UK’s May lobbies EU leaders in fight to save Brexit deal
By LORNE COOK and MIKE CORDER
Tuesday, December 11
BRUSSELS (AP) — Top European Union officials on Tuesday ruled out any renegotiation of the divorce agreement with Britain, as Prime Minister Theresa May fought to save her Brexit deal by lobbying leaders in Europe’s capitals.
May began her quest over breakfast with Dutch counterpart Mark Rutte, a day after she abandoned a vote in the U.K. Parliament to secure support for the agreement thrashed out with the EU over more than a year. She acknowledged that the deal would be rejected in London “by a significant margin.”
Rutte revealed nothing of their conversation, tweeting only that they had “a useful dialogue which saw us discuss the latest Brexit developments.”
But European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker warned that the agreement— almost 600 pages long, highly technical and legally binding — cannot be re-opened for negotiation at a summit of EU leaders on Thursday. He did say, however, that elements of the deal could still be clarified.
“There is no room whatsoever for renegotiation,” Juncker told EU lawmakers in Strasbourg, France, as he briefed them on the summit.
Juncker, who is set to meet May on Tuesday evening, reiterated that “the deal we have achieved is the best deal possible. It is the only deal possible.”
But he added that “if used intelligently, (there) is room enough to give further clarification and further interpretations without opening the withdrawal agreement.”
EU leaders have often supplemented agreements with political declarations that clarify their interpretation of elements of an accord or provide assurances about how parts of any deal might work.
In Brussels, Danish Foreign Minister Anders Samuelsen also said that EU countries might be willing to clarify parts of the deal.
“It is always a political option to clarify if that is needed, what is meant, what kind of underlining is needed,” Samuelsen told reporters.
The main sticking point since the Brexit talks began is how to keep goods flowing seamlessly between EU member Ireland and the U.K’s Northern Ireland after Britain leaves the bloc.
Concerned that no “hard border” should be created with customs posts and checks — structures that came under attack during Northern Ireland’s sectarian conflict — the EU and Ireland have demanded that a “backstop” guarantee be included. The measure, essentially an insurance policy, would keep Britain under EU customs rules until both sides agree on a better solution, and would only enter into force if no compromise is found by 2020 — though that deadline may be extended.
Opponents say the backstop is unacceptable, arguing the mechanism binds Britain to the EU because it cannot get out of the customs union unilaterally.
EU leaders have insisted that the backstop cannot be taken out of the deal, but May is sure to seek flexibility on this from her European partners.
“We have a common determination to do everything to be not in the situation one day to use that backstop, but we have to prepare,” Juncker said.
The European Parliament’s Brexit point man, Guy Verhofstadt, agreed that “it is out of the question to renegotiate the backstop.” He added that with the canceled vote in London “we have spiraled again into a new mess.”
But Martin Callanan, Britain’s Minister of State at the Department for Exiting the EU, insisted that “the U.K. cannot be trapped permanently in the backstop.”
“It is very important that these have to be additional legally binding reassurances,” he told reporters in Brussels, adding that what lies ahead is “a difficult and complex negotiation.”
If the Brexit agreement is accepted by the U.K. Parliament, it must still be endorsed by the European Parliament before March 29.
In Berlin, May was greeted by German Chancellor Angela Merkel with a handshake in wet, gray weather. They made no comment as they went into their meeting at the chancellery, and no statements or news conference was planned afterward.
A senior German official said May would not get any pledge of new negotiations while in Berlin. And he stressed that the chief negotiators were in Brussels, not the German capital.
Asked on the sidelines of an EU meeting in Brussels what May can expect from Merkel, Deputy Foreign Minister Michael Roth replied: “I hope they will wish each other Merry Christmas, strength and all the best for the new year. It’s good to speak to each other, but there will certainly be no promises of any kind that we will reopen matters now and renegotiate.”
The embattled British premier was due in Brussels later Tuesday for meetings with Juncker and EU Council President Donald Tusk, who will chair Thursday’s summit. Tusk has also ruled out renegotiating the Brexit deal.
In London, her spokesman said the government intends to hold the postponed vote in Parliament by Jan. 21, previously seen as a deadline for the government to inform Parliament of its Brexit plan.
Corder reported from The Hague. Geir Moulson in Berlin contributed.
Brexit vote postponed: what parliament must do now to fix Theresa May’s mess
December 10, 2018
Head of Politics, Sheffield Hallam University
Disclosure statement: Andy Price does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.
