Brexit Briefing No.85: WAB and the next Commission President

Whilst Europe focuses on elections to the European Parliament taking place on Thursday in the UK and staggered over the following days across the rest of the continent, the government in Westminster presented a highly contentious final draft of its withdrawal agreement bill.

Meanwhile the Conservative Party is considering potential successors to Theresa May after the announcement she will set out a timetable for her departure in early June after the vote on the withdrawal agreement bill.

However, before her departure, the Prime Minister made one final throw of the dice.

She made a ten point offer to MPs covering both the withdrawal deal and the accompanying legislation, The “Withdrawal Agreement Bill”. The “WAB” as journalists have renamed it is the legislation required to leave the EU. It has been delayed up to now because of the difficulty the government has had in trying to get a vote passed on the withdrawal agreement itself. (Which has been rejected three times)

The government is preparing to put the WAB to the house. The key difference is that MPs can amend the legal text of the bill, but it also means that if they vote against the second reading of the bill, i.e. allowing it to progress for further scrutiny by Parliament, it will kill the bill in this parliamentary session.

The Prime Minister announced the bill on Tuesday, after it was agreed by the Cabinet. It included a ten point plan designed to win over MPs, however in reality it was heavily focused on trying to persuade Labour MPs to vote for it, as the government has no hope of getting it through without a significant number of Labour defectors.

These measures included guarantees on workers’ rights and environmental protections and a customs compromise. In an attempt to win over Conservative rebels, it included a commitment to keep Northern Ireland aligned to the rest of the UK and alternative arrangements on the Irish border. None of these are likely to impress MPs as they have either already been rejected by the EU, or have already been promised in previous cross-party negotiations. 

workers rights

The key political problems remain unsolvable. Labour MPs want a permanent customs union, Conservative MPs want as short a one as possible. Without a customs union there will need to be a border in Ireland for as long as the EU refuses to look at alternative arrangements. Aligning the rest of the UK with Northern Ireland means the UK stays bound under EU single market rules.

All the problems with the original deal remain unsolved and it is for this reason that the new proposal will not go anywhere. 

The government can credibly argue that the deal gets the UK out of the common agricultural policy, the common fisheries policy and stops free movement, but that will not be enough to persuade Conservative MPs that the trade-offs on the customs union are worth the cost. It doesn’t go far enough in the other direction to persuade Labour MPs to back the deal.

In addition, the Prime Minister offered the Parliament the opportunity to vote on whether to have a second referendum. This was somewhat misreported because as it is a legal text anyone can table an amendment along those lines. So this would happen even without the government’s blessing.

The big difference here was that the government indicated that it would respect the result and legislate for a referendum if the parliament voted for it. However, this will please no one. 

Virtually all Conservative MPs are opposed to a referendum and on the opposition benches those who want a referendum don’t want just the opportunity of a vote (which would almost certainly not get a majority in Parliament) they want a promise of one.

So the package unveiled this week changes nothing. The new offer is in reality no different to previous offers and the divisions within parliament are still too great to be resolved by this. 

This means that in all likelihood this package won’t even be presented for a vote. Too many MPs have already indicated that they will oppose it. Where that leaves the Brexit negotiations is anyone’s guess, as this agreement has probably reached the end of the road.

timmermans

In Europe things are also likely to change as this Commission’s term of office comes to an end in the Autumn. That means that the race to succeed Jean-Claude Juncker as Commission President is in full flow.

Normally the Commission President is chosen by national leaders, however before the last European election the European Parliament made an audacious bid to try to link the nomination of the President to the results of the European elections. This was pushed by the previous European Parliament President Martin Schulz, who hoped to become Commission President if his Socialist group had won the 2014 European election. It took advantage of a clause in the 2009 Lisbon Treaty that said that the President should be chosen “taking into account the elections to the European Parliament”.

As a result the pan-national political groups in the European Parliament quickly proposed “spitzenkandidats” who were their candidates for the Presidency. 

In reality national leaders play only lip service to this procedure, it is not legally binding and while it provides a pan European angle to the election, there is no guarantee that the group that wins will provide the president, or even they do, that their candidate will be the one chosen to be President.

In the 2014 elections it did work out as the European Parliament (but not Martin Schulz) intended. The EPP Group emerged as the largest party and national leaders, many of whom belonged to parties in the EPP Group, eventually conceded and allowed the EPP Group’s lead candidate, Jean Claude Juncker, to become Commission President, despite resistance and a vow from several leaders to revisit the issue, given that it was seen as a power grab by the European Parliament based on a short phrase in the Lisbon Treaty.

However this time around the whole process is likely to be a sideshow. The Liberal ALDE group have rejected the process and the EPP lead candidate, who has no government experience, is widely seen as a weak choice who can easily be pushed aside to end the whole spitzenkandidat process when the EPP wins the elections this week.

National leaders are therefore likely to choose the president the old fashioned way, by horse trading through the night. There is a good chance that current Commission Vice President, Frans Timmermans could emerge from that process. He is the current Socialist group lead candidate, but is a known reformer and will likely garner some support from the centre right.

So, it seems likely that when European leaders, including the UK Prime Minister, meet in the aftermath of the elections to discuss the next Commission Presidency, the spitzenkandidat process will be consigned to the dustbin of history, one sign that in spite of the rhetoric the process of European integration is not always a one-way street.

So the next few months will see significant change. With the Brexit process still not finished, both sides are preparing to change their leadership. Does that mean radical change to the whole negotiation process, or will the new leaders face the same constraints as the current incumbents?

Time will tell.