Brexit, Article 50 and the Supreme Court ruling: how the government made its own life more difficult

Dr Christopher Huggins
Teaching Fellow in European Politics


Yesterday the Supreme Court delivered its judgement on the government’s appeal in the Article 50 case in what was billed as one of the most significant constitutional law cases in generations. The verdict, of course, has wide ranging constitutional law implications. But there are also significant political implications for how the government will be able to proceed with Brexit.

It’s important to note that for all the hype around Brexit and the EU referendum, the primary concern of the case was a matter of constitutional law. Indeed, Brexit and the referendum barely got a mention in the hearing in December. The verdict reaffirms the long-established constitutional principle that it is parliament that makes the law and that government cannot use its executive powers (the Prerogative) to change the law without parliament’s authorization. The Supreme Court is the highest court in the land, and as such the government has no other option but to accept the verdict. In this way the Supreme Court has successfully performed its role as an independent check on executive authority, something which should be valued by all those who support the basic principles of democracy. The verdict should also be celebrated by those who campaigned during the EU referendum on the message that British laws should be made by a sovereign British parliament. In the words of legal commentator David Allen Green, it is evidence that “the constitution is working”.

In its response to the verdict, the government said it was “disappointed”, but it would nevertheless respect the outcome and get on with the job of delivering Brexit, by seeking authorization from parliament in the form of a short bill. Unlike with the High Court verdict, the government was also quick to pre-empt a hostile press reaction and re-affirm its respect for an independent judiciary. The government’s disappointment, however, is self-inflicted. Indeed, one of the most striking things about the case was that it could have been avoided entirely. There were two missed opportunities here.

Firstly, the legal challenge was launched due to ambiguity in 2015 European Union Referendum Act. While the Act permitted the referendum to take place, it says absolutely nothing about how the government or parliament should respond to the result. Had the Act bound parliament and the government to the result and, in the event of a leave vote, authorized the government to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, then the courts’ involvement in Brexit (or at least the triggering of Article 50) could have been avoided. Indeed it says something about the complacency of the Cameron government and parliament, and the fact neither expected a leave vote, that such provisions were omitted.

Secondly, had Theresa May simply accepted the decision of the High Court in November 2016 and delivered the (still to be revealed) short bill authorizing the government to invoke Article 50, then the government would probably have the necessary authorization by now, and would be on course to meet its March 2017 deadline. By appealing the High Court’s decision rather than “getting on with the job of Brexit”, the government has frustrated and delayed its own progress, and made it more difficult to meet its self-imposed March 2017 deadline for Article 50 notification.

No article 50 notification can take place until an Act of Parliament authorizing it is passed. Any attempt by the government to notify before this would be unlawful. The government insists it can still meet its March 2017 timetable, but its job would have been much easier had it introduced such a bill in November. Back then there was more political momentum behind Brexit, at least among parliamentarians eager to respect the ‘will of the people’. The form of the bill (long or short, simple or with bells and whistles attached) is up to parliament, but the government could have used this momentum to rush the bill through and ensure it broadly reflected its own wishes.

The likelihood of parliament rejecting an Article 50 trigger bill outright is incredibly low. But parliamentarians of all political colours will now seek to seek to add amendments or bind the government to certain conditions, such as the publication of a Brexit plan in the form of a White Paper (a provision the government has just accepted). This is especially the case since Theresa May’s speech last week outlining a 12-point (but still vague) plan for Brexit, which has not been universally accepted by MPs. This all risks delaying the bill’s passage, adding to the government’s already heavy workload and binding the government to any provisions that are enacted. In effect the government risks losing control of the Brexit agenda. And for those seeking clarity on what Brexit means, it has the potential to create more confusion and uncertainty.

The other implication of the Supreme Court ruling goes beyond Brexit and the EU referendum. That is in re-affirming that parliament is sovereign and that the government cannot independently make, unmake or amend the law, the ruling is used as a point of reference for other cases where executive power is challenged. This, potentially, limits the scope of government authority. Therefore in appealing, and losing, the government has potentially shot itself in the foot and limited its own capacity of act independently of parliament.

So, in appealing the High Court verdict the government has deliberately delayed its own Brexit plans, made it more difficult to get Article 50 notification on its own terms and, potentially, set a precedent which limits government authority and capacity for years to come. As stated above, all of this could have been avoided. In appealing, the government made a gamble which did not pay off.
Dr Christopher Huggins is a Teaching Fellow in European Politics in the School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations and Environment at Keele University. His research focuses on the politics of the European Union and British politics. He has an  emphasis on the Europeanization of sub-national government and how local authorities actively engage with the European Union. More about Chris’ research and teaching can be found here.

