Donald Tusk: No Brexit extension without green light for deal

The European Council president said an extension was “conditional” on a positive vote for the deal in the House of Commons.

Theresa May’s request to delay the U.K.’s departure from the EU will only be granted if the House of Commons passes the Brexit deal agreed between London and Brussels, European Council Donald Tusk said Wednesday.

Responding in a brief statement to U.K. Prime Minister’s request to extend until June 30 the deadline for the U.K.’s departure, Tusk said such an extension could win approval in Brussels but only upon ratification of the withdrawal deal, which the House of Commons has rejected twice with huge majorities against it in January and March.

“Today I received a letter from Prime Minister May in which she addresses the European Council with two requests, to approve the so-called Strasbourg agreement between the U.K. and the European Commission and to extend the Article 50 period until 30th of June, 2019,” Tusk said.

“Just now I had a phone call with Prime Minister May about these proposals. In light of the consultations I have conducted over the past days, I believe that a short extension will be possible, but it will be conditional on a positive vote on the Withdrawal Agreement in the House of Commons.”

In her letter, May said she hopes to bring the treaty back for another vote but that she could not say when, and even expected it could not happen before the existing Brexit deadline of March 29.

Theresa May has asked for extra time | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Tusk, in his statement, said details about an extension remain to be discussed but that EU27 leaders could not make any decisions until the House of Commons votes affirmatively to approve the Withdrawal Agreement and accompanying Political Declaration.

“Prime Minister May’s proposal until the 30th of June, which has its merits, creates a series of questions of a legal and political nature,” Tusk said. “Leaders will discuss this tomorrow.”

He said he believes leaders would be willing to approve the so-called Strasbourg agreement in which European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker offered additional reassurances on the Northern Ireland backstop provision, which is designed to avoid the need for a hard border in all circumstances. Those assurances failed to sway enough votes in the U.K. parliament, which swiftly rejected the deal before going on in subsequent votes to also reject the prospect of a no-deal exit, and to endorse the idea of an extension.

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No. 10 says Theresa May won’t seek long Brexit delay as EU flags extra summit

‘We’ll probably have to meet again next week because Mrs. May doesn’t have approval for anything — not in her Cabinet and not in parliament,’ Jean-Claude Juncker says.

Theresa May will not be asking the EU for a “long extension” to Brexit talks, according to a No. 10 official, as the EU said it would likely have to hold an extra European Council summit next week to deal with the British PM’s request.

“There is a case for giving parliament a bit more time to agree a way forward, but the people of this country have been waiting nearly three years now,” the No. 10 official said today. “They are fed up with parliament’s failure to take a decision and the PM shares their frustration.” The official would not confirm what they meant by a long extension.

Shortly after the news emerged, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker told Deutschlandfunk radio that EU leaders will likely not make a decision on extending the Brexit negotiating period at a summit this week and instead hold another meeting next week to decide.

“My assessment … is that the European Council this week won’t come to a decision and we’ll probably have to meet again next week because Mrs. May doesn’t have approval for anything — not in her Cabinet and not in parliament,” Juncker said. “As long as we don’t know what Britain could say yes to, we can’t come to any decision.”

May will today make a formal request to Brussels to extend the Article 50 Brexit negotiating process amid enormous pressure from Euroskeptics within her party not to delay the divorce by more than three months.

The PM will publish an official letter to European Council President Donald Tusk setting out the detail and justification of Britain’s need for a delay today.

Asked what May will need to have in her baggage to secure an extension, Juncker said: “She must have approval of the treaty that’s been negotiated and she must have a clear idea of timing.”

The Commission president added: “We have moved intensively toward Britain, more isn’t possible.”

Ireland’s no-deal Brexit tariff fears

‘The proposed tariff levels are deeply unwelcome,’ says dairy industry group.

If there’s one conclusion to be taken from the U.K.’s no-deal tariff plan it’s the following: Irish farmers are going to hurt.

The U.K. today said that a no-deal Brexit would result in a tariff on beef amounting to 53 percent of the EU most-favored nation rate, while tariffs on poultry products would be set at 60 percent of the EU most-favored nation rate. Butter and cheddar cheese would have tariffs of 32 percent and 13 percent of the EU most-favored-nation rate, respectively.

