Dominic Raab: Restart Brexit talks and say UK won’t be ‘bullied’

Former Brexit secretary says without changes to the deal, Britain should walk away with a ‘clean break.’

Britain should reopen Brexit negotiations with the EU and show that it will not be “blackmailed and bullied,” former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab said today in an interview with the Sunday Times.

Raab delivered a devastating critique of Prime Minister Theresa May’s negotiating strategy — one that, until he quit the post on Thursday, he had spent four months implementing.

The prime minister could face a leadership challenge as early as next week amid widespread dissatisfaction in her party about the deal she presented to Cabinet on Wednesday. Raab is a prime contender to stand, alongside fellow Brexiteer and former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson.

“If we cannot close this deal on reasonable terms we need to be very honest with the country that we will not be bribed and blackmailed or bullied and we will walk away,” said Raab. “I think there is one thing that is missing and that is political will and resolve. I am not sure that message has ever landed.”

“I don’t think we should look like we’re afraid of our own shadow. We need to be going out there and grasping opportunities,” he said.

He said the final straw was hearing news that the EU intended the backstop customs arrangement, which was negotiated to prevent the need for a border in Northern Ireland, to form the basis of the U.K.’s eventual economic relationship with the bloc. POLITICO was first to report that Tuesday night.

Asked if someone on the U.K. side had prevented him from knowing earlier he said, “Yep.” When asked who, he said: “I don’t know. I’ve asked how this change was made and who licensed it and there’s not been a clear answer.”

Raab says London should go back to the negotiating table and demand the U.K. is given a mechanism for withdrawing from the backstop unilaterally. Under the current deal both sides must agree, giving Brussels an effective veto.

If the other side refuse to renegotiate, Raab says Britain should walk away with a “clean break.” At that point he advocates publishing plans to cut taxes and stimulate the economy.

“This isn’t Dunkirk. The short-term risks of disruption can be managed,” he said, referring to the rushed evacuation of British servicemen from wartime France in 1940. “They can’t be eliminated. We need to be honest about that. But far better that than to allow a pretty controlling and manipulative relationship with the EU to become abusive.”

Raab came under fire this month for saying he “hadn’t quite understood” the U.K. reliance on the Dover-Calais trade route.

Raab suggested to the Sunday Times that without the backstop terms, the deal would be acceptable to Brexiteers. “The frustrating thing is we got close to a deal which would have been acceptable,” he says. “It’s clear that we cannot now exit the backstop without the EU exercising a veto and that could be years and years down the line. It’s the worst of all worlds.”


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Brussels won’t allow Brexit deal do-over

EU negotiator Michel Barnier tells ambassadors the EU has a ‘duty’ to stick to its red lines, despite political turmoil in London.

Brussels is on edge, but it has no intention of going back to the Brexit drawing board.

Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told a meeting of EU27 ambassadors Friday morning that whatever political “difficulties” Theresa May is experiencing in London, the bloc has a “duty” to stand firm on its key Brexit red lines, according to EU diplomats present.

For her part, May is standing firm on the deal in the face of a gale of criticism and is intent on pushing the deal to a vote in the House of Commons. But if political opponents in her own party succeed in forcing her to seek a better deal, there is no sign that any of the EU27 red lines will change.

We cannot “compromise” or engage in “cherry-picking” or “bargaining,” Barnier told ambassadors, referring to requests to reopen the draft deal that was agreed by the British Cabinet on Wednesday. He added that he expects “difficult negotiations” ahead.

Barnier also expressed a desire to help the British government in its efforts to ratify the text in a vote of MPs. And he said that there could be room for movement on the EU side in specific areas, such as enhanced cooperation on phytosanitary regulations and so-called technical barriers to trade. It is a moment not for triumphalism, he said, but for “encouragement.”

“All eyes are on London. We see there are some turbulences” — EU diplomat

The chief negotiator’s presentation at the more than two-hour meeting reflects a dilemma for Brussels. While EU countries want to help May get the deal through parliament, there is a reluctance at such a late stage to radically unpick the agreement — despite threats to May’s leadership and a series of ministerial resignations over the deal.

Diplomats say that some tweaks might still be possible if they could make the difference between the deal succeeding or crashing, but the kind of radical overhaul proposed by Brexiteers such as former Brexit Secretary David Davis is simply not on the table. There is “no question” of that, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday.

