Theresa May’s plan to bring a new Brexit deal home from Brussels stalled last night after the EU refused to grant the UK ‘very reasonable’ assurances over the Irish border backstop.
It came after a heated stand-off between EU negotiators and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox as he set out the extra pledges that Britain needs.
Mr Cox walked away empty-handed following four hours of talks after the Brussels team refused to make changes which would allow him to issue new legal advice that the backstop will not last indefinitely.
It cast fresh doubt on whether Mrs May can secure changes in time for the next vote on her Brexit deal, which she has pledged to hold by Tuesday.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, gave a gloomy assessment of the talks but said afterwards that he was ‘still determined’. EU officials are preparing to work round the clock this weekend, saying it is ‘unlikely’ an agreement will be reached before then and that talks will go down to the wire.
Theresa May’s plan to bring a new Brexit deal home from Brussels stalled last night after the EU refused to grant the UK ‘very reasonable’ assurances over the Irish border backstop
The latest row over the backstop – designed to prevent a hard border emerging in Ireland – centres around disagreements over language which could either form a new document to be added to the Withdrawal Treaty or sit alongside it, said to be taken from a letter written by European Commission President Jean-Claude Junker (pictured)
‘There’s no sign of a breakthrough and there will need to be some tough work in the days ahead if there’s going to be deal,’ one EU official said, adding that it was still possible negotiators could seal a deal by the end of the weekend.
But that would leave Mrs May just 24 hours to travel to Brussels to endorse the deal on Monday before taking it back to be voted on by MPs the next day.
Tory Brexiteers have already warned the Prime Minister they want at least two days to scrutinise any new offer and will not be ‘bounced’ into an early vote.
Mr Cox, who met Mr Barnier with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay, described Tuesday’s late-night talks as ‘robust’ as he returned to London yesterday.
He said: ‘We are into the meat of the matter now. We’ve put forward some proposals, very reasonable proposals, and we’re now really into the detail of the discussions.
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‘Both sides have exchanged robust, strong views and we are now facing the real discussions. Talks will be resuming soon.’
Last night it emerged that Mr Cox is trying to secure an ‘arbitration panel’ that would determine if the two sides were acting in good faith in trying to find alternatives to the backstop.
But according to a report on the BuzzFeed website, the idea was rejected by Mr Barnier.
Sources say Mr Cox and Mr Barclay could be back in Brussels as early as tomorrow to help push a deal over the line in time for next week’s vote.
Technical discussions, led by Mrs May’s chief Brexit adviser Olly Robbins, will continue in Brussels. Neither side is said to have presented any new formal text. The latest row over the backstop – designed to prevent a hard border emerging in Ireland – centres around disagreements over language which could either form a new document to be added to the Withdrawal Treaty or sit alongside it. According to EU sources, ‘inspiration’ for the text has been drawn from a joint letter sent to Mrs May by EU Commission and Council chiefs Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk in January.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, gave a gloomy assessment of the talks but said afterwards that he was ‘still determined’
This included a pledge to reach a future trade agreement ‘speedily’ and talked of a ‘firm determination’ to have an alternative to the backstop ready so it would either never have to be used or only triggered ‘temporarily’.
Negotiators are struggling with the ‘semantic’ challenge of agreeing a form of words which will please both sides.
Peers to demand the UK stays in a customs union after Brexit
The House of Lords is poised to demand Britain stays in a Customs union with the EU after Brexit today.
Peers are likely to defy Government pleas to amend the Trade Bill to make a customs union an ‘objective’ of the trade talks phase of Brexit negotiations.
The rebel amendment is widely expected to carry – setting up a new showdown when the legislation returns to the Commons.
MPs have to agree any changes made by the Lords and the Government would try to strip it from the Bill.
But PM Theresa May has only a feeble grip of the Commons and could be defeated by a handful of soft Brexit Tory rebels.
Downing Street acknowledged the talks were deadlocked, but insisted they would continue.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said: ‘The EU continues to say they want this resolved and they want the UK to leave with a deal. Parliament has been clear we need legally-binding changes to ensure the UK cannot be stuck in the backstop indefinitely.’
An EU Commission spokesman said: ‘While the talks were held under a constructive atmosphere, discussions have been difficult and we have not yet been able to identify any solution.’
Meanwhile, EU boats will be banned from fishing in UK waters if Britain leaves without a deal under a new law to be laid before Parliament today.
Environment Secretary Michael Gove will say boats which want to fish off the UK coast will need a licence from the Government.
