At the time of writing we don’t know when, or possibly whether, the UK will leave the European Union. The odds are still in favour of leaving, but with changing deadlines and apparently little prospect of an end to Parliamentary deadlock, much is still up in the air.
There are any number of topics affected by the Brexit debate, but I am going to concentrate on just a few – what it means for those who have to deal with the institutions of the EU, what it means for those who lobby the UK Government and Parliament and what it means for those of us thinking about travel for business or pleasure.
Dealing with the EU
It is just possible that the scheduled European Elections (23 May) will be called off in the UK. But poll cards are already going out and returning officers are making arrangements. Candidate nominations have closed and we are already in one of the periods regulated by the Electoral Commission. Assuming we are still in the EU by the time the new Parliament convenes to start work (July) there will be UK MEPs sitting there. (There will also be shadow MEPs from some countries as originally the UK allocation of seats was shared out among other members). The UK MEPs may only be there a matter of months, but while there they will be full members, taking part in votes, in committees and in political groupings.
The run up to this election has seen two new parties enter the race – Change UK and the Brexit Party. It has also seen some Conservative MEPs unwilling to stand for election again. Elsewhere some Labour members are also standing down. This all means that the UK contingent may well include a sizeable proportion of first timers. In other words, any company or organisation which needs contacts among UK MEPs may have to start some lists from scratch.
It is possible to make some assumptions about who is likely to be there. European Elections are run on a regional basis using an election system called d’Hondt. There are some technicalities but the basic point is that the people at the top of each party list are much more likely to win than those at number 8.
This is what we call a closed-list system. Parties put their candidates in order and voters vote for the list of their favoured party. If there are ten seats offer, and your party gets 10 per cent of the vote, you should get one seat. (The reality is a little messier than that but the key point is – high number, better chance). So any organisation which may need to deal with UK MEPs in the very near future would be well advised to look at who tops each list.
Of course dealing with the EU isn’t just about the Parliament. There is the European Commission too, currently headed up by Jean Claude Junker. It will be all change at the top of the Commission post- election with Junker standing down and a new head being chosen. Strictly speaking the next person is chosen by the Member States in the EU and then formally elected by the European Parliament.
In fact, the political parties are trying to identify a suggested nominee in advance by using the so called Spitzenkandidat process. The title doesn’t really matter. What those interested need to know is that most party groups are promoting one person who is their preferred replacement for Junker. The argument then is that whichever grouping “wins” the election should have their person chosen.
The parties believe this gives voters more of a say in who might be in charge (an argument that makes little sense given the nature of Euro elections) but it is safe to say that currently the lead candidates are Manfred Weber, from the centre right, and Frans Timmermans, from the centre left. Whoever is chosen, the changeover happens in the Autumn. Of course the UK may be out of the EU by then, but there will still be many organisations which need to deal with the organisation and so will need to know what’s happening in the Commission.
Dealing with the UK Government and Parliament
For political enthusiasts, or “geeks” if you like, the drama in Parliament and the Government is interesting in itself. But I can see how others might see it as a sideshow.
But even though we can’t be certain about the change of Brexit, we can be certain about other changes. Because what this process has done is open the doors to some new ways of working in the political arena as well as increased fluidity in the political party system. And that matters, not just for the politicians but for anyone who wants to influence decision- making.
Businesses, often through trade associations or organisations such as the CBI, trade unions, charities, local authorities and a range of other groups need to take part in lobbying to either advance an idea or to try to stop one. This traditionally takes the form of working out who the key decision makers are, working out who may have influence on them, working out an argument and then proceeding to make it to the right people. That is a simplification of course, but the key point is knowing who has the power to decide.
What the Brexit process has done is throw doubt on who these people are. Because as party discipline has broken down, and ad – hoc cross- party working has increased, it is not at all clear where the real power lies. And until there is a decisive election (and the next one may well not be decisive) this uncertainty is likely to continue.
In these circumstances, it is worth lobbyists casting their nets a little wider than usual. One way of doing this is by working with and through the All Party Parliamentary Groups. These groups don’t take decisions but they can be routes to influential people, or routes to getting issues raised. There are hundreds of these on topics relevant to producers – like the groups on Beer or Cheese- to topics relevant to issues – like those on Migration or Votes at 16 and to those on areas of activity – like engineering. By their very nature they have members from more than one party. They all have a nominated Chair and Secretary. And they are all listed on the Parliament website.
What about travel?
The answer to many of the questions about Brexit is “it depends” and this is particularly true when it comes to journeys to and from Europe. If the UK leaves with a deal, whether Theresa May’s one or a variation, there is a transition period during which not a huge amount will change. If there is no deal, some aspects of travel freedom will change, although even then there won’t be the sudden problems some have talked about.
The key things to bear in mind are that travellers may need to get an International Driving Permit rather than rely on a UK driving license. And the EHIC card (the one guaranteeing health care) may become invalid (although not straight away). The Government says it is working on a scheme to still guarantee health cover if there is no deal, and has already made an arrangement with Spain. It will be worth checking though if you have a card and are travelling post Brexit (deal or no deal).
A lot was said earlier about chaos in the skies, with Brexit meaning arrangements for air travel to and from Europe falling through. In fact this anticipated problem has already been sorted out, so if there are delays at Manchester or Heathrow, it is not because of Brexit.
There is bad news however for pets. Pet passports will not be valid any more and depending on the deal made, or the lack of a deal, taking a pet to Europe could become extremely complicated.
What can we know for sure?
It is an unwise person who makes hard and fast predictions about situations as fluid and politically complex as this. The current Article 50 extension agreed with the EU takes us to October 31 (although we could leave earlier). It is possible for the Government to ask for another extension. Whether that is granted depends very much on the views of Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel and unless there is a solid reason, such as a General Election or Referendum taking place, I can’t see them saying yes.
For anyone wanting to get good, neutral , explanatory material on all of this, I recommend the Institute For Government (www.instituteforgovernment.org.uk). But I also recommend paying attention to the European Elections in the UK as these results will tell us a lot about our Government’s room for policy manoeuvre.