“If we renegotiate something it could be on very small details,” said a senior EU diplomat “[but] it will not be on the main issues.”

“Europeans are not scared, but very cautious, and everybody hopes the deal will be approved,” he added, saying that the first major challenge will be the tight timescale to consider the details of the deal before a hastily arranged EU leaders’ summit on November 25.

There is “no question” of radical overhaul of the deal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said | John Thys/AFP via Getty Images

“Some of us will need to consult our MPs on the text, and make the necessary democratic deliberations in our countries,” the diplomat added.

“All eyes are on London,” said another EU diplomat. “We see there are some turbulences.” Asked about the mood in Brussels, the diplomat said: “It’s a feeling of relief that at least there’s a text on the table.” A third diplomat added: “Everyone is committed to getting the ball over the line.”

In any case, as Barnier said Wednesday, EU capitals feel that they have already given significant ground in the final stages of the talks. And not everyone is happy with all aspects of the final deal.

“We had to accept compromises,” said the second diplomat. “There are some points that also make some EU members uncomfortable.”

The diplomat cited the EU’s acceptance of an all-U.K. customs backstop — as an insurance measure to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland — and the decision to kick negotiations about fisheries access into the transition period that will immediately follow Brexit day in March next year. “It’s not clear, and it will affect millions of jobs,” said the senior EU diplomat. “There’s nothing precise.”

Barnier was briefing ambassadors on the state of ongoing talks about the political declaration — the document that will accompany the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement. Only a cursory seven-page outline of that was published on Wednesday evening and the chief negotiator indicated that several issues are still in play.

“Any regulatory gap is a serious issue” — Senior diplomat

On security matters including participation in EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust he said, according to two EU diplomats, that the U.K. does still “not accept” the full ramifications of not being an EU member country. But Barnier added that both sides share the aim of close cooperation. And on mechanisms to ensure there is a level playing field between British and EU businesses after Brexit, EU ambassadors expressed reservations in the discussion following Barnier’s briefing.

“Any regulatory gap is a serious issue,” said the senior diplomat, adding that the text “isn’t clear” on environmental and social measures. “The consequences are important because it could enhance any regulatory gap on major issues.” One country’s representative is also “worried” that the text offers too much to the U.K. on services.

French Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire | Sébastien Bozon/AFP via Getty Images

Despite the desire not to contribute to political instability in London, not all EU politicians are adopting a softly softly approach. France’s economy minister, Bruno Le Maire, said on Friday that Brexit is leading Britain into “a nightmare” and called on “lying and irresponsible” Brexiteers to abandon their project, or face economic meltdown.

“The British politicians, who have argued for Brexit, now have a choice between reneging on their absurd political promise or an economic disaster of which the British people will be the first victim,” he said.

His more cautious colleagues may be hoping that the people he is referring to are too preoccupied to notice.

David Herszenhorn contributed reporting.

Theresa May’s statement to MPs on the draft Brexit deal

The prime minister said that delivering Brexit involved ‘difficult choices.’

The full prime minister’s statement to the House of Commons on the draft deal negotiated between her government and the EU27. 

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on our negotiations to leave the European Union.

First, I want to pay tribute to my Rt Hon Friends the Members for Esher and Walton and Tatton.

Delivering Brexit involves difficult choices for all of us.

We do not agree on all of those choices but I respect their views and thank them sincerely for all that they have done.

Mr Speaker, yesterday we agreed the provisional terms of our exit from the European Union, set out in the Draft Withdrawal Agreement.

We also agreed the broad terms of our future relationship, in an Outline Political Declaration.

President Juncker has now written to the President of the European Council to recommend that “decisive progress has been made in the negotiations.”

And a special European Council will be called for Sunday 25th November.

This puts us close to a Brexit deal.

Mr Speaker, what we agreed yesterday was not the final deal.

It is a draft treaty that means we will leave the EU in a smooth and orderly way on 29 March 2019 and which sets the framework for a future relationship that delivers in our national interest.

It takes back control of our borders, laws and money.

It protects jobs, security and the integrity of the United Kingdom.

And it delivers in ways that many said could simply not be done.

We were told that we had a binary choice between the model of Norway or the model of Canada. That we could not have a bespoke deal.

But the Outline Political Declaration sets out an arrangement that is better for our country than both of these – a more ambitious free trade agreement than the EU has with any other country.

And we were told we would be treated like any other third country on security co-operation.