Partners: Sheffield Hallam University provides funding as a member of The Conversation UK.
Finally, after two tortuous years of negotiations, it looked like the UK’s elected representatives were about to vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Brexit deal. Then, despite vowing to go ahead, May decided to postpone the vote the day before. She had faced almost certain defeat and now says she will speak to EU leaders to find a new way forward.
Technically and legally May was within her rights to back out of the vote. However, the political optics are another thing altogether. This is a government, remember, found in contempt of parliament for withholding information from MPs. Pulling such an important vote out of self-interest does not look good. Doing so a day before the vote is not politic, as Speaker John Bercow pointed out after her statement. Just how much of the normal running order of UK politics is the prime minister ready to jettison?
It seems that May now intends to go back to Brussels and seek concessions around the Irish backstop – a sticking point that riled Brexiteers and Remainers MPs alike – in order to make the vote winnable at a later date. But the question here must be: what concessions? Is she going to ask that the UK as whole to stay in the customs union and maybe even the single market, which is the only real way the Irish border (and the backstop) problem disappears?
Not a chance: this would anger the Brexiteers in her party even more (if that is possible). Rather, the concession she is after is to somehow make the backstop more palatable to the people she has been appealing to from the beginning: the hard Brexiteers. That might be something like agreeing that the backstop becomes a temporary arrangement, somehow.
How will opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn react to this delay? Is he going to try and stick to the line that he wants a general election, promising that if – and it is a big “if” – he won that election he would go back and renegotiate with the EU?
If so, then his fate looks as bleak as May’s. What is it that he imagines he can offer that will provide enough fuel to power the EU27 to reopen the negotiations they have just taken so long to close? And remember, they are not just reopening negotiations with the UK, but among themselves too: they have to reach a unified position before they can agree a position with the UK. The idea that they will be able to reopen talks and get negotiations finished before the end of March is quite frankly ludicrous.
Apart, maybe, from one scenario: that a Labour government would offer to stay in the customs union, in the single market, accept freedom of movement and the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. That may be motivation enough for the EU – but it is essentially staying in the EU in anything else but name (and decision-making power).
Whatever happens next, one thing is clear: the heads of the UK’s two main parties are no closer to solving this problem from their positions of leadership. It is to other MPs, then, that voters should turn. Only the House of Commons, acting as a collective body, can steer the nation through this political mess.
We should remember that despite all the cries of betrayal from the Brexiteers, this House of Commons as a collective entity was constituted by the people in a vote that superseded the referendum: the snap election of 2017. The MPs that sit in this parliament are the representatives the people chose to enact Brexit in 2017.
And key here is that this house of Commons is hung – there is no outright majority. A clearer display of where the country is at you could not find. As a reflection of that very vote, this house has found it very difficult to agree on anything as the negotiations on Brexit have progressed.
This, then, is the state of the House of Commons as we head into Christmas. And the reality is, everything the government and the opposition have tried so far in terms of Brexit has so far failed. MPs need to find away to coalesce around a different way forward. There needs to be a a proposal, plan or motion that will attract the magic number of 314 MPs needed for a majority in order that a way out can be enacted.
Crucially, we know that if such a plan were to emerge, it would not be a hard Brexit or May’s deal – that much has been proven in the run up to the originally planned vote. Whatever the proposal would be, we should remind ourselves and others that this will be the will of the people expressed via British constitutional means.
Whatever the focus on the role of the PM and other individual politicians in another crazy week, let’s try to remember that the collective sense of the country’s elective representatives is the key player here. Let’s hope it shows up.
Comey: FBI probe of Russia initially looked at 4 Americans
By ERIC TUCKER, CHAD DAY and MARY CLARE JALONICK
Sunday, December 9
WASHINGTON (AP) — The FBI’s counterintelligence investigation into potential ties between the Trump campaign and Russia initially focused on four Americans and whether they were connected to Russian efforts to interfere in the 2016 presidential election, former FBI Director James Comey told lawmakers during hours of closed-door questioning.
Comey did not identify the Americans but said President Donald Trump, then the Republican candidate, was not among them.
He also told the House Judiciary Committee that, contrary to Trump’s claims, he was “not friends in any social sense” with special counsel Robert Mueller, who is now leading the Russia investigation. Trump has repeatedly portrayed the men as exceptionally close as part of a long-running effort to undermine the investigation and paint the lead figures in the probe as united against him.
