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The Government was defeated in the second meaningful vote on the Brexit deal last night by 391 votes to 242. Speaking in the House of Commons, Prime Minister Theresa May said she “profoundly” regretted the result adding, “I continue to believe that by far the best outcome is that the UK leaves the EU in an orderly fashion with a deal, and that the deal we have negotiated is the best and indeed the only deal available.” 75 Conservative MPs voted against the Government, while 3 Labour MPs and 4 independent MPs voted with it. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Scottish National Party (SNP), the Liberal Democrats, and the Independent Group (TiG) also voted against the deal. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “The Prime Minister has run down the clock, and the clock has been run out on her.”
Following the vote, May confirmed that the Government will lay a motion before the Commons today to test opinion on leaving with No Deal. The motion will read, “That this house declines to approve leaving the European Union without a Withdrawal Agreement and a framework on the future relationship on 29 March 2019; and notes that leaving without a deal remains the default in UK and EU law unless this house and the EU ratify an agreement.” Conservative MPs will have a free vote on the motion. Several amendments have already been tabled to the Government’s motion. One, by Conservative MP Caroline Spelman and Labour MP Jack Dromey, seeks to change the Government’s motion to one which rejects No Deal entirely, rather than just on 29 March. Another, signed by Conservative MPs including Damian Green, Iain Duncan Smith and Nicky Morgan, and supported by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), would seek to implement elements of the so-called ‘Malthouse compromise.’ It asks the government to prepare for No Deal by extending Article 50 to 22 May, attempting to negotiate “a set of mutual standstill agreements with the EU,” and unilaterally guaranteeing EU citizens’ rights.
Open Europe’s Henry Newman told ITV News after the vote, “The EU may say that all that is on offer is a very long extension and that will help focus the minds of certain MPs…The Prime Minister will then go back to the Commons and ask MPs: are you sure you want that?” adding, “As the options are narrowing further, the deal has another chance of coming back again.” He also said on BBC News, “The deal is not dead…The only option remains a version of May’s deal… It will be difficult, but certainly not impossible.” Separately, Open Europe’s Aarti Shankar told BBC Radio London, “This is not just the Government’s deal, this is also the EU’s deal… Something similar to this will be brought back to Parliament. If MPs want to exit with an agreement, they will vote for something that looks very much like this deal.”
Meanwhile, Open Europe’s David Shiels said on BBC World Service, “The deal was rejected because different groups in Parliament were not convinced they could reverse their previous opposition. There was a sense that the EU hasn’t offered enough to the Government in the compromise unveiled earlier in the week,” adding, “There is no guarantee that the EU27 will agree to an extension [of Article 50]… A longer extension raises different complications.”
BBC House of Commons - Hansard The Times Open Europe Sky News - Twitter The Times Reuters Henry Newman - Twitter BBC World Service
The Government has revealed that in the event of a No Deal Brexit, almost 90% of tariffs on imports would be abolished in order to comply with World Trade Organisation (WTO) trading rules, with exceptions for sensitive goods such as meat products. The tariff regime, which government officials claim would be “strictly temporary,” would also abandon checks on all goods moving across the Irish border. The Minister for Trade Policy, George Hollingbery, described this as a “balanced approach” which would “help to support British jobs and avoid potential price spikes.” However, the director of the CBI, Carolyn Fairbairn, said that the tariff schedule had been decided without proper consultation, and that it would be “a sledgehammer to the economy.”
Reacting to Prime Minister Theresa May’s defeat in yesterday’s vote on the Brexit deal, a spokesman for European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU regretted the outcome of the vote, adding, “On the EU side we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement…Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and yesterday, it is difficult to see what more we can do. If there is a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London.”
This comes as EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier reacted by saying, “On EU side we’ve done all that’s possible to reach an agreement…It’s difficult to see what more we can do. If there’s a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London. Today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of No Deal Brexit.” Ireland’s deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney commented, “The focus has to be on London, that is where the crisis is, that is where the problem is and that’s where the solutions have to come from. We here in Dublin will continue to plan for a No Deal Brexit, which of course looks closer now than it did a few hours ago. “Danish Prime Minister Lars Lokke Rasmussen said he was “deeply saddened by the outcome,” adding, “Despite clear EU assurances on the backstop, we now face a chaotic No Deal Brexit scenario. And time is almost up. We will intensify our No Deal preparation.”
Meanwhile, Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte wrote, “Should the UK hand in a reasoned request for an extension, I expect a credible and convincing justification,” adding, “The EU27 will consider the request and decide by unanimity. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions needs to be ensured.” A senior EU diplomat is quoted by Politico as saying, “I don’t think the EU27 should do anything anymore. It should simply wait for UK to decide by March 29. If the UK asks for an extension, it should specify what the purpose would be. If it would be only for continuation of the present ping-pong, I don’t think we should agree.” Moreover, the Guardian reports that German Chancellor Angela Merkel said an Article 50 extension until the European elections would be “very easy.”
Separately, Open Europe’s Anna Nadibaidze is quoted in the Daily Express on the EU27 reactions to a potential request for Article 50 extension, saying “Most member states want to avoid a No Deal scenario at the end of March but also avoid the UK participating in European elections, which makes a short extension of up to three months the most likely option. The main condition remains that Theresa May must guarantee that the extension will help the deal pass.”
