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Politics @ Surrey blog

  • As we await the verdict of tomorrow’s European Council on the move to Phase 2, it’s perhaps useful to reflect on the decision-making style of Theresa May.

    Last night provided a vivid illustration of this, with the amendment to the Withdrawal Bill, which provides Parliament with a vote on the final deal. We might discuss on another occasion how meaningful this is as a policy, given the likely political and time constraints, but its value for present purposes lies in the way it came about.

    In essence, there are two ways you can make decisions: open or closed.

    In an open model, you aim to build a consensus. That means reaching out to different voices and opinions, finding common ground. This makes it slower and more incremental, since you often have to work around specific concerns, but the pay-off is that you have a broader base for embedding the decision in the longer-term. As someone mentioned to me the other day, there’s a value in reaching across the aisle, if you know there’s a chance the other lot might be in power before too long.

    The closed model is much more focused on power. You gather enough of it to overcome opposition at veto points (like votes) and you horde it as much as possible. Because your supporting community is smaller, you can be more agile and are likely to make fewer compromises on the way, but without the inclusivity of the open method: it doesn’t matter if they don’t like, because they have to follow your decision, and they might come round in the end, in a realpolitik kind of way.

    I’m putting May firmly in this latter camp, not just on Brexit, but throughout her political career. Perhaps it was a function of her long stint as Home Secretary – the Home Office has never been a place to promote inclusive policy-making – but it is clear that she does not care to share power any more than is necessary.

    In the context of Brexit, we see this time and again. As Prime Minister, she has always kept the strategic planning to Number 10, gate-keeping through the (rare) speech and her slogans on the meaning of Brexit. The taking over of the final phases of Article 50 talks in recent weeks points to her desire not let Davis run loose. Her resistance to the High Court challenge from Miller and to Grieve’s amendment last night point to an unwillingness to open up domestic decision-making.

    This is all quite understandable. The country faces a severe test of its abilities and intent, and May wants to have as much control as possible to pilot the very rough seas: her whole pitch to the party last summer was centred around her being the steady pair of hands, the calm leader in times of trouble. ‘Trust me’, she was saying, ‘but let me get on with it’.

    But this all points to the fundamental weakness of the closed model: it’s brittle.

    The point at which May lost control probably came with this year’s general election. It robbed her of her aura of determination and crystallised all those doubts that existed in the minds of others. The abruptness of that shift was all too visible, but it happens in almost every case of closed approaches: the signs are there around David Davis, especially after the fallout from Sunday’s interview with Andrew Marr (something that might still get much worse tomorrow).

    Once broken, it’s very hard to repair the closed model, just as it’s hard to shift to an open model: May is temperamental not inclined to such a shift and others might mistrust her new-found openness.

    Which leaves us with a question about what happens now.

    For some, last night’s Parliamentary rebellion is the marker of a new, open model: Parliament will take the edges off the hardness and build on the latent consensus for a soft Brexit, maybe even ending up with full Single Market and Customs Union membership (rather than just ‘full alignment’). The absence of other credible leaders for the May-ist model might seem to point that way too.

    But this risks over-determining last night. It remains far from clear that Labour is now solidly whipping for a particular outcome – as opposed to just making life uncomfortable for the Tories – or that Tory rebels have broad-enough common cause with the other parties.  Much feels as if it is still about opposing May, rather than a more positive project for Brexit.

    Of course, negative projects can succeed – witness the EU referendum – but once beyond the thing you dislike, life becomes a lot more problematic – again, witness Brexit.

    As long as the UK and British political debate remain stuck in debating why they don’t like things, they will find that – open or closed – they are much more likely to be the recipient than the instigator of meaningful political decisions.

  • Sometimes one has the impression that everyone involved in European politics is a big fan of Douglas Adams: certainly, as far as Article 50 goes, each new day brings absurdity piled upon absurdity.

    The last week has made this point better than most, with the sudden rush to agreement on Monday then brutally undercut and a new stasis emerging.

    It’s easy to be very negative about it all – confirming as it seemingly does – everything you thought was wrong with everything.

    But for once I’d prefer to stress the positives from the latest batch of events, in the spirit of goodwill to all.

    The most obvious positive to take away from it all is the capacity of both sides to demonstrate flexibility and movement in their positions.

    Prior to the start of last week, there had been little evidence for this. The British government had stuck to its vague pronouncements that didn’t cohere, while the EU seemed to be on a loop in restating its principles and red-lines.

    The apparent clarification on finances helped to open this up: the UK committed more clearly to honouring the large bulk of current liabilities, including the RAL (which makes up most of these), which removed one of the biggest blocks in the road. More importantly, the finances was the most fungible of the Phase I issues and the most pressing for most of the EU27, so it set a positive tone for what might come next. The money was thus both important in itself and as a marker of intent, not to mention signalling that the UK might come round much more to the EU’s position than the other way around.