Posted in Article 50, Brexit, British Politics, Brussels, EU Referendum, Europe, European Union, Politics | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

#spicerfacts: how the White House’s relationship with the press will play out

Jon Herbert

Senior Lecturer in Politics

Journalists would have anticipated the first press conference of the Trump presidency with some trepidation. Not only had his briefing at Trump Tower as president-elect been something of a shambles as Trump excoriated some journalists and ignored others, but the whole election campaign had been traumatic for many. Reporters had been submitted to ritual humiliation at Trump rallies, ushered through baying crowds to be labelled “liars” and “disgusting” by a candidate who did not seem overly burdened by the concept of truth himself.

But campaigning is different from governing. Journalists, who had endured a storm of criticism from Trump’s transition team, were hoping for a transformation of campaign Trump into a more presidential Trump – or perhaps a press liaison operation sympathetic to the press’ needs.

The first press “briefing” from White House press secretary Sean Spicer, delivered the day after Trump was sworn in as the 45th president of the United States made it clear that this transformation has not happened. In a six-minute tirade, Spicer told journalists why their coverage of the inauguration had been wrong, told them what they should be reporting and left the stage with no opportunities for questions and answers.

Any impression that a mutual trust might be nurtured between presidency and media – or even that a deal for mutual benefit might be negotiated – was shattered. Journalists’ worst fears, articulated widely and openly during the transition, are now realised and both sides are now digging in for an extended battle.

Written out

From Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency at the turn of the 20th century onward, presidents have traditionally nurtured a relationship with journalists. Franklin Roosevelt held briefings in the Oval Office and Jack Kennedy traded on his own journalistic experiences in talking to the press. The relationship was symbiotic and mutually beneficial; presidencies broadcast their messages to the public and the media had stories and pictures to run.

But the relationship has soured since the 1970s – and the Trump presidency may come to represent the logical conclusion of a half-century’s development in presidential relations with the media.

The disillusionment of the media with the presidency is well-documented. The Watergate scandal and misinformation over the Vietnam War caused journalists to examine their assumptions about the trustworthiness of the country’s commander-in-chief.

But the media still needs the presidency. The presidency, on the other hand has long struggled to wriggle free of the media’s grasp. Frustrated by increasingly negative coverage from mainstream outlets, presidents pull away from the media over their term, offering fewer press conferences as their term develops. Obama’s administration built a reputation for unusual levels of secrecy due to its refusal to release information in response to press requests. Worse, administration threats to prosecute journalists for not revealing their sources permanently tarnished Obama’s standing with the media and generated many hostile stories.

During George W. Bush’s administration, journalist Ryan Lizza offered the term “pressless presidency” to capture the Bush team’s assessment of the press, not as a Fourth Estate with a legitimate role to check governmental and presidential power, but as just another interest group to be serviced.

The holy grail now for an administration is to bypass the hard questions and unforgiving judgements of the Washington media to reach the people directly. Each new technology seems to offer this potential. Obama attempted to bypass the Washington press corps through use of Reddit and YouTube, while Trump has done more than most to cut loose while calculating that he can use other means to communicate – Twitter being his favourite medium.


US vs them

Instead of working with the media, Trump has made it integral to his core message: his anti-establishment status. Trump’s rhetoric relies upon simple oppositions – and the media has been particularly important in this. In Trump’s populist rhetoric the media have become part of giant conspiracy of politicians, business and media working against the interests of the American people. And the press makes an excellent target – public trust in the media has dropped precipitously.

Declining trust in the news media.
Gallup, CC BY

Usually there is something of a “honeymoon period” as the two sides develop their relationships and work out a basis of cooperation. Both the incoming administration and the media usually focus on appointments and leading policy proposals. But instead of trying to build that relationship for mutual advantage early on, Trump’s team is launching a full frontal assault on the media’s credibility. The Trump team is “pressless” from the start.

Not only is Trump to be pressless, then, but the logic of this position extends to discrediting the media as a competitor in setting the agenda or even describing reality. When Spicer highlights the delayed nomination of Mike Pompeo as CIA director and tells the press: “That’s what you guys should be writing and covering,” the attempt to control what is considered news is obvious. But this position extends to portraying the media as a malevolent force. Accusing the media of “dishonesty” allows the administration to claim a new role.

