it simply does not seem likely that a UK referendum could occur that fast leaving the EU27 to decide whether to agree to a longer extension to the end of 2020 or even beyond into 2021. A fourth extension in those terms would, in effect render the transition period extension mechanism meaningless and the Withdrawal Agreement would need to be revised to reconsider how any transition period might actually work and on what timescale.

Labour’s Brexit pitch is clear and it is specific. But another referendum in six months stretches credibility.

 

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Extension Time, Election Time – But is it Brexit Time?

For the third time, and in agreement with the UK, the EU has granted the UK an extension to its EU membership. But this extension feels different for two reasons.

First, the extension offered by the EU was a response to a letter sent – but not signed – by the UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson acting in compliance with the so-called “Benn Act” passed by Parliament to prevent the UK leaving the EU on 31 October without a Withdrawal Agreement unless Parliament so decided. The statutory letter asked the EU to grant an extension to the Article 50 withdrawal process until 31 January 2020. Despite some debate about a shorter extension to maintain pressure on UK MPs to pass the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement( Bill introduced to give domestic legal effect to the revised Withdrawal Agreement – and so pave the way towards the UK’s exit from the EU – the European Council took the simpler option of agreeing to the 31 January deadline. The European Council’s decision finesses this by stating that if the respective ratification procedures are completed prior to this deadline then the Withdrawal Agreement will enter into force – and the UK will leave the EU – on the 1st of the following month. However that possibility is in effect rendered redundant by the second difference with this extension namely that it is less about facilitating approval of a Withdrawal Agreement and more about creating time for an early General Election.

Prime Minister Johnson tried – and failed – three times to secure the necessary two-thirds majority among MPs to hold an early election in terms of the Fixed-term Parliament Act. Unless an extension was agreed with the EU, and with the PM having the power to set the date of the election, MPs did not trust the Prime Minister not to use an election to engineer a “No Deal” Brexit. However, with an extension given by the EU and inspired by a proposal floated by the Scottish National Party and Liberal Democrats, the UK Government introduced the Early Parliamentary General Election Bill to obtain an election on 12 December. Crucially it would only take a majority of MPs for the Bill to pass, with the Bill going through all its stages in the Commons in one day.

The SNP/LD proposal – and the Labour amendment to the Bill – suggested that an early election take place on 9 December  meaning that Parliament would be dissolved on Friday 1 November. The Government’s preferred election date of 12 December would see Parliament dissolved on 6 November. The inclination of Opposition parties for the earlier date was designed largely to avoid the Government attempting to get its Withdrawal Agreement Bill passed by Parliament on an accelerated timescale before 6 November leading to a UK withdrawal from the EU on 1 December. Certainly, Opposition parties did not want Boris Johnson to fight an election having delivered Brexit. No doubt recognising that it would be difficult to get MPs to do what they previously refused to do, namely to back a programme motion to push the Withdrawal Agreement Bill through, the Government accepted that it would not be in a position to secure backing for its Withdrawal Agreement Bill. With the Article 50 extension also in place, the Government was able to resist attempts to bring forward the election and, provided there is not difficulty with the House of Lords, Parliament is set to make 12 December the date of the next UK General Election.

This will be the second early election called by a Conservative Prime Minister with a view to getting momentum behind their Brexit strategy. With a greater opinion poll lead than that currently enjoyed by Boris Johnson, Theresa May tried in 2017 to change the parliamentary arithmetic to ensure an easy passage of her Brexit policy through the Commons. Instead  her party lost its majority with all that entailed in terms of her inability to get approval for her Withdrawal Agreement  on multiple occasions and the influence the election result gave to the Democratic Unionist Party as her ‘confidence and supply’ partner.

The outgoing President of the European Council Donald Tusk tweeted that the adopted extension “may be the last one” with patience wearing thin with the UK’s continuing lack of clarity on its Brexit intentions. However, the outcome of a December election is no more certain that the situation in 2017.  A swing to the Lib Dems is simply not going to see them take office and fulfil their commitment to revoke the UK’s withdrawal notification if elected. Even a 10% swing would only increase their representation in the Commons by a dozen or so seats. For the Conservative Party, Boris Johnson’s strategy is predicated on his party taking vote share from the Brexit Party and winning seats from Labour. But Johnson faces the loss of seats in Scotland to the SNP as well as those marginals that the Lib Dems might pick up.

If Boris Johnson fails to win either a working majority or to be in a position to form a minority government then the Brexit impasse won’t be resolved by the election and the UK may find itself it no clearer position on Brexit. That could give EU leaders pause to consider whether the offer of a fourth extension is really desirable. However, if Labour is able to command a majority or to form a minority government then a further Brexit referendum would seem inevitable and would require the UK to seek a fourth extension.

The prospect of a fourth extension is not a happy one for either the UK or the EU. It would also need to be for a longer period of time than the third extension of three months. Even assuming that a referendum was put together quickly, it is hard to see this taking place before June 2020. All of which is awkward given that had the Withdrawal Agreement entered into force, the UK and the EU would have needed to adopt by the end of June a decision on whether to extend the “transition period” for one or two years. As I explain here,  is easy to forget that every single extension of the Article 50 process reduces the duration of the transition period and so limits the amount of time available for the EU and UK to do the really difficult work of negotiating an agreement on their future relationship. The prospect of an extension for a further referendum then begs the question of whether any transition period between exit and a new relationship has any real purpose. That may leave the EU with an uncomfortable choice between refusing a further extension – and so precipitating a No Deal Brexit – or offering a much longer extension to the UK’s membership with a view not only to facilitating a further referendum but potentially opening negotiations that would deal with withdrawal and the future relationship in one package, something which the EU has said it could not do.