But the Outline Political Declaration sets out a breadth and depth of co-operation beyond anything the EU has agreed with any other country.

So let me take the House through the details.

First, on the Withdrawal Agreement, the full legal text has now been agreed in principle.

It sets out the terms on which the UK will leave the EU in 134 days’ time on 29th March 2019.

We have secured the rights of the more than three million EU citizens living in the UK, and around one million UK nationals living in the EU.

We have agreed a time-limited implementation period that ensures businesses only have to plan for one set of changes.

We have agreed Protocols to ensure Gibraltar and the Sovereign Base Areas are covered by the Withdrawal Agreement.

And we have agreed a fair financial settlement – far lower than the figures many mentioned at the start of this process.

Mr Speaker, since the start of this process I have been committed to ensuring that our exit from the EU deals with the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

I believe this issue can best be solved through our future relationship with the EU. But the withdrawal agreement sets out an insurance policy should that new relationship not be ready in time at the end of the implementation period.

I do not pretend that this has been a comfortable process — or that either we or the EU are entirely happy with all of the arrangements that have been included within it.

Of course this is the case — this is an arrangement that we have both said we never want to have to use.

But while some people might pretend otherwise, there is no deal which delivers the Brexit the British people voted for which does not involve this insurance policy.

Not Canada +++. Not Norway for Now. Not our own White Paper.

The EU will not negotiate any future partnership without it.

As the House knows, the original proposal from the EU was not acceptable as it would have meant creating a customs border down the Irish Sea and breaking up the integrity of our United Kingdom.

So last month, I set out for the House the four steps we needed to take.

This is what we have now done and it has seen the EU make a number of concessions towards our position.

First, the EU proposal for a Northern-Ireland only customs solution has been dropped and replaced by a new UK-wide temporary customs arrangement that protects the integrity of our precious Union.

Second, we have created an option for a single time-limited extension of the Implementation Period as an alternative to bringing in the backstop.

As I have said many times, I do not want to extend the Implementation Period and I do not believe we will need to do so. This is about an insurance policy.

But if it happens that at the end of 2020 our future relationship is not quite ready – the UK will be able to make a choice between the UK-wide temporary customs arrangement or a short extension of the Implementation Period.

Third, the Withdrawal Agreement commits both parties to use best endeavours to ensure this insurance policy is never used.

And in the unlikely event that it is needed, if we choose the backstop, the Withdrawal Agreement is explicit that it is temporary and that the Article 50 legal base cannot provide for a permanent relationship. And there is also a mechanism by which the backstop can be terminated.

Finally, we have ensured full continued access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market.

Mr Speaker, the Brexit talks are about acting in the national interest – and that means making what I believe to be the right choices, not the easy ones.

I know there are some who have said I should simply rip-up the UK’s commitment to a backstop.

But this would have been an entirely irresponsible course of action.

It would have meant reneging on a promise made to the people of Northern Ireland during the Referendum campaign and afterwards that under no circumstances would Brexit lead to a return to the borders of the past.

And it would have made it impossible to deliver a Withdrawal Agreement.

As Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, I have a responsibility to people in every part of our country and I intend to honour that promise.

Mr Speaker, by resolving this issue, we are now able to move on to finalising the details of an ambitious future partnership.

The Outline Political Declaration we have agreed sets out the basis for these negotiations and we will negotiate intensively ahead of the European Council to turn this into a full future framework.

The Declaration will end free movement once and for all.

Instead we will have our own new, skills-based, immigration system – based not on the country people come from, but on what they can contribute to the UK.

The Declaration agrees the creation of a free trade area for goods, with zero tariffs, no fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all goods sectors.

No other major advanced economy has such an arrangement with the EU. And at the same time, we will also be free to strike new trade deals with other partners around the world.

We have also reached common ground on a close relationship on services and investment, including financial services which go well beyond WTO commitments.

The Declaration ensures we will be leaving the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.

So we will decide how best to sustain and support our farms and our environment, and the UK will become an independent coastal state once again.

We have also reached agreement on key elements of our future security partnership to keep our people safe.

This includes swift and effective extradition arrangements as well as arrangements for effective data exchange on Passenger Name Records, DNA, fingerprints and vehicle registration data.

And we have agreed a close and flexible partnership on foreign, security and defence policy.

Mr Speaker, when I first became Prime Minister in 2016 there was no ready-made blueprint for Brexit.

