EU warns it will not reopen agreement on Irish backstop
Theresa May will hold further talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels on Wednesday.
The European Commission has issued a fresh warning that it will not reopen the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement as Theresa May prepared for further talks in Brussels.
The Prime Minister will meet commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in the Belgian capital on Wednesday evening, commission chief spokesman Margaritis Schinas announced.
The meeting follows talks on Monday between the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox.
Afterwards, Mr Barclay described discussions on the Northern Ireland backstop – which remains the main stumbling block to a deal – as “productive”.
Productive conversations with @MichelBarnier, with a commitment to work together to solve the backstop. I’ll update my colleagues in Cabinet tomorrow.— Steve Barclay MP (@SteveBarclay) February 18, 2019
At the daily briefing for journalists in Brussels, Mr Schinas said the EU side wanted an “orderly” withdrawal by the UK on March 29 as planned.
However, he made clear that the EU was not prepared to give ground on Mrs May’s key demands – either to include an exit clause or a time limit on the backstop or to replace it with an alternative arrangement.
“The EU will not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement. We cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” he said.
“Further talks will be held this week to see whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK Parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council.
“We are listening and working with the UK Government to see how we can work for an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union on March 29. That is where we are.”
With a fresh series of Commons votes expected next week, Mrs May is looking for concessions that will enable her to get her deal through Parliament after it was comprehensively rejected by MPs in last month’s “meaningful vote”.
Downing Street said it was up to the EU side to work with the Government if the UK was to leave with a deal, as both sides want.
“It is still the position of the European Union that they want the United Kingdom to leave with a deal because they acknowledge that is in the interests of the European Union,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“The deal which is on the table has been rejected by 230 votes. MPs have been clear they need legally binding changes in relation to the backstop.
“So the EU needs to work with us in order to give Parliament the assurances that it needs.”
A Government minister has suggested MPs could act to delay Brexit and extend the Article 50 withdrawal process rather than allow the UK to crash out without a deal.
Business minister Richard Harrington told a manufacturers’ conference in London: “I do not believe there will be a no-deal Brexit. The reason I don’t believe that is because I think the Prime Minister’s deal will go through.
“But if it doesn’t get through, before then Parliament will have taken control, we will have a small extension to Article 50 and Parliament will then decide on alternatives.
“I believe that will become the Plan B.”
Ahead of his meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Juncker said he could not rule out an extension to Article 50 which would keep the UK in the EU beyond European Parliament elections due in the spring.
In an interview with German newspaper Stuttgarter Zeitung, he said no-one on the EU side would oppose an extension to Article 50.
On the prospect of the UK electing MEPs to the new parliament, he said such a scenario was “difficult to imagine”, adding that it would be a “belated joke of history”, but he did not rule it out.
However, arriving for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels, Brexit minister Lord Callanan said Mrs May was determined the UK should leave as planned.
“The Prime Minister has been very clear that we intend to leave on March 29, that’s what Article 50 says and that’s what our domestic legislation says,” he said.
Lord Callanan said the EU had acknowledged the backstop was “only ever intended to be temporary” and that the UK was “seeking to explore with them how we can codify that in a legally binding way that is acceptable to our Parliament”.