Sunday

5th Feb 2023

UK opposition MPs attack new Brexit deal

  • Future of Irish border remains at the heart of Brexit impasse (Photo: EUobserver)

British opposition MPs have begun to torpedo the latest Brexit deal with amendments that could delay or stop Britain from leaving the EU.

The first amendment - which passed by 322 votes against 306 in Westminster on Saturday (19 October) - delayed formal approval or rejection of the new Brexit deal until the government has put forward detailed legislation on the new arrangements.

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The amendment - put forward by Oliver Letwin, an independent MP - also forced Britain to ask the EU to delay Brexit from 31 October to 31 January if the new deal had not yet been approved by the end of this month.

The new deal - agreed last week - is to create a trade border in the Irish Sea, leaving Northern Ireland subject to most EU customs and VAT rules, but the rest of the UK out on its own.

But that was rejected by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in Northern Ireland.

And the DUP might now team up with the opposition Labour Party to introduce new amendments to the deal calling for the whole of the UK to stay in the EU customs union or for a second referendum.

"Certainly that [staying in the EU customs union] is one option we could look at," Jeffrey Donaldson, a senior DUP MP, told the BBC on Sunday.

"I say to the DUP ... if you want to work with us on this [the new Brexit deal] to improve the situation our door is open to that discussion," Keir Stramer, a senior Labour MP, said.

"Whether it's [British prime minister] Boris Johnson's bad deal or a better one which could be secured, it has got to go to a referendum up against remain," Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn also said.

For his part, Johnson has staked his political fate on leaving the EU and its customs union on 31 October with or without a deal in place.

The Letwin amendment saw him send a Brexit deadline extension letter to Brussels at the weekend.

But he did not sign it and he sent a second letter saying he did not really want the extension.

"I will not negotiate a delay with the EU," he also said in parliament.

His attempt to fulfil the letter of the Letwin law but not the substance of it was called "childlike" by Labour.

And the weekend's events put the future of Brexit in doubt just as EU leaders thought the saga had ended with last week's new deal on the Irish customs accord.

Doubt multiplies

British people voted by a narrow majority to leave the EU three years ago.

But British politicians have not been able to agree how to do it, prompting three failed votes on a Brexit deal, two delays of the original deadline, one snap election, and the fall of two prime ministers so far.

The mess has also sharpened political rhetoric and social divisions in Britain, with anti-Brexit protesters in London on Saturday forcing pro-Brexit MPs to seek police protection on their way in and out of parliament.

The next steps could see Johnson try to table another vote on his new deal on Monday.

But the parliament speaker might not allow that on grounds Johnson tried and failed to do it just two days ago.

If a second vote is held, but Labour/DUP amendments on a customs union or a second referendum go through, then Johnson might bin the amended new deal.

If Britain has no agreement on a new deal and Johnson does not really seek a Brexit extension as time runs out to 31 October, then he could lose power in a no-confidence vote or a snap election.

He might also face legal punishment in British courts.

Meanwhile, all the British ifs, buts, and maybes come amid questions on how Europe itself might react.

The 27 other EU leaders must agree by consensus to any amendments to the new Brexit deal or to an extension of the 31 October date.

The European Parliament must also approve the Brexit accord for it to pass.

Busy week

The situation is set to see British MPs, EU ambassadors, and MEPs on the EU parliament's Brexit steering group holding late night meetings in London, Brussels, and Strasbourg this week.

It is also likely to see intense telephone diplomacy between EU capitals leading to a potential new summit.

"The Irish government position has always been that an extension is preferable to a no-deal and I don't think that will change, but this has to be a decision that is a collective decision by the European Council," the Irish foreign minister, Simon Coveney, told Irish broadcaster RTE on Saturday.

But French president Emmanuel Macron sent a different message to Johnson in a phone call after the Letwin amendment got through.

"He [Macron] signalled a delay would be in no one's interest," a French official told the Reuters news agency the same day.

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