Barnier and Barclay break bread, but not Brexit deadlock

New negotiator for Britain wins no new concessions on Northern Ireland backstop.

There was pan-fried North Sea sole with Scottish scallops and Welsh samphire, roast duck breast and pear parfait for dessert, but a concession on the Northern Ireland backstop was most certainly not on the table.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, spent Monday evening dining with his (relatively) new British counterpart, Stephen Barclay, at the British ambassador’s residence in Brussels.

Barclay is the U.K.’s third state secretary for exiting the European Union since the Brexit process started. Indeed, Prime Minister Theresa May seems to go through negotiators faster than Barnier and Barclay went through bottles of Sancerre and Saint-Émilion wine at their dinner. But Barclay may have arrived for the best part — with the March 29 deadline fast-approaching and a final, crucial deal on the U.K.’s departure still waiting to be clinched.

Barnier, leaving the dinner on Monday, described the discussion with Barclay as positive, but declared yet again that the withdrawal treaty agreed in November would not be reopened or renegotiated.

“Constructive talks,” he told reporters outside. “It is clear from our side that we are not going to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, but we will continue our discussion in the coming days.”

“I found Corbyn’s letter interesting in tone and in content” — Michel Barnier

Earlier in the day, while visiting Prime Minister Xavier Bettel in Luxembourg, Barnier amped up the pressure on May by making the EU’s most openly positive remarks about a proposal by May’s archrival, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, for Britain to remain within the EU’s customs union.

“I found Corbyn’s letter interesting in tone and in content,” Barnier said. His remarks were even more pointed given that May, in a conciliatory letter to Corbyn on Sunday night, appeared willing to consider all of his proposals with the one, notable exception of staying in the customs union.

Barnier’s comments in Luxembourg followed similar praise for Corbyn’s proposal from European Council President Donald Tusk during his meeting with May in Brussels last Thursday. In that conversation, Tusk noted that Corbyn’s proposal “might be a promising way out of the impasse,” an EU official said.

A proposal to stay in the EU customs union would be precisely the type of significant shift in U.K. red lines that EU leaders have said would be necessary to change the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement. They have also been looking for any indication of cross-party cooperation in London that might offer promise of a national consensus emerging on the U.K.’s post-Brexit future.

Labour Party Leader Jeremy Corbyn has intrigued EU top brass with his Brexit proposal | Leon Neal/Getty Images

Without such consensus, EU officials expect negotiations on the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU could potentially be even more tortuous than the negotiations on the Withdrawal Agreement. And they have adamantly refused to make concessions on the Northern Ireland backstop — designed to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland — because they are convinced that such shifts would put the EU single market at risk while not sufficiently bridging the divisions on the U.K. side to assure ratification of the withdrawal treaty.

Barnier underscored those concerns and frustrations in Luxembourg, saying: “Something has to give on the British side.”

The dinner on Monday night was held in Brussels, but the menu at the ambassador’s residence offered a culinary tour of many corners of the United Kingdom and its sovereign seas. The wine, however, in just a slight bit of deference to Barnier, was French.

In a read-out of the meeting, a British official wrote that Barclay and Barnier met to discuss “the next steps in the U.K.’s withdrawal from the EU and explore whether a way through can be found that would be acceptable to the U.K. Parliament and to the European Union.”

“The meeting was constructive,” the official added, “and Mr. Barclay and Mr. Barnier agreed to further talks in the coming days and that their teams would continue to work in the meantime on finding a way forward.”


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Tory split warnings a ‘hollow threat,’ says former party chair

Rumors of party divisions may sell newspapers, says Caroline Spelman, but talk of a Tory rupture is ‘premature.’

LONDON — Brexiteer warnings that the Conservative Party could split if Theresa May tries to get her Brexit deal through parliament with Labour votes are a “hollow threat,” former party chairman Caroline Spelman said.

With no sign of concessions from the EU on the Northern Ireland backstop that might win round Brexiteer Conservatives and the Democratic Unionist Party, speculation is growing that May could make major changes to her Brexit plan, such as committing to a customs union, to persuade Labour MPs to back it.

However, several members of the European Research Group of pro-Brexit Conservative MPs have warned that such a move could put serious strains on party unity.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has compared the scenario to that faced by 19th century Tory leader Robert Peel, who in 1846 split the party after repealing the Corn Laws (which protected British agriculture from foreign imports) with opposition votes. The split kept the party from winning an electoral majority for three decades.