To quote Spicer: “We’re going to hold the press accountable as well.” The administration has appointed itself the guardian of truth against the evildoers of the press. Theatrical denials of the media’s legitimacy suit the administration very well: much as Trump’s tweets have done before, Spicer’s press briefing made the tension between the media and the new administration the main news story. The administration portrays itself as the insurgency against the establishment. As long as the media continue to run the conflict stories, Trump will remain happy to trigger them.

High-risk strategy

But this approach carries substantial risks. As a rocky transition focused on Putin’s influence over the election and Trump’s conflicts of interest proved, the new administration has not found a way to control the media agenda. Trump’s familiar campaign technique of picking fights over Twitter has served to distract from the worst stories but has not refocused attention on the presidency’s priorities.

The stories in each policy area are of uncertainty and confusion around the administration’s direction and the overall image of Trump’s presidency has been damaged from the start.


So far, the media has expressed substantial doubt that the Trump administration has a clear direction or clarity over priorities, a claim reinforced by Trump’s own tendency to make bold, incredible and contradictory statements. Attacking the press is a serious – and unforced – error that will generate negative coverage. Trump and Spicer’s calculation, that the new president’s support can endure a relentless stream of negative stories, is an extraordinary gamble. It relies on Trump’s supporters resisting the influence of negative media coverage, while the administration communicates with them directly.

Without doubt, there is much to suggest that some partisans will remain loyal to their president amid media criticism. News accessed only through selective social media “bubbles” is likely to reinforce this effect. However, experience suggests that Republicans will not be blindly loyal. As Nixon and George W. Bush discovered, Republicans can turn on their own.

As the administration’s credibility falls, the same rhetoric from Trump blaming media demons for Americans’ perceived plight will sound less like a promise of conflict, victory and transformation and more like excuse-making in the face of under-achievement. Trump attacks on those merely trying to report on his presidency will come to look like the product of a paranoid mindset.

The Conversation

Dr Jon Herbert is a Senior Lecturer in Politics in SPIRE, and is the Associate Dean for Teaching and Learning for the Faculty oh Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr. Herbert’s research centres on the American presidency. More about Jon’s research and teaching can be found here.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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The Eurosceptics’ Moment

Dr Helen Parr, Senior Lecturer in International Relations is a co-winner of the 2016 Hennessy Prize for essay writing on British politics, awarded by the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary, University of London. Helen shares this prize with Professor Thomas Osborne of University of Bristol.

Dr. Parr’s essay, ‘The Eurosceptics’ moment’, argues that membership of the EEC/EU was at the core of Britain’s national life, and that therefore the process of Brexit will have negative impacts. Because of this, it is time for Eurosceptics who were vocal during the referendum to step up to the responsibility that came with their victory in order to maintain the integrity of the British values central to their campaign.

The Hennessy Prize is named in honour of the crossbench peer and constitutional historian Lord Hennessy It is an open competition awarded to the best essay concerning British politics submitted by a British academic. The prize is funded by the Committee of University Chairs and will be awarded by Lord Hennessy at a reception at the House of Lords. The Mile End Institute connects research, policy-making and public debate to deepen and challenge the understanding of British politics, governance and public policy.

Dr. Parr’s essay was published on the Mile End Institute blog and will be published online by Prospect Magazine. The full essay can be accessed here:

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Political Development Comes To…America?

Dr. Rebecca Richards
Lecturer in International Relations

This week, I, like much of the rest of the world, have been forced to grapple with a sense of shock as I watch the post-election events shaking America. One the one hand, I am unbelievably ashamed that my country of birth appears to have regressed to social decay and violence that we are only just starting to get to grips with in post-Brexit Britain. On the other hand, I am also incredibly proud to see so many people, especially young people, peacefully protesting to say “this is not right.” So as I watch what is unfolding in the US, I watch with a sense of shock, and with trepidation as the best most of us can come with when trying to ponder what comes next is “we do not know.” I am not watching with surprise, though, because we have been able to see this coming for a long time.


