EU rejects Irish backstop time limit but backs technological solution
In response to the prime minister’s calls for assurances that the UK would not be trapped in a customs union, a letter from the EU’s most senior officials offers to support alternative solutions backed by Brexiters.
Under the withdrawal agreement’s Irish backstop, the UK is to fall back into a customs union with the EU should there not be an alternative way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland by the end of the transition period, which could last between 21 months and nearly four years.
But in their letter, the presidents of the European commission and European council, Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, emphasise that Brussels would regard such a customs union to be a “sub-optimal” trading relationship should it be triggered.
They pledge to have six-monthly summits to check on progress on an alternative arrangement to replace it, such as a comprehensive trade deal.
“The commission is committed to redouble its efforts and expects the same redoubled efforts from your negotiators, with the aim of concluding a subsequent agreement very rapidly,” the letter says.
Most significantly, the EU officials emphasise that “facilitative arrangements and technologies will be considered” as an alternative, and insist that the bare bones custom union in the backstop need not be the basis of a future deal.
Dominic Raab resigned as Brexit secretary in November partly over his concern that the all-UK customs union envisaged in the backstop would be the basis of the future deal, as is suggested in the text of the political declaration on the future relationship.
“The European commission also shares your intentions for the future relationship to be in place as quickly as possible”, the EU officials write. “Given our joint commitment to using best endeavours to conclude before the end of 2020 a subsequent agreement … the commission is determined to give priority in our work programme to the discussion of proposals that might replace the backstop with alternative arrangements. In this context, facilitative arrangements and technologies will be considered.”
In order to give MPs confidence that the backstop will not need to be triggered, the EU also pledges to start negotiations on a trade deal as soon as possible after the UK parliament backs it, and to bring it provisionally into force even before the parliaments of the 27 EU member states have fully ratified its terms.
In an attempt to extend an olive branch to the EU, which has been stung by accusations of attempting to trap the UK into remaining in the EU, May in turn says in a letter to the EU that the fears held by some about Brussels’ intentions are “unfounded”. She also acknowledges that “the EU made significant moves in our direction in order to avoid the backstop risking the integrity of the UK”.
May’s letter emphasises, however, that she had been seeking a 2021 deadline for trade talks to be completed in order to limit the time in which the backstop could be in force, if it is triggered at all, a suggestion rejected by the EU.
“We have said we that we will use our best endeavours to have the future relationship in place by the end of 2020, and (separately) in the text of the [backstop] protocol we have agreed the same obligation to reach an agreement that supersedes it,” she writes. “I hope you agree that we should have completed this process by the end of 2021 at the latest”.
The EU leaders, in response, insist they are “not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement”, and do not provide such a deadline.
While not breaking new ground, Tusk and Juncker do nevertheless seek to soften the appearance of the backstop by noting that regulatory alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU would not go beyond what is “is strictly necessary to avoid a hard border”.
The Northern Ireland executive, which is currently suspended, would also be able to send members to the UK delegation to the joint committee, a body to oversee the withdrawal agreement.
Despite the EU’s efforts to persuade MPs to back May’s deal in the Commons vote on Tuesday, the prime minister still seems on course for a heavy defeat.
Earlier on Monday, before a statement to the Commons by the prime minister, the international trade secretary, Liam Fox, admitted that success in parliament on Tuesday evening was “unlikely”.
He went on the attack to claim that parliament was “dominated by politicians that wish to remain in the European Union”, adding that “this is the basis of the problem we have”.