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MPs from Slovakia get a box seat on the Brexit process

From 11 to 13 March, a parliamentary delegation from Slovakia visited the Palace of Westminster led by the Chair of the EU Committee, Mr Lubos Blaha from the Direction-Social Democracy Party. He was accompanied by Mr Martin Klus, Deputy Chair of the EU Committee from the Freedom and Solidarity Party, Mr Eduard Heger from the Ordinary People Party, Mrs Simona Petrik, an Independent member, Mrs Iren Sarkozy from the Most-Hid Party and Mr Dusan Tittel from the Slovak National Party. As the delegation leader was Chair of the EU Committee, also accompanied by his Deputy, there was a specific focus on Brexit, against the backdrop of key votes taking place in the House of Commons, in addition to broader discussions on Slovakia’s relationship with the UK.

The delegation’s first meeting was with the Chair of the Exiting the EU Committee Rt Hon Hilary Benn MP who said recent negations had been difficult and the possibility of a No Deal Brexit was not something pushed by Leave supporters it was voted on in 2016. Mr Blaha made it clear that Slovakia supported the UK if they wanted an extension of time but wondered whether other EU countries would put conditions on this extension.

The delegation then met Matthew Hamlyn, Clerk of the Overseas Office who gave them a procedural point of view of what would happen that week as well as broader insights into the workings of the UK Parliament. The delegation were keen to hear about how the Brexit debate had created significant splits in UK political parties and how this had complicated significantly the process for Brexit and deliberations in the House of Commons. The Clerk discussed with them the role of political parties in the operations and proceedings of the House of Common, including in the current context of Brexit.

After meetings at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the delegation met with the Chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee Tom Tugendhat MP, who was also joined by fellow member Mike Gapes MP with particular focus on the Brexit process, including asking Mr Gapes about the newly formed The Independent Group (TIG), in addition to sharing views regarding the activities of Russia to undermine European security, discussing the FAC’s recent report on how the UK should approach countering Russian corruption.

The delegation finished their first day by meeting with the BGIPU Chair John Whittingdale MP who also gave them insight into the views European Research Group (ERG), the pro-Brexit group of Conservative members in UK Parliament. Mr Whittingdale also provided his views on the importance to the DUP of the status of Northern Ireland remaining unchanged as part of the UK, making the issue that there cannot be a hard border between NI and Ireland a key factor in the Brexit outcome. He noted ERG members were particularly concerned about the back-stop designed to prevent this but if those issues could be resolved the Prime Minister’s deal might be seem in a more favourable light.

Tuesday morning started with a very informative tour of the Palace of Westminster by Fabian Hamilton MP who not only gave them an insight into the history and functioning of the UK Parliament, but also shared a few lesser-known facts, leaving the delegation eager to read up on more details in their guide books. Following that, the delegation met with the Lords EU Committee, initially chaired by Lord Jay, but later joined by their Chair, Lord Boswell, also attended by Baroness Armstrong and Lord Teverson. They had detailed exchanges on Slovakia’s relations with the UK and the strength of relations for the future. They also discussed the role of referendums, and how in Slovakia there was a certain percentage that had to be reached for a referendum to have force. The delegation expressed surprise this had not applied in the UK which perhaps had led to the current negative and divisive tone of political debate.

The delegation then had a very warm discussion on bilateral relations and the strength of people to people links between Slovakia and the UK with Rt Hon Lord Anderson of Swansea, who is Co-Chair of the Slovakia All Party Parliamentary Group prior to a working lunch. Lord Anderson continued as host in a lively discussion attended by Pauline Latham MP, Gill Furniss MP, Khalid Mahmood MP, Lord Bowness and Baroness Hayter.

The afternoon finished with a meeting with the Chair of the International Trade Committee Angus MacNeil MP and committee member, Sir Mark Hendrick MP, accompanied by the Committee’s Business Specialist. The Chair spoke first as a member of the Scottish National Party (SNP) to state their SNP saw Scotland being taken out of the EU against it will and that an independent Scotland would want to be in the EU. In terms of trade and business, the Chair said he believed that a “No Deal” scenario would have significant impacts on business and trade and UK/EU trade and economic links were too important to be put at such risk. The Specialist talked about impacts on the car parts trade which was very important to Slovakia due to its Jaguar and Land Rover operations. There was also talk about the aviation sector and possible impacts on Airbus.

On the final day of their programme, the delegation attended an Oral Evidence session of the Lords EU Home Affairs Sub Committee, where Rt Hon Caroline Nokes MP, Minister of State for Immigration was speaking on future EU migration to the UK for work. Ms Madeline Moon MP, the President of the NATO Parliamentary Assembly, had sought out the delegation to offer her deepest condolences, as her NATO PA counterpart in Slovakia had tragically lost his entire family in the Ethiopian Airlines crash. The delegation was very grateful for this gesture of support from Ms Moon, in addition to other UK counterparts who had offered condolences at this difficult time.

This was followed by a meeting with the Lords International Relations Committee, Chair Rt Hon Lord Howell of Guilford, who was joined by Rt Hon Baroness Anelay, Rt Hon Lord Jopling and Baroness Hilton. In very wide-ranging discussions on Brexit and current trends in British politics and broader regional and global developments including the key role of NATO in European security. The delegation rounded off their visit by enjoying lively exchanges in Prime Minister’s Questions, ending the formal programme. While most of the delegation departed, Mrs Simona Petrik also took the opportunity to visit the House of Commons Nursery to assist her work to develop such a facility in the Slovak Parliament.

The visiting delegation benefited greatly from this visit to the UK Parliament at a truly pivotal time in the Brexit process and were impressed by the access they had to so many of the key players on all sides of the debate. It gave them important insights and understanding of the difficult issues facing the UK Parliament and underscored to UK counterparts that Slovakia stands ready to support the UK as a strong partner and reliable friend whatever the eventual outcome.  BGIPU was grateful for the cooperation of the UK Embassy in Slovakia and the support of the Slovak Embassy in London for this visit.