But Spelman, a former Cabinet minister and party chairman whose amendment opposing a no-deal Brexit won a parliamentary majority last week, told POLITICO that talk of an historic rupture was “premature.” She said she wanted May to win concessions from Brussels on the backstop, but suggested that reaching out across the aisle could provide another way forward.

“Especially as a former party chairman I would like to see the party unite around a Conservative prime minister’s deal” — Caroline Spelman

“[Split threats] might sell newspapers, but in practice, new parties and party splits in my political lifetime have usually fizzled out,” said Spelman, who served as Tory party chair under David Cameron from 2007 to 2009.

Britain’s first-past-the-post electoral system makes it very difficult for small or new parties to get a foothold in parliament. For example, at the 2015 election, UKIP won nearly 3.9 million votes (a share of 12.6 percent) but won just one seat in the House of Commons.

Any Conservatives thinking of breaking away over concessions to Labour on a customs union would also struggle to explain how their position was consistent with the party’s 2017 election manifesto, Spelman added.

“It’s a hollow threat, because every Conservative MP was elected on a manifesto of finding a customs arrangement with the EU … No Conservative, whatever their allegiance on Europe, can deny the fact that they got elected on a promise to sort out a customs arrangement with the EU,” she said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg has compared the current scenario to that faced by 19th century Tory leader Robert Peel | Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP via Getty IMages

The manifesto says the party will leave the single market and the EU’s existing customs union, but commits to a non-specific “free trade and customs agreement” with the bloc.

Spelman said commitments that the U.K. would retain workplace and environmental standards at least as high as the EU’s, while looking again at the customs arrangements aspect of the deal, were “the kind of area … that might help bring a consensus behind the deal.”

However, she said her preferred option was for the House of Commons to back May’s deal and said she hoped the prime minister would succeed in her “quest for an amendment on the Irish backstop” to persuade Conservative Brexiteers and the DUP to back the deal.

“Especially as a former party chairman I would like to see the party unite around a Conservative prime minister’s deal,” she said. However, she said May might not succeed in persuading Brexiteers and the DUP, so supported talks which have taken place “in parallel” with Labour and their union backers.

Spelman’s non-binding amendment urging the government against a no-deal Brexit narrowly passed by 318 votes to 310 with Labour support. A different amendment from Labour’s Yvette Cooper which would have given the House of Commons a mechanism to delay Brexit and actually prevent no-deal, was defeated 321 to 298, when some Labour MPs with heavily Leave-voting constituencies refused to back it.

“My amendment had the effect of bringing Jeremy Corbyn to the table — what it was designed to do really” — Caroline Spelman

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said after the vote that because Spelman’s amendment had passed he was prepared to meet with May, and has since sent a letter to the prime minister setting out Labour’s conditions for supporting the Brexit deal, including a permanent customs union with the EU.

“My amendment had the effect of bringing Jeremy Corbyn to the table — what it was designed to do really. That’s important because for some time he hasn’t been all that clear what it is he actually wants,” said Spelman, speaking the day before Corbyn sent his letter.

The former environment secretary did not rule out backing a Cooper-like amendment aimed at delaying Brexit, if one is put forward at a future date. She added that it was “not impossible” that a majority would back such a plan to delay Brexit “as the deadline approaches.”

However, she said she would prefer not to see a delay. “I represent a manufacturing region where we’ve already lost 7,500 jobs, Brexit-related, in the past 12 months,” she said. “Delay costs money, delay kills business. That’s the reason I’m not keen on delaying.”

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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Donald Tusk’s ‘hell’ comment not ‘brilliant diplomacy,’ says UK minister

David Lidington said European Council president was ‘venting’ when he criticized Brexiteers.

Donald Tusk’s comment about a “special place in hell” was not “the most brilliant diplomacy,” David Lidington, the U.K.’s de facto deputy prime minister, said Thursday.

Lidington was asked on the BBC’s Today program if the European Council president should apologize to Theresa May when he meets the prime minister in Brussels later Thursday. On Wednesday, Tusk said in a press conference and a tweet: “I’ve been wondering what that special place in hell looks like, for those who promoted #Brexit, without even a sketch of a plan how to carry it out safely.”

Some U.K. newspapers and Brexiteers have cast the comments as an insult to the U.K.

