Theresa May and her party in elaborate game of make-believe
Viewed from Brussels, every part of the Malthouse compromise is out of the question
British prime minister Theresa May has tasked attorney general Geoffrey Cox to formulate proposals to introduce a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism to the backstop. Photograph: Andy Rain/EPA
After the first of at least three meetings with backbenchers this week, a spokesman for Brexit secretary Stephen Barclay said they had “detailed and constructive” discussions aimed at finding common ground on the backstop.
The common ground favoured by the backbenchers has been mapped out in the so-called Malthouse compromise, which calls for the backstop to be replaced by a tariff-free trade area with maximum facilitation of customs. If the EU is unable to accede to this change, the Malthouse compromisers propose a three-year transition period while London and Brussels renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.
The prime minister has also tasked attorney general Geoffrey Cox to formulate proposals to introduce a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism to the backstop.
Viewed from Brussels, every part of the Malthouse compromise is out of the question, from its attempt to reheat rejected ideas for technological border solutions to the demand for a standstill transition without a withdrawal agreement.
The EU has also rejected a time limit and a unilateral exit mechanism for the backstop but could be open to offering legally binding assurances that do not require a renegotiation of the text of the withdrawal agreement.
Eurosceptic Conservative MP Steve Baker warned on Sunday that he and his Brexiteer allies would reject any compromise with the EU that did not involve replacing the backstop with the Malthouse compromise.
This reinforced the view in Brussels that the majority of MPs who voted to back the Brexit deal if the backstop is changed was a freak majority that May will be unable to sustain.
This means that when the prime minister presents her proposals to the EU in the coming days, she is unlikely to find any appetite for compromise on the other side.
Instead, the EU will wait until after MPs vote on February 14th on a number of amendments, probably including one that could oblige May’s government to delay Brexit rather than leave without a deal on March 29th.
Such an outcome will lead the prime minister into another negotiation with Brussels, this time about the duration and terms of any extension of the article 50 deadline.
There is no incentive for the EU to either make any changes to the backstop before then or to indulge the wilder ideas emerging from the Conservative backbenches.