Early analysis of Trump’s electoral win is focusing on economic arguments – the Rust Belt, a historically Democratic area, went to Trump, with many maintaining that it is due to the decline in manufacturing jobs and a lack of alternative employment opportunities. There is some truth to that as global economic changes and demands have seen many richer countries shifting away from industrialised labour in favour of more skilled or technological industries. Thus, those working in the once prosperous car factories of Detroit or the steelworks in Pittsburgh are facing uncertainties, and those uncertainties are both a powerful political motivation as well as something that is easy to invoke for the purposes of political mobilisation. In other words, they have genuine concerns about their future, and those concerns are easy to pick up and use as a tool in an election campaign. Trump did this masterfully by invoking, and possibly creating, a fear of what is to come.

Early analysis of exit polls, though, shows that the main core of Trump’s electoral support did not come from the low income workers in the US, but rather middle to upper middle class whites across America. Much of his support came from the old Republican base, and he was able to bring enough of the working class Democratic base in key states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania onto his side to win enough Electoral College votes to secure a seat in the White House. As my colleague Jon Herbert has pointed out, preventing this swing was not helped by having Hillary Clinton as the Democratic candidate. Yes, Hillary Clinton is an unbelievably accomplished and experienced public servant. However, she is also very much disliked by many, including many Democrats. She may have made a remarkable president, but she did not make a good candidate.

Still, though, Clinton won the popular vote by what would be considered in other elections a large margin.In those key areas where she lost the state and then did not gain the Electoral College votes, Trump’s majority was incredibly slight – 68,000 in Pennsylvania, 27,000 in Wisconsin, and just 12,000 in Michigan. In other words, just over another 100,000 votes in those states together and the outcome of the election would have been different (and thanks to Dr. Chris Huggins for helping point that out). Trump may have shocked us, but he did not win with a resounding victory, no matter how much he wants to claim that he won it easily and it “was big”. He will enter the White House as the least popular presidential candidate the US has ever seen, not to mention the least popular candidate to win the election. He is undoubtedly facing a difficult road, and not only because he appears wholly unprepared for the job.

There are a lot of questions to be answered about this election, and there are a lot of predictions of what comes next. In democracies, majorities are rarely ever stable, and it is here that the ‘political game’ in the US will really become apparent as Trump (should) balances his minority win not only with a majority electorate, but also within his own divided base. Congressional politics will also come into play as members of Congress, up for re-election again in two years, work to figure out how to operate in their new reality. The Democrats are potentially still very much in the game, but there will be soul searching to do as they try to reclaim those votes that they lost. And these are only the questions of ‘what is next’ pertaining to the American system itself. When we look at broader questions about the future of democracy and what this win means for the international system, we encounter a whole new pack of complexities and potential consequences that must be understood.

It is certain that the analysis of Trump’s win will still be coming out many years from now. Many, like my colleague Bulent Gokay, will make the argument that together with Brexit, this election is a sign of the death of the neo-liberal capitalist world order. I think there is some validity in some of that, but I’m not entirely convinced it can explain all of the forces at work. Some will lament that this is the end of democracy. For me, that is a very premature lament and it is one that could cause a dangerous overreaction of an incited progressive left.

No, it is not the end of democracy. Yes, economic systems and practices have failed large numbers of people, and yes, people in Western states are increasingly, and detrimentally, retreating from civic life. Government has not always worked for them, or at least that is what they perceive. But voter turnout in both the UK and the US were high this year, so at least that component of democracy is firmly intact and people are having their say. Democracy may have returned a result that we do not like, and with Trump’s bombastic style and apparent disregard for the rules it is easy to see what people are fearing an authoritarian US. I would be lying if I said that was not in the back of my mind as well. But returning an unfavourable result or the election of an ‘unconventional,’ and frankly socially unacceptable, candidate does not hail the death of the system. Indeed, these results demonstrate that many who have felt ‘left behind’ by politics have made themselves heard. We may be witnessing a ‘blip’ in progressive politics, but not the death of democracy. Rather, what we are seeing is yet another step in a long history of political development that is a regular, and very healthy, process. For those of us who study political development, especially within what is commonly (yet is outdated terminology) referred to as the ‘Third World’, this process is all too apparent.

No country ever stops building or growing. And that’s because politics (the abstract system, not the parties themselves) is constantly changing. When change becomes apparent it can be incredibly turbulent, but that is because politics rests not only above but also within society; it is a structuring force but it is also a social force. Social change can be difficult and can bring backlashes against the redistribution of power and privilege from those who are still privileged and secure, but feel that they are losing power. And power is a tough thing to give up. Progressive change is perhaps the toughest of all, simply because it works to disrupt inequalities in social, and therefore, political power. When you take the power away from the people who have always had it and redistribute at least some of it amongst those who have been marginalized, those entrenched feelings of entitlement for those who have been dominant are tough to eliminate.