“I don’t think that Donald Tusk was criticizing the prime minister at all,” said Lidington, who is on the pro-EU wing of the Cabinet. But he added that politicians should choose their words carefully. “If he were to ask me I’d say it probably wasn’t the most brilliant diplomacy.”

He added that he thought Tusk was “venting” and that anyone listening to MPs in the House of Commons knows that “intemperate and exaggerated language doesn’t only come out of Brussels.”

Asked about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s letter setting out five conditions for backing a Brexit deal, Lidington gave a lukewarm response. “What is it that you don’t like about what’s in the Political Declaration at the moment,” he asked, saying that the document already envisages a partial customs union with the EU.

Corbyn wants the government to negotiate a full customs union with a say for the U.K. over EU trade deals. “That’s not something that’s allowed under the European treaties,” said Lidington, “That seems to be me wishful thinking.”

And asked about how many of the EU trade deals that the U.K. currently benefits from will be rolled over in time for a no-deal Brexit, Lidington said: “In that case one would need to try to have bilateral relationships … That work is still going on.”


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Shanker Singham: A UK-EU free trade agreement is perfectly feasible – I’ve written one

Such deals can seem intangible and conceptual, so I and a team of experts are today launching a proposed agreement which both sides could accept.

Shanker Singham is CEO of Competere and author of Plan A+, A Better Deal and the proposed UK-EU Free Trade Agreement

One thing everyone in Parliament – and the country – can agree on is that there’s been a lot of talk about Brexit. Some of it constructive, some of it less so, but in terms of sheer quantity, a lot. But there hasn’t been as much talk about what comes next.

Some of us have tried to start a conversation about the country we want to be after we leave the European Union. I, for one, have talked about the role of free trade in creating economic growth in the global economy. But this isn’t just about the United Kingdom or the developed world. The single most effective way to lift the poor out of poverty is through international trade.

There is no denying the appetite from our trading partners around the world to strike meaningful trade agreements once we leave the EU. In Washington there is cross-party consensus for a comprehensive agreement which takes in both goods and services, something that would be a boon for our world-leading financial and professional services industries. Japan has asked us to apply for accession to the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which numbers 11 countries including fast-growing economies like Vietnam and Singapore.

But as concrete as these offers are, to many they can seem intangible, like some romantic ideal we may never grasp. Ironically, a trade agreement with the very bloc we are due to leave next month has received comparatively little attention.

That’s why I, and a team of trade policy and customs experts, have today published a proposed Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the EU. One of the mistakes we have made in our negotiations over the Withdrawal Agreement is not being clear about what we wanted. Another was not being proactive and putting text on the table. We seek to take these lessons on board as we publish today’s draft FTA.

We know the European Union wants to do a deal with us because they’ve repeatedly told us so. We also know that unlike other trade agreements which can take years and years to negotiate, this one should be concluded more quickly.

This is for three reasons. First, unlike all other trade agreements, we have the unique starting point of identical regulations and as well as zero tariffs and no quantitative restrictions.

Secondly, the proposed FTA is a sound basis for future agreement as it is based, wherever possible, on existing EU agreements with other nations. These include the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA), an FTA between Canada, the EU and its member states, the Japan – EU Trade Agreement, the EU – New Zealand Veterinary Agreement, the US – EU Insurance Covered Agreement and EU commitments in the WTO, OECD and other international organisations.

Third, the FTA approach also respects the integrity of the European Single Market and Customs Union and builds on the EU’s original offer of a comprehensive FTA with the entirety of the United Kingdom.

Key elements of the FTA include: deemed equivalence and regulatory recognition including of underlying product regulation to facilitate goods and services trade; customs and trade facilitation measures to improve customs clearance for just-in-time supply chains; regulatory coherence and good regulatory practice on both sides to ensure competitive markets; competition, state aids and subsidy disciplines to ensure a level playing field between the UK and EU; and commitments to honour treaties the UK has signed on labour and environmental standards.

It worth bearing in mind that there are two approaches or ‘operating systems’ for facilitating trade between countries the ‘trade agreement approach’ which is focused on outcomes and the ‘identical regulation approach’ which is focused on process.

Under the free trade approach, the reduction of trade and regulatory barriers are consistent with WTO rules and more recent Free Trade Agreements which increasingly include regulatory recognition and deemed equivalence. The goal of this approach is to progressively lower border and behind the border barriers around the world. This approach began initially with basic tariff reductions and has developed into ever deeper and more comprehensive global liberalisation through the WTO and FTAs.

