Defiant May sets out four backstop solutions – with room to manoeuvre

Immediate threat to May’s leadership recedes as she delivers carefully crafted speech

British Prime Minister Theresa May said that the UK might ask for a short extension of a planned transition period to ease its exit from the European Union. Video: Parliamentlive.tv

 

Theresa May sounded defiant in the House of Commons on Monday as she set out four demands for the resolution of the Northern Ireland backstop, the last major outstanding issue in the Brexit negotiations. But a careful reading of the prime minister’s statement suggests she has left herself more room for manoeuvre than may have been apparent to the MPs listening in the chamber.

She described accurately the EU’s position that, while a UK-wide customs backstop is an option, it cannot be in the legally binding withdrawal agreement.

So a Northern Ireland-specific backstop would be in the withdrawal agreement, which would include a reference to the UK-wide version written into the non-binding political declaration on the future relationship.

“We must make the commitment to a temporary UK-EU joint customs territory legally binding, so the Northern Ireland-only proposal is no longer needed,” she said.

Does this mean the Northern Ireland-only backstop is rendered redundant and would not be used? Or is May saying it must be removed from the withdrawal agreement and replaced by the UK-wide version?

Downing Street said after May’s statement that the Northern Ireland-only backstop is “unacceptable” and there is no doubt that British negotiators would like to get rid of it altogether.

But May’s formulation allows for the possibility that negotiators would find a way of making the UK-wide customs backstop legally binding but would leave the Northern Ireland-only version in the agreement as an ultimate insurance policy.

May appeared to suggest that at the end of the post-Brexit transition period in December 2020, Britain could choose to extend the transition rather than trigger its UK-wide backstop.

Continued access

Perhaps the most intriguing of the prime minister’s points was her fourth – a promise to deliver on her commitment “to ensure full continued access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market”.

This commitment does not rule out a backstop that would impose regulatory checks on goods moving from Britain to Northern Ireland, which the EU is proposing.

By the end of Monday’s statement, the immediate threat to May’s leadership had receded, partly because of the lurid language used by some of her critics in off-the-record briefings that described her being knifed and said she should bring her own noose to a meeting with MPs. Her statement reassured her backbenchers that she will defend the union in the remaining weeks of the Brexit negotiations but it left the door open just wide enough for a creative solution to the backstop. 

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