Sunday 17 February 2019

EU immediately shoots down May's intention to restart negotiations on the Border backstop

British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the House of Commons last night. Picture: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Wire
British Prime Minister Theresa May addresses the House of Commons last night. Picture: UK Parliament/Mark Duffy/PA Wire

Gordon Rayner and Steven Swinford

Theresa May is set for a showdown with the EU after MPs instructed her to try to reopen negotiations on the Brexit deal.

The British parliament voted by 317 to 301 to send the prime minister back to Brussels to attempt to renegotiate the Northern Ireland backstop. However, EU leaders immediately told her she was wasting her time.

European Council President Donald Tusk bluntly told Mrs May: "The Withdrawal Agreement is not open for renegotiation."

Mrs May was given a similar message in a phone call with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, while French President Emmanuel Macron said the current agreement was "the best deal possible and not renegotiable".

MPs also voted to block a no-deal Brexit, weakening Mrs May's hand in the negotiations.

More MPs - 318 - voted to block no deal than to support Mrs May's Brexit plan B, but Mrs May told them that "opposing no deal is not enough to stop it" and they must back an alternative.

The vote in favour of replacing the backstop with unspecified "alternative arrangements" represented a major victory for Brexiteers and the DUP, who had been urging Mrs May to drop the most controversial part of her Brexit deal.

She had always insisted that there could be no deal without a backstop, but in a major shift of her position yesterday she finally abandoned that position, saying the only imperative was to avoid a hard Border in Ireland.

She told the Commons: "It is now clear that there is a route that can command a substantial and sustainable majority in this House for leaving the EU with a deal ... we will now take this mandate forward and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

"There is limited appetite for such a change in the EU and negotiating it will not be easy, but this house has made it clear what it needs to approve the Withdrawal Agreement."

Downing Street said Mrs May had three options: to seek a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop, to seek a time limit for the backstop, or to adopt a plan put forward by Kit Malthouse MP to "recast" the backstop as a type of free-trade agreement.

Attempts to delay Brexit and pave the way to a second referendum both failed on what was largely a successful night for Mrs May.

Labour made delaying Brexit its official policy for the first time, as Jeremy Corbyn whipped his MPs to back an amendment, put down by Yvette Cooper, that would pave the way for Article 50 to be extended for nine months.

Ms Cooper's amendment was defeated by 23 votes, and a Labour amendment calling for a debate on a second referendum was defeated by 31.

Mr Corbyn said he would now meet Mrs May to discuss the way forward, having previously refused to meet her until she took no deal off the table.

The main amendment passed last night, tabled by Graham Brady who chairs the 1922 Committee of Tory backbenchers, called on Mrs May to replace the backstop with "alternative arrangements to avoid a hard Border".

Mrs May adopted it as official Government policy - even though it meant ripping up the deal she spent two years negotiating.

There were warnings from Europe that if Mrs May does restart talks, she will open a Pandora's Box as other countries seek other changes.

Manfred Weber, a German MEP and leader of the European People's Party, said: "The consequence will be that not just the backstop has to be renegotiated - the Gibraltar question, the question of how much money Britain has to pay for exiting, the question of citizens' rights, will have to be renegotiated." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

Irish Independent

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