This week’s Brexit negotiations started with dawn croissants in Brussels but pretty soon all eyes were on London and the critical votes on the Lords amendments to the EU withdrawal bill. Politicians across Europe are keeping one eye on the battle for control of the Brexit process that has been playing out in the House of Commons this week.
Monday morning, grey and overcast in the Belgian capital, began with a dawn visit from the Brexit Secretary of State David Davis to Michel Barnier's offices in the Berlaymont. The visit was too early for Commission catering staff and Michel Barnier apparently bought the croissants himself from the cafe across the street. The meeting was not to discuss the UK's backstop proposals on Northern Ireland, which last week the Commission appeared to reject, but instead covered the future relationship. It lasted less than an hour, with David Davis saying he had not touched the peace pastries. The meeting reportedly did not bring about any major breakthrough and fairly quickly the Brexit Secretary returned to London and Tuesday's Commons votes on the EU withdrawal bill.
The Commission is in no mood to compromise, with reports emerging that the EU is planning to demand continued free movement in return for UK access to the single market in goods (but not services). This does not reflect economic imperatives, as a single market in goods does not rely on or need freedom of movement. Free movement is actually far more relevant to a discussion about services, which the commission is excluding, than it is for goods.
The demand is therefore political and is the latest example of the EU pushing back against the government's red lines. It also reflects growing confidence that they can persuade the UK to accept many more compromises.
In London, the government faced a series of amendments from the House of Lords on the EU withdrawal Bill. Six months ago the government was defeated in a Commons vote on one amendment to this bill, which granted parliament a vote on the final deal agreed with the EU, so the expectation was that they would struggle again to defeat the amendments the government lost in the Lords.
The focus quickly centred around one amendment guaranteeing parliament a meaningful vote on the deal agreed with the EU. This became important because up to now the government has made it clear that in order to comply with the amendment guaranteeing a parliamentary vote, it would be a take it or leave it vote - i.e. agree the deal or leave the EU with no deal.
In addition, a further amendment was tabled by Conservative MP Dominic Grieve which set out what would happen in case the deal was rejected by parliament or if the government had not managed to negotiate a deal with the EU by the end of November. It gave Parliament the right to approve any course of action subsequently taken.
It appeared that the government was on the verge of losing the vote on this amendment until an agreement was brokered between the government and Conservative MPs who backed it. This agreement guaranteed that the government won the vote and the amendment was rejected.
However, very quickly, differing interpretations emerged of what the government had offered in return. The rebels reported the government had offered to introduce amendments into the next reading in the House of Lords giving the Commons the opportunity to set a new course for Brexit in the circumstances described above. The government countered by saying it had only offered further discussions on the amendment but no change had been agreed.
Such disagreements hint at the danger ahead for the government and followed the resignation of junior minister Philip Lee, earlier in the day, in disagreement with the government's approach to Brexit. The Labour Party faces huge divisions itself over Brexit as well, with Jeremy Corbyn suffering the biggest rebellion of any party over Brexit on Wednesday, with nearly a 100 Labour MPs supporting a Lords amendment backing UK membership of the EEA post-Brexit, and half a dozen front bench resignations.
This is a critical juncture for the whole Brexit journey. If the Commons (where the government only has a slim majority thanks to the support of the Democratic Unionist Party) has the ability to require changes rather than just rejecting or accepting the final deal, all future options are potentially open to the House, including more negotiations, delaying Brexit, blocking a no deal scenario and even demanding a second referendum.
It also potentially incentivises the EU to give the government a bad deal.
However, these amendments and this debate are really all about one thing. Stopping a no deal Brexit that comes about either because the UK/EU deal is rejected by parliament or because no deal has been negotiated at all, both of which are possible right now.
A no deal Brexit has been championed by some in the UK as a way to give the UK leverage over the negotiations. The government has not ruled it out either.
These amendments therefore sought to ensure that a no deal Brexit is not possible.
Whether they were necessary at all is a different matter. The legal situation is that the UK will leave the EU in March next year, with or without a deal.
Despite the fact that there appears to be no solution in sight to break the impasse on the Irish border, there is still a strong possibility that a deal will be done to ensure a smooth exit from the EU. However in the event there is not, despite the legal situation, a no deal Brexit looks increasingly unlikely.
In Brussels, no deal is not seen as a viable option, or even possible, given the chaos it is perceived as creating. The UK government has also admitted that customs infrastructure would not be fully ready until the early 2020s in even the best-case scenario. A no deal Brexit should therefore be seen now as unlikely, even if negotiations break down.
Quite how the legal situation is overcome in such a scenario still remains to be seen but this week’s events in parliament have probably shut down that option for the government, if it ever truly existed.
So despite this week's victories the government continues to face the challenges of parliamentary arithmetic, and it remains uncertain where the majority in the Commons lies for which form of Brexit. The battle for control over the direction of Brexit, inside the government, and inside Parliament shows no sign of fading as we reach the critical last few months of negotiations.
However Brexit will not be decided by internal discussions in the UK. Ultimately the negotiations with the EU will shape what it looks like. For the past few months those negotiations have ground to a halt, they will need to start again soon. If they do not this week’s events may become much more important. Hypothetical discussions about what to do if there is no deal may take on much more importance.