Archive for the ‘British politics’ Category

Anatomy of a Brexit deal

LONDON — It was all set for Wednesday. Then Thursday.

In the end the British deal with the EU to move forward with divorce talks was sealed before the sun rose on a cold Brussels Friday morning.

For the British team on the ground, the last week was a scheduling nightmare that culminated in near panic, amid growing fears that without a dramatic intervention this compromise might fall apart.

British ambassador to the EU Tim Barrow and his team in Brussels drew up one plan after the other for the U.K. prime minister’s hotly-anticipated arrival. One after another had to be thrown in the bin as the expected breakthrough in London didn’t materialize.

“There was this sense of anticipation which just kept growing as the week wore on,” a U.K. official said. “People looked at [European Commission President Jean-Claude] Juncker’s diary and [Council President Donald] Tusk’s diary and we realized we were running out of time. We knew the PM had to meet Juncker face to face — it was the optics. But we didn’t know if it was going to happen.”

Waiting for Theresa

It all started when the conventional wisdom assumed it was going to end: At a triumphant lunch between the British prime minister and Juncker on Monday.

But nothing has been simple in this negotiation, and when the Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s government, bucked over details involving Ireland, she had to rush home to put out a political fire.

The logistics were in place but the deal wasn’t.

In the subsequent days, communications between London and British staff on the ground in Brussels dried up, according to those on the inside of the negotiation who spoke on condition of anonymity.

In London and Brussels a plan was drawn up for May to fly out Wednesday afternoon after prime minister’s questions, according to two officials. A special route into Brussels from the airport was even prepared to avoid pro-Catalan protests taking place in the city that day.

The logistics were in place but the deal wasn’t.

Officials then scrambled to put together a plan for the PM to fly from Southampton, where she was due to visit, according to the two officials. Arrangements were made for Brexit Secretary David Davis to make the two-and-a-half hour journey down the M3 motorway to join her. Again, it had to be scrapped as the DUP dug their heels in.

Sub rosa envoy

By Thursday afternoon Brussels was starting to panic. Senior EU officials warned the U.K.’s delay risked not leaving enough time for leaders to sign off on official guidelines for phase 2 of negotiations at next week’s summit in Brussels. That message was made public to avoid any doubt.

Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s chief Brexit official, left London for Brussels on Wednesday to resume talks, but kept his presence quiet. The secretive civil servant arranges his own accommodation and does not always show up at the U.K. team’s headquarters, a Whitehall aide said.

But the dynamic of the previous months had changed. Both sides wanted a deal.

“There was a solidarity from the Commission we haven’t seen,” one U.K. official said. “At some point on Thursday there was talk of what Juncker or Barnier or Tusk could do to move things along. There was talk of someone from the EU side reassuring the DUP that their interests would be honored to help May sweeten that pill. Nothing has come to pass but the talk was there.”

By Thursday the dynamic of the previous months had changed. Both sides wanted a deal | Pool photo by Eric Vidal/EPA

Despite the warm sentiment, uncertainty continued even into pre-dawn Friday.

At 5:09 a.m., the Commission sent out a media advisory announcing a “possible President Juncker – Prime Minister May meeting” at 7 a.m. to be followed by a news conference — effectively kicking the Brussels bubble out of bed.

Reporters and television crews scrambled in the darkness to the press room of the Berlaymont, the Commission headquarters, where one breathless British TV reporter did a live hit wondering if there would soon be “white smoke” on a Brexit deal.

Adding a touch of irony, Juncker’s chief of staff Martin Selmayr tweeted a white-smoke photo shortly after 9 a.m.

Squaring off the DUP

For more than a week officials felt a deal was close but for Ireland.

A compromise limiting the number of years after Brexit when British judges will be allowed to refer cases on citizens’ rights to the European Court of Justice narrowed to between eight and 10 years and was not considered a deal breaker, according to officials familiar with the discussions. The EU had originally proposed 15 years, the U.K. five. At eight it was “honors even,” as one U.K. official put it.

