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Foreign Secretary says UK may seek to delay Brexit in bid to secure deal

Getting MPs to support a withdrawal agreement has proved rather difficult.

Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor Philip Hammond and then-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt pictured last year.
Prime Minister Theresa May, Chancellor Philip Hammond and then-Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt pictured last year.
Image: Stefan Rousseau/PA Archive/PA Images

BRITAIN MAY SEEK an extension to Article 50 in a bid to secure a Brexit deal.

Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt told BBC Radio 4′s Today programme reaching an agreement on issues such as the Ireland-Northern Ireland border will take some time, meaning an extension to Article 50 could be needed.

Hunt said the British government plans to assure the European Union it won’t use the border as a backdoor into the internal market and will demonstrate unconditional support for the Good Friday Agreement.

“If we ended up approving a deal in the days before 29 March then we might need some extra time to pass critical legislation, but if we are able to make progress sooner than that might not be necessary.

“We can’t know at this stage exactly which of those scenarios would happen,” Hunt said.

On Tuesday, a majority of the House of Commons voted in favour of an amendment that proposes replacing the Irish backstop with unspecified “alternative arrangements”.

The Brady amendment garnered the support of 317 MPs, with 310 voting against it, in what was the most clear example of what kind of Brexit the UK parliament wants.

After the vote, Prime Minister Theresa May said she would take this mandate back to Brussels and use it as a crowbar to try to reopen the sealed Withdrawal Agreement, which the EU has repeatedly said it would not do.

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has told May efforts to reopen the deal would be fruitless, and a spokesperson for European Council President Donald Tusk said something similar after the vote.

‘Delaying Brexit’ 

Two amendments to extend Article 50 beyond the 29 March deadline were rejected on Tuesday night; the idea of “delaying Brexit”, even to secure an orderly exit and avoid crashing out, is seen by MPs as an unfavourable option and unpopular with Brexit voters.

The EU would also have to approve a request for an extension, it’s not enough for the UK to just want it.

It’s been reported that the EU would have to be shown that the UK had a clear idea of why it wanted an extension – to hold a second referendum or to hold another Commons vote, would be two possible options.

Another amendment was also approved on Tuesday – this was the Spelman amendment that rules out a no-deal Brexit. This is impossible to do legally without agreement from the House of Commons on what kind of deal it does want.

The amendments hold no legal weight – they are a symbol of political will intended to strengthen May’s hand in directing Brexit.

Backstop 

Many politicians have raised concerns about the backstop, which aims to avoid a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland and could see the North stay aligned to some EU rules.

The Democratic Unionist Party, which props up May’s minority government, believes the backstop threatens the United Kingdom and could lead to a trade border in the Irish Sea.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and his EU counterparts have repeatedly said the deal cannot be renegotiated. Varadkar previously aid a proposal for Stormont to have a veto over conditions attached to the backstop would not be acceptable

Preparations are being made at British, Irish and European level for a no-deal Brexit, in case an agreement is not reached ahead of 29 March. 

With reporting by Gráinne Ní Aodha

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Órla Ryan

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