Theresa May to travel to Brussels for backstop talks amid ‘place in hell’ row
British prime minister to meet EU Council leader Donald Tusk following comments
Theresa May travels to Brussels on Thursday to ask for legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement she agreed last year to ensure that Britain cannot be “trapped” in the Northern Ireland backstop. However, her visit has been overshadowed by a row over remarks by European Council president Donald Tusk suggesting that “a place in hell” awaits those who advocated Brexit without making a plan for it.
In separate meetings with Mr Tusk, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and European Parliament president Antonio Tajani, Mrs May will seek a guarantee that the backstop – designed to ensure no hard border in Ireland after Brexit – will be temporary.
“The prime minister is open to different ways to achieve this, but is clear it must be legally binding, and therefore will require changes to the withdrawal agreement,” Downing Street said.
Mrs May will acknowledge that securing such changes will not be easy, and that the withdrawal agreement “was the product of much hard work” and was negotiated in good faith.
However, she will say that Westminster’s overwhelming rejection of the deal sends an unequivocal message that change is needed.
“Last week parliament made clear that for the first time it could support the withdrawal agreement subject to changes to the backstop. Importantly, MPs also reiterated their absolute commitment to both avoiding a hard border and leaving the EU with a deal,” Downing Street said.
“Jeremy Corbyn has said he also has concerns about the backstop – so this is an issue that needs to be resolved, not just for our Conservative MPs and the DUP, but for MPs across the House.”
Brexiteers reacted with anger to Mr Tusk’s remark, which he made after a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar in Brussels on Wednesday.
Mr Varadkar emerged from meetings with Mr Tusk, Mr Juncker, Mr Tajani and the European Parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator with assurances that the EU remains firmly committed to the backstop in its current form.
“We will not gamble on peace or put a sell-by date on reconciliation. And this is why we insist on the backstop,” Mr Tusk said. “The EU 27 will not be making any new offer.”
Much of the discussion between the Taoiseach and Mr Juncker is understood to have focused on no-deal preparations in Ireland, an eventuality that appears by the day to loom larger.
Mr Varadkar did not elaborate on what measures would have to be taken on the Border beyond acknowledging an Irish obligation to protect the single market and an insistence that the Government is not making any preparations. He paid tribute to the continued solidarity of the EU 27.
“As a leader of a small country that is fully committed to the EU, this solidarity resonates deeply in Ireland, but not just in Ireland, in all small member states,” he said.
In Belfast on Wednesday, Mrs May met representatives from Northern Ireland’s five main parties, with Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance urging her to accept the backstop, while the DUP and the UUP said it must be changed.