Many people said it could simply not be done.

I have never accepted that. I have been committed day and night to delivering on the result of the referendum and ensuring the UK leaves the EU absolutely and on time.

But I also said at the very start that withdrawing from EU membership after 40 years, and establishing a wholly new relationship that will endure for decades to come, would be complex and require hard work.

I know it’s been a frustrating process – it has forced us to confront some very difficult issues.

But a good Brexit. A Brexit which is in the national interest is possible.

We have persevered and have made a decisive breakthrough.

Once a final deal is agreed, I will bring it to Parliament and I will ask MPs to consider the national interest and give it their backing.

Voting against a deal would take us all back to square one.

It would mean more uncertainty, more division, and a failure to deliver on the decision of the British people that we should leave the EU.

If we get behind a deal, we can bring our country back together and seize the opportunities that lie ahead.

Mr Speaker, the British people want us to get this done. And to get on with addressing the other issues they care about.

Creating more good jobs in every part of the UK and doing more to help families with the cost of living.

Helping our NHS to provide first class care and our schools to give every child a great start in life.

And focusing every ounce of our energy on building a brighter future for our country.

So Mr Speaker, the choice is clear. We can choose to leave with no deal. We can risk no Brexit at all. Or we can choose to unite and support the best deal that can be negotiated. This deal.

A deal that ends free movement; takes back control of our borders, laws and money; delivers a free trade area for goods with zero tariffs; leaves the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy; delivers an independent foreign and defence policy, while retaining the continued security co-operation to keep our people safe; maintains shared commitments to high standard; protects jobs; honours the integrity of our United Kingdom; and delivers the Brexit the British people voted for.

I choose to deliver for the British people.

I choose to do what is in our national interest.

And I commend this Statement to the House.


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Esther McVey latest UK Cabinet minister to resign over Brexit deal

The work and pensions secretary said she could not defend a deal that handed control to the EU.

LONDON — Theresa May’s work and pensions secretary, Esther McVey become the second Cabinet minister to resign Thursday over the prime minister’s draft Brexit deal, saying it would be ‘handing over control’ to the EU.

McVey quit just an hour after Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s resignation and was swiftly followed by Suella Braverman, a junior minister at the Department for Exiting the EU. Braverman, who is a former head of the European Research Group of backbench Brexiteer MPs, tweeted she looked forward to “working to support Brexit from the backbenches.”

In her letter to the prime minister, McVey, a longstanding Brexit supporter, accused May of putting a deal to Cabinet that “does not honor the result of the [2016 EU] referendum.”

Ministers reached a “collective” decision to approve a draft Brexit agreement with Brussels after five-hour meeting on Wednesday. McVey is reported to have spoken out strongly against the plan.

“The proposals put before Cabinet, which will soon be judged by the entire country, means [sic] handing over around £39 billion to the EU without anything in return,” she wrote, “It will trap us in a customs union, despite you specifically promising the British people we would not be.”

McVey “I could not look my constituents in the eye” and defend the draft deal.

In her letter to the prime minister, Braverman said that the negotiations had been an “uncomfortable journey.”

“Throughout this process, I have compromised. I have put pragmatism ahead of idealism and understand that concessions are necessary in a negotiation,” she said, “However I have reached a point where I feel that these concessions do not respect the will of the people.”


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Theresa May loses first minister over draft Brexit deal

Vara says draft deal leaves UK in ‘half-way house.’

Britain’s Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara resigned Thursday over the draft Brexit deal agreed by EU and U.K. negotiators.

Vara said in his resignation letter, posted on Twitter, that the draft withdrawal agreement doesn’t deliver on the promises made to voters, and “leaves the U.K. in a half-way house with no time limit on when we will finally be a sovereign state.”

Vara added that under the “customs arrangement” in the deal, the U.K. will be indefinitely “bound by rules determined by the EU over which we have no say,” and said that “whilst I agree there should be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the economic and constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom must be respected.”

Vara’s resignation is the first to hit Prime Minister Theresa May since her Cabinet agreed Wednesday to back the draft Brexit deal struck with the EU. According to media reports, between nine and 11 senior ministers have expressed concerns about the deal, and many of them are are under pressure from backbench colleagues to resign.

Fog of Brexit war can’t hide Brussels’ win

EU negotiators made some concessions but their red lines remained intact.

LONDON — Brussels is happy. Westminster is in chaos.