Under identical regulation approach, regulatory recognition is only granted (and trade permitted) if regulatory systems are identical. The EU Single Market (ironically originally built on mutual recognition) has become an example of this approach. The effect of the regulation on trade and competition outside of the bloc is irrelevant in this approach as the goal is to reduce barriers within the bloc. But the regulatory system inside the bloc may be pro-competitive or anti-competitive, as long as there is a single regulatory system.  GDPR is an example of regulation from within the EU Single Market which causes distortions outside the EU and makes the global economy less competitive.

The trade agreement approach is not a second-best approach to the identical regulation approach of the Single Market and Customs Union. It is the approach relied on by most other WTO members and which is supported by WTO rules themselves. It can facilitate just-in-time supply chains and ensure continuity in trade between the UK and EU member states. It is focussed on barrier reduction, unlike the identical regulation approach which is agnostic about barriers.

The trade agreement approach, epitomised by this proposed FTA with the EU, minimises disruption to trade with Europe while preserving the UK’s ability to strike trade deals around the world and make changes to domestic regulation, should it wish.

It has been written with the goal of minimising disruption to businesses and consumers across Europe and the UK as the UK leaves the European Union, while building a solid foundation for future trade and prosperity. Due to the unique starting point of the countries involved having identical regulations, this Free Trade Agreement promises to be the most advanced and liberalising ever developed.

My hope is that this is the start of a renewed dialogue. A dialogue with the business community about what it needs from a Free Trade Agreement. A dialogue with the EU about the precise nature of our future trading relationship. A dialogue with the UK government about how to negotiate a good deal for the country. And a dialogue with ourselves about the kind of country we want to be.

Advanced technology cannot replace Brexit backstop, EU says

EU’s deputy Brexit negotiator says technology cannot yet offer ‘alternative arrangement’ sought by UK.

Hey, Britain: Forget the virtual backstop. It doesn’t exist yet.

That was the quick, blunt retort by the EU’s deputy chief Brexit negotiator, Sabine Weyand, on Sunday evening in response to a BBC report that the U.K.’s Brexit secretary, Stephen Barclay, had renewed a suggestion that “technology” might provide an alternative to the backstop provision on the Northern Ireland border within the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

Posting on Twitter, Weyand quickly asked and answered Barclay’s question: “Can technology solve the Irish border problem? Short answer: not in the next few years.”

Indeed, the BBC report that included Barclay’s remarks looked at technology currently in use on the border between Norway and Sweden, and concluded that it did not eliminate border checks. “A sophisticated computer system allows goods to be declared to customs before they leave warehouses,” the report said. “But lorries transporting goods must still stop at a staffed crossing for physical customs checks.”

The U.K. parliament voted last Tuesday to demand renegotiation of the backstop provision, which is intended to prevent the recreation of a border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — if necessary by keeping the whole of Britain inside of the EU’s customs union and in compliance with its rules, regulations and tariffs.

In approving the amendment demanding “alternative arrangements,” the parliament did not offer any specific proposals. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May, who supported the amendment, has hailed it as evidence that she can now deliver a majority in parliament in support of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement — provided the EU agrees to change the backstop.

In an op-ed in the Telegraph on Sunday, May vowed to “battle” in Brussels and said she would confront the EU armed with “new ideas.” But May, too, has not put forward any specific proposals other than two ideas that the EU has flatly rejected: putting a time limit on the backstop or adding a clause allowing Britain to withdraw from it.

Brexit Secretary Barclay also made reference to “time limits” and “exit clauses,” but also suggested there could be solutions “in terms of technology.”

The EU has grown increasingly frustrated that the U.K. seems insistent on revisiting questions that were discussed extensively at the negotiation table before the 585-page withdrawal treaty was agreed in November. And in recent days, Weyand has led the effort to squash some of what Brussels regards as “magical thinking” on the British side.

One expert quoted by the BBC, David Henig of the UK Trade Policy Project think tank, reinforced Weyand’s view that no technological solution, such as a satellite system monitoring border crossings, would be ready anytime soon.

“Theoretically, I believe it could be done,” Henig told the BBC. “However, it would require huge amounts of trust and money. What happens if a lorry driver doesn’t register? And in any event, it certainly couldn’t be delivered in the next few years.”