    Even if citizens’ rights was still stuck on the role of the CJEU – something that will be coming back before long – the second key development was a consensus among the negotiators that a statement of intent on the Irish border would be enough to move this latter topic on to ‘sufficient progress’.

    This matters because the underlying difficulties of resolving the border question remain as stark as ever. The incompatibility of the EU’s single market, the Good Friday Agreement, the common travel area, UK territorial integrity and UK withdrawal from the single market/customs union has no solution in purely formal terms. Even the UK’s vagueness about ‘technical solutions’ couldn’t really address this point, as Dublin had made repeatedly clear.

    Importantly, Phase I is the point at which Ireland has the most leverage, especially since the rest of the EU appeared to stand squarely behind it: to let the UK get away with what it had offered previously would be to risk losing any chance to pin it down, as the agenda moved on.

    The compromise then was to work on a statement of principles that would apply whatever the outcome – i.e. including a no-deal scenario – to keep the border open and the GFA operative. With some linguistic fancy footwork on ‘regulatory alignment‘, it was possible to carve out a bit of space whereby the EU could claim no regulatory gap – so removing on key arm for needing a hard border – and the UK could claim it had its own regulatory process – albeit one that one have to very closely follow EU rules.

    Put differently, the EU moved on form – from a detailed plan to a detailed set of principles – while the UK moved on substance – effectively tying themselves into the EU’s preferences and regulation.

    This compromise seemed to work well enough for all the principals to sign off on it, right up to the point that the DUP raised their objections. But this shouldn’t obscure that the movement took place at all. It now sets the agenda for the work going on right now.

    And this is the second big positive to take away: everyone’s working very hard for a deal.

    Of all the counter-productive language since last June, ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’ has been the most problematic (and the one producing the firmest response from experts).

    Every since Monday afternoon, when the wheels came off the compromise deal, figures on all sides have been very keen to stress the positives. The May-Juncker press conference was very brief, but couched entirely in such language, while briefings on all sides kept to the script too. While it would have been tempting to stick the boot into the DUP, the Irish government has made repeated positive noises about the chances of salvaging a new text this week or next, and appears determined not to rock the boot for May.

    Just as important has been the language in the UK. With Davis distracted by the impact assessments this week – which also says something about the British situation – it was May taking the lead and again pushing the line that agreement was still possible. While it might be understandable, given her position, it was also apparent that most of her party wasn’t trailing the ‘no deal’ line and that Labour was challenging her competence, rather than the substance of what she had negotiated.

    Most importantly in all of this is the Douglas Adams point about deadlines. Yesterday had been set by the EU as the last date to get text agreed in time for the EU27 to discuss prior to next week’s European Council. That has now drifted out to at least tomorrow and possibly early next week. Moreover, Leo Varadkar’s statements also open up the possibility of a special European Council early in the new year, should things not pan out, so that Phase II doesn’t have to wait until February.

    Taken together, the impression is that Article 50 is still a going concern and that all sides are serious about making it happen. Certainly, the UK still has tremendous problems with its internal politics, but the fact that it could move as it did should give cause for some positivity about it all.

    But a final word of caution. This past week also suggests that the outcome of Article 50 is now likely to be only one of two outcomes: either a deal very largely on EU terms, or a complete lack of agreement. The middle path of a more tailored deal looks less and less probably now. That might sound good to some, but the polarisation of outcomes also raises dangers, especially as and when Phase II opens.

  • The past week has seen a flurry of activity on Article 50 negotiations, as the various parties race to make progress in time for consideration by the December European Council: it is likely that the next week will see further developments on this front.

    However, seen in the round, the past month has done little to change the chances of reaching an agreement by next October: after the blockage around the last European Council, this period could only reasonably be expected to have got things back on the track they’d been on. As such, the estimates I’ve given in my graphic on barriers to agreement remain unchanged again this month: I probably under-estimated them last month, so this is a bit of a correction.

    Overall, I’d put the chances of a final deal at about 60%, although much will hang on the extent to which the EU27 work together to protect Irish interests (see my thread from yesterday).

    If the December European Council can’t agree the opening of Phase II, then the situation will become very much harder, especially if the UK then rows back on the finances.

    As ever, please do share these, and point out any and all errors.

    In other news, tomorrow I will be taking up the position of Deputy Director of UK in a Changing Europe. I’ll still be based at Surrey, but will organise a series of events around the country (if you’d like us to visit you, then drop me a line), as well as doing a bunch of other out-reach and dissemination activities, plus some original research.

    And no, it won’t change me or the work I’ve been doing up until now. Sorry.


    PDF versions: A50 progress Nov 17: A50 barriers Nov 17A50 timeline Nov 17

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