With less than a week until polling day, the 2019 UK general election campaign has been marred with accusations of fake news, misleading political propaganda and ‘dystopian’ electioneering tactics. The key issue is a lack of clear legal regulation regarding the use of social media for campaigning, leaving platforms open to abuse and misinformation.
Attempts had been made before the departure of Theresa May to implement changes that would clearly define the legal role of social media platforms operating in the UK in regard to political advertising. However, according to senior civil servants and government officials, the current dominance of Brexit in the policy making schedule and uncomfortable questions about the legality of the Brexit referendum campaign make the implementation of sufficient safeguards difficult. Additionally, there is an inherent issue in tasking politicians who may benefit from lax social media regulation to legislate against their own interests.
For individuals, there are two clear issues. First is the micro targeting of social media users. The information Commissioners Office and the Electoral Commission have warned against misusing individuals data, such as their address, age and interests to target potentially misleading ads directly at certain demographics. Secondly, and with specific regard to Facebook, adverts containing false information or misleading claims are allowed to go unverified, and against Facebook’s policies against fake news, due to the platform’s categorisation of political ads as ‘opinion pieces/satire’. This is problematic; over 5000 ads on Facebook alone have been purchased by the three major political parties.
The responsibility for upholding advertising standards has fallen largely on social media platforms themselves. Twitter and Tiktok have banned political advertising across their platforms, however, fake accounts still have the potential to spread misleading political information disguised as ‘fact’. This issue was highlighted by the November 19th rebranding of the official Conservative Party Press Office account into ‘@factcheckUK’. Google has banned 8 separate Conservative advertisements for ‘violating advertising policies’, one of which saw the fake website ‘labourmanifesto.co.uk’, designed to mislead voters about Labour policies, removed for buying advertising in order to manipulate search traffic and shift interest from the real Labour manifesto. The Brexit Party too, has seen five of its adverts removed. Labour and the Liberal Democrats are yet to have advertisements removed by Google.
It should be noted that due to long standing calls for reform, critique of the current regulatory system and examination of existing loopholes for the spread of disinformation, some researchers have voiced concerns that the government has created an ‘election interference playbook’, without sufficiently addressing any of these avenues of exploitation in law. This is where the discussion shifts from the underhanded tactics of party politics, and instead has implications for national security.
There is concern that actors other than British political parties may seek to benefit from the spread of disinformation in the UK general election, specifically, the Russian government. Draft documents from the UK-US Trade and Investment Working Group were leaked online and later picked up by the Labour party in order to undermine Boris Johnson’s position on the National Health Service. The account, which published the documents on Reddit a month before they gained widespread media coverage, was determined to be of Russian origin, along with 60 other Reddit accounts linked to a ‘coordinated effort’ from Russia to spread misinformation. Despite claims from both Johnson and Corbyn that Russian interference is ‘nonsense’, given previous Russian involvement in the 2016 US presidential election, and the recently uncovered ‘Secondary Infektion’ disinformation scheme, also coordinated from Russia, concerns about attempted Russian interference in the upcoming election should be further investigated.
Ideally, these issues would be addressed in the yet-to-be-published Intelligence and Security Committee report, which is expected to contain an examination of Russian interference in UK politics, the Brexit referendum and the Conservative Party. Until this report is published, the full scale of Russian attempts to undermine UK democracy is unknowable. Whatever the outcome of Thursday’s election, questions regarding the legitimacy, independence and democracy of the UK political system will remain.
British Prime Minister Theresa May accused European politicians and officials last week of seeking to affect the outcome of the 8 June general election by issuing threats over Brexit.
Speaking in front of her Downing Street office after vising the Queen to mark the dissolution of parliament, which is the formal start of the election campaign, Mrs May disclosed that there were some in Brussels who did not want to see Brexit talks succeed. The statement comes after a German newspaper in late April gave a damning account of talks between the British Prime Minister and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, reporting that he had told Mrs May during a dinner at Downing Street that Brexit could not be a success.
