Prolonging the acquis: a blueprint for the Brexit transition

In a report published this week Piet Eeckhout and Oliver Patel assess the options for a Brexit transitional arrangement. They argue that the most realistic option is for the full body of EU law to continue to apply in the UK, while the UK simultaneously ceases to be an EU member state. The report’s conclusions are summarised here.

They may not see eye to eye on the big issues such as trade and migration, but Theresa May and EU leaders may be closer than you think to agreeing the terms and scope for a transition period. If the latest reports are correct, the prime minister may be about to double her offer on the financial settlement to £38bn in order to unblock the talks before the European Council summit on 14 December.

If she does, she has a realistic route to a deal on the transition. Indeed, the blueprint for a transition period that we advocate as the most viable – where the UK gives up its membership but accepts EU laws lock, stock and barrel – is the one that they are actually edging towards.

You just have to look at May’s Florence speech, in which she made clear that the UK seeks a transition where ‘access to one another’s markets should continue on current terms’, i.e. nothing changes. She even accepted that the framework for this period would be ‘the existing structure of EU rules and regulations’, with David Davis confirming in his speech last Thursday to German business leaders that the UK wants to remain in all EU regulatory agencies during the transition. Similarly, the EU has also indicated that it would accept a status quo transition, but this would require ‘existing union regulatory, budgetary, supervisory, judiciary and enforcement instruments and structures to apply’.

An extension of the EU acquis communautaire (the full body of EU law) to the UK, while the UK simultaneously ceases to be an EU member state, is the obvious choice for the post-Brexit transition. This is for three reasons. First, it’s comprehensive, meaning that very little changes on Brexit day, and a cliff-edge is avoided. Second, it’s relatively straightforward from a legal perspective, at least compared with the other options. The Article 50 withdrawal agreement could be the legal basis, meaning it would require approval only from a qualified majority of the European Council and the European Parliament, but not member state parliaments. It’s simpler than the UK re-joining the EEA Agreement via EFTA or crafting an EEA copycat agreement. The former would require treaty amendment and the approval of member state parliaments, while the latter would require bespoke institutional mechanisms for dispute settlement and enforcement to be set up. Third – and perhaps most importantly – it’s politically feasible.

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The Constitutional Standards of the Constitution Committee: how a code of constitutional standards can help strengthen parliamentary scrutiny

The Constitution Unit has today published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Constitution Committee. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on past Constitution Committee reports, which provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals. Robert Hazell and Dawn Oliver argue that such a code is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament and could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

Today the Constitution Unit has published a third edition of its report on the Constitutional Standards of the House of Lords Select Committee on the Constitution. The report contains a code of constitutional standards based on almost 200 reports from the Constitution Committee, published between its creation in 2001 and the end of the last (2016–17) parliamentary session. The standards provide detailed guidance on the application of constitutional principles to legislative proposals, and cover a range of subjects, including the rule of law, delegated legislation, the separation of powers and individual rights.

The use of a code of soft law constitutional standards is particularly needed in the 2017 parliament. Standards of the type set out in our report could have significantly improved the drafting of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill. Such a code could also be used by parliamentary committees of either House to enhance the scrutiny of the delegated legislation needed to prepare the statute book for Brexit.

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is providing a showcase of parliament’s ability to scrutinise constitutional legislation. It is packed with provisions that raise matters of fundamental constitutional principle, from the rule of law to Henry VIII powers to devolution. A good number of the amendments reflect arguments made by the Constitution Committee, which unusually reported before the bill received its second reading in the Commons.

The government has been criticised by some, including Hannah White from the Institute for Government, for failing to engage meaningfully with parliament before the bill was introduced to the Commons. The government is now making concessions in order to avoid defeats. Engagement with an officially recognised code of standards could have enabled the government to avoid these difficulties. The Constitution Committee’s recommendations are rarely framed in absolute terms. Many of the standards demand forms of justification for departures from constitutional principles. Even when the committee’s standards go beyond justification, they often demand changes that relate to drafting or the inclusion of safeguards, neither of which normally frustrates the policy aims of a bill.

The basic case for the use of standards is that it can enable basic constitutional concerns to be addressed systematically at the earliest possible stage. This was a point made by the Constitution Committee itself in its recent report on the legislative process:

We continue to believe that there would be merit in producing a set of standards that legislation must meet before it can be introduced.

