Posts Tagged ‘referendum’

Boris Johnson will turn on the charm for MPs — with his eye on an election

Boris Johnson will fire up the charm in an attempt to push his Brexit deal through the U.K. parliament — but crushing failure followed by an election could be no bad thing.

The British prime minister will embark on a final full day of domestic diplomacy Friday as he tries to cajole opponents to back him in a crunch showdown on Saturday when the House of Commons will vote on his deal.

Johnson already started greasing the wheels on Thursday after he clinched a surprise agreement with Brussels and jetted to the European Council summit in Brussels to get it rubber-stamped by EU leaders. “He’s been making calls today from here,” a senior government figure told reporters. “He is going to be talking to people tomorrow throughout the day.”

Saturday’s vote is the crucial next stage in the Brexit process, but an expected defeat in the House of Commons coupled with the win from Brussels could hand him a tailor-made election campaign pitch to take to the public: Parliament blocked my deal and refused to deliver Brexit, so give me more MPs to get it done.

The deal came suddenly during mid-morning on Thursday, when the prime minister held a call in Downing Street with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to sign off the final sticking point: an exemption for Northern Ireland from VAT rules on sanitary products, meaning Britain can finally scrap the so-called “tampon tax.”

After a quick check with senior Cabinet colleagues, Johnson called Juncker back and confirmed the deal was on. He dashed out of Westminster and to City Airport, where he boarded his trusty RAF Voyager for Brussels.

Johnson was jubilant at the European Council summit, where EU leaders took less than three hours to sign off his new agreement.

For a Downing Street so often portrayed by the opposition — and indeed by resigning Cabinet ministers like Amber Rudd — as insincere about a clinching a pact, the culmination of negotiations brought a certain schadenfreude.

“No one can now sling mud about him not being serious about getting a deal,” a Downing Street official said.

Bounding into a press conference on Thursday evening, Johnson told reporters: “It will be a very exciting period now to get to the positive side of [the Brexit] project. The extraction having been done, the building now begins. And I’m very confident that when my colleagues in parliament study this agreement, that they will want to vote for it on Saturday, and then in succeeding days.”

First rule of politics

But his most immediate colleagues — Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party who agreed to support the Conservative government after the last election  — dealt him a major blow on Thursday morning when they confirmed their 10 MPs could not support his plans. The Brexit deal entails checks on some goods being shipped from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, breaching the “blood red line” of no trade border down the Irish Sea that was set by DUP leader Arlene Foster.

“These proposals are not, in our view, beneficial to the economic well-being of Northern Ireland and they undermine the integrity of the Union,” the party said in an angry statement. A spokesman confirmed the DUP will not just abstain but will vote against the deal on Saturday.

The decision throws the parliamentary arithmetic into chaos for Johnson. The DUP was seen by Downing Street as the route to unlocking 28 of the most pro-Brexit Tories in the so-called European Research Group, who refused to back the deal Theresa May agreed with Brussels. The ERG was then seen as the route to unlocking around 20 Labour MPs who represent Leave seats and want Brexit done.

Pro-Brexiteers hold a banner near the Houses of Parliament in Westminster, on October 17. If an election does come about, the Conservatives could fight it on a ticket of “Get Brexit done, with this deal” | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Many of the key figures in those factions kept quiet on Thursday — or at least appeared to keep their options open — in an encouraging sign for the prime minister. The ERG will meet Saturday morning to discuss their position. An aide to a Labour MP said that more of their group were thinking about backing the deal than was previously expected. Nineteen wrote to Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk earlier this month, pledging their support for a Brexit pact.

Johnson made them a direct and public appeal during his press conference, hinting that sweeteners they have been demanding — on environmental protections and workers’ rights — could be within their grasp if they back him on Saturday.

He said the Political Declaration on the future relationship with the EU contains “important provisions and commitments that this country gladly makes about our determination to maintain the highest possible standards, both with the environment and the social protections.” He added: “We make those commitments gladly and they are entirely right for us to do.”

Party political broadcast

But Johnson also made clear during his press conference that he is ready for plan B if the numbers in parliament fail to materialize.

“This is our chance in the U.K., as democrats, to get Brexit done, and come out on October 31,” he said. “This is our chance to focus on our priorities, the people’s priorities, the NHS, putting 20,000 police on the streets, lifting up funding of education across the country, the biggest expansion of the living wage.”

The manifesto list was a reminder that the prime minister wants a general election soon. If he loses the vote in the Commons on Saturday, and the parliamentary arithmetic makes it likely he will, he will be forced to trigger a Brexit delay and will likely launch another push for an election.