In response to this, on 3 May, Mrs May disclosed that “in the last few days we have seen just how tough these talks are likely to be. Britain’s negotiating position in Europe has been misrepresented in the continental press, the European Commission’s negotiating stance has hardened, threats against Britain have been issued by European politicians and officials,” adding that “all of these acts have been deliberately timed to affect the result of the general election.” Mrs May, whose Conservative Party have a double-digit lead in the polls, went on to say that reaching the best Brexit deal would be the overriding task for whoever wins the 8 June election. She called on voters to give her their backing to “fight for Britain,” noting that while Britain wanted to reach a deal with the European Union (EU), that view as not shared by everyone in Brussels, stating “the events of the last few days have shown that, whatever our wishes, and however reasonable the positions of Europe’s other leaders – there are some in Brussels who do not want these talks to succeed. Who do not want Britain to prosper.”
Last week, the European Parliament backed a motion setting out its position for the Brexit negotiations. The vote backed the motion 516 to 133.
The motion effectively sets out general principles at the start of the two year negotiations for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union (EU) under the Article 50 Process. Speaking at a press conference on 5 April shortly after the vote, Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, stated that the vote meant that “the UK on the one hand and the (European) Commission on the other hand now know the position of the Parliament, what the red lines are.” He went on to say that “the interests of our citizens is our first priority” and called for an early resolution on the status of EU citizens in the UK and UK citizens elsewhere in the EU.
The motion, which was supported by the two largest groups of MEPs, backs a number of positions that have been taken by EU leaders and which include the need for a “phased approach” to negotiations. This would effectively require progress on the terms of Britain’s withdrawal, including settling financial commitments, before talks on a future trading relationship can begin. It also backs the call for transparency in the talks, and for the UK to be considered liable for financial commitments that apply after it leaves the EU. It further states:
- Transitional arrangements should be time-limited to three years and be enforced by the EU’s Court of Justice
- UK citizens in the EU and EU citizens in Britain should receive “reciprocal” treatment
- The final deal should not include a “trade-off” between trade and security co-operation
- The UK should adhere to EU environmental and anti-tax evasion standards in order to get close trade ties
- The European Banking Authority and European Medicines Agency should be moved out of London
- The UK should pay towards costs for the EU that “arise directly from its withdrawal”
During the debate, Manfred Weber, chairman of the largest group of MEPs, the centre-right European People’s Party, stating that “cherry-picking will not happen. A state outside the European Union will not have better conditions than a state inside the European Union.” Gianna Pitella, chairman of the European Socialists and Democrats also agued that the UK “can not benefit from the same conditions as members do,” adding “if you leave the house, you still have to pay the bills.”
While the motion is not binding on European Commission officials, President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker told MEPs that “the role of this parliament is more important than ever. You must scrutinise and validate the final agreement.” He went on to say, “we will of course negotiate in friendship and openness and not in a hostile mood, with a country that has brought so much to our union and will remain close to hearts long after they have left, but this is now the time for reason over emotion,” adding, “what’s at stake here are the lives of millions of people. Millions have family or professional links to the United Kingdom.”
On Wednesday 29 March, the United Kingdom officially launched Brexit with a letter handover – effectively triggering Article 50 and launching a two year process to leave the European Union (EU).
British Prime Minister Theresa May triggered the official Brexit process in a letter to the EU, which was handed over to Brussels by Sir Tim Barrow at 12:20 BST. Two years of exit negotiations will now follow.
