News round-up: Brexit, Island of Ireland, and UK responsibility.

Welcome to the Houses of the Oireachtas

There will be a special meeting of the several committees with Guy Verhofstadt MEP, the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator, this morning from 10:30am.

The committees meeting Mr Verhofstadt for engagement are: Joint Committee on European Union Affairs meeting with the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence, and the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Further shores

In his address, Mr Verhofstadt reiterated that “the Irish border and all things related are a priority for negotiations” for the EU. The “unique solution” to Brexit issues in Northern Ireland is the responsibility of the UK government, which must consider the Good Friday Agreement. He suggested Northern Ireland could continue to be in the customs union and the single market post-Brexit as way to prevent a hard border on the island.

Mr Verhofstadt concluded his address with a lovely Seamus Heaney quote: “believe that a further shore is reachable from here.”

Brexit expedition

Mr Verhofstadt is on the second day of a two-day Brexit fact-finding mission on the island of Ireland. He met Northern Irish political party leaders on Wednesday, and will meet the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on today.

Guy Verhofstadt: UK must find ‘unique’ Irish border solution [Politico EU]

Yesterday, Mr Verhofstadt said the UK had the responsibility to find a “unique solution” to the border issue. He suggested that Northern Ireland could continue to be in the customs union and the single market after Brexit as a way to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland – but this was a decision for the UK.

All eyes on Theresa

A special cabinet meeting at Downing Street this morning will give its formal backing to Prime Minister Theresa May’s landmark Brexit speech, which she will deliver in Florence tomorrow.

But remember: devolution revolution

Scottish and Welsh governments set out Brexit bill amendments [BBC News]

This week, Scottish and Welsh governments published proposals for amendments to the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. First Minister of Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon and First Minister of Wales, Carwyn Jones said the Bill is a “power grab” of devolved responsibilities. Writing to the Prime Minister, they said their amendments would allow the bill to “work with, not against, devolution”.

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News roundup: delay in talks, a sudden speech – it’s all about Brexit.

Whose Brexit is it, anyway?

Following on from yesterday’s news, Theresa May to deliver Brexit speech in Florence [Politics Home]

Prime Minister Theresa May will make a major speech in Florence on 22 September to set out her vision for the next stages of the Brexit talks. Downing Street said the PM will underline the UK’s wish for a “special partnership” with the EU after Brexit – May to set out post-Brexit ‘partnership’ [BBC News]

The speech will come almost six months to the day after Mrs May invoked Article 50. Little progress has been made, with the next round of Brexit talks have been delayed to provide for this latest intervention. The speech is being made a month before the important EU Council summit on 22 October – when the EU27 leaders will discuss whether “sufficient progress” has been made to start trade talks. The UK needs the EU27 to determine that ‘sufficient progress’ has been made, as without it, no talks on future UK-EU trade deals can commence. However, at the conclusion of August’s round of negotiations, Michel Barnier said no decisive progress had been made. A breakthrough is now needed.

See: Next round of Brexit talks delayed by a week, Government confirms [Politics Home] It has been confirmed that both the EU and the UK have agreed the next round of Brexit talks will take place on 25 September. Negotiators from both sides had been expected to re-start their discussions on 18 September.

Parliamentary Corner:

Conservatives accused of ‘running scared’ after dodging votes on pay cap and tuition fees [Politics Home] The Conservatives have been accused of “running scared” of he UK Parliament after shying away front confronting two Commons votes they were set to lose. No Conservative forced a division following Labour-led debates on the public sector pay cap and tuition fees. This came after it was revealed that the DUP were planning to vote with Labour on both issues, robbing the Conservatives of their working majority.

Labour’s motions passed on Wednesday without being pushed to a vote after it became clear the government had no majority to oppose the call for an end to the public sector pay cap for NHS workers nor the £250 a year increase in student fees.

It is the first example of the DUP breaking with May since they struck a confidence and supply agreement to vote together on crucial legislation after the general election.

The question becomes: might Labour be able to exploit differences between the Conservatives and the DUP in the future in order to inflict future defeats on the Government?

Parliamentary… sovereignty?

Brexit: EU repeal bill wins first Commons vote [BBC News] On Tuesday morning, after two days of debate and around 100 MPs contributing, MPs backed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill by 326 votes to 290. The Bill’s committee stage will take place when MPs return to Parliament after their party conferences. The Bill will be heard by a Committee of the Whole House, and around eight days have been set aside for the process.