Undeniably, Johnson and his government are at the mercy of events, and Downing Street officials privately acknowledge that many roads could now open up.

Opposition parties who insisted they would back a poll once they had legislated to prevent a no-deal Brexit will come under intense pressure to back it.

If an election does come about, the Conservatives could fight it on a ticket of “Get Brexit done, with this deal,” but Downing Street declined on Thursday to reveal any planned messaging.

“We have always backed an election. All I would say is the thing this week is to get Brexit done. The deal is here,” a No. 10 official said.

Such an election stance would leave the Tories open to attack from the Brexit Party, led by Nigel Farage, who was quick to dismiss Johnson’s deal. It was, he tweeted, “not Brexit” because of what he described as “the commitment to regulatory alignment,” a reference to the pledge to match EU rules for some goods in Northern Ireland.

A Brexit Party official confirmed that if the Conservatives adopted the new deal as policy, Farage’s offer of a Conservative/Brexit Party pact at the next election (admittedly, something senior Tories have never publicly entertained) would be dead.

Message discipline

Downing Street remains confident the clarity of their message could still win the day in an election.

With opposition parties now pulling in many different directions — and indeed, in the case of Labour, internally divided on what course to take — there is hope a deal which could turn Brexit theory into Brexit fact will only help ram home the “Get Brexit done” messaging, and sideline the problem of the DUP in the process.

A Brexit Party official confirms that if the Conservatives adopted the new deal as policy, Farage’s offer of a Conservative/Brexit Party pact at the next election would be dead | Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

“It gives us all the more reason to have one very clear message,” the first official said. “The polling reflects that the clearer we are in our mission the more likely we are to win the support of the public.”

Undeniably, Johnson and his government are at the mercy of events, and Downing Street officials privately acknowledge that many roads could now open up. The deal could pass cleanly on Saturday, or perhaps with an amendment demanding it be put to a second referendum. MPs could finally back an election, or stalemate could continue, with no clear way forward receiving majority support.

The precise strategy in each scenario is unknown to all but a few around the prime minister, and to some extent even they will have to react to unfolding events.

The senior official said: “It’s so unclear as to whether there would be a majority for anything. We’ll have to wait and see.”

Nevertheless, Johnson may find he has a few more hands to play.

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Boris Johnson’s plan to sell Brexit to the Brits

LONDON — Securing a Brexit deal in Brussels may yet prove the easy bit for Boris Johnson.

In the race to meet his self-imposed deadline of leaving the European Union by October 31, the British prime minister has always faced two challenges: striking a deal with EU leaders, and selling it at home.

Downing Street is mulling whether to rip up all existing parliamentary business to clear the path for Brexit legislation, one senior government figure said. That would mean postponing the remaining debate and votes on the government’s legislative plan as set out in last week’s queen’s speech, which are currently scheduled for the beginning of next week. That hasn’t happened in British politics since 2006.

“We can do the queen’s speech anytime,” the senior government figure said.

On Thursday, Johnson heads to the European Council summit, where he hopes EU leaders will agree a deal he thinks the House of Commons could support.

“It will be more difficult to back a deal if the DUP have already ruled it out” — John Redwood, Tory MP

But the chances of a breakthrough depend in part on what’s happening back in London. Brussels will be keeping a close eye on domestic politics in the U.K. to decide whether any concessions are likely to clear the U.K. parliament and are therefore worth the risk.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar suggested Tuesday the Commons could stage an “indicative vote” — which it did in March to show its Brexit preferences. Downing Street has not ruled out splitting off the Withdrawal Agreement, the legal text of the deal, from the so-called Political Declaration, the non-binding statement about both sides’ intentions for their future relationship. The former could then be put to the Commons alone at the weekend.

Keep your friends close

If Johnson succeeds in Brussels, his first challenge back at home will be getting the sign-off from his confidence-and-supply partners in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP sounded the death knell for Theresa May when it refused to support her plan. Johnson is taking no such chances.

The prime minister or members of his top team have been in daily contact with party’s leader Arlene Foster and its deputy leader Nigel Dodds (as well as other top DUP figures) during the final stages of the Brexit negotiations. The contact went up a notch in the days leading up to the summit, with face-to-face meetings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in Downing Street. Johnson even staged a love-in rally with the top pair at Conservative Party conference. A Downing Street official said: “Their approval is crucial to us being able to present something.”

Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds at Downing Street | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Support from the DUP could unlock the next target faction: The European Research Group of hardcore Brexiteers. In March, 28 ERG members refused to back the May deal at the final time of asking — in part because the DUP rejected it.

