Brexit: Breakthrough in Brussels after week of drama

The UK and the European Union reached a significant milestone in their pursuit of a Brexit deal on Friday, breaking a deadlock that allows talks to move on to a crucial second phase.

After a night of last minute shuttle diplomacy that capped months of tortuous negotiations, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and British Prime Minister Theresa May announced the breakthrough at an early morning press conference in Brussels.

Crucially, the two sides reached a deal on the historically sensitive issue of the Irish border, which had threatened to derail the talks as they reached a critical moment earlier this week. Discussions can now move on to the potentially more thorny issue of a future trading relationship between the UK and the EU.

The breakthrough represents a significant coup for May, whose beleaguered leadership had appeared under threat as talks faltered. It was also a relief for EU negotiators, who feared a complete breakdown in talks if a deal was not done.

A deal was done on three key issues: Britain’s Brexit “divorce” bill, the rights of EU citizens in the UK after Brexit, and the Irish border.

“Getting to this point required give and take on both sides,” May said. “And I believe the joint report that is being published is in the best interesst of the whole of the UK.”

Border arrangements between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU, had been a sticking point, with fears check points could damage both economies and undermine hard-won peace in the North.

Following late night talks between May’s Conservatives and her governing partners, the hardline Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, May rushed to Brussels Friday.

Speaking alongside May in the European capital, Juncker said, “we had to make the deal today,” as a December 14 deadline approached.

“Sufficient progress has now been made on the three terms of the divorce,” Juncker said, referring to conditions the EU had requested regarding a number of issues including the Irish border. Negotiations for the UK to leave the EU can now proceed to the next stage.

“This hasn’t been easy for either side,” May said. “Getting to this point has required give and take on both sides.”

Referring to a sticking point between her party and the DUP, May said, “in Northern Ireland we will guarantee there will be no hard border, and we will uphold the (Good Friday Agreement).”

“No barrier north-south or east-west,” she said.

The parties had been close to a deal earlier this week on proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland’s border controls but it fell through after objections from the DUP.

What was agreed?

When Brexit negotiations began just under six months ago, the EU was clear on its position: It would not countenance any discussion about a future relationship with Britain until “sufficient progress” had been made on three issues.

Those are:

— that rights of European citizens in the UK are guaranteed

— that Britain pay a substantial “divorce bill” — and that there is no reinstatement of a hard border between Northern Ireland, which will leave the EU with the rest of the UK, and the Republic of Ireland, which remains in the EU.

Progress has now been made, according to a joint declaration by EU and UK negotiators.

“The deal we have struck will guarantee the rights of more than three million EU citizens living in the UK, and over one million UK citizens in the EU,” May said.

European citizens remaining in the UK post Brexit will retain social security, healthcare and a number of other legal rights, according to the declaration.

A framework was also agreed towards a financial settlement, including the UK contributing to annual EU budgets until 2020.

Northern Ireland issue

Language on the Irish situation was less clear. The declaration recognizes the UK’s withdrawal from the EU “presents a significant and unique challenge in relation to the island of Ireland” and the need to avoid a hard border with check points and controls.

“The United Kingdom remains committed to protecting North-South cooperation and to its guarantee of avoiding a hard border,” the declaration said.

“Any future arrangements must be compatible with these overarching requirements. The United Kingdom’s intention is to achieve these objectives through the overall EU-UK relationship. Should this not be possible, the United Kingdom will propose specific solutions to address the unique circumstances of the island of Ireland.”

The Republic of Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney said on Twitter Dublin “supports Brexit negotiations moving to Phase 2 now that we have secured assurances for all on the island of Ireland — fully protecting (the Good Friday agreement), peace process, all-island economy and ensuring there can be NO HARD BORDER.”

In a statement, the DUP said it had clear commitments from the Conservatives “Northern Ireland will leave the single market and the customs union along with the rest of the United Kingdom.”

“Northern Ireland will not be separated constitutionally, politically, economically or regulatory from the rest of the United Kingdom,” the statement said.

This would seem to indicate the DUP is taking a hard line on any special circumstances for Northern Ireland. The party, which opposes any separation from the UK, has been adamant it will not support any deal which sees different policies for Northern Ireland compared to England, Wales and Scotland.

This stance could have a major effect on the rest of the UK. Under the joint declaration, in the absence of specific solutions to deal with the Irish issue, the entirety of the UK will remain in “full alignment” with EU regulations and those of the customs union which, “now or in the future” avoid a hard Irish border.

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Brexit: British Prime Minister Theresa May heads to Brussels

British Prime Minister Theresa May and Brexit secretary David Davis will meet European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels early Friday, according to Downing Street.

