5-year backstop would resolve Brexit crisis, says Polish foreign minister

Jacek Czaputowicz said a time-limited backstop was ‘much more favorable than a no-deal Brexit.’

The Brexit impasse could be resolved if Ireland were prepared to accept a time-limited backstop of five years, according to Polish Foreign Minister Jacek Czaputowicz.

Thus far, EU27 leaders have stood steadfastly behind the European Commission’s and Dublin’s insistence that the Northern Ireland backstop written into the Withdrawal Agreement must apply indefinitely if no other solution can be found to prevent the need for a hard border. So Czaputowicz’s suggestion that a time-limited backstop would be acceptable to reach an agreement represents a significant departure from the unity EU capitals have so far displayed on Brexit.

The Brexit deal was rejected by a record 230-vote margin in the House of Commons last week, with many Brexiteer Tories voting against it because they feared the U.K. would be locked in to the backstop.

Czaputowicz told the Rzeczpospolita newspaper that “courageous actions” were now needed to find an agreement to avoid no deal. “If Ireland turned to the EU about changing the agreement with Britain with regard to the provisions on the backstop so that it would only apply temporarily — let’s say five years — the matter would be resolved.”

“It would obviously be less favorable for Ireland than an unlimited backstop, but much more favorable than a no-deal Brexit, which is inevitably approaching,” he added.

Czaputowicz said he had raised the suggestion in December with his U.K. and Irish counterparts, Jeremy Hunt and Simon Coveney.


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How Brussels blew Brexit

It was a mistake to get hung up on the Irish border.

Brexit, viewed from Europe, is looking to many like a particularly British mess. But what if we’re the baddies?

It’s an unpopular idea on this side of the Channel. But the Brexit impasse is not British Prime Minister Theresa May’s fault. Rather, it’s the negotiation process itself that set us up for failure — and the blame for that lies first and foremost with Brussels.

The Brexit talks were badly designed from the start — something that often happens when you put bureaucrats in charge. Critically, the EU refused to discuss the nature of its future relationship with the U.K. unless London first agreed that there would be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

It was this decision, to include the Irish border question in the first phase of negotiations, that ensured we would never reach the second.

It’s been 30 months since the U.K. triggered Article 50. And we’ve barely touched on the part of the negotiations devoted to the terms of the future relationship — the part of the discussions that will ultimately decide the status of the border separating the EU and the U.K.

The first phase, ultimately, was about three issues to be decided on principle, not pragmatism.

Will we need a hard border, a light border, practically no border? That depends on the future relationship.

If this process were logical, the status of a small segment of the EU’s border with the U.K., distinctive and vital as it may be, would be discussed during talks about the overarching relationship — where big issues such as trade and security will also be hammered out.

But the way the process was designed — to include the Irish border among the three main areas to be negotiated before the U.K. formally leaves the bloc on March 29 — means that both sides had to reach an agreement on a matter they were effectively not allowed to discuss.

There are so many question marks — what will the U.K.’s trading relationship be with the EU after Brexit, for example? — hanging over the Irish border issue. It’s no surprise it is still unresolved.

So why was it included in the first phase of discussions?

Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Brussels felt that in order to proceed responsibly in the negotiation process, the British needed to start with a firm resolution to honor its commitments. The first phase, ultimately, was about three issues to be decided on principle, not pragmatism. Before the discussion turned to fisheries and cheese and banking services, Brussels decided, moral principle should rule.

Britain, the thinking went, first had to agree to pay the money it was bound to contribute to EU coffers, assure the rights of EU citizens living in Britain and respect the legitimate expectations of all signatories of the Good Friday agreement that brought Ireland’s violent “Troubles” to an end.

There was also a practical reason Europe wanted to first focus on matters of principle: It increased the likelihood that EU member countries would stick together.

And it worked. Centering the debate around making sure the U.K. would act in good faith helped solidify what turned out to be a remarkably united front among the EU27.

Given the state of the negotiations, however, this might be a decision the EU will come to regret. But Brussels could not have done it without help from the British prime minister.

