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Theresa May holds crunch Brexit talks amid Irish border backstop row

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Theresa May holds crunch Brexit talks amid Irish border backstop row

The PM (pictured at a First World War commemoration at Parliament today) is set to warn ministers that time is running out to strike an agreement with the EU amid bitter wrangling over the Irish border backstop

The PM (pictured at a First World War commemoration at Parliament today) is set to warn ministers that time is running out to strike an agreement with the EU amid bitter wrangling over the Irish border backstop

The PM (pictured at a First World War commemoration at Parliament today) is set to warn ministers that time is running out to strike an agreement with the EU amid bitter wrangling over the Irish border backstop

Theresa May told Cabinet she will not do a Brexit deal at ‘any cost’ today as the standoff with the EU appeared to deepen.

The PM gathered her Cabinet in a bid to thrash out the way forward, warning them that there is still ‘significant work’ still to do as the clock ticks down.

But hopes of an imminent breakthrough seem to have receded as the two sides continue to clash over the Irish border. 

Michel Barnier gave a gloomy assessment of progress today, warning a deal is not close and ‘divergence’ remains on how to keep ‘peace in Ireland’.

Mrs May’s DUP allies also stepped up the rhetoric, with the party’s chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson saying: ‘Looks like we’re heading for no deal.’ 

Fears have been mounting among Eurosceptics that compromises on the Irish border backstop could effectively leave the UK in the customs union indefinitely – giving up many of the benefits of Brexit.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab has argued that Britain should be able to exit the backstop with three-six months’ notice. He insisted today that he is ‘absolutely not’ planning to resign over the issue.

But while Brussels has also made some concessions on a potential review mechanism, it insists that Britain cannot have a unilateral ability to abandon the backstop.

Britain is drawing up plans to propose a backstop review mechanism to ensure the backstop does not go on indefinitely.

Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General and a leading Brexiteer, is said to have told Cabinet the EU’s shift in the last few days to consider an arbitration mechanism was ‘a major step’. 

There were pointed exchanges between Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt – a leading Brexiteer – and Scottish Secretary David Mundell about the way of presenting the negotiating process. According to the Spectator, Ms Mordaunt suggested Mrs May should stay quiet until there was a resolution because passengers on flights became nervous if the pilot told them their landing time had been changed.

Mr Mundell shot back that passengers would be equally alarmed if they thought the pilot could not land the plane. 

Other Cabinet sources told MailOnline the meeting was ‘more agreeable’ than previous sessions, but ended up in the ‘same place’.

‘The Brexiteers are definitely coordinating. They all delivered the same message about making sure we can face the EU down, and not being rushed into concessions,’ one said. ‘They were talking up the need to stay firm on the backstop.’ 

The two sides now have only days left to bridge the remaining gap in order for an EU summit to be called this month that could sign off a divorce agreement. 

Despite the slowdown in talks, it is understood that ministers are preparing for another snap meeting later this week – possibly on Saturday as Mrs May is due to attend Armistice commemorations with Emmanuel Macron in Amiens on Friday. 

Mrs May and ministers also discussed no-deal plans at the meeting today. Large scale contingency plans need to be triggered as early as next week, or risk the UK not being prepared to crash out of the bloc in March. 

Home Secretary Sajid Javid

Home Secretary Sajid Javid

Health Secretary Matthew Hancock

Health Secretary Matthew Hancock

Sajid Javid (left) and Matthew Hancock are among the ministers at the Cabinet meeting today

Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt is one of the key Brexiteers in Mrs May's Cabinet team

Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt is one of the key Brexiteers in Mrs May's Cabinet team

Aid Secretary Penny Mordaunt is one of the key Brexiteers in Mrs May’s Cabinet team

Treasury minister Liz Truss was also at Cabinet today

Treasury minister Liz Truss was also at Cabinet today

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab (pictured right in Downing Street today) argues the UK should be able to exit the backstop unilaterally with three to six months’ notice. Treasury minister Liz Truss (left) was also at Cabinet today

EU negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured in Brussels yesterday) has been trying to force more concessions out of the UK

EU negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured in Brussels yesterday) has been trying to force more concessions out of the UK

EU negotiator Michel Barnier (pictured in Brussels yesterday) has been trying to force more concessions out of the UK

There have been warnings of dire consequences from failure to get a deal, including planes not being able to fly to the EU, shortages of food and medicines, and long queues at ports.