Mina Andreeva, Juncker’s deputy spokeswoman, said the meeting will likely happen around 7:00 a.m. local time (1:00 a.m. ET) and be followed by a press conference.

London and Brussels have been engaged in intense negotiations over securing an agreement from the European Union that “sufficient progress” has been made on the UK’s withdrawal ahead of an EU leaders summit on December 14.

Parties came close to a deal earlier this week but it fell through after May’s coalition partners, the far-right Democratic Unionist Party, rejected proposed arrangements for Northern Ireland.

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Judge sets March 19 trial date for AT&T, Time Warner case

The Justice Department’s lawsuit to block AT&T’s purchase of Time Warner has a trial date: March 19, 2018.

In a short initial status conference on Thursday in the United States District Court for Washington D.C., Judge Richard Leon said the trial will last around three weeks and that he expects a decision in late April or May.

Either way, the decision would come after the current April 22 cutoff date for the acquisition, after which AT&T must pay Time Warner a $500 million breakup fee unless the two companies extend the deadline, which they have already done once.

“We thank the Court for its deliberate and expeditious approach to this matter,” AT&T’s General Counsel David McAtee said in a statement. “We understand and appreciate how busy the Court is, and we will promptly discuss the Court’s post-trial schedule with Time Warner. We are committed to this transaction and look forward to presenting our case in March.”

Lawyers for the government and the two companies had sparred in motions before the hearing over the trial date, with the Justice Department seeking a later start to the case, in May, and the companies wanting it to begin earlier than it will now in an effort to hit the deadline.

Still, both sides agreed that even Leon’s compromise date means that they will have to cram to be ready.

“We understood what we are getting into,” one of the DOJ’s lawyers, Craig Conrath said.

Leon also acknowledged the burden the case will place on both legal teams, saying he himself will likely be working over the holidays as a result of the timing.

Leon also noted in several comments the gravity of the case, pointing out for instance that his court room hadn’t been as packed as it was for the hearing in some time.

“This is not a normal case from many perspectives,” he noted. Leon said there will be status hearings every two weeks because “this is that important of a matter.”

A George W. Bush-appointee who has served on the court since 2002, Leon has dealt with big media mergers before. He reviewed the settlement that allowed the Comcast-NBC Universal merger to go ahead, and was critical of the deal before eventually signing off on it.

In its suit, the DOJ argues that the deal violates antitrust law because AT&T would likely “use its control of Time Warner’s popular programming as a weapon to harm competition.”

The government alleges that the deal “would result in fewer innovative offerings and higher bills for American families.”

AT&T disputes that and has said it offered remedies to the Justice Department, similar to what the department had accepted in the Comcast-NBC Universal deal. AT&T and Time Warner also pledged to offer arbitration to competitors if distribution negotiations broke down, and promised to never “go dark” in the middle of such negotiations.

During the hearing, Leon applauded both sides for managing to work together to settle a motion for a protective order regarding protecting confidential information from improper disclosure and said he hopes that is how future motions will be resolved.

“I encourage you to continue to work well together,” he said, though he also chided both sides for bringing legions of lawyers into the hearing.

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House votes to avert partial government shutdown

The House of Representatives voted 235-193 Thursday to avert a partial government shutdown that could have come Friday, NPR, ABC News and USA Today reported.

The short-term spending bill would keep the federal government running for another two weeks. It still must be passed by the Senate.

President Donald Trump and top congressional leaders met earlier Thursday to resolve longstanding policy differences so Congress can pass a long-term spending bill by Christmas. And that’s no sure thing.

The major obstacle is what comes after Dec. 22, when the government runs out of money once again.

Lawmakers are still unsure what would be included in another spending package, saying that there are a myriad of possibilities at this point as leaders and their staff continue negotiating the spending caps for the bill.

“(There will be) some kind of package. What all’s in it? I don’t know,” said Rep. Mark Sanford, a conservative from South Carolina.

House Freedom Caucus members have been pushing for assurances from leadership that the spending bill on December 22 would include some kind of increase in defense spending while domestic spending would stay the same. However, there is little reason to believe a package like that would win 60 Senate votes to pass. HFC members are also asking at this point for GOP leaders to accelerate the timeline on tax reform.

“There are a number of things, we’re trying to make sure that the time frame for tax reform is very aggressive and strong. … We want to make sure tax reform is sped up, there are three or four things that we want to make sure get addressed in the tax reform changes. They’re not unique to the Freedom Caucus but just important things that have to be done,” said Freedom Caucus Chairman Rep. Mark Meadows, R-North Carolina. “And then ultimately is not only the second step of funding but what is the third and fourth and fifth step if necessary, and making sure that we fully understand those and how we best make sure that we make good conservative fiscal decisions.”

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