Failing to push back hard enough, and early enough, on the Irish border question was Theresa May’s tragic mistake — one she will have ample time to rue in the years ahead.

Getting the Irish question out of the first phase of talks would have been in the EU’s interests too.

Instead, she instructed her negotiators to chip away at the EU’s united front by trying to introduce elements from the second phase of negotiations into the first and approaching member countries about aspects of the post-Brexit relationship.

This was a major misstep. Her interest — and very likely the country’s interest as well — lay in slowing things down, not speeding them up.

May needed to wrap up the first act. Take it step by step. By concluding the Withdrawal Agreement in due time — maybe even ahead of schedule — and with her prestige intact, she could then have called for a new election. Having delivered on her promise to take Britain out of the EU, no one would doubt for a minute that she was the right person to lead the U.K. into a new partnership with the bloc.

For that, the prime minister needed only one thing: To remove the Irish question from the scope of the Withdrawal Agreement. She should have invested all of her political capital and the skills of her seasoned diplomats into that specific task.

Theresa May delivers a speech after surviving a vote of no confidence, January 16 | Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images

It would have been an attainable goal. Getting the Irish question out of the first phase of talks would have been in the EU’s interests too.

Why? Because despite its show of unity and insistence Europe will be stronger than ever, the bloc is in a delicate spot of its own.

There are financial risks to Brexit that Brussels stubbornly continues to ignore: A disproportionate percentage of the financial services EU firms need to manage risk has been contracted in the City, and the City will continue to be the place where these services must be procured.

There are political and reputational risks as well. As the negotiation process disintegrates, most of the world will turn to Brussels and ask why, once again, the EU appears unable to reach a speedy and efficient resolution to its problems.

After all, whether the EU is composed of 27 or 28 countries is not something Brussels can shrug away. At present, there is a very high risk that the club will in fact be composed of 27 and a half members. Forever. The bloc can limp along, sure, but it would be seriously weakened.

Luckily, there is an alternative: Go back to the drawing board and declare the Withdrawal Agreement successfully concluded — without the Irish question.


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May: Brexit deal rejection would ‘strengthen’ hand of united Ireland advocates

The prime minister refused to rule out extending the Article 50 negotiating period.

LONDON — Theresa May urged MPs to take “a second look” at the Brexit deal she negotiated with the EU, suggesting a referendum on a united Ireland would become more likely if they rejected it.

Speaking in the House of Commons, the U.K. prime minister said that a no-deal Brexit would “strengthen the hand” of those who wanted a  “border poll” in Northern Ireland, as well as those calling for Scottish independence. She called no-deal “the real threat to our union.”

But to reverse Brexit altogether, May added, would be “a subversion of our democracy.”

The prime minister’s deal is widely expected to be voted down by MPs on Tuesday evening, despite May’s attempts to portray the alternatives as “no deal or no Brexit.”

Her attempt to win new assurances from the EU on the backstop proposal for avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, with an exchange of letters between herself and EU presidents Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker, appeared to have failed. Both Conservative Brexiteers and the Democratic Unionist Party, which supports May’s government, said the measures did not go far enough.

May did not go into detail about how a border poll in Northern Ireland might come about as a result of no-deal Brexit, but her decision to raise it appears to be aimed at winning support from DUP politicians who would be vehemently opposed to a united Ireland.

Under the terms of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the U.K.’s Northern Ireland secretary can decide to hold a vote on reunification “if at any time it appears likely” to him or her that a majority of voters in Northern Ireland would be in favor.

With weeks of parliamentary disputes likely to follow a vote against May’s deal, the prime minister refused to rule out an extension to the Article 50 negotiating period when pressed by Conservative Brexiteer Bill Cash. May could only say it was the government’s “intent” to leave the EU on the scheduled date of March 29.

“Whatever you may have previously concluded — over these next 24 hours, give this deal a second look,” May urged MPs.

“No it is not perfect. And yes it is a compromise. But when the history books are written, people will look at the decision of this house tomorrow and ask: Did we deliver on the country’s vote to leave the European Union? Did we safeguard our economy, our security and our Union? Or did we let the British people down?”