EU farmers, particularly those from Ireland, would find it much harder to compete and enter the U.K. market, a major export destination for the country. Up to 65 percent of Ireland’s cheddar cheese exports go to the U.K. along with large shipments of butter and infant formula. In total, 30 percent of Ireland’s dairy production is sold to the U.K, according to Bord Bia, the Irish Food Board. Ireland’s food exports to the U.K. made up 35 percent of the total in 2017.

“The proposed tariff levels are deeply unwelcome, would put Irish butter and cheddar under severe pressure in the U.K. markets at current consumer price rates and would necessitate [price] increases at consumer level in the UK — something that their government desperately wishes to avoid,” Dairy Industry Ireland said reacting to the announcement in London.

Digging down into the figures, the trade body said London’s suggested tariff on cheddar, to take one example, would result in additional costs of €20 million per year. Currently, Irish cheddar exports to the U.K. are well north of a quarter of a billion euros in value.

“I assume this is more of a theoretical plan than a practical one” — David Henig

Beef farmers in Ireland are also bracing for a huge hit in the event of a no deal. The Irish Farmers’ Association said that the U.K.’s tariff proposals in the event of a no-deal Brexit would devastate rural areas.

“Our most exposed sectors, particularly beef, simply will not survive the kind of tariffs being talked about. This would have a devastating effect in the rural economy,” the IFA’s president, Joe Healy, said in a statement.

One way to avoid the mayhem could be to export into England, Scotland and Wales through Northern Ireland as the U.K. said it would unilaterally waive checks on all goods crossing the Northern Ireland border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. But analysts point out that doing so would put a huge burden on port and customs authorities in Northern Ireland having to deal with extra traffic.

“I assume this is more of a theoretical plan than a practical one,” said David Henig, director of the European Centre For International Political Economy, a think tank. “I cannot see this being in any way sustainable beyond a short period. There are reasons we check things at borders.”

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UK to cut tariffs to zero on 87 percent of imports in no-deal Brexit

Mixture of tariff rates would be retained for some goods, including on agricultural imports and cars.

LONDON — The U.K. would temporarily cut tariffs to zero on 87 percent of imports in the event of a no-deal Brexit in order to avoid “potential price spikes” hitting consumers, ministers said Wednesday.

A mixture of tariff rates would be retained for some goods, including on agricultural imports and cars.

The emergency tariff regime would apply for up to 12 months, according to a government briefing issued Wednesday morning.

After Theresa May’s Brexit deal was rejected by the House of Commons for a second time Tuesday, MPs will vote later Wednesday on whether to leave the EU with no deal on the legal date of March 29.

Trade Policy Minister George Hollingbery said the government “must prepare for all eventualities.”

“If we leave without a deal, we will set the majority of our import tariffs to zero whilst maintaining tariffs for the most sensitive industries,” he said. “This balanced approach will help to support British jobs and avoid potential price spikes that would hit the poorest households the hardest.”

Tariffs on beef products would be set at 53 percent of the EU most-favored-nation rate, while tariffs on poultry products would be set at 60 percent of the EU most-favored-nation rate. Sheep meat would attract the existing EU most-favored-nation rate.

While finished cars would attract a tariff rate of 10.6 percent, no tariffs would apply to car parts required by manufacturers reliant on EU supply chains.

Some minimal tariff rates would also apply to ceramics, fertilizers and textiles.

A set of goods including bananas, raw cane sugar and some kinds of fish would also attract tariffs to protect preferential arrangements the U.K. holds with exporters in developing countries.

The tariff regime will not apply to goods crossing the Northern Ireland border, for which the U.K. today announced a set of temporary, unilateral measures for avoiding checks in the event of no deal.

UK to unilaterally waive all checks at Irish border in no-deal Brexit

Temporary regime would permit unmonitored flow of goods and exploitation of the new system by smugglers, officials acknowledge.

LONDON — The U.K. would unilaterally waive checks on all goods crossing the Northern Ireland border in the event of a no-deal Brexit, as part of a temporary regime in the days immediately after the U.K.’s exit, ministers said Wednesday.

In such a scenario, the U.K. would seek to immediately enter talks with the EU and the Irish government to find a long-term solution, according to a government briefing.

The temporary regime would permit the unmonitored flow of goods and exploitation of the new system by smugglers, officials acknowledged.

