Great Britain Erupts Over Draft Brexit Deal; May’s Government Totters

Pro-Brexit demonstrators on Whitehall outside Downing Street in London, Wednesday, Nov. 14, 2018. British Prime Minister Theresa May will try to persuade her divided Cabinet on Wednesday that they have a choice between backing a draft Brexit deal with the European Union or plunging the U.K. into political and economic uncertainty. (AP Photo/Tim Ireland)

(CN) — Great Britain awoke Thursday to a day of political drama, including two Cabinet resignations, market volatility, a severely weakened prime minister, and nasty headlines, all in response to a draft agreement laying out the terms of its exit from the European Union.

Tory Prime Minister Theresa May announced the draft Brexit deal late Wednesday, to an immediate storm of dissent. Those on the right criticized it as a capitulation to Brussels — a “shackling” — and those on the left said signing the deal would leave Britain worse off than if it stayed within the European Union.

News broke in an avalanche Thursday morning.

First, the government’s junior minister for Northern Ireland, Shailesh Vara, announced his resignation. He said the deal “leaves the UK in a halfway house” because it would bind Britain to EU rules for years to come.

Shortly afterward, a much bigger crack appeared: Dominic Raab, Britain’s lead negotiator on the Brexit deal, resigned from May’s Cabinet. He was followed by the walkout of Esther McVey, the Cabinet’s work and pensions secretary.

Raab and McVey also criticized the deal for tying Britain to EU rules indefinitely. They called it a betrayal of the Brexit referendum of 2016, when a majority of Brits voted to leave the EU.

“This is, at its heart, a matter of public trust,” Raab said in his resignation letter.

“No democratic nation has ever signed up to be bound by such an extensive regime, imposed externally without any democratic control over the laws to be applied, nor the ability to decide to exit the arrangement,” he wrote.

The dissenters dominated the day — chief among them were members of the Labour Party, the main opposition. Labour has been divided on Brexit, though its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, in the past has favored leaving the EU.

In the morning, Keir Starmer, Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, hit the airwaves to denounce the lack of details in the draft deal, in particular economic details. He also worried about clauses that he said would weaken environmental regulations. He said Labour would vote against the deal.

“It is inadequate in so many aspects,” he said on BBC radio. “Why on Earth would you back a deal as wrong as this?”

Also Thursday, the European Union announced a Nov. 25 summit to finalize the deal — but with a caveat.

The summit will take place “if nothing extraordinary happens,” Donald Tusk, the president of the European Commission, said.

And a lot of extraordinary twists and turns seem likely. By Thursday afternoon, a first major twist hit when Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of a pro-Brexit group of Tories, submitted a letter seeking a no-confidence vote in May’s government.

In the letter, Rees-Mogg said he had hoped to avoid the “disagreeable nature” and “ill will” of a no-confidence vote, but his hand was forced following May’s draft deal. He said May’s deal broke promises she had made on making sure Britain made a clean break with Europe on trade and laws.

A no-confidence vote can be triggered when 48 Conservative lawmakers submit similar letters. If that happens, May would be forced out only if a majority of Tories voted against her.

Rees-Mogg held a news conference outside Parliament, and had trouble being heard as one nearby protester shouted “Stop Brexit” through a loudspeaker. Rees-Mogg urged the government to threaten to leave the EU without a deal and trade with the EU and the rest of the world on World Trade Organization terms. Many Tories say a clear break with the EU is needed to give Britain the freedom to hammer out its own trade deals.

On the side of Labour, Corbyn called the deal “half-baked” and predicted the British Parliament will reject it. Corbyn may be hoping to defeat the deal and force new elections.

The deal must be approved by Parliament and it is unclear whether May has the votes to get it through. Her position in the 650-seat House of Commons was weakened after her Tories lost seats in 2017 elections and Labour gained.

Britain’s Parliament is deeply divided on Brexit. A majority of Tories, who hold 317 seats, are likely to back any deal, but there are vociferous voices against it. Meanwhile, there are some among the 262 Labour members who might vote in favor of a deal.

Other parties too will play a critical role: the Democratic Unionist Party from Northern Ireland and the Scottish National Party. It is uncertain how the small faction of DUP members will vote, though they have spoken out against the deal. The SNP’s 35 members are against leaving the EU and are expected to vote against the deal. The Liberal Democrats, with eight seats, also are expected to vote against the deal.

During the day, May was grilled by members of the House of Commons, several telling her to step down because her deal was bound to perish in a Parliament vote.

May, showing no sign of strain, rebuffed her critics in the fast-paced back-and-forth debate characteristic of the House of Commons. She insisted the deal would deliver on promises to break with EU commercial rules and laws, ensure Britain can have its own policies on agriculture and fisheries, stop the free flow of people into Britain and boost Britain’s economy.

I believe what we have negotiated is in the best interest of our country overall,” she said.

The 585-page draft agreement was made public Thursday, and it certainly could be viewed as a win for the EU, with Britain aligning its customs, tariffs and commercial policies with those of the EU until new terms are established.

Britain agrees to maintain an open border between Ireland and Northern Ireland, which was a major sticking point even though both sides wanted to avoid border controls. This open border would be achieved by agreeing to keep Northern Ireland within EU customs rules.

“The EU and the UK have agreed on a set of measures to ensure that there is a level playing field between the EU and the UK,” the EU said in a statement.

Under the agreement, Britain and the EU would negotiate a trade agreement with a goal of obtaining one by July 2020. But critics said such an agreement might take much longer to achieve.

In the meantime, Britain would be bound to “harmonize” its commercial policy with the EU’s, the EU said. Thus, Britain would be required to abide by EU tariffs on goods coming from non-EU countries. The deal also stipulates that there would be no tariffs between Britain and the EU.

The deal also lays out parameters in a host of areas, from how arrest warrants will be handled to the respective rights of EU citizens in Britain and UK citizens in the EU.

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.) 

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