State of the Union

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[Written by Katharina Eisenhardt]

[Image by Julia Rosner]

GUM relaunches its Brexit series with Katharina Eisenhardt’s ‘State of the Union’. With a focus on broader EU issues, it will seek to highlight the changing dynamics to scientific funding, comparing coverage of EU priorities in the media, and exploring the impact on personal identity. 

004  – It’s heating up in here…

[12th April 2019]

I went to the first ‘Friday For Future protest’ in Glasgow a few weeks ago. Seeing young children holding signs asking to preserve our Earth, reminded me that the implications of Brexit—with or without a deal—would be much broader than we read in the broadsheets. Brexit won’t “just” have the obvious impact caused by leaving the single market and losing the right of free movement, it would also have vast consequences for environmental policies, and thus might slow down the fight against climate change.

The UK government states on its website that even in a no deal scenario:

The UK is deeply committed to domestic and international efforts to tackle climate change.”

If Parliament accepts the withdrawal agreement, EU environmental law would apply for the transition period, giving the UK two more years to decide on binding legislation for future environmental policy. The political declaration about the future relationships states “the Parties’ commitments to international agreements to tackle climate change, including those which implement the United Nations Framework Conventions on Climate Change, such as the Paris Agreement”.

So,, the government has made a clear commitment to the maintenance of environmental policies in a post-Brexit world. In fact, we can refer to two documents to highlight some of the commitments that have been made outwith EU-UK relations. Namely, the Climate Change Act 2008, that having been downloaded into the domestic legislature will remain post-Brexit. Secondly, the 25 Year Plan published in 2018, sets out “government action to help the natural world regain and retain good health”.

However, the Brexit & Environment network, a collective of independent UK and EU based researchers has outlined ten areas—both in matters of policy and governance—that remain challenged by the process of Brexit; one of them is the field of climate change. The network states that Brexit could lead to less external pressure from the EU resulting in the weakening of climate regulations. The Environmental Audit Committee formulates the concern that “there may be a loss of access to and participation in research projects and information networks coordinated by the EU” and furthermore “criticises a worrying lack of detail in the Government’s 25 Year Environment Plan as to how the Government’s environmental objectives will be achieved”. Mary Creagh, MP and Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, stated that the government now “needs to commit to its ambitions” by setting out “delivery and funding proposals”, to transfer the goals set in the 25 Year Plan into legally binding commitments.  

Another oft-mentioned challenge lies within the field of agriculture. At the moment, agriculture is governed by the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) of the EU, which the UK will no longer be part of post-Brexit. The UK will, therefore, have to decide on a set of regulation on matters as wide-ranging as pesticide usage to the presence of antibiotics in animal feed.  The Commons Library Briefing, from the 28 January 2018 argues that the government has yet to outline its plans. The government has just stated that it aims to “maintain EU restrictions post-Brexit on the use of neonicotinoid pesticides” and “encourage the minimum use of pesticides”, and therefore reviewing the UK National Action Plan for the Sustainable Use of Pesticides in 2018. Pesticide use, e.g. of the herbicide glyphosate has been internally debated within the EU and is still a topic of disagreement between some member states. Brexit could allow the UK to take a “very different approach to pesticides approval” than the EU does.

Within the Brexit context, amongst the legal questions relating to the process of replacing or transferring EU policies, remains the fundamental point of the significant risk of climate change within the devolved environment of the UK. Indeed within the UK, environmental policies are devolved, with the 25-year plan only established for England. Presently, the policy coordination mechanism that is in place is the Joint Ministerial Committee (JMC,) and the UK-wide Committee on Climate Change. They give out a recommendation that can then be implemented in each country. This system is based on common EU standards, guaranteeing a minimum standard. This allows devolved administrations such as the one present in Scotland, to have more ambitious policies than England. However, the EU remains an entrenched component within this, posing central challenges on a devolved level.