Tariffs which would apply to 87 percent of imports in the event of no deal would not be levied on goods crossing the Northern Ireland border. The existing VAT regime for traders would remain in place, and small traders not currently registered would be allowed to report online only periodically.

However, animal and animal products from outside the EU would need to enter Northern Ireland through a designated port. There would be new import requirements on a small number of goods, such as endangered species and hazardous chemicals, but these would not involve infrastructure or checks at the border, the government said.

After Theresa May’s Brexit deal was rejected by the House of Commons for a second time Tuesday, MPs will vote later Wednesday on whether to leave the EU with no deal on the legal date of March 29.

Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley said the measures “can only be temporary and short-term.”

She added: “We will do all we can to support people and businesses across Northern Ireland in the event that we leave without a deal.”

Brussels tells UK to make next move after Brexit deal defeat

Second rejection of treaty confirms EU leaders’ view on lack of consensus in Britain.

EU leaders and senior officials were dismayed but hardly surprised as the U.K. parliament rejected the Brexit deal for a second time.

With U.K. politics in crisis and the course of Brexit highly uncertain, they quickly expressed a willingness to consider an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period that would prevent Britain from crashing out of the bloc without a deal.

The refusal of MPs in Westminster to endorse the deal, despite a flurry of last-minute legal reassurances about the “backstop” provision on the Northern Ireland border, only confirmed the conviction in Brussels that the U.K. is so divided it cannot reach an agreement.

And officials expressed a sense of powerlessness over U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s failure to secure a majority — despite their own steadfast refusal to renegotiate the agreement or put a time limit on the backstop provision that might have helped her to win round more MPs.

“We regret the outcome of tonight’s vote and are disappointed that the UK government has been unable to ensure a majority for the Withdrawal Agreement agreed by both parties in November,” spokesmen for European Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said.

“On the EU side we have done all that is possible to reach an agreement,” the statement said. “Given the additional assurances provided by the EU in December, January and yesterday, it is difficult to see what more we can do. If there is a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London.”

Officials at the European Council and the European Commission said the EU is prepared to consider an extension of the March 29 deadline for the U.K.’s departure. But EU27 leaders, who will meet at a summit in Brussels next week, have yet to hold a detailed discussion about what terms they might consider.

Among the possibilities is a short-term extension that might simply give more time to prepare for a no-deal exit. Another option would be a longer-term extension that would mean Britain having to participate in the European Parliament election in May and delay its departure for a year or more.

EU officials, however, showed no indication that they were willing to make any new concessions. They see no chance of turning a sufficient number of votes in Britain without surrendering on the most fundamental EU red lines, including the preservation of the bloc’s single market and its four fundamental freedoms, including the freedom of movement.

“The EU for its part continues to stand by the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop, which serves to prevent a hard border in Ireland and preserve the integrity of the single market unless and until alternative arrangements can be found,” the statement said. “With only 17 days left to 29 March, today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of a ‘no-deal’ Brexit. We will continue our no-deal preparations and ensure that we will be ready if such a scenario arises.”

It continued, “Should there be a U.K. reasoned request for an extension, the EU27 will consider it and decide by unanimity. The EU27 will expect a credible justification for a possible extension and its duration. The smooth functioning of the EU institutions will need to be ensured.”

EU diplomats were scheduled to meet on Wednesday morning to discuss next steps.

“In my view, the EU has done more than its part,” one senior EU diplomat said. “The 27 have endorsed the agreed result of the negotiations, they have also endorsed the additional assurances, clarifications etc. when the U.K. sought them. It is now up to the U.K. to decide: deal or no deal?”

The diplomat added, “I don’t think the EU27 should do anything any more. It should simply wait for U.K. to decide by March 29. If the U.K. asks for an extension, it should specify what the purpose would be. If it would be only for continuation of the present ping-pong, I don’t think we should agree.”

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, echoed the disappointment and sense of exasperation — and he said the disaster planning in Brussels for a no-deal scenario was now even more crucial.

“On EU side we’ve done all that’s possible to reach an agreement,” Barnier tweeted. “It’s difficult to see what more we can do. If there’s a solution to the current impasse it can only be found in London. Today’s vote has significantly increased the likelihood of no-deal Brexit.”

Earlier, Barnier had even chimed in during the House of Commons debate, posting on Twitter to push back against suggestions among some British MPs that Britain might still be granted a transition period that would forestall the harshest economic consequences of a no-deal departure.

