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Prime Minister Theresa May intends to bring the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, which would implement the Brexit deal in domestic law, for a vote in the House of Commons before the European Parliament elections on 23 May. The Chairman of the 1922 Committee of backbench Conservative MPs, Sir Graham Brady, told reporters yesterday of the Prime Minister’s intention. The Justice Secretary, David Gauke, said this morning, “If we are in a position to win a vote we’ll bring it back as soon as possible.”
This came as May yesterday rejected calls to set out a timetable for her departure in case the Brexit deal is not ratified, telling the House of Commons that the Brexit deadlock “is not an issue about me.” A Downing Street spokesperson said May “is here to deliver Brexit in phase one and then she will make way for phase two,” adding, “She made a very generous offer to the 1922 Committee a few weeks ago that she would see through phase one of the Brexit process … That is the timetable she is working towards.” May has agreed to meet and discuss her future with the executive of the 1922 Committee next Wednesday.
A further round of cross-party negotiations on Brexit between Labour and the Government took place yesterday. A Labour spokesman said the two sides were “working to establish scope for agreement.” Talks will resume at the start of next week.
Elsewhere, the Leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, said she is “seriously considering standing” for Conservative Party leadership after Theresa May leaves the post.
In a piece for The Article, Open Europe’s Dominic Walsh comments on the Labour Party’s reported rejection of an offer from the Government for a temporary customs union until the 2022 election. Walsh writes that the two sides “are close on substance, but far apart on politics,” adding, “It is difficult to see what more the Government could feasibly offer Labour… the idea of guaranteeing a “permanent” customs union at this stage of Brexit has always been a red herring.” He adds, “it is difficult to escape the conclusion that Labour have painted themselves into a corner. By repeatedly attacking the deal as a ‘botched Brexit’ and a ‘bad Tory deal,’ despite the fact it is very similar to what they say they want, they have constrained their room to manoeuvre and agree a compromise.”
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EU27 leaders today meet for an informal European Council Summit in Sibiu, Romania, to discuss “Europe’s place in the world” after Brexit and the EU’s strategic agenda for 2019-2024. They are due to agree on commitments for the new agenda of EU institutions for the next five years, to be formally adopted at the next formal Council Summit in June.
Open Europe’s Anna Nadibaidze told BBC Radio 5 Live that topics discussed during the meeting include “security, migration, the EU long-term budget, economic policies, foreign policy and the environment…We know that on a lot of these issues it is difficult for member states to agree, but since they want to have an image of unity and strength, they are likely to agree on some lowest common denominator in these spheres.” She added, “At this point it is important for the EU27 to show that they are united on something, even though it’s unlikely there will be details on how to solve all these issues.”
Separately, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, yesterday accused UK Brexiteers for claims made during the 2016 referendum campaign. Speaking in Croatia, he said, “Certain people like Mr. Farage did not tell the truth in the referendum campaign,” adding, “They [Brexiteers] did not evoke the consequences of Brexit before the citizens… They practically did not speak about Ireland at the moment of referendum.”
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Croatian Prime Minister Andrej Plenković has said that the country aims to become a member of the passport-free Schengen area and the Eurozone by 2024. He said, “That’s my ambition, by the end of the next [EU] mandate [in 2024]… I would say Schengen earlier and euro later.” Croatia will take over the EU Council presidency next year.
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US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in London yesterday that Brexit was “the UK’s sovereign and democratic choice,” adding, “no matter what happens, the United States will continue our strong relationship with both the United Kingdom and the EU.” Speaking in London, Pompeo also said he hoped Brexit would be resolved soon, as “President Trump is eager to strike a bilateral trade agreement.”
Separately, the US Ambassador to the EU, Gordon Sondland, said that the US would not ratify a free trade deal with the EU unless agriculture is included in the agreement. He explained, “Before a final agreement is ratified by [the US] Congress, there has to be something on agriculture… Maybe it is symbolic, maybe it is substantial, maybe it is something in between, but agriculture is absolutely, one way or another, going to be in that [EU-US free trade] agreement.”
A new report by the National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) suggests that a Brexit which involved the UK only remaining in a customs union with the EU would hit the economy by £80bn over ten years. The NIESR said that a customs union alone would “involve significant non-tariff barriers that would hinder trade, particularly in services.” The study was commissioned by the cross-party People’s Vote campaign, which calls for a second referendum on Brexit.
Responding to Iran’s decision yesterday to cancel some of its commitments under the nuclear deal, a senior EU official said, “Iran’s announcements are not a violation or a withdrawal of the nuclear deal. We will continue to abide by our commitment as long as Iran does.” The nuclear deal, which the US withdrew from last year, curbed Iran’s nuclear activities in return for the removal of sanctions on Iran.
Meanwhile, German Foreign Minister Heiko Maas said, “Our position remains that we want to stick by the agreement [Iran nuclear deal], especially to prevent Iran from gaining possession of a nuclear weapon.”
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In a new blog, Open Europe’s David Shiels looks at the next steps in the Brexit process and the timescale for the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement. Assessing the possible outcomes of the cross-party talks, he notes that both the Conservatives and Labour have difficulties with the process and the “European elections could well inject another element of uncertainty.” He adds, “Although there is a temptation to see the European elections as a proxy referendum on Brexit, it is unlikely that they will bring clarity about what the country thinks. Low turnout is normal at European elections, and the divisions within the two main parties will make it hard to interpret what the results mean.” Looking at the question of the Conservative Party leadership, Shiels writes, “An irretrievable breakdown in the cross-party talks with Labour would make it very difficult for [Prime Minister Theresa] May to justify continuing in office, especially as the chances of a General Election would then go up.” He concludes, “There is only a very limited opportunity to reset the Brexit debate, and a very strong risk that the Parliamentary limbo will continue for some time to come.”
Elsewhere, in another new blog, Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe reviews the Dutch political landscape ahead of EU elections and assesses the prospects for the country’s Eurosceptic parties. He writes, “The rising star of the Netherlands’ heavily fragmented political scene is Thierry Baudet, the founder of Forum for Democracy (Fvd), a right-wing Eurosceptic sovereigntist party founded in late 2016. FvD is now leading the opinion polls, ahead of Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s centre-right VVD.” He adds, “the Dutch Eurosceptic contingent is forecasted to win 10 out of the Netherlands’ 26 seats… [and] the remaining Dutch contingent is certainly not unambiguously pro-EU.” Cleppe concludes, “Withdrawal or “Nexit” is still very much a fringe view in the context of the Netherlands but, make no mistake about it, Dutch domestic politics is no longer on the same page as Brussels.”