One ERG member said support from the DUP for a new deal would “transform the chemistry.” ERG MP John Redwood added: “It will be more difficult to back a deal if the DUP have already ruled it out.” The Downing Street official said: “Hopefully support from the DUP makes it easier for other MPs to feel they are able to support a deal.”

No. 10 is turning the screw as well. Tory Party whips have told ERG MPs they will be punished like the 21 Tory rebels who failed to support the government in key votes in September if they oppose a deal. That means being kicked out of the parliamentary party and effectively facing deselection as a Tory candidate at the next election — throwing away their plum jobs.

ERG chair Steve Baker reiterated that he would be willing to lose the whip if he feels he cannot support whatever may come back from Brussels.

If Johnson is able to get the ERG MPs on board, he will turn his focus to Labour MPs. There are a group of 20 or so who represent pro-Brexit seats and are flirting with the government by suggesting they could vote for a deal. These include Stephen Kinnock, Lisa Nandy and Gloria De Piero. But those MPs are reluctant to back an agreement unless their support will make sure it passes. Such a bold move would likely burn bridges with their own party.

“The prime minister has to have a clean go at getting what he believes to be a good deal over the line with MPs” — A Downing Street official

May offered pro-Brexit Labour MPs a list of sweeteners to entice them into backing her deal, including cash for their constituencies and bolt-ons to the agreement, including on environmental protections and workers rights. Still only five backed it.

This time, Downing Street is taking a carrot-and-stick approach. Johnson has refused to tie bolt-ons to the deal, telling MPs to back it first and take a chance on adding them at a later stage of the legislative process. The Downing Street official said: “The prime minister has to have a clean go at getting what he believes to be a good deal over the line with MPs. This has to be a clear result on what the PM negotiates.”

Legislative headaches

To avoid being forced into a Brexit delay by a parliamentary mandate known as the Benn Act, Johnson must pass a deal at a showdown Commons sitting on Saturday. The prime minister has insisted he will not write a letter to Brussels requesting an extension, as the law requires, meaning another member of the government might have to.

Downing Street has not yet ruled out trying to tweak or repeal the Benn Act in case a deal is almost but not quite in the bag by Saturday. “We are looking at what options are open to us,” the official said.

One senior Tory MP outlined the letter they would write if given a chance: “Dear Brussels. I’ve been told I’ve got to ask for an extension because I’m legally obliged to do so. But I’m not going to pay you a penny during that extension and I’m not going to be negotiating. How long an extension would you like to give us?”

Former UK Chancellor Philip Hammond may try and force an extension regardless of Britain securing a deal with Brussels | Tolga Akmen/AFP via Getty Images

Even then, MPs could press the PM into a fresh Brexit delay. On Sunday, former Chancellor Philip Hammond appeared to confirm he is mulling a way to force an extension even if Johnson secures a deal with the EU. He said parliament “will need to see the full detail of a deal, not just a headline, before it will approve anything.”

Johnson’s legislative window could become even tighter if he fails to clinch an agreement with Brussels this week. Varadkar said on Wednesday that there could be a second European Council summit that could still see the U.K. leave the bloc on October 31. A Downing Street official said it was not possible to comment on timings, but said: “We have got to be open to making sure we get any deal through in the time available.”

During a committee hearing on Wednesday, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barlcay again insisted the government would not seek a technical extension.

One risk however is that the opposition tries to frustrate the legislative process without securing an extension. Once parliament accepts a deal, the Benn Act dies, bringing the cliff edge back on October 31 should MPs try to attach amendments to Brexit legislation during later stages of the parliamentary process. The senior government figure said opposition MPs attempting to hold up the process at that point could end up with a no-deal Brexit “by accident.” A Labour spokesperson refused to discuss parliamentary tactics.

One last heave

Even as Johnson heads to Brussels, MPs pushing for a second Brexit referendum are plotting ways to force one onto any deal he comes back with. Pro-EU campaigners believe Johnson will struggle to pass a deal unless a referendum is attached, but the parliamentary showdown on Saturday will provide a crunch moment for the future of the so-called People’s Vote campaign.

“I think it would be harder to get a referendum if a deal passes without a referendum motion, but I seriously doubt that any deal can pass without a people’s vote attached,” said Mike Buckley, a coordinator working with the Labour for a Public Vote group.

If Brexit is seen to be delivered, it will be much harder to argue for brand new EU membership.