In his tweet, Barnier noted that the only way for the U.K. to secure the proposed 21-month transition period would be to approve the treaty that was he agreed with May’s negotiating team in November.

Jacopo Barigazzi, Lili Bayer and Maïa de la Baume contributed reporting. 

‘Unreal’ Brexit fears ‘put to bed’ by late-night deal, says Varadkar

Some MPs favour delaying Tuesday’s vote to allow more time to look through May’s ‘improved’ deal.

Fears that the EU intends to trap the U.K. in the Northern Ireland backstop are “unreal” and can be “put to bed” by the add-ons to the Brexit deal agreed late last night in Strasbourg, said Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar.

But in a statement early Tuesday, he said the new joint interpretative instrument finalized in talks between Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker does not change the Withdrawal Agreement, but is “complimentary” to it.

“It does not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement or undermine the backstop or its application,” he stressed, adding, “it does not call into question that the backstop will apply unless and until better arrangements are agreed.” The backstop is the mechanism agreed between the two sides to avoid the need for the hard border in all circumstances.

Varadkar said the new documents “provide additional clarity, reassurance and guarantees sought by some to eliminate doubt or fears, however unreal, that the goal of some was to trap the U.K. indefinitely in the backstop. It is not. These doubts and fears can now be put to bed.”

“The dramatization that resulted from Mrs May’s last-minute trip is part of the political theater offered to us by the U.K.” — Philippe Lamberts, Green MEP

The Irish prime minister said he now hoped MPs in the U.K. would back the Brexit deal in a vote due later Tuesday in the House of Commons.

U.K. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, a leading Brexiteer, said that the add-ons to the deal give “additional legal weight” to the U.K. position.

“We have an improvement on the Withdrawal Agreement,” he told the BBC’s Today Program. “The European Union has made clear that the backstop is intended to be temporary, and that is clear, in black and white, it’s a legally binding declaration.”

“If the EU seeks to act in a way that is not in accordance with their commitments then we can go to court and we can win,” Gove said.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said on Twitter that he was “pleased” with the agreement, but he warned that “there is no alternative.”

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte | Carl Court/Getty Images

But the new assurances failed to win over some skeptical members of May’s own party.

“Ultimately, I don’t think that this document that’s been produced actually makes any significant difference to the original agreement,” former Attorney General Dominic Grieve told the BBC’s Today show.

Asked whether he planned to vote against the deal — which was defeated by a record margin in January — Grieve said: “My view is very clear, that we are dealing with an agreement to leave the EU that bears no relationship to what we were debating in 2016. Now, if people want to leave on these terms, then leave we must, and we will, but it must go back to the public [in a second referendum].”

Many Brexiteers are reserving judgement until they have seen a legal analysis of the deal by the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, which is due to be delivered Tuesday morning.

Opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn said he continued to oppose May’s Brexit deal, tweeting: “The Prime Minister’s negotiations have failed. Last night’s agreement with the European Commission does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised Parliament, and whipped her MPs to vote for.”

Green MEP Philippe Lamberts, who is a member of the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Committee, reinforced the notion that the additions were about interpretation rather than substance. “Did the project of agreement change? The answer is no. The rest is interpretation. What happened yesterday was only meant to clarify intentions on both sides.”

“The dramatization that resulted from Mrs May’s last-minute trip is part of the political theater offered to us by the U.K.,” he added.

Some MPs in Westminster are requesting more time to consider the deal that was laid before parliament shortly after 10 p.m. Monday night. Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith told Today that the prime minister should delay the meaningful vote to allow MPs to examine the details of the new deal. “Why the rush?” he said. “I certainly would think that an extra day would help enormously … we need to scrutinize this.”

Backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg added his voice to calls for a delay in the vote. “This has been desperately rushed. I think it would be better to have the vote tomorrow when people have had more mature consideration,” he told Today.

Gove insisted the vote would go ahead as planned, warning of the risks of a “delayed, diluted” Brexit. “It’s make your mind up time,” he said in a message to all MPs.

If May’s deal is defeated again on Tuesday, and MPs vote on Wednesday to prevent a no-deal exit, there would be “a lengthier period of uncertainty,” Gove warned, adding that the EU could then set the terms of any extension to Article 50.

