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.


Ireland referendum could lift strict ban on abortion

A woman carries a placard as Ireland holds a referendum on liberalising abortion laws, in Dublin, Ireland, on Friday. (REUTERS)
Updated 4 min 33 sec ago
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Ireland referendum could lift strict ban on abortion

  • Exit polls says 68 percent of voters back change
  • The country's leaders support a "yes," an outcome that would repeal a 1983 constitutional amendment
DUBLIN: Ireland’s referendum Friday represented more than a vote on whether to end the country’s strict abortion ban. It was a battle for the very soul of a traditionally conservative Roman Catholic nation that has seen a wave of liberalization in recent years.
An Irish Times exit poll released Friday night projected a landslide victory for those who want to loosen abortion laws, but official results are not expected until Saturday afternoon.
The country’s leaders support a “yes,” an outcome that would repeal a 1983 constitutional amendment requiring authorities to treat a fetus and its mother as equals under the law. They called it a once-in-a-generation opportunity to liberalize some of Europe’s strictest abortion rules.
Voters went to the polls after a campaign that aroused deep emotions on both sides. For advocates of repeal, a “yes” vote would be a landmark in Irish women’s fight for equality and the right to control their own bodies. For opponents, it would be a betrayal of Ireland’s commitment to protect the unborn.
The vote also is a key indicator of Ireland’s trajectory, three years after the country voted to allow same-sex marriages and a year after its first openly gay prime minister took office.
The newspaper exit poll indicated overwhelming support for change. The survey by pollster Ipsos-MRBI says 68 percent of voters backed repeal of the ban and 32 percent opposed it. The pollster says it interviewed some 4,000 people and the survey had a margin of error of plus or minus 1.5 percentage points. The poll is only a prediction.
Theresa Sweeney, a repeal supporter, was one of the first to arrive at a church polling station in Dublin.
“I feel like I’ve waited all of my adult life to have a say on this,” she said.
Emma Leahy said her “yes” vote comes from her firm belief that everyone should be able to make their own choice when it comes to abortion.
“For Ireland, it’s hope for the future,” she said of the referendum. “Whether you agree or disagree, it shouldn’t be the government or anyone else making that decision.”
Vera Rooney voted against repeal.
“It is a hard decision but I just feel I don’t have the right to take life,” she said. “I think life is sacred and for that reason I had to vote no.”
The referendum will decide whether the eighth amendment of the constitution is repealed or stays in place.
The amendment requires authorities to equally protect the right to life of a mother and that of a fetus, from the moment of conception. That effectively bans all abortions in Ireland, except in cases when the woman’s life is at risk. Having an illegal abortion is punishable by up to 14 years in prison, and several thousand Irish women travel each year to get abortions in neighboring Britain.
If citizens vote in favor of repeal, new abortion laws will then be discussed in parliament. The government proposes that terminations be allowed during the first 12 weeks of pregnancy. Later abortions would be allowed in special cases.
Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, a doctor, voted in favor of repeal.
“Not taking anything for granted of course, but quietly confident,” he said, adding that the upside of a sunny day in Ireland is that people come out to vote.
Thousands of Irish people abroad traveled home to take part in the historic referendum, and supporters of repeal gathered at Dublin Airport to give arrivals an ecstatic welcome.
Some activists held a placard reading “Thank you for making the journey so other women don’t have to” — a reference to the way Irish women seeking abortions have had to leave the country to obtain them.
Tara Flynn, who 11 years ago flew to the Netherlands for an abortion, said she planned to vote “yes” to make sure future generations of women don’t endure what she did, with feelings of isolation and shame.
She said her vote would be one for solidarity and compassion, “a vote to say, I don’t send you away anymore.”
Campaigning was not allowed Friday, but Dublin was still filled with signs and banners urging citizens to vote “yes” or “no.” Many of the anti-abortion signs showed photographs of fetuses.
Voting has already taken place on Ireland’s remote islands so that paper ballots can be taken to the mainland and counted in time.
Letters to the editor published Friday in the Irish Independent newspaper contained several emotional arguments urging voters to reject the repeal movement.
“If we vote ‘yes’ every unborn, wanted and unwanted, will have zero rights,” wrote Frances Kelleher, from Killarney. “I do not believe the smart people of Ireland want this unrestricted, abortion-on-demand bill.”