#Brexit – ‘Let’s bring the UK’s withdrawal to an orderly end. We owe it to history’ Juncker

| March 12, 2019

Prime Minister Theresa May made a last-minute decision to meet with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg on 11 March, to find a solution to concerns about the Irish backstop. The deal will be presented in the House of Commons today (12 March), but initial questions in the British parliament suggest that there is still considerable doubt among sceptical MPs, writes Catherine Feore.

While the Withdrawal Agreement honours the referendum result, May said there was still a need to address the concerns of members of parliament who were concerned about the backstop, in particular that it might be a permanent arrangement.

Three steps to heaven

May argued that the joint instrument agreed on this evening would hold comparable legal weight to the withdrawal agreement and will guarantee that the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely. The instrument also clarifies that whatever replaces the backstop does not need to replicate it.

The UK and EU have added a joint statement in relation to the political declaration. It sets out commitments to enhance and expedite the process of negotiating the future relationship – it makes a legal commitment that the UK and EU will begin work on the backstop’s replacement with the aim of achieving this by December 2020. This will include examining new technologies.

In addition, the UK is proposing a unilateral declaration, only to be used if the backstop comes into use and talks breakdown with no prospect of finding a solution. May says that unilateral declarations were frequently used in international agreements and that she will go into greater depth on this issue when she addresses the House of Commons tomorrow.

European Commission President Juncker acknowledged that ratification was more difficult for the UK than for the EU-27. He said that he had been working with the EU’s Chief Negotiator Michel Barnier to deliver the reassurances the prime minister needs to get a deal over the line. Juncker said that the instrument is a joint legally binding instrument complement to the Withdrawal Agreement.

‘Backstop is not a threat – even if it were used’

Juncker repeated that the backstop is an insurance policy, ‘nothing more, nothing less’. The instrument has legal force while respecting the guidelines. The intention is not to use it and Juncker said it would never be a threat if it were used; the aim of the instrument is to prevent either party acting in bad faith.

Irish Prime Minister (Taoiseach) Leo Varadkar was consulted by Juncker on the proposals and received his support.

The president of the European Commission made it clear that there would not be a third choice. It would be the current deal or Brexit might not happen at all. Though one suspects that this was wording that was proposed by the British side, Juncker will be all too well aware that it will be this deal or a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

Finally, in a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, that President Juncker shared via a tweet, it is clear that should there be any extension of the negotiating period beyond 24 May, the UK will be obliged to hold European elections to select its members of the European Parliament.

Meanwhile in Westminster

Minister of State Rt Hon David Lidington MP delivered a statement to the House of Commons on developments in Strasbourg, followed by a debate. There will be a presentation by the prime minister for further debate tomorrow (13 March).

The first reactions would suggest that Labour MPs will still refuse to support the deal as it currently stands, as the changes have not been made to the Withdrawal Agreement and because it still does not address their concerns. The European Research Group (ERG), made up of extreme Brexiteers, who are willing to take the risk of a ‘no deal’ approach to Brexit, leaving without anything other than unilateral temporary arrangements to ease the transition, also sounded sceptical, with some already declaring their intent to vote against the deal.

One factor that may prove decisive will be the UK Attorney Generals legal advice on the legally binding nature of what has been agreed.

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