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Opinion polls and constitutional issues: the case of Chile

The complex relationship between public opinion and constitutional issues is highlighted by the case of Chile, where a presidential election will take place this Sunday. Polls appear to suggest low public interest in constitutional issues, despite a ‘constituent process’ pushed by the current Bachelet government. Nonetheless, polling also indicates that the public is overwhelmingly in favour of constitutional reform. Alberto Coddou Mc Manus argues that polling is an important source of information for constitutional debates, but that findings should be critically assessed rather than taken at face value.

In general, opinion polls ask about our political preferences within established political systems. They ask us to express our political preferences or attitudes regarding the range of political options that the current constitutional system allows, either in the form of political candidates, ideas or reforms. In the US, opinion polls on constitutional matters have been fundamental for the analysis of the jurisprudence of the Supreme Court, either for predicting judgments or for explaining its reasons. Moreover, opinion polls are an important instrument for ascertaining the degree of support, political approval, or legitimacy that a certain political system garners among the population. However, opinion polls are also an important tool for asking people hypothetical questions, such as the ones that emerge from the exercise of constitutional powers. Indeed, opinion polls can be an interesting device for investigating the possibilities that may derive from exercises in constitutional imagination.

In this scenario, the relationship between opinion polls and constitutional issues is multifarious: on the one hand, they can be an interesting measure of the degree of legitimacy of an extant constitutional arrangement; on the other, they can inquire into the possible outcomes or possibilities that may be open under alternative constitutional frameworks. In the middle, we can find those techniques of social research that attempt to capture the degree to which issues of legitimacy may result in positive dispositions towards creating new political institutions, or crafting a new institutional arrangement for addressing political issues. In countries not at risk of experiencing violent political conflict, or that are not close to institutional collapse, the different relations between opinion polls and constitutional matters constitute an important source for broader political analysis.

In the case of Chile, opinion polls reveal a complex relationship between public opinion and constitutional issues. In the face of a presidential election that will take place on November 19, the relevance of constitutional issues for the political agenda is a matter of debate. Although the country is undergoing a ‘constituent process’ pushed by the government of Michelle Bachelet, which during 2016 implemented a consultation process (which included self-convened meetings and open citizens’ assemblies organized by the government) for the people to discuss what constitutional issues should be included in a new constitution, there has been scant ‘popular’ mobilisation around the issue after the end of that consultation process in August of 2016. We are not witnessing the degree of popular mobilisation and exchange of opinion that would be required for a ‘constitutional moment’, according to Bruce Ackerman. Chile has one of the lowest rates of political participation around the world, and it is part of a select list of countries where the fall of political turnout has been the sharpest since 1990 (a list which includes Congo, Libya, and Madagascar, countries which, unlike Chile, have experienced recent and serious political conflicts). According to a recent report by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), political disaffection and the loss of popular trust in political institutions should be a warning sign for Chilean democracy.

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When is it appropriate to hold a referendum?

The Independent Commission on Referendums, established by the Constitution Unit to review the role of referendums in UK democracy, is holding its second meeting today. At today’s meeting the members are focusing on whether principles can be identified for deciding when holding a referendum is appropriate. In this post the Commission’s Research Assistant, Jess Sargeant, summarises the issues for consideration.

The first UK referendum, with the exception of polls at a very local level, took place in 1973 in Northern Ireland. Since then there have been three UK-wide referendums, and ten referendums covering parts of the UK. Yet the question of what role referendums should play in the UK’s system of democracy remains unresolved. This is the question for discussion at today’s meeting of the Independent Commission on Referendums.

In this post, I explore the question of whether principles can be identified for deciding when a referendum is appropriate. I do not attempt to draw conclusions, or foretell those of the Commission, but simply put forward proposals for consideration.

How are democratic decisions best made?

To answer the question of what role referendums should play in a system of democracy, one must first consider how political decisions are best made. This depends on how one conceives of democracy. Broadly speaking there are three alternative conceptions: direct, representative, and deliberative.

According to the theory of direct democracy, decisions are most democratic when preferences are expressed directly by the people; representative institutions will distort popular will. In contrast, proponents of representative democracy argue that collective decision-making requires participants to dedicate significant time and resources to the process. It is not feasible for all citizens to do that, so decisions are best made by elected representatives. The third conception is deliberative democracy, according to which decisions should be made through processes in which everyone’s voice is heard and arguments and evidence are thoroughly considered. This conception is commonly associated with citizens’ assemblies and citizens’ juries.

