Archive for the ‘negotiations’ Category

Donald Tusk: UK Brexit plan ‘will need to be reworked’

The U.K.’s Brexit proposal needs to “be reworked and further negotiated” but there are signs of progress, European Council President Donald Tusk said today.

“The Brexit negotiations are entering the decisive phase,” Tusk said ahead of an informal summit of EU leaders in Salzburg, Austria. “Various scenarios are still possible today.”

Tusk said some elements of Prime Minister May’s latest plan, put forward following agreement by her Cabinet at her country residence Chequers in July, indicated “positive evolution in the U.K.’s approach” and “a will to minimize the negative effects of Brexit.” Tusk specifically highlighted “the readiness to cooperate closely in the area of security and foreign policy.”

“Today there is perhaps more hope but there is surely less and less time,” he said. “Therefore, every day that is left, we must use for talks.”

Most of the Brexit withdrawal agreement has now been agreed but the big sticking point is how to maintain a frictionless border on the island of Ireland. Tusk said that in terms of “the Irish question or the framework for economic cooperation, the U.K.’s proposals will need to be reworked and further negotiated.”

Brussels wants to keep Northern Ireland tightly aligned to Europe, and have customs checks between the province and the rest of Britain, while May opposes any solution that she says would split the U.K. down the middle. In an op-ed in the German daily Die Welt, published today, the U.K. prime minister repeated her claim that Brussels’ position is “unacceptable.”

However, Tusk said he was still planning on finalizing the talks “this autumn” and would therefore “propose calling an additional summit around the mid of November.”

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Theresa May to EU: Don’t make ‘unacceptable’ Brexit demands

If the EU and U.K. are to reach a Brexit deal, “neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other,” Theresa May warned in German newspaper Die Welt Wednesday.

As EU leaders gather for an informal summit in Salzburg, Austria, the British PM previewed an appeal she will make over dinner Wednesday evening for her colleagues to relax their demand for a so-called backstop solution for Northern Ireland. She will have around 10 minutes to speak to EU27 leaders, who are due to discuss Brexit on Thursday in her absence.

Negotiators intend to write an insurance clause into the Withdrawal Agreement to prevent the future need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. The EU wants Northern Ireland to remain effectively within the bloc’s customs territory to avoid the need for customs checks at the border. But May argues this would create an economic and constitutional divide in the Irish Sea between Britain and Northern Ireland — something she said no U.K. prime minister could accept.

“We are near to achieving the orderly withdrawal that is the essential basis for building a close future partnership,” May wrote. “To come to a successful conclusion, just as the U.K. has evolved its position, the EU will need to do the same.”

She added: “Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other, such as an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom.”

Last night, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier signaled a willingness to “improve” the terms of his backstop proposal. Meanwhile, the U.K. is set to put forward its own proposals, including a demand for democratic consent for Northern Ireland for any changes in regulations that would be imposed upon it.

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Michel Barnier: EU ready to ‘improve’ Irish border proposal

The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, declared a new willingness Tuesday to rethink the “backstop” provision that Brussels and Dublin insist is needed to prevent the recreation of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Barnier was speaking to journalists following a meeting with EU ministers in the EU’s General Affairs Council in Brussels, in which he briefed them on the state of play in the Brexit talks.

He said the EU’s backstop “insurance policy” has been on the table since February. But in a notable softening in tone, Barnier added: “We are ready to improve this proposal. Work in the EU is ongoing. We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. would need to be checked, where, when and by whom these checks would be performed.”

Disagreement over the EU’s backstop provisions is the biggest obstacle to completion of a withdrawal treaty that would provide for the U.K.’s orderly departure from the bloc in March. U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May agreed in principle to the idea of a backstop last December, but subsequently rejected the EU’s version as a threat to the “constitutional integrity” of her country that no prime minister could accept. EU leaders have countered that a “legally operational” backstop is essential or no accord can be reached.

