U.K. Ministers Head to Brussels Seeking Elusive Brexit Deal
(Bloomberg) -- U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May will face her divided cabinet on Tuesday as the attorney general and Brexit secretary travel to Brussels to seek concessions from the European Union to help win Parliament’s backing for her divorce deal.
With just a week until she has to put her Brexit agreement to the House of Commons in a make-or-break vote, U.K. negotiators are reaching into obscure international treaty law to find a fix for the most toxic part of the split.
Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will try to negotiate legally binding changes to the so-called Irish backstop. If he succeeds, then May’s deal has a chance of getting through Parliament next week, allowing for an orderly divorce. If he fails, Britain tumbles into unprecedented political uncertainty -- with Brexit probably delayed.
And the anti-EU caucus in May’s Conservative Party will be watching closely for anything that falls short of their demands.
Any agreement must meet “the requirements of the Brady amendment, which commanded a majority in the House of Commons and calls for significant, legally-binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement,” said Michael Tomlinson, an MP and member of a group of lawyers commissioned by the European Research Group to scrutinize Cox’s work. “We support the Prime Minister in seeking treaty-level changes.”
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will join Cox for the talks in Brussels as tensions in May’s cabinet continue to bubble over.
At last week’s meeting, three ministers, Amber Rudd, David Gauke and Greg Clark, were criticized by colleagues after they wrote a newspaper article in which they effectively threatened to quit to stop a no-deal divorce.
As the cabinet gathers this week, fresh claims in Tuesday’s Times newspaper that May’s team have been briefing against Rudd -- citing unidentified “allies” of the Work and Pensions secretary -- won’t help to ease friction between its factions.
While the EU is reluctant to make concessions, European officials want May’s deal to get through Parliament before March 29 -- the day Britain is scheduled to leave. A delay would be messy for both sides, and the EU is divided as to how long any extension should be. That could just play in May’s favor.
U.K. negotiators are looking at whether the Vienna Convention on the law of treaties, a 1969 agreement, could provide an escape route, according to two EU officials. The convention sets out when governments can walk away from prior commitments.
The EU isn’t convinced, and instead is pushing for a solution based on arbitration. It’s prepared to add detail to the existing deal on how either side can demand arbitration if future talks fail to find a replacement to the backstop.
The backstop, the most contentious part of the divorce agreement, keeps the U.K. in a customs union with the EU “unless or until” a future trade deal or other arrangements make checks on the border unnecessary. Pro-Brexit members of May’s Conservative Party consider the backstop an unacceptable surrender of the U.K.’s future autonomy.
Talks between the two sides are focusing on helping Cox change his legal opinion of the backstop arrangement. In legal advice in December, Cox expressed concern about the existing wording. If he changes his mind, the idea is that pro-Brexit lawmakers fall into line.
“We need substantive changes that will allow the attorney general to change his advice to the government,” Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC Radio 4 on Tuesday. “As a sovereign parliament, it must not be possible to trap us in the European Union’s customs union indefinitely.”
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