UK state looks unready for Brexit marathon

20 December 2019 12:35

On Oct. 22, in yet another day of Brexit high drama in the House of Commons, UK lawmakers torpedoed Boris Johnson's plan to ratify the exit deal sealed in Brussels the previous week. They blew the Conservative leader's "do or die" Oct. 31 deadline out of the water, and set the course for a general election.

"Brexit is in purgatory," read the next day's headline in the Daily Telegraph. "PM's Brexit horror," was the Daily Mirror's verdict on the latest skirmish in the three-year struggle over the UK's withdrawal.

In Strasbourg, meanwhile, the EU's commissioners, gathered in their weekly meeting, were thinking further ahead. They signed off proposals from then-President Jean-Claude Juncker to create a UK Task Force for the second phase of negotiations, under the leadership of Michel Barnier.

The department contains one directorate, known as UKTF-A, split into six units. Barnier could draft staff from across the EU's civil service, and waive its usual rules on pay and promotions, the commissioners decided. Senior appointments include Paulina Dejmak Hack, Barnier's top adviser, and Philippe Bertrand, who will be responsible for the Irish protocol.

"While we were waiting for the ratification of the withdrawal agreement, we did not twiddle our thumbs," Sabine Weyand, the head of the European Commission's trade directorate, said this week. Weyand was Barnier's deputy in the first phase of talks, and she will play a major role in writing the "Canada-style" free-trade agreement the UK is seeking.

"We've prepared a mandate and have a fairly clear idea of what would feature in such an agreement," she said, adding that a grip on the EU's priorities would maximize the bloc's leverage in negotiations. "On our side, we're ready."

— Organization —

The contrast between a chaos-stricken UK and an orderly Brussels was effective propaganda for the bloc, as it sought to regather its poise after the blow of the British referendum.

But even now, while EU officials hope that Boris Johnson's parliamentary majority of 80 might bring greater stability, the UK's preparations for the next phase of talks remain up in the air.

Johnson's spokesman yesterday announced that the Department for Exiting the EU will be wound up on Jan. 31. The department was created by Johnson's predecessor Theresa May shortly after the 2016 referendum, to be led by David Davis, but it swiftly became neutered as May centralized control in the Cabinet Office under her sherpa Olly Robbins. That mirrored a return to the pre-Brexit situation, in which the Cabinet Office's European and Global Issues Secretariat coordinated the government's stance on EU issues.

Which body will take up the reins from DExEU has not been announced. David Frost, Johnson's chief negotiator, and Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, are expected to be key figures in the second phase of talks.

But the UK has yet to decide which department will take ownership of the Joint Committee, the powerful UK-EU body that will run the new relationship and that is responsible for designing the new Irish border deal. UKREP, the UK's mission to Brussels, will also need a parent, and has long been expected to revert to the Foreign Office.

Johnson's government must also reconcile its commitments to the EU with its ambitions for new trade agreements —particularly with the US, which will push for regulation in chemicals, food production and data to be unwound. May's government saw intense rivalries as the departments responsible for international trade, agriculture and digital policy wrestled over the direction of the UK's exit.

Raoul Ruparel, a former Europe adviser to May, this week endorsed the long-mooted move to wind down DExEU, and proposed creating a "single controlling mind" in the Cabinet Office, with responsibility for both the EU and US deals.

— Parliament —

The procedures by which the EU Parliament and the bloc's national legislatures will approve the opening and closing of the UK's trade deal are well-established in treaty and case law. The same can be said for the role of lawmakers in the US, Japan and elsewhere.

The UK's stance on these fundamental constitutional questions is in flux.

May, and latterly Johnson, promised lawmakers the ability to authorize the UK's plans for the second phase of negotiations and to formally approve any final agreement — which would have enabled a hung parliament to drive toward a closer relationship with the EU.

But this promise has been abandoned by Johnson following his general election victory. A new iteration of the EU (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill published on Thursday, which will ratify the exit deal, has been stripped of clauses that gave lawmakers a veto over the government's objectives. And indeed, Johnson's objectives for the relationship with the EU are known only in the broadest brushstrokes. The bill is set to pass easily. Lawmakers today voted to approve the bill at second reading — the first hurdle of the legislative process — by 358 to 234.

Nor is the UK parliament's role in developing trade agreements with the rest of the world yet settled. Lawmakers in the House of Lords had amended May's Trade Bill to grant parliament the power to approve the government's negotiating mandate — a more powerful role for the legislature than is found in the US or EU.

That's likely to be dropped when a fresh bill is presented by Trade Secretary Liz Truss in the New Year: She favors a system closer to Australia's, which grants lawmakers only a consultative role. Nor is the means by which parliament will implement new trade agreements — either through individual pieces of primary legislation, or an open-ended power for ministers to issue regulations — yet known.

— Unsettled status —

For the UK government to seal simultaneous agreements with the EU and US will require strong co-ordination and tough decisions on the country's priorities. A concentration of executive power seems needless, given Johnson's fat House of Commons majority means he's unlikely to face serious resistance to his plans.

An enhanced role for parliament would help neuter the populist charge against "race to the bottom" trade agreements — a pain point consistently aired in the election by opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn, which risks becoming an open sore.

While it was to be expected that the referendum result in 2016 would leave the UK state reeling, it's extraordinary that basic questions over the architecture of government and the constitutional settlement between parliament and the executive are still open. Three years have gone to waste.

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