The reluctance of the Home Office to deny publicly that it is reconsidering the restoration of the death penalty – an example of government-media relations

15th January 2021

On 25th December 2020, of all days, the following was tweeted:

There are three immediate things to observe about this tweet.

First, the content.

This is a sensational claim but it is one which, for some people, would seem plausible.

The home secretary is a past supporter of the death penalty and the home secretary is also known as being willing to use home office policy on ‘law and order’ in a politicised way.

And elsewhere the United States has resumed federal executions in the run-up to a presidential election, and the similarly populist government of Turkey has signalled that it would want to reintroduce capital punishment.

Second, the provenance.

The account is anonymous but it does have a reasonably sized following, including followers from many areas of law and the media.

The account does not link to a site for the organisation named, and nor does a Google search indicate that the organisation has any existence beyond that twitter account.

We therefore do not know who the “us” is in the tweet and how much credibility their claim should have.

As such the claim cannot and should not be accepted without corroboration.

(This is not to diss the named organisation and what they campaign for, but is just a normal exercise in fact-checking.)

Third, the circulation of thee tweet.

As of today, the tweet has had an extraordinarily wide circulation.

It has had around 1,800 retweets and 1,900 quote-tweets – often from accounts that have accepted the claim in the tweet to be true or at least plausible.

This means a considerable number of people will now believe that the claim is correct or at least has some substance to it: that the home secretary has asked civil servants at the home office to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty.

(I do not have access to the tweet’s analytics, but in my experience, such a widely circulated tweet would have been seen by over one hundred thousand and possibly up to a million other twitter users – for that is the multiplying effect of thousands of retweets and quote-tweets.)

At this stage, now click on and read this magnificent post by Matthew Scott on the legal and practical difficulties of such a restoration of the death penalty, including the range of international legal instruments that prohibit such a restoration by the United Kingdom.

In essence: the United Kingdom could, in principle, restore the death penalty – it is a sovereign nation – but it would be in breach of many international agreements if it did so.

*

So either the claim is true – which would be important for us to know – or it is untrue – and, in view of the extraordinarily wide circulation of the tweet, it would be also important for the false claim to be publicly corrected.

(In saying that the claim may be untrue, this again is not to diss the account that tweeted – they may be only as good as their source, and it is possible they heard this from a‘little bird’ in good faith.)

I happen to be in the process of preparing and writing a few things at different titles (and here on this blog) that touch on populism and the use (and misuse and abuse) of law.

I had seen the tweet several times in quote tweets, and so my first step was to find out whether there was any other relevant information in the public domain.

 

There was none.

And so it seemed that the claim should be put to the home office to ascertain whether it was true.

My email query was:

“There is a widely circulated assertion that the Home Secretary has asked Civil Service to scope a policy paper on the restoration of the death penalty – source: https://twitter.com/BameFor/status/1342495556732649478 

Can I please have a Home Office statement on this? Normally, and view of UK’s international obligations, one would expect a straight denial, without equivocation.”

*

At this stage, I expected to just get an email containing either a bland denial that the claim was untrue or perhaps an equally bland if evasive statement about not commenting on tweets.

What happened instead was a telephone call where I was told that the claim was ‘rubbish’.

Now ‘rubbish’ is one of those press officer words – like ‘nonsense’ and ‘ridiculous’ – that is used instead of a straight denial such as ‘incorrect’.

And any telephone call from a press office is rarely about providing information (that is what emails are for), it is about the press office trying to obtain information about what is to be published and then attempting to shape what is published – and not published.

It was quickly plain that the home office did not want anything published on this at all, notwithstanding the wide circulation of the original tweet.

So I asked for a statement in writing (I never take quotes over the telephone, especially not from government press offices).

The press office’s response to this request was to question its journalistic value (although one would think that a journalist is in a better place than a press office than to make that assessment).

Given the significance and the circulation of the original claim, it seemed to me that there should be a home office statement on the record.

Indeed, you would expect that the home office would be proud and open in stating that the United Kingdom was complying with its international obligations.

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Later yesterday afternoon a statement was emailed:

“This is a completely untrue and unsubstantiated claim from an unverified Twitter account. We are surprised that despite telling [you] this, [you] are still insisting on reporting it.”

The references ‘[you]’ in the statement is to the title they assumed would publish the statement.

The statement is worth unpacking.

The explicit reference to ‘despite telling [you] this’ placed beyond doubt that the telephone conversation was not ‘background’ – the public statement only makes sense if the previous conversation was also on the record.

The ‘completely’ and ‘unsubstantiated’ are both examples of over-emphasis – if the claim is untrue, then that is all that needs to be said.

(Like a politician who says ‘absolutely clear’ instead of ‘clear’, such additional words indicate potential evasion and misdirection.)

The denial is limited to the content and detail of the tweet – there is no general statement such as ‘the home office will not be restoring capital punishment’ and still less ‘the home office is proud to respect and comply with the international obligations of the United Kingdom’

Instead of such statements, there is an explicit attack on the credibility of the source and an implicit attack on the journalistic point of even putting this claim to the home office.

The ‘insisting’ is a perfect touch – and yes, one should insist that the home office should publicly state its position on restoring capital punishment when there is widely circulated claim that such restoration is being considered.

The home office wanted the statement to either be unusable or, if published, to discredit the news title publishing the story.

(I am happy to publish the public statement here, with the appropriate context set out.)

All this, instead of a simple statement that the claim was untrue and a statement that the home office is not seeking to reintroduce capital punishment and the United kingdom will comply with its international obligations.

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There is nothing special about what happened here – this is what happens every day between government press offices and anyone in the media seeking to obtain information which the government does not want to publish.

The only difference is that I am in a position to set out the exchange on this blog.

It is a good thing that, despite their initial reluctance, the home office was able to publicly confirm that a widely circulated claim that restoration of the death penalty was “completely untrue and unsubstantiated”.

It is disappointing that the home office sought to do this with a quote intended to deter the use of the quote and thereby prevent any coverage of that denial.

And it is disappointing, but not surprising, that despite the public interest in such a widely circulated claim being openly denied, the home office insisted on going about it in this way instead.