“I admire the heck out of the man, but I don’t know his phone number, I’ve never been to his house, I don’t know his children’s names,” said Comey, who added that he had “never hugged or kissed the man” despite the president’s insistence otherwise.
“A relief to my wife,” he deadpanned.
The committee released a transcript of the interview on Saturday, just 24 hours after privately grilling the fired FBI chief about investigative decisions related to Hillary Clinton’s email server and Trump’s campaign and potential ties to Russia. Comey largely dodged questions connected to the current Mueller-led probe, including whether his May 2017 firing by Trump constituted obstruction of justice.
The Republican-led committee interviewed Comey as part of its investigation into FBI actions in 2016, a year when the bureau — in the heat of the presidential campaign — recommended against charges for Clinton and opened an investigation into Russian interference in the election.
The questioning largely centered on well-covered territory from a Justice Department inspector general report, Comey’s own book and interviews and hours of public testimony on Capitol Hill. But the former FBI chief also used the occasion to take aim at Trump’s frequent barbs at the criminal justice system, saying “we have become numb to lying and attacks on the rule of law by the president,” as well as Trump’s contention that it should be a crime for subjects to “flip” and cooperate with investigators.
“It’s a shocking suggestion coming from any senior official, no less the president. It’s a critical and legitimate part of the entire justice system in the United States,” Comey said.
In offering some details of the investigation’s origins, Comey said it started in July 2016 with a look at “four Americans who had some connection to Mr. Trump” during that summer and whether they were tied to “the Russian interference effort.” The campaign itself, he said, was not investigation at that time.
He did not identify the Americans, though Mueller’s investigation has made clear that by that time, there had already been outreach from Russian intermediaries to Trump associates — including a 2015 encounter revealed for the first time in a court filing Friday. Also by that time Democratic email accounts had been hacked by Russian intelligence and a Trump campaign foreign policy adviser, George Papadopoulos, had been told that Russians had “dirt” on Clinton in the form of stolen emails.
That October, the FBI obtained a secret search warrant to monitor the communications of a Trump campaign adviser, Carter Page, on suspicions he was acting as a foreign agent — something he has denied.
Multiple Trump associates, including Papadopoulos, former national security adviser Michael Flynn and Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, have pleaded guilty to lying about their interactions with Russians during the campaign and presidential transition period. Former Trump campaign chairman Paul Manafort’s foreign dealings, including to an associate the U.S. says has ties to Russian intelligence, has also attracted law enforcement scrutiny.
Comey reiterated to lawmakers that it was the 2016 Papadopoulos encounter with a Russian intermediary in London that ignited the Russia investigation, rather than — as some Republicans have maintained — Democratic-funded opposition research compiled by a former British spy.
“It was weeks or months later that the so-called Steele dossier came to our attention,” Comey said.
He said that by the time of his firing, the FBI had not come to a conclusion about whether the Trump campaign coordinated with Russia’s efforts to sway the election.
And he insisted that the FBI would recover from the president’s attacks on the bureau.
“The FBI will be fine. It will snap back, as will the rest of our institutions,” Comey said. “There will be short-term damage, which worries me a great deal, but in the long run, no politician, no president can, in a lasting way, damage those institutions.”
Besides the questioning on Russia, Republicans lawmakers pressed Comey on the FBI’s handling of an investigation into whether Clinton mishandled classified information on her private email server. Comey’s July 2016 announcement that Clinton and her aides had been “extremely careless” but did not deserve criminal charges infuriated Republicans who contended that someone less powerful and well-connected would have faced prosecution.
Under questioning from Rep. Trey Gowdy, a South Carolina Republican, Comey reiterated that the FBI and Justice Department didn’t have a prosecutable case against Clinton because they couldn’t prove she willfully violated the law by setting up the server.
Read the transcript: http://apne.ws/1fZwQyj
Comey faces off with GOP over Clinton emails, alleged bias
By MARY CLARE JALONICK
Saturday, December 8
WASHINGTON (AP) — Former FBI Director James Comey spoke to House investigators behind closed doors for almost seven hours Friday, begrudgingly answering questions about the Justice Department’s decisions during the 2016 presidential election.
Comey, who appeared under subpoena, announced after the meeting that he would return for more questioning Dec. 17. Appearing annoyed, he said “we’re talking about Hillary Clinton’s emails, for heaven’s sake, so I’m not sure we needed to do this at all.”
A transcript of the interview, expected to be released shortly, “will bore you,” Comey said.
