Hammond expects breakthrough within days

BRUSSELS: European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (R) welcomes British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) as she arrives at the EU headquarters in Brussels to hold a meeting on Brexit talks on Wednesday.—AFP

BRUSSELS: Prime Minister Theresa May said she had made “progress” in talks with the EU on Wednesday as she sought to extract concessions on the terms of Britain’s divorce, but as expected there was no major breakthrough.

With less than six weeks until Brexit day, May met European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker hoping for movement on the “Irish backstop” issue-after EU leaders insisted they would not restart negotiations. Fears are growing that Britain could yet crash out without a deal, and there was fresh drama just before May headed to Brussels as three of her MPs resigned from her Conservative party in protest over Brexit to join a new independent group of lawmakers.

Citing the risk of a “hard” Brexit, ratings agency Fitch on Wednesday warned it could downgrade Britain, while the pound slipped against the US dollar.

A joint statement from May and Juncker called their meeting “constructive”, striking a slightly more positive tone than when they met a fortnight ago. “The two leaders agreed that talks had been constructive, and they urged their respective teams to continue to explore the options in a positive spirit,” the statement said.

Separately, May said she had stressed the need for “legally binding changes to the backstop”-though the EU has ruled this out. “We’ve agreed that work to find a solution will continue at pace, time is of the essence and it’s in both our interests that when the UK leaves the EU it does so in an orderly way. And so we’ve made progress,” May said.

May and the other 27 EU leaders approved a Brexit withdrawal agreement at a summit on November 25 last year, but the British leader’s own parliament rejected it overwhelmingly on January 15.

Since then, May and her ministers have repeatedly met EU leaders and their negotiator Michel Barnier to urge them to reopen the text to find a way to appease eurosceptic MPs.

‘Backstop’ stumbling block
The main stumbling block has been the Irish backstop, which provides for Britain to remain in the EU customs union until a way is found-such as a future free trade deal-to ensure that Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland remains open. Brexiteers in May’s own Conservative party see this as a “trap” to keep Britain tied to the bloc indefinitely, and have demanded a time limit or exit clause.

But such a clause would be seen in Brussels as a betrayal of EU member Ireland and has consistently been given short shrift by EU officials.

May and Juncker’s statement indicated a fresh push to see what guarantees the EU could offer on the backstop to convince skeptical MPs it will not be used to trap Britain.

It also suggested the political declaration outlining plans for future EU-UK ties could be beefed up to “increase confidence” that both sides will try to reach a future deal as soon as possible, so the backstop never has to be used.

May said her Brexit Minister Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox would be back in Brussels on Thursday-just three days since their last visit-as the pace of negotiations picks up.
A European source said Cox, whose legal analysis of May’s deal confirmed Brexiteer fears, will have a key role to play. If Brussels does enough on the backstop to persuade Cox to soften his advice, it could help swing the parliamentary arithmetic behind the prime minister.

Britain’s finance minister Philip Hammond said yesterday there had been “some movement” by the European Union that could lead to a breakthrough in Brexit talks in “the next few days”.

Hammond said progress in the ongoing negotiations could result in a fresh vote next week on prime minister Theresa May’s EU divorce deal, which was rejected by lawmakers last month.

“There may be an opportunity to bring a vote back to the House of Commons,” he told the BBC.

“But that will depend on progress that’s made over the next few days. These discussions are ongoing.”

May and the other 27 EU leaders approved a Brexit withdrawal agreement at a summit on November 25 last year, but the British parliament voted against it overwhelmingly on January 15. Since then, she and her ministers have repeatedly urged EU leaders and their negotiator Michel Barnier to revise a “backstop” clause in the text on the Irish border that is hated by eurosceptic MPs.

EU chiefs have insisted they will not reopen the legally-enforceable withdrawal deal, but could add to an accompanying political declaration which sets out aspirations for the future relationship.

May met with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker on Wednesday hoping for movement on the contentious backstop, as fears grow Britain could crash out of the bloc without a deal on March 29.

le alternative arrangements could play in replacing the backstop in future”. Hammond said the statement constituted “some movement from the European side”.
Despite officials in both Brussels and London playing down suggestions that an EU-Arab summit this weekend could become a Brexit “deal in the desert” meeting, Hammond added May’s attendance was an “opportunity to talk to some of the European counterparts there”.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox were set to hold “detailed discussions” with Barnier in Brussels on Thursday, according to Downing Street.

Cox-whose previous legal analysis of May’s deal confirmed Brexiteer fears the backstop could “trap” Britain indefinitely in an EU customs union-is seen as an influential figure if the prime minister is to get her agreement through parliament. – AFP