EU leaders responded to the UK officially triggering the Brexit process, with EU Council President Donald Tusk tweeting shortly after receiving the letter “after nine months the UK has delivered.” He went on to say that there was “no reason to pretend that this is a happy day” in Brussels or London, adding “most Europeans, including almost half the British voters, which that we would stay together, not drift apart.” He went on to say that still, there is “also something positive” about Brexit, adding “Brexit has made us a community of 27 more determined and more united than before.” He noted that the EU states would protect their interests in the “difficult negotiations” that lie ahead, concluded, “we already miss you. Thank you and goodbye.” Meanwhile a spokeswoman for German Chancellor Angela Merkel stated that Britain remained a key EU ally. Ulrike Demmer disclosed that the official notification would give Germany “more clarity” on how Britain planned to proceed, adding “we must not forget that the UK is still a partner, in NATO and in Europe.” Manfred Weber, a German politician and chair of the centre-right EPP Group in the European Parliament, was more blunt, tweeting “EU has done everything to keep the British. From now on, only the interests of the remaining 440 million Europeans count for us.” Meanwhile the Austrian government disclosed that clarifying the status of EU citizens living in Britain was a priority, with Chancellor Christian Kern stating, “for me, the status and rights of around 25,000 Austrians living and working in the UK are at the forefront.” Mr Kern went on to say that “we also want to achieve clarity and legal certainty for Austrian companies operating in the UK.”
Below is the historic letter triggering Brexit.
Dear President Tusk
On 23 June last year, the people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union. As I have said before, that decision was no rejection of the values we share as fellow Europeans. Nor was it an attempt to do harm to the European Union or any of the remaining member states. On the contrary, the United Kingdom wants the European Union to succeed and prosper. Instead, the referendum was a vote to restore, as we see it, our national self-determination. We are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe – and we want to remain committed partners and allies to our friends across the continent.
Earlier this month, the United Kingdom Parliament confirmed the result of the referendum by voting with clear and convincing majorities in both of its Houses for the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill. The Bill was passed by Parliament on 13 March and it received Royal Assent from Her Majesty The Queen and became an Act of Parliament on 16 March.
Today, therefore, I am writing to give effect to the democratic decision of the people of the United Kingdom. I hereby notify the European Council in accordance with Article 50(2) of the Treaty on European Union of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Union. In addition, in accordance with the same Article 50(2) as applied by Article 106a of the Treaty Establishing the European Atomic Energy Community, I hereby notify the European Council of the United Kingdom’s intention to withdraw from the European Atomic Energy Community. References in this letter to the European Union should therefore be taken to include a reference to the European Atomic Energy Community.
This letter sets out the approach of Her Majesty’s Government to the discussions we will have about the United Kingdom’s departure from the European Union and about the deep and special partnership we hope to enjoy – as your closest friend and neighbour – with the European Union once we leave. We believe that these objectives are in the interests not only of the United Kingdom but of the European Union and the wider world too.
It is in the best interests of both the United Kingdom and the European Union that we should use the forthcoming process to deliver these objectives in a fair and orderly manner, and with as little disruption as possible on each side. We want to make sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and is capable of projecting its values, leading in the world, and defending itself from security threats. We want the United Kingdom, through a new deep and special partnership with a strong European Union, to play its full part in achieving these goals. We therefore believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the European Union.
The Government wants to approach our discussions with ambition, giving citizens and businesses in the United Kingdom and the European Union – and indeed from third countries around the world – as much certainty as possible, as early as possible.
I would like to propose some principles that may help to shape our coming discussions, but before I do so, I should update you on the process we will be undertaking at home, in the United Kingdom.
The process in the United Kingdom
As I have announced already, the Government will bring forward legislation that will repeal the Act of Parliament – the European Communities Act 1972 – that gives effect to EU law in our country. This legislation will, wherever practical and appropriate, in effect convert the body of existing European Union law (the “acquis”) into UK law. This means there will be certainty for UK citizens and for anybody from the European Union who does business in the United Kingdom. The Government will consult on how we design and implement this legislation, and we will publish a White Paper tomorrow. We also intend to bring forward several other pieces of legislation that address specific issues relating to our departure from the European Union, also with a view to ensuring continuity and certainty, in particular for businesses. We will of course continue to fulfil our responsibilities as a member state while we remain a member of the European Union, and the legislation we propose will not come into effect until we leave.