Michel Barnier - Twitter
The Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox, issued advice yesterday which said that the changes to the Brexit deal did not remove the risk of the Irish backstop enduring indefinitely. In his legal advice to the Prime Minister, he said that “the legally binding provisions of the Joint Instrument and the content of the Unilateral Declaration reduce the risk that the United Kingdom could be indefinitely and involuntarily detained” within the backstop, but only in so far as “that situation had been brought about by the bad faith or want of best endeavours of the EU.” If there was no indication of bad faith on the part of the EU, but no agreement on alternative arrangements concluded, the legal risk was “unchanged” that the UK would not be able to exit the backstop unilaterally.
Elsewhere, in a statement given to the House of Commons yesterday afternoon, Cox said the decision to pass the Withdrawal Agreement was “now a political matter for the House.”
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay today told BBC Radio, “If you pushed me to the end point where it’s a choice between No Deal and no Brexit … I think No Deal is going to be very disruptive for the economy and I think No Deal also has serious questions for the union. But I think no Brexit is catastrophic for our democracy,” adding, “Between those very unpleasant choices, I think no Brexit is the bigger risk.”
Commenting ahead of the meaningful vote yesterday, Barclay told the Exiting the EU Committee that the agreement “reduces the risk” of the UK being trapped in the backstop, but “To say it eliminates it ignores the fact that one has to prove bad faith.”
The Chair of the European Research Group (ERG) Jacob Rees-Mogg asked Barclay to clarify that “The ability to ask (to leave) is not the same as the ability to leave, is it?” adding, “The unilateral declaration doesn’t add anything because it simply says we could ask to leave the backstop. We have always been able to ask to leave the backstop. That is not in any sense an improvement or a development.”
This comes as Lisa Chambers, the Brexit spokesperson for Ireland’s opposition party, Fianna Fáil, said the new agreement means “It’ll be that little bit easier for the UK to exit the backstop.”
Open Europe - Twitter
German Chancellor Angela Merkel has expressed her support for a joint EU aircraft carrier, one of the proposals suggested by the leader of her party, the German Christian Democratic Union, Annegret Kramp-Karrenbauer, in her article “Getting Europe right.” Merkel said that a joint aircraft carrier would be a good idea in the future, but added that the EU has “to do other things as a priority.” Merkel also said, “a single European seat in the UN Security Council” is “a very good concept for the future” that would help “to gather the European voices.”
Elsewhere, French National Assembly President Richard Ferrand said the chamber had approved the combined Franco-German parliamentary body proposed in the Franco-German Aachen treaty in January. He explained, “Building such a unique parliamentary institution is a sign of the intensity of our relationship.”
Meanwhile, EU governments yesterday abandoned a plan to introduce an EU-wide digital tax, due to opposition by some EU member states. This comes as countries such as France, Italy, the UK and Spain are introducing similar taxes at national level.
The European Commission yesterday released a joint communication report titled “EU-China – A strategic outlook”. The report proposes 10 “concrete actions,” that will be discussed and endorsed by EU leaders at their next meeting on March 21-22. It calls China “an economic competitor in pursuit of technological leadership and a systemic rival promoting alternative models of governance” and suggests measures in areas including climate change, sustainable development, investment and trade. The next EU-China Summit is scheduled for early April.
Separately, French President Emmanuel Macron’s party, La République En Marche, will not be joining the pan-European ALDE (Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe) group, according to the party’s election campaign chief. This comes after it emerged that ALDE received funding from the Bayer-Monsanto agriculture and chemicals conglomerate.
In a new article for the Telegraph, Open Europe’s Director Henry Newman looked at the package of changes secured by the Prime Minister on Monday, noting “The fear that the UK could be ‘trapped’ in the backstop by the EU, if it refused to negotiate a future relationship, has now been reduced – as the Attorney General’s new legal advice concludes. London is now better able to make a legal argument, if were to be trapped, that could allow it ultimately to suspend the backstop…With Brexit almost certain to be delayed, especially if Theresa May’s deal fails to pass the Commons, the risk will only grow that Brexit is softened further or indeed that Brexit is lost altogether.” Elsewhere, speaking on BBC Radio 5 Live, Newman said, “It’s difficult to make a success out of No Deal even if you think it is a viable option.”
Elsewhere, in an article for the Guardian Newman assessed Theresa May’s deal, arguing, “I sometimes think that even if May had hiked up Mount Sinai and dragged down stone tablets from Moses himself setting out commitments that the backstop couldn’t become permanent, you would still have heard Eurosceptic MPs telling journalists that they would not support the Brexit deal. For some of her critics, no reassurance was ever going to work, and no compromise would be accepted.”
Meanwhile, in an article for CapX, Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh argues the Attorney General’s legal advice “isn’t as damning as you might think.” Walsh writes, “Brexiteers fear that the EU would perfidiously keep the UK trapped in the backstop against its will by refusing to agree to alternatives, despite the fact that workable “alternative arrangements” were ready to replace it. But the legal advice makes clear that this risk has been reduced significantly, as a “systematic refusal to take into consideration adverse proposals” would constitute a breach of good faith.” He adds, “The upshot of this is that the UK can only be ‘trapped’ in the backstop against its will if leaving the backstop would cause a hard border in Ireland. The main hurdle now to exiting the backstop in the future will be the UK’s ability to demonstrate to independent arbitrators that ‘alternative arrangements’ actually work.”