Two GOP-led committees brought Comey in as they sought to wrap up a yearlong investigation into the department’s decisions in 2016. Republicans argue that department officials were biased against Donald Trump as they started an investigation into his campaign’s ties to Russia and cleared Democrat Hillary Clinton in the probe into her email use. Comey was in charge of both investigations.
Democrats have said the investigations by the House Judiciary and Oversight and Government Reform committees are merely a way to distract from and undermine special counsel Robert Mueller’s Russia probe. Mueller took over the department’s investigation when he was appointed in May 2017.
After the questioning was underway, some Republicans signaled they were unhappy with Comey’s level of cooperation. California Rep. Darrell Issa said Comey had two lawyers in the room, his personal lawyer and a lawyer from the Justice Department. He said the department lawyer repeatedly instructed Comey not to answer “a great many questions that are clearly items at the core of our investigation.”
“He answered the questions he had to answer,” said Rep. Raja Krishnamoorthi of Illinois. But he added that he was left with the impression that “we got nowhere today.”
Florida Rep. Ted Deutsch said the Republican majority “wishes to only ask questions still about Hillary Clinton’s emails, all to distract from the big news today, which is what’s happening in court.”
As the interview with Comey ended, Mueller revealed new details about his Russia investigation in court on Friday in the cases of Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, and former personal lawyer Michael Cohen.
It was unclear if Comey is returning the week after next because Republicans felt he was being uncooperative, or if it was an issue with timing. While such closed-door interviews often extend late into the night, lawmakers said Friday that the interview would end in the afternoon because of scheduling issues.
Just as the meeting ended, President Trump tweeted that “it is being reported that Leakin’ James Comey was told by Department of Justice attorneys not to answer the most important questions. Total bias and corruption at the highest levels of previous Administration. Force him to answer the questions under oath!”
While it was uncertain if Comey spoke under oath Friday, lying to Congress is a crime under any circumstance.
Over the past year, Republicans on the two committees have called in a series of officials and suggested after the closed-door meetings that there is evidence of bias at the Justice Department. The investigation’s most public day was a 10-hour hearing in which former FBI special agent Peter Strzok defended anti-Trump texts he sent to a colleague as he helped lead both investigations. Strzok fought with Republican lawmakers in a riveting hearing that featured Strzok reading aloud from his sometimes-lewd texts, and Democrats and Republicans openly yelling at each other.
New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, the top Democrat on the Judiciary panel, vowed to end the investigation when Democrats take the House majority in January.
“This is a waste of time to start with,” Nadler said. “The entire purpose of this investigation is to cast aspersions on the real investigation, which is Mueller. There is no evidence whatsoever of bias at the FBI or any of this other nonsense.”
Nadler and the top Democrat on the Oversight panel, Maryland Rep. Elijah Cummings, said in a statement after the meeting that Comey’s testimony yielded few new details.
“As the special counsel’s investigation appears to be closing in on the president and his associates, our Republican colleagues seem intent on spending their final days in power attempting to provide cover to President Trump and attempting to re-litigate the Department of Justice’s decision not to prosecute Secretary Clinton,” the Democrats said.
Comey, who has testified publicly on Capitol Hill about both the Clinton and Russia investigations, appeared for the interview after unsuccessfully fighting the subpoena in court. It was the first time he answered lawmakers’ questions since an explosive June 2017 hearing in which he asserted that Trump fired him to interfere with his FBI investigation of alleged Russia ties to the Trump campaign.
His lawyers said he would prefer to testify publicly and said the committees were prone to selectively reveal information for political purposes.
“Don’t do it in a dark corner and don’t do it in a way where all you do is leak information,” said Comey’s attorney, David Kelley.
Under the deal struck with the Judiciary Committee, Comey was to be free to speak about Friday’s questioning and a transcript was to be released soon afterward.
A report released this June from the Justice Department’s internal watchdog said Comey was “insubordinate” in his handling of the Clinton email investigation in the final months of the 2016 campaign. But it also found there was no evidence that Comey’s or the department’s final conclusions were motivated by political bias toward either candidate.
The report said the former FBI director, who announced in July 2016 that Clinton had been “extremely careless” with classified material but would not be charged with any crime, repeatedly departed from normal Justice Department protocol. Yet it did not second-guess his conclusion that Clinton should not have been prosecuted, despite assertions by Trump and his supporters that anyone less politically connected would have been charged.
Associated Press writers Padmananda Rama and Matthew Daly contributed to this report.