But Ireland seemed intractable. The party propping up May’s government pulled the plug on the prime minister’s agreement over concerns they would be cut off from the rest of the U.K. by a commitment to “align” regulation across the Irish border after Brexit.

To allay these fears, the final text promised that if no solution was found in phase 2, the U.K. as a whole would align its regulation with the EU’s single market and customs union covering areas that affected relations across the border.

The Northern Ireland executive — which the DUP hopes to lead again soon — will have a veto on questions of all-Ireland alignment.

By Thursday night, according to officials, the DUP had reluctantly agreed.

To underline their point on Friday, DUP leader Arlene Foster said she “cautioned” the PM that this pledge could “pre-judge” the outcome of trade discussions, limiting the U.K.’s options further down the track, but conceded that the decision was May’s.

Over four days of furious negotiation with the DUP’s 10 MPs in Westminster and directly with Belfast, the government had persuaded the party to back down.

It was a joint effort by No. 10 Downing Street, May herself, Chief Whip Julian Smith and the Brexit department, according to one official familiar with the process.

Six pledges were drawn up to provide reassurance that Northern Ireland would not be left in the single market or customs union, nor would there be a red line drawn down the Irish Sea.

A new clause was also written into the document — Article 50 — the “crucial” paragraph in the eventual agreement, according to one senior U.K. negotiator.

Protesters waive flags and banners outside the Houses of Parliament | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

It pledged that in the event a trade deal fails to solve the Irish issue, “the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom” unless Belfast agrees “distinct arrangements are appropriate.”

In other words,  the Northern Ireland executive — which the DUP hopes to lead again soon — will have a veto on questions of all-Ireland alignment.

Above all, the DUP were reassured by the final sentence of this clause, which promised: “In all circumstances, the United Kingdom will continue to ensure the same unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the United Kingdom internal market.”

This was drawn up over the past week, according to insiders, and was the key to pushing May’s Northern Irish allies over the line.

Crux of the matter

Final sign-off from all parties did not come until the early hours Friday, according to one senior negotiator.

The other key constituency May needed to keep onside was her Cabinet — and Euroskeptics in particular. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was called in to see the text Thursday afternoon and Environment Secretary Michael Gove lined up to appear on BBC radio’s Today program Friday morning, a clear sign that the prime minister had Brexiteer backing.

“It’s El Alamein. The end of the beginning” — Conservative aide

The message to Euroskeptics, according to those familiar with the Brexit department’s interpretation of the agreement, was clear: Don’t worry about the clause promising alignment, it’s nowhere near as binding as its critics are making out.

Their argument rested on “outcome equivalence,” which British negotiators said amounted to a pledge to achieve the same regulatory goals as the EU27 but left open the path to get there. Far from binding British hands, they said, this left plenty of room for divergence within a new free-trade deal.

But for Brexiteers at home the most important sentence was saved until the final clause of the agreement. This made the whole deal conditional on a swift transition and a comprehensive EU-U.K. divorce treaty setting out the framework of the future trading relationship. “It’s a big deal,” said one official. “It’s what everyone has been asking for and it’s there in black and white.”

Over nine months May held her Cabinet together — just. While critics say the hardest part is to come — with no agreement yet on where the U.K. should aim to end up — those on the inside believe that by winning the first battle, she’s won the war.

“It’s El Alamein,” said one senior Brexit-supporting Conservative aide. “The end of the beginning.”

Charlie Cooper in London and David M. Herszenhorn in Brussels contributed reporting to this article.

Brexit deal annotated

LONDON — After three days of frantic negotiations and a pre-dawn trip to Brussels, Prime Minister Theresa May secured agreement from Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker that Brexit talks can move onto Phase 2.

The agreement came in the form of a joint report agreed by the two leaders in the early hours of Friday morning.

The report lays out progress made on the three key issues — citizens’ rights, the so-called “Brexit bill,” and the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland — that the EU27 specified were the priority for Phase 1 of Brexit talks after the U.K. kicked off the divorce process by triggering Article 50 in March 2017.

Here is everything you need to know about the text of the deal.

