PM May says Britain will leave customs union, to offer Ireland backstop

Prime Minister Theresa May. (Reuters)
Updated 17 May 2018
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PM May says Britain will leave customs union, to offer Ireland backstop

  • The United Kingdom will be leaving the customs union as we’re leaving the European Union: May
  • May said the objectives were that Britain should have its own trade policy with the rest of the world, should have frictionless trade with the EU and that there be no hard border with EU member Ireland

SOFIA: Prime Minister Theresa May said on Thursday Britain would leave the EU customs union after Brexit but a source said London was considering a backstop plan that would apply the bloc’s external tariffs beyond December 2020.
Asked about reports that London would ask to stay in the European Union’s customs area beyond the end of a post-Brexit transition period in 2020, May denied she was “climbing down” on plans to leave.
“No. The United Kingdom will be leaving the customs union as we’re leaving the European Union. Of course, we will be negotiating future customs arrangements with the European Union and I’ve set three objectives,” May told reporters on the sidelines of an EU summit in the Bulgarian capital Sofia.
She said the objectives were that Britain should have its own trade policy with the rest of the world, should have frictionless trade with the EU and that there be no hard border with EU member Ireland.
In talks with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk, she reiterated her view that a backstop agreement put forward by Brussels to prevent a hard border was “unacceptable.”
“The prime minister said the UK would shortly put forward its own backstop proposal in relation to customs,” her spokeswoman said.
Earlier, the source, who is familiar with the discussions, said on condition of anonymity the government was trying to find a way to make the backstop arrangement more acceptable to Britain rather than seeking an extension of a transition period.
The source said Britain could apply the EU’s external tariffs for a limited period beyond December 2020 in the case of a delay in the implementation of any Brexit deal.
May’s spokeswoman said negotiations on the backstop arrangement were continuing, and that Britain did not want or expect to have to use it.
May has been struggling to unite her cabinet over the terms of Britain’s divorce with the EU, with a row over future customs arrangement dividing her government and all but stalling Brexit negotiations.
EU leaders meeting May in Sofia on Thursday were “in listening mode” and hoping for reassurances from her, said one official, before a formal summit in June when the sides want to mark another milestone in the negotiations.
That is needed to seal a final divorce deal in October, leaving the EU enough time to ratify it by Brexit day in March 2019.
Britain otherwise risks crashing out of the bloc, a scenario that could hurt the economy and disrupt people’s lives.

Under pressure
The EU says this schedule is coming under pressure as there has been not enough progress in the negotiations in recent months, most importantly on how to avoid physical controls on the border between the Irish Republic and the British province of Northern Ireland.
“It is an absolute red line for us that there could not be a hard border on Ireland,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told reporters in Sofia.
If no better ideas emerge, the bloc wants the backstop clause under which it would go on regulating trade in Northern Ireland after Brexit to prevent a hard border. Both sides fear a return of border controls could reignite the violence that afflicted Northern Ireland until a peace deal in the late 1990s.
“We have a text which is the Irish backstop ... and we need that to be part of the withdrawal agreement. And if it is not part of the withdrawal agreement, then there will be no withdrawal agreement,” Varadkar said.
Under such a scenario, Britain would not be given the adaptation period from next March to the end of 2020, but go straight into being out of the EU with little detail agreed on how to handle its ties with the bloc.
May has said as it stood in March, the EU’s backstop was unacceptable because it would cut off Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
The source said extending the use of EU tariffs was part of discussions to make the backstop arrangement more palatable to Britain, and could be triggered if there were a delay in the ratification of the Brexit deal or if there were problems introducing new technology at the border.
At home, May has to balance the demands of Brexit supporters against those ministers who want to keep the closest possible ties to the EU, and any hint that Britain could stay within the customs union has become a flashpoint.
The EU says that would be the best way to avoid a hard Irish border.
“If we are not making real substantial progress by June then we need to seriously question whether we are going to have a withdrawal agreement at all,” Varadkar said.


US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

Updated 20 January 2019
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US Senator Graham urges Trump to meet Pakistan PM Khan

  • US and Pakistan should have “strategic engagement”, not transactional relationship
  • The American senator sees a “unique opportunity” to change diplomatic direction of US-Pakistan ties

ISLAMABAD:  US Republican Senator Lindsey Graham said on Sunday President Donald Trump should meet Pakistani Prime Minister Imran Khan as soon as possible to reset long-difficult US relations with Pakistan and push for a peaceful settlement in Afghanistan.

The comments, which add to growing signs of improved relations between Islamabad and Washington, come amid efforts to press on with talks between the Taliban and the United States aimed at an agreement to end 17 years of war in Afghanistan.

"I've seen things change here and all in a positive direction," Graham, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has generally been a staunch supporter of Trump, told a news conference in Islamabad.

He said a meeting with Khan, who has declared strong support for a peace agreement in Afghanistan, would leave Trump "far more enthusiastic about the region than he is today".

"With Prime Minister Khan we have a unique opportunity to change our relationship," he said. A previously transactional relationship, based on rewards for services rendered, should be replaced by "strategic engagement", including a free trade agreement, he said.

US relations with Pakistan have long been dogged by suspicions that elements in the Pakistani establishment were aiding the Taliban, a charge Islamabad strongly denies. However, relations have appeared to improve in recent months amid efforts to push the Taliban towards a peace deal.

Trump, who has in the past argued for the United States to withdraw from Afghanistan, has made it clear he wants to see a peace accord reached rapidly although the Taliban have so far refused to talk directly with the Afghan government.

Graham's trip to Pakistan coincided with a visit by Zalmay Khalilzad, the US special envoy for peace in Afghanistan, and top military commanders including General Joseph Votel, commander of US Central Command.

Khalilzad left Islamabad without announcing a new date for talks with Taliban representatives, who have refused further meetings until the US side agrees to discuss a timetable for withdrawing its forces.

The uncertainty has been increased by reports that Trump is prepared to order more than 5,000 US troops out of Afghanistan, a move that would represent a sharp change in course from Washington's previous policy of stepping up military action against the Taliban.

With Afghan forces suffering thousands of casualties a year and struggling to hold back the Taliban insurgency, the reports have caused alarm in Kabul, prompting many close to the government to question the US commitment to Afghanistan.

Asked whether there had been confusion over the US message, Graham, who has called for a Senate hearing on Trump's plans to withdraw US troops from Syria and Afghanistan, said "without a doubt" but added that he did not believe Washington would stand by and allow a Taliban victory.

"The world's not going to let the Taliban take Afghanistan over by force of arms. That would be unconscionable," he told Reuters. "Any president who let that happen would go down in history very poorly."