Theresa May rejects Brussels’ plan for EU withdrawal treaty as threatening UK’s constitutional integrity
Brussels’ proposal for a ‘common regulatory area’ between the EU and Northern Ireland threatens the UK’s constitutional integrity, said the PM.
A final agreement on the terms of Britain’s EU withdrawal has been thrown into doubt, after Theresa May fiercely rejected a text drawn up by the European Commission, declaring: “No UK prime minister could ever agree to it”.
The Prime Minister told MPs that the paper – which proposes a “common regulatory area” between the EU and Northern Ireland – would “threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK” by creating a border down the Irish Sea.
With just three weeks to go until a Brussels summit at which the remaining 27 EU nations were expected to approve the draft text, Mrs May made clear that she wants a rewrite of the 120-page document.
And Brexit Secretary David Davis suggested that an alternative way of keeping the Irish border open can be expected to emerge from talks on the future EU/UK trade relationship, due to begin after the March 22 summit of the European Council.
Mrs May was applauded by the leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Arlene Foster, who said that the EU’s proposals were “constitutionally unacceptable and would be economically catastrophic for Northern Ireland”.
But she came under fire from her predecessor as Conservative prime minister Sir John Major, who dramatically intervened in the Brexit debate with a warning that the Government’s negotiating position was “not credible”.
Accusing Mrs May of tilting her policy too far towards an “ultra-Brexit” minority whose promises to voters had all been proved wrong, Sir John urged her to be ready to compromise by dropping her “red lines” of taking the UK out of the single market and customs union.
And he called on her to offer MPs a free vote on the final Brexit deal, with the option of putting it to the public in a second referendum.
Sir John denied he was trying to undermine the Prime Minister, who will set out her own Brexit vision in a major speech on Friday. But he was denounced as a “humbug” by arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg, who dismissed his warnings as “cheap comments and propaganda”.
Released in Brussels by chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the EU text puts into legal terms the agreement reached by Mrs May and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in December.
On the crucial issue of the Irish border, it spells out in detail how the principle of “regulatory alignment” agreed in December would be implemented if the UK fails to find technological or diplomatic solutions to keeping the border open.
If such solutions are not found, the draft text states, “the territory of Northern Ireland, excluding the territorial waters of the United Kingdom … shall be considered to be part of the customs territory of the Union”.
It suggests that EU and UK customs authorities should jointly oversee movements between Northern Ireland and the British mainland, while Europe would retain control over aspects of taxation and state aid in the six counties.
Answering questions in the Commons less than an hour after its publication, Mrs May told MPs: “The draft legal text the Commission have published would, if implemented, undermine the UK common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, and no UK prime minster could ever agree to it.
“I will be making it crystal clear to President Juncker and others that we will never do so.”
She said she stood by the deal struck in December, but left no doubt that she wants the withdrawal text rewritten, stating that UK negotiators would talk to Brussels about how the Joint Report “should be translated into legal form in the withdrawal agreement”.
EU draft text is constitutionally unacceptable & would be economically catastrophic for Northern Ireland. I welcome the Prime Minister's commitment that HMG will not allow any new border in the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland must have unfettered access to GB market. AF— Arlene Foster (@DUPleader) February 28, 2018
In an apparent bid to calm Tory nerves, Mr Davis wrote to all Conservative MPs to insist there remains “a shared ambition for a quick agreement and … significant common ground” between the UK and EU.
London still hopes to secure agreement at the March 22 summit of the European Council on a transition period of around two years after the official date of Brexit in 2019, he said.
But Mr Barnier signalled frustration at the lack of progress in the negotiations, telling a Brussels press conference: “We must pick up the pace.”
There remain “significant divergences” over issues including the rights of EU citizens and the application of EU rules during transition.
He warned: “At this moment, as I speak to you, the transition is not a given.”
Meanwhile, the Government sought to break the deadlock with Brussels over citizens’ rights by declaring that those who arrive in the UK during the transition period will be able to apply for indefinite leave to remain.
The offer falls short of Brussels’ demand for equal treatment with EU nationals resident in the UK before Brexit, who will be allowed to taken on “settled status”, granting them greater rights to bring in family members.