Monday

21st Jan 2019

UK casts doubt on EU deal in 'bizarre' twist

Britain has cast doubt on the binding nature of an 11th-hour EU deal on the Irish border and on its Brexit fee.

David Davis, the British Brexit minister, called the deal a "statement of intent" that was "conditional" on getting a good trade treaty in remarks on the BBC on Sunday (10 December).

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The UK had agreed, last Friday, that there would be no hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, but Davis said: "This was a statement of intent more than anything else … much more than a legally-enforceable thing."

The UK had also agreed to pay up to €55 billion for past EU commitments, but Davis said: "It is conditional on getting an implementation period. Conditional on a trade outcome. No deal means that we won't be paying the money."

Friday's agreement, clinched after a dramatic dawn flight to Brussels by British prime minister Theresa May, was meant to pave the way for EU leaders, at a summit this week, to agree to move to phase two of talks - on the post-Brexit transition period and on trade.

Davis' remarks prompted an immediate outcry from Ireland.

"Both Ireland and the EU will be holding the UK to the phase one agreement," the Irish government said in a statement.

It cited chapter and verse of Friday's accord, which stated: "The commitments and principles ... are made and must be upheld in all circumstances, irrespective of the nature of any future agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom".

"Why would there be an agreement, a set of principled agreements, in order to get to phase two, if they weren't going to be held up? That just sounds bizarre to me," Joe McHugh, the Irish government's chief whip, told the RTE broadcaster.

But when May speaks to MPs in parliament on Monday, she also plans to say the deal is less than iron-clad.

"There is, I believe, a new sense of optimism now in the talks and I fully hope and expect that we will confirm the arrangements I have set out today in the European Council later this week," she plans to say, according to notes circulated by Downing Street on Sunday.

"Of course, nothing is agreed until everything is agreed," she also plans to say.

'Torn up tomorrow'

The view was echoed by other MPs in May's ruling Conservative party - which depends on 10 MPs from the hardline Democratic Unionist Party in Northern Ireland for its majority.

"All this can be torn up tomorrow, because 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed'. This [Friday's deal] is in effect an indicative text, whose purpose is to get us to the next phase of discussions," Iain Duncan Smith, a former Conservative Party leader, wrote in The Telegraph, a British newspaper.

Michael Gove, a senior cabinet member, went further.

He said, also in The Telegraph, that British voters would be able to change the terms of the final Brexit deal in future.

"The British people will be in control. By the time of the next election, EU law and any new treaty with the EU will cease to have primacy or direct effect in UK law," he said.

"If the British people dislike the arrangement that we have negotiated with the EU, the agreement will allow a future government to diverge."

Optimism

May's statement to MPs is to add she wants to "move on to building the bold new economic and security relationships [with the EU] that can underpin the new deep and special partnership we all want to see".

Davis also told the BBC that he envisaged phase two talks to centre on a "Canada-plus plus plus" trade deal for the UK, referring to an EU-Canada free trade treaty.

"What we want is a bespoke outcome," he said.

"We'll probably start with the best of Canada, the best of Japan and the best of South Korea [trade deals] and then add to that the bits that are missing, which is services," he added.

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