Responding to the prime minister, opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was scathing about the EU reassurance letter. “No more playing for time; no more running down the clock to scare people into backing this damaging shambles of a deal,” he said. “I am sure honorable members across the house will not be fooled by what has been produced today. It is clear what we are voting on this week is exactly the same deal we should have voted on in December.”


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7 takeaways from the EU’s Brexit reassurance letter

The exchange of letters between London and Brussels is not a renegotiation, but it is more than cosmetic.

LONDON — It won’t be enough, but it’s not nothing.

Less than two hours after the exchange of letters between Theresa May and EU leaders — Council President Donald Tusk and Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker — the U.K. prime minister’s fiercest critics were already on the attack.

On the one side, Tory Remainers plotting a new campaign for a second referendum. On the other, Tory Brexiteers resigning from government — as junior whip Gareth Johnson did — or re-upping their attacks from the sidelines.

A text from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group was quickly sent out to journalists mocking the prime minister for achieving nothing more than a letter. “Say not the struggle nought availeth,” the message read.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), whose MPs vote with the government under a confidence and supply arrangement, was even less subtle. The letter exchange was “meaningless,” said Nigel Dodds, the party’s leader in Westminster. “Nothing has changed.”

How much a new government would be bound by that promise is unclear.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox — an outspoken Brexiteer — disagreed. Partly at least. In a letter to May, published Monday afternoon, he said the letters “do not alter the fundamental meaning” of the backstop. But where he differed from Dodds was in the claim of meaninglessness. “This response,” he said, “would have legal force in international law.”

Here are 7 takeaways from the exchange of letters:

1. Triple lock for Ulster

May has repeatedly pushed to win DUP backing for her Brexit deal — and repeatedly failed.

On Monday, the DUP were quick to reject her latest attempt to reassure them about the Northern Ireland backstop (the arrangement to protect the Good Friday peace agreement by avoiding the need for a hard border). Yet Monday’s exchange of letters revealed some significant developments in how the backstop would work in practice, should it ever come into force.

Arlene Foster’s DUP has so far refused to back May’s Brexit deal | Olivier Hoslet/AFP via Getty Images

First, the U.K. will be able to veto any new laws which apply to Northern Ireland in the backstop.

“The Withdrawal Agreement is also clear that any new act that the European Union proposes should be added to the Protocol will require the agreement of the United Kingdom in the Joint Committee [the U.K.-EU committee which will oversee the backstop],” the Tusk-Juncker letter says.

Second, this veto could be exercised by the Northern Ireland Executive (assuming it is back up and running by then), rather than Westminster.

Tusk and Juncker’s letter says nothing stops the U.K. “from facilitating, as part of its delegation, the participation of Northern Ireland Executive representatives in the Joint Committee” which will oversee the backstop.

Finally, Stormont would have a veto over new laws in Westminster which would mean Britain diverging from Northern Ireland.

May’s letter states: “The U.K. government will not let regulatory divergences develop between Great Britain and Northern Ireland without the consent of the political institutions of Northern Ireland.”

That, though, amounts to a political, rather than legal assurance. How much a new government would be bound by that promise is unclear.

Britain was burned in the divorce negotiations by the EU’s complete control of the negotiating schedule.

2. No trap

Among many English Brexiteers, the threat of being trapped in a permanent customs union with the EU is a bigger concern than the prospect of regulatory divergence between Northern Ireland and Britain which is baked into the backstop. They fear it would set a precedent for the future relationship and hence would preclude an independent trade policy for the U.K. in perpetuity.

“Any arrangements which supersede [the backstop] aren’t required to replicate it in any respect,” the letter states.

In other words: the future relationship does not need to be a customs union, like the backstop, so long as the “underlying objectives [of an open border in Ireland] continue to be met.”

What’s more, the Tusk-Juncker letter reaffirms a provision in the Political Declaration that the border could be kept open by technological solutions, should they ever be found. That is the Brexiteers’ favored method for solving the Norther Ireland border issue.

