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The House of Commons will begin voting today on a series of amendments by the House of Lords to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, including an amendment which would give Parliament control of the Brexit process if it votes down the withdrawal agreement. The voting will continue into tomorrow, with today’s voting covering legal issues related to the Brexit Bill and tomorrow’s covering policy issues, including amendments calling for a customs union with the EU and for the UK to join the European Economic Area (EEA). Today’s so-called “meaningful vote” amendment, backed by Labour, is expected to be the most difficult for the government over the two days. Other votes today cover Lords amendments removing the date of Brexit (March 29 2019) from the bill and a number of amendments on so-called “Henry VIII powers”. The debates today are expected to begin at around 1pm, with the first votes held shortly after 4pm.
Ahead of the votes, Prime Minister Theresa May urged potential Conservative rebels to unite behind the government in a meeting of the backbench 1922 Committee last night. She told her MPs they “must think about the message Parliament will send to the European Union this week”, adding, “I am confident I can get a deal that allows us to strike our own trade deals while having a border with the EU which is as frictionless as possible. But if the Lords amendments are allowed to stand, that negotiating position will be undermined.” David Davis also issued a call for loyalty. In a letter to Tory MPs, the Brexit secretary said it was “simply not right” that Parliament could overturn the referendum result via the Lords’ “meaningful vote” amendment, adding that it risked undermining the government’s approach to the negotiations.
Dominic Grieve, the former attorney general and a leading pro-European Conservative rebel, last night announced that he would be tabling a new amendment on the “meaningful vote”, branded as a compromise plan. This new amendment would give ministers until the end of November to get political agreement on the final Brexit deal. If that deadline is missed, ministers would have to put forward a motion in the Commons setting out their proposed next steps — and win approval from MPs for the plan. If ministers still fail to agree on the final Brexit deal by the middle of February 2019, only then would parliament decide the next steps. Grieve told the BBC last night that “I hope very much the government will look at that, because I think it provides a solution which would satisfy everybody… If it’s not accepted, I will have to consider very carefully tomorrow — I might well vote against the government.”
The government has tabled its own amendment to the Bill, pledging that the government will deliver a statement setting out its next course of action within 28 days of a parliamentary vote rejecting the Brexit deal. A government source indicated to Politico that their amendment would still be tabled despite Grieve’s amendment, adding that “we have a number of Labour MPs supporting it.”
Separately, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) also met last night ahead of the votes. The Huffington Post reports that there were clashes between MPs over the party’s position on tomorrow’s EEA amendement vote. The Labour leadership is whipping its MPs to abstain, but a number are expected to rebel.
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A diverse group of backbencher Conservative MPs, including the pro-European Chairwoman of the Treasury Committee, Nicky Morgan, and the Eurosceptic Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG), Jacob Rees-Mogg, have tabled their own amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill which will commit the UK to negotiate a “customs arrangement as part of the framework for the future relationship” with the EU. The amendment is being branded as a compromise alternative to the Lords’ amendment on customs, for which many pro-European Conservative MPs could vote in order to not defeat the government.
Meanwhile, the Times reports that pro-European Conservative MPs yesterday signaled to Prime Minister Theresa May that while they will not use tomorrow’s parliamentary vote for the Lords’ amendments to rebel on customs, they could still vote against the government in the future. Nicky Morgan said, “We’ve given her [May] a breathing space, a bit of time.” A rebel Tory MP is quoted saying, “It may be that we will vote with the government today but urge them to think again when the bill goes back to the Lords…That will send a clear message that unless they are prepared to move then they could still be defeated.”
The European Commission yesterday published a presentation warning that the UK’s proposal for a temporary customs backstop on the island of Ireland would be “leading to a hard border” since it “does not cover regulatory controls.” It also warned that “piecemeal application of EU VAT and excise rules” meant there were “serious risks of fraud,” and concluded that there were “key questions unanswered”. This comes as the Brexit Secretary, David Davis, and the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, met in Brussels yesterday to discuss the backstop. According to Bloomberg, Davis also increased pressure on the EU to be more flexible in negotiations for a UK-EU security partnership.
Elsewhere, the BBC reports that Prime Minister May’s preferred solution for a customs arrangement post-Brexit would now be an updated version of the max-fac option, but with a long lead-in time, which would see the UK remaining part of the customs union for a considerable amount of time beyond the end of the transition period in 2020.
Meanwhile, in a new survey, German employer federations have issued a common stance on Brexit. The federations expressed concern that there may not be a deal on the post-Brexit transition period, saying, “only with a deal on the future and the exit terms we will achieve the urgently needed transition stage. The EU and the UK must reach progress on this at the Summit at the end of June.”
The Chairman of the European Research Group (ERG) of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs, Jacob Rees-Mogg, denied yesterday that there would be a need for customs checks at Dover in the event of a no-deal Brexit. Rees-Mogg told a caller on a phone-in on LBC radio that “The delays will not be at Dover, they will be at Calais… There will be no need to have any delays on goods coming in from the continent in the event we leave with no deal, because goods that are safe on 29 March will be safe on 30 March and that means inbound traffic ought not to suffer any delays because it will be our choice.”
However, Rees-Mogg’s claims were dismissed by the British Ports Association (BPA). Chief executive Richard Ballantyne said, “It is difficult to see a situation where food and other products could be legally imported from another customs territory without being subject to some kind of border check.” Legal experts also questioned Rees-Mogg’s claims, claiming they would break World Trade Organisation (WTO) rules. “The basic idea that we will check non-EU goods but not check EU goods if there is no trade deal done with the EU or a customs union agreement will violate the basic rules of the WTO, because that would be deemed discriminatory,” said Steve Peers, professor of law at the University of Essex.
