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Raab in Brussels: Why no-deal Brexit is becoming more likely

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Dominic Raab
Britain’s Brexit Secretary
Dominic Raab.

Reuters

  • UK Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab will resume talks with
    EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on Tuesday.
  • Both sides need to agree on the Irish “backstop” for
    there to be any final deal.
  • The “backstop” is the fallback option for protecting
    the Irish border should the UK fail to come up with a workable
    solution.
  • But there are big obstacles in the way of an
    agreement.

LONDON — Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab heads to Brussels, Belgium
today in a fresh bid to sell the UK’s Brexit plan to the European
Union amid increasing concern over the prospect of no deal. 

Raab will meet with Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit
negotiator on Tuesday and Wednesday, before delivering a speech
on the state of Brexit talks in London on Thursday. 

Raab and the UK negotiating team have a big task on their hands.

The EU has already publicly rejected big chunks of the Brexit
blueprint laid out in Theresa May’s so-called Chequers proposals
earlier this summer, and time is running out to find a deal.

Here are the big issues which need to be resolved.


Dominic Raab
Dominic Raab
Jack
Taylor/Getty


Backstop, backstop, backstop: The Irish border problem

In order to avoid a no deal Brexit, both sides must find enough
common ground to sign the Withdrawal Agreement, which lays out
the terms of the UK’s departure.

If there isn’t a Withdrawal Agreement, the UK won’t get a
transition period. Without a transition, it will crash out of the
EU without a deal in March next year. That is the chaotic
situation most MPs wish to avoid.

So what’s stopping the UK from signing up to the Withdrawal
Agreement?

The EU wants the UK to agree to a “backstop” — a fallback option,
in effect — which would fully preserve the open border on the
island of Ireland should future trade negotiations fail to
produce a means of doing so.

The proposal is designed to ensure that no border emerges between
Northern Ireland and Ireland: any new infrastructure would break
the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and damage both economies.

The EU’s backstop proposal involves Northern Ireland staying
within the EU’s customs union and the single market for goods.
But Theresa May — despite agreeing to the backstop in December —
is adamant that this arrangement is unacceptable because it would
create a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the
rest of the UK.

In Belfast earlier this year, she warned that signing up to the
backstop would risk full-blown constitutional rupture.

“The economic and constitutional dislocation of a formal ‘third
country’ customs border within our own country is something I
will never accept and I believe no British Prime Minister could
ever accept,” she said.


Michel Barnier Leo Varadkar
The EU’s chief Brexit
negotiator Michel Barnier (left) and Irish Taoiseach leo
Varadkar.

REUTERS/Clodagh
Kilcoyne


There are big issues to resolve

And here’s where things become more complicated. The backstop is
only an emergency measure. It would take effect if the UK could
not come up with an alternative plan which avoids the need for
checks at the Irish border.

For that reason, the UK wants to talk about detailed customs
proposals which would be part of the future UK-EU relationship.
If May can persuade the EU to sign up to its plans for the future
relationship, it would avoid the need for a backstop altogether.

However, there are two big problems with that.

The first is that the UK’s proposals on customs checks are
unworkable or unpalatable from an EU perspective. The UK plan
relies on untested technology and also involves the UK — a
non-EU member state — collecting EU tariffs on the bloc’s behalf.
Barnier has said the plans would be
overly-complex and possibly even illegal.

The second, more fundamental problem is that the EU doesn’t want
to talk about future arrangements before it the backstop is
sorted. The backstop, it says, is a divorce issue, and part of
the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement.

It says Article 50 — and the Withdrawal Agreement — is a
“divorce” deal. It can’t legally be used as the basis to talk
about the UK’s future trading relationship. So both sides are at
an impasse — and time is running out to break it. 


Michel Barnier
Michel
Barnier.

Charles
McQuillan/Getty


The small matter of Westminster

Underpinning May’s thinking in negotiations is likely to be the
trickiest question of all: How can she secure a politically and
legally workable Withdrawal Agreement in Brussels which receives
support from a majority of MPs in Westminster?

Almost all Conservative MPs would reject the EU’s backstop
proposal, so signing up to the Withdrawal Agreement as it
currently exists is not an option for May. The party is still
called the Conservative and Unionist Party, and creating barriers
between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK would be an
anathema to almost any “unionist.”

It would also see the Conservatives lose the support of the
pro-Brexit, pro-Unionist DUP party, upon whose votes May relies
to support her wafer-thin working majority in the House of
Commons.

Time is running out to avoid a no deal Brexit

When Brexit talks got underway last year, both sides said they
wanted to have a deal in place by the European Council’s October
summit. Given that there has been minimal progress on the thorny
issue of Northern Ireland this summer, both sides have a lot of
work to do in the eight weeks that remain until that summit.

There is a strong possibility of talks going beyond the October
summit and into the New year. However, both the Westminster and
European parliaments need time to sign off any final deal before
the UK officially departs in March 2019. The UK government could
request an extension to Article 50 process in order to secure
more negotiating time. Whether the EU would agree to this is
doubtful. Sources in Brussels have told Business Insider that the
EU would only consider delaying Brexit if it was to make time for
a democratic process — i.e a second referendum.

The Institute For Government thinktank this week produced a chart
illustrating the various scenarios that could unfold in Brexit
talks, and why a no deal Brexit is a major
possibility.Brexit talks no deal timetableInstitute For Government

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