UK-EU rift on backstop widens as Britain seeks changes

Breakthrough not expected until mid-March making article 50 extension more likely

Irish and EU sources say the text of the Withdrawal Agreement provisions on the backstop cannot be changed. An anti-Brexit rally in Co Louth, January 2019. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Irish and EU sources say the text of the Withdrawal Agreement provisions on the backstop cannot be changed. An anti-Brexit rally in Co Louth, January 2019. File photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Significant gaps remain between European Union and UK negotiators on the changes sought by the British on the backstop, according to sources briefed on the discussions.

Senior Irish Government sources say they now accept that some sort of standalone document may be agreed to include EU clarifications on the backstop and guarantees that the UK will not be held in a customs union indefinitely.

But Dublin is resisting the British description of the document as a “codicil” which implies a change to the legal nature of the backstop – the guarantee there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.

Some sources say the British are using the term “codicil” in a bid to bolster the impact of any EU guarantees and assurances. But Dublin says that any new document cannot change the legal status of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Nonetheless, Irish and EU sources say the British position has moved and is now much more “realistic”, by which they mean the British requirement that time-limit and a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop be written into the treaty has been dropped.

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However, they warn that there is still a significant distance between the two sides, and any breakthrough is not expected until much closer to a series of votes in the House of Commons in mid-March.

Brussels says that contacts are continuing “at a technical level” between the British and European Commission teams, led by Olly Robbins on the British side and Sabine Weyand for the EU.

The British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox was in Brussels earlier this week and British reports stressed progress on changing the backstop, though EU sources played down talk of any significant breakthroughs.

Irish and EU sources remain firm that the text of the Withdrawal Agreement provisions on the backstop cannot be changed, but say that a document containing EU guarantees about the backstop and the future relationship could be part of the package. An intensive period of negotiations is expected over the coming weeks.

Some sources say that if there is to be an agreement on the changes required by the British, it is likely to come shortly before the votes in the House of Commons expected on March 12th to 14th.

A draft agreement between the British government and the European Commission could then be voted on by MPs and, if passed, could be ratified by EU leaders at a summit in Brussels on Match 21st to 22nd. That would leave a week for the European Parliament to ratify the deal before the Brexit date of March 29th.

However, given the stop-start nature of Brexit so far, not many sources express confidence that events will proceed according to this timetable, and an extension of article 50 is still widely expected.

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