*****

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Why the campaign to ‘rejoin’ the European Union is misconceived – the campaign must make a positive and sustainable case for membership, regardless of Brexit and the past

10th January 2021

For many who were ‘Remainers’ the obvious next step is to become ‘Rejoiners’ with the object of ‘reversing Brexit’.

And in pursuing this object they will understandably point to the many misfortunes and problems that have been – and will be – caused by Brexit.

The hope, if not expectation, seems to be that the sheer accumulation of adverse evidence will mean that a sufficient people will see ‘what we have lost’ and this will lead to political pressure for the United Kingdom to quickly rejoin the European Union.

This approach may work – one lesson from the last five years is just how quickly politics can change, and in any direction.

But.

For the following three reasons, this blog submits that such an approach is misconceived and avers that a different approach should be adopted by those who want the United Kingdom to be a successful applicant for membership of the European Union.

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The first reason is that the emphasis on the ‘re-‘ in ‘rejoining’ – especially if that is based on relying on the adverse consequences of departure – is not a positive case for membership.

There needs to be more than the simple application of the pleasure-pain principle.

One feature of the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was that since at least the completion of the single market in 1992 there was never a positive case made for membership in frontline politics.

Instead, the two biggest political parties competed with each other as to which was the one that secured the more opt-outs, whether it be the Euro, the social chapter, free movement of peoples, justice and home affairs, or so on.

The case, if any, for the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union was that it was ‘less bad’ than any alternative.

This scepticism and often outright hostility was also a feature of much of the news reporting of the same period – and such was the lack of popular understanding of the role and nature of the European Union that it was easily made to blame for things for which it was not responsible.

And after twenty-five or so years of such negativity, it was perhaps more surprising that the 2016 referendum was so close than that the remain side lost.

It was not so much that the leave side won the 2016 referendum that the remain side lost.

This mistake should not be repeated.

The case for European Union should be a positive one – and that means that it should be a case based on the advantages that membership of the European Union will have for the United Kingdom.

What would be the benefits of membership of the European Union, which could not be attained in any other way?

For, as this blog was previously contended, those in favour of membership have a challenge.

Can you, for example, make out the case for the United Kingdom joining the European Union without reference to the fact that the United Kingdom was a member?

If a compelling case cannot be made for the United Kingdom in the here-and-now to become a member of the European Union then it is difficult, if not impossible. to see how sufficient political support can be achieved for a viable application for membership.

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The second reason is the United Kingdom is highly unlikely be able to ‘rejoin’ quickly.

The notion that somehow the European Union will gladly accept a United Kingdom quickly bouncing back and pretending nothing had changed is a fantasy.

Indeed, it is just a new variant form of British (or English) exceptionalism.

The new trade and cooperation agreement is structured for the medium to longer-term.

As I set out in this new Financial Times video, the agreement is a ‘broad…framework’ for discrete supplementary agreements over time, with any more significant shifts (either in the the direction of closeness or otherwise) being on a five-year review cycle.

 

And this accords with the five-year cycle on which the European Union conducts its own business.

We can no longer snap our fingers and demand immediate attention, loudly and in English.

The United Kingdom is now on the outside, looking in.

And as this blog has previously averred, the European Union will understandably want to take time to see if the internal politics of the United Kingdom have settled down in favour of membership of the European Union.

The European Union will not want to let the United Kingdom back in only to have to devote time and effort in dealing with another Brexit, like some geo-political Groundhog Day.

The European Union will also want to see what happens to the United Kingdom itself over the next few years: Irish unification? Scottish (or even Welsh) independence?

What will be the situation of the European Union and of the world in 2026? 2031? 

Therefore there not only needs to be a positive case for United Kingdom membership of the European Union, it has to be a sustainable case too.

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The third reason is that an emphasis on ‘rejoin’ and ‘reversing Brexit’ carries a real risk of campaigners eternally refighting the 2016 referendum.

Like some historical re-enactment society, but for the battle of Brexit rather than the battle of Naseby.

Of course, remainers are right to have grievances about the circumstances of the referendum and the conduct of the campaign(s) for leave.

Remainers also are right to complain about the process (or lack of process) that followed the referendum and which has resulted in the United Kingdom ceasing first to be a member of the European Union and then having the protection of the transition arrangements.

Nothing in this post should be taken to mean that that the politicians who have made serious misjudgments about law and policy should not be held to account – indeed that is one purpose of this blog.

But pointing out problems and failings, either now or back in 2016, is not going to lead to the United Kingdom becoming (again) a member of the European Union.

This is not only because it is difficult to get a sufficient number of voters engaged, and that government supporters and Brexiters are so deft at evasion and misdirection.

It is because there is a fundamental disconnect between problem and solution.

Whether the United Kingdom becomes (again) a member of the European Union in 2026 – or whenever – will not be a logical consequence of redressing the wrongs and of 2016 or even those emerging in 2021.

Membership of the European Union may be a prize, but it will not be a consolation prize.

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The task ahead for those in favour of the United Kingdom (again) becoming a member of the European Union is immense.

A positive case has to be made over time so that the European Union will seriously consider a fresh application.

But that is not an impossible task.

And at least, unlike the supposedly ‘pro-European’ politicians of the last thirty or forty years, this will be a positive case.

One problem with the politics of the United Kingdom in recent decades is that the positive case for membership of the European Union was rarely made.

Now is the opportunity for that to be put right.

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Trump’s social media ban in perspective – the unpalatable difficulties of regulating political and media activity in the internet age

8th January 2021

Once upon a time, and not so long ago, mass political parties and national media organisations were themselves novelties.

Both were responses to the emergence of popular democracy and widespread literacy in the late 1800s.

Political parties and media organisations (for example, ‘Fleet Street’) were ways by which the relationships were mediated between the elite and the governed.

The means of political organisation and of publication – and, later, of broadcasting –  were in the hands of the few.

Indeed, until the 1990s, it was difficult (if not impossible) for any person to publish or broadcast to the world, without going through the ‘gatekeepers’ of a national newspaper, or a publishing house, or a national broadcaster.

Similarly, it would be difficult (if not impossible) for any person or group of people to obtain significant political influence – at least in the United Kingdom as a whole – without going through a national political party.

