Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category

Survivor, starring Theresa May

LONDON — British politics these days feels like a movie with just two scenes, replayed almost daily, as if in a less interesting sequel to Groundhog Day.

In the first scene, the media chattering class and the Tory set pummel, metaphorically mind you, Theresa May, declaring her Brexit strategy bonkers and her prime ministership walking dead or about to be dead.

In the second, the said cadaver-cum-politician emerges defiant and marches onward, as she has for the long past two years.

So it was in the last few days.

After she survived a summit of European leaders in Brussels, though without advancing negotiations, May returned home greeted by weekend papers full of doom-laden briefings from her own MPs predicting her demise within days, not weeks.

On Monday morning, the U.K.’s most popular daily newspaper, the Sun, went so far as to depict May as Frank Sinatra singing the opening lines to My Way under the headline: “May Way.”

Later that day, the British prime minister appeared before parliament and faced down internal critics of her Brexit strategy. The fun continues for May on Tuesday when she meets her Cabinet, many of whom also have deep reservations.

As much as the obituarists relish in predicting May’s demise, her approach has worked for this long for the one big reason: The Tories have no alternative to her approach to Brexit. At least for now.

May used her House of Commons statement on last week’s European Council meeting to remind MPs what drives her and underlining the competing interests — the referendum result, peace in Northern Ireland, the economy — that, she said, she must keep in delicate balance “every day in these negotiations.”

“And, if doing those things means I get difficult days in Brussels, then so be it. The Brexit talks are not about my interests. They are about the national interest,” she said.

Her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab reinforced the May-way-or-the-highway message, confirming to MPs that their vote on any deal the prime minister brings back from Brussels will be one that either endorses it or commits the U.K. to leaving the European Union with no deal at all.

A former Conservative prime minister, John Major, faced down Euroskeptic critics in a leadership election in 1995 with the words “back me or sack me.” That’s not what May said. But it’s what she meant.

Center may hold

In the run-up to her Monday post-summit update in the Commons, May had been the subject of fiercely critical briefings from MPs, with some using violent language.

The briefings — including one to the Sunday Times that May was facing “the moment when the knife gets heated, stuck in her front and twisted” — were condemned by all parties.

Former Brexit minister Steve Baker and erstwhile May critic — who earlier in the day called off a potential rebellion against the prime minister on key legislation later this week — called for the Conservative whip to be removed from any MPs who “directed violent language” at the prime minister.

Former Brexit Secretary Steve Baker | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Meanwhile, Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab confirmed the strategy that had become apparent in recent weeks, that the government wants parliament’s vote on any deal May brings back from Brussels to be either for that deal or for no deal — angering the Labour opposition and many Conservative soft Brexiteers who have pushed for a “meaningful vote” that would allow parliament to change the government’s Brexit strategy.

Raab, however, said it would be “highly unlikely if not impossible” for the government to return to the negotiating table with the EU whatever the outcome of the vote, and insisted that in any situation the U.K. would leave the bloc in March next year.

Among some MPs, at least, there are signs this strategy may have more support than is apparent.

“A lot of people are keeping their heads down,” one Tory MP said, who declined to speak on the record. “But more and more colleagues are concerned about the downsides of no deal,” he said.

The prime minister now hopes a large enough proportion of more moderate backbenchers calculate that it is not worth destroying the hope of some kind of deal if that risks the country crashing out with no deal whatsoever.

For Vicky Ford, a former MEP now Conservative MP, there are drawbacks to spending time discussing alternative Brexit strategies at this point.

“The bespoke solution which is the PM’s solution is the best solution for the U.K. because it is bespoke to the U.K. so let’s keep working on that,” Ford said.

Four more steps

May told MPs her four steps to a deal were to get a “legally binding” commitment to what she called “a temporary U.K.-EU joint customs territory” to replace the EU’s so-called backstop proposal of keeping Northern Ireland inside its customs union.

