Theresa May sees Brexit withdrawal draft as threat to UK

Vowing to keep December commitments, British PM says EU document unacceptable

UK prime minister Theresa May: appeared to slam door shut on the idea of staying in a customs union after Brexit.  Photograph:  PA Wire

UK prime minister Theresa May: appeared to slam door shut on the idea of staying in a customs union after Brexit. Photograph: PA Wire

 

Theresa May could not have been more emphatic in her rejection of the EU’s draft legal text, declaring that no British prime minister could ever agree to it. She said it would undermine the United Kingdom’s common market and threaten the constitutional integrity of the UK by creating a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea.

British media commentators were shocked by the EU’s proposals, which some described as an attempt to “annex” Northern Ireland. And Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman said the Labour leader was unhappy with the draft legal text, particularly the role reserved for the European Court of Justice.

Importantly, however, the prime minister stated twice to MPs that “we do stand by the commitments we made in December” in the joint report with the EU. Paragraph 49 of that joint report outlined the last resort option to avoid a hard border, regulatory alignment between North and South in Ireland.

Paragraph 50, inserted after the DUP halted negotiations on the December agreement, says that “the United Kingdom will ensure that no new regulatory barriers develop between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom”. The draft legal text published on Wednesday reflects paragraph 49 of the joint report but omits paragraph 50, which the EU maintains is an internal UK guarantee to Northern Ireland.

Transition period

The home office confirmed on Wednesday that May had quietly dropped her demand that EU citizens arriving in Britain during the transition period should be treated differently from those who arrived before Brexit. The concession reflects London’s eagerness to agree a transition deal at the next EU summit on March 22nd.

By stressing that she stands by the December agreement, May has made clear that she will not attempt to resile from the backstop of regulatory alignment between North and South. The challenge for negotiators is how to incorporate into the text the UK’s commitment to no internal barrier with Northern Ireland without offering the British government or the DUP a veto on the backstop.

If May left some options open on the EU draft legal text on Wednesday, she appeared to slam the door shut on the idea of staying in a customs union after Brexit. With Labour now backing a new customs union with the EU, a position supported by enough Conservative rebels to defeat the government, the prime minister may see her current position prove untenable before long.

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