3. ‘Row of the summer’ avoided

Britain was burned in the divorce negotiations by the EU’s complete control of the negotiating schedule. Despite claims from then-Brexit Secretary David Davis that the U.K. would put up a fight on this front, U.K. negotiators quickly accepted the staged timetabling set by Brussels, which meant the Irish border issue had to be solved before substantial discussions on the future relationship could begin.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis | Leon Neal/Getty Images

After Brexit, the U.K. has won agreement that this won’t happen again.

The EU “will embark on preparations for a future partnership with the United Kingdom immediately after signature of the Withdrawal Agreement,” the Tusk-Juncker letter states.

“These talks should cover all strands of the relationship in parallel,” the May letter adds.

4. Ambitions

May has no legal guarantee of when the backstop will end, should it ever come into force.

What the letter exchange provides is aspirations  — and legal obligations on the EU to try to meet them. As Cox’s letter states, these obligations are theoretically enforceable under international law, should the U.K. accuse the EU of failing to meet them.

The Tusk-Juncker letters offers a “firm commitment” to Britain “to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements [to the backstop].”

If the backstop does come into force it must only be applied “temporarily,” the letter states.

Once the backstop is in place, the EU would be bound by an obligation to use “best endeavours” to negotiate a new agreement to replace the backstop. These negotiations would have to be conducted “expeditiously.”

5. Summits galore

“Following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom, and until a subsequent agreement is concluded, the Commission will … meet at least every six months to take stock of progress and agree the appropriate actions to move forward,” the EU presidents write.

Brexit followers rejoice.

Anti-Brexit supporters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on January 14, 2019 | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

6. Fast-trade trade deal

One of the big weaknesses in the U.K.’s position, once it has left the EU, is that it immediately set the clock running on another cliff-edge deadline — the end of the transition period on December 31, 2020 — before which it must agree a future trade deal or risk falling into the backstop.

The Withdrawal Agreement allows the U.K. government to extend the transition period by up to two years, but only once, before the backstop kicks in.

Monday’s exchange of letters aims to provide one extra layer of insurance.

Should the deal have been agreed between Brussels and London, but is being held up by demands from one national government or the other, May writes: “We in the U.K. will do what is necessary to apply the new agreement provisionally pending ratification, rather than default to the backstop, and we expect the Commission to make the appropriate recommendations in relation to the EU too.”

In other words, Britain could provisionally apply the trade deal while the EU tries to iron out any problems it might run into. British officials are presumably concerned about a Wallonia-style veto, as happened with the EU’s Canada trade deal in 2016, and want a mechanism to prevent it delaying a backstop-exit.

The commitment in the Tusk-Juncker letter goes as far as they can to reassure that the EU would play ball. “The Commission is ready to propose provisional application,” they write.

But the European Parliament and the European Council would have to vote to provisionally apply the deal ahead of national ratifications so it is not entirely in their (or their successors’) gift.

7. Politics

No one likes the backstop. Yet.

Yes, for the U.K. it provides good access to EU markets without free movement or budget contributions. And, yes, for the EU it ensures the U.K. remains in its trade bloc, without giving up any sovereignty.

But right now, no one likes it — and it is imperative on all sides to say as much.

“The European Union does not wish to see the backstop enter into force,” the Tusk-Juncker letter states.

“Were it to do so, it would represent a suboptimal trading arrangement for both sides,” it adds.

This is pure politics — and really doesn’t amount to much.

Jakob Hanke contributed reporting.

Don’t leave it to someone else

At the end of last year, the local party in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk chose Jenny Marr to fight the seat at the next General Election. She’s written about the importance of getting involved in the political process by voting and beyond for the Scot Women Stand website. It’s another thing to add to the […]

At the end of last year, the local party in Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk chose Jenny Marr to fight the seat at the next General Election.

She’s written about the importance of getting involved in the political process by voting and beyond for the Scot Women Stand website.

It’s another thing to add to the to do list, isn’t it?

And of course first you have to register to do it.

Then there’s the wading through of manifestos, trying to understand policies, which are not exactly the work of Shakespeare. Then there’s the appeal of Love Island or similar which are just too all-consuming to consider anything else.

