Tusk compares backstop to the Gordian Knot unravelled by Alexander the Great

Analysis: May insists a deal is achievable; Barnier says negotiations need more time

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May meets  European Union Council president Donald Tusk  in London. Photograph: Reuters/ Frank Augstein

Britain’s prime minister Theresa May meets European Union Council president Donald Tusk in London. Photograph: Reuters/ Frank Augstein

 

As Theresa May prepares to address EU leaders before dinner at Wednesday’s summit in Brussels, both sides are determined that there should be no repeat of the rancorous displays at Salzburg last month. Michel Barnier said on Tuesday that the Brexit negotiations needed more time while May told her cabinet that negotiators had made significant progress and that a deal was achievable.

Still unresolved, however, is the issue of the Northern Ireland backstop, which Donald Tusk on Tuesday compared to the Gordian Knot unravelled by Alexander the Great.

“It looks like a new version of the Gordian Knot,” Tusk said. “Unfortunately, I can’t see a new version of Alexander the Great. It’s not so easy to find this kind of creative leader.”

Britain wants a customs backstop covering the whole of the UK to be included in the legally binding withdrawal agreement and it wants that backstop to be time-limited. The EU says a time limit would rob the backstop of its effectiveness as an insurance policy, and insists that customs arrangements for the whole of the UK are part of the future relationship outlined in a non-binding political declaration.

Orderly withdrawal

Britain argues that, if the EU can make an exception for Northern Ireland by allowing its customs relationship with the EU to be in the withdrawal agreement, it can do the same for the rest of the UK. The EU’s response is that, under article 50, the withdrawal agreement can cover issues concerned only with Britain’s orderly withdrawal from the EU.

The threat of violence and political disorder in Northern Ireland would threaten that orderly withdrawal. But the withdrawal agreement also covers such issues as geographical indicators for food products such as Parma ham and champagne.

Although Britain continues to insist that the backstop should be time-limited, the cabinet on Tuesday discussed a “mechanism” that would bring it to an end. This suggests that London could accept some kind of escape clause which gives neither side a veto on ending the backstop but sets out a series of steps that should bring it to an end.

The Gordian Knot was a labyrinthine tangle remarkable for its complexity and for the fact that it left no loose ends visible, which Alexander simply sliced through with his sword – an option that is not available where the backstop is concerned.

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