“If a deal goes through and we don’t attach a referendum to it, it’s game over,” another senior campaigner said. The campaigners’ efforts would then turn to whether a referendum on the future partnership with the EU could be secured before the end of the Brexit transition period.

The UK parliament may be set for a historic sitting on Saturday | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

More complicated is how MPs might react if Johnson fails to bring a deal back from Brussels. Numerous opposition figures talk of seizing the Commons order paper on Saturday through an emergency debate application on Thursday. That would allow a motion, or even legislation, for a different kind of deal to be voted on — most likely the deal agreed by May with the concessions she offered to Labour MPs on things like workers’ rights. Campaigners are unsure whether legislation could be drafted in time.

But MPs are split over whether that deal should have a second referendum bolted onto it or not.

Some pro-deal MPs believe attaching a referendum would make the proposal less likely to carry. “The People’s Vote lot are playing with fire by refusing to back it without a referendum clause,” said one Labour MP who wants Brexit done. The MP said that if a second referendum did get support, it could still be taken out during the later legislative stages.

Patrick Lohlein, co-ordinator for the Conservatives for a People’s Vote campaign, said: “I’m very confident that a Withdrawal Agreement with a referendum attached to it would pass, but the numbers are quite tight.”

Gibraltar heads to the polls amid no-deal Brexit fears

LONDON — Voters head to the polls for a Brexit election Thursday — only it’s in Gibraltar not in the U.K. as a whole.

Gibraltar’s Chief Minister Fabian Picardo told POLITICO in an interview that he decided to bring the vote forward after Boris Johnson became U.K. prime minister to ensure a new government would be in place in case there was a no-deal Brexit.

His campaign has sought to convince voters the government is prepared for a no-deal departure from the European Union by Britain, something disputed by U.K. government planning documents and by his opponents. Picardo said his government has put together a plan that details every step he and his closest Cabinet colleagues would take in the days leading up to and immediately after a no-deal outcome.

“We are ready for the morning after if that eventuality were to come to pass,” he said. “Every minute of my day, of the deputy chief’s day, and the day of most officials would be planned from 48 hours before a hard Brexit and to the immediate actions that we would be making in the run-up and in the minutes after a hard Brexit occurs.”

Front-runner Picardo is standing once again as the candidate of a coalition between his party, the Gibraltar Socialist Labour Party, and the Liberal Party. This coalition has ruled Gibraltar since the 2011 election.

Chief Minister of Gibraltar Fabian Picardo | Jack Taylor/Getty Images

Picardo’s GSLP/Liberals coalition is set for another landslide win, according to a poll carried out for the Gibraltar Chronicle, which predicts 10 seats out of 17 for the coalition, six for the Gibraltar Social Democrats and one for Together Gibraltar.

Spanish threat

Another concern is the possibility of a right-wing coalition government after an election in Spain next month. Politicians in the two most right-wing parties in the country regard the U.K. territory on the southern tip of the Iberian Peninsula as a colony and see Brexit as an opportunity to regain some degree of sovereignty over The Rock.

Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement included a section on Gibraltar that covered citizens’ rights, cooperation on environmental issues, police, customs, and the movement of tobacco and other products. But in the event of a no-deal Brexit, such a cooperation agreement would no longer be valid. It is unclear what a no-deal scenario would look like in Gibraltar, but its government is preparing for hours of delays at the border. Unlike the rest of the U.K., Gibraltar is out of the EU customs union.

Spaniards are going to the polls for the second time this year on November 10. Support for the far right and nationalist party Vox — which is calling for a gradual process to make Gibraltar part of Spain — is growing, according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls. The conservative Popular Party, with whom Vox could form a coalition, demands joint U.K.-Spanish control over Gibraltar (an option rejected by 99 percent of Gibraltarians in a referendum in 2002).

Picardo said he is ready to deal with whatever government wins November’s vote in Spain, but added: “I have very little to say to those whose political discourse reminds me more of what was said in Central Europe in the late 1930s than what we should be saying to each other in the 21st century.”

“I do hope that whichever government may be and whatever political conception, they will understand that what is in the interest of both parties in this part of the world is that we should get on with each other.”

Picardo said the European Commission has unfairly taken Spain’s side in the Brexit negotiations. “We were surprised that the Commission should decide to support Spain in some of the things they have said and in the way it has expressed itself,” he said, without giving examples.

“Frankly, the Commission, in my view, should’ve been neutral and should’ve been supportive, and Spain and the Commission should’ve been generous in the way that they dealt with the people who most supported the European project in the way we voted in that referendum [96 percent of Gibraltarians backed Remain in the U.K.’s 2016 vote].”

No-deal no plan?