From a NI perspective: all ten DUP MPs supported the Government. Lady Sylvia Hermon (Ind, North Down) supported Labour’s amendment, and voted against the Government.

The UK Government has won one battle, but has the war entire to still fight for. MPs have tabled 29 new clauses and 136 amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Labour’s proposed amendments would deny ministers ‘Henry VIII’ powers, meaning the UK Parliament would have to vote to implement a withdrawal agreement and give some repatriated powers to the devolved assemblies. Those backed by Tories -including Dominic Grieve, Ken Clarke, Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry – involve transposing the Charter of Fundamental Rights into UK law, limiting ministers’ powers to amend EU law, and a requirement for the final deal with the EU to be approved by Parliament.

And finally…

The UK Government won its crucial Commons vote on Tuesday night to give the Conservatives a majority on every law-making committee of the parliament, despite not having an overall majority in the House. The Conservatives had to rely on the 10 DUP MPs to ensure the motion was passed.

  • The UK Parliament goes into recess this afternoon, as party conference season gets underway. First up is the Liberal Democrats’ party conference (16th-19th September), followed by the Labour Party (24th-27th September). The Conservatives will gather later (1st-4th October).

Devolution revolution

The Scottish and Welsh devolved governments are teaming up once more. Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones previously issued joint statements opposing the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill in its current form when it was initially published, criticising its lack of provision for devolving powers to the devolved nations. Now, the two governments have published their respective legislative consent memos on the Bill. The Scottish memo can be read here. The Welsh memo can be read here.

Don’t bother looking for a statement or similar memo from Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland’s devolved government collapsed in January, and has not been functioning since the snap March election.

Today
The public inquiry into the Grenfell Tower fire opens this morning.

Inquiry Chair Sir Martin Moore-Bick is to make his opening statement at 10.30AM.

Whose Committee is it, anyway?

This week, all eyes were fixed on Monday’s Order Paper for the Commons – the second day of the second reading of the European Union (Withdrawal) Paper. The vital piece of legislation which the UK Government urgently needs to pass, and soon, in order to repeal the European Communities Act 1972, and so commence the lenghtly legal adventure of converting EU law into UK law.

As I write, the Bill is still being debated in the Commons. The vote is due to get underway around midnight – it will be tight, but it is expected to squeeze past, much to the relief of the Conservative Government, who will be aware that more battles over the Bill are just over the horizon, when it reaches Committee stage.

In fact, the Conservative Government might have to face down a battle even earlier than that. Tuesday evening of this week might just see a furious showdown in the Commons, all over membership of a Commons’ Committee: the Committee of Selection.

You see, losing the outright majority wrangled by her precedessor in June’s snap election made the Brexit process more difficult for Prime Minister Theresa May. Losing her majority does not just diminish her party’s representation and strength, both at home and abroad, or even votes which the Government can rely upon – it has cost her in strenght and representation across Commons’ Committees. However, the Conservative Government has seemingly devised a plan to help smooth parliamentary progress of any and all Brexit-related issues.

In what has been deemed a ‘power grab’ by angry Labour and Lib Dem MPs, the Conservatives are attempting to pack a crucial Commons committee with their own MPs.

A quick reminder: UK Commons Select Committee composition is proportional on the amount of seats received by each political party represented in the Commons. The UK Government – the party with the largest number of seats, normally with a majority – will occupy a majority of Committee members. Now, the Conservatives lost their outright majority in GE17, but are still the largest party. So they are still entitled to the most Committee members, but not the same number they would have had if they had retained their majority of seats.

And, without the number the Government had become accustomed to – an outright majority of Conservative MPs serving as veritable cheerleaders, cheering through the plethora of legislation needed to assist the UK’s EU exit through all stages of the process -the UK Government risks delays it cannot afford.

It’s solution? To slip in a motion to be voted on late on Tuesday night, which will give the UK Government a majority in standing committees — where important clause-by-clause legislative heavy lifting occurs.

Now arguably, if the Conservatives have an outright albeit slender majority through the confidence and supply agreement with the DUP, they are entitled to extra members on Committees.

Charles Walker, a Conservative MP and Chair of the Procedure Committee, spoke to POLITICO about the motion.

