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Brexit negotiations tread water as British MPs prepare to vote

by Jeremy Hawkins BRUSSELS (Xinhua) -- After another week of no apparent progress on Brexit negotiations, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier’s latest attempts to assure London appear to have hit a wall by weekend.

After negotiations in Brussels that were characterized as "difficult", Barnier opened on Friday a series of tweets by noting that the bloc had proposed to Britain a "legally binding interpretation" of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Barnier also underlined an EU commitment "to give UK the option to exit the Single Customs Territory unilaterally," so long as the "backstop" along the Northern Irish border remained in place, to avoid a hard border that would go against the Good Friday peace agreements.

The "UK will not be forced into customs union against its will," Barnier insisted, while promising that the EU would continue "working intensely over the coming days to ensure the UK leaves the EU with an agreement."

In a rebuke, British Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay tweeted that it was "not the time to rerun old arguments," with deadlines looming for Britain’s departure from the EU on March 29.

Barclay appeared to dismiss the possibility of leaving the customs union while a "backstop" stays in place, an option that has been rejected by many Brexit advocates, and notably the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, a part of the British government coalition, because it would mean separate rules for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.

"We may not leave the EU for many months, we may never leave at all," British Prime Minister Theresa May warned British Members of Parliament in a Friday speech in the northern English town of Grimsby, as she tried to find support for the Brexit withdrawal agreement that she would put up for a vote at the House of Commons by March 12.

May said the agreement needed "just one more push" to get approved, but noted "If MPs do not back the deal, the only certainty would be uncertainty, months more spent arguing on Brexit."

Despite her warnings, signs are not positive that May has either found the assurances and concessions that many MPs want, or that she will drum up the support needed to have the agreement approved after it was defeated for the first time on Jan. 15.

Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar spoke to journalists Friday, dismissing Theresa May’s speech, saying that the British PM needed "a change of approach" and London needed to come up with propositions if it wanted new concessions for the "backstop".

"What’s not obvious is what the UK government is offering the European Union and Ireland should they wish us to make any further compromises," the Irish PM said, underlining "We have received no offer from them as to what they would give us in return for any changes."

"It requires a change of approach from the UK government to understand that Brexit is a problem of their creation," Varadkar said.

Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte echoed the sentiments of his Irish counterpart, saying that a breakthrough continued to appear elusive and required the UK to decide what it wanted, in order to make fresh proposals.

Rutte also admitted he did not understand what Theresa May meant by "just one more push" was needed to reach a deal.

Alongside Theresa May’s attempts to rally support for her Brexit deal, a voting calendar has been set by her government to soothe divisions within the British conservative party and script how decisions will be made leading up to March 29.

The government has committed to putting the withdrawal agreement to a vote in the House of Commons by March 12, with whatever final concessions May is able to receive from the EU.

Having lost her original attempt in January by 230 votes, and not having come back to Westminster with significant changes or assurances on the Northern Irish "backstop", the British PM might be snubbed again.

If the deal is rejected by MPs, they will have the opportunity to vote by March 13 on whether they would accept a no-deal Brexit. Given the wide negative publicity of consequences associated with no-deal Brexit, it is also considered to be unpopular.

If a no-deal Brexit is rejected, MPs will be able to vote by March 14 on whether Britain should attempt to negotiate a delay of Brexit, though not on the extend of that time period.

May has already said that any extension should be a one-off, and no longer than until the end of June, a prospect she has stated is not her preference.

European Council President Donald Tusk said in February that "an extension would be a rational solution," but European leaders are looking for good reason.

French President Emmanuel Macron has already indicated that an extension needed justification.

The French Minister for Europe Nathalie Loiseau reiterated her president’s stance Thursday in London, telling journalists "A short extension: why not, if there is a good and credible reason."

European Parliament President Antonio Tajani did not think that Brexit could be delayed by more than "a maximum of several weeks".

He said in an interview published Saturday with Germany’s Funke group of newspapers that London would have to justify an extension, such as wanting time to hold new elections or a new referendum.

The European Parliament president expressed a common position in Europe, however, that the responsibility for what happened next remained with Britain.