Separately, the Belgian government has announced it will hire 141 new customs officials in preparation for Brexit. The plan is to train them so to be ready by April 2019. It will also start coordination with neighbouring countries, the European Commission, Belgian ports and airports.
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A boat carrying over six hundred migrants was yesterday allowed to dock in the port of Valencia, Spain, after tensions between Italy and Malta left the rescue ship stranded at sea overnight. The standoff was triggered by Italy’s refusal to dock the boat, coupled by demands that Malta take responsibility for offering a “safe port” instead. The new Italian Interior Minister and leader of the anti-immigration Lega party, Matteo Salvini, yesterday said, “Saving lives at sea is a duty, but transforming Italy into an enormous refugee camp is not. Italy is done bowing its head and obeying. This time there’s someone saying no.” He added, “Malta is not acting, France rejects them [migrants], and Europe doesn’t care.” Commenting on the Spanish decision, Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat said, “I thank Spain Prime Minister Sanchez for taking in Aquarius [the ship] after Italy broke international rules and caused a standoff.” However, Muscat warned, “We will have to sit down and discuss how to prevent this from happening again. This is a European issue.”
Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe has commented on the ongoing asylum crisis in Italy for France24 TV.
The UK is planning to remain a member of the European standards system for industry products and services after it leaves the EU, the Financial Times reports. Business Secretary Greg Clark is reported to have approved an initiative suggested by UK industries to stay in European standard setting agencies such as the European Committee for Standardization (CEN) and the European Committee for Electrotechnical Standardization (CENELEC). In a letter to Clark, industry representatives claimed that the proposal “will support the close working relationships that both the UK and the EU are looking for, with businesses receiving the certainty they need and consumers achieving the high levels of protection they demand.”
Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki yesterday said that Poland could position itself as a bridge between the EU and the US, adding that this would be “a great opportunity for our country.” In an interview with the Gazeta Polska newspaper, Morawiecki argued, “Everyone has probably noticed that the paths of the EU and America have started to split quite seriously and now it depends on [Poland] whether we build a position of a keystone, an integrator between these two entities.”
Elsewhere, Polish officials have suggested that the ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) join the European People’s Party (EPP) group in the European Parliament after the 2019 European election, Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza reports. A European official is quoted saying that Polish government members “assure that PiS will behave responsibly in the structures of this faction, that it will strengthen it and that Warsaw will help in pushing through next year’s budget.” A PiS official added, “In general, membership in the EPP would give us the opportunity to act in a larger group.” However, the Civic Platform, a Polish opposition party, is said to be against the idea, threatening to leave the EPP if PiS joins.
Speaking at the House of Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May said the UK “fully intends to honour the commitments we have made” at the G7 Summit and intends all other parties to do so as well. On US tariffs on steel and aluminium imports, May said, “At this summit, we expressed deep disappointment at the unjustified decision of the US to apply tariffs to steel and aluminium imports… And in response, the EU will impose countermeasures,” adding, “What we want to ensure is that we’re able to get a dialogue going forward such that we don’t simply see a continuous tit-for-tat escalation on these measures because that is in the interests of nobody.”
Elsewhere, European Commission spokesperson Margaritis Schinas said that the EU “stands fully behind the G7 communique agreed in Charlevoix,” adding, “The text reflects the values and policies that the EU stands for and that we will continue together with our partners to defend.”
Separately, Russian President Vladimir Putin said that the criticism of Russia in the G7 joint statement was “unfounded,” arguing that Russia never left the G8, and that “other world leaders had refused to come to Russia.”
Speaking yesterday, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that a “number of different scenarios” could arise if the UK and EU fail to conclude a deal, adding that “it is possible to extend Article 50 to allow more time for negotiations to take place.” Elsewhere, he said that the UK government’s backstop proposal to prevent a hard Irish border in the event of no deal did not address the need for regulatory alignment. He also rejected a time-limited solution as unacceptable.
Separately, former Irish Taoiseach Enda Kenny yesterday said of the state of Brexit negotiations, “The [British] government is riven by internal dissent, lacks credibility and clarity on the most serious issue in decades. Six months on from an agreement being reached in December last year, very little progress has been made.” He also urged the European Council to hold an additional meeting ahead of the October summit of EU leaders when negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal agreement are set to conclude.
This comes as the Irish government yesterday set out its ‘Global Ireland’ plan, which aims to double the country’s international presence by 2025. Ireland will also recommit to spending 0.7% of GDP on international development aid by 2030. The plan is intended to boost Ireland’s international alliances in the post-Brexit environment.
In a piece for Conservative Home, Open Europe’s Director Henry Newman writes, “Today and tomorrow’s debates in Parliament [on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill] mark another crucial point in the Brexit process,” adding, “Losing votes in the Commons this week would make things harder for the Prime Minister at the European Council meeting towards the end of the month.” He continues, “The most significant amendment still in play relates to the so-called “meaningful” vote. This is intended to put Parliament in the driving seat of the negotiations,” and warns, “The amendment on a meaningful vote isn’t really about protecting parliamentary sovereignty… This amendment is intended to put “no deal” out of reach of Theresa May. It would therefore limit the Government’s ability to negotiate effectively.” Newman concludes, “It’s perfectly reasonable, and desirable, for the Commons to play an important role in Brexit – scrutinising the Government and holding them to account – but they cannot usurp the Executive’s role. It’s for the Prime Minister and her ministers to conduct the negotiations.”