So – although both politics and the media on a national level had opened up to the population as whole – the ultimate means of political and media control were still quite centralised.

Top-bottom, command-and-control.

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And when power is concentrated it is easier to regulate.

So, just as modern political parties and media organisations emerged at the end of the 1800s, so did the regulation both of political parties and of the media.

Back in October 2019 I set out at Prospect why the electoral law of the United Kingdom that was developed in different circumstances was no longer fit for purpose.

Similar points can be made about media law: for example, there is no real point tightly regulating certain news titles or national broadcasters when the same content can be circulated – often even more widely – on social media platforms by those outside such creaking regulatory regimes.

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If traditional political parties and media organisations did not already exist as hangovers from the time before modern technology and communications, they probably would not now be invented, at least in a recognisable form.

And that therefore must follow for how political and media activities are regulated.

Just as traditional political parties and media organisations were once novel responses to new social and economic conditions, we need to think afresh about the nature of political and media power and about the extent, if at all, it can be regulated.

For now anyone with an internet connection and access to certain platforms can publish and broadcast to the world, or can seek and obtain significant political influence or power.

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To ‘regulate’ a thing is to make it possible that the thing would have a different outcome, but for the regulation.

If a regulation can have no effect, then the thing supposedly being regulated carries on regardless, and the regulation is a polite fiction. 

Futility is the enemy of sound regulation.

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And now we come to President Donald Trump and his recent temporary ban from Twitter and his indefinite ban from Facebook.

Neither Twitter nor Facebook are traditional media organisations – indeed both were formed within the lifetime of anyone reading this post.

But they are not only media organisations – they have also taken on some of the functions of traditional political parties – as the practical means of political organisation, mobilisation and sharing of information.

This is not to say that the social media platforms are beyond the law – they are (in theory) subject to terms and conditions, laws on equality and non-discrimination, laws on data protection and intellectual property, and so on.

It may be that these general laws are not enforced, or perhaps not enforceable – but there are laws which apply.

The issue is that those laws are general laws and not specific legal regimes covering media and political activity.

And so what we have are platforms of immense media and political power – and without any specific media and political regulation.

They are, in effect, private organisations – and (subject to general laws) are entitled to suspend and terminate, or to enable, the accounts of any politician.

They can even suspend the social media account of (arguably) the most powerful politician in the world.

And they have done so.

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For many, the way to deal with the political and media power of social media platforms is easy.

Regulate!

Something must be done, and so something will be done, and that something that will be done will be to ‘Regulate!’

But asserting that a thing should be regulated is not the same as it being capable of regulation.

One may want the tides of the sea or the weather to be different, but it does not follow that they can be made any different.

So it may be that although social media platforms – huge private corporations – have immense political and media power, it does not follow that they can be easily regulated, or regulated in any meaningful way at all.

And even if regulation was possible, it is almost certain that it cannot be on the same basis of the top-down, command-and-control regulation of political and media activity that we have inherited from previous times.

For example, social media platforms have millions of publishers and broadcasters, not just a handful.

There are no elaborate steps before publication and broadcast as with a Fleet Street title or established book publisher.

They are no limits on how much political propaganda can be published and to whom it can be circulated.

If any of this can be ‘regulated’ then it almost certainty will not be by tweaking old pre-internet regulatory models – and this is because the things being regulated are of a fundamentally different nature.

And – and this will be very hard to accept for those who believe every real-world problem has a neat legal solution – it may be that social media activity can no more be regulated meaningfully than conversations in the street or in the town square.

That the age of specific regulations for media and political activity are over, and all we are now left with are general laws.

Many will not be comfortable with this – and will insist that ‘something must be done’.

Yet futility is the enemy of sound regulation.

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Perhaps something should have been done in respect of President Donald Trump’s unpleasant, dishonest, reckless and dangerous use of his social media account before this week.

And what has now been done is too little, too late.

Others would say that silencing an elected politician’s means of communication should not be at the fiat of a private social media platform.

Views will differ.

But the wider questions are:

If a thing is to be done about the use and abuse of a social media platform by those with political and media power, who should have the power to do this?

And on what basis should they make that decision? 

And to whom (if anyone) should that decision-maker be accountable?

And if the social media platforms themselves are left to regulate what political and media activity can take place and what content we can read and watch, who (if anyone) can regulate them?

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‘Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?‘ – who watches the watchmen? – is one of the oldest and most difficult questions in the history of organised societies, and it is a question that sometimes has no answer.

And now our generation gets to ask and to try and answer this question.

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POSTSCRIPT

Later on the day of this post, Trump’s Twitter account was permanently suspended.

 

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Another national lockdown – but what is needed more than laws and their enforcement is credibility, sound policy, and for voters to care that ministers now get it right

5th January 2021

Another lockdown in England and the other constituent nations of the United Kingdom.

Another dollop of regulations containing restrictions backed by criminal sanctions, and another dollop of governmental guidance and ministerial exhortations.

This is the third national lockdown in England, and the sound of the official starting whistle is now familiar.

Will it work?

And if not, why not?

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If the lockdown is to work, it will not be by law alone.

As this blog has previously averred, law is not magic, and regulations are not spells.

It does not matter how solemn the law-making ceremony is, and how solemnly the laws are then pronounced. 

To have effect any laws need to be clear, comprehensible, and accessible.

And this has been the fault now, for over a year, with the coronavirus regulations – they are difficult to find, at least in their up-to-date and consolidated form, and impossible for a non-lawyer to follow.

Indeed, it is rumoured that there is only one person – Adam Wagner, a barrister in London – who has read and understood all the legal instruments enacted over the last year in England.

(I happen to be an experienced former government lawyer, trained in drafting statutory instruments, and with a speciality in public law and an understanding of emergency legislation – and I gave up trying to keep on top of the ever-changing increasingly complicated lump of coronavirus legislation last Autumn.)

And if the laws are not clear, comprehensible, and accessible, then – regardless of any other factor – law-making is a futile exercise.

More than mere law is needed.

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The second thing that is needed is enforcement.

Criminal laws that are not enforced are official fictions.