"They’ve decided to leave - it’s their problem, not ours," Tajani said.


British Prime Minister Theresa May says European Union action
will have big impact on vote in House of Commons next week

by Larry Neild LONDON United Kingdom (Xinhua) -- British Prime Minister Theresa May issued a message to the European Union on Friday saying its action will have a big impact on a crucial vote in the House of Commons next week.

May used a visit to a factory in Grimsby, Lincolnshire, to stress the importance of the part Brussels should play in seeking a deal on a future relationship after Britain leaves the EU later this month.

May will urge the more than 640 MPs on Tuesday to support her Brexit deal in a meaningful vote.

Political commentators are predicting she will lose by as many as 100 votes, lower than the record 230 she lost by earlier this year, but still the prospect of a big defeat.

Speaking on Friday, May warned that Britain could face not leaving the EU at all.

She said: "Just as MPs will face a big choice next week, the EU has to make a choice too.

"We are both participants in this process. It is in the European Union’s interest for the UK to leave with a deal. EU leaders tell me time is running out, my message to them is now is the time."

May said the decisions the EU make over the next few days will have a big impact on the outcome of the vote in the House of Commons.

She wants the EU to make changes over the Irish border issue which is at the center of the current impasse blocking a breakthrough in the quest for a deal.

May said if MPs at Westminster reject her deal on Tuesday, nothing will be certain, with a possible delay to the departure or even not leaving the EU at all.

"MPs face an historic choice next week. If MPs don’t vote for that deal then we know we will see ongoing uncertainty," she said.

May said: "The British people have already moved on. They are ready for this to be settled."

Crunch time for Brexit as European Union gives
Britain 48 hours to break deadlock in deal talks

LONDON United Kingdom (Xinhua) -- British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond said Thursday a crucial vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal by next Tuesday could be the last chance for Britain to leave the European Union (EU) on its planned March 29 departure date.

In a radio interview on Thursday, Hammond said he had great confidence in the Brexit Secretary and the Attorney General in the work they are doing and hoped they will come back with an offer which MPs on the Brexit wing of the governing Conservative party will "consider very, very carefully in the context of the real situation we are in."

"If the Prime Minister’s deal does not get approved on Tuesday then it is likely that the House of Commons will vote to extend the Article 50 procedure to not leave the European Union without a deal and where we go thereafter is highly uncertain," the Chancellor added.

The EU was reported Thursday to have given Britain 48 hours, with a Friday deadline, to table new proposals to break the impasse on the Irish border issue which remains the big stumbling block in talks on a future trading relationship.

In what is a fast-changing crisis, the countdown has started to be one of the most critical periods in recent British politics, deciding the fate of Britain’s future in the EU.

May will present to MPs in the House of Commons the deal she wants to sign with Brussels to signal the ending of Britain’s membership of the EU.

Media in London reported that May’s Cabinet is resigned to her deal being lost by up to 100 votes next week.

May is also considering to make a major speech on Friday urging politicians to support her deal.

Britain’s negotiators, led by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, and EU leaders confirmed that the latest round of tough negotiations on Wednesday did not lead to any break in an impasse over the fate of the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.

Talks between British ministers and the EU officials were described by both sides as difficult, with the EU going further and insisting there had been no breakthrough.

Brussels has insisted that there must be a legal backstop to prevent a hard border between British controlled Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland which is a member of the bloc.

The 500 km border between the two sides will be the only EU frontier in the British Isles after Brexit.

With a planned March 29 departure date looming, nobody knows how more than 640 lawmakers in Parliament will decide the result of May’s proposals in a meaningful vote due on Tuesday.

The deal has already been rejected by a margin of 230 votes, the biggest defeat in recorded British political history.

Undaunted by that defeat, May has continued to press her deal, hoping that EU negotiators will agree on the Irish border issue.

If MPs reject May’s deal again they will be given a vote next week on leaving the EU without a deal or delaying Britain’s departure from the EU beyond March 29.

Political commentators predicted that EU negotiations usually go to the wire, and they expected that to happen in the Brexit negotiations.