“If we don’t take the prize tonight, the risk is that we will see a diluted, softer or less palatable Brexit … and we would be in a position where we’re petitioning the European Union for the terms of any extension. That would weaken our position,” Gove said, summoning up the spirit of Manchester United’s unexpected come-from-behind victory over Paris St Germain last week in the soccer Champion’s League.

“At that point [before the game] they hadn’t won — but they did,” he said.

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Theresa May unveils ‘legal’ add-on to Brexit deal

The prime minister hopes the changes will be enough to satisfy skeptical MPs ahead of key Commons vote.

STRASBOURG — Theresa May said she had agreed “legal changes” to the Brexit deal that would ensure that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop arrangement could never be indefinite.

At a late night press conference sitting alongside European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, the U.K. prime minister said, “MPs were clear they needed legal changes to the backstop … today we have secured legal changes.”

But she confirmed that there would be changes to the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement that was agreed with the EU back in November. Instead, a separate “legal instrument” of equal force to the document itself has been drawn up.

“This deal. This instrument. This arrangement. This treaty, is complementing the Withdrawal Agreement without reopening it,” said Juncker.

“In politics, sometimes you get a second chance, this is what we do with this second chance that comes because there will be no further chance, there will be no further interpretations of the interpretations, no further assurances on the reassurances if the meaningful vote fails tomorrow,” he said. “There will be no new negotiations. It is this.”

Shortly before the press conference, Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington told MPs in a statement in the House of Commons that “legally binding changes that strengthen and improve” the Brexit deal had been achieved.

The first document to be laid before the House of Commons will be a “joint legally binding instrument” attached to the Withdrawal Agreement. It sets out that for the EU to try to keep the U.K. inside the backstop arrangement — which amounts to a customs union with the EU — indefinitely, would constitute a breach of the EU’s legal commitments under the draft Brexit treaty. It could therefore be basis for a formal dispute launched by the U.K. via independent arbitration, which could ultimately, in theory lead to the backstop ending.

Essentially the same process is already enshrined in the Withdrawal Agreement. The new document also places a letter sent by Juncker and Council President Donald Tusk in January setting out further reassurances on the backstop “onto a legally binding footing,” Lidington said.

The document commits the two sides to seeking to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements” by December 2020. This is also implied in the Withdrawal Agreement which foresees the post-Brexit transition period ending in December 2020; although the reference to alternative arrangements appears to be aimed at Brexiteers who had used the term to refer to the customs facilitations they wanted to replace the backstop wholesale.

Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer dismissed the changes, saying “It sounds again as if nothing has changed.”

The second document will be published alongside the Political Declaration on the future relationship. It sets out a number of commitments to “enhance and expedite the process” of bringing into place the future relationship, Lidington said.

He said that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox would give his legal advice on the new documents “as soon as possible.” Many Brexiteer backbenchers are waiting to hear whether Cox can change his legal advice that there could be circumstances in which the backstop would be indefinite.

Asked by senior Brexiteer MP Owen Paterson whether the changes amounted to a right for the U.K. to unilaterally leave the backstop — a key demand of Euroskeptics — Lidington could not answer in the affirmative and said the prime minister would address this issue on Tuesday.

Theresa May ‘agreed’ to Brexit compromise but Cabinet said no

Refusal was apparently tied to objections by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who has made a negative impression in Brussels.

U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May “agreed” to a compromise on the Irish backstop on Sunday “contingent” on the approval of her Cabinet, two senior EU diplomats said, but her ministers rejected the proposal.

The package of measures was aimed at providing the U.K. with greater reassurance that the controversial Northern Ireland backstop would not be permanent, so improving the chances of the deal passing muster with Brexiteer Tory MPs. It involved reaffirming the power of an arbitration panel created by the existing deal to suspend the backstop if one side is acting in bad faith, the diplomats said.

“She agreed,” one senior EU diplomat said, “providing to have the backing of the Cabinet, which she didn’t get.” The diplomat said the agreement was on “a legal document” designed to provide “guarantees for good faith on both sides.”

The Cabinet’s refusal was apparently tied to objections by U.K. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, the diplomats said. May has tasked Cox with making a legal interpretation aimed at easing fears among British MPs that the U.K. could become permanently trapped in the backstop arrangement.

