The Hindu Business Line

Tories fume at May’s plan to hold talks with Labour, but EU welcomes move

Brussels warns the UK will still have to pass the withdrawal agreement by April 12

- VIDYA RAM

British Prime Minister Theresa May’s plan to hold talks with leader of the Opposition Jeremy Corbyn, in an effort to break the Brexit deadlock, has received a cautious welcome from EU officials, who have warned that the UK will still have to pass the withdrawal agreement by April 12 if it wants a deadline extension that would involve a no-deal crashout.

A new political battle has also erupted in the Conservati­ve Party as one minister resigned and some expressed their outrage at the decision to engage with the Labour Party, which they warned would shift Britain towards a softer Brexit.

Corbyn, who welcomed the offer of talks, has said the party will continue to push for a customs union with the EU, strong guarantees around workers and consumer rights, and environmen­tal protection­s in line with EU standards.

Corbyn said the Prime Minister’s plan would provide an opportunit­y for Parliament to vote on proposals to avoid a no-deal Brexit and give “security and certainty” to the public. Labour’s proposals centre on being part of a customs union with the EU and introducin­g protection­s for workers, and consumers as well as environmen­tal protection­s.

Legal difficulti­es

However, the May plan has also divided Labour supporters, amid indication­s that the party would not push for a confirmato­ry public vote if its conditions were to be adhered to.

European Commission President Jean Claude Juncker said that the developmen­ts in the UK meant they had a “few more days.” “If the United Kingdom is in a position to approve the Withdrawal Agreement with a sustainabl­e majority by 12 April, the European Union should be prepared to accept a delay until 22 May,” he told the European Parliament on Thursday. “Britain has been keen to avoid an extension beyond May 22 because this would pose legal and logistical difficulti­es relating to European Parliament­ary elections due to take place on May 23.

However, the withdrawal agreement would have to be approved by the House of Commons by April 12. “If it has not done so by then, no further short extension will be possible. After 12 April, we risk jeopardisi­ng the European Parliament elections, and so threaten the functionin­g of the European Union.”

The British government has insisted it has been left with little choice but to reach out to Labour after Conservati­ves and their partners, the Democratic Unionist Party of Northern Ireland, insisted they could never support May’s deal in its current manifestat­ion.

Their concerns centre around the backstop that would put the UK in a customs union with the EU were negotiatio­ns on future relations to break down, in order to prevent a “hard” border developing (left) European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and EU chief Brexit Negotiator  Michel Barnier

on the island of Ireland.

Even the government’s legal adviser has acknowledg­ed that there is no mechanism for the UK to exit the backstop unilateral­ly. “It is the remorseles­s logic of not backing the Prime Minister’s deal,” Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay told the BBC on Wednesday morning.

“It is very disappoint­ing that the Cabinet has decided to entrust the final handling of Brexit to Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party,” said Boris Johnson, former Foreign Secretary and hard Brexiteer. “It now seems all too likely that British trade policy and key law-making powers will be handed over to Brussels — with no say for the UK,” he added, insisting that there were no circumstan­ces in which he could support being part of a customs union with the EU. Johnson, who had twice voted against May’s withdrawal deal because of the Irish backstop arrangemen­t in it, supported the deal last Friday after May said she would step down to make way for a successor in time for the next phase of negotiatio­ns if her deal were agreed to. He was not alone as other MPs pushing for a “hard” Brexit lambasted the decision to open talks with Corbyn, with one — Jacob Rees-Mogg — describing him as a “known Marxist.” Nigel Adams, Minister for Wales, resigned from the government, accusing May of making a “grave error.”

The DUP also attacked the decision to engage with Labour, accusing the government of “subcontrac­ting the future of Brexit” to a man whom the Conservati­ves had “demonised for four years.”

Series of alternativ­es

The customs union solution would solve the hard border risk in Northern Ireland, and would be welcomed by businesses through the avoidance of the tariff issue.

However, Brexiteers believe it would not amount to the Brexit that had been promised to people in the referendum because it would not leave Britain free to make its own trade deals with the rest of the world on its own terms.

Neverthele­ss, the customs union deal came the closest to commanding a parliament­ary majority in a series of indicative votes on alternativ­e Brexit options earlier this week. It lost by just three votes.

May has now indicated that should Labour and the government fail to come up with a solution, they would put a series of alternativ­es to Parliament which could then be voted on. “The government stands ready to abide by the decision of the House,’ she said on Tuesday evening following a lengthy cabinet meeting that spanned seven hours.

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