They are nothing more than the sort of item you get on those lists you see from time to time, of ridiculous laws from yesteryear that are still nominally in force but ignored.

And for criminal laws to be enforced, there needs to be be resources and an understanding of the law by those entrusted to enforce the law.

There also needs to be a working criminal justice system.

And there is little evidence of there being resources in place for laws to be enforced either by by police or by the courts.

Without credible enforcement, it does not matter if you keep increasing the supposed penalties to incredible amounts – like some Dr Evil boasting of a ransom of one million dollars. 

 

But more than enforcement is needed.

With a challenge of the sheer scale of a pandemic, only a totalitarian state could perhaps rely on laws and enforcement alone

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For the lockdown to work in a modern non-totalitarian society, there needs to be consent.

In essence: laws and sanctions should only have any effect at the margins, because the mass of the people will do the ‘right thing’ anyway.

And this engages the normative issues of legitimacy, accountability, fairness, and credibility.

There cannot be one law for the many, and another for those who go on day trips to Barnard Castle.

There cannot be one law on a Monday, allowing children to go back to school after the Christmas vacation, and then suddenly another law on the Tuesday.

There cannot be a demand for schools to be closed, just days after the government was – literally – threatening a council with a High Court mandatory injunction so as to keep schools open.

There cannot be many things – that is if a government genuinely wants to be taken seriously in imposing a lockdown.

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But even laws and sanctions, resources and enforcement, and consent and credibility, are not enough if the underlying policy is not sound – or seen to be sound.

And this is also a challenge for this government.

The fundamental mistake with government policy on coronavirus, as with Brexit, is that it has approached something complex as if it were quick and easy, and ministers have kept preferring crowd-pleasing gestures to dealing with the problems that they put-off.

Most of the problems of Brexit policy, and many of the problems in coronavirus policy, were foreseeable and foreseen.

Ministers were told at the time.

But ministers shrugged, and made the mistakes anyway.

Unless there is sound policy in place, blowing the official whistle for another lockdown – with all the paraphernalia of laws and guidance, and ministerial broadcasts – will not work, and cannot work.

Ministers need to get policy right – and then other benefits will follow.

This is the rub – ministers keep shrugging and crowd-pleasing and getting policy wrong, because they know they can get away with it.

In other words: ministers know that a sufficient number of voters do not care enough whether politicians are candid and competent on coronavirus, as with other things.

And so until a sufficient number of voters do care that politicians are candid and competent, we are likely to keep on hearing the whistle sound of bad policy-making and implementation, and for as long as the pandemic persists.

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The real origin of the European Union ‘supranationalist’ state – and why it still matters

4th January 2021

There is a view held by many in the United Kingdom that the European Union – and its predecessors – was not always a ‘supranational’ organisation.

That it was not always an entity which routinely transcended national boundaries.

The view is that it was once a mere innocent trading association and an international organisation – and that it was only after the United Kingdom joined in 1973 that it corrupted into a supranational organisation, which took rule-making and decision-making out of the hands of member states.

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Some will know this is not true and will point, say, to the Treaty of Rome of 1957, which established the European Economic Community, with its express determination that the treaty would lay the “foundations of an ever closer union among the peoples of Europe”.

Others will point to the 1960s caselaw of the European Court of Justice, such as the Costa v ENEL judgment of 1964 that made it as plain as a pikestaff (the lawyers’ equivalent of ‘absolutely clear’) that the domestic law of a member state was subordinate to the provisions of both the Treaty of Rome and the legal instruments made thereunder.

The United Kingdom thereby knew exactly what it was joining in 1973, and only a fool or knave could (and did) pretend otherwise.

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Yet the supranational essence of what the United Kingdom joined in 1973 was older than the Costa case of 1964, and was even older than the Treaty of Rome of 1957.

Here it is important that the United Kingdom did not just join the European Economic Community in 1973 but also another community, the deceptively unglamorous-sounding, and older, European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) of 1952.

For some, the historical fact that the United Kingdom joined more than one community in 1973 is nothing more than an answer to a quiz question, or the reason why the European Communities Act 1973 employs the plural form of community.

But it was a lot more significant than that.

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To understand why, we have to go back to the years after the second world war and the problem of what should be done about Germany – in particular, the industrial areas of Rhineland and Saarland.

In 1944 the plan was to eliminate much of this industrial capacity; and in 1946 another plan was to give France control.

But by the late 1940s neither of these strident approaches seemed sustainable, especially in view of the need to not de-stabilise (what was then) West Germany, and so another approach was needed.

In 1950, a suggestion was made that there be a ‘high authority’ be put in place, overseeing French and German coal and steel production.

And by 1951 – with the Treaty of Paris – this idea had developed into an array of supervisory institutions – not only a high authority, but also an assembly, a council of ministers and – significantly – a dedicated court, with these further institutions balancing the executive power of the high authority.

The high authority furthermore had the power to issue decisions and recommendations binding the signatories – France, West Germany, Italy and the three Benelux countries (who were already heading towards economic unity).

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So we have in 1952 the establishment of the ECSC – with a supranational group of institutions in place and with the power to make law and adjudicate disputes, ensuring adherence to shared treaty obligations.

And the key element of this arrangement was not that it was aspirational – notwithstanding the heady language of integration that accompanied it – but that it was a solidly, deeply practical solution to a problem – of what should be done in respect of the post-war industrial relationship of France and Germany.

Just as, say the Good Friday Agreement used an imaginative cross-border approach to a thorny cross-border problem, so did the Treaty of Paris.

What the Spaak Report of 1956 and the Treaty of Rome of 1957 then did was to employ this supranational approach (with shared institutions and shared law-making) on wider economic questions, as it was seen as an approach that would work.

So when the United Kingdom joined the communities in 1973, the fact that it was joining a practical supranational enterprise had been – well – as plain as a pikestaff for over twenty years.

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What makes this ‘pre-history’ significant is that it is often the view of critics of the European Union that its supranational nature is somehow airy-fairy – that it is impractical and unrealistic.

And this is seen as a contrast to rugged Anglo-Saxon empiricism and practical common sense.