Although these visions of democracy are often presented as mutually exclusive, most modern democracies incorporate elements of all three. Rather than being diametrically opposed, different forms of democracy can complement each other and be used to address disadvantages or shortcomings of other methods of decision-making. Regardless of which conception of democracy one subscribes to, it may still be possible to identify certain circumstances in which referendums might be appropriate.

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Labour’s ‘motion for a return’: what and why?

Opposition days have become a source of controversy in the early months of the 2017 parliament, with government MPs repeatedly abstaining on Labour motions. Such motions are usually non-binding. However, last week Labour attempted a different approach, tabling what is called a ‘motion for a return’. Andrew Defty explains what happened.

An opposition day debate last Wednesday saw the Labour Party deploy an obscure piece of parliamentary procedure which may force the government into releasing its Brexit impact studies. By means of a little-known procedure called a motion for a return, Labour transformed a non-binding opposition day motion into a binding resolution of the House. Labour’s approach caused some confusion in the House of Commons and had parliamentary observers reaching for a copy of Erskine May in order to determine what exactly had happened and what it meant. This post examines the background to Labour’s parliamentary trap and the implications for the government.

The government’s approach to opposition days

The background to what happened on Wednesday lies in the government’s approach to opposition day debates in this parliament. Opposition days provide a rare opportunity for opposition parties to set the parliamentary agenda. There are 20 opposition days in each parliamentary session. These are usually divided between opposition parties, in the last session Labour had 17 of these while three were allocated to the SNP. Each day is then often divided in two to allow for more subjects to be debated. On Wednesday last week, Labour tabled two motions for discussion, one dealing with armed forces pay and the other on the release of the Brexit impact studies.

Opposition days provide an opportunity for opposition parties to table a motion on a subject they consider to be important. Government ministers must come to the House and respond to the motion, speaking at the beginning and end of the debate. The government may also table an amendment in an attempt to overturn the motion, usually by changing its meaning. There is usually then a vote. Governments with a majority can usually be assured of defeating an opposition day motion, but even if a government is defeated, opposition day motions are non-binding and the government is not required to respond or make any policy changes as a result.

In the current parliamentary session the government has decided to adopt a strategy of not contesting opposition day motions. Although ministers come to the chamber to respond and Conservative MPs participate in opposition day debates, Conservative MPs, presumably under instruction from the Whips, have not been voting against the opposition motion. The reasons for this are not entirely clear, but are almost certainly a consequence of governing without a majority. It certainly saves the government from going to the trouble of marshalling its MPs into the chamber for a non-binding vote which they are likely to lose anyway. It may also be designed to ensure that Labour’s victory in such votes is somewhat pyrrhic. This point was made by the Conservative MP, Peter Bone, following a government defeat on a recent opposition day motion in which Conservative MPs abstained, when he claimed that although the opposition had won the vote, the Conservatives could not be said to have lost.

This strategy of abstaining in votes on opposition day motions has, however, caused some consternation in the chamber of the House of Commons. Following a government defeat on an opposition day motion on universal credit on 18 October, there was criticism from both sides of the House at the government’s decision not to contest the vote in order to enable it to ignore the outcome. The Conservative MP, Sir Edward Leigh, complained that the government’s approach risked reducing the chamber to the level of a ‘university debating society’, adding, ‘what is the point of the House of Commons if we just express opinions for the sake of it? Surely when we vote, it should have some effect.’ The Speaker was also particularly exercised by the government’s apparent neglect of Parliament, noting that, ‘it is blindingly obvious that this is an unusual situation about which there is strong opinion’ and that it would be ‘respectful to the House’ if a minister were to come to the House and explain the government’s thinking.

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Making sense of the uncertainty following Catalonia’s declaration of independence

Catalonia faces an uncertain future following the events of the last month, but the regional elections now scheduled for 21 December are likely to be a key moment in determining its trajectory. Mariana S. Mendes assesses how the crisis developed following the 1 October referendum, arguing that by calling early elections, the Spanish government has attempted to give the pro-independence bloc little opportunity to build momentum behind their resistance efforts, but that if pro-independence parties secure a majority the crisis could escalate again.

A surreal month in Spain’s political life ended the way the Catalan and the Spanish governments had promised to start it – with a unilateral declaration of independence on 27 October, followed by the suppression of Catalonia’s autonomy. Uncompromising positions took the lead and neither the authorities in Madrid nor in Barcelona showed the necessary will or statesmanship to avoid the greatest political crisis Spain has faced since the end of Franco’s era.