We see this all over the world, especially in countries where democracy is new. But from those countries, we also know that progress is not a straight line and can even be regressive at times. When we see that, we do not immediately lament the death of democracy. Instead, we say “the really important thing is what comes next.” The what comes next does not always come quickly in new democracies, but in many, the forward motion begins again and the system is stronger for it. It is when other forces come into play – damaging social forces, weak institutions, the lack of a civil society – that we begin to fear for the security of the democratic system. What we look for there is not the outcome of one election, but rather the erosion of the political and social institutions that make a democracy viable. And we are not (yet) seeing that in the United States, despite numerous observations of change.

A set back is not the end. Rather, it is likely a sign of some form of progress being made. But as always, the really important thing is what comes next.

It is incredibly important to ask the big questions of ‘Why did this happen?’ and ‘What can this tell us?’ For that reason, the social sciences, and especially International Relations and Politics, will be incredibly important in the years to come. We need to understand the systems of power that surround us both in our countries and in the wider world. We cannot focus on the ‘what if’ and the ‘what’s next’ without looking at the bigger empirical and theoretical pictures. It would be irresponsible for us to do otherwise. But we in IR and Politics also cannot do it alone, and it is for that reason that I was incredibly glad to see commentary from Mark Featherstone, our colleague in Sociology at Keele. We need to understand how power shifts impact daily lives, and a mutli-disciplinary approach is important for that. It is important for not only understanding and explaining, but it is also important for reacting and directing what comes next.

It is important for ensuring that our regressive blip does not become an insurmountable speed bump – something we have seen time and again in newer democracies. Our Western liberal democracies have the political and social institutions that have the strength to act as a check on potential authoritarian power, whether that check is direct or not. But still, we must understand this regressive blip in order to address it.

We must also not only question, but also confront, dissatisfaction based on loss of (largely social and economic) power. We must confront it because, as we’ve seen, the invocation of that fear can be ‘bigly‘ damaging (sorry, I simply could not resist). It also resides primarily with people who fear what they could lose, rather than mourning what they have already lost. We saw with the Brexit vote that many of the most ardent anti-immigration areas in the country are those those that do not have high numbers of immigrants. In the US, invoking fear of economic loss so recently experienced with the 2008 economic collapse within relatively well-off demographic groupings is a very useful political tool, and one that allows for a vote of self-preservation for a candidate that is otherwise socially and politically unacceptable. Societal shifts stemming from legislative attempts to reduce the marginalization of minority groups demonstrated a shift of power away from straight, white, Christian Americans. An out of control segment of the media did not help – one that decried the election of a black president as the ‘End of White America’, declaring that president to be a race-baiter while speaking to what was once a fringe segment that believes that the mere existence of a black man in society is all that is needed to be a damaging threat. And a mainstream media so fearful of lost revenues that they have foregone their responsibility as the ‘fourth estate’ is a tragic reality of this election.

Damage has been done, but that does not mean it is permanent.

We must understand this and we must confront these concerns. But democracy allows for that, and as long as that occurs we should not lose hope of returning to our progressive path forward. And as that happens, we can look at this and realise that democracy, no matter now old or established, is not immune from the need to constantly adapt and adjust, and that political development never stops.


Dr Rebecca Richards is a Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her research focuses on statebuilding and political development. She is especially interested in how political socialisation impacts upon democratic transitions and the processes of political and institutional change.

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So, what IS on Nigel Farage’s desk?

A complete guide to a Keele University SPIRE trip to Brussels
By Eleanor Fisher

18 students, two lecturers, one SPIRE trip to Brussels to learn about the EU institutions…Right after the UK voted to leave the EU. What could possibly go wrong?

The answer? Nothing. All went to plan…(mostly)! Although, with politics and law students you can’t go four days without a conversation about Brexit and the single market along with its relation to freedom of movement.

Sleepy-eyed students met between 9:00 and 9:30am at ‘The Lovers’ statue in St Pancras International. Not recognising many faces, we were all a little nervous about the days ahead, however you wouldn’t know why now! Chris handed out our tickets, and told us three rules for the trip:

Rule 1: Be punctual.

