Thursday 13 December 2018

EU ready to offer May a lifeline by extending Article 50 if her Brexit proposal is defeated

UK prime minister saw deal undermined by legal advice on backstop

Debate: An anti Brexit campaigner holds an EU umbrella outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images
Debate: An anti Brexit campaigner holds an EU umbrella outside the Houses of Parliament in London, England. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

Kevin Doyle and Gordon Rayner

The EU is prepared to discuss extending Article 50 if Theresa May's Brexit deal is rejected next week, after her proposal was badly undermined by the government's own legal advice.

The UK prime minister will travel to Brussels on December 13, two days after the parliamentary vote on the Withdrawal Agreement, when EU leaders are ready to discuss postponing Brexit.

Mrs May insists that Britain will leave on March 29 next year, but EU sources have said her fellow leaders would be open to the idea of extending the Article 50 process if it meant avoiding a no-deal Brexit.

Mrs May's chances of winning next Tuesday's vote were dealt a fresh blow yesterday when the UK government published its legal advice on the deal, which warned Britain could be yoked to the EU forever if the Irish backstop came into force.

The legal advice, prepared by Geoffrey Cox QC, the attorney general, also makes it clear Northern Ireland and mainland Britain would be subject to different customs regimes under the backstop, creating a regulatory border in the Irish Sea.

The legal advice - which the British government was forced to publish after being found in contempt of parliament for not doing so - flew in the face of the assurances from Mrs May and from other ministers that the backstop would only be temporary and that Northern Ireland would be treated in exactly the same way as the rest of the UK.

Last night Mrs May was trying to salvage her deal by discussing a way of giving MPs a veto over the backstop - the mechanism designed to avoid a hard Border in Ireland if no trade deal can be agreed.

Two alternative plans were being discussed with backbenchers.

One of them would force Mrs May to seek a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop, while the other would give MPs the right to choose between the backstop or a no-deal Brexit if trade talks fail.

EU leaders are prepared to offer her a lifeline by offering to extend the Article 50 process - and postponing Brexit beyond March - if she asks them to at the two-day summit next week.

A succession of Tory MPs, including Sir Michael Fallon and Mark Harper, yesterday urged Mrs May to return to Brussels and seek a revised deal.

However, Mrs May will be hugely reluctant to postpone Brexit as it would mean breaking her promise that Britain will leave the EU on March 29, which could in turn force her to resign and give a new Conservative prime minister the opportunity to renegotiate the deal.

Last night the DUP, on whose votes Mrs May relies for her working majority, encouraged Brexiteers to vote against the deal by saying its MPs would support the government in a confidence vote if the deal was rejected.

However, the party said its confidence and supply deal with the Conservative Party would be over if the deal is voted through, effectively giving Mrs May a choice between her deal or her premiership.

Meanwhile in the Dáil, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that it will be impossible for Northern Ireland to have MEPs in the EU Parliament after Brexit.

He said the "sad reality" is that the North will not be part of the EU and therefore cannot have MEPs.

However, he suggested that there may be a case for having "observers" in the parliament who could contribute to debates that specifically affect Northern Ireland.

But in a thinly veiled attack on Sinn Féin, he said the chances of this happening are weakened by the lack of a Northern Assembly.

Irish Independent

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