Been there, got the t-shirt. Trust me, I understand.

But what is the alternative? Be left out? Let your voice go unheard?

I know its certainly true that many politicians need to be better at keeping in touch. But don’t allow the laziness of some to block your participation.

Your voice is worth so much more than that.

Women have the right to tell their story, and have fought for that right – some are still fighting. And part of that is through putting a cross on a ballot paper in the privacy of the polling booth.

It’s your school, it’s your health centre, it’s your money. And it goes deeper than that. It’s your grandma who can’t get her flu jab this year, it’s your child whose classroom is too small, or their resources too few. It’s your hard-earned taxes.

Don’t exclude yourself from the narrative. Don’t overthink it. Don’t leave it to someone else.

Sometimes someone in your life is a bigger influence than they were ever able to know.

My Grandad, who died when I was just eight, was a Cllr in the North of England.

He was an advocate for, and passionate defender of, local democracy and local government.

He believed in “parish pump politics”, of chewing the fat in the Market Square and fixing problems as a community. Before local government was reorganised, and Councils became much bigger, he said “We have our grumbles and grouses, but at least the system had a soul.”

More than that, the community had a voice, and used it.

They used it by voting.

Politicians are like everyone else. They have their strengths and weaknesses and certainly none of them are perfect.

And if you want to make sure the right ones are hired and fired coming polling day, you can.

By voting you can turn round to them and say I voted for you, I put my trust in you. You really can hold them to account.

The best thing is – apart from how quick and easy the process is – and you don’t even have to pick any of them! Leave your ballot blank, spoil it, write a message. All ballots have to be verified, so it will be seen! My favourite was a drawing of a cat, and believe me, that’s not the strangest thing I’ve seen!

Voting plays its part in determining who we are as a person and as a nation. What we stand for.

If you’re disillusioned, you have every right to be. But disengagement won’t fix it. Don’t make it easier to be ignored.

Play your part. Because progress is often achieved by small, but not insignificant acts. Like clicking on this link. Or by registering for a postal vote and walking the 2 minutes to the post box. It matters, because you matter.

* Newshound: bringing you the best Lib Dem commentary published in print or online.

EU to Theresa May: No more help before Brexit vote

The UK prime minister will address MPs Wednesday on any reassurances she has obtained from Brussels.

No means no.

No legal guarantees. No enforceable deadline for completing a trade deal. No expiration date for the Irish backstop. No renegotiation. In sum: No more help from the EU for U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May before a vote in the British parliament on the Brexit deal.

May still seems certain to lose that vote because of extensive opposition from within her own party and the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, whose MPs vote with her government. And in the absence of any substantive political or policy shift in London, speculation has swirled about what, if anything, the EU27 might do to strengthen May’s chances of getting the deal through.

The answer is nothing — at least nothing Brussels hasn’t done already, which is to reaffirm the EU’s commitment to the target date set in the Withdrawal Agreement for agreeing a future relationship with the U.K. by the end of a transition period, on December 31, 2020.

Brussels is also willing to restate that the backstop intended to prevent the re-creation of a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is an emergency measure that is never intended to be used, that it will be temporary if triggered, and that the EU has no intention of trapping Britain in backstop limbo forever.

“It is up to the U.K. to ask for concessions, not the EU to offer them proactively” — EU diplomat

But senior officials in Brussels and national ministers from across the Continent stressed that there is nothing more the EU could do for May ahead of the Commons vote, which the prime minister’s spokesperson confirmed today would take place on 15 January.

If the British parliament rejects the deal — made up of the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement plus the Political Declaration on the U.K.’s future relationship with the bloc — the EU27 will then wait and watch for the political fallout in London. That could include the possibility of national elections, a second referendum or some other step by May’s government to prevent a no-deal scenario.

“Nothing has been offered to May,” one EU diplomat said. “Everybody waiting for the vote on the 15th.”

Another diplomat said: “It is up to the U.K. to ask for concessions, not the EU to offer them proactively.” The diplomat added, “I don’t see room for a legally binding end date of the backstop.”

