Brussels is on edge, but it has no intention of going back to the Brexit drawing board. Chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier told a meeting of EU27 ambassadors Friday morning that whatever political “difficulties” Theresa May is experiencing in London, the bloc has a “duty” to stand firm on its key Brexit red lines, according to EU diplomats present. For her part, May is standing firm on the deal in the face of a gale of criticism and is intent on pushing the deal to a vote in the House of Commons. But if political opponents in her own party succeed in forcing her to seek a better deal, there is no sign that any of the EU27 red lines will change.
We cannot “compromise” or engage in “cherry-picking” or “bargaining,” Barnier told ambassadors, referring to requests to reopen the draft deal that was agreed by the British Cabinet on Wednesday. He added that he expects “difficult negotiations” ahead. Barnier also expressed a desire to help the British government in its efforts to ratify the text in a vote of MPs. And he said that there could be room for movement on the EU side in specific areas, such as enhanced cooperation on phytosanitary regulations and so-called technical barriers to trade. It is a moment not for triumphalism, he said, but for “encouragement.”
The chief negotiator’s presentation at the more than two-hour meeting reflects a dilemma for Brussels. While EU countries want to help May get the deal through parliament, there is a reluctance at such a late stage to radically unpick the agreement — despite threats to May’s leadership and a series of ministerial resignations over the deal. Diplomats say that some tweaks might still be possible if they could make the difference between the deal succeeding or crashing, but the kind of radical overhaul proposed by Brexiteers such as former Brexit Secretary David Davis is simply not on the table. There is “no question” of that, German Chancellor Angela Merkel said Thursday. “If we renegotiate something it could be on very small details,” said a senior EU diplomat “[but] it will not be on the main issues.”
There is “no question” of radical overhaul of the deal, German Chancellor Angela Merkel
“Europeans are not scared, but very cautious, and everybody hopes the deal will be approved,” he added, saying that the first major challenge will be the tight timescale to consider the details of the deal before a hastily arranged EU leaders’ summit on November 25.
“Some of us will need to consult our MPs on the text, and make the necessary democratic deliberations in our countries,” the diplomat added. “All eyes are on London,” said another EU diplomat. “We see there are some turbulences.” Asked about the mood in Brussels, the diplomat said: “It’s a feeling of relief that at least there’s a text on the table.” A third diplomat added: “Everyone is committed to getting the ball over the line.” In any case, as Barnier said Wednesday, EU capitals feel that they have already given significant ground in the final stages of the talks. And not everyone is happy with all aspects of the final deal. “We had to accept compromises,” said the second diplomat. “There are some points that also make some EU members uncomfortable.” The diplomat cited the EU’s acceptance of an all-U.K. customs backstop — as an insurance measure to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland — and the decision to kick negotiations about fisheries access into the transition period that will immediately follow Brexit day in March next year. “It’s not clear, and it will affect millions of jobs,” said the senior EU diplomat. “There’s nothing precise.” Barnier was briefing ambassadors on the state of ongoing talks about the political declaration — the document that will accompany the 585-page Withdrawal Agreement. Only a cursory seven-page outline of that was published on Wednesday evening and the chief negotiator indicated that several issues are still in play.
On security matters including participation in EU agencies such as Europol and Eurojust he said, according to two EU diplomats, that the U.K. does still “not accept” the full ramifications of not being an EU member country. But Barnier added that both sides share the aim of close cooperation. And on mechanisms to ensure there is a level playing field between British and EU businesses after Brexit, EU ambassadors expressed reservations in the discussion following Barnier’s briefing. “Any regulatory gap is a serious issue,” said the senior diplomat, adding that the text “isn’t clear” on environmental and social measures. “The consequences are important because it could enhance any regulatory gap on major issues.” One country’s representative is also “worried” that the text offers too much to the U.K. on services.
Asked about whether she would fight a confidence vote, Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May swiped at her critics, saying her draft deal was in the national interest and she was determined to see it through.
“Leadership is about taking the right decisions, not the easy ones,” May told reporters. “As Prime Minister my job is to bring back a deal that delivers on the vote of the British people. I believe this is a deal which does deliver that, which is in the national interest and am I going to see this through? Yes.”
While May conceded that “uncomfortable decisions” have had to be made, and that she understood that some were unhappy with those compromises. But she underlined that her deal delivered what people voted for.
Today I also had a meeting at a European Commission,
Always a pleasure to talk to old colleagues.
Today I spoke about Trade and Customs Education at the CLECAT Freight Forwarders Forum 2018.
The conference was organized at my old workplace, World Customs Organization in Brussels.
Good networking and many old friends: great to be back at the WCO.
