Brexit Briefing No.82: Plus ça change

Brexit is now in electoral limbo as parties across the UK and Europe engage in campaigns for local and European elections.

Brussels itself remained quiet this week, although the current Commission is still in office until the end of the year, nothing of note is likely to happen in the EU bubble until after the European elections, which are staggered over the 23rd to 26th May this year. The fallout from the Huawei leak scandal ended up dominating the week's headlines as Westminster sprung into life after the Easter recess, where MPs were asked by the Prime Minister to take a break and reflect on how to break the Brexit impasse. 

However, despite that pause for reflection, there was no missing the sense of drift and the likelihood that short of a miracle, very little is going to resurrect movement in the world of Brexit until the European elections are concluded.

Officially at least, the British government continues to hold out hope that the withdrawal agreement can get through Parliament in the next few weeks, avoiding the European elections in the UK and ensuring that, in name at least, Britain leaves the European Union on the 1st June.

However that is almost certainly a forlorn hope. Very few Conservative MPs have moved towards backing the deal since the last vote at the end of March, nor has the DUP and ongoing talks with the opposition Labour Party appear to be going nowhere fast, although the Prime Minister confirmed discussions around possible customs arrangements were being held. The Labour Party has very little incentive to get the deal over the line at this stage, especially with those upcoming elections likely to be more uncomfortable for the government than it will be for the opposition, as is traditionally the case. Meanwhile, the Labour Party has partially committed to another referendum (not necessarily in the case a deal is negotiated by a Labour government) in its European elections manifesto.  

EP

So, everything now points to nothing of note in the Brexit process happening until after the European elections.

For perhaps the first time in Britain, those elections are likely to be entirely focused on the European question rather than other domestic political issues, and several parties are already attempting to treat the elections as a proxy second referendum. The elections could produce dramatic results, but they cannot change the parliamentary arithmetic at Westminster and it’s unclear whether they can significantly impact the parliamentary deadlock. A majority of MPs continue to oppose no deal, but do not support any form of deal that would allow the UK to leave the EU. With the extension of Article 50 until October 31st there may be little incentive for any side to give ground soon, particularly if following the local and European elections the Labour Party believe they can win a general election if they can bring one about.

Deadlock is also likely to be the result of the Spanish elections on Sunday, which for the third time in a row produced no overall majority for any party. The governing Socialists benefitted from a split on the right and look most likely to remain in office. They are unlikely to have been hurt by their posturing over Gibraltar over recent months (https://www.danieldaltonmep.co.uk/news/tory-mep-slams-spain-over-gibraltar-stance). The socialists slim margin for manoeuvre in the new Congress of Deputies where they will likely need to continue to rely on Catalan and Basque separatist parties votes to maintain power, opening themselves up to attacks from the right, mean they are unlikely to soften on the Rock anytime soon.

gibraltar

Gibraltar is one political issue that will continue to cause tensions whatever way Brexit develops, Northern Ireland is another. Following the shocking murder of 29-year-old journalist Lyra McKee whilst covering a riot on Maundy Thursday there has been renewed pressure on political parties to bridge their differences and restore power sharing. The Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar issued a joint statement after Lyra McKee’s funeral restarting a process of political talks involving both governments to try to bring devolved government back to Northern Ireland.  Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government since January 2017 as Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party have been unable to reach agreement on forming a new administration. If the current public and political pressure can help broker an agreement it could also be of significance in the Brexit process. Involving the Northern Ireland assembly in agreeing the border solution on the island of Ireland had long been an ask of the British government in the Brexit negotiations, and whilst Brussels is still highly unlikely to agree a change to the backstop, it is harder to do so if the assembly is in operation and requests a role in approving the border solution.

Whilst signs of divisions healing appeared in Northern Ireland, in Scotland the SNP spring conference proved the launchpad for a renewed independence campaign by Nicola Sturgeon. Announcing that she wants to hold another referendum before the next Scottish Parliament elections in 2021, Sturgeon again explicitly cited Brexit as a reason why Scotland would be better off as an independent country able to re-join the EU, although she soon found herself facing difficult questions on what currency an independent Scotland in the EU would use. The polling on independence has not shifted dramatically since the 2014 referendum or the 2016 Brexit referendum, but the SNP’s latest gambit is another complication as Westminster attempts to resolve the Brexit impasse.

For all the frustrations that voters in all corners of the United Kingdom feel with the current stalemate in Westminster, it is hard to see any solutions in the near future, any outcome and no resolution all remain possible.