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The European Council yesterday agreed that it “reconfirms its conclusions of 25 November 2018, in which it endorsed the Withdrawal Agreement and approved the Political Declaration,” stating that “[the EU] stands by this agreement and intends to proceed with its ratification. It is not open for renegotiation”
In a press conference European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, “We don’t want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation, that is crystal clear. We can add clarifications but no real changes. There will be no legally binding obligations imposed on the withdrawal treaty.” Juncker added, “Our UK friends need to say what they want, rather than asking what we want. We would like in a few weeks for our UK friends to set out their expectations because this debate is sometimes nebulous and imprecise and I would like clarifications.” The European Commission will also release more No Deal contingency planning on December 19.
This comes after Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday told EU27 leaders, “We have to change the perception that the [Irish] backstop could be a trap from which the UK could not escape. Until we do, the deal — our deal — is at risk.” She added, “There is a majority in [the House of Commons] who want to leave with a deal so with the right assurances this deal can be passed,” reportedly suggesting a one-year time limit on the backstop as a possible assurance.
Meanwhile, the Council’s conclusions state that the backstop “would apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided,” adding, “In such a case, the Union would use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop, and would expect the same of the United Kingdom, so that the backstop would only be in place for as long as strictly necessary.” However, previous draft commitments that the backstop “would only be in place for a short period” and “does not represent a desirable outcome for the [EU]” were removed from the final conclusions. A draft statement that the EU “stands ready to examine whether any further assurance can be provided” was also removed.
Separately, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar warned there could be no “unilateral exit clause” on the backstop, adding, “If the backstop has an expiry date, if there is a unilateral exit clause, then it is not a backstop. That would be to render it inoperable…That would mean reopening the substance of the Withdrawal Agreement and the European Union is unequivocal that is not an option.”
Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington this morning said the Council’s conclusions were “a welcome first step,” adding, “What’s come through in the conclusions of the 27 is a very, very clear commitment to negotiate a trade deal with the UK speedily.”
Open Europe’s David Shiels told BBC The View yesterday, “The EU are clear they do no want to renegotiate, but they understand that [May] needs something to move to get [the deal] through the Commons,” adding, “May is trying to satisfy her own backbenchers in the Conservative Party, but opens up other issues which become problematic for the EU side, particularly for Ireland.”
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The Guardian Financial Times Reuters The Times BBC The View
Arriving at the European Council summit yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May said that she does not expect “an immediate breakthrough” on discussions about the Brexit deal, adding that she wants to “start working as quickly as possible on the legal and political assurances that are necessary” to address the concerns of MPs over the Irish backstop.
On the possibility of re-negotiating the Brexit deal, French President Emmanuel Macron stated that “We can have a political discussion this evening, but the legal framework has been negotiated and cannot be changed,” clarifying that “we cannot open a legally-binding agreement.” German Chancellor Angela Merkel also said that she believes “the exit agreement has been well negotiated” and she “does not see that the agreement could be changed again.” She added that the EU27 could “talk about additional securing” but “would [be] united and make their interests clear.”
Elsewhere, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said, “Nobody in the European Union wants the backstop to be triggered…we have to demystify it and get clarity on what it means.” Rutte also said that “We are working first of all on the assumption and absolute conviction that the deal itself is non-negotiable. So today is about clarification.” Juha Sipilä, the Finnish Prime Minister, told reporters that it would be “difficult” to provide legally binding assurances on the backstop, but “our goal is that the new relationship will be in place before the backstop.”
Meanwhile, Austrian Chancellor Sebastian Kurz told reporters, “We can offer assurances at the political level and see if we can find something from the legal side also, but it’s open still.” Kurz also told Austrian newspaper Der Standard that it was “possible” to call a special Brexit summit in January in order to agree “additional assurances,” however “without changing or contradicting the Withdrawal Agreement.”
Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe spoke to TRT World News yesterday, saying, “Perhaps a protocol in addition to the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement could convince some MPs in London.” Elsewhere, Open Europe’s Aarti Shankar told the BBC World Service that the EU could offer assurances such as “a Council decision that would have legal weight,” which would be an interpretation of the deal but “would not contradict the Withdrawal Agreement.” Meanwhile, Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh told Al Jazeera English that “one of the important things that could be changed… [could be that] if the UK falls into the backstop, the EU is committed to carry on negotiating.”
The Financial Times
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Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday publicly confirmed that she would not lead the Conservative party into the next general election in 2022, saying, “I think it is right that the party feels that they would prefer to go into that election with another leader.”