The PM’s official spokesman said: ‘The Prime Minister said she was confident of reaching a deal. 

Irish border backstop mechanism is the final hurdle in divorce talks

The Brexit divorce negotiations have boiled down to the issue of the Irish border.  

Brussels had initially demanded that Northern Ireland stays within its jurisdiction for customs and most single market rules to avoid a hard border.

But Mrs May flatly rejected the idea, saying she would not agree to anything that risked splitting the UK. Instead, the government has mooted a temporary customs union for the whole UK, and accepted the need for extra regulatory checks in the Irish Sea.

Brussels has also given ground, and now appears to be prepared to sign off a UK-wide backstop in the divorce deal.

That leaves the mechanism for ending the backstop as the final hurdle to overcome – but the two sides have different views. 

UNILATERAL EXIT

Dominic Raab has been arguing that the UK should be able to scrap the backstop arrangements by giving three to six months’ notice.

That would assuage Eurosceptic fears that the country could end up being trapped in an inferior customs union indefinitely, unless the EU gives permission for it to stop or a wider trade deal is sealed.

ALL-WEATHER BACKSTOP

For its part, the EU has been adamant that the backstop must offer an ‘all-weather’ solution to the Irish border issue and stay in place ‘unless and until’ it is superseded by other arrangements.

The bloc has already effectively killed off calls for a hard end date to the backstop – and No10 is now convinced that a simple unilateral notice period will not unlock the talks.  

COMPROMISE PLAN 

Mrs May and Irish PM Leo Varadkar have discussed a ‘review mechanism’ for the backstop, which could involve an independent arbitration body assessing whether the terms were being honoured and if the arrangement should be ended.

Potentially this could provide a solution that allows Mrs May to say the backstop would not go on for ever.

But the devil will be in the detail, and ministers are keen to ensure there are ‘robust’ ways for the UK to escape.

‘She said that while the UK should aim to secure a withdrawal agreement as soon as possible, this should not be done at any cost.’

‘Mrs May stressed that any deal on withdrawal would be subject to the EU and UK finalising a framework on their future relationship in areas like trade and security, which is expected to be set out in a separate political declaration.

‘The Prime Minister said that once agreement was reached on a withdrawal agreement, it remains the case that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and it will be subject to securing an acceptable full future framework.’ 

The Irish border has been the most vexed issue in the negotiations with the EU.

The outline divorce package agreed last December included a commitment to a ‘backstop’ to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

It would only come into effect after a Brexit transition period finishes at the end of 2020. Under the plan, customs and regulatory rules would stay aligned in key areas unless a wider trade pact removed the need.

Both sides insisted the provision – to be included in a Withdrawal Treaty – was a fallback and not their favoured outcome.

But tensions quickly arose over what form the backstop would take. Brussels initially demanded that Northern Ireland stays within its jurisdiction for customs and most single market rules to avoid a hard border.

Mrs May flatly rejected that idea, saying she would not agree to anything that risked splitting the UK. Instead, the government has mooted a temporary customs union for the whole UK. 

However, that concept will be fiercely resisted by Eurosceptics who say there must be a time limit. 

There would also probably need to be more regulatory checks between mainland UK and Northern Ireland to protect the single market. Some already take place, but they could be dramatically stepped up – potentially creating a huge flashpoint with the DUP.

Brussels now appears to be prepared to do a UK-wide backstop in the divorce deal and is drawing up an ‘independent’ mechanism, which could involve arbitration on whether the terms are working and being honoured.

But Mrs May is facing a Tory mutiny on the final sticking point in talks – with Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab insisting the UK should be able to leave the customs union unilaterally within three to six months if the backstop kicks in.

Speaking to Belgian broadcaster RTBF today, Mr Barnier said: ‘For now, we are still negotiating and I am not, as I am speaking to you this morning, able to tell you that we are close to reaching an agreement, since there is still a real point of divergence on the way of guaranteeing peace in Ireland, that there are no borders in Ireland, while protecting the integrity of the single market.’ 

At a press conference on a visit to Slovakia later, Mr Barnier added: ‘Today we’re not there yet. The clock is still ticking and we will continue the work. 

‘Choices have to be made on the British side to finalise this deal.’ 

In a hastily-arranged phone call yesterday, Irish PM Leo Varadkar told Mrs May he would consider a ‘review’ mechanism for the backstop – but he said the UK would not be allowed to scrap it unilaterally.