MPs were warned last night they may lose their Easter holiday to push through Brexit legislation. It was the clearest hint yet that Brexit is set to be delayed.
Mr Gove warned MPs that votes on vital Brexit legislation could be held during Easter.
Chances of a super-soft Brexit deal increase as Labour bid to woo Tories with Norway-style EU agreement
- Jeremy Corbyn discussed the idea with a cross-party group of MPs last night
- Norway’s arrangement with EU forces it to accept free movement of people
- Comes after House of Lords voted for plans forcing permanent customs union
Norway’s arrangement with the EU forces it to accept the free movement of people ruled out by Labour’s 2017 manifesto.
But in a surprise move, the Labour leader discussed the idea with a cross-party group of MPs calling for the softest possible Brexit.
In a separate development last night, the House of Lords voted for plans that would force Theresa May to seek a permanent customs union with the EU after Brexit.
The moves underline fears at the top of Government that Parliament will seize control of the Brexit process if Mrs May’s deal is rejected for a second time on March 12.
Jeremy Corbyn discussed the idea of a Norway-style deal with the EU with a cross-party group of MPs
Chief Whip Julian Smith warned the Cabinet on Tuesday that Parliament would ‘try to force the Government into a customs union’ if the deal is defeated next week. Mrs May is considering a public warning on the issue tomorrow in the hope of pressuring MPs into supporting her proposals.
A Whitehall source said the PM could make a major speech ‘framing next week as the moment of decision for the country’.
What is the Common Market 2.0 plan?
MPs from across parties have been mooting the idea of a plan based on an enhanced version of the relationship Norway has with the EU.
It would effectively keep the UK in the single market, with a customs bolt-on to avoid a hard Irish border, and backers say it would keep Britain close to the EU while cutting contributions to Brussels.
However, critics say it has the drawbacks of keeping free movement, – and tightly limiting the possibilities for doing trade deals elsewhere.
The EU is also thought to have concerns about a country the UK’s size joining the EEA, while other states in the group might be resistant.
Yesterday’s talks involved Mr Corbyn, Tory ex-ministers Sir Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles and Labour backers of the Norway plan, Stephen Kinnock and Lucy Powell.
Mr Kinnock said the meeting involved talks about a Norway-style deal, adding: ‘There is a strong cross-party consensus for a pragmatic, bridge-building Brexit.’
Sir Oliver, working with Labour’s Yvette Cooper, is leading a push for Parliament to take control of the Brexit process.
Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith said last night it was ‘astonishing’ that senior Conservatives were willing to work with Labour’s hard-Left leader on plans that would undermine Government policy.
Last night, peers backed an amendment to the Customs Bill by a majority of 66 that would require Mrs May to seek a permanent customs union with the EU after Brexit. An alliance of Labour, Lib Dem, cross bench and some Tory peers defeated the Government by 207 votes to 141.
Labour’s trade spokesman in the Lords, Lord Stevenson of Balmacara, said: ‘Ministers must drop their red lines on Brexit and embark on a fresh approach to the negotiations with the EU based around a Customs Union that protects jobs, secures opportunities for our industries, and removes the need for a hard border in Ireland.’
Ministers had been resigned to losing last night’s vote, but No10 indicated it would seek to overturn the demand in the Commons, where MPs have already voted twice to reject a permanent customs union.
Mrs May’s spokesman said: ‘The PM has been clear about the importance of the UK being able to have its own trade policy.’
Norway is not in the customs union but is a member of the EU’s single market, and has to accept free movement, pay into the EU budget and accept EU laws. Senior Tories warn that making the UK a rule-taker undermines the idea that the UK is taking back control from the EU.
Northern Ireland faces harsh no deal impact, official warns
A no-deal Brexit could cause a sharp rise in unemployment in Northern Ireland, the head of the civil service said.
Inability to prepare, EU tariffs and significant changes to exports could cause business distress, failure or the relocation of some companies to the Republic, a report from David Sterling said.
The UK will leave the EU without a deal later this month unless MPs support the Prime Minister’s deal or Britain secures an extension from the EU.
Mr Sterling said: ‘The consequences of material business failure as a result of a ‘no-deal’ exit, combined with changes to everyday life and potential border frictions could well have a profound and long-lasting impact on society.
‘The planning assumptions include the possibility that, in some scenarios, a no-deal exit could result in additional challenges for the police if the approach appeared to be unfair or unreasonable for some of those most affected.’
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