Without EU legislation the clear targets will no longer be in place and the UK will be left with the 25 Year Plan, which has been “roundly criticised for its failure to include the type of clear measurable targets, to which UK citizens and civil society actors have become accustomed.” This is further complicated by the general lack of “arrangement for joint working between the parliaments and assemblies of the UK’s four nations”, and in the Scottish case also by the “fundamental lack of trust between the Scottish and UK governments”.

The government has frequently stated its commitment to stay “a global leader in the fight against climate change”. But taking a closer look, the frequently referenced 25 Years Plan is missing important milestones to do so. In addition, as the Environmental Audit Committee states the “Government Response lacks firm commitments on post-Brexit environment governance”. So, there is a need for a legally binding set of targets, covering a wide range of policy areas. In addition, an arrangement that allows the four nations to work together is needed because as the Friday for future protests have shown once again, climate change is a global issue that no country can tackle alone.

003 – Science, funding and research

[5th March 2019]

The UK is widely recognised for its higher education system and its world leading research. However, according to a recent open letter to all MPs that has been signed by leading members of the Russell group—including the Chair of the Russell Group, Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the University of Glasgow, Sir Anton Muscatelli—British universities are currently facing “one of the biggest threats” they have ever seen, caused by the uncertainties of Brexit. The higher education sector in the UK plays an important role, it can be seen as “critical to the nation’s interest”. British Universities currently contribute approximately £21 billion to the UK’s GDP and hold 944,000 jobs, of which 50,000 are occupied by EU citizens. Universities are therefore a major part of the British economy and will be affected by threats posed on the economy. In addition, they will be impacted by a massive loss of research funding and by a potential decrease in student numbers.

Until today, only Germany receives more funding from the Horizon 2020 program, the biggest EU framework for research, than the UK does. However, the UK is still the country that holds the most project coordinator roles in this program. Horizon 2020 is clustered into four strands, of which only two allow the participation of third countries, as the UK will be, in case of a no deal. This means that all UK researchers could immediately lose access to the other two, the European Research Council (ERC) and Marie Curie fellowship funding. Leading to a loss of over 1 billion euros over the next few years.  

This loss could slow down the development of important breakthroughs in many areas. One example is an ERC funded project at the University of Glasgow. Prof. Lee Cronin is developing a new battery, “that is roughly ten times more energy-dense than existing models”. This could help to make electric cars a real alternative to fossil fuelled ones, and therefore help fighting climate change.

To minimise the financial impact of Brexit, the Russell Group, as well as individual universities and the British government, have committed to proactively grapple with the issue. In 2018 the government published an underwriting guarantee, which would allow UK researchers to continue their work under the Horizon 2020 project in case of a no deal scenario. However, this would not apply for the two strands of the project inaccessible to third countries. The government is still “working with stakeholders to identify appropriate measures that could be put in place in the period immediately after EU Exit, if needed”. This statement was published on the 23rd of August 2018, the government’s website on this matter has not been updated since then. With releasing the open letter, the Russell Group is now “seeking confirmation that the government will replace funding sources” from the end of March onwards.

While still waiting for definite government support some UK institutions have started to take individual actions, to allow student and staff exchange as well as research, based on EU funding to continue after the end of March. One common strategy is the establishment of “outposts” on the continent; this could help accessing ERC grants post-Brexit. Examples are the co-operations between the U15 Universities in Germany and the Russell group, the Oxford-Berlin Partnership and the recent establishment of a strategic partnership between the University of Cambridge and Munich’s Ludwig Maximilian University. However, all actions undertaken are merely risk minimising; a co-operation between two universities can never replace the access the EU’s research framework provides.

Although one main focus of the Brexit preparation undertaken by British universities is securing funding for the post-Brexit period, the Russell Group members made clear that Brexit is about “more than losing money “. The present uncertainty has already led to a drop in postgraduate student numbers in 2018 by 9 % even though the right of free movement is still in place. This gives a taste of the “serious damage” Brexit could cause. However, the issue is more complex: a no deal Brexit would not only affect EU students undertaking a whole degree in the UK, but could also severely affect all EU-funded exchange students who are living in the UK on Brexit day and vice versa.