French EU Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau | Eric Feferberg/AFP via Getty Images

EU ministers arriving in Brussels for a General Affairs Council meeting on Tuesday said there has been no request by the U.K. to delay the March 29 deadline for Britain’s withdrawal — a request that senior EU officials had previously said they would consider only in conjunction with a clearly articulated purpose for the delay such as to await the outcome of a new national election.

“I don’t work on hypothesis,” French EU Affairs Minister Nathalie Loiseau said. “The current situation is complex enough. It hasn’t been asked by the British authorities so no ifs and whens.” Emphasizing that there had been no request from London, Loiseau added: “They have not raised the concept.”

At their summit in December, EU leaders expressed frustration that May insisted she was not trying to renegotiate the agreement reached in November but was clearly trying to win new concessions and changes, particularly to the backstop provisions, which would, by definition, entail a renegotiation. They also complained that the U.K. still has not sorted out its own internal disagreements over what sort of Brexit plan could in fact win the support of a majority of the House of Commons.

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė even cheekily urged the U.K. to make a Christmas wish and “finally decide what you really want.”

But Christmas and New Year have now come and gone with no further clarity in London.

Junior Digital Minister Margot James speculated Monday that it might be necessary to extend the Article 50 deadline if May’s deal does not win the backing of MPs.

Such an extension would require the unanimous approval of all remaining EU27 countries, but the European Court of Justice has also ruled that the U.K. could unilaterally withdraw its Article 50 notification under the EU treaty, thereby preventing its departure and effectively halting the Brexit process indefinitely. While that decision would let the British government prevent a no-deal scenario, it would almost certainly carry heavy political costs at home, and a steep diplomatic price on the Continent.

Arriving at a meeting of EU ministers on the General Affairs Council in Brussels, U.K. junior Brexit Minister Martin Callanan said May’s government is intent on winning next week’s vote.

“The deal that is on the table is the best and the only deal possible” — Margaritis Schinas, European Commission’s chief spokesman

“We are all focused in the government on winning parliamentary support in the vote that is coming up next week,” Callanan said. “The prime minister will be updating parliament tomorrow and she will be talking about the clarifications, reassurances that parliament is seeking that the backstop will not be permanent.”

Callanan also flatly rejected any suggestion that the U.K.’s departure would be pushed back. “We are very clear,” he said. “The policy of the government is that Article 50 will not be extended. We are leaving the EU on the 29th of March this year because that’s what Article 50 says, that’s what parliament voted for, and that’s now what British domestic legislation says as well.”

His boss, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay earlier Tuesday denied a report in the Telegraph that British officials are “putting out feelers” in Brussels about a potential extension. “Yes, I can be very clear that the government’s policy is to leave [the EU] on the 29th of March,” he told the BBC’s Today Program.

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

The European Commission’s chief spokesman, Margaritis Schinas, said Monday that Brussels is working on its own ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement in the European Parliament, but stressed that there is nothing more the EU27 could do for May ahead of the vote.

“The deal that is on the table is the best and the only deal possible,” Schinas said. “This was confirmed by the EU27 in our December Article 50 European Council. And this deal will not be renegotiated. On our side, we have started the process of ratification. We will now follow closely the ratification process of the U.K. and of course we will be ready to start preparations for negotiations on our future partnership immediately after the signature on the Withdrawal Agreement.”

Pressed on whether there would be any shift by the EU, Schinas said: “There’s no negotiation, because everything on the table has been approved, established, achieved … negotiations have been completed.”


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Theresa May urges MPs to back Brexit deal ahead of perilous vote

The prime minister confirmed Sunday the vote will ‘definitely’ happen in mid-January.

U.K. prime minister Theresa May used a television and print media blitz Sunday to reject calls for the second referendum on Britain’s EU membership.

May urged members of parliament to back the Brexit deal she negotiated with the European Union and insisted the Parliament vote will happen as planned January 15 or 16. She refused to rule out repeated votes on the same deal if she loses first time round.

“This deal delivers on the referendum, protects jobs and security and provides certainty for citizens and businesses,” Theresa May said in a television interview Sunday with the BBC’s Andrew Marr.

