Tuesday

11th May 2021

UK seeks to reopen Irish deal in Brexit

  • Dublin said backstop deal is not open for renegotiation - and the EU agrees (Photo: William Murphy)

British prime minister Theresa May is asking the EU to reopen talks on Ireland and Brexit despite Europe's refusal.

She gave the news to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker by phone on Tuesday (29 January) after British MPs tasked her to do so in a vote earlier in Westminster.

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The British parliament said she must seek "alternative arrangements" to the Irish deal in the current EU withdrawal contract.

"What I'm talking about is ... a significant and legally-binding change," May said in London.

"It will involve reopening the withdrawal agreement, a move for which I know there is limited appetite among our European partners," she said.

"There is a way forward to secure this deal if we're able to secure changes in relation to the backstop," her spokesman added.

The Irish "backstop" says the UK must stay in the EU customs union until a way is found for it to leave without imposing a hard border on the island of Ireland.

The British MPs' call for "alternative arrangements" was not legally-binding on May and passed by just 317 votes to 301.

But it came after MPs rejected the existing EU withdrawal accord, largely on grounds of the backstop, by a majority of historic proportions earlier this month.

It also comes amid nerves on markets and among EU allies on the economic damage if the UK crashed out of the EU with no deal in place.

The EU reacted by immediately ruling out a renegotiation of the 585-page withdrawal treaty.

But it said it might change the wording of a legally non-binding declaration on future UK relations, in a conciliatory sign.

"The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation," a spokesman for EU Council president Donald Tusk said after the British vote on Tuesday.

"The EU would be prepared to ... adjust the content and the level of ambition of the political declaration [on future relations]," he added.

The EU was also open to a "reasoned request" by the UK to delay Brexit, which falls due on 29 March, Tusk's spokesman said.

Ireland, which holds a veto on the EU negotiations, said the same.

"There can be no change to the backstop," Irish Europe minister, Helen McEntee, said.

The European Parliament (EP), which must also sign off on the UK withdrawal deal, backed her up.

"We stand by Ireland. There is no majority to re-open or dilute the withdrawal agreement," Guy Verhofstadt, the EP's Brexit spokesman, said.

Emmanuel Macron, the French president, had said the withdrawal treaty was "not renegotiable" before the British vote.

Germany's Europe minister, Michael Roth, voiced scepticism that backstop alternatives exist.

"Dear British friends, just a simple question: 'What do you want???'," he tweeted as May phoned Juncker on Tuesday evening.

'Substantial disruptions'

The British pound fell in US trading amid tremors on the greater likelihood of a no-deal scenario.

The US director of national intelligence, Daniel Coats, echoed the concern during his testimony to a Senate committee.

"This would cause economic disruptions that could substantially weaken the UK and Europe," he said after the British vote.

British MPs also called on May to give them a chance to block a no-deal Brexit in subsequent voting.

Delaying Brexit until after March "has now become inevitable", Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the British opposition party, Labour, said in the Westminster debate.

"It'll not be any comfort to say: 'I told you so' when the lorries are backing up on the M20 [a British motorway], when cancer patients can't get medicines, and when prices are rising in the shops", he added, echoing the US analysis on a potential no-deal crisis.

'Not forgiven'

Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish leader, said hard-Brexiteers in May's party and in Northern Ireland had forced her to "chase a fairytale" on the backstop and "increased the risk of no-deal in the process".

But if May's objective was to satisfy internal Tory cliques, she could end up harming the party in the long term, Oliver Letwin, a senior Tory MP warned.

If "terrible things" were to happen in a no-deal Brexit, the Conservatives "will not be forgiven for many years" by the British public, he said.

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