After 18-months of fractious negotiations, the U.K. prime minister squeaked her Brexit deal through her divided top team Wednesday and now faces yet another struggle to survive, let alone steer the deal through an angry parliament that must sign off the divorce treaty in the coming weeks.

Theresa May’s fate now rests on her ability to win support for the deal from the public and parliament — both of which remain deeply cynical about the agreement. With the Brexiteer wing of her party increasingly hostile, May is relying on the support of moderate backbench Conservative MPs — and the Labour Party — to get her deal through parliament, and neither on Wednesday appeared willing to come to her aid.

In Brussels, chief EU negotiator Michel Barnier hailed “decisive progress,” a signal to European Council President Donald Tusk to call a special summit of EU leaders later this month in order to formally approve the agreement.

Underneath the obfuscating political fog, sits a 585-page draft international treaty which protects the EU’s economic interests and inches it closer to its long-term political objectives, while leaving the U.K. as boxed in as ever by its own red lines. The central choices of Brexit remain, delayed but starkly unavoidable as the U.K. looks to begin negotiations to settle its future relationship with the European Union.

Negotiations weren’t all one-way traffic. To reach a Brexit deal which stands even a chance of being agreed by British MPs, the EU bent its negotiating guidelines, offered significant concessions and blurred the legal limits of what the bloc’s leaders said was possible.

Senior government officials on Wednesday night trumpeted a series of mini diplomatic victories in key areas of the withdrawal agreement — from the limited role of the European Court of Justice to the removal of the EU’s proposed solution for the Irish border, which had originally envisaged Northern Ireland being “annexed” into the EU’s customs territory.

The document setting out the bare bones of what the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU will look like — published alongside the withdrawal agreement Wednesday — also holds out the prospect of the closest of close trade deals, going beyond any other EU agreement, but without the U.K. accepting free movement.

Even senior officials in Westminster and in Brussels expressed little doubt which side has emerged strongest.

Irish conundrum

Downing Street’s officials say the key to winning public support for the Brexit deal is to show that it takes back control of “the two Ms” — money and (free) movement. After the 21-month transition period, May’s deal does this, they were keen to stress.

For the U.K., the toughest decision of all — whether to jettison Northern Ireland into the EU’s regulatory orbit or for the U.K. as a whole to become a permanent, rule-taking member of an EU customs union — has been kicked into the transition period. That transition itself can now be extended beyond the originally envisaged 21 months, for a period as yet undecided.

For the EU, its four freedoms are intact, tariff free trade with the U.K. is protected, the City of London is not granted special treatment — and the long-term goal of a customs union with the U.K. that is under its control is still very much on the table.

Until the Irish border is resolved, the U.K. has agreed to remain in a temporary customs union with the EU. This will remain until a new customs “arrangement” can be agreed, which will be based on the temporary set-up in the divorce deal. Brussels’ line is blood red, the U.K.’s barely pink.

On top of this, until such a permanent customs arrangement is found, Northern Ireland risks being syphoned off into a separate regulatory environment to the rest of the U.K., taking rules made in Brussels on VAT, agriculture, environment and state aid without any say in shaping those rules — under the EU’s proposed “backstop” solution. The U.K. will only be able to leave this arrangement with the EU’s consent.

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) leader Arlene Foster | Neil Hall/EPA-EFE

The Democratic Unionist Party — whose MPs prop up May’s government in Westminster — has dismissed the agreement as a capitulation.

Speaking in Westminster Wednesday, the party’s leader Arlene Foster said: “There were solutions out there, but unfortunately that was not the attitude which came from the Irish government or the European Union either. If she [Theresa May] decides to go against herself, then there will be consequences, of course there will be consequences.”

In her statement outside No. 10, May admitted the Northern Ireland compromises were the most difficult. “The choices before us were difficult, particularly in relation to the Northern Ireland backstop,” she said. “But the collective decision of Cabinet was that the government should agree the draft withdrawal agreement and the outline political declaration — this is a decisive step which enables us to move on and finalize the deal in the days ahead. These decisions were not taken lightly but I believe it is a decision that is firmly in the national interest.”

‘Snowball’s chance in hell’

Without the DUP’s votes, May does not have a majority in parliament. But it is not just the DUP that is angry.

Taken together, the compromises, contradictions and sleights of hand in the document amount to a particularly bitter pill for many across British politics to swallow — and even if it is digested, MPs and officials fear it may poison the system for years to come as the battle moves on to what the future relationship will look like.