One of the pillars of Picardo’s campaign is Gibraltar’s preparedness for a no-deal Brexit. His reassurances were put to the test by the U.K. government’s Operation Yellowhammer dossier, which sets out plans for a no-deal exit from the European Union and was leaked to the Times newspaper in August. The Gibraltarian chief minister dismissed the document as “massively out of date.”

The document said Gibraltar is underprepared for a no-deal Brexit and that it has not invested in sufficient “contingency infrastructure” despite the Brexit deadline being delayed from March to the end of October. The dossier warned that “prolonged border delays over the longer term are likely to adversely impact Gibraltar’s economy” and reported concerns that the territory “will not have passed all necessary legislation for no-deal.”

Picardo’s political opponents have seized on the document. Keith Azopardi, the leader of the center-right party Gibraltar Social Democrats and a former deputy chief minister of Gibraltar, accused the government of conducting “superficial and token discussions with the opposition without sharing any documents” on Brexit preparations in their manifesto. The GSD manifesto pledges tax incentives for businesses after Brexit and cuts to income tax rates.


For more polling data from across Europe visit POLITICO Poll of Polls.

Also running is Marlene Hassan Nahon, founder of the left-wing party Together Gibraltar, which supports a second Brexit referendum in which her party would campaign to remain in the EU. Neither candidates responded to a request for an interview.

As Brexit looms closer, the chief minister is using his contacts in Brussels to make the case against a no-deal departure. Picardo described his relationship with Josep Borrell, Spain’s former foreign affairs minister who will soon be in charge of the EU’s foreign affairs, as “good” and “respectful” despite “many political disagreements” over Gibraltar’s status.

But Picardo’s views on Brexit are “diametrically opposed” to those of Ann Widdecombe, the Brexit Party MEP for South West England, who represents Gibraltar in the European Parliament. Widdecombe supports the U.K. leaving the EU without a deal and says Gibraltar is ready for that outcome, partly thanks to their “sheer ‘can do’ attitude.”

“I don’t think a no-deal Brexit is going to deliver a blow to anybody’s economy. I think it is actually going to enable us to boom and to do very nicely,” she said.

After Thursday’s election, Picardo will continue in campaign mode, this time for a second Brexit referendum, which he said is necessary to legitimize the decision to leave the EU made by the British people almost three years and a half ago.

“If anybody says they don’t want to see a second referendum, they’re running scared of the truth, because with all the facts in front of them the British people may likely reach a completely different conclusion,” he said. “There would be nowhere to hide for those who lied to the British people in the 2016 referendum.”

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Nicola Sturgeon: Scottish nationalists will never back Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal

LONDON — The Scottish National Party will never back a Withdrawal Agreement that takes Scotland out of the European Union’s single market and customs union, Nicola Sturgeon said.

In a keynote address to the SNP conference in Aberdeen today, the Scottish first minister said a no-deal Brexit would be “unthinkable” but added that “a deal of the type Boris Johnson is proposing would not be much better.”

“His plans would take Scotland out of the EU, out of the single market and out of the customs union. Let me make this absolutely clear today, SNP MPs will not vote for that — not now, not ever.”

Sturgeon added that if the Northern Ireland Assembly is given an opportunity to vote on the arrangements for its border with the Republic of Ireland, Scotland would be the only nation in the U.K. leaving the EU without having voted for that outcome.

“If there is to be a deal, it seems inevitable that it will include a process to allow Northern Ireland to decide if and for how long it will stay aligned to the single market and customs union. And that’s exactly as it should be. But think about what that will mean. Wales will have voted to leave. England will have voted to leave. Northern Ireland will be given a say over its future.

“Scotland will be the only country in the U.K. to be taken out of the EU against our will and with no say over our future relationship with Europe. That is not a partnership of equals.”

Sturgeon also said there is “no doubt” the SNP is “winning the case for independence” of Scotland from the U.K., and that the Scottish government is getting ready to hold a second referendum on the issue in 2020.

Michel Barnier: ‘Narrow path’ to Brexit deal still open

LUXEMBOURG CITY —  Michel Barnier thinks a Brexit deal is difficult but still possible this week.

The EU’s chief negotiator told ministers on Tuesday the U.K. and the EU are yet to resolve the issue of customs in Northern Ireland, working on a solution that implies that checks on goods will have to take place outside the island of Ireland in some way that aligns with EU law, according to a diplomat in the room. Experts from the European Commission have been brought into discussions since Sunday to try to resolve the issue and Barnier said a “narrow path” to a deal is still open.