Rule 2: Chris and Liz are serious about rule 1.

Rule 3: This is an educational trip as much as it is a fun trip.

I don’t think any of us fully understood the third rule until we were handed a quiz once we boarded the Eurostar, with prizes for the highest score…Thanks Chris! With very limited knowledge of the EU, I attempted the quiz of the EU institutions, which included questions such as ‘Who is the President of the EU Commission?’ and ‘How many MEPs sit in the European Parliament?’. With some educated guessing and knowledge from the preliminary reading, Louise and I managed to gain a score of 18.5 out of 24. Good, but not enough to win the prize. However, we knew that after the trip, we would pass with flying colours!

Once we arrived at Brussels Midi/Zuid station, we took a fifteen minute walk to our accommodation and had a group meeting about the itinerary for the next few days, jam packed with visits to all the EU institutions. Then, we were loose to sightsee around Brussels.

It was quite clear that the girls and boys held different opinions on the meaning of the word ‘sightseeing’…


All joking aside though, once 8:15am hit on Tuesday

  • morning, we were ready for business, visiting the Committee of the Regions promptly at 9:30am. Here we learned all about the functions of the Committee in representing local and regional governments, how often they meet, and how they influence the European Commission and European Parliament. Our visit here was followed by the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) which is based in the same building and represents wider civil society interests in EU policy. We spoke to a member of the committee who told us about her role and answered our questions about Brexit and the impact the result of the referendum will have on the committees and the UK’s place in the EU institutions. After lunch, we visited the UK Permanent Representation to the EU (which acts as the British embassy to the EU). We were privileged enough to speak to a senior representative who told us about his role in the institution, the EU’s legislative process, how the UK influences the EU, and again, answered our questions about Brexit and the single market.

That evening, we had the chance to properly get to know one another, with a group social event, including dinner and drinks (after all, you can’t go to Brussels and try the beer!).

Trying to get a table for 20 was a bit of a struggle, but after speaking bad French, and negotiating with the waiters to have two tables of nine, we managed to all get together!

Wednesday was more relaxed, with the morning to ourselves to do more ‘sightseeing’ and waffle-consuming. This left the afternoon for us to visit the European Commission, the most (in)famous EU institutions which proposes EU legislation and implement EU policies. We received multiple freebies such as stylish European Commission bags,(which worked as a helpful substitute for my broken backpack), notepads, pens… and, saving the best for last, EU badges! More importantly, though, we had a very informative talk from a Commission official about the citizen knowledge and engagement with the EU. We learnt about the history of the Commission with the aid of an interactive timeline. Our briefing on the EU citizens initiative was held in a formal meeting room fully equipped with translation facilities.


Here we learnt about future plans for EU citizenship and the various schemes the Commission are discussing to improve issues such as employment, climate change, trade, migration, economy, and the EU as a global actor.

Wednesday evening was just as enjoyable, as we all went out for a ‘last supper’ in a restaurant on the Grande Place. This gave us an opportunity to take allgroup-meal sorts of local Belgian cuisine, ranging from horse steak, to rabbit stew. It was amazing to be amongst the lively atmosphere in the centre of the city and tasting the food that the restaurant had to offer!

Thursday eventually came, and Liz and Chris weren’t quite finished educating us all. We still had two more institutions to visit, and plenty more to learn. We left the hotel just slightly after Chris had planned (much to his dismay), ready to visit the Council of the European Union. Now, Chris was insistent that we were there promptly at 9:00am. However, there just happened to be a national protest that day, preventing any public transport operating to our desired destination. Chris was surprisingly calm, but we couldn’t help but capture the look of panic when he found out we might be a little late…

frenzied-chrisPanic over, we managed to board a train to Bruxelles-Schuman station (named after one of the EU’s ‘founding fathers’) to begin our visit to the Council of the European Union. This institution represents the governments of the EU member states. There we spoke a senior official in the Council in a meeting room usually used for working group committees where ambassadors from each member state negotiate over EU policy. We learnt the seating order reflects the order of rotating Council presidency (currently held by Slovakia). We were given a very informative briefing on the role of the Council in the EU’s legislative process. We also learnt about the Council’s hierarchy, from the working groups, to COREPER I and II, through to the ministerial level. His talk was captivating and left us (and me in particular) wishing to be a part of such an influential institution.

