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The House of Commons yesterday voted by 324 to 298 to reject the House of Lords’ amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill on a meaningful vote. This came after a last minute concession by the Prime Minister to Conservative rebel MPs that the government would respond to their concerns when the Bill returns to the House of Lords. However, the details of the Prime Minister’s promise have been brought into question after the Solicitor General, Robert Buckley, said the government had only agreed to “further discussions” on the contents of the amendment. A spokesperson for the Brexit Department also said, “We have not, and will not, agree to the House of Commons binding the government’s hands in the negotiation.” Conservative MP Dominic Grieve, who had tabled an alternative amendment to strengthen parliament’s role in negotiations, said, “I expect the government to honour its commitments…If it were to turn out there was a problem, we will deal with it.”
Grieve also wrote an op-ed for the Evening Standard yesterday, outlining his “concerns that the [withdrawal] process should be properly structured to ensure that in the event of a ‘no deal’, Parliament and the Government have a full opportunity to respond in what would undoubtedly be a serious political crisis…No one is going to thank us afterwards for a Brexit that reduces people’s quality of life.”
Elsewhere, Dr Philip Lee MP, a junior minister in the Ministry of Justice, resigned from the Government, citing concerns over the direction of Brexit. In a written statement, he said, “If Brexit is worth doing, then it is certainly worth doing well; regardless of how long that takes… we should recognise that the UK and EU are not ready for Brexit and pause, extend or revoke Article 50 so that we do not leave before we are ready.”
The debate on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill continues in the House of Commons today, with key votes expected on Lords’ amendments on customs arrangements and membership of the European Economic Area (EEA).
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The former UK Permanent Representative to the EU, Sir Ivan Rogers, yesterday told the House of Commons Home Affairs Committee that the UK is “heading for a major crunch” with the EU over future customs arrangements, explaining that the “maximum facilitation” model “doesn’t solve the [Irish border] problem…However facilitated at the border, it’s still a border, and still demonstrably different from what we’ve got now.” On the “customs partnership” model, he said, “We don’t know whether the technology could be devised. It certainly doesn’t exist at the moment.” Sir Ivan commented that the possibility of the UK joining the European Economic Area (EEA) after Brexit is “implausible as the medium/longer term destination, but not necessarily inconceivable as a short-term transition chamber route out of the EU.” He also warned that leaving the EU should be seen “as a process, not as an event.”
In a letter urging Conservative MPs to support the Government’s position on the Lords’ amendments to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, Brexit Secretary David Davis has reportedly adopted looser language on the amendment for the UK to stay in a customs union with the EU. The document, seen by the Times, says that the amendments “are not compatible with our desire to take the opportunity to build deeper links with old friends and new allies across the globe… We want to ensure that our new customs arrangements with the EU can allow for trade which is as frictionless as possible, while ensuring we can tap into fast growing markets elsewhere and that there is no hard border around Northern Ireland.” Davis concludes by suggesting that there will be other opportunities to discuss the customs issue later, adding, “This Bill is not the right vehicle for debating these policy choices. Such discussions can and will be had during the passage of other bills. This Bill is simply about making sure that our statute book continues to function after we leave.”
However, the document also demonstrates a robust position on the amendment which seeks for the UK to join the European Economic Area (EEA), saying that “it would involve continuing the free movement of people with the EU and would mean accepting a huge swathe of EU rules without a say on them. That amounts to less control, not more. We have been clear since day one that such an approach is not the right path for the UK to take after we leave the EU.”
According to Bloomberg, the Home Office yesterday announced the introduction next year of a new programme that will offer immigrants looking to start new businesses the possibility to be granted a visa, provided that they receive the endorsement of a university or a business sponsor from an approved list. Home Secretary Sajid Javid is expected to comment at a London Tech Week event, “We want to do more to attract businesses to the UK and our migration system plays a key part in that… This [the new programme] will help to ensure we continue to attract the best global talent and maintain the UK’s position as a world-leading destination for innovation and entrepreneurs.”
The European Commission yesterday proposed to nearly triple the funding for migration and border management for the next long-term EU budget 2021-2017, from €13bn to €34.9bn. Of this, €9.3bn would be used to set up a new Integrated Border Management Fund (IBMF) to help member states protect and manage their borders, including on visa policies and customs controls. The remaining €21.3bn would be allocated to “border management overall,” the Commission writes. Commissioner for Migration Dimitris Avramopoulos said, “Bigger challenges need bigger resources… The reinforced funding will be pivotal in ensuring that we can implement these political priorities: further secure our external borders, continue to grant protection to those who need it, better support legal migration and integration efforts, counter irregular migration, and effectively and swiftly return those who have no right to stay.”
French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday called the Italian government’s decision to refuse entry to the migrant rescue boat Aquarius “cynical and irresponsible.” France’s Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian also said, “The NGOs have said the time to get to Valencia would be too long given the humanitarian situation on board. The boat is at 25 (nautical) miles from the Sicilian coast and 27 (nautical) miles from Malta, we are solemnly asking Italian authorities to reconsider their position.” In response, the Italian government said the French declarations were “surprising” and that “Italy cannot accept hypocritical lessons from countries that have always preferred to look the other way on immigration.”
Elsewhere, German interior minister Horst Seehofer reportedly invited Italian interior minister Matteo Salvini of the far-right Lega party to Berlin to discuss a common proposal on EU external border protection. The Italian ministry said both were “fully in tune” on the issue.