In part one of this series we examined the origins of Article 50 and looked at the man responsible for it’s creation. We now turn to the series of political events that have transpired in Britain since the Lisbon Treaty became effective in December 2009.
The Political Timeline
Five months on from The Lisbon Treaty becoming effective, the 2010 UK general election took place delivering a hung parliament and no overall control. A few days later David Cameron’s Conservatives and Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats came to an agreement to form a Coalition.
All the events leading up to the EU referendum took place only after Article 50 had become effective, and following the political identity of the UK having changed from a Labour Prime Minister to a Conservative. It was 1973 when former Tory Prime Minister Ted Heath took the UK into what was then the European Economic Community (now known simply as the European Union). Ever since then the question of Europe and the debate between further integration and the preservation of national sovereignty has been a contentious issue inside the Conservative party.
The first test for David Cameron on Europe came in October 2011 when a motion was put before Parliament calling for a referendum on EU membership. The motion was defeated by a majority of 372 but 81 of those in support of it were Conservative MP’s. It marked the largest ever rebellion against a Tory Prime Minister over the issue of Europe.
Two months on and Cameron rejected an EU wide treaty change which was marketed as being able to tackle the eurozone ‘sovereign debt‘ crisis. The changes proposed at the time related to The Lisbon Treaty, and according to Cameron they would have meant relinquishing more national sovereignty to Brussels.
In January 2013, fifteen months after a motion calling for an EU referendum was rejected, David Cameron pledged to hold an in/out referendum if the Conservatives won the 2015 election. It would be held by the end of 2017 at the latest. Many perceived the UK Independence Party’s rise in the polls as influencing the decision. Cameron declared that if he managed to secure an improved relationship with the EU prior to the referendum, he would campaign with his ‘heart and soul‘ to remain a member of the bloc. He had this message for the UK electorate:
It is time for the British people to have their say. It is time to settle this European question in British politics. I say to the British people: this will be your decision.
Labour leader at the time, Ed Miliband, promptly announced that his party would not hold a referendum if they won the 2015 general election.
In July of 2013, Parliament debated a bill promising to hold a referendum on membership of the EU by the end of 2017. Despite a 304-0 vote, the House of Lords rejected the bill, resulting in it never actually becoming law.
Come the general election, held on May the 7th 2015, expectations of another cross party coalition were tempered by the Conservatives securing a majority and 330 seats. Was David Cameron’s promise to hold an election on EU membership a significant factor in the Tories gaining outright power?
The Conservatives wasted no time. On June the 9th 2015 MP’s in the House of Commons backed plans for a referendum on EU membership, with 544 voting in support and only 53 against. Twelve weeks later MP’s ratified the EU referendum bill with 316 votes for and 53 against.
The bill passed the House of Commons just four days before Jeremy Corbyn (a notorious Euro skeptic as a backbench MP) was elected as the new leader of the Labour party. Back in 2011 when the motion to call a referendum was originally put to parliament, Corbyn supported the motion. However, he abstained when it came to voting through the law to hold a referendum by the end of 2017. Corbyn was subsequently absent from Parliament when it came to ratification of the bill in 2015. His actions appear to indicate that he was positioning himself politically in preparation for becoming Labour party leader.
Nevertheless, the bill was granted Royal Assent on the 17th of December 2015, but only after an amendment to allow sixteen and seventeen year old’s a vote in the referendum was defeated. 303 rejected the amendment, 253 supported it. This was a significant pre-cursor to the referendum because data following the election suggests that over 70% of those under twenty five backed remaining in the EU. In contrast, a majority of Britain’s senior residents – who outstrip the number of young voters – opted to leave. This fed the narrative that the older generation had proceeded to ‘shaft the young‘, something which current Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable is on record as suggesting.
According to The Independent, who used a poll conducted by online forum The Student Room:
With 1.46 million 16 and 17-year-olds in the UK – and with that 82 per cent voting Remain – the number would have matched the 1.2 million difference between Out and In, potentially changing the result completely.