Next up was the European Parliament which, with the Council of the EU, jointly decideslearning most EU legislation. We were shown around the Parliament’s hemicycle and learnt about several art installations and sculptures which symbolised Europe (including a Nordic Noir crime novel written by a Swedish MEP about a man who fell from the twelfth floor of the Parliament onto the sculpture and impaled himself). Unfortunately this tale hadn’t been translated into English so we were unable to read it! Anyway, we learnt about the role of the European Parliament in representing EU citizens and approving EU legislation (and even how Nigel Farage keeps a personal Union flag on his desk in the hemicycle). We then spoke to Daniel Dalton, a Conservative MEP from the West Midlands, who informed us on the role and work of an MEP and tried his best to answer all of our complex questions on Brexit (it was a recurring theme on this trip!), the refugee crisis and the status of Gibraltar.

I found it extremely interesting to learn about all the different stages of the EU’s legislative process and all the institutions involved (some of which I wasn’t aware even existed!). It was also interesting to learn just how many people are involved in the EU institutions, whether it is translating speakers so that representatives can understand and follow (as everyone has the right to listen and read in their own language – there are 24 in total) or actively taking part in advising or influencing the decision making process in EU legislation. Although the UK is sadly leaving the EU, I felt privileged to learn in so much detail about the institutions that have shaped our country and law. Finally, with enough Brussels merchandise by my side, I’d like to say huge thank you to all the people that took time out of their schedules to talk to us and answer our questions, and to Chris and Liz for leading the group safely around Brussels, and putting up with us all for four days!


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What’s the difference between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ Brexit?

Professor Robert Ladrech – SPIRE

Britain’s prime minister, Theresa May, has been keen to reiterate that “Brexit means Brexit”. But, despite her insistence, at least two types of Brexit are being discussed: “hard” and “soft”. They relate to the type of deal that the UK negotiates with the EU. A significant reason for the delay in triggering the Article 50 process of withdrawal is to give the government time to work out what deal it wants and what position to take in its negotiations with the EU over leaving.

The battle lines have been drawn between those in government who want a clean or “hard” exit and those who want to preserve, above all else, membership in the EU’s single market – a “soft” exit. Between these two broad positions there can be a variety of differences, but they lean in one or the other direction.

The case for ‘soft’

The soft Brexit position is predicated on the assumption that leaving the EU’s single market will cause a painful shock to the British economy, both for exporting manufactured goods, as well as financial and banking services. Norway is a member of the single market but not an EU member, and makes financial contributions to the EU budget.

The argument by soft Brexit supporters is that outside of the single market, British goods and services may not be as competitive as they are within it today. This is because within the single market and customs union there are no additional levies on British goods traded with the EU; outside they are subject to World Trade Organisation rules which would allow the EU to place extra costs on British goods.

Freedom of movement is a package deal. (Shutterstock)

This argument may also reflect a feeling that the British economy is still in a fragile state after the financial crisis. But the soft option increasingly looks untenable for several reasons. Above all, the EU insists that membership of its single market includes all four freedoms of movement: capital, goods, services and people.

Politically, it is highly unlikely that the UK’s Conservative government is going to continue to allow the free movement of people from other EU member states into the UK, especially after immigration was highlighted as a red line for many in the Conservative Party – including members, voters and many MPs.

Plus, a soft Brexit would undermine the Leave campaign promise to “take back control” of law-making from Brussels, as the UK would still remain subject to regulations and other legislation concerning single market issues, but without any formal say in the decision making (the Norway situation). This would be a step backwards in terms of parliamentary sovereignty.

Finally, the European Court of Justice would still preside over jurisprudence that affected UK legislation, another step away from Leave promises.

Hard Brexit

Those advocating a hard Brexit argue that the UK has a glorious future completely shorn of any links with the EU. Prominent in this camp are the Leave campaigners that are now government ministers with a role in the Brexit negotiations, such as the new international trade secretary, Liam Fox. He hailed Brexit as an opportunity for Britain to become an independent member of the WTO.

No softie: Liam Fox. (Chatham House, CC BY)

If the UK leaves its membership of the EU single market, the alternative would probably be a trading relationship based on WTO rules. These allow for a degree of tariff restrictions, and then later some type of free trade agreement between the UK and EU (the new Canada-EU trade agreement is held up as a model). Hard Brexit supporters argue that the single market with its attendant responsibilities is too high a price to pay for access. Besides, for such supporters, the free movement of people is a political non-starter.

