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Brexit: What is the backstop and why it needs to change?

London, United Kingdom – A vote in the British Parliament last week gave Prime Minister Theresa May a mandate to go back to Brussels and renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the European Union (EU). The key issue is the Irish backstop, which Eurosceptic MPs want to see replaced with “alternative arrangements”. Three days of talks…

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Brexit: What is the backstop and why it needs to change?

London, United Kingdom – A vote in the British Parliament last week gave Prime Minister Theresa May a mandate to go back to Brussels and renegotiate the withdrawal agreement with the European Union (EU).

The key issue is the Irish backstop, which Eurosceptic MPs want to see replaced with “alternative arrangements”.

Three days of talks began on Monday on what these arrangements could be.

An “Alternative Arrangements Working Group” (AAWG) set up over the weekend brings together both Brexiteer and Remainer Conservative MPs. The group met for the first time on Monday morning.

May is expected to travel to Northern Ireland tomorrow to deliver a speech.

What is the backstop?

The backstop is a safety net designed to avoid a hard border between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland.

It’s part of the withdrawal agreement signed by May with the EU in November.

But it’s also seen as the main stumbling block to getting the deal through the UK Parliament, which voted overwhelmingly against it on January 15.

The Irish border would be the only land border between the UK and the EU after Brexit.

The installation of infrastructure at that border is seen as a breach of the Good Friday peace agreement, which effectively marked the end of the “troubles” in Northern Ireland.

Why does it need to be changed?

Eurosceptic conservative MPs argue the backstop, which would only come into place should the UK and the EU fail to reach a comprehensive trade agreement, would dilute Brexit.

It would tie the UK in a customs union with the EU indefinitely, while leaving Ireland under the EU’s single market rules for goods.

They fear this would leave the UK unable to strike trade agreements with other countries.

The EU, for its part, has so far stood firm and united in refusing to reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement, saying it is the “best possible deal.”

Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), an ally of May, rejected the idea of Northern Ireland being treated differently from the rest of the United Kingdom.

What options are on the table?

There have been proposals of using technology as an alternative to border infrastructure through what is known as the “maximum facilitation” option.

But critics argue that this option, which is adopted in the so-called “Malthouse compromise” to renegotiate the backstop, was already discussed by the cabinet in 2017, and subsequently dismissed.

And while the EU said it was open to technological alternatives to the backstop, the block’s deputy chief Brexit negotiator, Sabine Wayand, reiterated on Sunday that a technological solution was unlikely to be found “in the next few years”.

While technology does exist that would facilitate border checks, it wouldn’t eliminate them altogether.

Brexit regret: Welsh voters having second thought

Also on the table is a “time limit” option, which would see the EU offer the UK more assurances that the backstop could have an expiry date.

The EU has shown openness to amending the political declaration in this sense, but Eurosceptic MPs want the time limit to be legally binding. The European Commission’s secretary general, Martin Selmayr, denied the EU was considering this after a meeting with British MPs on Monday.

Some MPs would accept the backstop if it came with the option of a unilateral exit clause.

“The EU is not going to move from the fundamental principle that there needs to be a backstop which applies unless and until a new arrangement can be found,” Oliver Patel, a research associate at UCL’s European Institute, told Al Jazeera.

“From the EU’s perspective, the only way you can avoid checks or controls on the border, is by having some regulatory alignment and shared customs system,” Patel said.

“Whatever happens in the UK parliament, the EU is not going to shy away from these principles because it’s a matter of protecting its own market,” he added. 

Another option for the UK would be to focus on the future relationship with the EU rather than on the legal text of the withdrawal agreement.

How will it be decided?

The UK government will first have to submit a proposal to the EU to revise or change any aspect of the deal.

In a joint letter to Theresa May on January 14, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and President of the European Council Donald Tusk stated the EU was committed to finding “alternative arrangements” by December 2020, the end of the transition period, to avoid triggering the backstop.

