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Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, Prime Minister Theresa May said that talks between the EU and the UK over the issue of the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement would continue, adding, “We now all need to hold our nerve to get the changes this House requires and deliver Brexit on time.” May added, “By getting the changes we need to the backstop; by protecting and enhancing workers’ rights and environmental protections; and by enhancing the role of Parliament in the next phase of negotiations I believe we can reach a deal that this House can support.” She also confirmed that if no revised Brexit deal is ready by 26 February, the Government would table an amendable motion on the next steps on 27 February.
Asked about whether the UK could leave on 29 March with this timetable, May said the Government would waive the rule in the Constitutional Reform and Governance (CRAG) Act requiring the Commons to be given 21 sitting days to ratify an international treaty, explaining, “Where there’s insufficient time remaining following the successful meaningful vote we will make provision in the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, with Parliament’s consent, to ensure that we’re able to ratify on time to guarantee our exit in an orderly way.” Labour’s Shadow Brexit Minister Paul Blomfield responded, “This plan shows contempt for our democracy…Labour will oppose this change, which would deny Parliament full scrutiny.”
This comes as ITV reports that the Prime Minister’s Europe Advisor, Olly Robbins, who leads for the UK in Brexit negotiations, has said he expects MPs to face a choice between backing a revised deal, or accepting a long extension to Article 50. Robbins also said that the UK intended the Irish backstop to be a “bridge” to the future relationship, rather than a “safety net.” He also suggested that in order to meet MPs’ concerns about the backstop, the UK could seek to change the requirement that a replacement to the backstop must “maintain the necessary conditions” for North-South cooperation and upholding the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Robbins suggested this could instead be defined as “necessary subject to the future trade deal.”
Speaking on Radio 4’s Today Programme this morning, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said, “It is not in anyone’s interests to have an extension [of Article 50] without any clarity.” He added that the European Union “obviously have elections for the Parliament and a Commission that will be formed at the end of May, so there is no desire on the European side to see what one described to me as an ‘extension in darkness’, where there is no clarity as to why we are extending.” May also told business leaders in a conference call yesterday that extending Article 50 would have no purpose.
Meanwhile, the Labour frontbench have tabled an amendment requiring the Government to either announce its next steps, or to hold another ‘meaningful vote’ on the Brexit deal by 27 February. A cross-party group of MPs led by Labour MP Yvette Cooper is planning to table an amendment to debate a Bill, which would require the Government to extend Article 50 or to allow MPs to vote on No Deal if there is no agreement by 13 March.
Elsewhere, the leader of the House of Commons, Andrea Leadsom, yesterday said about the Irish backstop, “The point is to ensure that the UK cannot be held in a backstop permanently. How it’s achieved is not something to be purist about.” Leadsom also suggested that the ‘meaningful vote’ on a potentially renegotiated agreement could happen after the European Council Summit on 21 March, a week ahead of Brexit day. She said, “It is a negotiation. It’s not possible to predict the future but the ‘meaningful vote’ will come back to Parliament as soon as the issue around the backstop has been sorted out.”
Separately, following a meeting with French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian yesterday, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said there was “goodwill” in France to “find a way through” on Brexit. Earlier yesterday, Hunt said that the best way to protect the peace process in Northern Ireland was to reach a Brexit deal that secured “friendly relations between the UK and its neighbours,” and this meant “sensible compromise on all sides.” He will today meet Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki.
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Belgian Prime Minister Charles Michel yesterday said that if he needed to choose between a No Deal Brexit scenario and a “bad deal,” he would prefer No Deal as “it would mean clarity and responsibility.” Speaking at the College of Europe, Michel argued, “A good deal is on the table, but the British Parliament is trying to bring us towards a bad deal. The claims of the British Parliament on the backstop mean a weakening of European economic development, a risk for our businesses and our jobs,” adding, “We need to stay firm [and] clear, even if there is some room for flexibility.”
Separately, following a meeting with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Minister for Cabinet Office David Lidington yesterday, the European Parliament’s Brexit Coordinator Guy Verhofstadt commented,“I ask myself what are these negotiations at a ‘crucial state’ raised in the [House of Commons]? The way forward is cross-party, not kicking the can towards a disastrous No Deal.” He also said about the exchange of letters between Prime Minister Theresa May and Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, “If you read carefully the letters exchanges, it becomes clear that the positions of the two leaders are not so far from each other even when the main issue is naturally the customs union that is proposed by Corbyn.”
Meanwhile, The Sun reports that the EU is prepared to extend the Brexit negotiations until 21 March while also offering some legal assurances on the Irish backstop, which could include a review of the necessity of the backstop every six months while also committing to technological solutions. One diplomat in Brussels reportedly said, “It’s all pushing it into March. March is going to be frantic, then come March 21 this is when things need to culminate,” adding, “We really wouldn’t accept a backstop which in essence or practice would be time-limited.”