The reality is that the European Union, as with its predecessor organisations the European Economic Community and ECSC, regards its supranational nature as eminently practical, as was as embodying certain ideals of European unity.

That it works.

Supranationalism is thereby an approach which has worked since 1952 – and not just somehow inflicted by surprise on the united Kingdom after 1973.

It is not as if the debate is between an unrealistic pro-European Union camp and a realistic band of critics.

The problem that the United Kingdom had for a long time when a member of the European Union is that it rarely wanted to work within a supranational organisation.

Supranationalism was, it seemed, for other people.

The United Kingdom regarded supranationalism as a bug of the European Union, and not as a feature.

So the United Kingdom sought – and obtained – opt-out after opt-out, until 2015-16 when it sought a ‘re-negotiation’ only to find the European Union could and would shift no further.

*

The supranationalism of the European Union is seventy years old.

The United Kingdom in its modern form as a collection of four nation states has only existed since 1922 – and so is a mere thirty years older than the first of the European communities. 

As this blog has previously averred, political unions come and go – and no political union can be seen as eternal.

And given that the supranationalism of the European Union is regarded as practical as well as an ideal, there is no inherent reason why the European Union will not last longer than the United Kingdom as a union of nation states.

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The last of the legal correspondents, and the true crisis in the public understanding of law

3rd January 2021

At the end of last year two legal correspondents retired.

Owen Bowcott at the Guardian:

And Clive Coleman at the BBC:

It is an end of an era.

Yes, there are still full-time legal correspondents in the United Kingdom: at the Times and at the Financial Times.

But in both those cases the journalism is behind a paywall – and that is not an accident, as funding full-time specialised correspondents in any area is an expensive business, and if you want good specialised journalism in this internet age you do have to pay for it.

With the retirements of Owen Bowcott and Clive Coleman there is now no longer (as far as I am aware, and I would be delighted to be corrected) any full-time specialised legal correspondent at any news provider whose reporting is available generally to the public.

The nearest we have is Joshua Rozenberg, who is not exclusively attached to any news organ, providing reportage and comment at a number of titles and now on his own blog.

*

Does this matter?

This demise of the legal correspondents comes at the same time where an understanding of how law works is as – if not more – important than ever.

Without legal correspondents it will be left to generalist journalists to report on, say, high-profile legal cases and the legal aspects of government policy.

And this in turn will increase the influence of (so-called) litigation PR specialists (who effectively provide copy to the media favourable to their clients involved in legal cases) and ministerial special advisers leaking spin-ridden and distorted accounts of law-related policy.

This is not to say there are not good generalist journalists reporting on legal matters but to observe that there will be an imbalance between the time-poor reporter without a bank of expertise and the well-resourced or well-informed but highly motivated source.

Having a specialised legal correspondent at a news title who was not reliant on PR or governmental sources meant there was detachment and reliability in their reports from court and the frontline of legal activity.

And this has now gone.

Something has been lost, and it will not be regained.

*

The demise of the legal correspondents, however, comes at a time where reliable legal information is more freely available than freely before.

In the United Kingdom, for example, legislation is set out at the legislation.gov site and jusdgments at the BAILII site.

The Supreme Court has an outstanding site that not only provides case reports but also summaries and other useful information, and the UK judiciary site provides not only newsworthy case reports but also the judges’ sentencing remarks in high-profile and controversial cases.

It has never been easier for the spirited citizen to gain information about the law and to understand its application in particular examples.

*

But.

Few lay people will bother – as screens full of dry text are daunting and the law is (or at least looks) complicated.

A screen suddenly full of legal verbiage is as scary or bewildering to a lay person as a page suddenly full of source code.

Legal information may well be free to all – but unless you have relevant experience and know your way round legal instruments and other legal documents, such access is only of theoretical value.

*

But what of legal bloggers and tweeters?

Surely they (we) can step in and fill the gap between the law and the public understanding of law?

Here there are two problems.

Many leading legal bloggers and tweeters are of two types.

First, there are the legal academics – and many are as brilliant in explaining substantive ‘black letter’ law to lay people as they are to their lucky students.

But the academic exposition of substantive law is only one aspect of the public understanding of law – few legal academics will report from the courtroom in trials where there is little of academic interest, nor will they be routinely invited to Whitehall press briefings, nor develop sources such as judges and practitioners just for providing news.

And, analysis and commentary – however outstanding – is not the same as reportage.

Much the same can be said of the second group of legal bloggers and tweeters – legal practitioners such as barristers (and a few solicitors).

The additional problem with this second group is that – even more than academics who often need to show ‘outreach’ – such legal communication is voluntary and often haphazard.

Blogging and tweeting barristers (and solicitors) are not paid for explaining the law to the public and – with controversial legal topics – not compensated for the hassle and abuse they will get.

There will be uneven coverage – a lawyer will tend to only write about matters as and when they feel they have something to say about something they know about – and so this can lead to some areas of law being over-represented and other areas of law being neglected.

Blogging and tweeting lawyers  – both academics and practitioners – are a boon to the public understanding of law – but they (we) are no substitute for specialised full-time legal correspondents dealing with law-related news stories as they emerge on any topic, with detachment and perspective.

For that you need, well, full-time specialised legal correspondents at news organisations – and they are coming to an end.

*

But there is an even more disconcerting problem, at this time of hyper-partisanship, ‘post-truth fake news’, and populism.

In the United States there are still many specialised courts and legal correspondents – and they have been diligent in exposing and reporting on the various abuses of law and legal process by President Donald Trump and his allies.

Each presidential assault on constitutional and legal norms in the United States has been documented and explained.

And it has made very little difference.

Many people do not care.

As this blog averred on New Year’s Eve – there is no point in the observant Benjamin the Donkey in Animal Farm being more public-spirited, if the other farm animals would not have cared less.

And so, in the United kingdom, even if every news title had a squadron of legal correspondents detailing the many abuses and misuses of law from this supposedly ‘law and order’ government then – looking at the United States – there is no reason to believe it would make any difference.

This, therefore, is the crisis in the public understanding of law referred to in the title of this blogpost.

The crisis is not that we are at the end of specialised reporting of legal news.

The crisis in the public understanding of law is that most of the public do not want to understand law.

