Brexit Bulletin: Seeking Assurances

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315 Days to Go

(Bloomberg) -- Today in Brexit: Theresa May sought assurances from the European Union that it would accept her new proposal on the Irish border. She didn’t get them.

The prime minister made the most of a gathering of leaders in Bulgaria to sound them out about what kind of reception she can expect for her latest idea of how to break the deadlock over the divided island of Ireland.

EU President Donald Tusk told her that it was too early to give any assurances because of the “disorientating” messages the EU was getting from London, Ian Wishart reports a senior EU official as saying.

May’s plan for solving the intractable Irish border issue would keep the U.K. tied to the EU’s customs rules for years after Brexit as a last resort. It is politically risky for her as it could provoke pro-Brexit Tories to try to oust her. Getting Brussels onside early would offer some political cover.

So with just five months to go until there’s supposed to be a deal, where are we? Here’s a rundown:

  • Talks are deadlocked on how to avoid a policed border between the Republic of Ireland, an EU member, and Northern Ireland, which is part of the U.K. May’s government has come up with a new proposal, but the EU isn’t buying it, at least not in its current form.
  • May’s team has agreed to the idea of keeping the U.K. tied to EU customs rules for years after Brexit. It’s pitched as a last-resort option to solve the Irish issue, but it’s not hard to see why pro-Brexiters fear – and Remainers hope – that it’s just the start of a bigger concession.
  • There’s a growing sense that some kind of extension is going to be needed beyond the two-year transition that’s already been agreed to. So Brexit day is March 2019 but it might not feel real until a few years later. Whatever new customs setup the government aims for, it probably won’t be ready in time. While the U.K. is hinting at piecemeal extensions, the EU view is that it’s all or nothing .
  • The Cabinet is still divided about what Brexit should mean for future U.K.-EU ties and trade. May wants to force a decision by next month.
  • There’s some key legislation that has the potential to push the government to change its stance and keep closer ties to the EU. May is delaying putting it to a vote.
  • The Brexit purists continue to issue veiled threats when they think they’re about to be betrayed, but they may not have the numbers to topple May. 
  • What do voters think? Polls show a slight shift against Brexit, but it’s too close to call
  • By October both sides say they want a deal. Then it’s meant to go to Parliament, in what could become a dramatic showdown
  • But don’t tune out. There’s a crunch before then: the run-up to the June 28 summit. The EU wants progress on Ireland and if there isn’t any, expect threats and fiery rhetoric at least. If May concedes too much, expect outrage from the Brexit hardliners.

Today’s Must-Reads

  • May’s move to keep the U.K. inside the EU’s core trade rules for years after Brexit – as a last resort to solve the Irish border issue – increases the risk of a rebellion from euroskeptics who could force her out, Tim Ross writes.
  • The re-emergence in the debate of the option of staying in the single market is bad news for Brexit backers, Tim Harford argues in the Financial Times. If it becomes a clear possibility, remaining in the bloc will start looking more attractive by comparison, he says.

Brexit in Brief

Too Much at Stake | Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said there’s too much at stake for negotiations on Brexit to fail, and that “hopefully” a deal will be reached in October despite mounting frustration in talks.

Labour Split | Four Labour lawmakers from Northwest England have sent an open letter to the Mirror calling for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. Last week five Labour lawmakers signed a similar letter. The party leadership isn’t endorsing a second vote.

Naming Lords | May is expected to create about 10 Tory peers in an attempt to improve her position in the House of Lords, the Guardian reports. The Conservatives don’t have a majority in the Lords, which has voted against the government on May’s key Brexit legislation 15 times.

Clear Conscience | Pro-EU Tory rebel Kenneth Clarke says that if May is defeated in Parliament over Brexit there’s no reason that should trigger an election. “The House of Commons can pass an amendment, actually bring some sanity into the customs debate and Theresa will be pressed by the party to carry on, certainly with no election.”

Down in the Douro | Brexit is casting a cloud over Port, the sweet fortified wine that symbolizes the U.K.’s links with one of its oldest allies. Producers worry about restrictions to trade, the weaker pound, and whether it will still enjoy the protected status that EU geographical origin labels give products like Champagne and Parma ham.

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