Returning to the timeline, in February 2016, David Cameron came to an agreement with EU leaders to grant Britain ‘special status‘ in the union. And true to his word, he immediately pledged to support remaining in the EU as a result:
I believe we are stronger, safer and better off inside a reformed European Union. And that is why I will be campaigning with all my heart and soul to persuade the British people to remain in the reformed European union that we have secured today.
During the same month Cameron announced that the referendum would take place on June the 23rd, 2016. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn came out in support of remaining in the EU, in keeping with the party leaders of the Conservatives, Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party.
Next came the result of the referendum, with 51.89% of voters supporting to leave the EU with 48.1% opting to remain. David Cameron resigned the very next morning, with Theresa May taking over as Prime Minister several weeks later.
From this moment on the attention was focused on when exactly the UK would invoke Article 50 to begin secession from the EU.
In January 2017 the government lost a supreme court case over the right to trigger Article 50 without parliamentary approval. A few weeks later the first stage of the Article 50 bill was passed 498 votes to 114. Amendments to the bill were tabled by Labour, but when it came before the House of Commons again, Jeremy Corbyn employed a three line whip ordering his party not to obstruct the passage of Article 50 and to instead support the bill unamended. The bill was passed 494 votes to 122 with no amendments.
By the middle of March 2017 the Article 50 bill had cleared the House of Lords and was now unstoppable. Theresa May officially triggered Article 50 on March the 29th.
It was a month later that May unexpectedly announced a snap general election to be held on June the 8th, a night where the Conservatives lost their slim majority to finish on 317 seats. Shortly afterwards the Tories entered into a confidence and supply deal with the Democratic Unionist Party in order to govern by a majority.
When studying how Article 50 was received from its inception to its invocation, commonalities begin to emerge. We have seen how the Lisbon Treaty went through many adaptations before being signed into law and how, most notably, Article 50 escaped any changes to the initial draft penned by Lord Kerr in 2002 – 2003. It should be remembered that Article 50 represented the first time in EU history that an official pathway for vacating the union was created, at a time when the EU publicly sought a greater consolidation of power and the building of an ‘ever closer union‘. There were seemingly no objections in the highest echelons of the EU at creating a clause that would allow member states the right to break away and become independent from the union. When you consider the decades of work that have gone into building the EU into the supranational state it is today, it makes it all the more peculiar for Article 50 to not carry any substantive conditions for withdrawal. All the way down to a member state not even being required to explain why exactly they might wish to leave.
We can look at this in two ways. Firstly, that the clause was created to make the EU appear less dictatorial and more respectful of a nation’s sovereignty and individuality, as Lord Kerr and others have suggested. Or secondly, that the clause was perhaps created as a vehicle for future reform of the union beyond The Lisbon Treaty. In which case, the triggering of the article would be necessary to create a fracture within the union allowing for a consensus to build on the need for further reform.
The EU has been on a unyielding path of centralising both power and decision making, which makes the presence of Article 50 all the more contradictory (on the surface at least). Whereas The Lisbon Treaty professes centralisation and closer integration between countries, Article 50 professes decentralisation and national sovereignty. The exact opposite of what the EU represents.
The Conservative government triggered Article 50 just over nine months after the referendum. One aspect given little attention, though, is the fact that the article contains no restrictions on the timescale for a member state invoking the clause. Britain’s former Permanent Representative to the European Union, Sir Ivan Rogers, has said that the period prior to the UK triggering the clause was a ‘moment of key leverage‘. Rogers had advised not to begin the process until a negotiating timetable was in place and to the benefit of the UK, one that would not allow the remaining twenty seven member states to ‘dictate the rules of the game.’ According to Rogers, he was ‘heavily opposed‘ by ‘various people in London.’
From a political context, Article 50 was granted a very straightforward route through parliament. No amendments to the bill. No wide scale rebellion of MP’s. The opposition Labour party was whipped into line to support its safe passage, in spite of this being the same party that tabled a majority of the proposed amendments. Given the level of animosity surrounding Brexit and the ill will it has provoked within the political arena – not to mention between families, friends and colleagues – does it not seem odd that the triggering of Article 50 passed by unobstructed? When members of the establishment were gathering to express how damaging Brexit would be to the UK economy, might you not have expected a stronger level of resistance at sanctioning the two year countdown on negotiations?
