22 | FEB | 2019
Brexit negotiations prompt another crisis in UK’s government
British Prime Minister Theresa May leaves 10 Downing Street in London, Great Britain - Photo: Toby Melville/REUTERS

Brexit negotiations prompt another crisis in UK’s government

Gabriel Moyssen
Mexico City
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A new political crisis has arisen in the UK’s government headed by Theresa May, after the resignation of David Davis and Boris Johnson, due to their opposition to the “Chequers agreement” for the country’s withdrawal from the EU

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A new political crisis has arisen in the United Kingdom’s government headed by Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May, after the resignation of two leading figures from her cabinet, David Davis and Boris Johnson, due to their opposition to the “Chequers agreement” for the country’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Last Friday, May supposedly reached a deal with her cabinet for a “soft-Brexit” in the Prime Minister’s private house at Chequers, 65 kilometers north west of London, in what is now described as a “pyrrhic victory” by her critics and the British press.

Already weakened by the Labour triumph in the snap elections of 2017, as well as the protracted and consuming process trying to “square the circle” and retain access to the EU’s Single Market while breaking with its laws on key issues such as immigration, mobility, legal bodies and financial services, May produced a white paper for the ongoing negotiations with Brussels that proved to be unsatisfactory for both the hardline Brexiters and the private sector.

On Saturday, the founders of several corporations signed a letter stating that the “Chequers agreement” would burden business with additional costs and demanding full customs union with the EU.

Britain has an 80% services-based economy, yet these are not covered by May’s proposals that will not safeguard the status of the City of London, the financial hub threatened by the possible flight of banking firms to Paris, Frankfurt, and other European centers.

The plan outlines a “facilitated customs arrangement” aimed at preventing a hard border in Ireland by creating an EU-UK free trade area with the UK abiding by a “common rule book” of European regulations for food and goods.

The Irish border is one of the intractable problems since Northern Ireland voted against Brexit in the 2016 historic referendum and the European Union membership is seen as a guarantee for the 1998 peace deal in the province both in Dublin and Belfast.

In addition, goods arriving in Britain would attract a tariff set independently of EU rates.

British customs officials, in a system yet to be devised, would then collect a potentially higher EU tariff to remit to Brussels on goods passing through the UK on route to the European Single Market.

Two months to agree

Confederation of British Industry Director-General Carolyn Fairbairn summarized the skepticism towards the plan, saying that “it has taken two years for the UK to agree its position; we now have two months to agree on it with Europe”.

Some 48 hours later, Secretary of State for Exiting the EU David Davis wrote in his resignation letter that abiding by collective cabinet responsibility would not “deliver on the mandate of the referendum, and on our manifesto commitment to leave the Customs Union and the Single Market.”

A free trade area governed by the “common rule book”, which was last updated in 1997, “hands control of large swathes of our economy to the EU and is certainly not returning control of our laws in any real sense,” Davis said, despite the fact that the initiative is intended to allow the UK to diverge on the regulation for digital and other services.

The pressure over May increased after the resignation of Boris Johnson as Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs―the third minister in 24 hours to walk out the government in protest―, and he could be preparing a Tory leadership challenge.

Considered a candidate to Downing Street since the Vote Leave campaign, the flamboyant Johnson did not mince words in his resignation letter, declaring that May’s plan amounted to “a semi-Brexit.”

Johnson quit on Monday, just half an hour before May was due to address the House of Commons.

He claimed that the UK is heading “for the status of a colony” and said that he tried to support the line agreed at Chequers, but while the “government now has a song to sing”, the trouble “is that I have practised the words over the weekend and find that they stick in the throat”.

Along with Davis and Johnson, Under-secretary for Brexit Steve Baker also resigned, followed on Tuesday by Tory vice-chairs Maria Caulfield and Ben Bradley a few minutes before May and German Federal Chancellor Angela Merkel’s press conference in London was due to begin.

The Labour Party now is 40%-38% ahead of the Conservatives according to polls, while 61% of Tories think May’s plan would be a bad deal for Britain.

If at least 48 members of Parliament send letters to Graham Brady, chair of the backbench 1922 Committee, May would face a vote of no confidence, and if she lost, she would face a leadership challenge, with Johnson among the potential candidates.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn highlighted that “more and more people are losing faith that this government is capable of delivering a good Brexit deal.”

For its part, Keir Starmer, Shadow Brexit secretary, said that the party respect the 2016 referendum result, yet they believe that “any deal should be subject to a meaningful vote in Parliament”; he added “we are not ruling out a second referendum,” as is demanding the new Left Against Brexit movement.

During the press conference, Merkel said “it was a good thing we have proposals on the table”, less than one year before “exit day,” scheduled on 29 March 2019.

The EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, stressed that an agreement is possible by October or November; earlier, he had described proposals similar to the “Chequers agreement” as “magical thinking.”


Eurosceptic Ministers quit in blow to Brexit plan

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Eurosceptic Ministers quit in blow to Brexit planEurosceptic Ministers quit in blow to Brexit plan

Edited by Sofía Danis
More by Gabriel Moyssen

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