However, he added that only one day remains for the two sides to agree a new version of the text if a deal is to be signed off by leaders at the European Council summit on Thursday, the diplomats said.

“Even if the agreement will be difficult, more and more difficult, to be frank, it is still possible this week,” Barnier told reporters as he arrived at Tuesday’s meeting of EU ministers in Luxembourg to debrief them on the intensive Brexit talks launched at the end of last week.

“Obviously, any agreement must work for everyone, the whole of the United Kingdom, and the whole of the European Union … it is high time to turn good intention in a legal text,” he said.

“We always have shown a great deal of flexibility, but that hasn’t led to the necessary changes in London unfortunately” — Michael Roth, German EU minister

Luxembourg’s Foreign Minister Jean Asselborn echoed Barnier’s more positive tone. “They will try to reach a deal by this evening, if not possible it’s likely there will be another summit. There is some optimism,” he said.

U.K. Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay made an unexpected visit to the meeting in Luxembourg. “The talks are ongoing. We need to give them space to proceed. But detailed conversations are under way and a deal is still very possible,” he said.

One EU diplomat said it’s possible there will be a new legal text Wednesday when EU27 ambassadors will meet to scrutinize it ahead of the gathering of EU leaders in Brussels on Thursday. This text must provide a feasible solution for the key problem of how to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, the diplomats say.

The new talks started to show signs of progress last Thursday after a meeting between U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar, leading Barnier to announce Friday the resumption of serious talks.

New talks started to show signs of progress last Thursday after a meeting between U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar | Noel Mullen/ Irish Government Press Office via Getty Images

However, ministers arriving at the General Affairs Council were skeptical.

“We always have shown a great deal of flexibility, but that hasn’t led to the necessary changes in London unfortunately,” said German EU Minister Michael Roth. “I won’t bet any money on a Brexit happening this week, but I will wait for Mr. Barnier’s presentation,” said Malta’s EU Minister Edward Zammit Lewis.

The two sides are exchanging draft texts, said another EU diplomat, but Brexit officials say they have not been informed of any new text presented by London. Another diplomat said the U.K. is expected to come back with a new draft for discussion Tuesday, though diplomats caution that a breakthrough doesn’t seem likely anytime soon.

In light of skepticism that a deal can be agreed in time, discussions are also focused on possible extensions to negotiations. Amélie de Montchalin, the French EU Minister, repeated the French position that “if a major political change was to intervene in the U.K, that could be the justification for an extension discussion if that was asked. A major political change would be new elections, a referendum, something that would change the political dynamic.”

Diplomats say an extension seems very hard to avoid as some think it will take at least a month to reach a deal. Much depends on how close the agreed solution is to the original EU plan, put forward in February 2018. Under that proposal, Northern Ireland would effectively stay in the EU’s single market and customs union after Brexit as part of a “backstop” provision for the Irish border, a mechanism designed to ensure that there is never a hard border on the island of Ireland whatever happens in future trade talks.

The latest discussions were triggered after the U.K agreed to restart talks using the February 2018 proposal as a starting point. The closer the final agreement is to that solution, the quicker it would be for the EU to reach a deal, one of the diplomats said.

Barnier told ministers there are now three possible scenarios: deadlock, further negotiations or an agreement on a legal text by Tuesday evening, something that he described as difficult but possible, said the diplomat in the room.

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A Brexit deal is still possible: Here’s how

LONDON — Over the past 24 hours hopes of a Brexit deal look to have faded. The two sides are as far apart as they have ever been.

Last week, the U.K. government finally put forward concrete proposals for changes it wants to the provisions ensuring there is no hard border on the island of Ireland — the so-called backstop. These came far too late and seem to have been widely rejected by the EU. Both sides have doubled down on their red lines and upped the blame game.

Yet in the U.K. Cabinet and in governments across the EU, there remains a strong desire to see a deal.

Despite the noise, there is still a very narrow path to a deal which both sides might be able to live with. But doing so requires compromise, pragmatism and flexibility — qualities which both sides have lacked at points over the past three years. Even this path will likely prove too much of a compromise, given Prime Minister Boris Johnson has promised to pull the U.K. out of the European Union by October 31.

This is not my ideal outcome but simply a route to a deal based on both sides’ position in recent weeks. For this reason, I will take the latest U.K. proposals as the starting point.

There are two major challenges with the U.K.’s proposals: the mechanism designed to give Northern Ireland a say and the viability of the customs solution.

Let me start with the positives, which should be acknowledged by the EU side. The U.K. has recognized that Northern Ireland aligning with EU rules and regulations on agrifood and industrial goods will likely need to be part of any solution.