Again, there are several ways of looking at this. Firstly, that the easy ride Article 50 received in parliament was an example of respecting the referendum result and the will of people, in the belief that any attempt at frustrating the invocation would be in contempt of democracy. Or perhaps, given how calls to leave the EU spanned across party lines, to the point where MP’s advocating to remain represented constituencies in favour of leaving and vice versa, it left a sizeable majority with no room for manoeuvre and with no alternative but to support the passage of Article 50. They were trapped into following the word of their electorate, or face the prospect of finding themselves ostracized by both their constituents and the party they represent. Was this enough to guarantee Article 50’s smooth journey through the House of Commons?
We can only hypothesize at this stage as to the true intentions behind Article 50, and why such a vague piece of legislation came up against no real opposition at either the EU or parliamentary level.
The Bilderberg Connection
In concluding this article we turn to another institution that Lord Kerr, the creator of Article 50, has been a member of. Kerr used to be on the Steering Committee of Bilderberg, which is an annual gathering of political figures and ‘experts‘ from the field of economics, industry, academia and the media. The first meeting took place in 1954, and to this day they continue to be held under the Chatham House Rule. The rule states that,
When a meeting, or part thereof, is held under the Chatham House Rule, participants are free to use the information received, but neither the identity nor the affiliation of the speaker(s), nor that of any other participant, may be revealed.
The Bilderberg official website confirms that because meetings are private in nature, those who attend are not constrained by the ‘conventions of their office or by pre-agreed positions‘. Very little information is released on Bilderberg meetings besides a list of attendees and topics up for discussion.
As with the Trilateral Commission and the Centre for European Reform, Bilderberg’s ethos is to promote globalisation and internationalism. Indeed, the organisation states quite clearly that,
in the context of a globalised world, it is hard to think of any issue in either Europe or North America that could be tackled unilaterally.
The organisation’s Steering Committee of thirty two people includes four active members of the Trilateral Commission, as well as chairmen and CEO’s representing multinational corporations that are members of the Council on Foreign Relations and Chatham House. Bilderberg has no political affiliation in that both Conservative and Labour politicians have been on the Steering Committee over the years.
However, it is Lord Kerr’s presence that we are most interested in. According to his Wikipedia page, he was a member of the Steering Committee from 2004 to 2016. If we assume this to be accurate, it means that his last meeting as a committee member took place just eleven days before the EU referendum took place on June the 23rd. One resource lists Kerr as having attended the 2016 meeting in Germany, but he was not on the list of attendees for the 2017 gathering in America.
Topics discussed in 2016 mirrored those of 2015, and included globalisation, the UK and the European Strategy. Incidentally, the 2015 meeting was held just two days after MP’s in the House of Commons had declared their support for the EU referendum bill.
But it is the meeting which took place in England in June 2013, with Kerr in attendance, that gives pause for thought. On the agenda here was both nationalism and populism. Neither was actively penetrating global politics at the time, but five months earlier David Cameron had already pledged to hold a referendum on EU membership should he win the 2015 general election.
Today, nationalism and populism are topics that have dominated the political discourse since Brexit and the ascendance of Donald Trump. Before Brexit came to fruition, institutions such as the International Monetary Fund, as well as the likes of George Soros and Jacob Rothschild, were all openly expressing the dangers of a rise in nationalism and populism, and urged the people of the UK to remain united within the European Union. As well as this, the Federal Reserve cited the possibility of the UK leaving the EU as a factor for them leaving interest rates unchanged for the month of June, one week before the vote took place. Were they foretelling what was to come?
Even as far back as 2009 Bilderberg were discussing how serious the threat of protectionism was to the world in the midst of the ‘Great Financial Crisis‘. Protectionism is another topic which the IMF and also the Bank for International Settlements continue to draw reference to in their communications. Were they telegraphing the future direction of the political sphere? We can speculate but cannot know for sure.
**In Part Three of this series I will offer a summary of what has been discussed so far as well as some additional insights**