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backstop backsliding

'Only credible proposal', 'It will not work': What is Theresa May's Chequers plan?

The UK’s proposal was attacked by EU leaders yesterday – so what exactly is being criticised?

EU Informal Heads Of State Summit - Salzburg Newspix / ABACA Newspix / ABACA / ABACA

EU LEADERS MET in Salzburg, Austria yesterday for an informal discussion on Brexit as we approach the final few weeks before we know whether it’s deal or no deal.

At that two-day informal summit, the UK’s ‘Chequers plan’ came under sharp criticism from a number of EU leaders, resulting in some harsh headlines for the UK Prime Minister this morning.

The Chequers plan, which is the UK government’s proposal for an orderly exit from the EU, has caused a divide in the Tory party and government – and resulted in the resignation of two senior Cabinet members.

It’s also sparked repeated criticism from Europe, which peaked yesterday when it was deemed “unworkable” just weeks out from when a final decision on Brexit must be made.

So what is Chequers, why are we talking about it now, and is it dead in the water?

What happened in Salzburg to spark this?

A number of EU leaders came out of the blocks not only to bat for Ireland, but to criticise the UK for the demands it’s made.

At a fiery press conference yesterday, European Council President Donald Tusk said that there would not be a Withdrawal Agreement without a backstop for the Irish border, reaffirming support for Ireland in wake of reports to the contrary.

“The Irish question remains our priority too and for this we need only goodwill – which we feel, the atmosphere was better than two or three weeks ago – but the Irish question needs something more than good intentions,” Tusk said. 

AUSTRIA-SALZBURG-EU-INFORMAL SUMMIT French President Emmanuel Macron. Xinhua News Agency / PA Images Xinhua News Agency / PA Images / PA Images

French President Emmanuel Macron came out with the sharpest criticism for the UK leadership: “Brexit is the choice of the British people…

“Those who explain that we can easily live without Europe, that everything is going to be all right, and that it’s going to bring a lot of money home, are liars.”

What is Chequers?

‘The Chequers plan’ was the Brexit ideals Theresa May’s Cabinet came up with after a day-long private meeting at the Prime Minister’s countryside residence in Chequers Court, Buckinghamshire.

Ministers were asked to hand their phones in at the beginning of the day in order to offset any possible leaks to the media during the day. After the plan was announced that night, it was reported that May sent an email around to her Cabinet colleagues, softly threatening to fire anyone who would not publicly back the Chequers plan.

A few days later, David Davis resigned as Brexit Secretary, and Boris Johnson resigned as Foreign Secretary.

Cabinet meeting at Chequers PA Archive / PA Images PA Archive / PA Images / PA Images

Why are we talking about Chequers?

Tusk said that the UK’s Chequers’ plan, which prompted the resignation of David Davis as Brexit Secretary and Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary, wasn’t acceptable as a whole, and cherry-picked elements of European Union membership.

“It must be clear that there are some issues where we are not ready to compromise, first off the four fundamental freedoms, the single market, this is why we remain sceptical of Chequers,” he said.

UK Prime Minister Theresa May, however, said that the Chequers plan was the only credible proposal that would deliver frictionless trade on the island of Ireland, and that would respect both the integrity of the United Kingdom and the Brexit vote.

Our white paper remains the only serious and credible proposition on the table for achieving that objective. 

May also said that a new proposition for Ireland, with more detail, would come “shortly” and that London was working towards negotiating a full exit strategy in time for the October summit.

She said that the UK understood the need to protect the integrity of the EU’s custom rules and regulations, but that she would not accept any proposal “that carves Northern Ireland away from the UK”.

So what’s in the Chequers plan?

A lot of what is in the Chequers plan is what’s been repeated before, and is an aspirational indication of what the UK wants (you can read the full plan here). 

Barnier says that the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement is 80% completed, but Tánaiste Simon Coveney says that the remaining 10 to 15% relates to Irish issues – the biggest of these being the Brexit backstop and the Irish border.

Irish government cabinet meeting in Derrynane An Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at Derrynane Beach. PA Wire / PA Images PA Wire / PA Images / PA Images

So when Tusk says that the Chequers proposal won’t work, that can directly be applied to the Chequers proposal to solve the Irish border problem.

The Chequers plan pledges to end the free movement of people, which was often debated during the EU referendum. The EU has said in response that this would mean the UK automatically leaves the Single Market and Customs Union, as it won’t separate the four freedoms upon which the EU was based (that’s free movement of people, goods, services and capital).

What does Chequers say about Ireland?

Chequers also commits, as Theresa May and her Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab have, to avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland.

For the union, meeting commitments to Northern Ireland by protecting the peace process and avoiding a hard border, safeguarding the constitutional and economic integrity of the UK, and devolving the appropriate powers to Edinburgh, Cardiff and Belfast – while ensuring the deal delivers for the Crown Dependencies, Gibraltar and the other Overseas Territories, noting there will be no change in their long-standing relationships with the UK.

The second part of this is problematic in terms of agreeing a backstop or ‘Plan B’ for the Irish border. 

The EU and the UK agreed to “regulatory alignment” on the island of Ireland in December last year and March this year, as a possible solution to the Irish border issue in absence of no other solution.

Britain Brexit Britain's Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Dominic Raab. Matt Dunham Matt Dunham

The EU then proposed that Northern Ireland remain in the customs union to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland; the UK responded by saying that it couldn’t accept a border along the Irish Sea (this isn’t just Tories saying this, but Labour party members as well).

The Chequers paper instead proposes establishing a free trade area for goods between the EU and the UK, which in theory would avoid a hard border (the trick is getting a deal that both sides would agree to).
This trade deal would include an agreement on agri-food and fisheries regulations, which would “remove the need to undertake additional regulatory checks at the border – avoiding the need for any physical infrastructure”.
This would, however, mean that the UK would have to adopt the EU’s rules on all goods.

It also commits to leave the jurisdiction of the European Courts of Justice, something that the EU is concerned would leave EU citizens’ rights in a grey area. This includes the rights of EU citizens living in the UK and UK citizens living in EU member states; as well as extraditions.

The plan also pledges to leave the Common Agricultural Policy and Common Fisheries Policy, and to continue cooperation on security and policing measures.

Although members of may’s own Cabinet as well as EU leaders don’t think the Chequers proposals are workable, with very little time left to strike a deal, it’s the only proposal from UK negotiators that they have to work with.

- with reporting from AFP

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