A significant portion of the public do not want to understand the law, or care about how the law is misused or abused.

And how do you promote the public understand of law when so few of the public care?

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The four ways the government of the United Kingdom is abusing and misusing the law – and the reason the government is getting away with it

2nd January 2021

Those with political power tend to want more power, and those who want more power will tend to then abuse it.

This is not a new observation, and it is perhaps one which can be made of most if not all human societies.

The role of law and government is thereby not so often to enable such abuse of power, but to acknowledge the likelihood of abuse and to seek to limit or prevent it.

That is why those with power are often subject to conventions and rules, why there can be checks and balances, and why many political systems avoid giving absolute power to any one person.

That those with power want to use, misuse and abuse that power is not thereby a feature of the current government of the United Kingdom, but a universal (or near-universal) truth of all those who seek and have political power everywhere.

Those with political power will tend to try and get away with misusing or abusing it.

*

The current government of the United Kingdom, however, is remarkable in just how open it is in its abuse and intended abuse of law, and in at least four ways.

And what is also striking is what has changed politically so as to enable them to be so open.

*

First, the current government sought to give itself the power to break the law.

This was in respect of the Internal Markets bill, and the ability to break the law was stated as the intention by a cabinet minister in the house of commons.

This proposal led, in turn, to the resignations of the government’s most senior legal official and a law officer in the house of lords.

And then it was even supported by a majority of the house of commons.

The proposal has now been dropped – and some would say that it was only ever a negotiating tactic.

But even with this excuse, it was an abuse of legislation and legislation-making, requiring law-makers to become law-breakers, and signalling to the world that the government of the United Kingdom does not take its legal obligations seriously.

There was no good excuse for this exercise.

Yet the government sought to do it anyway.

*

Second, the government of the United Kingdom is seeking to place itself, and its agents, beyond the reach of the law.

This can be seen in two bills before parliament: one effectively limiting the liability of service personnel for various criminal offences, including for torture and other war crimes, and the other expressly permitting secret service agents to break the law.

 

From one perspective, these two proposals simply give formal effect to the practical position.

It has always been difficult to prosecute members of the armed services for war crimes.

And domestic secret service agents have long relied on the ‘public interest’ test for criminal activity (for any criminal prosecution to take place there are two tests: whether there is sufficient evidence, and whether the prosecution is in the public interest, and guess who routinely gets the benefit of the latter).

And secret service agents abroad have long had legal immunity back in the United Kingdom, under the wonderfully numbered section 007 of the Intelligence Services Act 1994.

The primary significance of these two current proposals is that the de facto positions are being made de jure.

The government believes (rightly) that it can legislate to this effect and get away with it.

*

The third way – when the government cannot legislate to break the law or to make it and its agents beyond the law – is for the government to legislate so as to give itself the widest possible legal powers.

Again, this is not new: governments of all parties have sought wide ‘Henry VIII clauses’ that enable them to bypass parliament – legislating, and amending and even repealing primary legislation by ministerial decree.

But what is new here is the scale of the use of such legislation – both the pandemic and Brexit have been used as pretexts of the government to use secondary legislation for wide ranging purposes – even to limit fundamental rights without any parliamentary sanction.

And as I have argued elsewhere, there is no absolute barrier under the constitution of the United Kingdom to an ‘enabling act’ allowing ministers to have complete freedom to legislate by decree.

*

The fourth way is the flip-side of the government seeking more legal power.

The government is seeking ways to make it more difficult, if not impossible, for it to be challenged in the courts.

This can be done formally: by reducing the scope of judicial review or the reach of the laws of human rights and civil liberties, or by ‘ouster’ clauses, limiting the jurisdiction of the courts.

It can be done practically (and insidiously): by creating procedural impediments and by cutting or eliminating legal aid for such challenges.

It also can be achieved by the government either promoting or not challenging attacks on the judiciary and the role of courts in holding executive power to account.

If the government cannot break the law, or make itself immune to the law, or give itself wide legal powers – it certainly does not want citizens to be able to challenge it.

Of course, this impulse is also not new – and examples can be given of governments of all parties seeking to make it more difficult for legal challenges to be brought.

But again, what is different from before is the openness of these attempts.

There is no self-restraint.

The government is going to get away with as many of these barriers as it can.

*

The big change is not that those with political power want to abuse it – and to stop those who can check and balance that abuse.

That is a problem no doubt as old as law and government itself.

What is remarkable is how the United Kingdom government is now so brazen about it.

The government just does not care about being seen doing this – and if there is any concern or even outcry – that is regarded as a political advantage.

The ‘libs’ are ‘owned’ and those with grins will clap and cheer.

In this current period of hyper-partisanship there is no legal or constitutional principle that is beyond being weaponised.

What perhaps restrained the United Kingdom government – and other governments – from being so candid in their abuses and misuses of power was once called ‘public opinion’.

People cared about such things – or at least those in government believed people cared.

But, as this blog averred on New Year’s Eve, what happens if a public-spirited donkey does tell the animals on the farm that power is being misused or abused – and the animals still do not care.

‘The animals crowded round the van. “Good-bye, Boxer!” they chorused, “good-bye!”‘

*

And this brings us back to the key problem for liberalism – and for the principles of transparency and accountability – in this age of Brexit and Trump.

It is not enough to point out the lies and misinformation – or to show the misuses and abuses of law – if a sufficient number of people do not care that they are being lied to or misinformed and that the law is being misused or abused.

And there is nothing the media or commentators can do about this (though we should still be public-spirited donkeys anyway).

This requires a shift – not in media and communications – but of politics and of political leadership.

Only if enough citizens care about the government abusing or misusing the law will the government stop doing it, at least so openly.

And until then the United Kingdom’s indifference towards the rule of law and other constitutional norms will just be a register of the public’s general indifference about the government getting away with it.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

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The Koch Snowflake of Brexit

New Year’s Day, 2021

Alan Moore, in the appendices to his graphic novel From Hell, uses Koch’s Snowflake to illustrate the historiography of his subject.

Moore’s point is that every book on his subject – either with new minor details or imaginative theories – cannot go beyond certain central facts. 

