The latest on the Brexit deadlock: A race against time

In a first admission of its kind, British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt implied on Thursday that Brexit may have to be delayed to avoid a no-deal divorce from the European Union in the absence of consensus among British MPs over several clauses of Prime Minister Theresa May’s agreement.

His admission that article 50, having to do with the Irish backstop, may have to be extended to avoid the UK leaving the EU without a deal reportedly earned him a rebuke from Downing Street, where May’s spokesperson quelled any speculation saying, “The prime minister’s position on this is unchanged. We are leaving on March 29.”

Hunt’s refreshing candour

Besides being the first senior government official to express a possibility that has been a working assumption in Brussels for quite some time, Hunt said, “The first thing we have to do is demonstrate that our commitment to the Belfast agreement, the Good Friday agreement, is absolute. And we will do that.”

The landmark peace deal was struck between the British and Irish governments in 1998 which paved the way for power-sharing between unionists and nationalists in Northern Ireland and ended a 30-year conflict. It is once again under scrutiny as Britain approaches Brexit. Issues related to sovereignty, civil and cultural rights, decommissioning of weapons, demilitarisation, justice, and policing were central to the agreement. It goes on to show that the contentious backstop is not just about trade.

“Secondly, we have to show that any solution that changes the backstop won’t lead to us trying to access the single market by the back door. And we that the way that we access the single because we are not going to be embracing movement, will change,” Hunt added on Thursday morning, in an appearance on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

What is the Irish backstop and why it is holding up Brexit?

The backstop is a clause in the Brexit deal to maintain an open Irish border. May agreed to it during negotiations with the EU but has not been able to convince enough British MPs to back the clause.

Those who reject the backstop fear that it will not just be a temporary measure if no future trade deal is agreed, but could result in the UK staying in the EU customs union permanently.

On Tuesday, the House of Commons voted for May to return to Brussels and re-open negotiations in order to secure a “legally binding change” to the backstop.

Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) whose support props up May’s majority in the House welcomed the announcement, saying, “From day one … we rejected the backstop and argued for legally binding change within the withdrawal agreement.”

The Irish government has firmly refused to allow any renegotiation of the backstop or return to the borders of the past. The European Union too has ruled out further negotiations on the withdrawal deal, which now hinges on this one clause.

Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, has already said the EU will not abandon the backstop, adding, “Ireland’s border is Europe’s border, and it’s our union’s priority.”

On Thursday, Sir Martin Donnelly, a former permanent secretary at the Department for International Trade said in an interview, “This agreement took 18 months of tough, detailed negotiation. It’s over 500 pages of legal text. And that’s really important in the Brussels setting. And now the concrete has set very hard around it. It’s just not possible for any negotiators, however brilliant, to go back and say: ‘We want to re-open a fundamental part of this deal. We’re not quite sure how exactly we’re going to do that, but it’s very important we do it in a couple of weeks.’ People in Brussels just don’t that that seriously, I’m afraid.”

Theresa May reportedly had a 45-minute call on Wednesday evening with the president of the European Council, Donald Tusk, that has been described as “open and frank” but the ball is now in May’s court. For now, she is not expected to visit Brussels in the coming days.

How much time does May have?

As the prospect of a no-deal Brexit looms closer, the Institute for Government (IfG) produced a damning report looking at the government’s preparedness for it. “It looks increasingly unlikely that the prime minister will be able to get the six outstanding Brexit bills through parliament in time. Some of the major bills still have not started their Lords stages — where the government does not control time,” it notes.

The legislative reality looks grim and reeks of a race against time. “The government is also behind on secondary legislation. Despite a major push from government departments, only around 100 of the 600 statutory instruments required for a no-deal Brexit have made their way through parliament. Almost half are yet to be tabled,” IfG claims.

The February recess for parliamentarians has been cancelled to continue with the Brexit legislation, House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom announced on Thursday. She has also said that it is “very difficult” to say what would happen in the event of the deal being voted down a second time.

May had earlier agreed to lay an amendable motion by February 15, in the event she brings back a revised deal on February 13 and it is rejected.

On Tuesday, MPs had voted against a proposal to delay Brexit in order to prevent the UK leaving without a deal. The amendment had been put forward by Labour MP Yvette but was rejected by 23 votes.

Cash for vote, seriously?

In a bizarre turn of events which showed that May truly is grasping at straws for a yes vote, The Times reported that the PM’s allegedly to appease local Labour MPs with more funding for coalfield communities and strengthening workers’ rights, if they voted for her Brexit deal.

“The prime minister’s allies believe that she needs the backing of about 20 Labour MPs for a modified agreement to offset the number of Tory rebels, even if she wins the support of the DUP. Potential Labour backers are now being wooed with the promise of local investment as Downing Street increases efforts to build a parliamentary majority before a second vote,” The Times claimed.

Condemnation for the “cash bribe for votes” came from all corners including the People’s Vote campaign, a faction of the Labour party which wants a second referendum.

In a statement, Labour MP Wes Streeting said that not only would
Brexit leave the country worse off and result in the government having less money to spend, “For Labour MPs to align themselves with the likes of Boris Johnson, Iain Duncan Smith and Priti Patel on Brexit would be a mistake that would … never be forgiven and never be forgivable.”

Where does that leave international students?

The Department for Education also published its no-deal advice note to universities to outline eligibility for study and student loans, for EU citizens already in the UK and those eyeing British universities after Brexit.

According to the document, “Entitlement to student finance and home fees status for EU students starting a course at an English institution in academic years after to 2020 academic year, is under consideration.” This means in case of delay, universities may be able to recruit EU-based students and offer home tuition fees backed by student loans, for at least one more year.

Schools have been told that hiring teachers from abroad will get more difficult because their qualifications may not be automatically .
Students and faculty members will also need to be mindful of a number of issues, including passport when planning travel to EU countries for conferences or trips.

What does it mean for Indian expats, students and tourists?

The UK government’s post-Brexit visa and immigration strategy being hailed as the biggest shake-up in overseas migration in 40 years. According to a white paper tabled in the Parliament last December, it would necessarily put Indian students, workers tourists at par with those hailing from the 27 EU countries.

A new visa route for skilled migrants and removal of the 20,700 cap on work permits are among the proposals expected to come into force in 2021, contingent upon the Brexit completion process.

The automatic right to move and work in the UK, which professionals and low-skilled workers from the EU enjoyed thus far, will also be distributed equally in a system, amongst all applicants irrespective of their country of origin. This will be especially beneficial for Indians, who received 55% of the skilled visas in 2018.

Indian students stand to profit handsomely from the deal as the UK’s leading universities look forward to recruiting more overseas students, particularly from China and India, to compensate for the financial challenges and fall in income post-Brexit. Presently, India sends the fourth-highest number of students to the kingdom.

Prarthana Mitra is a staff writer at Qrius

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