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Prime Minister Theresa May has delayed Parliament’s vote on the Brexit withdrawal deal in order to seek “reassurances” from the EU on the issue of the Irish backstop. The vote had been due to take place today. Speaking in the House of Commons yesterday, May said she recognised there was “widespread and deep concern” about the Irish backstop, and that existing safeguards to ensure the backstop would be temporary “do not offer a sufficient number of colleagues the reassurance that they need.” She said that she would seek “additional reassurance” on the backstop from the EU ahead of this week’s European Council summit. May also announced that the Government was considering “new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy and to enable the House to place its own obligations on the government to ensure that the backstop cannot be in place indefinitely.” She further stated that the Government is stepping up its work on No Deal preparations.
Separately, Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow said yesterday that it was “deeply discourteous” to cancel the Brexit vote which was set to take place this evening. Bercow proposed that the “democratic” alternative would be for a minister to move a motion to adjourn the debate, allowing the House to vote on whether the debate should continue, but noted also noted that the Government can “unilaterally” prevent the vote by not moving the motion itself.
Elsewhere, Labour have been granted an emergency debate today on the “unprecedented decision” by the Prime Minister to delay the vote on her Brexit deal. In a letter to the Prime Minister, the leaders of the opposition parties said the move to defer the vote “shows a contempt for parliament,” adding, “It cannot be right that the government can unilaterally alter the arrangement, once this House has agreed on a timetable.”
Meanwhile, European Council President Donald Tusk yesterday called for a special Brexit summit on Thursday, saying, “We will not renegotiate the deal, including the backstop, but we are ready to discuss how to facilitate UK ratification. As time is running out, we will also discuss our preparedness for a No Deal scenario.”
Separately, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker this morning told the European Parliament that he will meet with May today, adding, “The deal we have achieved is the best deal possible – it is the only deal possible.” He also wrote, “There is no room for renegotiation, but further clarifications are possible.” This comes as May is holding talks with Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte and German Chancellor Angela Merkel during the day, before going to Brussels this evening.
This comes as a European Commission spokesperson said yesterday, “This deal is the best and only deal possible. We will not renegotiate the deal that is on the table right now. That is very clear,” adding, “Our position has therefore not changed and as far as we’re concerned the UK is leaving the EU on the 29 March 2019. We are prepared for all scenarios.”
HM Government Sky News Guardian I Guardian II La Tribune Politico Jean-Claude Juncker Bloomberg Brexit Bulletin Financial Times
Following a telephone conversation with the Prime Minister, Theresa May, yesterday, the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), Arlene Foster commented, “My message was clear. The backstop must go. Too much time has been wasted. Need a better deal. Disappointed it has taken so long for Prime Minister to listen.” Responding to May’s statement, the DUP’s deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said that May’s position “simply isn’t credible,” adding “This is an impossible situation for the Government to find itself in.” Dodds told May to “start listening and come back with changes to the withdrawal agreement or it will be voted down.”
Elsewhere, speaking on BBC Radio Ulster yesterday, the DUP’s Chief Whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said that the DUP was “not refusing” the backstop, but “what we’re saying is that the backstop as it is currently drafted is unacceptable.” He said there were two key elements of concern for the DUP, namely the “arrangements for ending the backstop” and the absence of reference to paragraph 50 of the December 2017 Joint Report “which gave a role to the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.”
Meanwhile, four political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly – Sinn Fein, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), the Alliance Party and the Green Party – issued a joint statement saying “there is a pressing need for the backstop as set out in the Withdrawal Agreement to be banked. By contrast, we believe that a no deal situation would be catastrophic for our economy and society.” The Ulster Unionist Party issued a statement saying that Northern Ireland “doesn’t need” a backstop and that “we need fundamental change in legally binding text.”
Elsewhere, Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said yesterday that the Withdrawal Agreement was “the only deal on the table,” and that it could not be re-opened without “opening up all aspects” of the Agreement. Lisa Chambers, Fianna Fail’s Brexit spokesperson, said that renegotiating the backstop was “not going to happen…There has been no time wasting on the part of Ireland, the backstop is fundamental to the withdrawal agreement from our perspective and will not be erased no matter how much the DUP bang the table.”
Meanwhile, the former UK Prime Minister, Sir John Major, has said that “many who believe themselves to be unionists” had shown “a breathtaking ignorance” about the Irish backstop. In a lecture in Ireland yesterday, Major said that a backstop “is a vital national interest for Ireland and the UK,” adding that a hard border now or at the end of a long transition period would be “disastrous.”