This comes as former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said, “[The party] will have to back her as best we can. But the problem is that, both in relation to Brexit and the wider sustainability of the Government, given the likelihood of any changes to the deal, given the likely scale of opposition, it looks very difficult to see how this Prime Minister can lead us forward.” Raab also confirmed that he had voted against Theresa May in Wednesday’s confidence vote, saying, “After pulling the meaningful vote, and the scale we now see of opposition to the deal, I did not think her position had been tenable.”
The Daily Telegraph
A spokeswoman for Downing Street confirmed yesterday that the ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal “will not be brought to Parliament before Christmas,” adding that it will take place “as soon as possible in January. The Sun today reports that the vote has been pencilled in for 14 January, with MPs expected to receive a full five days of debate ahead of it. The Government has already committed to holding the vote before 21 January.
This comes amid reports that the Labour party is considering options to “turn up the heat” on the Prime Minister. These include tabling an urgent question on No Deal preparations, calling for a three-hour emergency debate on what assurances the government is seeking on the backstop, and demanding a full parliamentary debate on No Deal regulatory preparations for the financial sector. One Labour source said, “We can throw the parliamentary kitchen sink at them.”
Separately, the Brexit spokesman of the Democratic Unionist party (DUP), Sammy Wilson, told the BBC yesterday that he did not believe a vote of no confidence in the Government was “likely at all” before Christmas, given the delay to the date of the vote on the Brexit deal. He said the DUP have made it “quite clear” that they will vote against the Government in a no confidence vote if the current deal is passed by Parliament, but added that he did not “believe she will get over that hurdle.” Wilson also played down claims that the DUP was talking to Labour about a no confidence vote.
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The Daily Telegraph
Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday told Sky News that that it was possible for the UK to revoke or extend Article 50 so that “the UK Parliament has more time to come together to decide what they would like the outcome to be.” He added, “it is absolutely in [the] gift of the UK to take No Deal off the table.”
Elsewhere, Chief Economist at the Institute of International and European Affairs (IIEA), Dan O’Brien, writes that a No Deal Brexit would be “a disaster for Ireland on multiple levels” which would “inflict maximum economic disruption to east-west trade.” He argues that the backstop “increased hostility towards Ireland in Britain,” adding “Those who came up with the backstop misread British politics and the British, placing a demand on the table that could end up bringing about that which it was designed to prevent.”
The Irish Independent
A key element of Scotland’s emergency Brexit legislation has been ruled as unlawful by the UK Supreme Court yesterday. Holyrood had passed “continuity bills” in February, which would have enabled it to take control of parts of EU regulation after Brexit. While these bills extended to the ability to change the Scotland Act, the UK Supreme Court ruled that this was unlawful because Scotland does not have the power to change UK-wide law. The court did, however, permit Scotland to take control of EU regulation in areas within its own legislative competency. A spokeswoman for Prime Minister Theresa May said in response, “The Supreme Court have provided much needed clarity in the ruling and it now for the Scottish Government to consider how they proceed.”
The Cabinet Secretary and head of the civil service, Mark Sedwill, told the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee (PACAC) yesterday that the Government’s preparations for No Deal are “in reasonably good shape… We’ve been accelerating planning on that over the last few months.” However, John Manzoni, the Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary, added that this did not mean “that the consequences of a disorderly Brexit will be perfect,” highlighting that many of the consequences of No Deal can only be properly mitigated through bilateral agreements with the EU.
The US this week rejected EU proposals to reform the World Trade Organisations (WTO) dispute settlement system. Deputy US Trade Representative Dennis Shea said, “The proposals would not effectively address the concerns that members have raised.” The proposals were concerning the blockage on appointing appellate body members, which if remains the case, would preclude the WTO from approving rulings by the end of 2019.
Separately, the Governing Council of the European Central Bank announced yesterday that it would halt the stimulus programme that started four years ago to boost the European economy and will reinvest 2.6 trillion euro into the programme.
In a new blog, Open Europe’s Anna Nadibaidze and Zoe Alipranti look at the European press reactions to Prime Minister Theresa May’s winning a vote of confidence in her leadership of the Conservative Party, as well as what domestic political events in the UK mean for Brexit. They note, “In Europe, the main reaction to UK domestic events was that this victory is only a temporary success for the Prime Minister. Most papers note that the main challenge remains to make the necessary changes to the Brexit deal in order to receive a sufficient level of support from MPs in the UK.”