While Barnier’s comments were clearly intended to reassure London and ease tensions, they do not necessarily indicate a fundamental shift in the EU position on the backstop, which is that Northern Ireland, in the strictest legal sense, must remain obligated to EU customs rules and other regulatory requirements even as the U.K. might adopt its own post-Brexit regimes. That position would not shift until it is superseded by a future free trade agreement or other deal between the EU and U.K.

Barnier reiterated his longstanding insistence that the U.K. needs to reduce the tension around the backstop plan.

Until now, the EU has expressed deep skepticism that any proposal could work other than its version of the backstop, which effectively means keeping all of Northern Ireland within the EU customs territory while excluding the rest of the U.K.

But in the meeting with ministers on Tuesday evening, Barnier for the first time described how a more nuanced approach might work and why the U.K. should not feel threatened. He explained that of four types of inspections of goods — sanitary, customs, tax and regulatory — only the sanitary controls, essentially those applying to livestock, would need to be done at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, according to an EU diplomat.

The other checks could be carried out on ferries, on the premises of business, using barcodes and scanning technology, Barnier told the ministers. The infrastructure for these checks is already in place, the negotiator said, but currently only 10 percent of sanitary goods are checked — a figure that will have to increase to 100 percent, according to the diplomat.

“That’s the real change,” the diplomat said.

British Prime Minister Theresa May | Pool photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images

At the news conference, Barnier reiterated his longstanding insistence that the U.K. needs to reduce the tension around the backstop plan. “We need to de-dramatize the checks that are needed,” Barnier said, adding that the additional inspections would be the result of the U.K.’s own insistence on leaving the EU’s customs union and single market.

But he also voiced clear sympathy for May’s sensitivities and concerns, saying the EU27 were insisting on “a legally operational backstop which fully respects the territorial integrity of the U.K.” The backstop, he noted, “would only apply unless and until a better arrangement is found as part of the future relationship.”

Another issue for discussion was whether to arrange a special summit of EU leaders in November to finalize a Brexit divorce deal. In the meeting, some ministers expressed opposition to the idea, arguing that it would take the pressure off the U.K. to come to final terms on the withdrawal agreement by the October European Council summit, as had long been planned.

Barnier also described for ministers his expectation in terms of how negotiations would proceed on a political declaration that will accompany the withdrawal treaty and will describe the framework of the future relationship between the EU and U.K. Barnier said specific proposals would only be developed by the EU negotiating team after the British political party congresses — essentially making sure that Brussels would give no additional ammunition to hardline Brexiteers and other critics of May’s approach to the negotiations.

Before his session with ministers at the European Council, Barnier met with Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney, who told reporters afterward that he was concerned about any easing of pressure to complete the withdrawal agreement. Coveney also repeated Dublin’s demand that the backstop must be ironclad in safeguarding the provisions of the Good Friday peace agreement that prohibit any hard border on the island of Ireland.

He resisted the idea that the agreement could be allowed to slip beyond October. “Some people seem to be suggesting that we can just move past the leaders meeting in October,” he said, “That is not the view of [Michel Barnier’s] task force and that is not the view of Ireland.”

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Theresa May plots assault on EU’s Ireland Brexit demands

LONDON — The U.K. is preparing to throw a new Brexit demand into the Irish border mix: democracy.

According to three senior officials from the U.K. and EU27, Theresa May’s team are exploring ways to insert the “consent principle” into the EU’s proposed Northern Ireland backstop — the insurance plan that is intended to avoid a hard border in all circumstances. 

The move is part of a two-pronged diplomatic assault to heavily modify the backstop — which both sides agreed to in principle last December — so that May can sell it to her own party and to the Democratic Unionist MPs whose votes prop up her government.

May will address EU leaders over dinner at an informal summit Wednesday, ahead of their discussion without her over lunch the following day.

A senior Number 10 official said May will tell EU leaders their position on the Irish backstop needed to “evolve.”

London is now preparing for a major diplomatic push to overhaul the EU’s concept of the backstop.

“We will honour our commitment to ensure that there is a legally operative Protocol on Northern Ireland, but that Protocol must protect the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement in all its parts and respects the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK, which the Commission’s proposal does not,” the official said.