From the start and throughout the discussions, we will negotiate as one United Kingdom, taking due account of the specific interests of every nation and region of the UK as we do so. When it comes to the return of powers back to the United Kingdom, we will consult fully on which powers should reside in Westminster and which should be devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. But it is the expectation of the Government that the outcome of this process will be a significant increase in the decision-making power of each devolved administration.
Negotiations between the United Kingdom and the European Union
The United Kingdom wants to agree with the European Union a deep and special partnership that takes in both economic and security cooperation. To achieve this, we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.
If, however, we leave the European Union without an agreement the default position is that we would have to trade on World Trade Organisation terms. In security terms a failure to reach agreement would mean our cooperation in the fight against crime and terrorism would be weakened. In this kind of scenario, both the United Kingdom and the European Union would of course cope with the change, but it is not the outcome that either side should seek. We must therefore work hard to avoid that outcome.
It is for these reasons that we want to be able to agree a deep and special partnership, taking in both economic and security cooperation, but it is also because we want to play our part in making sure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and able to lead in the world, projecting its values and defending itself from security threats. And we want the United Kingdom to play its full part in realising that vision for our continent.
Proposed principles for our discussions
Looking ahead to the discussions which we will soon begin, I would like to suggest some principles that we might agree to help make sure that the process is as smooth and successful as possible.
- We should engage with one another constructively and respectfully, in a spirit of sincere cooperation. Since I became Prime Minister of the United Kingdom I have listened carefully to you, to my fellow EU Heads of Government and the Presidents of the European Commission and Parliament. That is why the United Kingdom does not seek membership of the single market: we understand and respect your position that the four freedoms of the single market are indivisible and there can be no “cherry picking”. We also understand that there will be consequences for the UK of leaving the EU: we know that we will lose influence over the rules that affect the European economy. We also know that UK companies will, as they trade within the EU, have to align with rules agreed by institutions of which we are no longer a part – just as UK companies do in other overseas markets.
- We should always put our citizens first. There is obvious complexity in the discussions we are about to undertake, but we should remember that at the heart of our talks are the interests of all our citizens. There are, for example, many citizens of the remaining member states living in the United Kingdom, and UK citizens living elsewhere in the European Union, and we should aim to strike an early agreement about their rights.
- We should work towards securing a comprehensive agreement. We want to agree a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, taking in both economic and security cooperation. We will need to discuss how we determine a fair settlement of the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, in accordance with the law and in the spirit of the United Kingdom’s continuing partnership with the EU. But we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU.
- We should work together to minimise disruption and give as much certainty as possible. Investors, businesses and citizens in both the UK and across the remaining 27 member states – and those from third countries around the world – want to be able to plan. In order to avoid any cliff-edge as we move from our current relationship to our future partnership, people and businesses in both the UK and the EU would benefit from implementation periods to adjust in a smooth and orderly way to new arrangements. It would help both sides to minimise unnecessary disruption if we agree this principle early in the process.
- In particular, we must pay attention to the UK’s unique relationship with the Republic of Ireland and the importance of the peace process in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland is the only EU member state with a land border with the United Kingdom. We want to avoid a return to a hard border between our two countries, to be able to maintain the Common Travel Area between us, and to make sure that the UK’s withdrawal from the EU does not harm the Republic of Ireland. We also have an important responsibility to make sure that nothing is done to jeopardise the peace process in Northern Ireland, and to continue to uphold the Belfast Agreement.
- We should begin technical talks on detailed policy areas as soon as possible, but we should prioritise the biggest challenges. Agreeing a high-level approach to the issues arising from our withdrawal will of course be an early priority. But we also propose a bold and ambitious Free Trade Agreement between the United Kingdom and the European Union. This should be of greater scope and ambition than any such agreement before it so that it covers sectors crucial to our linked economies such as financial services and network industries. This will require detailed technical talks, but as the UK is an existing EU member state, both sides have regulatory frameworks and standards that already match. We should therefore prioritise how we manage the evolution of our regulatory frameworks to maintain a fair and open trading environment, and how we resolve disputes. On the scope of the partnership between us – on both economic and security matters – my officials will put forward detailed proposals for deep, broad and dynamic cooperation.