Hover over the dots to see the annotations.

Trump the Middle East’s ‘new Satan’


British papers went to print before news broke of Theresa May’s last-minute dash to Brussels on Friday, where the European Commission announced it would recommend to the European Council that “sufficient progress” had been made in Brexit talks to allow them to move on to Phase 2 — the future EU-U.K. relationship.

The Times led with “Brussels sets new deadline as hopes rise for Irish border deal.” It also reported on the “Bitcoin bonanza,” as the price of the cryptocurrency skyrocketed again. The FT wrote May had been “forced into frantic talks with DUP in race to meet ‘divorce’ deal headline,” and also featured a story on bitcoin. The Guardian reported U.K. Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson would make a “bid to free Zaghari-Ratcliffe,” referring to a British-Iranian woman currently jailed in Iran.


Germany’s Die Welt led with “Days of anger,” referring to the turmoil and riots that have spread through the Middle East in the wake of U.S. President Donald Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. The paper also featured a story on the country’s Social Democrats (SPD) agreeing to enter exploratory coalition talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives. Die Tageszeitung reported on the fears within the SPD of another grand coalition. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung reported on the SPD and Polish Prime Minister Beata Szydło’s resignation.


ABC’s front page was dominated by a striking photograph of people standing on the flags of Israel and the U.S. and a poster of President Donald Trump. “Middle East points to its new Satan,” the headline blasted. El País also led with the response to Trump’s announcement, and featured a story on the pro-Catalan protestors who marched in Brussels on Thursday. El Mundo also reported on the protests in Brussels.


Le Monde reported on Palestinian riots in Israel, featuring a photo of protestors burning the Israeli flag and posters of Donald Trump. Le Figaro said Trump would “provoke a firestorm.” La Dépèche led with “the blaze” in the Middle East and a story on French rocker Johnny Hallyday, who died this week.


Dutch-speaking De Morgen focused on the “question of Jerusalem.” It also reported Brussels had lost the rights to host 2020 Euro soccer matches, with the games to be played at Wembley Stadium in the U.K. instead. De Morgen reported on the Catalan protests in Brussels. Le Soir also reported on Brussels losing the Euro matches.


Theresa May’s 6 promises to Northern Ireland

LONDON — Theresa May will today publish a list of commitments to Northern Ireland designed to assuage fears the U.K. government might negotiate away its status at a later stage of Brexit talks, according to a draft copy seen by POLITICO’s London Playbook.

The European Commission recommended to the European Council in the early hours of Friday morning that “sufficient progress” has been made in Brexit talks to allow negotiations to move on to Phase 2, which will cover trade and the U.K.’s future relationship with the EU. The leaders of the remaining 27 countries will meet next week to vote on the deal.

The U.K. prime minister’s public statement will make six promises to the people of Northern Ireland and be signed by the prime minister herself. They are:

1. A promise to “uphold and support Northern Ireland’s status as an integral part of the United Kingdom.”

2. A promise to “fully protect and maintain” Northern Ireland’s position within the single market of the United Kingdom.

3. A pledge there will be no new borders within the U.K., and no hard border across the island of Ireland.

4. The fourth spells out in black and white that “the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will leave the EU customs union and the EU single market.”

5. A pledge to uphold the “commitments and safeguards” set out in the Belfast Agreement regarding North-South co-operation.

6. The sixth and final promise says no part of the U.K., including Northern Ireland, will remain subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice.

Trump ‘opens door to hell’ with Jerusalem move


Most British papers led with U.S. President Donald Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The Guardian reported on “Anger as Trump declares Jerusalem Israel’s capital.” It also featured a story on British Prime Minister Theresa May being given a new deadline to sort out the Irish border issue, with the headline: “May given 48 hours to seal Brexit deal over Ireland.” The Daily Telegraph wrote: “May will fall without deal, warns EU.” The Financial Times led with “Warnings mount as Trump recognizes divided city as Israel capital.” The FT also wrote: “Irish premier raises prospect of Brexit divorce talks stretching into new year.”