“Don’t let the search for the perfect Brexit be the enemy of the good,” May said, a reference to the criticisms of hardline Brexiteers and EU supporters such as former European Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who argue the deal undermines British sovereignty and should be rejected.

EU leaders have refused to alter the Brexit deal to help May, leaving her able to promise only a “greater role for Parliament as we take this negotiation further.”

May slammed MPs asking for a second referendum. “It would divide our country and we wouldn’t be able to organize a referendum before March 29,” she said, pointing out it would therefore require an extension of Article 50 (the treaty article allowing withdrawals from the EU).

Brexit will take effect March 29.

The prime minister also wrote in the Mail on Sunday that backing her Brexit deal is “a question of profound significance for our democracy and for our constituents.”


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UK ramps up no-deal preparations as hope for May’s deal dwindles

Key Brexiteers, including the British prime minister’s Northern Irish backers, still oppose her plan.

LONDON — Theresa May is back at work after the holidays — but, as the British prime minister is fond of saying, nothing has changed.

May left Westminster in December assuring MPs she was working on new, last minute add-ons to the Brexit deal that the U.K. parliament is due to ratify in two weeks’ time, ahead of the country’s scheduled legal exit from the EU in just 12 weeks.

Having pulled the vote once already, May is now in the last-chance saloon. She has spoken to German Chancellor Angela Merkel and is expected to make more diplomatic calls with her European counterparts ahead of the recommencement of parliamentary debate on her deal next week.

But Brussels says no substantial renegotiation is even taking place, and key Brexit-supporting MPs, including the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party which props up her government, remain unconvinced.

It is fear of no deal, May seems to have calculated, that is her best card.

If cosmetic changes to her deal don’t change minds, May’s only hope is persuading MPs on either side of the Brexit divide to back her deal for fear of the alternatives — “no deal, or no Brexit,” as she puts it. “No Brexit” would require a second referendum which, despite increased momentum behind the idea, is still not backed by the leadership of either of the two main parties.

So it is fear of no deal, May seems to have calculated, that is her best card, and one that she and her ministers will talk up incessantly between now and the vote planned for the week beginning January 14.

Media blitz

Stephen Barclay, May’s third Brexit secretary, announced Thursday that a public information campaign on social media and radio would be launched next Tuesday to prepare the British public for a no-deal exit from the European Union.

The U.K.’s neighbors are also making no-deal contingencies an ever-greater priority. Ireland’s agriculture minister, Michael Creed, told the Irish Independent hundreds of millions of euros would be sought in aid from the EU were Ireland faced with a no-deal scenario. The country, which sends 15 percent of its exports to the U.K., would face a serious economic hit from new trade barriers.

But is talk of no-deal a bluff? Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, on a New Year visit to Singapore and Malaysia, admitted Wednesday the economic dislocation of no deal was not something any government would “willingly” impose on itself.

Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May (L) and Poland’s Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki in London | Pool photo by Adrian Dennis via Getty Images

May could step back from the cliff edge at any time by asking the EU27 for an extension of the Article 50 notice or revoking it temporarily, and even if she doesn’t, there is a majority in parliament who would try to stop a no-deal Brexit if May’s deal is rejected. But precisely how they would do it is not clear and some constitutional experts are skeptical.

May is hoping MPs simply won’t risk it, but her former Brexit Secretary David Davis for one is calling her bluff. Giving no indication he has shifted in his opposition to her deal, he suggested in the Daily Telegraph that heading down the no-deal path would be no bad thing, and would bring the EU back to the negotiating table.

“The more we prepare to leave the EU without a deal, the more likely a good deal becomes,” he said.

DUP say no (again)

Davis and his Brexiteer allies are just one group in a wide spectrum of opinion in the House of Commons that are still saying they will vote against May’s deal.

But it is they and the 10 MPs of the Democratic Unionist Party — who stand opposed to the deal’s “backstop” clause for avoiding an economic border on the island of Ireland by keeping the U.K. inside a customs union with the EU — who represent her best hope for making up the numbers in favor.