She said there had been a “substantial shift” in the EU’s position on this since the fractious Salzburg summit of EU leaders last month and Brussels was now “actively working” with the U.K. on a joint customs territory.

The second step was an “option” to extend the post-Brexit transition period, an idea that May floated at last week’s European Council. She described this as an “alternative to the backstop.”

“If at the end of 2020 our future relationship was not quite ready — the proposal is that the U.K. would be able to make a sovereign choice between the U.K.-wide customs backstop or a short extension of the implementation [transition] period,” May said.

The third step, which promises to be the most contentious, is to secure agreement that the backstop or the transition extension will not be indefinite, a particularly important concern of many Brexit-supporting MPs. While May has ruled out a concrete “time limit” to the backstop, the U.K. is seeking what it calls a “mechanism” to unilaterally exit the arrangement if it chooses to.

The EU, however, has called for an “all-weather” backstop.

May said her fourth and final step was to “ensure full continued access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the U.K. internal market.”

This commitment was welcomed by Baker, who on Monday withdrew amendments to legislation due before the House of Commons this week which had threatened to derail May’s backstop negotiation if passed.

Hundreds of thousands rally in UK for second Brexit referendum

Hundreds of thousands of people rallied in central London on Saturday to call for a new referendum on Brexit.

The People’s Vote campaign said an estimated 700,000 people turned out for the demonstration. The group argues that Prime Minister Theresa May is negotiating a bad deal with the EU and voters should have the final say on the outcome of the talks.

May has ruled out a second referendum, saying the result of the 2016 vote to leave the European Union should be respected. The opposition Labour Party has not ruled out supporting another referendum but its main leaders have been cool on the idea.

Labour’s London Mayor Sadiq Khan was among speakers who addressed the crowd, along with politicians from other major parties, the BBC reported. Celebrity speakers included actor Steve Coogan, chef Delia Smith and businesswoman Deborah Meaden.

“It’s time for this vital issue is be taken out of the hands of the politicians and returned to the British people,” Khan said.

UK’s Hunt urges Tories to unite behind PM in Brexit talks

British Foreign Minister Jeremy Hunt Friday urged a fractious Conservative party to unite behind Prime Minister Theresa May in the Brexit negotiations, noting the strength of unity among the other 27 EU countries.

“The one thing I would say to my colleagues is that the great strength of the EU in these negotiations is that the 27 EU nations have remained united. We now need to do the same behind Theresa May to maximise her negotiating leverage in Brussels and make sure she does come back with that deal that honours the letter and spirit of the [U.K.] referendum decision,” he told BBC Radio’s Today program.

Hunt also said that the EU had been more constructive in the Brexit talks since he controversially compared the bloc to the Soviet Union last month.

At the Conservative party annual conference in September, Hunt likened the EU to the old Soviet regime in seeking to punish Britain for wanting to leave the bloc.

Asked on Friday whether he now regretted his comments — which had riled EU leaders — Hunt said: “In the period since that speech, we have had a very different approach from the EU, a much more constructive approach that has led to the situation we’re in now where all but one or two issues have been resolved.”

He said his remarks had been part of “a very passionate argument that said the EU was set up to defend our freedoms against totalitarianism, so it was not appropriate for a club of free nations to take the attitude that someone that leaves should be punished.”

Read this next: Barnier says ‘not yet convinced’ Brexit deal will be done

Barnier says ‘not yet convinced’ Brexit deal will be done

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said 90 percent of the withdrawal arrangement had been agreed with the U.K., but the contentious Irish border issue could still scupper a deal.

In an interview Friday with France Inter radio, Barnier hesitated when asked if he thought a deal would definitely be reached. He then said: “I have no personal conviction on this subject because the political situation is extremely complex in the United Kingdom and I don’t know what decision [U.K. Prime Minister] Theresa May will make.”

“My conviction is that an agreement is necessary; I am not yet convinced that we’ll get one,” he said.