The Guardian

The Daily Telegraph

The Financial Times


Die Tageszeitung wrote that Trump was “playing with fire,” alongside a striking image of protestors burning an American flag. The paper also questioned whether Germany’s Social Democrat’s (SPD) should enter another grand coalition with Chancellor Angela Merkel’s conservatives. Die Welt featured Trump’s decision on Jerusalem and also wrote about European Parliament’s climate change plans. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung wrote about the SPD’s three-day party congress, which kicks off Thursday, asking: “will SPD’s party congress bring clarity?” FAZ featured a story on former Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili calling for Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko to be sacked, following Saakashvili’s dramatic arrest and escape Tuesday.

Portada de Die Tageszeitung (Alemania)

Portada de Die Welt (Alemania)

Portada de Frankfurter Allgemeine (Alemania)


The French press paid tribute to French rocker Johnny Hallyday, who died aged 74 due to lung cancer. Le Figaro featured a full-page shot of Hallyday bowing with the headline: “Adieu Johnny.” La Dépèche, which ran a 10-page tribute to the rocker, published a portrait of a young Hallyday with the headline “Generation Johnny.” Le Monde led with “Johnny Hallyday, a French idol.” The paper also featured a story on Trump’s plans to move the American embassy to Jerusalem and another on Russia being banned from the Winter Olympic Games.

Portada de Le Figaro (Francia)

Portada de Le Monde (Francia)

Portada de La Dépêche du Midi (Francia)


Dutch-speaking De Morgen’s front page headline was “Trump opens door to hell.” The paper also featured a story on Belgian national Catherine De Bolle being put forward as the new head of Europol. French-speaking Le Soir led with Johnny Hallyday’s death, calling him an “immortal idol.” It also featured a story on Trump “attacking the Middle East.”


ABC featured a story on Spain’s Wednesday constitutional anniversary, with a photograph of Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy with Ana Pastor, the speaker of the Congress of Deputies. “Reform it but don’t liquidate it,” the paper wrote, referring to Spain’s constitution, ratified December 6, 1978. El Mundo also reported on the anniversary of the constitution and featured a story on Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital.

Michael Gove

Only a true Brexit believer like Michael Gove would ask to become Britain’s environment and agriculture secretary.

For decades, the job was one of the least important in the British government. After all, most environmental policy was decided in Brussels — making it a ministerial position with no real power.

But with the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, Gove’s portfolio puts him in a position to radically reshape the British landscape — literally.

Gove, 50, a man whom former Prime Minister David Cameron once described as “a bit of a Maoist,” made his name with a controversial overhaul of Britain’s education system that infuriated teachers.

Now, he has set his sights on the country’s agriculture policy, delighting left-wing environmentalists and alarming many Brexit-backing farmers with proposals that would redirect subsidies away from large landowners toward holdings that take measures — such as banning certain common types of pesticides — to improve biodiversity and soil fertility.

That Gove finds himself in a position to carry through with that ambition is a remarkable turnaround for a man who less than a year ago could open the morning paper and count on reading some version of his political obituary.

As the brains behind Brexit, the former Times of London columnist brought the intellectual ballast to then Mayor of London Boris Johnson’s celebrity stardust. His side’s victory in the 2016 referendum buoyed Gove’s prospects — until a calamitous run to succeed Cameron left him battered and wounded, exiled to the political wilderness.

“[His colleagues] now realize they need a reformer in the Treasury and a PM with more character, and they’ve got neither at the moment” — A close ally of Gove

In the battle for the top job following Cameron’s resignation, Gove first threw his weight behind Johnson, only to withdraw his support on the morning his ally was formally due to enter the race.

The stunning political assassination proved too bloody even for the Conservative Party and cemented Gove’s reputation as a Tory Brutus. Theresa May emerged as the winner, and Gove was dispatched to the backbenches. When the newly minted prime minister warned her Cabinet that “politics is not a game,” few doubted that he was among those foremost on her mind.

It was only after last summer’s general election, when a humiliated May needed to shore up her power by rebalancing the Cabinet, that Gove was admitted back into the heart of British power — having made it known his preferred place in government was crafting environmental policy.

