Brexit Day still March 29, Government insists as Juncker hints at delay

The UK intends to leave the EU as planned on March 29 despite Jean-Claude Juncker’s suggestion that Britain could still be in the bloc for May’s European elections, Brexit Minister Lord Callanan has said.

European Commission president Mr Juncker said he could not rule out an extension to the Article 50 process resulting in the UK participating in the European Parliament vote.

But, arriving in Brussels for a meeting with fellow ministers, Lord Callanan insisted Theresa May had been clear that the March 29 deadline remained.

The Prime Minister has reportedly come under pressure from Cabinet ministers to seek an extension to Article 50 to avoid the UK crashing out of the European Union without a deal.

Mr Juncker said no-one on the EU side would oppose an extension to Article 50 which kept the UK in the bloc.

On the prospect of the UK electing MEPs to the new Parliament, he told German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung that such a scenario was “difficult to imagine”, saying it would be a “belated joke of history” but he did not rule it out.

But Lord Callanan said: “The Prime Minister has been very clear that we intend to leave on March 29, that’s what Article 50 says and that’s what our domestic legislation says.”

At Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting, ministers were being briefed by Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay on his latest talks with Brussels as intensive efforts continue to resolve the deadlock over the Northern Ireland backstop.

Cabinet meeting
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay arrives in Downing Street ahead of the Cabinet meeting (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Mr Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox were said to have had a “productive” discussion with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, in the Belgian capital on Monday.

Lord Callanan said the EU had acknowledged that the backstop was “only ever intended to be temporary” and “we are seeking to explore with them how we can codify that in a legally-binding way that is acceptable to our Parliament”.

The Department for Exiting the EU (DExEU) confirmed the discussions with Mr Barnier included the so-called “Malthouse compromise” being worked on by Tory MPs in the Alternative Arrangements Working Group.

However, there appeared to be little enthusiasm for the proposals – intended to replace the backstop with a basic free trade deal combined with technological solutions to avoid the need for physical border checks – on the EU side.

“While the commission engaged seriously with these proposals, it expressed concerns about their viability to resolve the backstop,” a DExEU spokesman said.

Mrs May and Mr Juncker are expected to meet later this week for further talks.

The Prime Minister has reportedly been urged to stop using the threat of a no-deal Brexit as a negotiating tactic.

Countdown to Brexit
(PA Graphics)

Business Secretary Greg Clark, Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd, Justice Secretary David Gauke and Scottish Secretary David Mundell warned Mrs May businesses now need certainty that the UK will not leave the EU without a deal in place, according to the Guardian.

The report comes after rebel Tory MPs last week inflicted another damaging Commons defeat on Mrs May’s Brexit proposals, heightening fears among some in business of a no-deal break.

Jeremy Corbyn, meanwhile, is stepping up his call to the Prime Minister to re-think her negotiating “red lines” and back Labour’s proposals for a customs union with the EU.

The Tories are bungling Brexit while Labour has set out a unifying and credible alternative plan. When millions face the misery of Universal Credit, rising crime, homelessness and poverty, now more than ever is the time to bring people together to build a better future for us all

— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) February 18, 2019

The Labour leader, who is addressing the EEF employers’ group manufacturing conference, said he would be travelling to Brussels later this week to discuss the proposal with Mr Barnier.

In his speech, Mr Corbyn is expected to say: “It’s a plan that could win the support of Parliament and help bring the country together.

“It has been widely welcomed as a way of breaking the impasse. So I call on the Government and MPs across Parliament to end the Brexit uncertainty and back Labour’s credible alternative plan.”