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Major retailers warn of empty shelves under no-deal Brexit

Chains including Sainsbury’s and KFC said they are ‘extremely concerned’ about impact on customers.

Leading U.K. retailers on Monday warned MPs that a no-deal Brexit would jeopardize food security in the country, leading to empty shelves and increased prices.

“We are extremely concerned that our customers will be among the first to experience the realities of a no-deal Brexit,” said the letter sent by the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and signed by executives of chains including Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury’s, KFC and Waitrose.

The warning comes ahead of debate and vote in the House of Commons Tuesday on amendments to a motion on Theresa May’s Brexit plan.

The BRC said there would be “significant risks” to the choice, quality and shelf life of food products due to things like higher transport costs, should the U.K. crash out of the EU without a deal on March 29.

The letter also predicts price increases should the U.K. revert to World Trade Organization rules and said it is now difficult to stockpile any more products because “all frozen and chilled storage is already being used and there is very little general warehousing space available in the U.K.”

The BRC wrote that the British parliament should “urgently” work to “find a solution that avoids the shock of a no-deal Brexit … and removes these risks for U.K. consumers.”


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The great British Brexit stockpile

From airplane food to car parts, companies are hoarding goods to prepare for a no-deal Brexit.

With the prospect of crashing out of the EU looming, the U.K. is battening down the hatches.

Companies are stockpiling food, medicine and car parts — but they’re running out of space to store it all.

Tesco, Britain’s largest supermarket, has rented an emergency supply of refrigerated units to mitigate any chaos in the event of a disorderly Brexit. Marks & Spencer has begun stockpiling non-perishable goods. Pharmaceutical giants, meanwhile, have secured additional U.K. warehouse space for medicines and vaccines that require cold storage. And automakers like BMW are frantically looking to store components.

In all, warehouse space is already 75 percent full, according to data from the UK Warehousing Association, whose members have roughly 9.3 million square meters of space nationwide.

“We are facing a ‘perfect storm’ in the warehousing and logistics industry, with little speculative build in the pipeline [and] urban development land earmarked for residential but not for the warehousing required to fulfill rising consumer demand,” UKWA said in a statement. In the last quarter of 2018, 85 percent of UKWA’s members received Brexit-related inquiries.

“There is a little bit of a worry that if you talk about it too much, you might create the problem you are trying to avoid” — Retail industry official

Whether it’s supermarkets, drugmakers or car manufacturers, it’s hard to find a segment of British industry that is not undergoing a costly process of contingency planning, especially now that U.K. lawmakers have rejected Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

“Retailers are planning ahead to meet consumer demand in all eventualities. Where it is feasible, given the nature of the product and available storage space, they are doing the prudent thing and increasing some stock,” said Andrew Opie, director of food and sustainability at the British Retail Consortium, whose members include the Sainsbury’s, Asda and Tesco supermarket chains.

Although the stockpiling of dry goods such as tinned tuna, baked beans and pasta is possible, Opie said perishable produce such as fruit, vegetables, fresh fish and meat “cannot be stored for any prolonged length of time.”

Marks & Spencer declined to specify its stockpiling plans, and Asda did not reply to questions. Tesco declined to comment but pointed to comments made by its chief executive, Dave Lewis, on January 10, when he told reporters Tesco had “sat down with each individual supplier partner and decided what, if any, is the need for stock and where that is best to most appropriately [be] kept and maintained.”

Shoppers walk past a Marks & Spencer shop on Oxford Street in central London | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

As the March 29 deadline approaches and May looks to Brussels to make changes to the so-called Irish backstop — which is designed as a fail-safe mechanism to avoid the need for a hard border on the island in all circumstances — companies like Gate Gourmet, which supplies 20 airlines at 10 airports in the U.K., have begun stockpiling frozen entrées, pizzas, dried snacks and sandwiches at warehouses in Peterborough and London to ensure passengers will stay fed, a company spokesperson said.

Gate Gourmet produces most of its meals in Germany and Spain and fears any holdup at the British border could disrupt its business model.

Panic fears

Two industry officials in the retail sector, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said supermarkets are extremely reluctant to talk about finer details or the scale of their contingency planning for fear of sparking a bout of panic buying. Worries among the public about possible shortages have prompted the creation of Brexit “prepper” Facebook groups, while manufacturer Emergency Food Storage is selling so-called Brexit Boxes for £295, containing freeze-dried meals, a water filter and a fire starter.

