UK wins Brexit transition deal in return for Irish vow

Both Leo Varadkar and Theresa May are committed to keeping a free flow of people and goods over the intra-Irish border without returning to checkpoints, as during the three decades of violence in Northern Ireland. (Reuters)
Updated 19 March 2018
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UK wins Brexit transition deal in return for Irish vow

BRUSSELS: Britain and the European Union agreed on Monday to a transition period to avoid a “cliff edge” Brexit next year — though only after London accepted a potential solution for the border with the Irish Republic that may face stiff opposition at home.
The pound surged on confirmation that Britain would remain effectively a non-voting EU member for 21 months until the end of 2020. Some business leaders, however, echoed a warning from EU negotiator Michel Barnier that the deal is legally binding only if London agrees the whole withdrawal treaty by next March.
That means solving outstanding issues, notably how to avoid a “hard border” that could disrupt peace in Northern Ireland. Britain says an EU-UK free trade deal to be sealed by 2021 can do that. But Dublin insists the Brexit treaty must lock in a “backstop” arrangement in case that future pact does not work.
Both sides are committed to keeping a free flow of people and goods over the intra-Irish border without returning to checkpoints, as during the three decades of violence in Northern Ireland. However, finding a practical solution for any customs checks needed post-Brexit has proved elusive so far.
The dispute with Ireland had threatened to derail May’s hopes of a formal political endorsement of the transition deal by EU leaders when they meet in Brussels on Friday. A weekend of intensive talks, however, has broken the deadlock — for now.
Prime Minister Theresa May, who relies on pro-British Northern Ireland members of parliament to pass her Brexit legislation, rejected a fallback proposed by Brussels three weeks ago. She said an EU offer to keep Northern Ireland under EU trade rules would isolate the province from the mainland.
However, her Brexit Secretary David Davis, in Brussels, has now signed up to following similar principles as negotiators resume work to find an “operational” compromise — a situation Dublin said it was happy to accept as it bound London in to not “backsliding” on pledges May had made on the issue in December.
“We agree on the need to include legal text detailing the ‘backstop’ solution for the border,” Davis told a news conference with Barnier. “But it remains our intention to achieve a partnership that is so close as to not require specific measures in relation to Northern Ireland.”
The question will remain as to whether negotiations on the future trade partnership between Britain and the EU, which are expected to start only next month after EU leaders endorse Barnier’s negotiating guidelines on Friday, can produce results — and quickly enough to avoid having language in the withdrawal treaty that Britain, and May’s Belfast allies, cannot accept.
 

A decisive step remains a step; we are not at the end of the road and there still remains a lot of work to be done, including on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Michel Barnier

Longer term, the transition deal may buy people time but business still faces a “cliff edge” of uncertainty come 2021.
Davis agreed with Barnier that Monday’s agreement was “decisive” and increased the odds on finding an orderly deal to avoid Europe’s second biggest economy simply crashing out of the bloc in just over a year. He hailed the certainty that the deals on the transition and other issues, including rights for expatriate citizens, would offer businesses and individuals.
However, Barnier warned: “A decisive step remains a step; we are not at the end of the road and there still remains a lot of work to be done, including on Ireland and Northern Ireland.”
Ireland has been anxiously making sure that the other 26 remaining EU states continue to back it over the border and did not give up the leverage over London that the transition deal offered without a clear new pledge from Britain on the backstop.
Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who met Barnier in Brussels before the announcements on Monday, said he was satisfied.
The two sides issued a new, 129-page draft withdrawal treaty that was awash with green highlighter denoting final agreement on large areas of the legal text, including transition.
The pound rose as much as 1 percent against the dollar to $1.4088, its strongest since Feb. 16.
Davis, who unlike May campaigned for Brexit, said he was pleased with EU agreement to let Britain negotiate and sign trade deals with other countries while remaining covered by EU common trade policy during the transition. Those deals would then take effect once Britain was free to do so in 2021.
He also welcomed wording that gives Britain some say in EU policy during the transition, notably on fishing quotas, and an ability to refuse to implement things it did not agree with — some of his Conservative party allies have complained that the transition deal would leave Britain a “vassal state” of the EU.
The Leave Means Leave campaign accused him of “caving in” on the Irish border. Brexit firebrand Nigel Farage said “Theresa the Appeaser” had “let people down again” by agreeing to EU demands to keep free immigration during the transition.
More troublingly for May’s prospects of steering the treaty through parliament, her own party’s leader in Scotland, fierce Brexit critic Ruth Davidson, said the transition was a bad deal — for letting the EU retain power over British fishing grounds.
The EU secured agreement that Britain would offer residence rights to EU citizens who arrive after Brexit but before 2021. However, Britain also clocked up some gains it had been pushing for.
The 27 other EU member states have remained closely aligned since negotiations began last year, though they have differing interests. Britain’s nearest neighbors, with most trade to lose from Brexit, have pushed for a quick transition deal to help their own businesses.
But many EU diplomats said they felt London had largely agreed to their terms on most issues because of May’s political imperative to get a transition deal that may calm the fears of businesses contemplating moving investments out of Britain.
One EU diplomat said: “The Brits have just given in on everything so big was their drive to get the transition.”