Whether or not the UK leaves the EU on 1 February 2020 is largely dependent on the electoral performance of the Labour Party. Labour has been in Opposition for almost a decade. That period has seen the austerity policies of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition Government followed by the intensely divisive 2016 EU referendum of David Cameron’s Conservative Government. His Conservative successor Theresa May threw away her party’s parliamentary majority and ultimately failed to forge a political consensus on Brexit. The current incumber of No 10 has a certain charisma and is no doubt self-confident after the revision of the terms of the Irish Protocol. But he is not trusted by many and scandals about his personal life and business connections may yet tarnish him. The Windrush affair and the repercussions of the Grenfell Tower tragedy also hang over the Conservative Party. This ought to be an election that any credible major Opposition party should win.

On 13 December it should be clearer whether this is Boris Johnson’s or Jeremy Corbyn’s time of political triumph. But will it be Brexit Time?

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Extra Time – But for What?

The point of writing Brexit Time and this blog has been to show how time shapes Brexit. From the timing of the referendum and the triggering of Article 50 to the two-year window for negotiating an orderly withdrawal, time has been a factor at key moments in the Brexit process.

As we approach 29 March 2019 – the UK’s scheduled date of departure from the EU – the European Council has offered the UK extra time to facilitate an orderly exit from the EU.

If MPs approve the deal negotiated between the EU and the UK before 29 March, the EU27 have offered to extend the Article 50 negotiation period to 22 May to allow legislation to be passed in the UK to give legal effect to the Agreement in domestic law.

Even if MPs fail to approve a deal – either because an approval motion is proposed and defeated or because the UK Government delays a vote till after 29 March – European leaders have also offered the UK an extension till 12 April.

The choice of these dates is clearly to avoid getting the UK mixed up in elections to the European Parliament which neither sides wants. The extension till 22 May is less extra time that Theresa May requested in her letter to European Council President Donald Tusk. Despite knowing that the EU27 did not want an extension into the election period, Theresa May had requested a 30 June deadline. The offer from the European Council underlines the European Commission’s position that a longer extension would pose legal risks in the formation of the new Parliament. So although the EU27 have shown some flexibility it’s not at any price.

What is significant about the extension offer is that the original idea of a single deadline of 22 May conditional on MPs approving a deal has been significantly modified by the unconditional offer to extend to 12 April. This is intended to prevent a cliff-edge “No Deal” exit on 29 March. But this offer is also problematic.

Firstly, Parliament is scheduled to be in recess from 4-23 April. In Parliamentary terms this only gives one additional week for a “meaningful vote” to be presented to MPs.

Secondly, as things now stand “exit day” is defined in UK law as 29 March. An extension beyond that date in terms of Article 50 TEU would keep the UK in the EU as a matter of EU law but without domestic law giving continuing legal effect to membership. The European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018 allows a Minister to change the exit date by regulation and this would need to be approved by Parliament before the 29 March deadline. If MPs have not approved a deal the exit date would be changed to the 12 April default. If by that extended date the Brexit deal has been approved a further regulation would need to change the exit date to the later 22 May deadline on the assumption that the EU27 would agreed to this extended deadline notwithstanding that the vote had not taken place “next week” (as stipulated in the Conclusions to the European Council meeting).

How things play out depends on a couple of key events next week.

On Monday the Commons is set to debate a motion triggered under the EU (Withdrawal) Act as a consequence of the Commons’ second rejection of the EU-UK Brexit deal. Although this is a technical motion on how the Government intends to proceed it is also an important moment for MPs to signal how they want the Brexit process to develop.

A cross-party Amendment has been proposed that changes the normal rule giving precedence to Government business so that on Wednesday 27 March MPs can move and debate motions other than a Government motion to approve a Brexit deal. The idea behind this is to give MPs control over Parliamentary business with a view to taking control over the process.

The second key event would be the Government again asking the Commons to approve the Brexit deal. The offer of an extended Brexit deadline assumes that vote will take place the week beginning 25 March although in theory it could be delayed to the week beginning 1 April.

Despite the Commons Speaker’s statement that the Government cannot put substantially the same proposition to the House as the motions previously rejected, the European Council’s formal approval and endorsement of the Brexit deal together with a proposal to lay a draft regulation extending Brexit deadline would likely pass the Bercow test and so allow yet another “meaningful vote” to progress. However following the Prime Minister’s ill-judged berating of the very MPs whose backing she needs it is far from obvious that the deal will be approved.

The EU has made clear it is open to making changes to the Political Declaration if there is a majority in the Commons for an alternative Brexit. There are cross-party moves to articulate what that might look like and if the amendment to Monday’s motion is passed m, the Commons could have the opportunity to come to a view.

But the issue of free movement of people could make consensus on a Common Market 2.0 vision of the future relationship hard to sell to MPs in Leave-voting constituencies.

In the absence of an alternative consensus and in the face of a No Deal Brexit the only option may be to admit failure and requests an Article 50 extension of much longer duration. An extension of a much longer length would suggest a fundamental change in domestic politics is needed to chart a way forward. That could be an early general election or a further referendum.

Politics takes place in time but it is also structured by time. Brexit Time is unrelenting. It is also unforgiving.