The German chancellor, Angela Merkel, said on Monday that “with creativity” a solution to the Northern Ireland issue could be found, “if everybody is willing.”

May will report back to the Commons on February 13. The following day, MPs are expected to hold another “meaningful vote” on the agreement.

What’s expected?

Faith that the next 10 days will lead to a breakthrough is low among observers.

“If [MPs] do end up voting for this agreement, it won’t be because the backstop has changed. It will be because they might be worried about Parliament maneuvering to do something else, whether it’s a softer Brexit or another referendum,” said Patel.

He added that the prime minister is likely to “partially succeed” in getting some changes, but that these are not likely to change the “fundamentals of the problem,” bringing the process back to square one.

“The main problem is that the EU isn’t sure that if it was to grant one of these concessions, the deal would actually get a majority in Parliament,” Alex Stojanovic, a researcher at the Institute for Government in London, told Al Jazeera.

Options for the British government, he added, are quite limited in terms of finding proposals likely to ensure the deal would pass.

“There are things that could be done to try and force Brexiteer’s hand,” Stojanovic continued. “They could try to extend article 50. And of they did try, that might force Brexiteers to vote for the deal, but of course there’s no guarantee that would work.”

“There’s a lot of uncertainty about whether any of the options on the table would be both negotiable with the EU and acceptable to parliament,” Stojanovic said.

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Children killed in attack on Cameroonian school

Assailants storm private school in city of Kumba, Southwest Region, killing at least four students.Attackers have opened fire on a private school in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, killing at least four children, according to officials. The unknown assailants stormed the Mother Francisca School in the city of Kumba on Saturday. There was no immediate claim of…

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Children killed in attack on Cameroonian school

Assailants storm private school in city of Kumba, Southwest Region, killing at least four students.Attackers have opened fire on a private school in Cameroon’s Southwest Region, killing at least four children, according to officials.
The unknown assailants stormed the Mother Francisca School in the city of Kumba on Saturday. There was no immediate claim of responsibility.
“They attacked around noon. They found the children in a class and they opened fire on them,” Kumba sub-prefect Ali Anougou told the Reuters news agency.
At least nine other students were wounded and sent to the hospital. There were fears the death toll could rise.
The Associated Press news agency quoted Anougou as blaming separatists who have been fighting the military in parts of western Cameroon for the attack.

Cameroon’s two Anglophone regions – the Northwest and Southwest Regions – are home to a large minority of English speakers in a country where French speakers are the overwhelming majority – a situation that is the legacy of the decolonisation of western Africa by France and Britain more than 60 years ago.
In late 2016, long-standing complaints of political and economic discrimination against English speakers by the central government spilled over when lawyers, students and teachers began calling for reforms.
The government’s lethal response to the protests provoked rebels to declare in 2017 independence for a region they call “Ambazonia”, triggering a stronger crackdown by the authorities.
Both sides have since been accused of committing atrocities in a conflict that has killed some 3,000 people and forced hundreds of thousands of people from their homes.
Anglophone secessionists have imposed curfews and closed schools as part of their protest against President Paul Biya’s government.
Last year, officials blamed separatists for kidnapping dozens of schoolchildren, charges the separatists denied.

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Vietnamese envoy hails KRCS’ global humanitarian efforts

KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer meets Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh. – KUNAKUWAIT: Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh hailed the humanitarian efforts of Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS) around the world. The remarks were made to KUNA yesterday after the ambassador’s meeting with KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer. He expressed appreciation…

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Vietnamese envoy hails KRCS’ global humanitarian efforts

KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer meets Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh. – KUNAKUWAIT: Vietnamese Ambassador to Kuwait Trinh Minh Manh hailed the humanitarian efforts of Kuwait Red Crescent Society (KRCS) around the world. The remarks were made to KUNA yesterday after the ambassador’s meeting with KRCS Chairman Dr Hilal Al-Sayer. He expressed appreciation for the society’s aid to the Vietnamese Embassy during the coronavirus crisis.

