Britain and Brussels were locked in a standoff over Brexit today as Geoffrey Cox rejected the EU’s demand for new ideas on the backstop.
With just five days until a showdown vote in Parliament on the deal – which Mrs May faces losing by up to 100 – the Attorney General insisted his proposals were ‘clear as day’.
Acrimonious talks between Mr Cox and the EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier ended in deadlock on Tuesday night with both sides admitting the ‘robust’ and ‘difficult’.
Downing Street insisted today MPs still needed ‘legally binding’ guarantees the Irish border backstop would not be permanent to pass the deal on Tuesday night.
EU officials have said they are prepared to work through the weekend on the problem but only if Britain offers new suggestions.
Chancellor Philip Hammond today warned Brexiteers to back the deal anyway insisting it is the ‘last chance’ to leave the EU on time today.
The Chancellor said a second loss for the Prime Minister would leave the fate of Brexit ‘highly uncertain’ as he predicted MPs would then vote to rule out no deal and delay Brexit.
If the PM’s deal is defeated on Tuesday night, MPs will vote on whether to rule out no deal on Wednesday before deciding whether to delay Brexit on Thursday.
The EU has warned Theresa May (pictured leaving No 10 tomorrow) she must offer ‘acceptable’ new ideas within 48 hours if she wants to salvage talks on the Brexit deal
With just five days until a showdown vote in Parliament on the deal, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (pictured in the Commons today) insisted his proposals were ‘clear as day’
The EU Commission has told the UK Government to come up with its new ideas by tomorrow night if they want Michel Barnier (pictured yesterday in Brussels) and his officials to work on them through the weekend
With just five days until the crunch vote on May’s Brexit deal, estimates suggest Mrs May is well short of the votes needed to win on Tuesday
As the stand off continued today, Theresa May’s official spokesman said: ‘Talks are ongoing. The EU continues to state it wants Britain to leave with a deal.
‘Parliament requires us to get legally binding changes to the backstop.’
Peers demand the UK stays in a customs union after Brexit
The House of Lords has demanded Britain stays in a Customs union with the EU after Brexit.
Last night, peers defied 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 carried 207-141 – 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.
Mr Cox rejected EU claims Britain has not offered clear proposals today, telling MPs: ‘We have been engaging in focused, detailed and careful discussions with the Union and we continue to seek legally-binding changes to the backstop which ensure that it cannot be indefinite.
‘These discussions will be resumed shortly.’
He added: ‘We are discussing text with the European Union. I am surprised to hear the comments that have emerged over the last 48 hours the proposals are not clear. They are as clear as day and we are continuing to discuss them.’
The European Commission’s chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas insisted: ‘There are technical meetings ongoing, happening, and then of course all remains to be confirmed if and when, when and if, we have something to be presented, as always you will be the first to know.’
He added: ‘President Juncker is available 24/7 as all our Article 50 teams and everyone involved – we are in permanent contact.’
Mr Hammond told broadcasters: ‘If we don’t pass the meaningful vote on Tuesday we’ll go into a parliamentary process that very likely will lead to an extension of time and an uncertain outcome, more uncertainty for the British economy, more uncertainty for people across the country.
How frosty EU sent Britain back ‘with nothing’ in fiery talks between Geoffrey Cox and Brussels’ Michel Barnier
The EU sent Attorney General Geoffrey Cox packing as ‘difficult’ and ‘negative’ 11th hour talks failed again leaving
Mr Cox has openly admitted he had ‘robust’ conversations with his counterpart Michel Barnier – diplomatic code for a bust-up – as he returned from Brussels empty handed last night with one source claiming: ‘There is no light at the end of the tunnel’.
Without a breakthrough the Prime Minister’s Brexit deal faces another catastrophic Commons defeat with a senior Tory admitting: ‘Everything is going to be s***’ if they lose again next week.
Mr Barnier, who has led negotiations, reportedly would not budge and ‘did not want to engage’ as he knocked back all the British proposals to break the Irish backstop deadlock demanding Britain ‘re-drafts’ its plans again.
EU sources hit back by claiming Mr Cox had produced ‘nothing new’ and was offering ‘a legal solution to a political problem’ with his mini-backstop proposals, adding: ‘The two sides are still far from each other’.
Sabine Weyand, Mr Barnier’s deputy, has spoken to the remaining EU27 member state ambassadors on the negotiations with Mr Cox with a briefing note describing the crunch talks as ‘negative’.
One diplomat said: ‘There’s no light at the end of the tunnel. It was gloomy’.
Another said: ‘We’re still far from an agreement. There’s no text on the table. If there’s some progress. The point is always the same: how to phrase the backstop in a way that could be acceptable for the UK.’
‘It’s very important that my colleagues think about the consequences of not agreeing this deal.
‘This is now the last chance to be confident that we can get this deal done and we can leave the EU on schedule.’
Mr Hammond refused to be drawn on how he would vote if Mrs May’s deal is defeated and MPs are asked whether they want to delay Britain’s exit from the EU.
‘I’m not going to speculate about something that hasn’t happened and I don’t think will happen because I think the Government is very clear where the will of Parliament is on this,’ he told Today.
‘Parliament will vote not to leave the European Union without a deal next Wednesday, I have a high degree of confidence about that.
‘But we do need to have clear confirmation. It’s right that Parliament should make that decision and then we’ll put the question about extending Article 50 and how we try to break this impasse by finding a consensus.’
Following Tuesday’s meeting, 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.
And in a warning there will be no significant concessions from the EU, French Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau today said the deal cannot be reopened.
She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme the deal was the ‘best possible solution’, and said: ‘We cannot reopen this negotiation on the Withdrawal Agreement because it is balanced…
‘We don’t like the backstop, we don’t want to have to implement it, and if we have to, we don’t want to stay in the backstop.
‘We all agree that it should be temporary, and that it’s a last resort solution.’
Philip Hammond (pictured in Downing Street yesterday) warned Brexiteers voting for Theresa May’s deal on Tuesday is the ‘last chance’ to leave the EU on time today
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.
‘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.
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
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.’