State of the Union

State of the Union

[Written by Katharina Eisenhardt]

[Image by Julia Rosner]

GUM relaunches it’s 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. 

001 – Renegotiating the non-negotiable.

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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