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‘Britain will stay the course on Brexit’

Vidya Ram London | Updated on December 05, 2018

British Prime Minister Theresa May (file pic)

Amid Opposition uproar, Theresa May says there is no question of revoking Article 50

Britain will not revoke Article 50 — by which it triggered the two-year Brexit process — Prime Minister Theresa May insisted on Wednesday, as opposition parties rounded on the government over full and final legal advice from the attorney general, which it was forced to publish after becoming the first British government to be held in contempt of the Parliament. May defended her deal, insisting that the only way for MPs to avoid a disastrous no-deal crash out of the European Union (EU) was to vote for her controversial withdrawal agreement, that was ratified by EU leaders on November 25.

The legal advice

However, opposition parties, including the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland (on whose support the government has relied since the 2017 general election) and the Labour took aim at the legal advice from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox that the government published on Wednesday morning after losing two votes in the House of Commons on Tuesday evening. While Nigel Dodds, the deputy leader of the DUP, described the legal advice as “devastating,” Labour’s Keir Starmer said it revealed the “central weakness” in the government’s deal, and added that it was “unthinkable” that the government had attempted to keep information from the Parliament.

The advice relates to the most controversial aspect of the withdrawal agreement, the Northern Ireland backstop.

Backstop arrangements are provided for in the withdrawal deal to ensure that there are no circumstances in which a hard border would form on the island of Ireland if talks broke down on future relations between the two sides. Many Brexit-supporting MPs are concerned that this effective insurance policy — which would bring in a customs union — will lock Britain into an indefinite relationship with Europe — a concern confirmed by the legal advice, which warns that if entered into, the protocol will “endure indefinitely” until a superseding agreement took its place, and that the withdrawal agreement could not include a legal way of forcing the EU to conclude such an agreement, even if it were clear that negotiations on future trading relations had broken down. “In the absence of a right of termination, there is a legal risk that the United Kingdom might become subject to protracted and repeating rounds of negotiations,” the letter dated November 13 concluded.

The letter also confirmed concerns that had been expressed by the DUP that different customs arrangement should not apply to Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

In the backstop arrangement, while Northern Ireland would remain in the EU single market for goods, Great Britain (the UK not including Northern Ireland) would “essentially be treated as a third country,” requiring regulatory checks between the Northern Ireland and the Great Britain. Dodds’ said their concerns had been “vindicated” with the letter’s publication, and asked how his party could be asked to support the deal in its current manifestation.

The deal was the best one available for ensuring a smooth exit from the EU, British Home Secretary Sajid Javid told MPs as he opened the second of a five-day-long debate on the withdrawal agreement that will culminate in the historic December 11 vote, the government is currently expected to lose.

The willingness of politicians from across the political spectrum was highlighted by three government defeats on Tuesday evening, as MPs from opposition parties and the Conservative party came together.

While two votes related to declaring the government in contempt of the Parliament — because of its failure to listen to a previous parliamentary vote that required it to publish the full and final backstop advice — a third vote related to giving MPs a greater say on any deal, should the government be defeated on December 11.

The week has been another tough one for the government, as an advocate general to the European Court of Justice confirmed that Britain could revoke Article 50 unilaterally, and without the consent of other member States, in an opinion that was hailed by campaigners for a second referendum as giving a boost for MPs to vote down the Brexit deal.

Published on December 05, 2018

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