Gove 2.0 is playing the game differently, his allies say, but his radicalism burns just as brightly. The environment secretary is a Tory, but he is no conservative. He has a portrait of Lenin in his office.

Gove, at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in October | Elliott Franks/i-Images

Despite being the godfather to one of Cameron’s children, he felt so passionate about leaving the EU that he campaigned against his old friend during the referendum — a decision that ultimately deprived the prime minister of his job and certainly any fond feelings he had for Gove. The two men no longer speak.

Despite May’s pointed criticism, Gove could not be further from the popular caricature of a top Tory: an amateur gentleman treating politics as an amusing game.

The roots of his politics run deep. Gove was adopted when he was just four months old; his birth mother — a young, unmarried student in Edinburgh who called him Graham — was unable to cope.

He was renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, Ernest and Christine, a working-class couple from Aberdeen who could not have children themselves. Gove admits to thinking about his adoption often. “I wonder what my birth mother thinks,” he once told an interviewer, in what some saw as a message for her to reach out without hurting his adoptive parents, whom he holds dear. “The people who brought me up are my mum and dad,” he said.

His father ran a fish-sorting business in Aberdeen, but sold it amid the general decline in the British fishing industry — something Gove would later blame on Brussels. During the referendum campaign, he described the EU as a “job-destroying machine” that caused misery to communities it had “hollowed out.”

Gove arrives for a meeting at Downing Street | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

In the debate raging in government between the “hard” and “soft” Brexiteers, there’s no doubting on which side Gove has planted his flag. Around the Cabinet table, he has reportedly called for weekly updates on the preparations for a “no-deal” scenario with the EU and sided with Johnson against Treasury attempts to tie Britain close to Brussels’ economic model after Brexit. He is also pushing for a speedy repatriation of Britain’s fishing grounds.

Gove’s vision for Britain after Brexit and his intellectual force in government have sparked rumors that he is being lined up to take over from Philip Hammond as chancellor of the exchequer.

“Everyone is correcting for mistakes of the past,” says one close ally. “Whatever his colleagues think of him, they respect his intellect. Many of them now realize they need a reformer in the Treasury and a PM with more character, and they’ve got neither at the moment.”

What’s clear is that Gove is back in the game. “He’s a force again, but his big impact might come later,” his ally says. “He is the kingmaker for the next PM.” May will be watching him carefully.

Check the full listing of the POLITICO 28 Class of 2018, and read an explanation of what this ranking means.

Theresa May keeps Brussels guessing

LONDON — Will she stay or will she go?

As late as Wednesday evening, no one in the U.K. government was prepared to definitively say that Theresa May will return to Brussels on Thursday to try and rescue the Brexit negotiations.

When the Democratic Unionist Party, her Northern Irish parliamentary allies, torpedoed the deal she thought was in the bag on Monday, U.K. officials said she would be back in Belgium on Wednesday to smooth things out.

That didn’t happen and time is running out.

If there is no agreement by close of play Friday, senior EU officials said, there is only a slim chance that European Council President Donald Tusk and member countries will be able to prepare guidelines for the transition to trade talks in time for approval at next week’s summit of EU leaders.

A deal could be reached next week and sufficient progress declared at the summit, but it might be a hollow victory for May. If the EU’s guidelines for phase two talks are not in place, weeks or even months could be lost with no talks on transition. The timetable for a transition deal — all-important for British businesses — would slip, with the risk that many firms would trigger contingency plans to move jobs and investment out of the U.K..

May has not been idle since Monday’s setback.

The British side are sticking to what May said on Monday, one senior official said: “We will reconvene by the end of the week.”

Another U.K. government official who spoke to POLITICO on condition of anonymity said the view in the negotiating team was that the Friday deadline was not set in stone.

“It’s about political will,” the official said. “If we came back with a deal on Monday they could do it. The guidelines are practically done anyway. Even if we came back Wednesday it might be possible.”