“There is a little bit of a worry that if you talk about it too much, you might create the problem you are trying to avoid,” one of the industry officials said, adding that some supermarkets have studied which products would be hit hardest by tariffs in the event of a disorderly Brexit and have begun prioritizing those items.

Many retailers are also frustrated about having to invest more in storage facilities when a Brexit deal could still be negotiated before March 29, the two officials said, noting that the cost of warehouse space has risen markedly of late as fears of a no-deal rise.

Very little can be done to stockpile fresh produce though. Strawberries, for example, can be irradiated — a technique already deployed in Belgium — and apples can be stored in a dark, cool room with high levels of carbon dioxide as a way of keeping the fruit fresh for months on end. But the vast majority of fresh items like cheese and meat will simply perish if held up at the border due to customs controls.

“We are looking for additional [warehouse] space but in the end, it’s not possible” — Stephan Freismuth, BMW customs manager

“The whole point in ‘just in time delivery’ is that you don’t have to put aside cash to store goods,” said Neil McMillan, director of political affairs and trade at EuroCommerce, a lobby organization for the retail sector. “The scale of movement across the Channel is just immense. If fresh veg is stuck for even a couple of days, it’s off by the time it comes across.”

There are similar limitations for automakers.

BMW Customs Manager Stephan Freismuth said that stockpiling could be achieved for a matter of days. Anything longer would require building “the highest building in the world.”

“We are looking for additional [warehouse] space but in the end, it’s not possible. We are producing ‘just in time,’ and just in sequence,” Freismuth said, noting that BMW in the U.K. imports about €2 billion worth of car parts from the EU every year, or double the amount it sources from inside the country.

Carmakers such as Nissan, Toyota and Honda face similar problems as hundreds of trucks carry components into the U.K. on a daily basis to snap into just-in-time supply chains at plants across the country.

In the pharmaceutical sector, U.K. Health Secretary Matt Hancock is working to ensure Britain is prepared for a no-deal Brexit. According to the Association of the British Pharmaceutical Industry, AstraZeneca has increased the number of finished medicines available to pharmacies and hospitals in both the U.K. and EU by 20 percent as a response to the risks of no deal.

British Health Secretary Matt Hancock | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

It has also spent £40 million preparing for a no-deal Brexit, including building labs in Sweden to duplicate product testing.

The French pharmaceutical giant Sanofi has secured additional U.K. warehouse space for medicines and vaccines that require cold storage and is also moving some manufacturing operations from the U.K. to elsewhere on the Continent.

Don’t speak out

Aside from being worried about the possibility of a panic if they disclose too much about their plans, companies are also limited in what they can say publicly. The British government has used non-disclosure agreements to prevent organizations and businesses from revealing information about Brexit-related stockpiling.

Over the last few weeks, Labour MP Rushanara Ali has questioned the government over its use of non-disclosure agreements, which prevent organizations and businesses from revealing any information related to contingency plans drawn up by government departments in no-deal Brexit preparations.

Following her inquiries, the government admitted the Department of Health and Social Care has used 26 non-disclosure agreements to restrict what businesses and organizations could say publicly.

Nissan’s production plant in Sunderland, England | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“It is unacceptable that the government continues to pursue a policy of silencing businesses and industry from speaking out about the disastrous implications of a no-deal Brexit,” she told POLITICO.

“By effectively ‘gagging’ these organizations, these secretive agreements are preventing essential information from being shared, are undermining transparency, and are hampering businesses’ ability to speak out.”

When asked by POLITICO, a U.K. health department spokesperson said that signing non-disclosure agreements allows the department to “talk to the industry in confidence prior to making public statements and issuing advice. This means that when we go out to the whole industry we can be confident that any requests of them are clear, appropriate and deliverable.

“As part of any standard contract, in government or the private sector, we use these clauses to protect the commercial interests of government and its suppliers in a reasonable way.”

Helen Collis contributed reporting.

Dublin rejects idea of alternative deal for Irish border post Brexit

Ireland’s deputy prime minister insists country is committed to Brexit withdrawal agreement in full.

Ireland Sunday rejected the idea of negotiating a bilateral agreement with the U.K. as an alternative to the so-called backstop mechanism for avoiding a hard border with Northern Ireland after Brexit.

