May Day: British leader’s respite won’t end Brexit mess

British Prime Minister Theresa May arrives for an EU summit at the Europa building in Brussels. (AP)
Updated 13 December 2018
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May Day: British leader’s respite won’t end Brexit mess

  • May was in Brussels on Thursday, imploring European Union leaders help her sell the UK-EU divorce bill to a skeptical British Parliament
  • Britain’s road out of the EU has been anything but smooth as Britain heads for the Brexit ramp and the way ahead still looks bumpy

LONDON: Prime Minister Theresa May is safe, for now. She has survived a no-confidence vote engineered by her own Conservative Party, and can’t be challenged again for a year, but that has not brought Britain’s Brexit battle any closer to resolution.
May was in Brussels on Thursday, imploring European Union leaders help her sell the UK-EU divorce bill to a skeptical British Parliament.
UK lawmakers were supposed to approve the plan, painstakingly worked out by May and the European Union for Britain’s orderly departure from the 28-nation bloc, in a vote that had been scheduled for Tuesday, but May postponed it rather than face certain defeat.
With the EU insisting the withdrawal agreement can’t be reopened, May faces a struggle to win enough changes to assuage hostile British politicians.
Britain’s road out of the EU has been anything but smooth as Britain heads for the Brexit ramp and the way ahead still looks bumpy.
Britain joined the European Economic Community — now the EU — in 1973, but has long been an ambivalent member. The UK never adopted the euro as its currency, and British politicians have been cool to the bloc’s calls for ever-closer political union.
In 2013, then-Prime Minister David Cameron pledged to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership “to settle this European question” once and for all — and to silence the loud euroskeptic wing of the Conservative Party which had long clamored for a membership vote.
Cameron was confident voters would choose to remain in the EU, but on June 23, 2016, they voted by 52 percent to 48 percent to leave. Cameron resigned, leaving his successor, May, to deliver on voters’ decision. Last year, May triggered the two-year countdown to departure for March 29, 2019.
Every divorce involves paperwork. Britain can leave without an agreement, a so-called no-deal Brexit — but it won’t be pretty. Departure will tear up thousands of laws and rules stitched together over more than four decades, covering every aspect of British life and the economy.
If Britain and the EU can’t agree to new rules, there could be chaos. Planes would lose permission to fly, British motorists would find their driver’s licenses invalid on the continent, medicine supplies could run short. British officials have warned of gridlock at ports, the need to charter vessels to bring in essential goods and shortages of imported foodstuffs.
The Bank of England has warned that a worst-case “no deal” Brexit would plunge Britain into its worst recession for decades.
With compromises on both sides, Britain and the EU managed to reach agreement on many contentious issues. But one has proved intractable: the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, which will be the UK’s only land border with the EU after Brexit.
During Northern Ireland’s decades of violence, the border bristled with soldiers, customs posts, smugglers and paramilitaries. But since a 1998 peace accord, the border has become all but invisible. That’s helped by the fact that Britain and Ireland currently are both EU members, meaning goods and people can flow across the border with no need for customs checks.
Brexit could end all that, disrupting lives and businesses on both sides of the border and potentially undermining the peace process.
To avoid that, the withdrawal agreement includes a border guarantee, known as the “backstop.” It stipulates that if no other solution can be found, the UK will remain in a customs union with the EU after Brexit to avoid the need for a hard border. Both sides hope the backstop will never be needed: The agreement gives them until 2022 to reach a permanent new trade deal that could render it unnecessary.
But pro-Brexit British politicians hate the backstop, because Britain can’t get out of it unilaterally; it can only be ended by mutual agreement. So potentially it could endure indefinitely, binding the UK to EU customs regulations, unable to make new trade deals around the world.
Pro-EU lawmakers hate it too, because it leaves Britain subject to rules it has no say in making — an inferior position to remaining in the bloc, they say.
Not much. May says she is seeking “legal and political assurances” at this week’s summit that will satisfy Parliament’s concerns about the backstop. But EU leaders are adamant they will not re-open the legally binding, 585-page withdrawal agreement.
But politics is also about theatrics, and the EU may well offer Britain some sort of wording — a note, an addendum or a codicil — that “clarifies” issues around the backstop. It is possible the spectacle of May under siege from her own party will encourage EU leaders to offer slightly more generous terms to try to keep the process on track.
The British government says it plans to bring the deal, with whatever changes May achieves, back to Parliament for a vote before Jan 21. If it passes, it still must be approved by the European Parliament, but that is not expected to be a problem.
If it fails, Britain is in uncharted waters. Possible outcomes include a no-deal Brexit, a postponed Brexit, a second referendum on Brexit, or a reversal of the decision to leave the EU. All those options have supporters in Parliament, but it’s not clear whether there’s a majority for any of them.
And if May’s plan falls, it’s possible she will too — via a no-confidence vote in Parliament that would trigger a national election. Then it would fall to her successor to try to sort out Britain’s Brexit mess.


Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

Updated 14 min 19 sec ago
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Amid wall debate, pope visits Panama with migration in mind

  • The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities
  • Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy

VATICAN CITY: Pope Francis is looking to leave the sex abuse scandal buffeting his papacy behind as he heads to Central America amid a standoff over President Donald Trump’s promised wall at the US-Mexico border and a new caravan of migrants heading north.
History’s first Latin American pope, the son of Italian immigrants to Argentina, has made the plight of migrants and refugees a cornerstone of his papacy. He is also expected to offer words of encouragement to young people gathered in Panama for World Youth Day, the church’s once-every-three-year pep rally that aims to invigorate the next generation of Catholics in their faith.
Panama Archbishop Jose Domingo Ulloa said Francis’ message is likely to resonate with young Central Americans who see their only future free of violence and poverty in migrating to the US — “young people who often fall into the hands of drug traffickers and so many other realities that our young people face.”
The pope is expected to urge young people to create their own opportunities, while calling on governments do their share as well.
The visit is taking place as the US government remains partly shut down in a standoff between the Trump administration and Democrats over funding for Trump’s promised border wall.
Francis famously has called for “bridges, not walls.” After celebrating Mass in 2016 on the Mexican side of the US border, he denounced anyone who wants to build a wall to keep out migrants as “not Christian.”
Crowds are expected to be smaller than usual for this World Youth Day — only about 150,000 people had registered as of last week — but thousands more will certainly throng Francis’ main events, which include a vigil and a final Mass on Sunday. The Vatican conceded that the January date doesn’t suit school vacations in Europe or North America, both of which typically send huge numbers of pilgrims to World Youth Day gatherings.
Francis’ trip, the first in a year packed with foreign travel, comes at a critical moment in the papacy as the Catholic hierarchy globally is facing a crisis in credibility for covering up decades of cases of priests molesting young people.
The pope is expected to soon rule on the fate of former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick, the high-powered US archbishop accused of molesting minors and adults. And he is hosting church leaders at the Vatican next month on trying to chart a way forward for the global church.
Vatican spokesman Alessandro Gisotti said there were no plans for Francis to meet with abuse survivors in Panama. Central America hasn’t yet seen the explosion of sex abuse cases that have shattered trust in the Catholic hierarchy in Chile, the US and other parts of the world.
This is the first papal visit to Panama since St. John Paul II was there during a 1983 regional tour that famously included an unscheduled stop at the tomb of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. Romero had been gunned down by right-wing death squads three years earlier, at the start of El Salvador’s civil war, for having spoken out on behalf of the poor.
Salvadoran bishops had hoped Francis would follow suit and make a stop in El Salvador this time to pay his respects at Romero’s tomb since Francis canonized him in October. But the Vatican said a Salvador leg was never really in the cards.
Nevertheless, Gisotti said Romero would likely loom large at the Panama gathering, given he is such a point of reference for young Central American Catholics who grew up learning about his defense of the poor.
The Panama visit is also the first by a pope since the Vatican embassy played a crucial role during the 1989 US invasion of Panama, when dictator Manuel Noriega took refuge there and requested asylum on Christmas Eve after four days on the run trying to escape US troops.
Noriega eventually surrendered, bringing to an end one of the more unusual US military operations: It involved US troops blasting heavy metal and rock music — including Van Halen’s “Panama” — at the embassy to try to force Noriega out.
Noriega, a onetime US ally, eventually served a 17-year drug sentence in the United States. He died in 2017 after his final years were spent in a Panamanian prison for the murder of political opponents during his 1983-89 regime.