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Political Hurdles on the Road to Brexit

The UK is due to give notice this month that it will withdraw from the European Union under its Article 50 procedures. The strange eight month interregnum from the Brexit vote on 23 June until now is almost over. Prime Minister Theresa May will not join the other EU27 leaders at the EU’s 60th birthday summit on 25 March, a day that Jean-Claude Juncker is now calling the birth day of the EU27.

But deep Brexit divisions persist in the UK and many political hurdles remain for May even within the UK, let alone those put up by the EU27 in the upcoming two years of exit talks. While the House of Commons voted last months to pass the Article 50 Brexit Bill un-amended, the unelected House of Lords is putting up a stronger resistance. And attention is also starting to turn to Scotland, as the war of words between Theresa May and Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon, heats up.

Peers set a Brexit challenge

The House of Lords voted on 1 March to amend the Brexit Bill, demanding that the UK government set out a plan to protect EU citizens’ rights in the UK within three months of the Article 50 notification. The Peers defended EU citizens rights by a majority vote of 358 to 256 – many claiming it was a moral issue, and that EU citizens should not be bargaining chips in UK-EU talks. But in a sign of growing party splits on the issue, only seven Conservative Peers backed the Labour and LibDem-sponsored amendment.

The government rapidly denounced the Peers’ vote, and will aim to overturn the amendment when the bill returns to the House of Commons. Although the Lords is seen as rather strongly pro-EU, Peers failed earlier in the week, however, to support an amendment calling on the UK to stay within the EU’s single market. But a vote is also due next week on strengthening Parliament’s say when the draft exit deal is agreed in late 2018 (if a deal is indeed done) which may well pass too.

Will MPs in the Commons back the Peers’ amendments? The vote could be close but it would require unity across the opposition parties, and a decent number of Tory rebels. With a working majority of 16, the government should be vulnerable. But with some Labour rebels voting with the government on earlier amendments in the House of Commons, for now it seems more likely the government will scrape through.

When the Lords and Commons are in disagreement a bill can ‘ping-pong’ its way to and fro for some time but observers believe that if the Commons rejects the Lords’ amendments, the Lords will not persist in their disagreement. A March triggering of Article 50 is still the likely outcome.

Rumblings from Scotland

But March is not looking like the easiest month for Theresa May to send her historic Brexit notification to Brussels. In Scotland, March is the month for political parties’ spring conferences. This weekend Theresa May will join the Scottish Tories in Glasgow, then two weeks later on 17-18th March, the SNP spring conference will have all eyes and ears on Sturgeon’s conference speech.

Nicola Sturgeon has been demanding, since the Brexit vote, that Scotland’s place in the EU single market should be protected, even if the UK leaves the single market (as Theresa May plans). In return, May has promised Scotland’s interests will be protected in a good UK-wide deal with the EU27. SNP politicians have been talking increasingly about the need for a second independence referendum, with the rather risk-averse Sturgeon ratcheting up her rhetoric on this.

The UK government is now sufficiently concerned at the prospect of a second independence referendum in Scotland that it apparently held a long discussion of the issue at a recent cabinet meeting. When May speaks in Glasgow, will she rule out a second referendum – since constitutionally Westminster has to agree to one – or will she put conditions on when and how one could be held?

Most recent suggestions in the media are that she might say a second referendum could not be held until the UK leaves the EU in March 2019 – presumably arguing that a UK-EU deal needs to be clear before Scotland could make a fair choice. This is somewhat disingenuous. There is likely to be an exit deal by autumn 2018 (which seems to be the preferred date for an independence referendum for some key SNP figures including former First Minister Alex Salmond), but there will at best only be an outline of the future comprehensive trade deal between the UK and EU27. Since a full trade deal will take several years to agree and ratify, asking Scotland to wait until 2019 rather than autumn 2018 is clearly a political and tactical move.

Even if Scotland did get to vote on independence again in autumn 2018 and voted ‘yes’ – though the ‘no’ side still leads in the polls – it is hard to see how Scotland could agree its divorce terms with the UK and negotiate its membership as a full EU Member State in the six months before the UK leaves in March 2019. But if Scotland’s choice ultimately is for independence in the EU, then making that clear before the UK leaves, and rules, laws, regulations, trade and customs arrangements start to change and diverge, would be helpful.

If Scotland votes to stay in the EU – and if the EU is agreeable to this – then it makes more sense all round for Scotland to retain EU laws and processes, as far as possible. This would be rational even for the UK, since if Scotland said ‘yes’ to independence, and the UK and Scotland first negotiated divorce terms outside the EU, they would then have to renegotiate them when (and if) Scotland re-joined the EU.

But logical solutions after a vote are not, of course, the same as political arguments ahead of what would be a very heated referendum campaign. UK politicians can already be heard claiming that an independent Scotland would not be able to re-join the EU – something rebutted by the head of the European Commission office in London who recently commented that an independent Scotland could go through a normal accession process.

As the EU27 look to the future in challenging times, UK politicians are going to be almost entirely focused on Brexit and the many political hurdles facing them for many years to come. It is not going to be a smooth ride – and the political hurdles between now and March 2019 may soon start to pile up.

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