He said that whilst he expects “lively debate” he thinks the Conservative Government’s plan is a “reasonable proposition.” He explained the Government’s logic: through its deal with the DUP,  it has a working majority in the Commons, so it should also have a majority in the parliamentary Committees that scrutinise legislation. Under the current rules, the DUP group is too small to qualify for Committee seats, meaning that the Government falls short of seats.

Mr Walker added to POLITICO that without the motion, “you could potentially see the legislative process grind to a halt…The Government has to have a legitimate chance of getting its business through.”

However, the party itself did not win the outright majority required, so technically it cannot try and pack up the Committee of Selection. Parliamentary officials have advised the UK Government against carrying out the power-grab, but it’s going ahead anyway. Its critics, including Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn say this plan is rigging the system.

What is the Committee of Selection? Well, the Committee of Selection decides whether the Government of the day has a majority on Committees for both statutory instruments (SIs), and primary legislation – without which, Ministers are unlikely to press ahead. The Committee basically arranges which statutory instruments (SIs) will be pushed through Parliament, and when.

As previously outlined, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill essentially aims to convert EU law, which exists and operates in the UK, to UK law. It’s a piece of primary legislation, but there could be up to 1,000 ‘corrections’ to make in the process of law conversion, which the Conservative Government proposes to do through SIs – this is where the ‘Henry VIII’ powers come in. The Government has admitted there are no specific restrictions in the bill to prevent Ministers also changing aspects of law they “do not like”.

So, the power grab in question is the Conservative Government is trying to pack the Committee in such a way so the membership will favour the Government, and so ensure SIs are permitted for use in the future – SIs which, after all, lack scrutiny and debate of the level primary legislation is subjected to, and which could be misused by Government Ministers, especially those favouring a hard Brexit.

POLITICO says one senior Labour MP described the motion has “the biggest vote of this parliament.” Moreover, Conservative MPs have been told it is an unmissable vote.

It is set to be a Parliamentary showdown. However, if the motion passes, the Conservatives has won a battle, not the war.

After all, even if the UK Government manages to get its way on the Committee stage of Brexit-related bills, they must return to the Commons for report stage — which is just another chance to add amendments dilute the intention of the bill. Following that is the third reading, when MPs make the ultimate decision whether to support, or reject.

Whose Committee is it, anyway?

News round-up: EU Withdrawal Bill, Northern Ireland, and Parliamentary sovereignty

Parliamentary sovereignty:

Tories’ £1bn DUP deal will need parliament’s approval [Politics Home]

The breaking news today sees a hurdle for the UK Government to pass. The UK Government has had to concede that its confidence and supply agreement with the DUP – which includes £1bn of funding for Northern Ireland – must have Parliamentary authorisation. In response to a letter from Gina Miller, and the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain who had challenged the deal’s legality, the Treasury solicitor, confirmed that the offer “will have appropriate parliamentary authorisation” and that as yet “no timetable has been set for the making of such payments”.

Stormont Stalemate addressed:

Secretary of State for Northern Ireland’s speech to 2017 British Irish Association Conference [NIO] Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, spoke at a recent meeting of the British-Irish Association in Cambridge. He spoke of the need to “see a fully functioning, power sharing devolved government at Stormont”, “need to address legacy issues”, and the “necessity of making a success of Brexit, to which the UK Government is fully committed.” Addressing the current political impasse at Stormont, Mr Brokenshire said “the situation simply is not sustainable and if it is not resolved within a relatively short number of weeks will require greater political decision making from Westminster.” He added that this would have to begin with legislation to provide Northern Ireland with a Budget.

More from the British-Irish Association meeting:

Simon Coveney urges UK to remain in Customs Union [BBC News NI] The Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, urged the UK government to consider remaining in a customs union with the EU after Brexit. He said he found it “difficult to accept” that the option should be ruled out before negotiations on trade have even begun.

Micheál Martin calls for NI to be ‘special economic zone’ [BBC News NI] The leader of Ireland’s main opposition party suggested that Northern Ireland should become part of a “special economic zone” (SEZ). Micheál Martin said Northern Ireland as a SEZ could be recognised by the EU as being “distinct from the rest of the UK in terms of single market and customs union access.”