May previewed that call for flexibility herself in German newspaper Die Welt Wednesday, and added a warning to the EU27 not to push the U.K. too far. “To come to a successful conclusion, just as the U.K. has evolved its position, the EU will need to do the same,” she said, “Neither side can demand the unacceptable of the other, such as an external customs border between different parts of the United Kingdom.”

In his invitation letter to leaders, Council President Donald Tusk reaffirmed as one of his three points for discussion that the EU27 remains squarely behind the Republic of Ireland on the backstop issue.

“We should reconfirm the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland, so as to be sure that there will be no hard border in the future,” he wrote.

Despite positive noises coming out of both Brussels and London in recent days, the gap between the two sides on this most fundamental question in the talks remains dauntingly large, exposing the growing risk of an unintended no-deal divorce.

London is now preparing for a major diplomatic push to overhaul the EU’s concept of the backstop, according to the three senior officials in the U.K. and EU who spoke on condition of anonymity about the latest thinking in London, Brussels and EU27 capitals.

The EU wants the backstop to be a legally binding guarantee written into the Brexit divorce treaty that ensures Northern Ireland remains closely tied to Brussels whatever economic model the rest of the U.K. pursues after Brexit — thereby avoiding the need for border infrastructure.

On customs, the EU wants the U.K. to agree that Northern Ireland will remain inside the EU’s “territory” should the British government ever decide to diverge to such an extent in trade policy that border checks would be necessary.

May has said this is something “no British prime minister could ever accept” because it would, in effect, create a customs border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, so dissecting the economic and constitutional integrity of the U.K.

Michel Barnier does not accept this characterization and has said he wants to “de-dramatize” the language to ease British concerns. But despite expressing a willingness Tuesday evening to “improve” the EU’s backstop offer by finding ways for checks to occur away from the border area, the EU chief negotiator has shown no sign of being prepared to change the fundamental principles of his proposal. “We are clarifying which goods arriving in Northern Ireland from the rest of the U.K. would need to be checked, where, when and by whom these checks would be performed,” Barnier told journalists after briefing EU foreign ministers on progress in the talks.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

As part of the de-dramatization efforts, Brussels is willing to let the U.K. police the internal customs border should it ever be established, officials said. In London, this offer is treated with derision. “It’s very gracious of them to let us use our own officials to patrol a border within our own country,” one official said. “But we don’t want anyone doing those checks.”

On regulation, the second element of the backstop, there is more flexibility. The EU wants to ensure Northern Ireland remains tied to EU single market rules and standards across a whole series of sectors necessary for an open border, including food, farming and manufactured goods.

On this, the U.K. is prepared to negotiate — but only if there are new democratic safeguards for Belfast, according to two senior U.K. officials.

“There will have to be some democratic consent (a key element of the Good Friday Agreement),” said one senior U.K. official.

A second official said: “Under the EU’s version of the protocol, it would mean Northern Ireland accepting the EU’s rules without any democratic say. There’s a problem of democratic oversight. You need some kind of democratic anchor if parts of the protocol ever come into force.”

A senior EU diplomat said the EU was “lukewarm” about the U.K.’s Northern Irish “consent” proposal.

Ultimately, while the U.K. government is not prepared to negotiate a special customs status for Northern Ireland, it is prepared to countenance different regulations on either side of the border because this could be achieved without affecting the overall constitutional sovereignty of the U.K., two officials said.

London is relaxed about different agriculture and food regulations applying in Northern Ireland to the rest of the U.K., because they already exist. The regulation of manufactured goods is trickier because there is currently no difference between Northern Ireland and the mainland, but such regulations could be tolerated if elected politicians have a say in their application. 

“Regulatory checks are very different to customs checks,” said one senior U.K. official. “They are a different kettle of fish entirely.” Brussels, by contrast, says there can be no differentiating between customs and regulations.

A senior EU diplomat said the EU is “lukewarm” about the U.K.’s Northern Irish “consent” proposal, which is yet to be formally presented. The concern in Brussels and other EU capitals is that allowing Belfast’s “consent” for future rule changes would be a hostage to fortune which could make the crisis caused by Belgian region Wallonia refusing to ratify the EU-wide trade deal with Canada look tame by comparison. The EU will not allow a situation where a third country can hold up its own regulatory changes.