EU officials and diplomats have reacted negatively to Cox’s role in the talks in recent weeks. One official complained that the attorney general has approached the negotiations with the condescending swagger of an English barrister — his profession before becoming an MP.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

The official said Cox had even managed to offend the EU’s generally unflappable deputy chief negotiator, Sabine Weyand, by calling her “my dear” in what was perceived as a sexist, patronizing tone. A U.K. official said: ‘The attorney general refers to many people as ‘my dear’ — both men and women. He’s a friendly fellow and it’s a turn of phrase, nothing more.’

The tentative compromise accepted by May over the weekend was aimed at boosting the chances of the Brexit deal — composed of the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration — winning approval from MPs in a vote scheduled for Tuesday evening in the House of Commons.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel described it to reporters in Berlin Monday, according to Associated Press, as “an important offer [that] has again been made to Britain.”

The plan that was signed off provisionally by the prime minister was essentially the same as that put forward on Friday afternoon in a series of tweets by EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.

In those tweets, Barnier focused on provisions in the Withdrawal Agreement regarding an arbitration panel that, under certain circumstances, could allow the U.K. to suspend its obligations under the backstop provision. He also proposed a “joint interpretive statement” to provide further assurances to the U.K.

EU officials have long believed that provisions already included in the existing deal, which was agreed in November, should be sufficient to allay concerns about the Northern Ireland backstop, which is intended to prevent the re-creation of a hard border in all circumstances.

Asked whether a fresh offer had been made over the weekend that was rejected by the U.K., May’s official spokesman said: “I wouldn’t characterize it like that. Talks were ongoing over the weekend but those talks continue now.”

There were already signs on Monday of a new potential breakthrough as May arrived in Strasbourg to meet with Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief negotiator Michel Barnier.

Without some last-ditch deal — and a positive legal analysis by Cox — the Commons is virtually certain to reject the Brexit deal for a second time. Such a rejection would then set up subsequent votes, first on potentially rejecting a no-deal scenario and then on requesting an extension of the March 29 Brexit deadline.

Jean-Claude Juncker welcomes Theresa May prior to their meeting in Strasbourg | Vincent Kessler/AFP via Getty Images

Cox’s refusal to accept the tentative agreement over the weekend only added to growing anger in Brussels over the U.K. attorney general’s recent role in the talks, which diplomats and other officials described as unhelpful and even toxic.

A second senior EU diplomat who confirmed May’s tentative acceptance of the compromise said that Cox had refused to take “yes” for an answer.

“This is what the U.K was asking for but then it said it was not good enough,” the senior diplomat said. “Mr. Cox has not been helpful.”

The diplomat compared Cox to “a divorce lawyer who is appointed to walk away from the marriage without obligations” but who “is not interested in fair deal.”

Asked about Cox, a third EU diplomat said: “He is criminal lawyer with no experience in EU law … I have second thoughts on him, probably he’s eyeing his own political career.”

A fourth diplomat said Cox “even argued that the backstop is against human rights.” That line of reasoning was particularly irritating for EU officials because the backstop in its current formulation was agreed in November to meet the U.K.’s demands. London had rejected Brussels’ Northern Ireland-only backstop.

“It’s like that because London wanted it the way it is,” the diplomat said.

Charlie Cooper contributed reporting.

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Michel Barnier moves to head off Brexit ‘blame game’

In a series of tweets, the Brexit negotiator lays out proposals put to the UK in recent days.

LONDON — The EU is “not interested in the blame game,” chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said Friday, as he spelt out legal reassurances offered to the U.K. in recent days.

The unexpected précis of the EU’s negotiating position came in a series of tweets from Barnier, just hours after British Prime Minister Theresa May urged the EU in a speech to do more to help her win the support of the House of Commons for the Brexit deal in a crunch vote next Tuesday.

May said the EU had to “make a choice” and that now was “the moment for us to act.” But EU negotiators appeared riled by the suggestion of inaction on their part.

Barnier’s move, spelling out the EU’s take on specific items in active negotiation with London’s negotiator is highly unusual and a sign that he is unwilling to cede control of the narrative surrounding the talks. Brussels is keen to show that is not simply batting back U.K. proposals but is proposing solutions of its own — in the process rebutting the “inflexibility” charge that is often levied from London.

Barnier briefed EU27 ambassadors on the status of talks with the U.K. shortly after May’s speech. Emerging from the meeting, he told the BBC: “The EU stands united. We are not interested in the blame game. We are interested in the result. We are still working.”