Parliamentary Corner:

Brexit: Ministers warn of ‘chaos’ if repeal bill rejected [BBC News]

Voting against EU bill means ‘chaotic’ Brexit, claims David Davis [Politics Home]

  • The Commons will hold a special late-night sitting tonight as MPs cast their first votes on the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. MPs will debate until midnight, before holding a series of votes on the bill’s second reading. Both sides expect a narrow win for the UK Government, with potential Tory rebels holding fire until the bill’s eight-day committee stage – due to start next month. In a statement issued overnight by the Department for Exiting the European Union, Secretary of State David Davis said those voting against the bill want “a chaotic exit from the European Union.” Labour says it will oppose the bill, claiming it represents a “power grab”.
  • Mr Davis said: “The British people did not vote for confusion and neither should Parliament…Providing certainty and stability in the lead up to our withdrawal is a key priority. Businesses and individuals need reassurance that there will be no unexpected changes to our laws after exit day and that is exactly what the Repeal Bill provides.”
  • The UK Government faces pressure from all sides of the House. MPs on all sides have raised concerns that Ministers are giving themselves too much power through so-called Henry VIII clauses, which allow them to change legislation after it has passed through Parliament.
  • Conservative whips are not the only ones facing a headache this evening/Tuesday morning. Some Labour MPs are hardcore Brexiteers, and will want to support the Withdrawal Bill – which would be in defiance of Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s imposed three-line whip.
  • Mr Corbyn’s authority might also face another challenge over the Bill. The question remains if any of the MPs from Brexit-supporting constituencies who, worried by Labour’s new-found ‘soft’ Brexit and the reaction to it from Labour-voting Brexiteers, might abstain on the vote.
  • The Commons will also vote to approve nominations for Select Committee membership today. The real drama re Committee membership is yet to come: the Committee of Selection’s membership approval vote takes place on Tuesday. The Conservative Government is facing accusations it is attempting a ‘power grab’.

EU corner

This week is about European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s State of the European Union (SOTEU) speech, on Wednesday 13th September.

The Committee on Constitutional Affairs in the European Parliament will today discuss proposals to reduce the number of MEPs to 700 after the next election, keeping the remaining 51 in reserve for a possible pan-EU list of MEPs.

Publication on EU Brexit position paper on Ireland/Northern Ireland

The European Commission today published its Brexit position paper on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

The ‘Guiding principles transmitted to EU27 for the Dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland‘ paper contains the guiding principles of the EU position on the issue of Ireland/Northern Ireland post-Brexit and is to be presented to the UK in the context of the dialogue on Ireland/Northern Ireland.

Notably, the EU is taking the position that the responsibility to devise the flexible and imaginative solutions necessary to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland rests with the UK Government. There is a strong emphasis on the GFA, and maintaining the Peace Process.

Emphasising the ‘unique circumstances’ of Northern Ireland, the paper does not suggest solutions for the Irish border. It notes that the onus to propose solutions which’ overcome the challenges created on the island of Ireland by the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, and its decision to leave the customs union and the internal market remains on the UK.’

The paper outlines:

  • that as an essential element of the withdrawal process, there needs to be a political commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts, to protecting the gains of the peace process, and to the practical application of this on the island of Ireland,
  • ‘flexible and imaginative solutions’ are required which must respect the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland, and avoid the imposition of a hard border,
  • North South cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland is a central part of the Good Friday Agreement and should be protected,
  • the UK should ensure that no diminution of rights is caused by the its departure from the EU,
  • the Withdrawal Agreement should respect rights, opportunities and identity that come with EU citizenship for the people of Northern Ireland who choose to assert their right to Irish citizenship,
  • that the continued operation of the Common Travel Area is fundamental to facilitating the interaction of people in Ireland and the UK and should be recognised, and
  • the EU has supported the Peace Process through  PEACE, INTERREG etc. Therefore the UK and the EU need to honour their commitments under the current Multi-annual Financial Framework.

Barnier/Davis hold press conference after second round of Brexit talks

Speaking after four days of negotiations, the Chief Negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, today said there has been no “decisive progress” on the key issues in the ongoing Brexit negotiations.

Opening the joint press conference this afternoon, Mr Barnier noted that at the beginning of the week he publicly voiced his concern at the pace of and (lack of) progress in the talks. He warned that “time is passing quickly”, noting that on the 29th March 2019, at the stroke of midnight, the UK will officially leave the EU.