The U.K. has also focused in on the Northern Ireland backstop — the mechanism designed to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland — and, by definition, accepted the rest of the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May’s team.

However, there are two major challenges with the U.K.’s proposals: the mechanism designed to give Northern Ireland a say and the viability of the customs solution.

Northern Irish consent

The U.K. rightly argues that asking Northern Ireland to indefinitely accept rules and regulations over which it has no say is both undemocratic and risks falling foul of the careful balance struck in the Good Friday Agreement.

Boris Johnson’s plan has given Arlene Foster’s DUP a critical role | Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

However, Johnson’s plan goes too far the other way. By allowing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), thanks to its role in any Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, an essential veto over whether the alignment on agrifood or industrial goods regulation ever comes into force and a veto every four years thereafter, a clear imbalance is created. Indeed, the default if the DUP do not agree will be to revert to a no-deal situation on the island of Ireland, raising the prospect of a hard border. This means continuous DUP approval is needed.

Moreover, the consent process only applies to certain parts of the new draft of the Northern Ireland Protocol — agrifood and industrial goods regulation, not customs and VAT.

Fortunately, these problems are far from insurmountable. Fundamentally, it is hard for the EU to disagree with some form of consent.

In seeking to find a solution to this problem it is worthwhile, as always, returning to the approach taken in the Good Friday Agreement, which provides for a check on consent if at any point in the future it looks as though both communities no longer support the status quo. Importantly, it ensures no single party in Northern Ireland has a veto.

We can apply this principle again here. Rather than being a continuous process of “opting-in,” there should be a consent mechanism which triggers an “opt-out” of the arrangements for Northern Ireland if, at some point in the future, they no longer enjoy support across the nation.

This would shift the default from being a no-deal scenario. It would provide for a trigger point to begin a new negotiation to find a way to address the unique circumstances regarding the border on the island of Ireland at some point in the future and would function as an exit mechanism, not holding Northern Ireland to EU standards indefinitely.

Furthermore, this principle of consent should be expanded to all aspects of the deal relating to the Irish border.

This could be done either via a referendum or through the Northern Ireland institutions (the Northern Ireland Executive and the Assembly). Both are legitimate, though I believe utilizing the institutions provides the most sensible route, demonstrating the validity and power of these institutions while avoiding setting a precedence of referenda in Northern Ireland which could have unintended consequences.

Of course, these institutions are currently suspended following a government breakdown and so a referendum could provide a fallback option if they are not up and running again in time.

Furthermore, this principle of consent should be expanded to all aspects of the deal relating to the Irish border. Far from being a hinderance to either side, a fair and balanced consent mechanism could provide a way through the second and far more difficult challenge: customs.

Stuck on customs

Finding a way through the customs issue will require both sides to bend red lines.

The U.K.’s current proposal essentially sees customs checks taking place away from the border on the island of Ireland and has four key problems, which are now fairly well reported. First, it requires significant exemptions from EU law on customs procedures, something which the EU has previously rejected due to the precedent it would set and because they believe it could undermine the integrity of the single market and customs union.

Second, this would be further exacerbated by a wider exemption for small and medium sized businesses from customs processes altogether.

Third, the proposal would mark a significant shift to the way of life on the island of Ireland and create huge administrative burdens and costs for business on both sides. That is why the proposals have been roundly rejected by businesses in Northern Ireland.

Signs point to an old customs and excise area on October 1, 2019 on the border between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images

Fourth, the plan risks not fitting with international law. At a minimum it would require a renegotiation of the Common Transit Convention (CTC) to allow checks to take place away from the border and/or to avoid the need for the transit document checks to be done at a physical office. The previous U.K. government tried to negotiate this during its accession to the CTC but failed to do so, partly due to EU opposition.

Furthermore, depending on the exact implementation, there are valid concerns as to whether the proposals meet World Trade Organization and World Customs Organization rules regarding the necessary checks involved in customs procedures between different customs territories.

A compromise solution

Fundamentally this is not a technical issue but a political one.

As the history of negotiations in Northern Ireland demonstrates, it is almost always impossible to find a solution which meets the red lines of all sides. Any solution is usually a complex compromise which gives everyone something to hold onto but meets no one’s goals entirely. This time is no different.

First, both sides should agree a set of objective criteria on which any “alternative arrangements” for avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland will be judged and make a legal commitment that their primary aim will be to secure such arrangements by the end of the transition period.