That it took the pro-independence bloc 27 days to proclaim independence rather than the 48 hours promised following the 1 October referendum shows, however, that attempts were made at avoiding such a drastic measure. Potentially important factors in this were dissenting voices within the ruling coalition, firms withdrawing from Catalonia, and the lack of international support.

The ambiguous announcement of a ‘suspended declaration of independence’ on 10 October – to make room for dialogue with Madrid – highlighted the conundrum that the head of the Generalitat, Carles Puigdemont, had to confront. On the one hand, pro-independence hardliners threatened to withdraw their support and break up the pro-independence parliamentary majority if independence was not declared. On the other hand, pro-independence pragmatists were alarmed by the potentially high costs of such a move – visible in the more than one thousand firms that moved their headquarters out of Catalonia – and preferred to take a more cautious approach.

To be sure, no one inside the ruling pro-independence coalition expected the Spanish government to react with complacency. What many certainly hoped for was that Madrid’s response would help move Catalonia a step further to independence. If the Spanish authorities reacted with a heavy hand, the case for separation would be further strengthened and so would support for independence – which still requires a convincing majority within Catalonia itself. If instead Madrid had accepted Puigdemont’s call for dialogue, he would be given some leeway to negotiate possible concessions: potentially the acceptance of constitutional changes allowing for a legal referendum, or, as a second best option, a reform of the Statute of Autonomy. At a minimum, he would have sought to avoid the suppression of Catalonia’s autonomy and what is most likely a long prison sentence for him.

But Madrid’s authorities did not need to tie themselves to either model. Instead, they followed the ‘carrot and stick’ approach of Puigdemont. Whereas the latter’s ‘carrot’ was a proposal for dialogue – while keeping the potential stick of a blunt declaration of independence on hand – Madrid’s ‘carrots’ were a series of requests that Puigdemont would have to abide by if they were not to apply article 155 of the Spanish Constitution – the ‘nuclear option’ of suspending Catalonia’s autonomy and deposing the regional government.

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Monitor 67: Brexit blues

The latest issue of Monitor, the Constitution Unit’s regular newsletter, has been published today. The issue covers all of the major UK constitutional developments over the past four months, a period that has seen several rounds of Brexit talks, the introduction and second reading of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, the publication of the Burns review on the size of the House of Lords, plus much else besides. The front page article is reproduced here. You can read the full issue at this link

The previous issue of Monitor was published just after the surprise result of the snap general election. The Prime Minister was back at the helm, but with a reduced number of MPs, and dependent on a confidence and supply arrangement with the Northern Ireland Democratic Unionist Party (DUP). We noted that the road ahead looked rocky.

So it has proved to be – though Theresa May remains in post, and the real parliamentary showdowns seem still to come. The Prime Minister has been dealt an exceptionally difficult hand – managing legislation on Brexit of unprecedented constitutional complexity, alongside the fractious negotiations with the EU, while leading a divided party in a House of Commons in which she has no partisan majority. Over the summer, and particularly during the party conference season, her leadership was regularly questioned, but must gain some stability from the fact that few would really want to be in her shoes. Meanwhile, rumours suggest that she has used the threat of a Boris Johnson premiership to coax other EU leaders to the negotiating table.

As discussed on pages 2–3, the official Brexit negotiations have made slow progress. Despite Theresa May’s attempted injection of momentum through her Florence speech in September, EU partners have not yet agreed to move on to ‘Phase II’ (i.e. post-Brexit trade arrangements), and a serious sticking point remains the so-called ‘divorce bill’. Partly as a consequence, the prospect of a ‘no deal’ outcome has increasingly been talked up. This is presented by some in the Conservative Party as a necessary negotiating strategy to get the EU-27 to give the UK what it wants, but others seem to view it with a degree of relish. Meanwhile, business groups appear to be increasingly concerned.

One thing that remains little-known is the state of public opinion, and how that may develop. While the June 2016 referendum came up with a Leave result, today’s question of what Leave should mean is a good deal more complex. As such, it is not readily suited to opinion polling. Here the results of the Citizens’ Assembly on Brexit, run by a team led from the Constitution Unit and funded by the ESRC (see page 15), can shed some useful light. Assembly members, who included more Leave than Remain supporters, expressed a preference for the kind of bespoke trade deal that the government says it is seeking. But members were very clear that if this cannot be achieved, a ‘no deal’ outcome was undesirable. They preferred that the UK remained a member of the Single Market and Customs Union to this. Politicians should reflect on such findings carefully, because boxing themselves in to no deal could prove electorally dangerous.

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