Mr Barnier queried whether an organised “properly, orderly exit for the UK” would take place, or would the UK exit without an agreement. He said it was in the interests of Europe for the UK to leave with an established agreement.

Mr Barnier said firmly that UK demands regarding access to the Single Market were “impossible”. Worryingly for the UK Government, who are keen to start discussing future trade arrangements, he said he was “quite far” from being able to say to EU leaders in October that sufficient progress has been made to move the talks on at that point to cover the future trade relationship. As protecting the integrity of the single market is central to his mandate, the Single Market “must not and will not be undermined by Brexit”.

Concluding his remarks, Mr Barnier said that this week it had become clear that the UK does not accept that it needs to recognise its financial obligations after Brexit. He noted that, going forward, he is prepared to intensify negotiations.

Following the EU’s Chief Negotiator, the Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, spoke of “concrete progress” in a number of areas but added there was some way yet to go.

Mr Davis said the UK’s approach has been informed by a series of detailed papers, offering pragmatic solutions and proposing options, not a single approach. He said the UK Government will publish a comparison on the UK and EU positions in due course.

Mr Davis said issues relating to withdrawal and the future relations are “inextricably linked”, and central to this process must be a desire to deliver the best outcome.

On the financial settlement, Mr Davis said the UK has a duty to taxpayers to “interrogate” the EU’s position, which its negotiators did this week. Whilst the UK has a different legal stance, it accepts that there must be a settlement in accordance with the law, and in the interests of the future relationship. There are “still significant differences” to be bridged.

Describing the third round of talks as productive, Mr Davis said there was a high degree of convergence on Ireland, and on CTA. There had been almost complete agreement on privilege issues, and on confidentiality.

Concluding his remarks, Mr Davis expressed his hope both sides would continue to work together constructively. He added that further papers would be published by the Department for Exiting the European Union in the coming weeks.

And with that, it is apparent that the European Council meeting, 19th – 20th October, is a key date for the UK Government, as EU leaders seek to determine whether the ‘sufficient progress’ test has been passed.

Barnier/Davis press conference after first substantial round of Brexit talks.

Speaking after four days of negotiations, the Chief Negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, today said there had been some areas of agreement about how British citizens living abroad and EU nationals living in the UK should be treated after Brexit. However, he said the EU believes citizens’ rights should be backed by the Court of Justice of the European Union.

Mr Barnier said a clarification of the UK’s position on settling its outstanding debts to the EU when it leaves was also needed.

He said: “A clarification of the UK position is indispensable for us to negotiate and for us to make sufficient progress on this financial dossier, which is inseparable from the other withdrawal dossiers…We know that agreement will not be achieved through incremental steps. As soon as the UK is ready to clarify the nature of its commitments, we will be prepared to discuss this with the British negotiators.”

On the pressing issue of the island of Ireland, there was a first discussion on the impact of Brexit on two key subjects: the Good Friday Agreement and the Common Travel Area. Mr Barnier said there was agreement that the Good Friday Agreement, “in all its dimensions, requires more detailed discussions.” In particular, “more work needs to be done to protect North-South cooperation between Ireland and Northern Ireland.”

There was also agreement that the UK should clarify in the next session how it intends on maintaining the Common Travel Area after leaving the EU.

Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis, said talks had been “robust” but there was a lot to be “positive” about in terms of the overall negotiations.

The takeaway: there was scant evidence of progress in a press conference to mark the end of the first substantive round of Brexit talks. Both sides looked – and sounded- as far apart as ever on key issues, most particularly on EU citizens’ rights and the divorce bill. Michel Barnier said there was a “fundamental divergence” with the British negotiating team over the way that the rights of EU citizens in the UK would be guaranteed, adding that he needed clarity on the UK’s position on the Brexit bill. Brexit However, David Davis said “We shouldn’t expect incremental progress in every round [of talks].”

Three rounds of Brexit talks were scheduled in June: for August, September, and October. There will be an EU summit in late October, where EU leaders will decide on whether the UK has made sufficient progress on financial issues – the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Only then can the UK progress to trade talks with the EU.

The press conference came today after Andrea Leadsom, Leader of the House of Commons, confirmed the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill will be debated in the Commons on Thursday 7th and Monday 11th September.

The UK Parliament is now in recess, and will return on 5th September.