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While Westminster dithers the Lib Dems in the European parliament are getting on with business

Lib Dem MEPs on stage at the Liberal Democrats conference. Photograph: Jonathan Brady/PA. - Credit: PA Wire/PA Images

CATHERINE BEARDER says it has not been an impressive week for British politics but – while Westminster dithers – the Lib Dems in Brussels are continuing to get on with business.

MEPs Catherine Bearder and Judith Bunting sign the Brussels declaration. Picture: supplied by Judith Bunting – Credit: supplied by Judith Bunting

This week’s Supreme Court ruling was a landmark moment, and it rightly received blanket media coverage in the UK. It attracted substantial interest in Europe, and internationally too. This was perhaps the most substantial assertion of judicial power in the aid of parliament since the trial of Charles I in Westminster Hall, in 1642. Justice today is less summary and less bloody but we should not allow the sober civility of the modern Supreme Court to disguise the magnitude of the moment.

In the long-term the court’s judgement will clip the wings of many an executive to come. What prime minister will dare prorogue parliament in future, other than for the few days necessary to foreshadow a Queen’s Speech? What government in future will dare to tell the Supreme Court that it has no jurisdiction? Yet there are short-term effects too, some of which may have provoked a small sigh of relief for spinners in both Labour and the Conservatives.

First, the catastrophic Labour Party conference was brought to an end, with Corbyn able to make a short and not particularly significant speech in the shadow of bigger news. All of Monday’s tumult about their dismal “negotiate and decide” referendum position was forgotten. Tom Watson was quietly dropped from proceedings, and will have to take his reservations about Labour’s new round of dithering to parliament rather than the conference platform. He will not face the evangelical conference choir humming “oh Jeremy Corbyn”, and the world will not hear his views on the party’s present malaise.

Secondly, Boris Johnson’s generous willingness to comply with the Supreme Court’s judgement in returning to the Commons obscures his much more important indication that he will not comply with primary legislation about “no deal”. Parliament has required him, by law, to seek an extension of Article 50 on or before the 19th October, if the Commons has not either endorsed a Brexit deal or given its consent to proceed without one. Yet the prime minister continues to assert that the UK will leave on 31st October “deal or no deal”, do or die. If he is to respect the rule of law, it cannot be so.

From Brussels, this spectacle of British democracy turning in on itself is hard to watch. A country which threatens to stalk out of the EU because its institutions are “undemocratic” then shuts down its own domestic Parliament. Meanwhile, the European Parliament, representing the 500 million citizens of Europe has been pressing on, scrutinising the incoming executive – the European Commission – holding confirmatory hearings and setting an agenda to tackle climate change and uphold common European standards on workers’ rights. My Lib Dem MEP colleagues and I have been quietly engaged in this democratic endeavour, while Westminster MPs have been shut out of their own chamber.

Some understandable European schadenfreude about the “state we’re in” is tempered, and considerably outweighed, by real and widespread concern. Led by the United Kingdom, the EU helped catalyse the democratisation of former soviet states by offering a way in to the biggest, borderless single market in the world. Faced with a choice of turning west to the EU or east to the Russian Federation, those countries chose to be fledgling democracies rather than satellite states. A critical part of that process was holding aspirant EU member states to the ‘Copenhagen Criteria’ which requires “stable institutions guaranteeing democracy, the rule of law, human rights and respect for and protection of minorities”.

But the United Kingdom can only lead the EU in this connection if it respects the same standards for itself. Our pronouncements – for example – on the authoritarianism of Victor Orban will surely ring hollow while our own courts are suborned and abused by ministers. Once a trailblazer for open markets, human rights and the rule of law, the UK is now in danger of finding itself denuded of the right to moral leadership on any of the three. It seeks divorce from the biggest market in the world; derogation from obligations on human rights; and a ‘pick and mix’ attitude to equality before the law.

The talk in the corridors of the European parliament is that Boris Johnson has now simply over-reached himself. Never capable of being prime minister in the first place, he has bulldozed ahead with a strategy which is not just politically perilous but illegal too. There is no ‘new deal’ on offer in Brussels, and parliament has ruled out ‘no deal’. Boris Johnson is on yet another collision course with the law, and – in turn – with reality.

All this means European leaders are muting their televisions to the press conferences and the rhetoric. While the British parliament debates whether to extend Article 50. Our 16 strong group of Liberal Democrat MEPs are busy getting on with business.

– Catherine Bearder MEP is the leader of the Liberal Democrats in Europe

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