U.K.'s Jeremy Hunt Says Brexit Talks Center on Defining ‘Temporary’
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s main focus in Brexit talks with its European Union counterparts is for a definition of the word “temporary” that persuades British lawmakers the country won’t be permanently tied to the bloc’s trade arrangements, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said.
Prime Minister Theresa May last month deferred a parliamentary vote on the Brexit deal she negotiated with Brussels, acknowledging she didn’t have the support to pass it. Ahead of a re-scheduled vote the week of Jan. 14, May’s seeking reassurances from the EU on the so-called Northern Ireland backstop -- a provision to ensure the U.K. border with Ireland remains open even if Britain and the EU fail to negotiate a trade deal by the end of 2020.
May had phone calls with other EU leaders during the Christmas break, though her office said this week there was “still work to do.” The bloc has said it won’t reopen the agreed text for negotiation, but Hunt said Wednesday Britain is not asking for anything new.
“The EU has agreed that the backstop is temporary and that’s a word they have agreed,” Hunt told the BBC. “What we are saying very simply is ‘we’re not asking for anything new, but we are asking you to define what temporary means so that we can have confidence that we’re not going to be trapped in the customs union forever.’”
The backstop provision is the main sticking point among members of May’s Conservative Party and her allies in Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party. They fear it would leave the U.K. trapped in the customs union, and impose barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country. In her New Year’s message, DUP Leader Arlene Foster said she’d be holding May to her commitment to secure changes.
“We are very mindful that any deal will bind the hands of future governments and prime ministers; therefore the legal text must be watertight,” Foster said. “Any deal which will undermine the economic or constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom single market will not have DUP support.”
In broadcast comments to reporters following a speech in Singapore, Hunt said that once May secures reassurances from the EU, “she will find a way to get this deal through Parliament.” He warned against two of the most commonly touted alternatives -- a no-deal Brexit and a second referendum.
The “disruption” of a no-deal departure “is not something that any government should willingly wish upon its people,” Hunt said, adding that another plebiscite on Brexit would have “devastating” social consequences because it would tell voters the government isn’t listening.
If May can’t get her deal through Parliament, the default position is for Britain to tumble out of the bloc on March 29 without a deal, and ministers have stepped up no-deal preparations to stave off the worst effects of a disorderly departure.
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told BBC Radio on Wednesday that ports in southeast England would be ready to handle any disruption.
“I am expecting the Channel ports to operate normally in all Brexit circumstances,” Grayling said. “I’ve had detailed discussions with the French, with French counterparts. They want to keep the channel ports moving freely and I’m confident that will happen.”
But his optimism contrasts with some of the bleak scenarios modeled by the government. In the worst case, a no-deal Brexit would cut the capacity of the country’s main EU trading route from the French port of Calais to Dover in southeast England to just 13 percent of the current level due to additional border checks. Authorities have also predicted miles of tailbacks at Dover from day one after any disorderly Brexit.
“We’re putting in place a bit of extra capacity for the start of the Brexit process just to ease the pressure on the ports,” Grayling said.
He also defended a government shipping contract issued to Seaborne Freight, a startup that doesn’t own ships, saying civil servants had done “due diligence” and believed the company could deliver the services required. It’s one of three contracts announced by the government in December designed to ease congestion at Dover.
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