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The President of the European Council, Donald Tusk, said yesterday that “There is no political force and no effective leadership” for a reversal of the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Speaking at a press conference in Brussels alongside Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Tusk said, “I know that still a very great number of people in the UK, and on the continent, as well as in Ireland, wish for a reversal of this decision…But the facts are unmistakable. At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK prime minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, rules out this question.” Tusk added, “Today our most important task is to prevent a No Deal scenario,” and said he believed “a common solution is possible.” Tusk ended his remarks saying, “I’ve been wondering what that special place in Hell looks like, for those who promoted Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.” A Downing Street spokesperson said, “It’s a question for Donald Tusk as to whether he considers the use of that sort of language to be helpful.”
Separately, Varadkar and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker issued a joint press release yesterday stating, “The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation.” They added, “The backstop is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement. While we hope the backstop will not need to be used, it is a necessary legal guarantee to protect peace and to ensure there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland, while protecting the integrity of our Single Market and the Customs Union.” Juncker also said, “An alternative arrangement can never replace the backstop.”
Politico quotes an Irish source who said talks between Varadkar and Juncker yesterday focused on a “non-binding option on the backstop,” adding, “There will be no reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement. However, there may be room for a side declaration.”
The UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, is due to meet Tusk, Juncker and the President of the European Parliament in Brussels today and will travel to Dublin for a meeting with Varadkar on Friday.
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In a letter to Prime Minister Theresa May sent yesterday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn offered to support her Brexit deal if the Government agrees to changing the political declaration on future UK-EU relations by adding five legally binding commitments. These conditions include a “permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union,” including a say in future trade deals; close alignment with the EU single market with shared institutions and obligations; Dynamic alignment on rights and protections; UK participation in EU agencies and funding programmes; and “unambiguous” agreements on future security arrangements, such as participation in the European Arrest Warrant. Corbyn wrote, “Without changes to [the Prime Minister’s] negotiating red lines, we do not believe that simply seeking modifications to the existing backstop terms is a credible or sufficient response either to the scale of your defeat last month in parliament…or the need for a deal with the EU that can bring the country together and protect jobs.” He also argued, “We believe these negotiating objectives need to be enshrined in law before the UK leaves the EU to provide certainty for businesses and a clear framework for our future relationship.”
This comes amid reports that the Prime Minister is considering delaying next week’s parliamentary vote on the revised deal until the week beginning 25 February to give more time for renegotiations with the EU.
Asked yesterday whether the government would pursue a full customs union to help solve the issue of the Irish border after Brexit, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington, said, “What most people who support a customs union say they want is to ensure that business can expect to export to the EU without tariffs, quotas or rules of origin checks. And that is precisely what the Prime Minister’s deal does, but also allows this country to establish trade agreements with other nations around the world.” Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry yesterday also suggested it would be “sensible” and “cautious” of the government now “to seek a temporary extension of Article 50.” However, Lidington argued this would “simply defer the need for this House…to face up to some difficult decisions.”
Elsewhere, Business Secretary Greg Clark said yesterday, “Pausing Article 50 would not end the uncertainty, it would prolong the uncertainty.” He also said that, while he was opposed to a No Deal Brexit, businesses should prepare for such a scenario, especially those who rely on international supply chains. He added, “It is a fact that we don’t know the terms of our future trading relationship with the rest of the European Union.” Clark also said the UK would not adopt a policy of zero unilateral tariffs in the event of a No Deal Brexit, since the Government would “want to make sure we don’t ignore the importance of defending ourselves against dumping.”
Meanwhile, the UK government has told businesses that it will not have concluded trade deals with most non-EU countries immediately after Brexit, even if parliament approves Theresa May’s Brexit deal before 29 March. The Financial Times reports that the Department for International Trade told 30 business representatives yesterday that, while trade agreements with Switzerland, Israel and some African countries would be rolled over before Brexit, there was no certainty that other deals with countries such as Canada and South Korea would be in place on time.
This comes as the German Institute for Economic Research, Ifo, has released a report arguing that the UK should unilaterally remove import tariffs in the event of a No Deal Brexit. It suggests this would reduce the effect of a No Deal exit on British consumers, but recognises it would “create problems in certain sectors.” Separately, the French government yesterday adopted three sets of emergency measures in the event of a No Deal Brexit, covering UK citizens’ rights, financial services and road transport.
The Prime Minister, Theresa May, met the leaders of the political parties represented in the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday, on the second day of her visit to Belfast. Robin Swann, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), said May discussed the possibility of seeking a time-limit on the backstop, but he said he felt this did not answer his concerns about the backstop. He asked May to seek an extension of Article 50 and suggested that the Government should introduce direct rule to Northern Ireland in the event of a No Deal Brexit. Arlene Foster, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), described her meeting with May as “another useful opportunity to press for a deal which works for the entire United Kingdom.”
