Monday 17 June 2019

Future direction of Brexit could be decided without top EU team

End game: Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip leave a polling station after casting their votes in her Maidenhead constituency. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA
End game: Prime Minister Theresa May and her husband Philip leave a polling station after casting their votes in her Maidenhead constituency. Photo: Victoria Jones/PA
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

The future direction of Brexit could now be decided in the absence of Europe's top negotiators including Michel Barnier, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has warned.

With British Prime Minister Theresa May on the verge of being pushed from office, there is a likelihood that a new leader will go back to Brussels with fresh demands.

And in what the Government is describing as "dangerous times", Mr Varadkar noted that the EU's team is also about to undergo an overhaul.

European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker are both coming to the end of their five-year terms. And Mr Varadkar has signalled the EU's chief negotiator Mr Barnier may be not continue in his role.

"Bear in mind the terms of President Tusk and President Juncker are coming to a close, possibly Michel Barnier's as well. So we're going to need to build new alliances and make new friends," he said.

Yesterday Mrs May backed down from plans to seek parliament's support for a Brexit bill already rejected by much of her Conservative Party. But she has not, as yet, caved in to demands to resign and let a new leader try to complete the UK's stalled exit from the European Union.

UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt made it clear to the prime minister in a meeting yesterday she must abandon the deeply unpopular plan on which her hopes of survival rested. With her authority draining away by the hour, Mrs May delayed publishing the EU withdrawal bill.

Conservative members of parliament increasingly see Mrs May as an obstacle to the UK's EU exit, although her replacement will face the same dilemma: a parliament deeply divided over whether to leave the EU, and how close a relationship to seek with the bloc after it does.

Mrs May is due for a final showdown with Graham Brady, chairman of the powerful Tory 1922 committee, today.

Geoffrey Clifton-Brown, treasurer of the committee that oversees Conservative leadership races, said that if Mrs May did not agree to leave, there would be "overwhelming pressure" for a no-confidence vote. If Mrs May does name an exit date, she will likely remain prime minister for several more weeks while Conservative members of parliament and members vote to choose a successor.

Mrs May's spokesman, James Slack, said she would still be in office when US President Donald Trump goes to Britain for a state visit in June.

But few doubt this is the endgame for Mrs May's term. Senior Conservatives, including Boris Johnson and several members of her cabinet, are already jockeying for position in the coming leadership race.

House of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom - another likely contender - helped seal Mrs May's fate when she resigned on Wednesday evening, saying she could not support Mrs May's withdrawal bill. The draft contains measures aimed at winning support from the opposition, including a promise to let parliament vote on whether to hold a new EU membership referendum.

That concession, which could ultimately lead to Brexit being halted, was the final straw for many Conservative members of parliament and ministers, who also baulked at Mrs May's offer of a close customs relationship with the EU.

Ms Leadsom said Mrs May's Brexit plan did not "deliver on the referendum result" that saw voters in 2016 opt to leave the EU.

Mrs May moved quickly to replace Ms Leadsom with former Treasury Minister Mel Stride. But she also delayed the bill, which Mrs May previously said would be published today.

If Mrs May stays on until next week, pressure is likely to increase when results come in from elections for the European Parliament, with Conservatives expecting to receive a drubbing. Many British voters on both sides of the Brexit debate look set to use the election to the EU legislature to express displeasure over the political gridlock.

Opinion polls show strong support for the single-issue Brexit Party - largely from angry former Conservative voters - and for pro-EU parties including the Liberal Democrats and the Greens.

Irish Independent

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