Belfast Telegraph

Theresa May promises greater role for Parliament in EU talks

Poland breaks ranks with EU partners in suggesting a five-year time limit for the controversial Brexit backstop.

Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement to MPs in the House of Commons, London on her new Brexit motion. (PA Wire/PA Images)
Prime Minister Theresa May makes a statement to MPs in the House of Commons, London on her new Brexit motion. (PA Wire/PA Images)

Theresa May has promised to take a more “flexible, open and inclusive” approach to involving Parliament in negotiating a future relationship with the EU as she seeks to revive her Withdrawal Agreement.

And she said she would conduct further talks this week on the controversial Brexit backstop to find an arrangement to take back to Brussels that meets obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland “in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House”.

In a statement to the House of Commons, the PM also offered a guarantee that workers’ rights and environmental safeguards would not be eroded as a result of Brexit.

And she  scrapped the £65 fee for EU nationals wishing to remaining in the UK with “settled status”.

Mrs May again voiced her opposition to delaying or halting the UK’s planned departure from the EU on March 29, telling MPs she did not believe there was a majority in the Commons for a second referendum.

And she refused to take a “no deal” Brexit off the table, saying the only way to do this was either to agree a deal or to revoke the Article 50 withdrawal process, which she was not willing to do.

Mrs May was addressing MPs after holding cross-party talks in the wake of the overwhelming rejection of her Withdrawal Agreement by the Commons  last week.

Insisting the Government approached the talks “in a constructive spirit”, Mrs May said she regretted Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to boycott them.

But Mr Corbyn dismissed the talks as “phoney”, telling MPs: “The Prime Minister must change her red lines, because her current deal is undeliverable.”

Mrs May’s statement came as Poland broke ranks with the rest of the European Union by suggesting that the Brexit deadlock could be ended by putting a five-year time limit on the controversial “backstop”.

The Prime Minister emphatically dismissed reports that she was considering rewriting the Good Friday Agreement to neutralise the issue.

Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney met chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels on Monday and said he received assurances that the EU remains “firmly supportive” of the Withdrawal Agreement in full, including its guarantees of no hard border in Ireland.

Mr Barnier himself said:  “We are working 27 as a team, a single team and we negotiate as one.”

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Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney held talks with EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier in Brussels (European Commission Audiovisual Services/PA Images)

But Poland’s foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz signalled a different approach from Warsaw, telling the Rzeczpospolita newspaper: “If Ireland asked the EU to amend the agreement with the British on the backstop so that it would apply temporarily – let’s say five years – the matter would be solved.

“It would obviously be less favourable for Ireland than an indefinite backstop, but much more advantageous than no-deal Brexit.”

Mr Czaputowicz said that London and Dublin were “playing chicken” over the border and risked a “head-on collision” in which Ireland stood to “lose the most”.

In her statement, Mrs May said: “I will be talking further this week to colleagues – including in the DUP – to consider how we might meet our obligations to the people of Northern Ireland and Ireland in a way that can command the greatest possible support in the House.

“And I will then take the conclusions of those discussion back to the EU.”

Spelling out the approach she plans to take to negotiations on post-Brexit relations between the UK and EU, Mrs May said: “It is my responsibility to listen to the legitimate concerns of colleagues, both those who voted Leave and who voted Remain, in shaping our negotiating mandate for our future partnership with the EU.

“So the Government will consult this House on its negotiating mandate, to ensure that Members have the chance to make their views known, and that we harness the knowledge of all select committees, across the full range of expertise needed for this next phase negotiations – from security to trade.

“This will also strengthen the Government’s hand in the negotiations, giving the EU confidence about our position and avoiding leaving the bulk of Parliamentary debate to a point when we are under huge time pressure to ratify. ”

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Louise Hummerstone and Hugh Riddle of the SODEMAction group campaign against Brexit on a motorway bridge above the M20 near Ashford in Kent (Gareth Fuller/PA)

And she added: “I will ensure that we provide Parliament with a guarantee that not only will we not erode protections for workers’ rights and the environment but we will ensure this country leads the way.”

A senior member of Angela Merkel’s Government, industry minister Peter Altmaier, warned against trying the EU’s patience for political reasons.

“Sympathy, patience and readiness to wait until the UK’s position will be clarified are of utmost important to avoid the worst,” warned Mr Altmaier.

“They should not be misused for party politics. Large majority wants to exclude hard Brexit – in the interest of the UK and beyond.”

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(PA Graphics)

Unusually, MPs will be able to amend the so-called “neutral motion” being tabled by the Prime Minister, with votes due to take place on January 29.

One group, including senior Labour MP Yvette Cooper and Tory former minister Nick Boles, is seeking to give time for a Bill to suspend the Article 50 withdrawal process if there is no new deal with Brussels by the end of February.

Another more radical amendment drawn up by former attorney general Dominic Grieve would allow a motion by a minority of 300 MPs – from at least five parties and including 10 Tories – to be debated as the first item of Commons business the next day.

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Business Minister Richard Harrington warned that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be an ‘absolute disaster’ (Chris McAndrew/UK Parliament/PA)

Business minister Richard Harrington warned that crashing out of the EU without a deal would be an “absolute disaster”, telling Today he was “afraid” of car-makers Jaguar and Mini closing as a result.

“It’s not a road to a free trade agreement, it’s not a road to anything,” said Mr Harrington. It’s an absolute disaster for the country and it’s supported by a minority of a minority of people.”

Cross-party talks were continuing in Whitehall, with Mrs May’s effective deputy David Lidington speaking to MPs who support a second referendum.

Labour MPs Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Gavin Shuker and Luciana Berger defied Jeremy Corbyn’s plea for the party’s MPs to boycott the talks.

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