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UK commits to delaying EU exit, but still no sign of UK-EU deal

Further vote to be held tomorrow on a motion to seek extension to Article 50, EU agriculture commissioner says EU to probe legality of UK tariff proposals

The UK is to seek a delay in its date of exit from the EU, following a vote in the House of Commons this evening to rule out the option of leaving the EU without a deal.

MPs voted by 321 votes to 278 to support a motion which commits Parliament not to ‘crash out’ of the EU if no deal has been agreed on Brexit by March 29 – the date on which the Article 50 exit period expires.

But considerable uncertainty remains over both the terms and timing of the UK’s exit.

Prime minister Theresa May made clear after the vote that the motion to rule out ‘no deal’ – which had been expected – had no force of law in the absence of an agreement between the EU and UK. This is because the exit date of March 29 is enshrined in UK law, and can only be prevented by a further act of Parliament to overturn or suspend that law.

This means that the schedule of tariffs on agricultural imports which were published by the UK government this morning, and which would come into effect in the event of a no-deal Brexit, may yet enter into force.

Options for Brexit delay

A further vote is to be held by the House of Commons tomorrow evening (March 14) on a motion to seek an extension to Article 50 – the only logical alternative to either a Brexit deal, which Parliament rejected yesterday, or a no deal, which Parliament rejected today.

Controversially, the motion which the government will table for debate tomorrow raises the prospect of yet another vote on the ill-fated Withdrawal Agreement.

The government has said that if a deal is agreed, it will seek to extend the UK’s membership until June 30 – the latest date by which the UK could realistically remain a UK member state if it does not participate in the European Parliament elections at the end of May. This extension would be presented to the EU, which has to agree to any extension, as “a one-off extension … for the purpose of passing the necessary EU exit legislation”.

The motion also notes the likelihood that the European Council, which meets on Thursday and Friday next week, would in all probability demand to know the purpose of any extension if a deal was not in prospect. Under those circumstances, the UK would then need to seek a longer extension, and would have to participate in the European elections, it warns.

In a short statement issued in response to the votes in the House of Commons, the European Commission noted that “there are only two ways to leave the EU: with or without a deal. The EU is prepared for both.”

In a gentle rebuke to UK MPs, the Commission statement continued: “To take no deal off the table, it is not enough to vote against no deal - you have to agree to a deal. We have agreed a deal with the Prime Minister and the EU is ready to sign it.”

EU to probe legality of UK tariff proposals - Hogan

Meanwhile, the UK’s package of measures to regulate imports of farm products and other goods, in the event of a no deal Brexit, has been strongly criticised by EU Agriculture Commissioner Phil Hogan.

Speaking on Irish radio, Hogan said it “beggars belief the contradictions in this proposal,” and added: “We don't even know if it's legal and compatible with WTO rules.”

The chief focus of Hogan’s criticism was the UK suggestion that products crossing the Irish border would not be subject to either controls or import tariffs.

This is seen by the UK government as the only way to fulfil its obligations under the inter-governmental Belfast Agreement not to set up any infrastructure on the Irish border. However, an open Irish border would clearly incentivise EU traders to sell into the UK market via Ireland and Northern Ireland.

“I think this is an ill-thought out proposal to change the news cycle in London,” Hogan declared, adding: “We continue to work calmly for a deal... and hopefully the UK will come to reason in the coming weeks.”

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