- We should continue to work together to advance and protect our shared European values. Perhaps now more than ever, the world needs the liberal, democratic values of Europe. We want to play our part to ensure that Europe remains strong and prosperous and able to lead in the world, projecting its values and defending itself from security threats.
The task before us
As I have said, the Government of the United Kingdom wants to agree a deep and special partnership between the UK and the EU, taking in both economic and security cooperation. At a time when the growth of global trade is slowing and there are signs that protectionist instincts are on the rise in many parts of the world, Europe has a responsibility to stand up for free trade in the interest of all our citizens. Likewise, Europe’s security is more fragile today than at any time since the end of the Cold War. Weakening our cooperation for the prosperity and protection of our citizens would be a costly mistake. The United Kingdom’s objectives for our future partnership remain those set out in my Lancaster House speech of 17 January and the subsequent White Paper published on 2 February.
We recognise that it will be a challenge to reach such a comprehensive agreement within the two-year period set out for withdrawal discussions in the Treaty. But we believe it is necessary to agree the terms of our future partnership alongside those of our withdrawal from the EU. We start from a unique position in these discussions – close regulatory alignment, trust in one another’s institutions, and a spirit of cooperation stretching back decades. It is for these reasons, and because the future partnership between the UK and the EU is of such importance to both sides, that I am sure it can be agreed in the time period set out by the Treaty.
The task before us is momentous but it should not be beyond us. After all, the institutions and the leaders of the European Union have succeeded in bringing together a continent blighted by war into a union of peaceful nations, and supported the transition of dictatorships to democracy. Together, I know we are capable of reaching an agreement about the UK’s rights and obligations as a departing member state, while establishing a deep and special partnership that contributes towards the prosperity, security and global power of our continent.
Officials announced on Monday, 20 March that UK Prime Minister Theresa May is to officially notify the European Union (EU) on 29 march that the UK is leaving the bloc.
Downing Street announced last week that the prime minister would write a letter to the European Council, adding that it hoped negotiations on the terms of exit and future relations could begin as quickly as possible. A No 10 spokesman disclosed that the UKs Ambassador to the EU, Sir Time Barrow, had informed the European Council, which is headed by President Donald Tusk, earlier on Monday of the date that Article 50 would be triggered. In response to the news, Mr Tusk tweeted within 48 hours of the UK triggering Article 50, I will present the draft Brexit guidelines to the EU 27 Member states. This will set out Britains demands for talks.
Mr Tusk has previously sated that he expects to call an extraordinary summit of the 27 other members within four to six weeks, in order to draw up a mandate for the European Commissions chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. It is likely that a summit will not be held until early May. Preparations may be slowed by holidays around Easter on 16 April and on 1 May. Brussels also wants to avoid clashing with the two-round French presidential election on 23 April and 7 May. Officials have indicated that they would prefer to hold the summit before French President Francois Hollande steps down around mid-May.
Under the Article 50 process, talks on the terms of exit and future relations are not allowed until the UK formally tells the EU that it is leaving. If all goes according to the two-year negotiations allowed for in the official timetable, Brexit should happen in March 2019. EU leaders have said that they want to conclude the talks within eighteen months in order to allow the terms of the UKs exit to be ratified by the UK Parliament and the European Parliament, as well as approved by the necessary majority of EU states.
Mrs May has disclosed that MPs and peers will have a vote on the deal that she negotiates, noting however that the UK will leave anyway even if Parliament rejects it. The government has said that it expects to secure a positive outcome, warning however that there is a chance of there being no formal agreement.
Meanwhile Mrs Mays spokesman also rejected reports that an early election may be held, stating its not going to happen.