With Divorce Deal Almost Done, Theresa May Repeats Rejection of EU Proposal on Northern Ireland

October 22, 2018 Updated: October 22, 2018

LONDON—Prime Minister Theresa May will on Oct. 22 say that 95 percent of Britain’s Brexit deal has been agreed but repeat her opposition to a European Union proposal for the Irish border, a major stumbling block, as criticism within her party grows.

Facing some of the fiercest attacks to date over her Brexit plans after again failing to clinch a deal at an EU summit last week, May will try to calm passions in parliament where her strategy has angered eurosceptics and EU supporters alike.

With just over five months until Britain is scheduled to exit the EU, talks have stalled over a disagreement on the so-called Northern Irish “backstop,” a policy to ensure there will be no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland if a future trading relationship is not agreed in time.

But May’s attempt to unlock the talks by considering an extension to a status-quo transition period beyond the current proposed end date of December 2020 has further riled both pro- and anti-EU factions in her deeply split Conservative Party.

Theresa May conference European leaders
Britain’s Prime Minister Theresa May leaves a news conference at the European Union leaders summit in Brussels, Belgium, on Oct. 18, 2018. (Toby Melville/Reuters)

In an attempt to highlight how much progress has been made in more than a year of talks with the EU, she will tell parliament the government has reached agreement on everything from Gibraltar to future security over the last three weeks.

“Taking all of this together, 95 percent of the Withdrawal Agreement and its protocols are now settled,” May will say, according to excerpts from her statement to parliament.

“The shape of the deal across the vast majority of the Withdrawal Agreement is now clear.”

But the deal—the terms of Britain’s divorce—cannot be signed off until the two sides settle on future management of the border between Northern Ireland, a British province, and EU member state Ireland.

Both sides are committed to keeping the border open, a key aspect of a 1998 peace deal that ended decades of Irish sectarian bloodshed.

The EU proposal—for Northern Ireland to remain in the bloc’s customs union—has been rejected by May as it would potentially create barriers to trade with the rest of Britain, something ruled out by a pro-Brexit Northern Irish party that props up her minority government.

At an EU summit in Brussels last week, any agreement seemed just as far off as it did months earlier, with EU officials and diplomats saying May had offered nothing new to ease the deadlock.

Since then, her proposal to extend the transition period has stoked anger among Conservative eurosceptics, who fear she is leading Britain into a deal that will make Britain a “vassal state” indefinitely—unable ever to fully leave the EU.

National Interest

Critics of May used Britain’s Sunday newspapers to rhetorically savage the British leader, with unnamed rivals using phrases such as “assassination is in the air.”

A vote of no-confidence in May would be triggered if 48 Conservative lawmakers submit letters to the chairman of the party’s so-called “1922 Committee” of backbenchers demanding such a vote. The Sunday Times said 46 had now been sent.

The newspapers reported May had been summoned to address Conservative lawmakers in a private meeting on Wednesday. The Daily Telegraph said she had held a 90-minute conference call with her top ministers on Sunday to try and shore up support.

On Wednesday one prominent hardline Brexiteer, former junior Brexit minister Steve Baker, will try to block the EU’s backstop plan by attaching amendments to legislation passing through parliament that would effectively make the proposal illegal.

Conservative Brexit speaks members media
Conservative MP and former junior Brexit Minister, Steve Baker, speaks to members of the media as he arrives to attend a meeting of the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) in central London, on September 12, 2018. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

May used a piece in Monday’s Sun newspaper to stress that the Brexit negotiations were not about her and her future.

“When I’m confronted with tough choices during the Brexit negotiations, I don’t think about what the implications are for me. Instead, I ask myself what it means for you, for your family and for the whole of the United Kingdom,” she wrote.

“Because the Brexit talks are not about me or my personal fortunes. They’re about the national interest—and that means making the right choices, not the easy ones.”

On Sunday, Brexit minister Dominic Raab pushed forward the suggestion of extending the transition period, saying London could accept such a move if the EU dropped its proposal for a backstop without time limit, which May says would tear Northern Ireland away from mainland Britain.

by Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan

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