The statement on Future Relations says that in two specific areas, negotiations have been particularly challenging, and the agreement reached so far will require further work during the negotiations on the future relationship:
On trade in goods, the negotiators have agreed in principle the need for comprehensive arrangements creating a free trade area, combining deep regulatory and customs cooperation, building on the single customs territory provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement. Both sides wish to make the trading relationship as close as possible.
Exactly what balance of rights and obligations will be compatible with the integrity of the Union’s Single Market and Customs Union and the development of the United Kingdom’s independent trade policy will be the subject of the future relationship negotiations.
PM says ministers have agreed to support her plan after long and ‘impassioned’ debate tonight.
One step. Many steps to go.
Theresa May said she believed with “my head and my heart” that her Brexit deal was the best one for Britain, after securing the backing of her ministers for it during a five-hour cabinet meeting.
In a brief statement outside 10 Downing Street, the prime minister said her cabinet had taken a “collective” decision to press ahead with the deal – which she will then have to bring back to parliament for approval.
“This is a decision that was not taken lightly, but I believe it is firmly in the national interest,” May said, adding that her colleagues had had a “long, detailed and impassioned” debate.
“When you strip away the detail, this deal delivers on the vote of the referendum, takes back control of our money, our laws and our borders and ends free movement,” she said.
“There will be difficult days ahead, this deal will come under intense scrutiny and that is entirely as it should be and entirely understandable.
“Let me end by saying this: what I owe to this country is to make decisions in the national interest and I firmly believe that, with my head and my heart, this deal is in the best interest of our entire United Kingdom.”
Downing Street had concerns that some pro-Brexit ministers might walk out, rather than support a deal they fear cannot pass the House of Commons.
May held one-to-one meetings with key ministers, including Penny Mordaunt and Andrea Leadsom, on Tuesday night and Wednesday morning, in a bid to assuage their concerns that the UK could slide into a permanent customs union with the EU.
Scottish Conservatives, including the Scottish secretary, David Mundell, who attended the crunch meeting, had also sought assurances over fishing rights.
Rumours were swirling at Westminster on Wednesday night that some discontented pro-Brexit Conservative MPs could seek a vote of no confidence on Thursday by submitting a fresh flurry of letters to Sir Graham Brady, the chair of the backbench 1922 Committee.
If the total number of such letters reaches 48, Brady would have to announce a confidence vote. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the chair of the backbench European Research Group (ERG), said he was “not surprised” if colleagues sent letters, but “the ERG does not have a collective view”.
While all eyes have been on the cabinet’s reaction to the draft deal, it has also been met with expressions of serious concern among key member states, including France, which is expected to demand further concessions.
Brussels is expected to confirm that it will convene a special EU summit to sign off on the deal on 25 November, after EU ambassadors held their own lengthy meeting on Wednesday.
The final deal, to be put to MPs, will include the full text of the political declaration on Britain’s future trading relationship, some aspects of which have not yet been negotiated.
Cabinet ministers have only seen a seven-page outline of this political declaration, along with a document of more than 400 pages setting out the withdrawal agreement – effectively the divorce terms.
Several Brexiter ministers were unhappy about the terms of the deal. One senior leaver said it was “worse than expected”, while another said: “Several people are not in a happy place.”
However, May appeared to have secured the support of her cabinet for now, allowing her to press on with putting the agreement to MPs in a “meaningful vote”, likely to be held early next month.
The parliamentary arithmetic looks very tight. The DUP, whose 10 votes the Conservatives rely on for her majority, rubbished the deal before it had even been published, with the party’s Brexit spokesman, Sammy Wilson, describing it as a “punishment beating”.
He told Sky News: “This is all about a punishment beating for the UK because they dared to vote to leave the EU. And unfortunately the prime minister has allowed that punishment beating to be administered. That punishment beating in my belief will damage the UK and damage the UK constitution.”
The DUP are wary of any arrangement that gives Northern Ireland a different status to the rest of the UK.
May’s brief statement followed an afternoon of confusion, with a plan to hold a full press conference hastily cancelled after MPs complained that it was unconstitutional for the prime minister to address journalists before she had come to parliament.
Downing Street had expected the meeting to be over within three hours, but as it overran, the Brexit secretary, Dominic Raab, cancelled plans to travel to Brussels to meet the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.
Earlier, at prime minister’s questions, where she faced hostile questions from Brexiters, May insisted: “We will not rerun the referendum, we will not renege on the decision of the British people, we will leave the customs union, we will leave the common fisheries policy, we will leave the common agricultural policy, and we will take back control of our money, laws and borders. We will deliver Brexit and the United Kingdom is leaving the European Union on 29 March 2019.”
She was also keen to stress that the backstop – the most contentious aspect of the agreement – was an “insurance policy”, which the government hoped not to use.
“There needs to be a backstop as an insurance policy, but neither side actually wants us to be in that backstop, because we want to bring the future relationship into place at the end of December 2020,” she said.
Source: The Guardian