Brexit: May looks beyond Parliament for support for deal

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Theresa May is to appeal to the public to back the UK’s proposed Brexit deal as Spain demands last-minute changes on future decisions over Gibraltar.

The PM will take to the airwaves to make the case for the agreement, which is opposed by Labour and many Tory MPs.

The terms of withdrawal and declaration on future relations are expected to be signed off by member states on Sunday.

Spain wants more of a say on the future of Gibraltar and has threatened to block the deal.

No country can block the withdrawal agreement on its own but the EU wants unanimous approval at Sunday’s meeting.

Mrs May has said a deal is “within our grasp” after the UK and EU agreed in principle the framework for their future relations – outlining how UK-EU trade, security and other issues would work – on Thursday.

She has insisted the British public want the process to be “settled” and see the UK leave the EU on 29 March 2019, so it can focus on other issues.

In an attempt to go over the heads of MPs, a majority of whom have threatened to reject the agreement when it is voted on next month, she will take calls on BBC Radio 5 live and the BBC News Channel later, in a special programme presented by Emma Barnett.

People can text questions to 85058 or use the hashtag #BBCAskThis ahead of the programme’s live broadcast between 12:30 and 13:00 GMT.

Thursday’s document on future relations, known as the “political declaration”, is not legally-binding but will be the starting point for negotiations on co-operation after the UK leaves. It has been heavily criticised by many MPs for lacking detail.

This is a separate document to the withdrawal agreement – setting out the terms of the UK’s exit from the EU, including the £39bn “divorce bill”, citizens rights and the Northern Ireland “backstop” to keep the border open if trade talks stall. This agreement will be legally-binding.

Former Brexit secretary Dominic Raab said what was on offer in the political declaration was inferior to EU membership, as it would leave the UK bound by the same rules but without control over them.

He told Radio 4’s Today the current proposal would be “debilitating” for the UK economy and its ability to negotiate independent trade deals would virtually disappear.

What happens now?

  • Theresa May goes back to Brussels on Saturday for more talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker
  • Negotiators try to get an agreement with Spain over Gibraltar
  • EU leaders meet on Sunday to sign off on the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration
  • If that is agreed Mrs May starts the process of getting MPs to back the deal – most are currently against it
  • If MPs back the deal it then has to be ratified by the European Parliament
  • The UK leaves the EU on 29 March – and trade talks on the future relationship start

But education secretary Damian Hinds said he expected the proposed deal to “gain traction” once MPs fully considered the “unattractive” alternatives.

“If we weren’t to pass this deal, I think it becomes rather unpredictable what happens next,” he told Today.

“There is a risk on the one hand beyond that of no Brexit at all – and there are people trying to thwart Brexit – and there is also a risk of no deal.”

Meanwhile, EU officials are meeting to try and put the finishing touches to both the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration.

The future of Gibraltar and its 30,000 residents, 96% whom voted to remain in the EU in the 2016 referendum, remains a sticking point.

Spain has long contested Britain’s 300 year-rule of the strategically important peninsula.

Gibraltarians overwhelmingly rejected calls for the UK to share sovereignty with Spain in a 2002 vote and there are concerns about how the territory’s political status and economic ties with the Spanish mainland will be affected by Brexit.

Late on Thursday, Spanish prime minister Pedro Sanchez struck a combative note in a tweet, saying: “After my conversation with Theresa May, our positions remain far away…. If there are no changes, we will veto Brexit.”

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Catherine Barnard, a professor of EU law and employment law at Trinity College, Cambridge, told the BBC that Spain’s room for manoeuvre was limited as the “divorce” document only had to be agreed at EU level by qualified majority voting, meaning 20 of the 27 member states.

“So Spain doesn’t actually have the legal power to block the agreement on the divorce,” she added.

However, any of the remaining 27 countries can block a future EU-UK trade deal so the BBC’s Damian Grammaticas said the EU was reluctant to let its unity fracture by pressing ahead without Spain’s approval.

“What Spain is demanding is a clear statement added to the exit texts that any future agreement between the UK and the EU, such as a trade deal, would not apply to the territory of Gibraltar, unless the UK secured Spain’s explicit consent,” he added.

Fabian Picardo, the chief minister of Gibraltar, said the territory was perfectly happy to have “direct engagement” with Madrid over future trade relations but would not be “dragged” or “vetoed” to the negotiating table when it had concluded the existing agreement in “good faith”.

Speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today, he warned if Spain sought last-minute changes to the withdrawal deal, that would encourage British MPs and other EU countries unhappy with aspects of the deal to do the same.

What is in the political declaration?

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The political declaration is a separate document to last week’s 585-page withdrawal agreement, It sets out broad aspirations for the kind of relationship the UK and the EU will have after Brexit.

The new points in the 27-page declaration include:

  • Commitment to respect the indivisibility of the EU’s four freedoms – free movement of people, money, goods and services
  • A specific reference to the end of free movement in the UK
  • An aspiration to use technology to ensure there is no need for the Northern Ireland backstop to be used
  • A clear continuing role for the European Court of Justice in the interpretation of EU law – which is likely to anger Brexiteers

The UK government has insisted its Brexit agreement will protect the fishing industry despite claims it is preparing to “sell out” fishermen.

The political declaration says the UK will be an “independent coastal nation” but the SNP has predicted the industry would be used as a “bargaining chip” in the future.

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