New details and new interpretations can be added infinitely – but the significant events were finite.

(On the Whitechapel murders, do click and buy here for Hallie Rubenhold’s outstanding book.)

*

What Moore says can, of course, be said also of any group of connected historical events.

Take, for example, Brexit.

The central events of Brexit are: (1) the decision to hold a referendum on 23 June 2016; (2) the referendum result; (3) the Article 50 notification on 29 March 2017; (4) the extensions of the Article 50 period; (5) the United Kingdom departing the European Union on 31st January 2020; and (6) the end of the transition period yesterday, 31st December 2020.

These are the six tips of the Koch’s Snowflake of Brexit.

Now and in the future there will be far more detail: about the politics and the negotiations, about the content and effects of legal instruments; and about the impact of decisions made.

And there will be endless interpretations of what actually happened in these five or so eventful and exhausting years, and endless explanations of why it happened.

The amount of new detail on Brexit, and of new ‘takes’ about Brexit, is no doubt infinite.

But all the new details and all the new interpretations will not change the six central (procedural) facts of Brexit.

*

None of those six events were inevitable, of course.

Each event could have happened differently, or even not happened at all.

But those were the events that did happen, and so they are the things which ultimately do need to be explained.

And, as this blog has previously averred, even if certain crucial events of Brexit had turned out differently, we could have ended up with just a different form and manner of Brexit.

*

Now that this stage of Brexit is over – though the overall story of Brexit is far from being at an end, and may never end – it is time for me to finally complete the book I was asked to write on Brexit.

You can pre-order the book here – though the actual publication date will be later than April.

I had been waiting for the outcome of the transition period, and to discover whether there would be a relationship agreement, or not

I needed to know what would be the sixth tip of the Koch’s snowflake of Brexit.

The circumstances of the departure from the transition arrangements may explain more about else has happened since the 2016 referendum.

Of course, I could have told the story of Brexit with indifference to what happened at the end of the transition period – and there are many excellent books on Brexit already published.

But that was not the story I wanted to tell – or was able to tell in book form.

The story I want to tell as a book is how the United Kingdom went from a general election in 2015, where each major party was in support of European Union membership, to the United Kingdom leaving not only the European Union, but also (with the end of the transition period, and with special arrangements for Northern Ireland) the Single Market and Customs Union, in just five years.

People in the future will be struck by how much happened, so quickly.

(As some people are already.)

Brexit is the most extraordinary political-policy-legal-constitutional-economic group of connected events in the modern history of the United Kingdom.

It should be an interesting story to try to tell, and I hope for you to read.

A Happy New Year to all my readers and followers.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

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The Bill implementing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement is an exercise in the Government taking power from Parliament

30th December 2020

Today Parliament will be expected to pass, in one single day, the legislation implementing the Trade and Cooperation Agreement into domestic law.

This situation is exceptional and unsatisfactory.

The bill is currently only available in draft form, on the government’s own website.

As you can see, this means that ‘DRAFT’ is inscribed on each page with large unfriendly letters.

And we are having to use this version, as (at the time of writing) the European Union (Future Relationship) Bill is not even available parliament’s  ‘Bills before Parliament’ site.

The draft bill is complex and deals with several specific technical issues, such as criminal records, security, non-food product safety, tax and haulage, as well as general implementation provisions.

Each of these specific technical issues would warrant a bill, taking months to go through the normal parliamentary process.

But instead they will be whizzed and banged through in a single day, with no real scrutiny, as the attention of parliamentarians will (understandably) be focused on the general implementation provisions, which are in Part 3 of the draft bill.

And part 3 needs this attention, as it contains some remarkable provisions.

*

Clause 29 of the draft bill provides for a broad deeming provision.

(Note a ‘clause’ becomes a ‘section’ when a ‘Bill’ becomes enacted as an ‘Act’.)

The intended effect of this clause is that all the laws of the United Kingdom are to be read in accordance with, or modified to give effect to, the Trade and Cooperation Agreement.

And not just statutes – the definition of ‘domestic law’ covers all law – private law (for example, contracts and torts) as well as public law (for example, legislation on tax or criminal offences).

It is an ingenious provision – a wave of a legal wand to recast all domestic law in whatever form in accordance with the agreement.

But it also an extremely uncertain provision: its consequences on each and every provision of the laws of England and Wales, of Northern Ireland, of Scotland, and on those provisions that cover the whole of the United Kingdom, cannot be known.

And it takes all those legal consequences out of the hands of parliament.

This clause means that whatever is agreed directly between government ministers and Brussels modifies all domestic law automatically, without any parliamentary involvement. 

*

And then we come to clause 31.

This provision will empower ministers (or the devolved authorities, where applicable) to make regulations with the same effect as if those regulations were themselves acts of parliament.

In other words: they can amend laws and repeal (or abolish) laws, with only nominal parliamentary involvement.

There are some exceptions (under clause 31(4)), but even with those exceptions, this is an extraordinarily wide power for the executive to legislate at will.

These clauses are called ‘Henry VIII’ clauses and they are as notorious among lawyers as that king is notorious in history.

Again, this means that parliament (and presumably the devolved assemblies, where applicable) will be bypassed, and what is agreed between Whitehall and Brussels will be imposed without any further parliamentary scrutiny.

*

There is more.

Buried in paragraph 14(2) of schedule 5 of the draft bill (the legislative equivalent of being positioned in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’) is a provision that means that ministers do not even have to go through the motions of putting regulations through parliament first.

Parliament would then get to vote on the provisions afterwards.

This is similar to the regulations which the government has been routinely using during the pandemic where often there has actually been no genuine urgency, but the government has found it convenient to legislate by decree anyway.

Perhaps there is a case that with the 1st January 2021 deadline approaching for the end of the Brexit transition period, this urgent power to legislate by decree is necessary.

But before such a broad statutory power is granted to the government there should be anxious scrutiny of the legislature.

Not rushed through in a single parliamentary day.

*

There are many more aspects of this draft bill which need careful examination before passing into law.

And, of course, this draft bill in turn implements a 1400-page agreement – and this is the only real chance that parliament will get to scrutinise that agreement before it takes effect.

