Top 3 developments
· 50 days to go until Brexit
· PM heads back to Brussels for crunch talks
· Donald Tusk launches attack on no-deal Brexiteers
From the Land of the Rising Sun to the Land of the Never-ending Uncertainty
If there wasn’t already enough pressure to secure a Brexit deal by the end of March 2019, the Business Secretary Greg Clark MP revealed to the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Select Committee that the deadline to give certainty for exporters was actually much sooner. The Business Secretary on Wednesday said that for East Asian exporters, they needed certainty on a Brexit deal by as early as 15 February, because of the length of time it takes goods to travel to the UK from these nations.
The EU and Japan have recently agreed a trade deal that the UK will be included under if a Withdrawal Agreement is secured. This is because during the transition period we will be a part of the single market and customs union until December 2020, although being out of the EU. If there is a no-deal Brexit however, we will not be a part of this trade deal, and goods that will embark from Japan on the six week journey to the UK in late February or March may arrive in the UK and be subject to unprecedented checks and tariffs at the border. Although it is common for negotiations to come down to the wire at the eleventh hour, it is an interesting point made by the Business Secretary that exporters need certainty on a Withdrawal Agreement much sooner than the 29 March. In order to highlight the damage of this outcome, the Business Secretary hinted that he would resign from Government if a no-deal Brexit became the country’s destination of choice.
After the Leader of the Opposition finally met with the PM last week, Jeremy Corbyn wrote a follow up letter on Wednesday detailing five legally binding commitments that the PM would need to make in order to gain Labour’s support. This is the clearest indication yet of what it would take to get the Labour frontbench on board to secure a Brexit deal that could pass through Parliament. Although praised by some for finally giving some clarity over Labour’s Brexit position, Corbyn’s intervention was also criticised by certain Labour backbenchers and many of his grassroots activists, who hoped that he would have used this opportunity to support a second Brexit referendum. Its absence is an indication that a second referendum is a non-starter, for now.
In his letter, Corbyn highlighted that changes to the political declaration must include a permanent UK-wide customs union, with a say in future trade deals; close alignment to the single market; alignment of rights and protections with current EU regulations and the continued membership of various EU agencies and future security arrangements.
It is not clear how the UK could remain in a customs union while still maintaining an independent trade policy, and this was described by the PM’s de-facto deputy David Lidington MP as “wishful thinking.” However, staying in the customs union is one of the few options that might be able to get a majority in Parliament, as moderate Tory MPs might well hold their nose and vote for it if the alternative was a no-deal Brexit. This is an unlikely scenario, but not impossible. With so much uncertainty facing the PM’s attempt to secure legal changes to the backstop, it would be wise to keep this option, as well as the Malthouse Compromise, on the table.
For whom the Belfast tolls
The Prime Minister visited Belfast on Wednesday and used the opportunity to give a speech to demonstrate her “unshakeable” commitment to avoiding a hard border. However, the PM faced criticism when she said: “I’m not proposing to persuade people to accept a deal that doesn’t contain that insurance policy for the future.”
Brexiteers pounced on this comment because they had assumed that when they voted to find ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Northern Irish backstop last week, it meant that the backstop would be scrapped and replaced. This is one of the pitfalls of creating a political fudge to get legislation through Parliament. The ambiguity of language such as ‘alternative arrangements’ was evidently helpful when trying to court support for the Brady Amendment, as the wording was vague enough to allow Brexiteers to project their own idea of what this actually meant when they cast their vote. Now they know the PM’s true interpretation, they’re not happy.
DUP Leader Arlene Foster highlighted that keeping the backstop would be “totally unacceptable” and a source from the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory MPs said that “even if she doesn’t mean what she said, we still do.” With Parliament voting again on 14 February on her Brexit approach, it is clear that the PM still has a lot of work to do to secure the support of the DUP and of her own backbenchers.