Barnier’s comments come the day after an EU leaders’ summit failed to make headway on the Irish border question, the major remaining sticking point in the negotiations.

“I am hoping for an agreement, I’m working towards it, but there is an extremely serious issue remaining, which is to guarantee that there will be no border in Ireland, because it’s a condition for peace,” Barnier said.

The Brexit discussions at the summit were dominated by talk of extending the transition period during which the U.K. would remain in the EU customs union and single market.

May said the idea to extend this “by a matter of months” would help ensure the so-called Irish backstop, which would keep Northern Ireland in the customs union, would never need to be used.

In Friday’s interview, Barnier only mentioned the transition period briefly, noting that it is due to last for 21 months after Britain leaves the EU on March 29, 2019, which indicates there has not yet been any concrete change on this.

On the general idea of Brexit, Barnier remained unimpressed. “There is no additional value to Brexit, it’s a negative negotiation. No one has been able to convince me of the value of Brexit, not even [UKIP MEP] Mr [Nigel] Farage, whom I met in my office at his request.”

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Theresa May told Irish PM Brexit backstop ‘can’t have time limit’

Theresa May told her Irish counterpart that the “backstop” agreement to avoid a hard border in Ireland “can’t have a time limit,” Ireland’s Europe minister said, apparently contradicting a statement the prime minister made to MPs on Monday.

Helen McEntee told POLITICO that the U.K. prime minister gave the assurance in a meeting with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar and herself at the European Council summit on Wednesday.

“I think reassuringly from our own meeting with the prime minister yesterday, she again reaffirmed her commitment to an Irish backstop — that it must be within the Withdrawal Agreement; that it must be legally operable; and that it can’t have a time limit,” she said.

Brexit talks are deadlocked over the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The U.K. and the EU agree the need for a legal guarantee — the backstop — to avoid a hard border in the event that the two sides cannot reach a permanent trading relationship that would resolve the problem.

However, May has insisted that the EU’s proposal — to keep Northern Ireland within the bloc’s customs territory — is unacceptable. She has said consistently that any backstop arrangement, were it to be needed, must be “temporary.”

Theresa May has rejected the EU’s proposal to keep Northern Ireland in its customs union | Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

For example, May told MPs in the House of Commons on Monday: “It must be the case, first, that the backstop should not need to come into force; secondly, that if it does, it must be temporary; and, thirdly, while I do not believe that this will be the case, that if the EU were not to cooperate on our future relationship, we must be able to ensure that we cannot be kept in this backstop arrangement indefinitely.”

Her comments to Varadkar and McEntee appear to contradict this demand for a time-limited backstop.

They will concern opponents of May’s Brexit strategy within her own party, who are concerned that the U.K.’s own backstop proposal — which would replicate many elements of the EU customs union — could become an indefinite arrangement.

The U.K.’s  proposal is for a “temporary customs arrangement” (TCA) with the EU, replicating most elements of the existing EU customs union and severely limiting the U.K.’s room for maneuver in trade negotiations with third countries.

Former British Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson is among the Brexiteers demanding deadline information regarding a “temporary customs arrangement” | Andy Rain/EPA

The EU has “engaged constructively” on the proposal, a senior U.K. government official said, but Brexiteers, including former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson, have demanded to know what the deadline of the TCA would be.

If the U.K. government has committed that the backstop “cannot have a time limit” then even if its TCA backstop proposal is ultimately approved by the EU, it risks being shot down by Conservative Brexiteers in parliament, who could argue that it risks an indefinite de facto customs union with the EU.

In the interview, McEntee said that negotiators have been “making progress” but insisted that any “customs shared space” is “very much associated with the future relationship.” The EU is insisting that its backstop proposal remain written into the legal Withdrawal Agreement, even if the TCA is proposed as part of the future relationship talks that will follow.

The U.K. on the other hand wants the TCA to be written into the Withdrawal Agreement as the legally binding backstop.

