By Eszter Zalan
Senior EU figures and many British MPs have attacked UK prime minister Boris Johnson after he announced plans to suspend parliament for the sake of Brexit.
The Queen’s Speech, the formal opening of a new session, ought to take place on 14 October, he said on Wednesday (28 August).
That meant parliament would be in shutdown on Brexit day on 31 October and that MPs could not block a no deal crash-out.
It also meant opposition MPs had just a few days in September to mount a challenge to the plan and it pushed the UK deeper into a constitutional crisis
Johnson’s move was “sinister”, the European Parliament’s Brexit point man, MEP Guy Verhofstadt, said when the news broke.
“As a fellow parliamentarian, my solidarity with those fighting for their voices to be heard. Suppressing debate on profound choices is unlikely to help deliver a stable future EU-UK relationship,” the Belgian politician tweeted.
Nathalie Loiseau, a French MEP close to French president Emmanuel Macron, said: “We could see a no-deal Brexit coming. Now it is a Brexit without debate that looms. What disease does British democracy suffer from that it fears debate before making one of the most important decisions in its history?”.
Norbert Roettgen, the chairman of the foreign relations committee in the German parliament, joined the choir of EU critics.
“Johnson argues that respect for democracy dictates implementing Brexit ‘do or die’ on 31 October. As a fellow parliamentarian and democrat, I wonder: how does respect for democracy go together with suspending parliament?!”, Roettgen said.
And Dutch liberal MEP Sophie in ‘t Veld said “suspending parliament is basically the suspension of democracy and the voice of the people. Nothing less than an anti-democratic power-grab”.
The EU commission did not comment.
But some in Brussels saw Johnson’s move as a crafty way to outmanoeuvre Tory-party Brexit rebels and opposition MPs.
EU commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Johnson held a phone call on Tuesday, in which Juncker said he was curious if Johnson could come up with novel solutions to old Brexit deal problems.
There was “ample time” for the UK and EU to do a new deal, Johnson said.
The UK’s top Brexit man, David Frost, was also in Brussels on Wednesday, where he met Juncker’s chief of staff, Clara Martinez Alberola, among others.
Some EU diplomats dealing with Brexit do not believe the UK will find a new formula for the exit deal in time.
“There could be no substantive discussions, as Johnson does not want to negotiate. If the UK could have come up with concrete proposals, they would have done so already,” one diplomat said.
But Johnson has promised Brexit on 31 October, when the latest extension expires, no matter what.
For its part, the EU is unlikely to grant any more postponements unless there are major new developments, such as early elections in the UK.
And as the no-deal Brexit scenario becomes more likely, the blame game between London and Brussels is well under way.
“A no-deal scenario will only ever be the UK’s decision, not the EU’s,” Juncker told Johnson, according to the commission’s read-out of the phone call.
Back in London, Johnson’s move could see the British opposition call a no-confidence vote next week, opening the way for early elections.
His actions were a “very British coup”, John McDonnell, a senior MP from the opposition Labour Party said.
“Whatever one’s views on Brexit, once you allow a prime minister to prevent the full and free operation of our democratic institutions you are on a very precarious path,” he said according to the Reuters news agency.
Parliament speaker John Bercow said it was “blindingly obvious” the move was designed to restrict debate, and called it an “offence against the democratic process “.
The pound also dropped sharply on the news.
Johnson holds just a one-seat majority in parliament, and pro-EU MPs from his Conservative party could rebel against his unusual move.
A former finance minister, Conservative MP Philip Hammond, had previously pledged to block a no-deal Brexit and said it would be a constitutional outrage if parliament could not hold the government to account.
Over 500,000 people have singed a petition calling on parliament not to be dismissed.
The existing withdrawal agreement, which was negotiated by the previous UK government with the EU, was rejected by parliament on several occasions and by Johnson personally.
He has said the so-called “backstop”, designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the republic of Ireland in the event of no EU-UK trade deal, must be cut from the accord.
But the EU said that that could only happen if Johnson invented a feasible alternative.