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The Irish deputy Prime Minister, Simon Coveney, has said that the “backstop” element of the UK-EU Withdrawal Agreement cannot be renegotiated. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday, Coveney said that the backstop “as part of the Withdrawal Agreement is part of a balanced package that isn’t going to change.” He added, “The backstop is already a compromise. It is a series of compromises. It was designed around British red lines.”
Coveney’s comments came after the French Finance Minister, Bruno Le Maire, told the BBC’s Today programme that the Withdrawal Agreement could not be renegotiated, saying, “If there is a need for any further clarifications (that would be possible) . . . but re-opening the deal would mean weeks, months of renegotiation with the UK.” A Downing Street spokesperson said that EU leaders had understood the need for a revised Brexit deal, saying, “If we’re going to leave with a deal we’re going to need some changes to it.”
Meanwhile, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said this morning, “If the PM [removes the backstop]… I have no doubt that she will have the whole country full-throatedly behind her.” Speaking on the BBC Radio 4’s Today programme, Chairman of the 1922 Committee Sir Graham Brady said, “I think we’ve already seen across the European Union a little bit more flexibility and a little creativity creeping in.” In addition, in a new paper for the think tank Policy Exchange, Crossbench Peer Lord Bew has argued that “The backstop, by placing key areas of North-South co-operation under the operation of a new regime, without the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly, would turn the Good Friday Agreement on its head.” He adds that, in order to preserve the commitments of 1998, “The UK Government must insist…that the backstop is made temporary – in explicit and legally binding terms.”
Open Europe’s Henry Newman told BBC Sunday Politics Northern Ireland yesterday that the main task facing the UK and the EU over the next few days and weeks will be to “clarify, sharpen certain elements [of the Irish backstop] to make it less problematic for the UK,” adding, “Of course MPs need to be clear about the changes they want to see.” Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker reportedly told Theresa May that the Withdrawal Agreement would not be renegotiated unless the Prime Minister committed to a permanent customs union between the whole of the UK and the EU after Brexit.
Elsewhere, the Labour MP Yvette Cooper yesterday denied that her amendment to delay the UK’s exit date under Article 50 was an attempt to stop Brexit. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show, she said, “In the end someone has to take some responsibility and say: ‘If the prime minister runs out of time she may need some more time.’ That is not about blocking Brexit, that is about being responsible and making sure you can get a Brexit deal.” She added that her plan was “deliberately amendable” and that Parliament would have the power to decide on the length of any extension. MPs will vote tomorrow on several amendments to the Government’s Brexit plan.
Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the Government is considering making Parliament extend its sitting hours and cancelling the February recess in order to pass the necessary Brexit legislation in time.
The Guardian Financial Times BBC Reuters Policy Exchange BBC The Guardian BBC The Times
The Irish Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, has admitted that soldiers could be required to protect a customs border between Ireland and Northern Ireland in the event of a No Deal Brexit. Asked to describe a hard border on Bloomberg television on Friday, Varadkar said, “It would involve customs posts, it would involve people in uniform and it may involve the need, for example, for cameras, physical infrastructure, possibly a police presence or army presence to back it up.” He said that Ireland had already compromised on the backstop proposal, adding, “People who say they’re against a hard border and also against a backstop – that’s a contradiction.”
Elsewhere, MEPs have begun to push for relaxed rules on aviation ownership, which would remove the previously proposed limit on flights between the UK and EU post-Brexit. The plan is that the relaxed rules would reduce any disruption from a No Deal scenario.
The EU Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, has expressed “hope” that Brexit could still be prevented through a cross-party group of MPs. Speaking to a Belgian newspaper on Saturday, Verhofstadt argued that the “massive rejection” of the Brexit deal in Parliament was proof that “a majority of Brits want a deeper relationship with Europe.” He also said that the Brexit process could only move forward if the UK moved some of its red lines, adding, “The European Union is ready to continue working on the political declaration about future relations with the UK.”
This comes as the leader of the French far-right party Rassemblement National, Marine Le Pen, said that she would welcome the UK back to a “reformed EU.” Speaking to the Sunday Times, she added that she regretted “a little” that the UK’s departure would mean it would not be part of the movement to reform the EU and increase the power of individual states.
The European Union has stepped up pressure on Venezuela over its recent contested elections. A statement issued on Saturday by Federica Mogherini, the EU’s head of Foreign Policy, warned that if Venezuela did not hold free elections in the coming days the EU would “take further actions,” including formally recognising the opposition leader Juan Guaidó as interim President. A number of countries, including the United States, Canada, and Brazil, have already recognised Guaidó.
In response, Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro rejected the EU’s call for elections, calling it an “ultimatum.” In a Sunday interview to CNN Turk, he said that that Venezuela had held numerous ballots recently as well as a presidential election last May.
In a new blog, Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh notes that “whilst it is clear what MPs are against, it is far less clear what they are for; the 432 MPs who voted against the deal have very diverse views on their preferred Brexit outcome.” He identifies nine groupings, including those supporting a second referendum and those favouring a No Deal outcome. He finds that only 150 MPs currently support a second referendum, adding that “even with support from the Labour frontbench, it is far from clear that there would be a parliamentary majority for a second referendum.” Walsh adds that despite May’s 230 vote defeat, “There is a strong majority in Parliament for some form of negotiated exit from the EU.” He concludes, “As the clock runs down, MPs on both sides of the house may yet find they can live with a version of the deal on the table.”
Elsewhere, writing in The Spectator, Open Europe’s Henry Newman set out eight problems with a No Deal exit. He writes, “May’s deal is far from perfect. But the most important question is not ‘why did we end up here?’ but ‘what should MPs do now?'” He argues, “Brexiteers should remember our own arguments – after four and a half decades, the EU penetrates into our lives in so many more ways than the Remain campaign acknowledged. So, it’s inevitable that untangling all that will be a process rather than a sudden event. MPs should press for changes to the Prime Minister’s deal, above all a sharper exit mechanism from the backstop. But they should also realise that the alternatives to this negotiated deal are far more problematic than their proponents are willing to admit.”
Meanwhile, in an article for the Daily Telegraph, Open Europe’s David Shiels writes, “Until now, it seemed unlikely that Northern Ireland’s [DUP] would support the Withdrawal Agreement… there is certainly a view that the party will never come on board, so what is the point of even trying?” He notes that the DUP has so far “stopped short of endorsing No Deal… for now, attention focuses on whether the DUP… could support a time-limited backstop.” He further adds that it is unlikely that the DUP will collapse the Government over the Brexit deal, as “[their] fear of a Government led by Jeremy Corbyn is real… [and] importantly, they know that Labour does not have anything to offer them on Brexit.” Shiels concludes, “Some in the DUP might prefer to take their chance with a Corbyn Government if it meant getting rid of the backstop, but there is a risk they may end up with both. The party’s options are more limited than they think.”