To a certain extent, the soft and hard Brexit perspectives reflect differences in opinion over how resilient the British economy will be outside of the EU’s single market. Soft Brexit is based on a pessimistic view of how well it will fare and how reliant it is on financial services. Comments by multinational corporations that a hard Brexit may cause them to curb their future investment in the UK is proof enough for soft Brexiteers that the risks of leaving the single market are too high.

The hard Brexiteers are more optimistic. They believe that after a short-term wobble, the UK economy – the fifth largest in the world they quickly point out – will establish a new and competitive position in global trade. Politically, at least, the pendulum appears to be swinging towards the hard side.

The Conversation

Robert Ladrech is Professor of European Politics in the School of Politics, Philosophy, International Relations and Environment at Keele University.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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Speech: Why Britain should remain in EU

The following is a speech delivered by Dr Helen Parr, Senior Lecturer in International Relations in SPIRE, during the Keele Student Union Debating Society debate on the EU Referendum, held at Keele University on 7 March 2016


For me, the case for staying in the EU is chiefly about 3 things.

It’s about Britain’s identity; it’s about Britain’s influence; and it’s about European peace and prosperity.

First, Britain is different from continental Europe but Britain’s history has always been bound up with the fate of Britain’s nearest European neighbours. British governments have always seen this. Britain committed itself to war, twice in the twentieth century, to prevent a single power from dominating continental Europe; and to preserve democracy against totalitarianism, militarism, and misery. We cannot isolate ourselves from continental Europe. British identity is stronger because of its willingness to embrace change and British identity is enriched because of its engagement with other cultures. The importance of Europe to Britain’s identity is obvious. We define ourselves with and against the things that are closest to us.

Second, Britain’s influence is greater when it is a full member of the European Union. A Conservative government under Harold Macmillan recognised this in 1961 when Britain first applied to join: once it was clear that the European Economic Community was going to succeed, and once it was clear that Britain’s influence, not just in Europe, but in the world, would weaken if Britain did not fully participate. A Labour government under Harold Wilson recognised it again in 1967. Wilson wasn’t a passionate Euro-phile, but he understood that Britain had to enter the EC because the alternatives for Britain were worse. That to me seems an important centre ground. We don’t have to love the EU to know that it’s a good idea for us.

Once in the EEC, Britain has been enormously influential in shaping its development – and we should not forget this – Britain is part of the EU and has been for 43 years. Britain makes up 12.5% of the EU’s population; 14.8% of its economy and 19.4% of its exports – Britain has a lot of influence. Britain has helped to create the EU in its current form: the Single European Act, enlargement to the Eastern European countries, the recent competition agenda, are all things that have been pushed for by Britain.

Britain has also been able to stay out of the elements of integration that it does not like. Thatcher got a rebate on Britain’s budgetary contributions, Britain did not join the Euro, Britain is not in the Schengen agreement and Britain has stayed out of recent steps towards closer economic harmonisation. It is possible to be in the EU, to remain firmly British, and to shape the way it works. The EU countries want us to stay – and not only Britain, but also the EU, would be weakened if we pull out.

Thirdly, the EU was born out of the horror of the Second World War and the EU has proven adept at securing Europe’s peace and prosperity. The idea that France and Germany – those great enemies – would harness their economies together in the way that they did would have been unthinkable ten years previously, and I think that this should give us hope about the possibilities of world politics. Britain conducts just under 50% of its trade with the EU. The EU is the largest single market in the world. British people are free to live, work and travel throughout the EU – over 1m British nationals live permanently in the EU, and the UK is the EU country with the largest outflow of people to live in other EU countries each year (about 60,000 British people leave the UK each year to live and work in other EU countries). These are all reasons not to leave it.

If you look at yougov polls regarding voting intentions; areas with higher concentrations of young people – London, Manchester, Liverpool, Bristol, York – are more likely to want to stay in the EU. 63% of people aged between 19 and 29 want to stay in. Britain has been in the EU for over 40 years. 40 years from now, when people look back at this, if Britain votes to leave it will appear as a far greater change in Britain’s history, traditions and politics, particularly if it triggers a further vote on Scottish independence, than a vote to remain.


Dr Helen Parr is a Senior Lecturer in International Relations at Keele University. Her research focuses on contemporary British history and British foreign policy, particularly towards the European Community in the 1960s and 1970s. She has published widely in these areas, and is currently working on a history of the Falklands War. More on Helen’s research can be found here.

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