Theresa May wins legally-binding changes to Irish backstop at eleventh hour

Theresa May wins legally-binding changes to Irish backstop at eleventh hour

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LONDON: UK prime minister Theresa May has in Strasbourg secured last minute legal changes to the Irish backstop and is urging MPs to back her negotiated withdrawal agreement.

The second meaningful vote on May’s ‘improved’ deal will take place on Tuesday in the House of Commons. If a majority of MPs back it, it means the UK will depart from the EU in an orderly fashion. The withdrawal agreement sets the terms of the EU relationship with the UK whilst a future economic partnership is negotiated.

May lost her first meaningful vote on the deal on 15 January in a historic defeat by 230 votes. That was because MPs were unhappy with the Northern Ireland backstop and were worried the UK could be held in this insurance policy indefinitely, if the UK is unable to agree on a future relationship with the EU by the end of the transition period, 31 December 2020.

Just before midnight local time on Monday night President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker announced that he and May had in Strasbourg agreed on a “joint legally binding instrument” relating to the withdrawal agreement which “provides clarification and legal guarantees on the backstop.”

He warned that UK MPs now needed to back the deal.

“The choice is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said. “There will be no new negotiations.”

On 30 January MPs voted for an amendment by 317 votes to 301 to pass the Brexit deal bill if Theresa May could negotiate changes to the Irish backstop.

“It’s an insurance policy, nothing more or less. The intention is for it not to be used, like in every insurance policy and if it is ever used it will never be a trap – if either side acts in bad faith, there is a legal way for other party to exist,” the EU chief said. “The instrument has legal force, it complements the withdrawal agreement without reopening it,” Juncker said, adding Leo Varadkar, the prime minister of Ireland, would back it.

“In politics sometimes you get a second chance. There will be no third chance, there will be no further reassurance on the assurances if this deal fails,” Juncker said.

Three new papers will be presented to Parliament on Tuesday: this joint legally binding instrument on the withdrawal agreement which also commits the EU and UK to find alternative arrangements to replace the backstop by December 2020 and a joint statement to accompany the political declaration which outlines a number of commitments to expedite the process of bringing into force the future agreement.” The UK government will also make a “unilateral declaration” that if the backstop comes into use and talks break down, the backstop will not apply.

May said: “This joint legal instrument has comparable legal weight to the withdrawal agreement. It guarantees the EU cannot apply the backstop indefinitely and if they do we can go to arbitration and if found in breach the UK can suspend backstop. These are the legally binding changes that parliament asked us to secure.”

The Attorney General will publish his legal opinion before the vote. The response of the DUP and ERG (Brexiteer Tories) will be crucial in helping May get her deal passed.

If it is not passed, there will be very little time for May to salvage it as the UK is due to leave the EU on 29 Match deal or no-deal.

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