Arlene Foster: Twitter
Lisa Chambers: Twitter
Ulster Unionist Party
The Labour Party leadership has resisted calls from other opposition parties and some of its own MPs to table a vote of no confidence in the Government. Yesterday, the Scottish National Party (SNP) leader Nicola Sturgeon, the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, and the Green Party MP Caroline Lucas challenged Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to table a vote of no confidence, pledging that their MPs would support it. This came as 38 backbench Labour MPs, as well as several MEPs and peers, signed a letter to Corbyn urging him to table a vote of no confidence and to commit to a second referendum “straight away” if this fails. However, a spokesperson for the Labour leadership said yesterday, “We will put down a motion of no confidence when we judge it most likely to be successful.”
French Minister for European Affairs, Nathalie Loiseau, yesterday said that a No Deal Brexit was “more and more likely,” adding that such a scenario would be “undoubtedly extremely costly for the United Kingdom but which would also be damaging for the EU.”
This comes as the French National Assembly yesterday night started to debate a Bill to prepare for all Brexit scenarios, including a No Deal.
Separately, German Foreign Affairs Minister Heiko Mass yesterday said, “I do not see what we can change to the Brexit agreement. We have an agreement supported by both sides.”
Following the Government’s decision to delay the Brexit vote, sterling fell yesterday to a 20-month low, at $1.2519. David Cheetham, chief market analyst at XTB, argued that the drop in the pound was more driven by uncertainty over Theresa May’s position than over the vote itself, adding that “even her staunchest supporters [are] already highly sceptical as to whether the bill would pass.”
French President Emmanuel Macron gave a speech yesterday amid continued “yellow vest” protests, saying that France is “in a state of economic emergency.” He said that “minimum wages will be increased by €100 per month” from May 2019 onwards and there would be no rise in taxation for pensioners receiving less than €2,000 a month. He added that violence must be condemned, but the protesters’ anger is “deep, and in many ways legitimate.” Olivier Dussopt, the junior finance minister, stated that the “the package of measures revealed by Mr Macron will cost between €8 billion and €10 billion in the national budget next year.”
At yesterday’s Foreign Affairs Council meeting, EU foreign ministers agreed to impose travel bans and asset freezes on nine people involved in recently held elections in two separatist regions in Eastern Ukraine, saying that “The EU considers these ‘elections’ illegal and illegitimate and does not recognise them.” A statement from the European Council explains, “Through their actions, [the nine persons] further undermined the territorial integrity, sovereignty and independence of Ukraine.”
Elsewhere, following a conference at the ministerial level yesterday, the EU opened new negotiation chapters in the accession processes of Serbia and Montenegro.
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In his column for ConservativeHome, Open Europe’s Henry Newman argues that the Prime Minister “should level with the European Council and offer them two broad options. Either give up on improving the deal, in which case they need to recognise that it will likely not pass the Commons. Or, seek to make limited but substantive changes to help it on its way through.” He notes, “It would be better for the EU to look at what changes can be made in a combination of international agreements, legal instruments and public commitments, to work in concert with domestic legislation in the UK.” He concludes, “None of this will be easy, particularly when it comes to the exit mechanism [to the Irish backstop]. But the European Commission already privately acknowledges that the backstop cannot endure for the long-term. They also say it is weatherproof but not tsunami-proof. It’s time to make clear what is already obvious – that the backstop must be legally operable, but that it cannot be a permanent trap which a political earthquake could not ultimately sweep away.”
In a piece for opinion website The Article published yesterday, Open Europe’s Jacob Osborne writes, “The vote on the Brexit deal that was to be held tomorrow has been cancelled – reflecting the painful reality that parliament is deeply divided. So is the country at large.” He adds that this division among the public “has deeply concerned many MPs… [they] are not only concerned about healing the nation’s wounds, but also about their own political prospects. Both Labour and the Conservatives are attempting to appeal to swing voters across the country with a wide range of views on Brexit.” He outlines three broad scenarios in the coming months: the implementation of the deal on the table; a No Deal Brexit; or an election or second referendum. He concludes, “It is not clear… that any of [these] options… will heal the national divisions over Brexit.”
Elsewhere, in a piece for the Spectator Coffee House, Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe examines the EU’s reaction to the postponement of the Commons vote on the Brexit deal. He writes, “The EU is much more unwilling to consider a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement itself, stressing this both in public and in private meetings. One reason for this, is that the 27 EU member states would want to reopen the debate about compromises they had made as well.” He adds, “If Theresa May secures cosmetic changes that still fail to secure parliamentary support in the UK, what the EU may try next… is to extend UK membership, if the UK asks for it.” Cleppe concludes, “The EU shouldn’t despair that it will need to go to the negotiating table once again, because this is still only the beginning.”