Yesterday the House of Lords, the upper house of the British Parliament, voted against any ‘no deal’ British exit from the European Union. It voted by 335 to 244 to ensure that Parliament not the Government decides on what the next steps should be if the EU rejects the UK’s proposals for a post-Brexit deal in October 2018. Unless this vote is overturned by the House of Commons it will force the government to continue negotiations even if the EU rejects Britain’s proposals.
The vote was based on an amendment proposed by Viscount Lord Hailsham who told the House of Lords that the sovereignty of parliament is “vital to our liberties and must not be betrayed when it came to Brexit”. He added, “Whatever our party affiliation, our duty as parliamentarians is to our country and our conscience.” The House of Lords also voted favourably for an amendment that ministers should get approval from Parliament for their aims in pursuing Britain’s future relations with the EU.
The British government is proposing a deal for negotiation with EU counterparts that maintains trade links and favourable customs tariffs and access to and from EU markets despite formally withdrawing from membership of the EU. The deadline for agreement is October 2018, allowing six months for Parliament to discuss and vote on final arrangements before the official withdrawal on March 29th 2019. There will then be a probable ‘handover’ period that will last a further year till 2020, or maybe longer.
Since the Brexit referendum vote on 23 June 2016 when 51.9% of the British electorate (on a turnout of 72.2%) voted to leave the EU, a number of options have been on the negotiating table. They range from a hard Brexit meaning no deal to a soft Brexit meaning that the UK leaves the EU but maintains customs links to allow trade links with EU countries to prosper. The EU market remains important for Britain although its proportion of Britain’s overseas trade has fallen slightly in 2016 from 44% to 43%.
A major issue is the hard vs soft border between Northern Ireland (part of the UK) and the Republic of Ireland (an EU member in its own right). There is a soft border (in effect, no border) between the two countries, allowing free movement of traffic and people.
However, in the event of a ‘hard’ Brexit would formal border controls be erected between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and what would be the effect on trade, on the movement of goods and people and on the goodwill between the two communities? Given the volatile and sometimes violent history of Ireland in the past could there be a danger of renewed instability?
Chief negotiator for the EU, Michel Barnier, was in the Republic of Ireland yesterday to discuss options with the Taoiseach or Prime Minister, Leo Faradkar, to the anger of some British politicians who felt he was putting pressure on the Irish to achieve a ‘soft exit’. In his speech to the Irish business community and politicians in Dundalk he stressed the importance of “a clear and operational solution for Ireland”, which needed to be part of the BREXIT deal. “Until we reach this agreement,” he warned, “there is a risk.”
The House of Lords has the right to register its views by voting and also ratifies all bills passed by the House of Commons before they are signed by the Queen and become law. It does not have the final right to reject legal proposals. They must be decided by the House of Commons, who may overrule the House of Lords by majority vote.
The key question facing Parliament is does the Brexit referendum vote give the government the right to conclude agreements or non-agreements with the EU or should final proposals be put to a vote in parliament? In December 2017 MPs voted in favour of their right to legislate on the terms of withdrawal. In other words, government proposes but parliament decides. The new amendment passed by the House of Lords says that in the event of failure to agree in October, the UK cannot simply leave the EU but must renegotiate.
This is a major issue for parliamentarians and public alike but the Conservative party believes it has enough votes together with its Northern Irish DUP (Democratic Unionist Party) coalition supporters to achieve victory and override the House of Lords and the opposition in the House of Commons.
The prime minister’s position is that should the EU not accept the deal proposed by the UK then the UK will simply leave the EU in March 2019 with no agreement.
This morning on the BBC Today Programme, Secretary of State for International Trade, Liam Fox, accused the Lords of trying to block the democratic will of the people' and claimed it was a ploy to force the government to draw out negotiations to postpone EU withdrawal indefinitely.