Are Northern Ireland’s leaders really “reliable partners?” asked one EU27 diplomat.

Northern Ireland, after all, has now been without a ruling executive for longer than Belgium was without a government in 2010-2011 — and there is no sign of this changing before Britain leaves the EU in March. “London is going to have to make this decision,” the diplomat said.

On this most fundamental of Brexit questions, the gap between the two sides is still vast.

Donald Tusk: EU to consider special November Brexit summit

EU leaders meeting in Austria this week will consider convening a special summit on Brexit in November, and the real possibility of a catastrophic no-deal exit by the U.K. in March, European Council President Donald Tusk said.

In a letter to EU leaders Monday evening ahead of a summit in Salzburg, Austria, Tusk told the heads of state and government that they would discuss the joint political declaration on the EU’s future relationship with the U.K., and that they should consider calling a November summit in Brussels in hopes of completing a withdrawal treaty.

“First, we should reach a common view on the nature and overall shape of the joint political declaration about our future partnership with the U.K.,” Tusk wrote. “Second, we will discuss how to organize the final phase of the Brexit talks, including the possibility of calling another European Council in November. Third, we should reconfirm the need for a legally operational backstop on Ireland, so as to be sure that there will be no hard border in the future.”

Tusk warned there was still a major risk of a no-deal Brexit. “Unfortunately, a no deal scenario is still quite possible. But if we all act responsibly, we can avoid a catastrophe.”

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UK Brexit secretary to EU: Ball is in your court

The U.K. has “made compromises” and “showed ambition” in divorce negotiations, and it’s now time for the EU to do the same, according to Britain’s Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab.

Speaking to a group of reporters ahead of this week’s informal EU summit in Salzburg, Raab said the meeting “will be an important milestone — a stepping stone if you like — to show we’ve actually got the contours of an agreement on principles to continue the final weeks of these negotiations,” according to Germany’s Welt newspaper.

He added that the U.K. has “shown a lot of flexibility and we have been very pragmatic. So I think this is the moment to see that matched … The ball is a little bit in the other court now.”

The Brexit secretary said he didn’t think the challenge of the open issue of the Irish border “is intrinsically insurmountable but it will require flexibility.”

“Our position remains that we wouldn’t see a customs border down the Irish Sea and that the economic and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom needs to be respected,” Raab said, according to the Irish Times, but admitted he is “not confident” that this will happen. He said the EU’s initial proposals on the matter “weren’t in our view workable.”

Raab also said his government would not support a second Brexit referendum. “Even if that’s what people want to do, it’s difficult to see how it could be done in time, and we wouldn’t facilitate it,” he said.

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Theresa May: UK Brexit choice is Chequers or no deal

British Prime Minister Theresa May said Monday the only alternative to the government’s Chequers plan is to leave the EU without a deal, amid rising criticism from within her own party.

Speaking to the BBC, May defended the government’s Brexit plan as the only solution that would not break the country apart or enforce a hard border with Northern Ireland. She stressed the need for a “friction-free movement of goods” between the U.K. and Ireland with no customs or regulatory checks, dismissing suggestions of a system of extra checks away from the border.

“You don’t solve the issue of no hard border by having a hard border 20 kilometers inside Ireland,” she said.

The PM also reiterated she is confident the U.K. would “get a good deal” and noted it is “still not the end of negotiations.”

Amid calls for a second referendum — including most recently from London Mayor Sadiq Khan — the prime minister insisted: “We’re leaving on March 29.”

Writing in the Telegraph today, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson accuses the PM of leading the U.K. toward “a spectacular political car crash” and failing to resolve the border question, which he says has led to “a constitutional abomination.” Chequers would mean Britain “must remain effectively in the customs union and large parts of the single market until Brussels says otherwise,” he writes.

U.K. Environment Secretary Michael Gove, meanwhile, said Sunday the Chequers plan is the right way to proceed “for now.”

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