McDonnell says Labour will vote against May’s Brexit plan if a customs union with the EU is not permanent

John McDonnell last night blasted Theresa May‘s Brexit strategy – comparing it to Neville Chamberlain’s appeasement of Adolf Hitler.

The shadow chancellor said the PM’s plan is the ‘worst of all worlds’ which would fail to provide stability for businesses or workers. 

And he said Labour would be voting against the deal if a customs union with the EU is not permanent – despite the prospect of a revolt by backbenchers who have said they could back the PM.

Mr McDonnell said Mrs May will come back hailing a deal, but it will be ‘more like Neville Chamberlain’ than Winston Churchill and will ‘disintegrate’ over time.

His jibe is a reference to when Mr Chamberlain signed the Munich Agreement with Hitler in 1938 and then proudly toured the country declaring he had secured ‘peace for our time’.

Within a year Britain and the Allies were at war with Germany after Hitler had marched through much of Europe conquering vast swathes of the continent. 

Appearing on BBC’s Newsnight last night, Mr McDonnell said he ‘can’t see’ Labour backing Mrs May’s deal as ‘I think it would be the worst of all worlds’. 

A statement from the Dublin government said Mr Varadkar indicated ‘openness to consider proposals’ – but only on the basis that the ‘outcome of any such review could not involve a unilateral decision to end the backstop’.   

In inflammatory comments to reporters later, Mr Varadkar also branded the UK a ‘divided kingdom’ and said that was making the talks more difficult.

A message posted by Mr Varadkar’s deputy Simon Coveney making the same point earlier was retweeted by EU negotiator Sabine Weyand, as Brussels ratcheted up pressure on Mrs May. 

DUP MP Mr Donaldson responded today: ‘Looks like we’re heading for no deal. 

‘Such an outcome will have serious consequences for economy of Irish Republic. 

‘In addition, UK won’t have to pay a penny more to EU, which means big increase for Dublin. 

‘Can’t understand why Irish Government seems so intent on this course.’ 

The tough talk from Ireland came as shadow chancellor John McDonnell confirmed Labour would not support a temporary customs union with the EU.

Asked if Labour would vote against a customs union option unless it was permanent, Mr McDonnell told BBC2’s Newsnight: ‘Yeah, I think so, because… we’ll see what she comes back with and we will be straight and honest with people, if it doesn’t protect jobs and the economy we can’t support it.

‘All the messages that we get back over this whole period is that our European partners desperately want what we want – a deal that will protect their jobs and their economies in the same way that we want to.

‘So, we think there’s a deal to be had if they recognise that the deal is unacceptable to Parliament, I think that opens up a vista of the opportunity of the real negotiations.’

Justice Secretary David Gauke told a Channel 4 Brexit debate show: ‘If we leave on no-deal terms there’s no good shying away, it will be very bad for us economically.

‘If we can get a good deal, and that means removing all the frictions…. the Chequers-type deal, as I say, if we don’t have friction with trade, then, economically, I don’t think it’s going to make a particular big difference one way or the other.’    

Meanwhile, a Survation poll of 20,000 people for Channel 4 estimated Remain would win another in/out referendum by 54 per cent to 46 per cent.

Using a ‘multi-level’ modelling technique, the broadcaster said 105 local authority areas that voted Leave in 2016 would now be carried by the Remain side.

The premier's DUP allies gave a gloomy assessment of the prospects for an agreement today - with the party's chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson saying: 'Looks like we're heading for no deal'

The premier's DUP allies gave a gloomy assessment of the prospects for an agreement today - with the party's chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson saying: 'Looks like we're heading for no deal'

The premier’s DUP allies gave a gloomy assessment of the prospects for an agreement today – with the party’s chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson saying: ‘Looks like we’re heading for no deal’

Irish PM Leo Varadkar (pictured on a visit in Dublin yesterday) told Mrs May he would consider a 'review mechanism', but it could not be ended by a 'unilateral decision'

Irish PM Leo Varadkar (pictured on a visit in Dublin yesterday) told Mrs May he would consider a 'review mechanism', but it could not be ended by a 'unilateral decision'

Irish PM Leo Varadkar (pictured on a visit in Dublin yesterday) told Mrs May he would consider a ‘review mechanism’, but it could not be ended by a ‘unilateral decision’

 

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