Theresa May admits EU letter may not have gone far enough

British PM welcomes ‘valuable clarifications’ as DUP says letter only bolstered concerns

The day before British Prime Minister Theresa May's meaningful vote on Brexit, she pleas to MPs to help pass her deal, which looks set to be voted down. Video: Parliament TV


Theresa May has welcomed the letter from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk as offering “valuable new clarifications and assurances” about the Brexit deal ahead of Tuesday’s vote in the House of Commons. But she acknowledged that the letter may not have gone far enough to win over enough MPs who are concerned about the implications of the Northern Ireland backstop.

“The EU have said throughout that they would not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement or reopen its text for alteration, and that remained the case throughout my discussions at the December European Council and since,” she said during a visit to a factory in Stoke-on-Trent.

“I also pursued in these discussions a proposal for a fixed date – with legal force – guaranteeing the point at which the future partnership would come into force. Because that is the way to bring an end to the backstop – by agreeing our new relationship. The EU’s position was that – while they never want or expect the backstop to come into force – a legal time limit was not possible.”

DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said that instead of reassuring his party about the backstop, the letter had bolstered their concerns. He said that without any changes to the legally binding withdrawal agreement nothing of substance had changed.

“Northern Ireland would be subject to EU laws with no representation in Brussels. We would rely on the Dublin government to speak up for us. Instead of meaningless letters, the prime minister should now ask for and deliver changes to the withdrawal agreement,” he said.

Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer dismissed the letter as a reiteration of the EU’s existing position and Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman Tom Brake said the letter did nothing to solve the issue of the Border.

May's letter to Juncker and Tusk

Response from Juncker and Tusk

“It is all well and good to say they can consider ‘facilitative arrangements and technologies’ but this is not a reality. The technology that would allow seamless trade across the Irish border simply does not exist,” Mr Brake said.

“If we do not have a frictionless border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, there will be red tape for businesses, longer queues at our borders and jobs will be lost. It is time Theresa May was honest with the British public and offered them a way out of this mess with a people’s vote, with the option to remain in the EU.”

Overwhelming margin

A handful of Conservative MPs have dropped their opposition to Mrs May’s deal in recent days, promising to vote for it on Tuesday night. But Conservative Gareth Johnson has resigned as a whip to vote against it and MPs are expected to reject the deal by an overwhelming margin.

A cross-party group of backbenchers is seeking to change parliamentary procedural rules to charge the Commons liaison committee with finding a new approach to Brexit if Mrs May cannot win a majority for a deal within three weeks of a defeat on Tuesday. The prime minister warned MPs that voting for her deal was the only way of ensuring that there would not be a no-deal Brexit but that Britain would definitely leave the EU.

“You can take no deal off the table by voting for that deal. And if no deal is a bad as you believe it is, it would be the height of recklessness to do anything else,” she said.

“But while no deal remains a serious risk, having observed events at Westminster over the last seven days, it is now my judgment that the more likely outcome is a paralysis in Parliament that risks there being no Brexit. That makes it even more important that MPs consider very carefully how they will vote tomorrow night.”

Attorney general’s advice

UK attorney general Geoffrey Cox wrote to Mrs May to say that the EU’s reassurances in the Tusk-Junker letter on the backstop had some legal force and he thought it was unlikely that the EU wished to implement it.

Mr Cox said that while the EU’s conclusion - that Brussels would work speedily towards agreeing a trade agreement to avoid the backstop being triggered - did not alter the “fundamental meanings” of the backstop - that the UK could be indefinitely committed to EU customs rules if future trade talks broke down, as he advised in November.

“The balance of risks favours the conclusion that it is unlikely that the EU will wish to reply on the implementation of the backstop provisions,” said the attorney general.

He said the draft withdrawal agreement “now represents the only politically practicable and available means of securing our exit from the European Union.”

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