The EU Withdrawal Bill underwent its second reading in Parliament. Labour Remainers and Tory Brexit Mutineers rallied to stop the Bill becoming fixed in UK law and effective on 19 March 2019. The more suspicious commentators wonder if this upheaval is really about Brexit or about a divided Conservative Party’s attempt at destabilising the government. Tensions over Brexit and Theresa May’s leadership have split the party into Centrists and Thatcherites.
Amendments put forward by Labour were rejected by a Tory and DUP vote of 311-299. Manfred Weber, the German MEP and alleged ally of Angela Merkel, threw a lifeline to negotiations when he visited 10 Downing Street, then made a telecast saying he wanted Britain and the EU to remain friends after Brexit. There will be six more debating sessions before the Bill is passed to the Lords, but after that there is still another opportunity to reject the Bill in favour of no deal. It was reported that the doomsayers’ chant of “Brexodus” was fake news. There are now 112,000 more European employees in UK than in 2016.
Meanwhile in Brussels, France and Germany led the formation of PESCO, the Permanent Structured Cooperation; the “EU Army” was agreed by 23 out of 27 EU states, with the exceptions of Britain, Ireland, Denmark, Malta and Portugal. According to the EU External Action factsheet, “PESCO is a Treaty-based framework and process to deepen defence cooperation amongst EU Member States who are capable and willing to do so. The aim is to jointly develop defence capabilities and make them available for EU military operations.” Media defence experts have interpreted this as a threat to NATO and an anti-thesis to Brexit. Colonel Richard Kemp wrote in the Daily Telegraph, “We (UK) will be contributing to the European Defence Fund, the first EU central defence budget, launched this year, which will include the purchase of military assets of all kinds. Increasing amounts of our defence spending will be channeled through this fund, which will be controlled not by our Ministry of Defence but by the EU and its defence policy. The EU has even admitted the fund will be used as incentive cash to steer compliance with EU policy.” PESCO has not been decided democratically by EU citizens, whose taxes will be paying for their states’ contribution. The concept has been called “a dangerous path towards totalitarianism”. It appears to obfuscate the binding of EU states together politically using defence as the binding agent. Will President Donald Trump object to this apparent diversion of defence budgets that could be going to NATO, or will he appreciate that Europe is taking the initiative for its own security?
The Chancellor’s Budget will be presented on Wednesday, nobody knows yet if it will be a team effort between Philip Hammond and Theresa May, or if it will further exacerbate the relationship between No. 10 and No. 11. One of the key issues is if the Budget will boost home ownership.