Top 3 developments
- May launches her Plan B.
- Several amendments have been tabled against a no-deal and the backstop.
- EU makes it clear that a no-deal will lead to a hard border.
Ma’am with a Plan
Although the Prime Minister launched her Plan B option to Parliament on Monday, with a vote scheduled for 29th January, there are yet to be any substantive changes to the deal. The Prime Minister has outlined that she will seek further concessions on the Irish backstop, which is her preferred option because it requires limited changes to the original deal. It would also most likely be supported by Tory Brexiteers and the DUP. The EU so far has refused to budge on the backstop, but Andrew Murrison, the chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, has tabled an amendment to add a time limit to it, and this has gained the support of senior backbench Tories including Sir Graham Brady and close May ally Damian Green.
It is likely that Downing Street would support such an amendment as, if the Prime Minister will be able to demonstrate that there is a Parliamentary majority for this option, the EU might get on board in order to avoid no-deal. However, the EU has rarely shown any signs of flexibility during these negotiations, and there is not much evidence to suggest that they would be willing to fold at this crucial moment. The improbability of such concessions has been highlighted by Olly Robbins, May’s chief Brexit adviser, who reportedly sent a text to the Chancellor during a Cabinet conference call expressing scepticism about the EU’s willingness to compromise.
Will They Stay or Will They Go?
Yvette Cooper, the chair of the Home Affairs Select Committee, has tabled an amendment to May’s bill that would give Parliament the power to support an extension of Article 50. The bill outlines that if no deal has been agreed upon by February then the Government must apply for an extension, ensuring that the UK leaves the EU with a deal. A group of ministers, including Justice Secretary David Gauke and Defence Minister Tobias Elwood, have suggested that they will resign if Conservative MPs are banned from having a free vote on an amendment to stop a no-deal Brexit.
These threats of resignation come in response to reports that Theresa May told her Cabinet that collective responsibility would apply in the vote next week. Amber Rudd, the Work and Pensions Secretary, argued that the whole Cabinet had a duty to avoid a no-deal exit because of the clear evidence that it would cause serious economic harm. A report from the IMF earlier this week has increased the ‘project fear’ highlighting that a no-deal Brexit is one of the biggest threats to the global economy in 2019.
The number of resignations threats highlights the extent to which a no deal is opposed within Parliament. Labour has publicly announced their support for the Cooper amendment this week, suggesting that if all other opposition parties follow suit, the amendment will only need support from 15 Tory MPs to pass. This suggests that even if it is not a free vote there is a likelihood of it passing in Parliament. Is a Second Referendum on the table?
Labour has tabled its own motion for a vote next week which mentioned the possibility of an option of a second referendum, the first time this has appeared in a Commons motion. Jeremy Corbyn has bowed to pressure from Labour backbenchers and proposed a series of non-binding votes to avoid a no deal. However, a second referendum option has not been confirmed and the Labour front bench continues to withhold support for such a manoeuvre fearing that it will alienate supporters who voted Leave in 2016. With Corbyn already declaring support for the Cooper amendment, it is likely that the Labour party will push for an extension of Article 50 as opposed to a potentially divisive ‘People’s Vote’.
The Queen Intervenes
Despite being politically neutral, the Queen has interjected in the Brexit chaos during a speech to mark the centenary of the Sandringham Women’s Institute, calling for “respect [of] different points of views” and “coming together to seek out the common ground”. Whilst the Queen did not specifically refer to Brexit in her speech, the hidden meaning of her comments could not be mistaken. This comes just days before the next Parliamentary vote on Brexit, occurring on 29th January, with the Queen clearing calling for a Parliamentary consensus before the UK’s exit from the EU.
No-deal will lead to a hard border
The EU confirmed this week that a no-deal Brexit would inevitably lead to a hard border in Northern Ireland. This confirmation is important as it is one of the clearest signals so far that the EU are seriously worried about no-deal being a realistic prospect.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that the UK is a co-signatory of the Good Friday Agreement, in which an open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is seen as an essential part. Although the EU was not formally involved in negotiating this Agreement, the UK and Ireland’s mutual membership of the EU has facilitated an open border in recent years. With no free trade agreement ready to be signed and any technological solution years away from being operational, it is difficult to see how the UK can ensure its commitments to the Good Friday Agreement without some sort of bilateral agreement with Ireland.
The Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has reassured Irish Parliamentarians that a ‘customs and regulations’ agreement could be negotiated with the UK, or in other words, a backstop deal. It is possible that after all the posturing and theatrics in Parliament, Tory Brexiteers who want no-deal and are viciously opposed to a backstop might be forced to swallow a backstop arrangement in Northern Ireland in order to maintain the UK’s commitments to the Good Friday Agreement.
However, the EU’s original comments about a no-deal meaning a hard border created widespread concern in Ireland about the consequences of this, and Michel Barnier, the EU Chief Negotiator, was eventually forced to comment that the EU would have to find an operational way of carrying checks and controls without putting back in place a hard border.’ Although this has placated concerns for the time being, it has raised the question as to why a backstop is necessary in the first place if the EU can promise that the border can be operational even with a no-deal outcome? Has the EU accidently undermined its leverage in the negotiations?
Poland Breaks Ranks
Poland broke ranks with the rest of the EU by suggesting that the Brexit deadlock could be ended by putting a five-year time limit on the backstop. This suggestion has prompted numerous questions in the House of Commons regarding the likelihood of such an option, with Andrew Murrison tabling such an amendment. However, the EU27 leaders do not appear to have been phased by the statement, arguing that one minister’s opinion does not represent the whole bloc. Ministers emphasised that the bloc remains united in its formal stance.
Brussels Goes Fishing
Brussels has recognised that EU member states may need to negotiate a country-by-country fishing deal to access UK waters after a no-deal Brexit. With French, Dutch, Belgian, Swedish and Danish fleets being highly dependent on operating in UK waters, it is predicted that losing access to these waters would have detrimental effects on these countries’ economies. The European Commission has unveiled two proposals on Wednesday:
- Gives fishermen access to up to €1.1 bn of EU budget funds to compensate for a “sudden closure of UK waters” on which significant parts of the union’s fishing industry depend.
- Extend existing agreements with the UK – based on annual fishing quotas agreed in December – for the duration of 2019, if the UK offers ‘reciprocal’ rights to the EU side.
These are dependent on being accepted by the UK and there is potential that this could become an important tool for leveraging concessions from the EU.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 29th January: Commons will vote on Brexit next steps
- February/March: Vote on the final deal
- 29th March 2019: UK planned exit from the European Union
- 30th March 2019: UK planned transition period.
- 31st December 2020: UK planned exit from the transition agreement.
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