You would not know from this draft bill that the supporters of Brexit campaigned on the basis of the United Kingdom parliament ‘taking back control’.

Nothing in this bill shows that the Westminster parliament has ‘taken back control’ from Brussels.

This draft bill instead shows that Whitehall – that is, ministers and their departments – has taken control of imposing on the United Kingdom what it agrees with Brussels.

And presumably that was not what Brexit was supposed to be about.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

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Six reasons why those who want to shift the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union need to now think in five-year cycles

29th December 2020

Imagine you are in some remote rural area where the bus or train only comes on a given day at a given time.

This is what it will be like for those who want to substantially change the relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union once the trade and cooperation agreement is in place.

But instead of the the weekly or monthly bus or train, this cycle will be every five years.

And if that opportunity is missed, then it will be another five years before the opportunity comes around again.

This is because of one major reason – and also (perhaps) because of five other reasons.

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The first reason, as this blog set out yesterday, is that the European Union itself works in five-year cycles.

Each European Commission is appointed for five years and each European Parliament is elected for five years.

The Presidents of the European Council tend to also have five-year terms.

And after each five-year cycle, the European Union project is then (in effect) handed over to a new European Commission and President of the European Council.

It would thereby appear to be no accident that the review cycle for the trade and cooperation agreement is five years.

This means the European Union’s relationship with the United Kingdom will be dealt with in a manner that is convenient to Brussels and not London.

*

This leads to the second reason.

The United Kingdom is no longer sufficiently important to disrupt the normal European Union political and policy life-cycle.

This will come as a shock to many in the United Kingdom who are used to demanding time and immediate attention from the European Union.

From the supposed re-negotiation of 2016, through the withdrawal negotiations, to the relationship negotiations, the European Union kept responding to the sound of the clicking fingers of the United Kingdom.

And the European Union had to do this, as the departure of a Member State could not be taken lightly.

But this effortless priority is now over.

Any substantial changes to the new relationship will have to fit in with other matters and be dealt with at what is the natural pace of Brussels.

And, in any case, many in the European Union are bored and tired of Brexit.

*

The third reason is that it is only with five-year cycles that the European Union will be able to assess the stability and sustainability of any United Kingdom political and policy position on the European Union.

Even if there were some sudden political shift in favour of the United Kingdom joining, say, a customs union or becoming part of the single market, the European Union would want to see if that was a settled and consensual position.

The European Union is all too aware of the rapid convulsions that the European Union issue can cause to the politics of the United Kingdom.

Remember that in 2015 there was a general election in the United Kingdom where every major party was in favour of membership of the European Union – and three prime ministers and two general elections later, the United Kingdom is no longer a member state.

And 2015 was, well, five years ago.

The European Union has no interest in a substantial shift in its relationship with the United Kingdom which could quickly become undone.

*

The fourth reason is also to do with the United Kingdom.

Will there even be a United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland in five or ten years’ time?

As this blog has previously averred, two natural consequences of Brexit are a united Ireland and an independent Scotland.

These are not things which will necessarily, still less automatically, happen.

But they are foreseeable.

And so five-year cycles will allow the European Union to see not only how the politics and policies of the United Kingdom settle down, but also how the United Kingdom itself and its constituent parts settle down.

*

And this structural point goes both ways – for the fifth reason is that the European Union itself in five and ten years’ time may itself be a different creature to what it currently is.

Freed from the reluctance and relentless scepticism of the United Kingdom, the European Union can now go in a different direction.

And so not only will the European Union want to see what the United Kingdom is like in five and ten years’ time, it will want to see what its own position will be like.

It will not be re-fighting the issues of 2016 or 2020 in its engagement with the United Kingdom, like some geo-political historical re-enactment society.

Regardless of what changes (if any) happen within and to the United Kingdom, the European Union will be thinking in terms of what suits it in 2026, or 2031, or whenever.

*

The final reason is beyond the power of both the United Kingdom and the European Union.

In 2026, and in 2031, and so on, the world itself may be very different from now.

Many things may be different: a post-Trump (or revived Trump) United States, a post-Putin (or retained Putin) Russia, China becoming (or not becoming) the world’s largest economy, ongoing pandemics and climate change, and so on.

It may then suit the European Union and the United Kingdom to huddle together – or to huddle apart.

*

In setting all this out, I do not wish to give false hope to Remainers/Rejoiners that if with sufficient focus and energy, they could shove the United Kingdom back towards the European Union in 2026 or 2031 or so on.

Indeed, the five-year cycle could even lead to greater divergence.

(And there is a non-trivial chance the United Kingdom may terminate the relationship agreement with one year’s notice.)

But if there is to be a closer relationship – or even an eventual application to rejoin – the United Kingdom will have to have regard to the five-year cycles of the European Union.

As I mentioned above, the days of snapping fingers for attention are over.

*

My own view, for what it is worth, is that I hope the five-year cycle leads to an increasingly solid and sustainable association arrangement between the United Kingdom and the European Union – and that it becomes something that endures perhaps longer than the actual membership.

And I hope that the five-year cycles are used to adjust the relationship appropriately.

(I also support an Ireland united by consent and an independent Scotland and Wales, and these developments will also, in my opinion, be easier with an association agreement between United Kingdom (or just England) and the European Union.)

But these are mere hopes, and they can be dashed or discarded.

What is and will be in place, regardless of hopes (or fears), is that it will not be quick and easy for the United Kingdom – or England – to move substantially towards the European Union, let alone rejoin.

The eventful, exhausting 2016-2021 Brexit five-year cycle is over.

Let us see what future five-year cycles bring.

*****

This law and policy blog provides a daily post commenting on and contextualising topical law and policy matters – each post is published at about 9.30am UK time.

Each post takes time, effort, and opportunity cost.

If you value the free-to-read and independent legal and policy commentary both at this blog and at my Twitter account please do support through the Paypal box above.

Or become a Patreon subscriber.

You can also subscribe to this blog at the subscription box above (on an internet browser) or on a pulldown list (on mobile).

*****

This blog enjoys a high standard of comments, many of which are better and more interesting than the posts.

Comments are welcome, but they are pre-moderated.

Comments will not be published if irksome.