Back(stop) to Brussels
Following her trip to Northern Ireland, the PM made her way to Brussels on Thursday to meet with EU leaders to discuss making legal changes to the backstop. In her first trip to Brussels since her Brexit deal was defeated in the Commons, the PM had a “robust but constructive” meeting with the EU Commission President Jean Claude Juncker, and they agreed to restart the negotiations on an official level. Not much has been revealed about the meeting beyond this, but it has been reported that Brussels may allow a change to the Withdrawal Agreement in the form of a legally binding letter, outlining that the backstop is a temporary arrangement. This is an unconfirmed offer, but it aligns with what the EU Civil Service Head Martin Selmayr hinted at with UK Parliamentarians earlier in the week, and therefore could be viewed as an option that the EU are strongly considering.
Even if this is true, this offer poses significant problems for the PM. Parliament is due to vote on her Brexit approach on 14 February, and the cracks in her support are already beginning to show. Yvette Cooper MP and Nick Boles MP have both publicly commented that if a deal has not been passed by then, they would renew efforts to delay the UK’s exit from the EU beyond the 29 March. Tory Brexiteers have also expressed that legal changes to the backstop might not be enough for them, and want rid of it altogether.
With less than 50 days to go until our exit from the EU, a deal needs to be passed very soon. Otherwise the only two viable options seem to be a Brexit delay or an accidental no-deal. If the reports are correct, it seems that the EU is willing to give the PM the legal changes to the backstop she is looking for. The question is, why haven’t the EU given these concessions to the PM already when there is a vote next week? It is likely that the EU are waiting for confirmation that this concession would definitively gain a Parliamentary majority before they offer it. Going by what Brexiteers have been saying this week however, there are fresh doubts about whether they would support such changes.
I’ll say it if you say it first
Parliament’s Exiting the EU Select Committee visited Brussels on Monday and had a ninety-minute meeting with Martin Selmayr, the Head of the EU Civil Service and the former Chief of Staff for Jean-Claude Juncker. He is seen by some as the ‘power behind the throne’ in Brussels, and is widely disliked by Brexiteers for his provocative remarks towards the UK, such as when he tweeted the EU flag repeatedly after Croatia beat England in the World Cup.
The meeting grabbed headlines when Selmayr offered to give a legally binding assurance that the backstop would not lock the UK into a permanent customs union. According to reports, he indicated that he would only be willing to offer this concession if he could be assured that the deal would get over the line in Parliament, and asked the Brexiteer MPs present if this was something they could support.
Considering the Brexiteer MPs on the Committee had backed the Brady amendment to seek alternative changes to the backstop, it would have been expected that they would be happy to support this guarantee. However, members such as Andrea Jenkins MP and John Whittingdale MP were unable to give these assurances. It is the clearest indication yet that even if legal changes were made to the backstop, it still might not be enough to fulfil the ideologically pure vision of hard-line Brexiteers.
Another one bites the Tusk
The EU Council President, Donald Tusk revealed his thoughts about Brexiteers on Wednesday in a comment to the press following discussions with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. Tusk said that there was a “special place in Hell” for those who promoted Brexit “without even a sketch or a plan of how to carry it out safely.” To clarify that this was not just a heat of the moment, offhand remark, the quote was soon tweeted in full on Tusk’s official Twitter account.
Predictably, there was widespread backlash from Brexiteers across Westminster and beyond. Nigel Farage referred to him as an “unelected, arrogant” bully, DUP Brexit Spokesman Sammy Wilson responded with a similar metaphor by saying he was a “devilish Euro maniac” and Leader of the Commons Andrea Leadsom MP called his comments “disgraceful”. Downing Street took a more measured tone, doubting whether his comments were “helpful”.
Regardless of whether his language was appropriate, it does show that there is serious frustration about the UK’s position from senior EU figures. There is no doubt that this comment was made strategically, and it could be a signal that the EU wants the UK to finally formulate a cohesive plan about how to resolve the Irish backstop issue.
Upcoming Key Dates
- 13th February: May makes a statement to Commons
- 14th February: Brexit motion tabled for vote
- 13th March: Spring Statement
- 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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