May’s official spokesman said Tuesday that the U.K. Cabinet has discussed “a mechanism to clearly define how that backstop will end,” raising the prospect that instead of a firm end-date, conditions or tests could be set that would have to be met before the backstop would cease to apply.

Downing Street did not respond to a request for comment.

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Brexit shrug from EU leaders as May offers nothing new

The October Brexit deadline yielded deadlock instead.

With negotiations over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU at an impasse, U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May arrived at what was supposed to be a climactic EU leaders’ summit with no new proposals to unlock the vexed Irish border question.

Her government is, though, now “ready to consider” the notion of a longer transition period — something May indicated in a 15-minute, pre-dinner address to EU27 leaders, a senior EU official said. That in itself is a remarkable turnaround after months of insisting that just under two years was sufficient amid Brexiteer angst that Britain could not tolerate being subject to EU laws (and financial demands) for a moment longer.

But it is unclear if this would help the negotiations or complicate them further by enflaming Brexiteers back home, and it does not solve the fundamental problem in the negotiations or bring a solution closer. In her brief presentation to leaders, and in a longer one-on-one meeting with Council President Donald Tusk, May tried to put a positive spin on recent events. She highlighted progress in hammering out sections of the Withdrawal Agreement on Gibraltar and on U.K. military bases in Cyprus.

“The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides” — Theresa May

“A deal is within reach,” she said, according to officials who were briefed on her presentation.

But after May herself rejected a tentative agreement reached by negotiators at technical level on Sunday, the general feeling among EU27 leaders was of disappointment, dejection and rising concern that the talks could well fail.

“No one shared her optimism,” a senior official said. “There was no new proposal.”

In the one-on-one meeting, which lasted about 45 minutes, Tusk “expressed regret that we are not further along,” an official said. “We hoped to be in a different place. The hope was we would have virtually an agreement that EU27 leaders could discuss, assess, and come back at a November summit to formulate and finalize.”

European Union leaders take part in a summit in Brussels on October 17, 2018 | Piroschka Van De Wouw/AFP via Getty Images

Instead, as May departed for the U.K. ambassador’s residence and leaders rode the elevators up to the 11th floor for a dinner of fried mushrooms and turbot fillet cooked in wheat beer, the conversation shifted to disaster preparedness and whether there was any point in formally scheduling a November leaders’ summit. In the end leaders concluded that right now, there isn’t.

“The EU27 leaders stand ready to convene a European Council, if and when the Union negotiator reports that decisive progress has been made. For now, EU27 is not planning to organize an extraordinary summit on Brexit in November,” an EU official said.

Full English

The October leaders’ summit was a target for completing the divorce accord from the very outset of negotiations, with officials in Brussels and London in rare agreement that it would be the safest result, leaving more than five full months to secure ratification in the U.K. and European parliaments.

In short, they failed. And the disappointment was palpable. Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė put it most plainly, noting that all leaders could do is hope for better results from the British side at the next meeting.

Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, was also less than effusive as he headed with the rest of the leaders for his chauffeur driven car. “I must admit honestly that a lot of what [Theresa May] told us was known to us,” he said, “There wasn’t much need for long discussion.” Angela Merkel canceled a press briefing that had been planned to follow the leaders’ discussion.

At dinner, which was capped off by a trio of sorbets — grape, pear and fig — leaders received an update and overall assessment of negotiations from their chief negotiator, Michel Barnier. That was followed by an update on no-deal preparedness by Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.

Throughout the day, EU leaders had said in response to reporters’ questions that they would be open to considering an extension of the 21-month transition period currently envisioned in the draft withdrawal treaty.

