Thursday 17 October 2019

John Downing: 'PM claims she has a better deal - now it's over to those Brexiteers'

 

UK Prime Minister Theresa May attends a news conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg. Photo: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
UK Prime Minister Theresa May attends a news conference with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg. Photo: REUTERS/Vincent Kessler
John Downing

John Downing

It's all about finding a formula of words to effectively assure people that the "temporary" backstop will not "endure indefinitely".

Thus Theresa May flew to the beautiful French city of Strasbourg, on the border with Germany, to meet the EU bosses last night in a five-to-midnight effort to somehow overturn a 230-vote defeat last time - and find a way to lug her unloved EU-UK divorce deal through the Westminster parliament this evening.

And in the capital of that often disputed French province of Alsace, a new-looking formula was unveiled to help Mrs May turn things round at Westminster. In essence, it looks like this:

  • A legally binding agreement by both the UK and EU that neither side would negotiate Brexit with a view to keeping Northern Ireland inside the backstop indefinitely;
  • There are additional words of comfort appended to the Withdrawal Agreement around talks on a new EU-UK post-Brexit deal. But contentiously the UK will append a declaration reserving the right to unilaterally quit the Backstop in extremis.

There are undoubtedly many lawyerly devices to give legal status to political assurances. So, the first point does not look too difficult. The second one does pose problems - and will be looked at carefully by Ireland.

It has taken almost three years, since that fateful Brexit vote on June 23, 2016, for some semblance of progress to emerge.

On Sunday, EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier joined Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Aviva Stadium to see his French side go down against the Ireland rugby XV.

When the pair, and various others, had dined the previous evening, it was largely a social occasion. But there was of course a bit of Brexit business talked.

The Taoiseach's comments yesterday were noticeably less accommodating about likely UK demands to extend Brexit talks beyond the March 29 deadline. The EU line, backed by member states like France, was that London would have to explain what would change during any such extension. There could not be more of the same two years of disputatious sclerosis.

All signals in London, Brussels and Dublin were that ongoing weekend talks between UK and EU in Brussels were "deadlocked" by Sunday night. Then yesterday, Mrs May spoke on the phone with EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and by teatime she was in Strasbourg where the EU's top brass had moved from Brussels to attend a plenary session of the European Parliament.

Everybody wants the Border backstop to be replaced by something better. But the nub of Mrs May's problem was that her ultra-Brexiteer party colleagues wanted very specific terms for ending it.

Has she got that in their eyes? Many in UK and EU political circles will doubt it very much.

All will be revealed later today at Westminster.

Irish Independent

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