“With a very real deadline looming, now is not the time to rerun old arguments. The U.K. has put forward clear new proposals. We now need to agree a balanced solution that can work for both sides.” — Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay

In the series of tweets, he said the EU had proposed a new, legally binding “interpretation” of the Brexit deal that would bind the EU, were the controversial Northern Ireland backstop to come into force, to use “its best endeavors” to replace it with an alternative arrangement.

A new legal interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement would also make clear that the U.K. could unilaterally withdraw from the U.K.-EU “single customs territory” envisioned in the backstop, the legal guarantee for avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. That offer came with the significant caveat, though, that the other elements of the backstop would have to remain.

One senior diplomat from an EU27 country said Barnier’s explanation of the EU position on Twitter was an effort to display a “constructive” approach. “The EU has to be constructive till the very end — trying to find suitable solution,” the diplomat said.

“The tweet is probably to pre-empt the expected blame game should [the] Tuesday vote [on the Brexit deal in the House of Commons] fail … to show that the EU side tried” said a second senior diplomat.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier | Frederick Florin/AFP via Getty Images

Since the Brexit deal was defeated in the Commons by 230 votes in January, the U.K. has been seeking changes to the backstop to make it more palatable to Brexiteer Conservative MPs and the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose 10 MPs prop up May’s government. Brexiteers’ key demands have been a legally binding time limit, or a unilateral exit clause from the arrangement as a whole, to ensure the U.K. is not locked indefinitely in a customs union with the EU.

While some Tory Brexiteers might be cheered by further assurance that the U.K. could drop the customs element of the backstop, the substance of the EU’s proposals — offered in talks since May’s last visit to Brussels on February 20 — is unlikely to allay concerns, in particular those of the DUP, about the nature of the backstop.

Barnier said the EU “commits to give UK the option to exit the Single Customs Territory unilaterally, while the other elements of the backstop must be maintained to avoid a hard border. UK will not be forced into customs union against its will.”

The pledge appears to amount to an option for the U.K. to revert to the original version of the backstop proposed by the EU last year. That would have meant Northern Ireland alone remaining within the customs territory of the EU.

This was rejected out of hand by the U.K., because it meant erecting an economic border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. British negotiators pushed instead for the entire U.K. to be, under the backstop, in a single customs territory with the EU to reduce the extent of checks on trade crossing the Irish Sea.

The U.K. government reacted negatively to Barnier’s proposals. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said: “With a very real deadline looming, now is not the time to rerun old arguments. The U.K. has put forward clear new proposals. We now need to agree a balanced solution that can work for both sides.”

Barnier’s resurrection of the Northern Ireland-only backstop proposal also brought a scathing response from the DUP. Nigel Dodds, the party’s leader in Westminster, said it was “neither a realistic nor sensible proposal” and accused the EU of “intransigence.”

“It disrespects the constitutional and economic integrity of the United Kingdom. This is an attempt to get ahead of a possible blame game and appear positive when in reality it is going backwards to something rejected a year ago,” he said.

Henry Newman of the Open Europe think-tank called it a “non-concession.”

U.K. Brexit Secretary, Stephen Barclay | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

In a confirmation that Barnier’s tweets did not mark a departure from the EU’s position, a “Lines to take” document distributed to ambassadors at Friday’s meeting, obtained by POLITICO, states: “To be clear, all of this is fully consistent with the agreed Withdrawal Agreement which will not be reopened.” The document states that the EU27 are “open to further, workable ideas from the UK.”

Barnier also said that reassurances on the temporary nature of the backstop set out in a January 14 letter to May from European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk could be granted “legal force” through what he called a “joint interpretative statement,” a proposal reported by POLITICO last month.

And Barnier emphasized that, under the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement, the U.K. already has the right to a “proportionate suspension” of its legal obligations to abide by the backstop, if the EU were to fail to negotiate an alternative way of avoiding a hard border. That could only happen, though, if a joint arbitration panel set up by the Withdrawal Agreement ruled in the U.K.’s favor in such a dispute.

The “Lines to take” document states that technical level discussions “will continue over the coming days” but “political level meetings are to be confirmed.”

This article is part of POLITICO’s premium Brexit service for professionals: Brexit Pro. To test our our expert policy coverage of the implications and next steps per industry, email pro@politico.eu for a complimentary trial.


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