“We remain united [and] focused on protecting Ireland,” Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney wrote on Twitter. “That includes continued support for the EU/UK agreed [Withdrawal Agreement] in full, including the Backstop as negotiated.”

The Sunday Times had reported that British Prime Minister Theresa May was planning to try to strike such a deal with Ireland to avoid border checks without relying on the backstop, which many within her Conservative party reject.

A No. 10 Downing Street official told POLITICO in response to the report that “it is not something we recognize.”

A spokesman for the Irish government told the Financial Times that “Ireland negotiates as part of the group of 27 European nations.”

Annabelle Dickson contributed reporting.


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Nicky Morgan: I won’t support a second referendum – even if the Government does. Here’s why.

At the heart of the disagreement between “People’s Vote” campaigners and the Norway Plus supporters is whether the result of the 2016 Referendum is accepted or not.

Nicky Morgan is Chair of the Treasury Select Committee, a former Education Secretary, and MP for Loughborough.

I warned in a previously on this site that, if Theresa May’s draft Withdrawal Agreement is voted down, the very people who so desperately want Brexit to happen to may instead secure the very outcome they don’t want – a second referendum with ‘Remain’ as an option on the ballot paper.

There is no majority in the Commons for a second referendum, as Chuka Umunna admitted yesterday. That could begin to change if the Labour Party’s official position changed to backing a second vote. But it can only be guaranteed with support from some Conservative MPs.

I’ve been clear about my support for a Norway Plus option, and I firmly believe that a cross party consensus can be built around access to the Single Market and a customs union. Tomorrow on this website, Nick Boles will set out why the People’s Vote campaign has got it so wrong about Norway Plus. But today, I want to explain why I, a Conservative MP and former Remain campaigner, will not support a second referendum, even if it becomes official Government policy.

At its heart, the battle between a second referendum, headed by the “People’s Vote” campaign, and the Norway Plus option is about whether the result of the 2016 Referendum is accepted or not.

The main aim for those behind the People’s Vote campaign is to overturn the referendum result so that the UK remains in the EU. As one of my Conservative friends told me, having said two years ago that they very reluctantly had decided to accept the result, they now don’t want the UK to leave the EU, and see a second referendum as the way to achieve this objective.

By contrast, those of us supporting Norway Plus accept that 17.4 million people were given the right to vote as they wanted and to expect the result of that vote to be respected. But just because someone has decided to move to a new house doesn’t mean that they want to leave the neighbourhood, and the mandate from the 2016 vote is to leave the EU.  It didn’t determine what the shape of the Brexit deal should be.

Those backing the People’s Vote campaign include some master media spinners and PR men. We now see a steady stream of selective polling and information being put out: Labour will fall behind the Liberal Democrats if they work with the Government on Brexit, it is claimed; Scottish Conservatives are apparently ready to back a second referendum; misinformation about the Norway option was provided in a document which Adrian Yalland has now pulled apart; Oliver Letwin and I are working on a second referendum plan, and that the Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff is also working on a way to deliver one. All of these tactics are designed to bounce people into backing a second referendum.

At my supermarket surgery on Friday, constituents who were on both sides of the Brexit debate agreed that, if a second referendum is held, they will never vote again – in their view, what would be the point if they could never be confident that a majority vote would be implemented?

We live in a representative democracy which was long fought for. Indeed, it is only a hundred years since 50 per cent of the population were allowed to become MPs. As we’ve found out over the past two years, referendums cut across our representative democracy in a way which is deeply undermining. I have been told too often about the “will of the people” or “we’re not interested in your view, just do what you’ve been instructed to do”. Such sentiments just don’t fit with how elected representatives should conduct themselves.

This complex national situation, which is not yet a crisis but could become one if a ‘no deal’ Brexit unfolds, requires MPs to do our duty and reach a solution in the Commons, not abdicate our responsibility because we can’t see a way to resolve things.

We need to vote on the Withdrawal Agreement soon – much sooner than 14th January – and, if the vote is lost for the Government, then we will need a cross party group of MPs to work together to reach a solution, which will be likely to be based on the Norway option, under which the UK would cease to be a member of the EU but we would avoid crashing our economy.