In case of a no deal, 14,000 young people from the EU27, who will be in the UK on Brexit day and 7,000 UK participants in the EU27, could be affected. The EU has set out ““no-deal” contingency measures, aiming to guarantee the ongoing funding for Erasmus+ students”. The UK government has recently updated its technical notice so that “The guarantee will cover the payment of awards to UK applicants for all successful Erasmus+ (…) ESC proposals submitted before the end of 2020.“ It is therewith meeting the request of the Russell Group to reconsider its earlier position to underwrite “Erasmus+ (…) funding for all successful bids submitted while we are still in the EU.” However, this is just delaying the problem by a year and a half. With the UK leaving the EU, it will eventually lose their full access to EU projects and additional frameworks for the UK need to be developed.

Universities play an important role in Britain—not just through GDP and employment—by performing world leading research and facilitating the international exchange of people and ideas. Presently, this is facilitated by a close interplay with the EU, but this is now at high risk due to Brexit. Because British universities are deeply imbedded into society and the economy, their situation after Brexit will not only affect students, staff and research, but the whole nation, now and in the future. Missing exchange opportunities especially after a no deal Brexit will undermine “the UK’s workforce [who] will not be equipped to meet the changing needs of our economy post-Brexit.” (Alistair Jarvis, Universities UK Chief Executive). Even though individual universities have developed Brexit strategies, none can replace the international framework the EU is providing. No deal Brexit is the genuine outcome of no arrangement, placing the academic community here at a disadvantage.

The impacts are clear, in four weeks we will be faced with Brexit day, and it will be felt by higher education.

002 – And again…

[18th February 2019]

…the House of Commons voted on the Brexit case and Prime Minister May’s motion was defeated. According to the BBC this is the 10th rejection by Parliament on matters relating to Brexit. The government’s motion was defeated by 45 votes, showing that there is no majority for May´s current Brexit course. However, the consequences of this defeat are less clear then the ones after e.g. the rejection of the Withdrawal agreement.

Thursday’s vote in Parliament was based on an earlier statement by the PM, that “if a revised deal was not brought back to the House by Wednesday 13 February, the Government would make a statement and, again, table an amendable motion for debate the next day.”

Having rejected Thursday´s motion, parliament made clear that it does not ”welcome the Prime Minister´s statement on the 12th February 2018” and does not reiterate “its support for the approach to leaving the EU expressed by this House on 29 January 2019 and notes that discussions between the UK and the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop are ongoing.” In short, the House of Commons is not backing up May´s course of action.

This rejection has no legally binding consequences, it is as the German news service ARD dubbed “Symbolic, but important”. But, this could even be, as the Guardian mentions, the “significant moment in the Brexit saga”. On Thursday, not only was the government’s motion seeking support for their Brexit strategy rejected, but Labour´s amendment aiming to give the parliament a meaningful vote if no deal was passed by the 27th of February and an SNP amendment to immediately revoke article 50 all failed.

While the government announced on Thursday night that it “will continue to pursue (…) [legally binding changes to address concerns about the backstop] with the EU to ensure we leave on time on 29th March.”, the real binding decisions might be made in the next scheduled debate on the 27th of February. In this debate Yvette Cooper’s bill may be passed. Cooper put forward a bill, that if passed would enable parliament to decide on the following motion if no resolution is found by the 15th March:

“That this house approves leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement and a framework for the future relationship”.

By voting against this motion Parliament could rule out a no deal Brexit.

With parliament’s rejection of Labour´s proposal for a customs union last week, the rejected motion on Thursday, and the yet unpassed Yvette Cooper Bill on the table, the coming events are again unpredictable. Nevertheless, May has stuck to her statement from last week:

“I’m clear that I’m going to deliver Brexit, I’m going to deliver it on time, that’s what I’m going to do for the British public.”

This was supported by Alistair Burt (Minister of State for the Middle East and North Africa) who stated on early Friday morning: “We are not leaving without a deal. If you want to leave, you’d better agree one. In the next fortnight would help.”