One Conservative MP, former chairman of the foreign affairs committee Crispin Blunt, said the agreement stood “a snowball’s chance in hell of passing the House of Commons.”

May’s former chief of staff Nick Timothy also attacked his former boss. In a column in the Telegraph he wrote: “The proposal presented to Cabinet is a capitulation. Worse, it is a capitulation not only to Brussels, but to the fears of the British negotiators themselves, who have shown by their actions that they never believed Brexit can be a success. This includes, I say with the heaviest of hearts, the prime minister.”

Asked whether Theresa May would be prime minister when Britain left the EU in March, Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said: “I wouldn’t put money on that.”

During Wednesday’s volatile five-hour Cabinet meeting, nine ministers spoke out against the deal, according to two special advisers with knowledge of the discussion. In her statement following the meeting, May could only say the deal had been reached “collectively” — code for “not unanimously.”

May does not need unanimity in parliament but she will struggle even for a majority.

One government minister close to May, asked how the numbers looked, replied simply: “Bumpy.” The prime minister will hope it’s that good.

Ryan Heath contributed reporting.

Michel Barnier paves way for November Brexit summit

The EU’s chief negotiator said there had been ‘decisive progress’ in the talks.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the agreement on draft withdrawal treaty represented “decisive progress” — a signal to European Council President Donald Tusk to call a special summit of EU leaders later this month.

Barnier, speaking at a news conference at the European Commission headquarters, said the agreed upon treaty would insure the U.K.’s orderly departure, including a 21-month transition period. He insisted the new plan to prevent a border on the island of Ireland would be beneficial to the economies of Northern Ireland and Ireland.

“We have reached a crucial stage, an important moment in this extraordinary negotiation,” Barnier said.


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Brussels seeks permanent post-Brexit customs union

Under the customs arrangement, the UK’s scope for doing independent trade deals will be limited.

LONDON — The U.K. wants a Brexit backstop to be temporary. Brussels has other ideas.

The temporary U.K.-EU customs union agreed by Brexit negotiators as a stop-gap measure to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland will be used as leverage by Brussels to keep the U.K. within its customs orbit, senior EU officials have admitted privately.

According to two officials present at a briefing for EU ambassadors earlier this week, the EU believes the provisional deal struck by the two sides sets a “precedent” for the future customs relationship. Brussels intends to prevent London from watering it down in the negotiations to come over its future trading relationship.

Theresa May has called a Cabinet meeting for Wednesday afternoon at which ministers will be invited to approve the draft Brexit deal. If they do, that paves the way for a summit in Brussels later this month at which EU leaders would sign it off.

But the backstop revelation risks further inflaming May’s domestic political problems, as she battles to get the deal past her Cabinet before putting it to parliament some time before Christmas.

If the EU is successful it means the U.K. would be tied permanently to EU trade rules.

The U.K. prime minister has insisted that Britain will not be permanently tied to the EU’s customs union so it can strike independent free trade deals outside the bloc.

The Cabinet has also insisted that the backstop clause in the Withdrawal Agreement — which includes a U.K.-wide customs “arrangement” with the EU — includes a mechanism allowing the U.K. to leave so that it cannot be tied to the EU’s trade policy in perpetuity.

However, according to two EU officials, Brussels is adamant that the temporary backstop customs deal will form the basis of whatever supersedes it afterwards — regardless of the exit mechanism.

If the EU is successful it means the U.K. would be tied permanently to EU trade rules, unable to lower its tariff barriers as a bargaining tactic in trade deals with other countries. It would also mean the U.K. being forced to grant access to its markets to any country the EU strikes a future trade agreement with — without gaining reciprocal access to that country’s market in return, according to trade experts. 

Lorries at the Dover Ferry Terminal | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Leading Brexiteers — and some Remainers — have already accused the government of effectively agreeing to a permanent customs union.

Reacting to news of a provisional deal Tuesday, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson said: “We are going to stay in the customs union in this deal. We are going to stay, effectively, in large parts of the single market. That means it’s vassal state stuff.”

A senior Democratic Unionist Party aide said: “What you sign up to now is the minimum the EU will sign up to in the future relationship. People should be opposing this on the basis of how bad it is for the U.K. even before you get to the Northern Ireland bits.”