The ambassador added that they discussed providing his country with aid to face the impact of the recent floods and landslides, considered to be the worst in decades. Sayer said he was pleased with the ambassador’s visit and affirmed that KRCS will continue exerting humanitarian efforts to aid those affected by natural disasters and crises everywhere. – KUNA

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Pain, frustration: Expats lose jobs to new rules and COVID

File photos show foreign workers applying to leave Kuwait during the amnesty. – Photos by Yasser Al-ZayyatBy Chidi Emmanuel After working for 24 years in Kuwait, Charley Lyon received the dreaded letter that many expats fear amid the economic downturn, coronavirus pandemic and new residency laws. Lyon is among thousands of expat workers in the…

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Pain, frustration: Expats lose jobs to new rules and COVID

File photos show foreign workers applying to leave Kuwait during the amnesty. – Photos by Yasser Al-ZayyatBy Chidi Emmanuel

After working for 24 years in Kuwait, Charley Lyon received the dreaded letter that many expats fear amid the economic downturn, coronavirus pandemic and new residency laws. Lyon is among thousands of expat workers in the government sector who were being laid off.

As part of its Kuwaitization policy, Kuwait is replacing expats with locals in the government sector. The government has also stopped issuing work permits to expats over 60 years of age without a university degree. These new rules have had a huge impact on the lives of thousands of expats in the country, leaving many with no choice but to pack their bags and leave.

Gulf countries are facing an exodus of foreign workers as the coronavirus pandemic pushes out foreign workers. In the midst of the COVID-19 and financial crunch, the National Assembly approved a draft law to slash expat numbers over the next five years.

As the budget deficit widens and economic conditions worsen, Kuwait is grappling with an economic downturn as COVID-19 continues to wreak havoc around the world. The combined shock of collapsing oil prices, the pandemic and joblessness is reshaping labor policies in the region, thus bringing anti-foreigner sentiments to the fore again.

While Kuwait’s expats struggle to secure their jobs, the government is calling for an increase in workforce nationalization in government entities. “Why will foreigners take the jobs meant for us (Kuwaitis)? They can work anywhere – but not in the ministries,” argued Abdullah, a 26-year-old Kuwaiti.

Buttressing Abdullah’s viewpoint, Fatma, an unemployed Kuwaiti woman, complained of the difficulty in competing with foreign workers for jobs in the private sector. “Foreign workers can work longer for less, unlike us Kuwaitis. So most companies prefer to hire non-Kuwaitis. This leaves us with only one sector (the public sector). I think this is why the government introduced Kuwaitization, so as to give unemployed Kuwaitis an opportunity,” she explained.

For Lyon, justice and fairness should override anti-expat sentiments. “It is understandable that ministries would give preference to locals for jobs during these tough times, but it would be fair to consider the efforts of the old staff who have put in their best to build this country,” Lyon, 61, and some of his co-workers who were laid off recently lamented, as they worry about their future.

Expats make up the majority of the population of Kuwait. Residency is tied to employment and Kuwait does not easily offer citizenship routes to non-nationals. “We have been here (in Kuwait) legally for over 20 years. It will be difficult to go back and start afresh in our home countries. More so, Kuwait’s residency is linked to the work permit – when you lose your job, you automatically lose your residency. I worry about my children who are still in school. The three-month notice will not be enough to relocate them,” Mustapha, an Egyptian expat who recently lost his job, said in dismay.

Abdurazak Hamad, an African expat, is in a dilemma. “I feel miserable leaving my family behind. I don’t want to go alone, but I can’t make my wife quit her KD 450 job since she is now the sole breadwinner. Starting afresh in my home country at this age (62) will be very difficult. I wish I can get a permit (residency) to stay here with my family,” said Hamad, who was recently sacked.

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