EU preparing for UK extension to Article 50

Written by Martin Banks on 12 March 2019 in News
News

European Parliament’s president Antonio Tajani says current Brexit agreement to be voted on by British MPs on Tuesday is EU’s 'last position'.

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Tajani was speaking in parliament in Strasbourg on Tuesday after the UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox gave a thumbs down to the so-called “legally-binding changes” brokered in Strasbourg late on Monday by Theresa May and EU leaders.

In his keenly-awaited legal assessment, Cox said that a legal risk remains "unchanged" and that if there were "intractable differences" between the parties the UK would have "no internationally lawful means of exiting" the Irish backstop arrangement.

He did say that the reassurances offered by the EU side on Monday reduce the risk of an indefinite trap within the backstop and also confirmed that it is a legally binding document. The clarifications, he noted, provide a substantive and binding reinforcement to the legal rights available to the UK.


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He gave the deal some credit, but pundits say that the fact that he says the legal risk essential remains will be enough to convince Eurosceptics to vote against it later on Tuesday in the UK parliament.

One well-placed observer said, “His opinion lowers the chances that the UK parliament will approve the hard-fought agreement clinched in Strasbourg late on Monday.”

Tajani, asked about Cox’s comments at a news briefing on Tuesday, said, “We worked hard on Monday with Mrs May but this is our last position. The clear message to the UK parliament is that we have offered more guarantees for the British. We need to work together because a no deal Brexit would be very negative both for the UK and EU.”

The Italian MEP added, “The new agreement should send a strong message to the UK and it should be clear that it is impossible to change our position.”

Further comment came from Keir Starmer, UK Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary, who, responding to the publication of the Cox’s legal advice, said, “The Attorney General has confirmed that there have been no significant changes to the Withdrawal Agreement despite the legal documents that were agreed last night. The Government’s strategy is now in tatters.”

"The clear message to the UK parliament is that we have offered more guarantees for the British. We need to work together because a no deal Brexit would be very negative both for the UK and EU” European Parliament President Antonio Tajani

Denis MacShane, a former UK Europe Minister, told this site, ”The deal has not been changed and the demands of the hard-line anti-European MPs for the Withdrawal Agreement to be re-opened have been rejected by the EU27.

“In addition Geoffrey Cox has made it clear that the tiny addition offered by Jean-Claude Juncker on Tuesday night does not give sufficient legal guarantees the UK could walk away from the backstop and thus threaten peace in Northern Ireland. I assume the deal will be voted down. Mrs May has one last option.

"That is to pivot to accepting that the UK stays in the Customs Union. This will win support from enough opposition MPs and a substantial number of Tory MPs and the DUP to pass. It will be opposed by veteran anti-EU Tory MPs and ministers Mrs May has sacked. But they are a minority in the Commons. Let us see if she has the leadership qualities to do this.”

If the deal brokered by May is defeated on Tuesday there will be a 2nd vote on a no deal Brexit on Wednesday. If, as expected, that also fails a 3rd vote will then take place soon afterwards on extending Article 50.

GUE group leader in the European Parliament Gabi Zimmer, who attended a Brexit steering group meeting late on Monday night to discuss the latest moves, said, “We talked at the meeting about an extension to Article 50 and we would be willing to support this for technical reasons but that also must be approved by all member states.

“If any extension is until 24 May you have to remember that that is when there are t European elections and, for that reason, it would be difficult to go beyond this date. The other scenario is a second referendum. Under that scenario we could talk about a longer extension period.

"We want an orderly Brexit but one of the biggest obstacles to this has been the fears of UK MPs that the EU might still have the power to ensure that the UK remains in a customs union indefinitely” GUE group leader in the European Parliament Gabi Zimmer,

“But the UK parliament must have a clear majority for this and I do not think that will happen." Zimmer added, “At Monday’s meeting we discussed what has been put on the table by the UK. I won’t go into the details but we – the EU - have given legal shape to the agreement in order to try to secure trust on the EU side. We want an orderly Brexit but one of the biggest obstacles to this has been the fears of UK MPs that the EU might still have the power to ensure that the UK remains in a customs union indefinitely.”

She said the two documents agreed on Monday between May and the EU offered a “clear statement” and were “not just fine words.” She said, “This belief was confirmed by both sides.”

“The key point is the assessment of Geoffrey Cox which will have a bearing on the vote later on Tuesday.” She warned that if the vote is defeated there is “no prospect” for further talks between the two sides.

On any possible delay to Brexit, she said that only a “technical reason” would justify this and, in any case, it could only be delayed until “mid-May at the latest.” She told reporters, “If there is a deferment we must be clear on what the UK wants to achieve. If there is no clear majority in the Commons for anything we just face the same questions over and over again, the same questions we have had in recent weeks.”

Further comment came from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn who said, “The Prime Minister's negotiations have failed. Last night's agreement with the European Commission does not contain anything approaching the changes Theresa May promised Parliament, and whipped her MPs to vote for”.

Jean-Claude Juncker said, "We agreed on a joint legally binding instrument relating to Withdrawal Agreement. It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all. Let’s now bring the UK's withdrawal to an orderly end. We owe it to history.

“There will be no third chance. I would like British MPs to approve the deal.”

About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter at The Parliament Magazine

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