Tuesday

19th Feb 2019

May pushes defeated Brexit deal, offers no Plan B

  • Theresa May refused to rule out no-deal, and said she would not revoke the Article 50 withdrawal process to buy more time (Photo: Council of the European Union)

It was British prime minister Theresa May's opportunity to lay down an alternative plan for breaking the Brexit impasse, but there was no 'Plan B' as she decided to continue to push for concessions from the EU.

On Monday evening (21 January) May told the UK parliament that she will seek tweaks from Brussels to the backstop in the Brexit deal that are supposed to prevent checks on the Irish border.

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With only 66 days to go until the UK is forced to leave the EU by law on 29 March, the chance of a dramatic 'no-deal' scenario has thus increased, as May refused to rule out that the UK could leave the bloc without any agreement setting out the terms of divorce.

The withdrawal agreement negotiated with the EU for almost two years was dramatically voted down by MPs in a historic defeat last Tuesday. On Monday she also ruled out pulling the emergency brake on the Brexit process.

"No-deal will only be taken off the table by either revoking Article 50, which turns back the result of the referendum - the government will not do that - or by having a deal, and that is what we are trying to work out," May told MPs.

May also ruled out a second referendum, saying another vote would damage social cohesion by undermining faith in democracy.

The PM vowed to be "more flexible" with lawmakers in trying to agree on changes to the backstop, an insurance policy to ensure there will be no return to border checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

"I will then take the conclusions of those discussions back to the EU," May said, adding: "My focus continues to be on what is needed to secure the support of this house in favour of a Brexit deal with the EU."

May had tried to break the parliamentary deadlock by talking to other parties in the House of Commons, but opposition Labour refused her invitation to talk after she ruled out taking 'no-deal' off the table. May and opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn have accused each other of posturing.

Opposition lawmakers called on May to rule out no-deal Brexit, and called for a closer economic relationship with the EU under the customs union that would prevent tariffs between the UK and the bloc after the split.

But May is adamantly instead trying to convince the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party and hardcore pro-Brexit Conservatives to support the deal, who currently worry that the backstop could lock the UK in the EU's customs union indefinitely.

The EU has ruled out renegotiating the backstop but gave political assurances that the bloc either never intends to use it, or that it should end as soon as possible.

May's bet now is to convince the EU that UK lawmakers would vote for the Brexit deal, if only those changes were made to the backstop.

But May's massive defeat by 230 votes on the Brexit deal make that questionable to the EU.

MPs are due to debate and vote on May's proposal and amendments submitted by lawmakers on 29 January.

European foreign ministers again ruled out renegotiating, with Ireland's foreign minister Simon Coveney telling reporters there was no willingness from the EU's side to redraw the withdrawal agreement.

Polish slip?

However, comments by the Polish foreign minister created a stir, giving a slim hope to London that the EU's unity is finally unravelling.

Jacek Czaputowicz broke ranks with his EU colleagues on Monday and suggested that the problem could be solved by setting a five-year time limit on the backstop.

It is not the first time Polish diplomats have raised whether the Irish backstop is worth risking a no-deal Brexit, with EU state secretary Konrad Szymanksi sharing his concerns at a general affairs council last autumn.

May in her speech to MPs also announced that the UK will waive settled status fees for EU citizens, scrapping £65 [€74] cost even for those who have already paid.

Tusk indiscretion

Meanwhile, EU Council president Donald Tusk revealed how then British prime minister David Cameron thought his liberal coalition partners will stop the Brexit referendum.

Cameron told Tusk that he did not expect the referendum he called for to go ahead, as he did not foresee winning the 2015 elections outright, the council chief told an upcoming BBC show on Brexit.

Cameron first pledged an "in or out" referendum in 2013, while governing in coalition with the pro-EU Liberal Democrats in a bid to woo his own party's eurosceptic wing and push back against the UK Independence Party (UKIP).

However, Cameron's Conservatives won a clear majority in the 2015 election, and then Britain voted by 52 to 48 percent to leave in the 2016 referendum. Cameron quit after having lost the remain campaign.

"I asked David Cameron, 'Why did you decide on this referendum, this – it's so dangerous, so even stupid, you know,' and, he told me that the only reason was his own party," Tusk told the BBC.

"(He told me) he felt really safe, because he thought at the same time that there's no risk of a referendum because his coalition partner the Liberals would block this idea of a referendum," Tusk said.

"But then, surprisingly, he won and there was no coalition partner. So paradoxically David Cameron became the real victim of his own victory," Tusk added, describing the referendum as "the biggest mistake" of Cameron's life.

Cameron's former spokesman Craig Oliver said Tusk's comments were "completely wrong".

Cameron has repeatedly said he did not regret calling the referendum.

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