In an op-ed for the Financial Times, former EU trade commissioner Peter Mandelson agreed, insisting that “being in any sort of customs union means having a common non-negotiable external tariff.”

U.K. officials insist the backstop agreement will not form the basis for the future trade and customs deal both sides want to agree.

According to leaked accounts of the Brexit deal struck by U.K. and EU negotiators, London has agreed that should the future relationship not be wrapped up by the end of the transition in 2020, the U.K. will agree to stay within the EU’s common external tariff to ensure the border in Ireland remains open.

The U.K. could negotiate trade agreements with countries like the U.S. and China in those areas “not constrained by its customs union with the EU.”

This will happen either by the U.K. extending the transition period — under which it stays in the customs union and single market — or by moving into the “backstop” provision. That would entail the U.K. as a whole entering into a customs “arrangement” with the EU, with special provisions for Northern Ireland, which will have to abide by EU standards on goods and food.

The EU wants the customs union agreement reached as part of the Withdrawal Agreement to form the basis for the permanent relationship — something that will be met with horror by Brexiteers, who have held up Britain’s ability to set its own trade policy after Brexit as one of the fundamental benefits of leaving the EU.

According to two officials present at a briefing of EU ambassadors by the European Commission’s deputy lead negotiator Sabine Weyand, Brussels believes the customs union agreed by May is the basis of the future relationship, not simply a backstop. “This would set a precedent,” said one official — one which it would be hard for the U.K. to back out of when negotiating its ultimate relationship with the bloc.

Sam Lowe, a senior research fellow at the Centre for European Reform think tank, said the constraints of an U.K.-EU customs union were substantial. “Whilst in a customs union with the EU, the U.K. will be required to fully align its external tariff with that of the EU’s, meaning it cannot lower or remove tariffs either unilaterally or as part of a new free trade agreement.”

A container ship sits docked at the Keppel terminal container port in Singapore | Roslan Rahman/AFP via Getty Images

The U.K. could negotiate trade agreements with countries like the U.S. and China in those areas “not constrained by its customs union with the EU” — areas such as services, procurement, intellectual property, data and investment.

But even in a customs union with the EU the U.K. would not automatically get access to all the countries the EU has trade agreements with.

“The U.K. will need to replace all of the existing EU free trade agreements, and will need to mirror all future EU free trade agreements, while all those countries would continue to get, theoretically, continued preferential access to the U.K. market,” Lowe said.

This means the U.K. would be granting tariff-free access to all the countries that the EU has free trade deal with — but the U.K. would not automatically have tariff-free access to those countries in return.


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No-deal or hard Brexit makes united Ireland poll more likely, says Irish ambassador to UK

Adrian O’Neill said Ireland “did not expect to be in no-deal territory.”

A hard Brexit or no-deal scenario would “no doubt” increase the chances of a border poll being held on whether Northern Ireland should rejoin the Republic, Ireland’s ambassador to the U.K. Adrian O’Neill said Tuesday.

At a talk hosted by the Institute for Government, O’Neill said: “If we ended up in a hard Brexit and [with] a hard border that would have implications down the line for Northern Ireland and for the degree to which the views and opinions would change.”

The ambassador explained that a hard Brexit or no-deal would give people in Northern Ireland two reasons to consider joining the Republic. It would appeal to those in the nationalist community who have long called for Irish reunification, but also to those who wanted Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.

“It could potentially shift the dial on that issue, in terms of where a majority of people would find themselves,” he said.

However, O’Neill outlined that the Irish government believes that calling a border poll “in current circumstances” would be “divisive and unhelpful,” adding that even if one were called it would be “unlikely” to result in a vote for a united Ireland.

Under the Good Friday Agreement, the U.K. Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, currently Karen Bradley, can call a border poll if it seems “likely” that a majority of voters in both Ireland and Northern Ireland would back reunification.

In his talk, the ambassador warned that a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland could create a “descending spiral” towards violence.  Dissident republicans, “who don’t have any significant traction within their broader community,” but who still harbour “a murderous intent,” would feel they had a cause to vandalize and attack border installations, eventually threatening Northern Irish police officers, he said.

On the broader U.K.-EU negotiations, O’Neill said Ireland “did not expect to be in no-deal territory,” and he hoped to have a special European Council summit this month, although that could be pushed back into December if necessary.

“It’s never over until it’s over,” he said.

This article was changed on 13 November to correct one of the reasons the ambassador cited for a border poll becoming more likely.


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