Political will

Privately, U.K. officials believe a special meeting of the General Affairs Council — foreign affairs or Europe ministers from the EU countries who lay the groundwork for summits of EU leaders — could even agree the negotiating guidelines a week after the Council, should that be required.

“Everyone wants progress — them as much as us. It really is about political will at this stage. That said, we do have to get our own house in order first, that’s true,” the government official said.

Others appeared to be taken by surprise by the suggestion that the EU could grant sufficient progress but not proceed to talks about the U.K.’s future relations with the bloc. It would be a “strange option,” said one government minister.

May and Juncker prepare to give a press briefing on December 4 | Olivier Hoslet/EPA

Bernard Jenkin, one of the leading Brexiteers on the Conservative backbenches, branded the apparent deadline an “EU negotiating tactic” and urged May not to be “intimidated.”

But Anna Soubry, a Tory MP and one of the most outspoken supporters of a close post-Brexit relationship with the EU, said the urgency of moving to phase two of talks should push May into “rubbing out her red lines” and reaching a “realistic deal.”

Soubry has called for the U.K. to effectively remain in the customs union and the single market — both of which the government has ruled out.


A former business minister, Soubry added that British firms were “increasingly frustrated by the lack of progress” in the talks. Business lobby groups like the CBI and TheCityUK have called for a transition deal to be secured as soon as possible to prevent businesses in the U.K. moving investment and staff across the Channel to guarantee continued single market access.

“The Conservatives are the party of business — time to prove it,” Soubry said.

May has not been idle since Monday’s setback. She made two key phone calls Wednesday; one, in the morning, to DUP leader Arlene Foster and another in the afternoon to Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar, but with no clear sign of a breakthrough.

She told Varadkar her government was “working hard to find a specific solution to the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland that respects the integrity of the U.K., the European Union and the Belfast [Good Friday] Agreement.”

The split also runs through the Cabinet.

Varadkar agreed to speak to May again in the coming days, Reuters reported. Earlier in the day he had done little to raise British hopes of a speedy resolution by confirming talks could always be picked up “in the new year.”

That prompted anger from the DUP, who blame the hold-up on Dublin. Their deputy leader, Nigel Dodds, said delays to trade talks threatened the Irish economy more than the U.K.’s.

“Mr. Varadkar may try to appear calm on the surface but he is playing a dangerous game — not with us but with his own economy,” Dodds said, further ramping up his party’s criticism of  Varadkar’s government.

The home front

At home, the simmering tension within May’s Conservative party over the kind of Brexit the U.K. should be pursuing — soft or hard, close to EU rules or free to strike out alone — has broken out into open warfare.

At Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons, Brexiteers teamed up to turn the screws on May.

Jacob Rees-Mogg asked her to “apply a new coat of paint to her red lines” which on Monday had begun to look “a little bit pink.”

Jenkin warned her not to keep the U.K. “shackled” to EU rules for fear of compromising future trade deals with Canada, Japan, the U.S. and Australia. Peter Bone asked quite openly if the government’s planned Brexit, which he had previously endorsed, was “still on course.”

Delegates attend the first day of the annual Conservative Party conference on October 1, 2017 in Manchester, England | Carl Court/Getty Images

More quietly but no less forcefully, the Conservatives’ soft Brexit faction lobbied the prime minister via a letter, signed by 19 MPs and seen by Buzzfeed, expressing disappointment that “yet again some MPs and others seek to impose their own conditions on these negotiations.”

The split also runs through the Cabinet. Philip Hammond, the chancellor, the most prominent figure on the soft Brexit wing, confirmed to MPs on Wednesday that the Cabinet is yet to have a “specific mandating” discussion on the “end-state” relationship the government is seeking with the EU.

That will happen by the end of the year, Downing Street confirmed Wednesday evening, risking a showdown between Hammond and his allies with advocates of a more detached relationship with the EU such as Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and Environment Secretary Michael Gove.

Whether it will take place in the happy context of a deal on phase one of the Brexit talks or amid a crisis over no deal being struck depends on the offer that May takes back to Brussels — and how soon she gets there.

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