Britain’s opposition Labour backs new election over Brexit impasse

Updated 39 min 57 sec ago
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Britain’s opposition Labour backs new election over Brexit impasse

  • Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has so far resisted calls to back a ‘People’s Vote,’ or new referendum on the decision to quit the EU
  • Brexit minister Dominic Raab again ruled out a new election, describing the suggestion as ‘for the birds’
LIVERPOOL: Britain’s opposition Labour Party prefers a new election to a second referendum on Brexit, its leader said on Sunday, heaping pressure on Prime Minister Theresa May whose plans for a deal with the EU have hit an impasse.
Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn has so far resisted calls to back a “People’s Vote,” or new referendum on the decision to quit the EU.
But the political landscape has changed since May was ambushed by the European Union on Thursday over her plans for Brexit — the biggest shift in British policy for more than four decades.
With talk of a new election swirling after May’s “Chequers” plan was all but shredded at an EU summit in Austria last week and chances of Britain exiting the bloc without a deal rising, Labour is under pressure to start setting the Brexit agenda.
Corbyn, a veteran euroskeptic who in 1975 voted “No” to Britain’s membership of the then-European Community, said that while he would listen to a debate about any possible second vote on Britain’s membership, he preferred a snap election if May failed to get a deal that Labour could support in parliament.
“Our preference would be for a general election and we can then negotiate our future relationship with Europe but let’s see what comes out of conference,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, saying Labour was ready to vote against any deal.
“We would vote it down if it didn’t meet our tests in order to send the government, if it is still in office, straight back to the negotiating table and if there is a general election and we are in office we would go straight to the negotiating table.”
Corbyn’s close ally, Len McCluskey, leader of Britain’s biggest trade union Unite, told the BBC any such second referendum “shouldn’t be on: ‘do we want to go back into the European Union?’” as that had been answered in the 2016 referendum.
Britain is to exit the EU in March. After weeks of both sides making positive noises about prospects of clinching a divorce deal and their future trading relationship, the mood turned sour on Thursday in Salzburg, Austria, when the bloc’s leaders, one by one, came out to criticize May’s Chequers plans.
A tacit agreement to try to offer her some support before she heads to what is going to be a difficult annual conference of her governing Conservative Party later this month was broken by some British diplomatic missteps.
May says she will hold her nerve in the talks, pressing the EU to come up with an alternative proposal to her Chequers plan, named after the prime minister’s country residence where a deal was hashed out with her top ministers in July.
But the impasse with the EU has prompted some to predict an early election, with local media reporting that May’s team has begun contingency planning for a snap vote in November to save both Brexit and her job.
Brexit minister Dominic Raab again ruled out a new election, describing the suggestion as “for the birds.” He said Britain would not “flit from plan to plan like some sort of diplomatic butterfly.”
“We are going to be resolute about this,” Raab added.
While saying she will stick to her guns, May might have little chance but to change tack after a party conference where the deep divisions over Europe that have riven her Conservatives for decades will be in plain sight.
A senior pro-EU Conservative lawmaker, Nicky Morgan, said May would have to give ground on trade and customs arrangements to overcome the biggest obstacle to a withdrawal accord — the prevention of a hard border between the British province of Northern Ireland and Ireland, a member of the EU.
“I am not sure there is life left in Chequers,” Morgan, chair of parliament’s Treasury Select Committee and a former cabinet minister under May’s predecessor, told Sky News.
“We want to see a deal. The question I think that has to be answered now by the government, by the EU leaders, is what room for movement is there, how do we move on from where we ended up last week?”