May has sought further “assurances” from the EU, as she obliquely puts it, that the backstop — were it needed — would not be permanent. “Discussions” had been held over Christmas, Hunt said Wednesday, expressing the hope that his boss would “find a way” of getting her deal through parliament.

Pro-EU protesters demonstrate outside of the parliament calling for a people’s vote | Andy Rain/EFE via EPA

The EU, for its part, has not budged from its position that no meaningful renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement struck in November can take place.

A European Commission spokesperson said Thursday “no further meetings are foreseen between the Commission’s negotiators and the U.K. negotiators” and Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, after a meeting with Merkel, reiterated to reporters in Dublin that the EU could give “no explanation, guarantee or clarification” on the backstop that contradicts or “renders inoperable” the Withdrawal Agreement.

May, therefore, seemed to have little to show senior DUP lawmakers, whom she met Thursday.

Nigel Dodds, the DUP’s deputy leader, said the party’s “principled objections” to May’s deal remained.

“The Withdrawal Agreement, as currently proposed, flies in the face of the government’s commitments on Northern Ireland as we leave the EU,” he said Thursday afternoon, after meeting May for lunch alongside fellow DUP MP Sammy Wilson and MEP Diane Dodds.


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2018: The year in figures and charts

Telling the story of the last 12 months through data.

What a tremendous, nebulous year.

Very much like last year, 2018 was full of endless Brexit drama. And endless Trump drama. And then there was some more Brexit drama. And some more Trump drama. But hey, other stuff happened too (right?).

The French proved that they are still the global champions of street protests, the far right grabbed headlines across the Continent and Angela Merkel prepared to abdicate.

From politics to climate change, gay rights and technology giants, here are the figures behind the topics that defined 2018.

Eddy Wax contributed reporting.


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Irish government prepares for no-deal Brexit with ‘sobering’ contingency plan

Dublin’s Plan B makes for ‘stark reading,’ Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney warns.

Ireland will need to pass 45 emergency laws ahead of Brexit Day if U.K. MPs fail to back Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement next month, according to the government’s contingency plans.

In its 131-page “Getting Ireland Brexit Ready” report published late Wednesday, the Irish government says the country’s domestic legislative program will require significant legal changes before March 29, 2019 in areas such as agriculture, the single electricity market, housing, health care and cross-border trade, among others.

Speaking to media in Dublin Wednesday night, Ireland’s Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade Simon Coveney said the report was worrying for the trading relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Dublin’s “contingency plans for a no-deal Brexit make for sobering and stark reading,” Coveney said. “The report would require an immediate focus on crisis management and possible temporary solutions.”

The contingency plan notes that as England is the land bridge between Ireland and the European Continent, severe traffic delays in the aftermath of a no-deal Brexit are likely on the Dover-Calais shipping route, and adds that Ireland’s transport department is working with companies to identify alternatives.

The paper says the government’s main focus is to prevent the emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Extra land will be needed at Dublin and Rosslare ports and at airports to deal with the “significant increase” in checks that will be needed if the U.K. crashes out of the EU, according to the report.

The additional facilities required at Dublin port will include 33 inspection bays for trucks coming off ships, 270 parking spaces to prevent logjams of trucks awaiting inspection, a dedicated border control post for the movement of live animals and new office space. Similar facilities will be required at Rosslare port in the southeast of the country, which is a major passenger and freight route to northern France.

Extra inspection rooms and a border control post for animals will also have to be constructed at Dublin airport.

Legislation is currently being prepared to address the issue of medicine supply and cross-border medical services, according to the report.

Vehicles cross the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

The paper says the government’s main focus is to prevent the emergence of a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, though it doesn’t specify how that will be prevented if Westminster rejects the U.K.-EU Withdrawal Agreement.

The Republic of Ireland has an open land border with Northern Ireland, which is in the U.K. If the U.K. leaves the EU without a Brexit deal, the dividing line separating the two jurisdictions will become the frontier between the two.

Coveney said the plan is an “evolving document” and will be subject to change as talks continue between London, Brussels and Dublin.

The Irish Cabinet will meet on January 3 to discuss further contingency planning.


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