However, the government’s position is far from ideal. The EU has already declared that they will only make changes in the political declaration, not in the withdrawal agreement. Now, the EU is speaking to a Prime Minister, whose course of action is not even supported by a majority in Parliament. This makes it more likely that, even if renegotiations were successful, Parliament would not seek to support those terms. This only makes the EU more hostile to proposed “alternatives” to the backstop agreement.

The question of how long the government will be able to maintain its current position, becomes more apparent. However, there still doesn’t seem to be an alternative course of action desired by the majority of Parliament. On Thursday, the only consensus one could observe across the political spectrum, was that the Downing Street had failed to communicate effectively with its counterparts in the Commons.

So, nobody knows what decision will be made of Brexit. Could it be the Parliament ruling out the government through the Yvette Cooper bill, or could we see Parliament pass May´s Withdrawal agreement to avoid a no deal? Or will we see another, completely different outcome? Whichever decision will be made, it will have to happen within the next 5 weeks (or not – who knows?); realistically, a decision needs to be made even earlier than that to pass binding legislation for the transition period.

001 – Renegotiating the non-negotiable

[11th February 2019]

After rejecting Theresa May´s Withdrawal Agreement, the UK parliament has amended her most recent plan concerning Brexit. The House of Commons has now stated that “it rejects leaving the EU without a deal” and that it “requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements”. Even though none of these statements are legally binding, the prime minister has publicly called for the reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement, mainly seeking “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border.

The EU immediately responded to parliament’s decision and May’s statement by making clear that the Withdrawal Agreement was not open to renegotiation (Junker) and the backstop was “part and parcel of the withdrawal agreement” (Barnier). Nevertheless, Theresa May met with EU representatives in Brussels last week. Post-meeting little had changed, with Commission and Parliamentary representatives reinforcing the view that the agreement would not be amended. Crucially, the EU refused to make any legally binding changes on the backstop. However, Junker agreed to further work on the legally unbinding document defining the future relationships between the EU and the UK. Theresa May has announced that they will meet again before the end of February to “start to find a way through this, to find a way to get this over the line, and to deliver on the concerns that parliament has, so that we get a majority in parliament”.

While the Prime Minister was in Brussels, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has published a letter to the Prime Minister, suggesting five changes to the Policy Declaration:

  1. A “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union”, including a say in future trade deals
  2. Close alignment with the single market, underpinned by “shared institutions”
  3. “Dynamic alignment on rights and protections”, so that UK standards do not fall behind those of the EU
  4. Clear commitments on future UK participation in EU agencies and funding programmes
  5. Unambiguous agreements on future security arrangements, such as use of the European arrest warrant

The letter implies that if the changes proposed are applied in a binding manner, Labour could support a Brexit deal to avoid leaving the EU without one. Whilst some see this as “an alternative plan B”, Labour members and the Liberal Democrats who are in favour of a second referendum have strongly criticised Corbyn´s letter. Tom Brake (Lib Dems) argued, “He has chosen to forget that Labour conference voted for the party to campaign for a people’s vote after failing to secure a general election.”

Whilst, Jeremy Corbyn’s letter has created a space for Tory red lines to be moved to facilitate a deal with the EU before the end of March. The EU 27—most prevalently Germany and Ireland—continue to prepare for a no deal scenario, as each day passed without an agreement increases the probability of this outcome.  

The EU has released several preparedness notices, covering nearly all policy topics. In addition, Germany had already passed regulations at the end of last year, specifying (for example) the rights of UK citizens in Germany coming into place in case of a no deal scenario. While the EU seems to be prepared for a no deal scenario, the last update of the Guidance on the “UK government’s preparations for a no deal scenario” is dated on the 21st of December 2018. This seemingly reinforces the view that Britain will take the greatest hit should no deal take place.

The events of the past days have shown that the situation is not as entrenched as feared, and solutions can be found. As German chancellor Merkel said on Thursday: “50 days can be long or short”. Nevertheless, Europe is still facing the risk of the UK leaving the EU without a deal, which Antonio Tajani (President of the European Parliament) maintains is “an economic and human catastrophe”.


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