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Now that the Brexit talks have started, Parliament will be deeply involved in scrutinising the negotiations (although it has no formal role there) and the domestic legislation needed to implement Brexit.


The UK and EU have agreed that the negotiations will start with a monthly cycle of meetings, working groups on citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and other separation issues, and a special procedure for discussions on the Ireland/Northern Ireland border. Meetings are scheduled up to October.

It’s not clear yet what other issues might be included in a withdrawal agreement, or what might be for any future relations agreement with the EU. Since the election, the issue of a possible transitional period has become more prominent, and there are also many questions over the role of the Court of Justice of the EU. But the UK has stated it will not seek membership of the single market or the customs union after Brexit.

Both sides have agreed to ‘transparency’, and some negotiating documents have already been published on both the EU Commission and UK Government websites, including detailed EU position papers on citizens’ rights and the financial settlement. It is not clear whether Parliament will have any further ‘privileged’ access to documents.  

There are calls for the UK’s devolved administrations to be more involved in the negotiations.

If a withdrawal agreement is finalised, the Government has promised Parliament a vote on it (though some have argued another Act of Parliament is needed at that stage). If there is no withdrawal agreement, or if Parliament votes against it, the UK is expected to leave the EU without any deal at the end of 29 March 2019. Both parties agree that this outcome should be avoided.

After Brexit, important aspects of our relations with the EU and with other countries (trade, regulatory cooperation, fisheries, airline services, nuclear safety…) will move out of the EU scrutiny system into international treaties. So another question for Parliament is whether or how it will scrutinise these future treaties.

Domestic legislation

Leaving the EU will require major changes to the UK’s constitutional framework and to the statute book. But repealing all EU law on Brexit day would leave ‘black holes’ in the law governing how we live and work.

The Queen’s Speech announced eight Bills to tackle this: as well as a Repeal Bill (which was the subject of a White Paper before the election), there will be an Immigration Bill, International Sanctions Bill, Nuclear Safeguards Bill, Agriculture Bill, Fisheries Bill, Trade Bill and Customs Bill to make substantive changes. The Government’s background briefing notes add that ‘further legislation will be introduced to support [a withdrawal agreement] if and when required.

Balancing the Repeal Bill’s two main aims of constitutional change and legal stability will require considerable ingenuity, and it will probably include complex legal mechanisms with far-reaching constitutional effects.

One of the main issues for most if not all these Bills is the extent of the powers that might be delegated to the Government: firstly to legislate to ‘correct’ EU-derived law to function effectively after Brexit; and secondly to make substantive changes to implement the withdrawal deal that will still be under negotiation as the Bills go through Parliament. How will Parliament balance the need to pass an unprecedented volume of law with the need for appropriate parliamentary scrutiny?

Another main issue is how the Bills and associated secondary legislation will deal with devolved issues. The Repeal Bill could require a legislative consent (‘Sewel’) motion in Scotland. It is also expected to create powers to enable Ministers in devolved governments to make corrections to EU-related laws that fall within devolved competence. The Government’s background briefing notes say that, as a transitional measure, the Bill would ‘replicate the common UK frameworks created by EU law in UK law, and maintain the scope of devolved decision-making powers immediately after exit’.

A further question is how we will know exactly what law is in force after Brexit. The Government will have to make arrangements to ensure that any EU law that is transferred into domestic law, for example EU regulations, is publicly accessible.

Foreign affairs and defence

Wider foreign policy challenges

Looking beyond Brexit, the UK faces a host of other foreign policy challenges.

The Queen said in her speech that her government would “continue to drive international efforts that increase global security and project British values around the world.”

UK foreign policy will continue to be strongly influenced by US policy, which means that the intentions of the Trump Administration are crucial.

His campaign suggested that, as President, Donald Trump would operate an “America first” foreign policy; allies would have pay for their defence and international interventions that were not obviously in the US national interest would be avoided. He also outlined a more friendly approach to Russia and made defeating ISIS and other jihadi terrorist groups top priority.

Tension between building up an unchallenged military superiority and then showing more restraint in deploying it was pointed up by the cruise missile strike on Syria. In the face of momentous events it is difficult to resign from the job of World Policeman.

Donald Trump has described the Iran nuclear deal as “terrible” and there is pressure from conservatives in Washington to impose further sanctions. European countries are likely to argue for the preservation of the nuclear deal.

These factors suggest worsening relations – the Institute for the Study of War predicts that a major conflict between the US and Iran is likely in the next five years, and this could affect the conflict in Syria and Iraq.

In Syria and Iraq, the UK is now the second biggest contributor to the international coalition against ISIS.

ISIS has lost territory and about half its fighters, according to the US-led coalition. The Syrian government, helped by Russia and Iran, has also improved its position markedly, re-establishing control over Syria’s second city, Aleppo. It now looks unlikely that the Syrian government will fall.

Nevertheless, a lasting political settlement remains distant. Any government that looked like the present one would lack legitimacy – the Syrian government is responsible for far more deaths in the conflict than any other.

The Russian/Iranian alliance that has boosted the Syrian government may come under strain over a final settlement.

The state of US-China relations will also have a considerable impact on the UK. The UK wants to preserve its longstanding alliance with the US while strengthening its ties with China.

Since he took office, President Trump’s actions have been in marked contrast to his campaign rhetoric. He appears now to have accepted the validity of the ‘One China’ policy. He and Chinese president Xi Jinping have met and there has been greater cooperation over North Korea.

But many remain issues where interests diverge widely – for example, the South China Sea. If the US-China relationship were to turn sour again, the UK might find itself having to choose between two incompatible objectives.

Defence and the armed forces

The Queen’s Speech announced a new Armed Forces (Flexible Working) Bill. The intention of the Bill is to support retention and recruitment in the armed forces by enabling flexible working arrangements for regular Service personnel, subject to operational demands. It is part of a package of measures to update the ‘offer’ to Service personnel. The proposed measures are likely to particularly appeal to women, for whom the Government has set itself a target of increasing the proportion of women from 10% to 15% by 2020.

Since 2010, UK defence policy and the armed forces have undergone significant change. A massive programme of reform and restructuring has been implemented to allow the MOR to make savings, as well as achieve a leaner and more agile force that meets the UK’s needs by 2020. Much of that reform process is still ongoing amidst constantly changing global challenges. British forces are currently involved in more than 30 operations in over 20 countries.

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