Separately, Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the main opposition Labour Party, has been meeting Conservative MPs in a bid to win support for an alternative to May’s Brexit deal. Many Labour MPs though want a second referendum to decide the issue.

British Finance firms are prepared for any difficult 'No-Deal Brexit' scenario

LONDON United Kingdom (Xinhua) -- As Britain is set to leave the European Union (EU) on March 29, UK Finance firms have been preparing for a "no-deal" scenario that some suggest might even be "catastrophic" for the nation’s economy.

In a recent statement, a spokesperson for UK Finance, which represents more than 250 firms in the UK’s finance and banking industry, said that members were looking to put in place a plan to reduce the effects of a no-deal scenario.

"Time is running out to avoid a chaotic ‘no-deal’ Brexit that would be catastrophic for the UK economy.

"Firms in the finance industry have put contingency plans in place to minimize disruption for their customers in a ‘no-deal’ scenario, but critical cliff-edge risks remain including on the transfer of personal data and the operation of cross-border contracts," said the spokesperson.

A number of financial firms in the UK have already made preparations to remain within the European Single Market, by moving their trading offices either from the UK, or selecting cities other than UK-based ones to be their main trading hub on the continent.

MarketAxess, one of the world’s largest corporate bond trading venues, said that it had chosen Amsterdam over London as its main base for the EU due to the uncertainty of Brexit—denying the UK financial sector hundreds of job opportunities.

Alongside this, the Bank of America said it had picked Dublin as the main base for its EU investment banking and markets operations, while Citigroup, Morgan Stanley and Deutsche Bank chose Frankfurt, Germany.

In the light of Brexit preparations, British ship insurer UK P&I Club opted to set up a subsidiary in the Dutch port city of Rotterdam to remain within the European Single Market.

According to a report from consultancy EY released in January, financial services companies have moved almost 800 billion pounds (about 1,054 billion U.S. dollars) in staff, operations and customer funds to Europe since the Brexit referendum.

The majority of firms say that they are backing proposals to avert Britain leaving the EU without a withdrawal deal—saying that a no-deal would alter the way the financial and banking sectors both operate.

Mark Carney, Bank of England governor said that a no-deal, no-transition Brexit would, "by clear orders of magnitude", be "materially" worse for Britain’s economic outlook than current forecasts.

Alongside this, IHS Markit and the Chartered Institute of Procurement and Supply produced a report in early 2019 that showed UK business optimism about the year ahead had fallen to one of its lowest ever recorded by the survey.

The report said that political uncertainty had encouraged delays to the majority of corporate spending in the UK service sector, which includes financial firms, hotels, retail and restaurants.

There is still much uncertainty surrounding the UK leaving the EU. Much depends on whether UK Prime Minister Theresa May can push a deal through the House of Commons before time runs out to negotiate trade agreements with the EU.

As the political stalemate continues in Westminster, the majority of financial businesses have been advised to prepare for the worst.

UK Finance created a detailed online document to advise businesses on how to prepare for the UK leaving the EU.

The document itself, written by Stephen Pegge, who is the Managing Director of Commercial Finance within UK Finance, points to mitigating business "disruption" over the UK’s departure.

Included within is a step-by-step guide which encourages businesses to use the "TALK" process.

The guide highlights the four main components that businesses should consider when preparing for any Brexit scenario:

Take time to think about how customers and suppliers may be affected by upcoming changes;

Ask bank and finance providers, customers and suppliers early if you may need additional finance;

Look into alternative finance options; Know where to go for more information to help your business.

UK Finance also called for politicians to unite ahead of Brexit.

"It is now essential that politicians on all sides of the House work together to agree a way forward and provide much-needed certainty to the electorate and businesses," said the UK Finance spokesperson.


Theresa May battles to save Brexit deal amid threats to oust her - Eurosceptics
likely move against the Prime Minister if Commons defeat leads to Brexit delays

'Neither realistic nor sensible' - Terse European Union answers British Prime Minister request for Brexit help

'No deal' presenting opportunity for the UK to update its custom and visa systems to be the best in the world

Push past defeat after defeat after defeat - How P.M. Theresa May keeps surviving profound historic losses



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