Meanwhile, Colum Eastwood of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) described the vote on the Brady amendment last week as “a betrayal of everything that was said before that,” while Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Fein leader, said “The British Prime Minister has come here empty handed; with the same old rhetoric, with no plan, no credibility and frankly no honour.” McDonald said there would be a “democratic imperative” to call a border poll in the event of a No Deal Brexit, but said that May did not commit to saying if or when such a referendum would be called.
The Prime Minister also met the leader of the Alliance Party, Naomi Long, who called on Parliament “to wake up to the impending crisis in Northern Ireland.”
The Government yesterday announced the UK will host the meeting for NATO’s 70th anniversary in December. Prime Minister Theresa May said, “The UK has played a central role throughout NATO’s history as it has adapted to deal with new and complex threats to our security,” adding, “December’s meeting is an important opportunity to determine the steps we must now take to modernise the Alliance and ensure its continued success.”
Elsewhere, NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg yesterday urged Germany to invest more in defence and security, adding, “I understand that this is not easy and states prefer investing in health, education or infrastructure, but we have to invest more in our security if the world becomes more unsafe.”
Separately, the recently renamed Republic of North Macedonia yesterday signed an accession protocol agreement with NATO. Each member of the Alliance now needs to ratify the agreement.
The European Commission yesterday blocked a merger between French and German train manufacturers Alstom and Siemens, with EU competition commission Margrethe Vestager suggesting there were “serious competition concerns.” However, French Finance Minister Bruno Le Maire has criticised the decision, saying, “The pertinent market for analysing competition is the world market and not the European market…The rejection of the Alstom-Siemens merger will serve China’s economic and industrial interests. This decision prevents Alstom and Siemens from having the same weight as its Chinese competitor.” He added, “It is a political mistake: the role of the Commission is to defend the economic interests of Europe.” This comes after Germany’s Economy Minister Peter Altmaier called for changes to the EU competitions rules “so the companies we have in these industries can achieve the [necessary] scale” to compete globally.
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In an article for the Times Red Box, Open Europe’s Henry Newman writes, “without movement on the backstop there’s no clear path to a negotiated agreement” between the EU and the UK. Newman discusses Open Europe’s new briefing paper, which “sets out a menu of options for renegotiating the backstop. We argue that both sides should agree a binding roadmap for scoping, testing and implementing alternative arrangements that avoid a hard border.” He notes that the briefing argues that “Independent assessors could determine when and whether the necessary criteria had been met to replace the backstop,” and that “both sides [could] agree to restate this as a matter of international law.” He adds, “The EU is determined to avoid re-opening the withdrawal agreement. It might, however, be willing to sign up to a side agreement, a legally binding protocol.” He concludes, “In the furore yesterday over Donald Tusk’s eschatological remarks about Brexiteers and Hell, there was less attention paid to two other key things he said. First, that there is ‘no political force’ and ‘no effective leadership’ for Remain in the UK… And second, the council president said that the ‘most important task is to prevent a no-deal.’ Put these two things together and there’s only one conclusion: that Brexit will go ahead and that there has to be a deal.”
Elsewhere, in an article for the Spectator’s Coffee House blog, Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh writes, “Theresa May’s attempt to alter her Brexit deal is going down badly in Brussels… But the EU needs to face up to the political reality: May’s deal suffered a crushing Parliamentary defeat by 230 votes.” Walsh argues that MPs need to compromise over the Irish backstop, but adds, “If Brussels really wants a deal, it too needs to move; MPs may need to climb down, but the EU can help to provide them with ladders.” He further argues, “The biggest political problem with the backstop is the perception that it is a trap’ … Addressing this fear of is vital if trust is to be built.” Walsh concludes, “Ultimately, if the EU refuses to engage with the UK’s concerns at all, there is a real risk of a no-deal Brexit in just under two months.”
Meanwhile, in a piece for Prospect Magazine, Open Europe’s David Shiels notes that while Theresa May had a “difficult task” during her visit to Northern Ireland, there are specific things the Government could do to appeal to Unionists. He suggests that the Government could seek to have a role for the Northern Ireland Assembly written into the Withdrawal Agreement and could also “look again at the exit mechanism from the backstop…Here parliament could make clear that it would not contemplate this without it first having been consented to by the Northern Ireland Assembly, or without it having been put to the people in a referendum.” Shiels concludes, “Unionists must be reassured that the Withdrawal Agreement will work for them. This is the logic of the parliamentary arithmetic, but also a necessary balancing act as far as the delicate political situation in Northern Ireland is concerned.”
Open Europe have also published a new briefing, ‘Options for renegotiating the backstop,’ which assesses what changes to the current backstop the Government could seek, whether these are negotiable with the EU, and whether they could deliver the support of MPs.