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The Leader of the Opposition, Jeremy Corbyn, met Prime Minister Theresa May in Parliament yesterday and had what the Labour Party described as a “useful exchange of views” on Brexit. Corbyn told Sky News afterwards that he “set out the Labour case for a comprehensive customs union with the European Union in order to protect jobs in this country and trade,” and also stressed to May the importance of maintaining the “regulations that we have on environment, consumers and workers’ rights”. On the question of the Irish backstop, Corbyn said he told May that “this would be the first time in British history we’d entered into a treaty arrangement with anybody else of which there was no right to leave, because it would be a decision that could be made only by the other side.” He also said he was suspicious that the Government had a “programme of running down the clock.”
The Prime Minister later commented, “I stressed to [Corbyn] the importance of the UK being able to do our own trade deals, and emphasised that the only way to avoid No Deal is to vote for a deal.” May also held telephone conversations with European Council President, Donald Tusk, and Irish Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar.
Earlier in the House of Commons, Theresa May said that that Tuesday’s vote approving the Brady amendment seeking alternative arrangements to the backstop sent “a very clear message” to the EU that a negotiated deal could pass through the Commons. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said that in terms of the alternative arrangements to the Backstop, “we are exploring in terms of the use of technology, looking at things like the time limit.”
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President of the EU Council Donald Tusk yesterday said that “The EU position is clear and consistent.The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation. Yesterday, we found out what the UK doesn’t want. But we still don’t know what the UK does want.”
This came after the phone call between Tusk and Prime Minister Theresa May, where May insisted that the UK parliament has clarified its complaints about the Withdrawal Agreement by identifying the backstop as the main source of objections, according to an official briefed on the call. Tusk said that “the very first condition to find a solution is you present a concrete solution that commands a parliamentary majority.”
Elsewhere, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier yesterday said that “The Irish backstop is “part and parcel” of the Brexit deal and will not be renegotiated.” He added that discussions on alternative agreements to the backstop can take place after the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified, adding that “No-one can say what form these alternative arrangements can take so they can be operational. Calmly and clearly I will say right here and now: we need this backstop as it is.”
Meanwhile, President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker, said that “We know the House of Commons is against many things… but we still do not know what exactly [it] is actually for”, adding that “the Withdrawal Agreement is the best and only agreement available…the votes last night do not change that.” He also said that the risk of No Deal had increased as a result of the Commons vote.
Moreover, Philippe Lamberts, a Member of the European Parliament who is also part of the EP’s Brexit Steering Group, said there will be no changes to the Withdrawal Agreement adding, “There will be a price to pay, but the calculus that is being made on this side of the Channel is that the cost of hurting the integrity of the single market will be significantly bigger.” Meanwhile, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki yesterday wrote, “I spoke today with Chancellor Angela Merkel about Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. Acting together, with all EU members states, we should do our best to avoid hard Brexit. We are waiting for Theresa May’s government to present their proposals to the EU.”
Elsewhere, Carolyn Fairbairn, director-general of the CBI said, “the never-ending parliamentary process limps on while the economic impact of no-deal planning accelerates.” She also said the Brady amendment would not be “worth the paper is it written on” if it could not be negotiated with the EU, adding that “rejecting a No Deal does not get a deal.”
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Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney yesterday said there were “no alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement, warning, “We need a backstop or insurance mechanism based on legal certainty, and not just wishful thinking.” He added, “It’s an extraordinary situation that when a prime minister and a government negotiates a deal and then goes back and during the ratification process votes against their own deal, which is what happened yesterday, and now wants to go back to their negotiating partner and change everything. It’s like saying give me what I want or I’m jumping out the window…We cannot approach this negotiation on the basis of threats.”
Elsewhere, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar yesterday said there were no plans “to organise an emergency summit to discuss changes to the [EU’s negotiating] guidelines nor is there any pressure to hold one.” Varadkar also held a phone conversation with Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday evening, while Coveney held a meeting with Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley.
Separately, a motion supported by the Welsh Labour Government and Plaid Cymru calling for preparations for a second EU membership referendum was debated in the National Assembly of Wales yesterday. The motion also calls for an extension Article 50 in order to avoid a No Deal scenario.
The Times reports that Prime Minister Theresa May has appointed three Cabinet members to lead the new Brexit negotiations. David Lidington, Minister for the Cabinet Office, will reportedly lead negotiations on May’s behalf, supported by the Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay, and Attorney-general, Geoffrey Cox. Yesterday No 10 announced that May’s negotiating team would not undergo any changes at official level. This contradicts previous reports that the UK’s Permanent Representative to the WTO Julian Braithwaite and Chief Trade Negotiation Adviser Crawford Falconer were set to be drafted in to the negotiating team.
Separately, Conservative MPs have been told that the ten-day recess planned from February 15 will be cancelled to allow additional time for necessary legislation needed to be passed in preparation for the March 29 Brexit deadline.
In additional contingency plans published yesterday, the European Commission said that the UK would have to continue making payments into the EU budget beyond 2019 even if a withdrawal deal is not agreed. It stated, “All commitments taken by the 28 Member States should be honoured by the 28 Member States. This is also true in a No Deal scenario, where the UK would be expected to continue to honour all commitments made during EU membership,” adding, “This issue is separate from and without prejudice to the financial settlement between the EU and the United Kingdom in a No Deal scenario.”
In an article for the Times Red Box, Open Europe’s Henry Newman writes, “It is bizarre and ironic that the only thing preventing the UK leaving the EU with a deal is an inability to find a way through on the backstop. And because of that impasse, the UK could end up leaving without a deal, risking the very thing the backstop was supposed to prevent – a hard border with Ireland.” He adds, “A negotiated deal is within grasp. Brussels will need to find a way to give the UK legally binding assurances that it won’t be trapped in the backstop; Conservative Eurosceptics must accept that there is no realistic prospect of replacing the backstop entirely, and the Labour Party should remember that they voted to trigger Article 50, setting in train our exit from the EU. The customs union they are now calling for is already at the heart of the backstop of the current deal. It’s time to come together around a compromise.”
Elsewhere, in a new piece for the Spectator’s CoffeeHouse, Open Europe’s Pieter Cleppe writes: “A lot of media attention in the UK is often spent on whatever the EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier and his team are saying, but I am hearing in Brussels that when Theresa May’s top Brexit advisor Olly Robbins visits EU institutions, he now meets Martin Selmayr, the controversial Secretary-General of the European Commission… At a time when the UK is openly requesting renegotiation of the Brexit deal, the consequences of the European Commission inflicting a dose of inflexibility into the Brexit process could have huge consequences. If people like Selmayr believe that a no-deal Brexit and the chaos it would bring would benefit the EU project, then are badly mistaken. The European Commission tends to be blamed for all kinds of things it is innocent for. It can be sure to be blamed when it is guilty.”