Brexit Diaries 33: The House of Lords to the rescue | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.04.2018
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Brexit Diaries 33: The House of Lords to the rescue

The Lords may save the day and the customs union. Meanwhile, the British Empire is returning, but it won't strike back, and Boris Johnson is looking to Hungary's Viktor Orban for an ally on Brexit.

Theresa May could be heading for a defeat. After many hours of exhaustive debate over the EU withdrawal bill, the House of Lords may this week strike a blow against the prime minister. They are expected to support an amendment which asks the government to remain "in a customs union with the EU," with one of the arguments being that this would at least partly solve the vexed Irish border question.

But any bit of "remain" definitely crosses May's red line because of her "out means out" pledge — except for those agencies and agreements the UK has in the meantime discovered as vital, of course. And it will be seen by some as particularly amusing if the Lords are now the ones to now defy May over Brexit. How often has the Upper House in recent years been denounced as surplus to requirements, a daycare center full of doddery has-beens which should have been abolished years ago? Now it seems that more independent spirit and common sense might be alive amongst the elders than many expected.

Read more: Would Margaret Thatcher be in favor of Brexit?

A vote in the Lords can of course be overturned in the Commons. But does May have the numbers? Because Labour has changed tack and would now also support remaining in the customs union, as well a good handful of Tory rebels. But the prime minister will not ask for a vote before the local elections in early May, in which her Conservatives are predicted to lose a lot of votes.

The British Empire will not strike back

It is one of those glorious occasions at which the British excel. Flags and trumpets, Queen and tiaras: All the imperial pomp and circumstance will accompany the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting this week. For the first time in 20 years, the UK is again host to this colorful assembly. Fifty-three countries with little in common other than that most of them were former British colonies will come together for a week-long chat over this and that.

UK Commonwealth Meeting 2018 | Buckingham Palace (Reuters/S. Dawson)

The UK this week is home to the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting

What does the Commonwealth actually do? This pertinent question threw professor Philip Murphy, director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies, off his stride in a radio talk show right after his appointment. "Well, it doesn't do very much, but then it does not cost very much," he said.

The Commonwealth largely seems to be cocktails and conferences. It's like "a grandfather clock that has been in the family for generations. It has not told the right time for decades but no one has the heart to take the treasured heirloom to the tip," explains Murphy, who is publishing his book "The Myth of The Commonwealth" this week.

Read more: Indigenous activists protest at the 'Stolenwealth' Games opening ceremony

Brexiteers, however, put all their faith in Britain's connection to it's imperial past. We don't need the EU, we have the Commonwealth to forge all the trade relations we need in order to thrive independently, is their argument. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson therefore hopes the upcoming meeting will be a "great opportunity for us to rebuild old friendships ... with some of the fastest growing economies in the world." Have fun with that.

Let's talk abut the future

Brexit talks will be picked up again this week and for the first time the future relationship is on the agenda. And the UK's Brexit minister, David Davis, had a cunning plan. He wanted to swamp Brussels with 300 British civil servants who were to start talks on all the details of trade and legalities and organizations immediately, so he would end up with a ready-made agreement with the EU by the fall. But again he has tried to force the hand of EU negotiator Michel Barnier to no avail.

Michel Barnier David Davis (picture-alliance/AP Photo/V. Mayo)

Davis and Barnier have not always been on the same page over Brexit

The Frenchman is a stickler for procedure. And the EU governments have given the green light only for a rough political outline of the future relationship. A political agreement then is supposed to be fleshed out in the transition period. London fears that if things proceed like this the government won't have much to present to Parliament come October.

In the meantime there has been no progress whatsoever on the Irish border question. More about that next week, when, again, there will be no progress.

Boris and his bromance with Viktor

The congratulations Boris Johnson sent to Viktor Orban and his right-wing Fidesz party following their election victory seemed truly heartfelt. "We look forward to working with our Hungarian friends to further develop our close partnership," he said. No mention of course of the anti-semitic election campaign, the rampant xenophobia, his dismantling of the free press, the inequality in election finance and the generally intimidating atmosphere that international observers had noted. It would not be polite to remark upon these.

Read more: Hungary's Viktor Orban targets critics with 'Soros mercenaries' blacklist

Johnson was accused of blatant opportunism for getting so close and slimy with the self-professed illiberal nationalist Orban. His critics assume he wants to break up the front of European countries on Brexit matters and was courting the Hungarian for his support. That may not be pretty but is somehow understandable.

What, however, possessed German Interior Minister Horst Seehofer to praise Orban's election victory in almost jubilant terms is anybody's guess. He expressed his all around sympathy for the prime minister and admonished Europeans not to criticize or patronize him. Seehofer does not need Orban for negotiations about leaving the EU. Or does his home state of Bavaria have secret plans? Good luck to them if that should be the case.

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