However, in the unlikely event that such arrangements cannot be put in place in time, both sides should agree that Northern Ireland will, as a fall back, remain in both the U.K.’s and the EU’s customs territory. This would need to be recognized in the legal text now, and would allow flexibility around when and where customs documentation and any physical checks need to take place.

The obvious place would be at entry points onto the island of Ireland such as ports and airports. This alone though would not be acceptable so needs to be supplemented by arrangements to minimize any checks on products moving from Great Britain for sale in Northern Ireland.

Given time is short, agreeing the legal text on all these points is unlikely to happen in time to allow the U.K. any hope of exiting on October 31.

There are two possible approaches here — both of which have already been worked on by the U.K. government. The first would be to adopt a “channels”-type approach not unlike systems that currently exist at airports, which would see goods destined for sale in NI going through a green channel while those for sale in Ireland would head to a red channel where necessary checks could take place. There would need to be significant increases in spot checks in the market to provide some assurance that goods being sold in Ireland have met all the necessary checks and requirements.

The second would be to adopt an approach which sees all customs procedures being completed up front but allows businesses that sell products in Northern Ireland to reclaim any differential in tariffs between the U.K. and EU. This would be similar to the New Customs Partnership previously proposed for the entire U.K. but purely on an island of Ireland basis, where it has a much greater chance of success (similar proposals have been put forward recently by the author and journalist Martin Sandbu).

Given time is short, agreeing the legal text on all these points is unlikely to happen in time to allow the U.K. any hope of exiting on October 31. However, the text could include legal commitments to the principles, and make clear the binding obligations on both sides to negotiate the detail during the transition period.

This will require the EU to relax its insistence that the text must be fully legally operational but it should remember that the deal as it stands already leaves many aspects to be worked out during the transition.

In reality, the exact details of how the dual customs territory is implemented in Northern Ireland is not in the end the most important part.  There would still need to be one final key ingredient for a deal — the expansion of the principle of consent.

Any approach would only hold so long as there remained support for it in Northern Ireland. This seems to me to be a statement of the obvious with which neither side could disagree. Of course, any solution will only prove to be enduring in Northern Ireland if there is cross community consent. As such, the consent mechanism set out above should also apply to the customs proposals.

Costs and benefits for both sides

This proposal requires compromises from both sides but also delivers benefits.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has said he’s committed to the U.K. leaving the EU from October 31, 2019 | Peter Summers/Getty Images

For the U.K. it would require an acceptance that it is not possible to agree legally operative arrangements for customs in the next 10 days. But it would set a clearer path to get to a workable system in future.

The price would be agreement by the U.K. that as a fallback, Northern Ireland could remain in both the U.K.’s and the EU’s customs territory. Crucially though this would now be subject to consent from Northern Ireland’s own institutions.

Under this plan, neither the U.K. as a whole, nor Northern Ireland, would risk being stuck in the backstop indefinitely. And the U.K. would be free from the first day after the transition period to agree new free-trade agreements with countries around the world.

I recognize this approach will be particularly difficult for the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) to agree to. But because Northern Ireland’s institutions will ultimately have the right to decide whether these particular arrangements are right for the country as a whole, this plan is consistent with the negotiating aims agreed in December 2017 and with the Good Friday Agreement.

Furthermore, it delivers the best of both worlds for Northern Ireland businesses, something sorely lacking in the current proposals, given it has good access to both the U.K. and EU markets.

In that way, it is not even the beginning of the end but it will at least be the end of the beginning.

From the EU perspective, such a solution has the potential to achieve the same objectives as the current backstop but through a different mechanism.

However, the EU may need to accept that not all the details will be finalized in legal text now. More importantly, they will have to concede that, at some point in the future, if consent is no longer forthcoming, there will need to be a renewed negotiation on how best to address the unique circumstances around the Irish border.

While this has been something they have rejected so far, the trade-off has now crystalized. The EU can either accept that this issue may have to be revisited at some undefined point in the future or it can gamble on a U.K. election that makes a no-deal Brexit much more likely.

Finally, for both, agreeing a deal will allow the EU to move on to other things. Further delay and an election may well not deliver any more clarity. Both sides are tired of this endless debate.

While I am not pretending that striking this deal will be the end — there will be many years of negotiations on the future relationship to come — it will allow the politics on both sides to move on and take some of the heat out of the debate by finally allowing the U.K. to leave the EU.

In that way, it is not even the beginning of the end but it will at least be the end of the beginning. That is the best we can all hope for at this stage.

Raoul Ruparel was the Prime Minister’s special adviser on Europe under Theresa May and has been directly involved in Brexit negotiations for the past three years.

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