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The Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, said yesterday, “In many respects, Brexit is the first test of a new global order and could prove the acid test of whether a way can be found to broaden the benefits of openness while enhancing democratic accountability,” adding, “Brexit can lead to a new form of international cooperation and cross-border commerce built on a better balance of local and supranational authorities.” Speaking at a Financial Times event, he said that the UK’s departure from the EU was a “leading indicator” of an impulse towards restructuring economic globalisation. He added, “It is possible that new rules of the road will be developed for a more inclusive and resilient global economy. At the same time, there is a risk that countries turn inwards, undercutting growth and prosperity for all. Concerns over this possibility are already impairing investment, jobs and growth, creating a dynamic that could become self-fulfilling.” Carney also warned about the financial consequences of a No Deal Brexit, saying that this scenario would “certainly” be “an economic shock for [the UK’s] economy.” He added that a No Deal Brexit would “send a signal globally about the prospects of refounding globalisation.”
The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) has said that the Government’s post-Brexit immigration proposals “risk causing significant harm” to businesses because of the restrictions on workers earning less than £30,000. The CBI said that businesses were “already struggling to fill vacancies and suffering from skills shortages” while a one-year limit on workers earning under £30,000 “would encourage firms to hire a different person each year, needlessly increasing costs and discouraging migrants from integrating into communities.”
Meanwhile, CBI Scotland’s Principal Policy Advisor, Gregor Scotland, has told Parliament’s Scottish Affairs Committee that their preference was for a single UK-wide immigration system rather than a differentiated system for Scotland adding, “If you do have two systems it would inevitably be a greater demand on HR individuals.”
Separately, a new report by Migration Watch UK claims that the Government’s post-Brexit immigration plans could lead to “higher levels of immigration, including a higher proportion from outside the EU.” The report claims that net migration totals could rise by more than 50 percent to 380,000 a year, with a doubling of the number of non-EU skilled workers. A Home Office spokesman said the claims were “inaccurate and untrue.”
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A study conducted by Northern Ireland business groups has found that the regulatory checks proposed under the backstop “won’t make a lot of difference” to the flow of goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. On the basis that vehicles moving into Northern Ireland would be assigned a 1 percent risk profile, the study found there would be checks on an average of 8 to 9 trucks entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain every day, or 2,979 every year. Stephen Kelly, Chief Executive of Manufacturing NI, said “It is workable and avoids huge costs for both business and government.” However, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP Chief Whip, responded to the report saying, “This is about a lot more than how many trucks you stop at Belfast port, it’s about the constitutional and political integrity of the UK.”
The European Commission yesterday adopted a No Deal contingency measure for railway safety and connectivity which ensures “safety authorisations for certain parts of rail infrastructure for a strictly limited period of three months to allow long-term solutions in line with EU law to be put in place.” The Commission explained that the measure is “in particular, related to the Channel Tunnel and will be conditional on the United Kingdom maintaining safety standards identical to EU requirements,” adding, “This will ensure the protection of rail-passengers, the safety of citizens and will avoid major disruptions of cross-border rail operations and shuttle services after the UK’s withdrawal.”
Elsewhere, the Government is considering plans to force haulage firms to answer 38 questions on the “safety and security” of their load every time they cross the Channel from Calais in a No Deal Brexit scenario, The Sun reports. Failing to comply would incur a penalty of 1,000£ per consignment in each delivery. This comes as only 1 in 12 hauliers have been issued permits by the Department of Transport to guarantee they can continue carrying goods into the EU in case of No Deal.
Meanwhile, the Irish Government’s Department of Transport is assessing the possibility of using car parks as holding places for trucks and HGVs at Dublin airport to ease congestion on routes towards Dublin port in the the event of a No Deal Brexit.
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The European Council yesterday agreed on its priorities for the next MFF (Multiannual Financial Framework), the EU’s long-term budget for 2021-2027. In a press release, it stated that “the 2020 budget should provide sufficient resources in order to further strengthen the European economy in the areas covered by the current MFF.” The need to “support a realistic budget for 2020” that would be “the right balance between fiscal prudence and spending on the priorities of the Union” is also mentioned.
Meanwhile, Luxembourg, Malta, Lithuania, the Netherlands and Sweden yesterday voted against a plan that would limit national governments’ power to block EU reforms on taxation. This comes after the European Commission last month proposed the gradual removal of countries’ veto power on the overturning of taxation rules.
Elsewhere, French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire yesterday called for the creation of “European industrial champions,” outlining a plan of merger rule changes, including proposals such as EU national leaders having the right to overturn the Commission’s merger decision. He added that he would further discuss the proposals with the German government in coming days.