I sincerely hope that Cabinet ministers realise that such a solution is possible. In 2016, I saw my Party rushing to identify a party leadership candidate who they thought would be a safe pair of hands and find a way through the demands of Brexit. That isn’t quite the way it has turned out. So, this time, let’s try an alternative approach in which we all accept responsibility for our part in this Brexit saga and for reaching a conclusion which can be supported by a majority of MPs. If Parliament really can’t sort this out then, in the words of a constituent: “what are you all there for?” Good question.

Shailesh Vara: This Better Deal would solve the backstop problem

Our plan is supported by remainers like me, by leavers such as David Davis and Dominic Raab and, crucially, by the DUP.

Shailesh Vara is a former Northern Ireland Minister, and is MP for North West Cambridgeshire.

I voted to remain in the EUU referendum, but I believe the largest ever public mandate should be respected. Parliament should deliver what the people wanted and that is to leave the European Union. In so doing, it is important that we get the very best deal possible.

The current Withdrawal Agreement is clearly unsatisfactory, and that is why I resigned from my ministerial post in the Northern Ireland Office. The bedrock of dissent has been about the backstop.

It strikes at our nation’s soul and imperils our Union by treating Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK. If we signed up to it, we would be trapped under the thumb of the EU as its satellite, obeying its laws without a say, unless the EU and its members gave permission for us to leave.

The backstop would place the UK in a “single customs territory”, causing two fundamental problems for our post-Brexit trading relationships. 

First, it would stop us from being able to strike trade deals with non-EU countries, as it would bar us from controlling our tariffs and regulations. Without control in these areas, we would be useless to any prospective trading partner.

Second, with regard to the UK-EU trading relationship, the backstop would create a climate which lends itself to continued EU belligerence. The EU would have no incentive to make concessions in future trade negotiations. 

Once member states have the ability to wield the threat of plunging us into the backstop – and keeping us there indefinitely – we will have no alternative but to make concessions we don’t want to. The Spanish could use Gibraltar as a bargaining chip and the French could demand continued access by EU boats to UK fishing waters.  We can’t possibly let the backstop hold our future trade talks hostage in this way.

So we need a new approach – A Better Deal – and that what’s been published by a team of legal and customs experts. It is supported by remainers like me, by leavers such as David Davis and Dominic Raab and crucially, the DUP. It doesn’t throw out the Prime Minister’s plan. Indeed, it retains the vast majority of the draft Withdrawal Agreement, whilst identifying and removing the poison pills that have prevented it from finding cross-party support.

A Better Deal provides the Government with an alternative vision to present to Brussels.  It is likely to command support in Parliament, closely resembles the offer made by the EU itself last March and honours the referendum result.

Our proposal would restore – rather than destroy – the UK’s leverage for future trade talks with the EU. It safeguards the integrity of the United Kingdom, since it doesn’t treat Northern Ireland differently to the rest of the UK, and it would allow us to be a credible trade partner for third countries after 29th March 2019.

A Better Deal bins the divisive and ill-thought-through Northern Ireland Protocol and replaces it with an extendable backstop. The new backstop would allow us to control our own tariff schedules and regulations – so it’s not an inherently negative situation for the UK to be in. 

In fact, some may even argue that under our proposal the backstop becomes a “front stop” – and for that reason, no EU country could use it to cajole us into having to agree to a set of appalling terms from Brussels which would let British consumers and businesses down.

The new backstop would provide for tariff-free trade in goods; it would bring about regulatory cooperation between us and the EU as well as regulatory recognition based on “deemed equivalence” – making use of the unique fact that our regulations will be identical on day one of Brexit.

This new and reformed backstop include an agreement to deploy advanced customs and trade facilitation measures, including any specific measures necessary for the Northern Ireland/Ireland border, in addition to normal, free trade agreement-style level playing field provisions on labour, the environment, competition and state aid – unlike the hugely one-sided commitments in the Withdrawal Agreement.  And importantly, it will include a commitment by all parties not to place infrastructure on the border – nobody wants to see that.

Brussels wants to do a deal with us. They offered us a free trade deal back in March, and I suspect that the EU negotiators have been surprised at our inability to grab what is on offer. 

We have a chance to put our future prosperity in our hands as we become a great, self-governing, free trading nation once again. The proposals in A Better Deal will, I believe, meet with the approval of many of my colleagues in Parliament as well as the public. It stays loyal to the Belfast Agreement, avoids a hard border and allows us to leave the arrangement, should we wish to do so. The UK is crying out for a better deal.  Let’s make sure we deliver it.