London is considering the idea, but even U.K. officials recognize that an extension of the standstill transition does not solve the fundamental problem in the divorce talks: how to prevent any recreation of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

“This doesn’t solve anything,” the U.K. official said. “Not a single thing. It still means the U.K. has to sign the Northern Ireland backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement.” That’s a reference to the EU’s demand that Northern Ireland remain within its customs territory unless something else can be worked out to prevent a hard border.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker | Aris Oikonomou/AFP via Getty Images

Political cost

Worse, it comes with a severe political cost: the delay, in many eyes, of any real Brexit. The U.K. would have to continue to abide by all EU rules, including freedom of movement, without any formal representation for Britain in Brussels and Strasbourg. An extension of a year would also come with a price tag of some £9 billion.

The very suggestion of remaining under the transition terms for longer risks inflaming opposition to May Brexit strategy within her own party. “Completely unacceptable,” said one senior Conservative backbencher in response to reports from the Brussels summit. “Doomed to fail.”

Tory Brexiteer MP Nadine Dorries called on May to quit “stalling” and “stand aside and let someone who can negotiate get on with it and deliver.”

The case in favor of a transition extension is that it would allow more time to reach a free trade agreement with the EU after Brexit Day in March next year, say three EU diplomats. That means that the Northern Ireland backstop — the legal mechanism to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland — is less likely to ever be needed.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar was firm that a transition extension was no alternative to the backstop, but acknowledged that it might just “reassure people that the backstop would never be activated.”

Privately, however, EU officials conceded they are growing worried.

But what no one could explain was how that would necessarily break the logjam over a proposed “backstop” for the Ireland-Northern Ireland border. The transition could last for a hundred years — the EU would still insist on its version of the backstop being written into the Withdrawal Agreement, and the U.K. would still find it unacceptable.

Concluding her pre-dinner speech, May said: “The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”

Privately, however, EU officials conceded they are growing worried. Brexit began as an internal fight among the Conservative Party, and British infighting continues to be a major obstacle toward May being able to cut a deal.

The longer the talks go on with no success, officials said, the more prospect of total failure grows.

Maïa de la Baume and Paul Taylor contributed reporting.

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May urges Brexit ‘courage’ — but EU hears nothing new

Theresa May told European leaders that both the U.K. and the EU need “courage, trust and leadership” in the final stages of Brexit negotiations.

Addressing leaders of the EU27 nations before their European Council summit dinner in Brussels Wednesday, May insisted she remains “confident” of a positive outcome despite failure to finalize a withdrawal agreement in time for this week’s summit.

Though there was warm rhetoric, EU leaders said they heard nothing new from the U.K. prime minister — despite a pre-summit appeal from European Council President Donald Tusk for May to bring “concrete” proposals to Brussels.

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani, who was also present for May’s pre-dinner address, said afterward that she did not offer “any substantial new element.”

Lithuanian President Dalia Grybauskaitė tweeted “Brexit dinner: negotiations not on the menu. Expecting full English breakfast at next meeting.”

Brexit talks stalled last week over the issue of the Irish backstop — a legal guarantee to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Despite agreement being reached on a backstop at technical level, the U.K. Cabinet remains opposed to the EU’s proposal of a backstop that would see Northern Ireland remain part of the EU’s customs territory, cutting it off from the rest of the U.K. The U.K. also wants guarantees that the backstop, if it comes into force, will not be indefinite.

According to a No. 10 Downing Street briefing, May told leaders: “We have shown we can do difficult deals together constructively. I remain confident of a good outcome.”

Concluding her speech, which lasted around 15 minutes, she said: “The last stage will need courage, trust and leadership on both sides.”

After the address, May left the summit as EU27 leaders continued to discuss Brexit at dinner. May instead dined at the U.K. ambassador’s residence, and will return as the summit resumes on Thursday, when Brexit is not on the agenda.

Earlier, May had called for the two sides to work “intensively over the next few days and weeks” toward a final deal. Tusk has in recent weeks raised the prospect of a special November summit to finalize a deal. U.K. officials said they remain open-minded about the specific timeline for talks, but insisted the U.K. “wants to get this wrapped up in the autumn.”

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