Theresa May is to travel to Brussels on Thursday for talks with European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, as she seeks changes to the Brexit deal which was rejected by MPs last month.
The Prime Minister is expected to press the case for the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened to replace the controversial backstop with alternative arrangements for avoiding a hard border in Ireland after Brexit.
It is her first formal meeting with senior EU officials since the deal which she reached with Mr Juncker in November went down to overwhelming defeat in the House of Commons and since MPs voted for the removal of the backstop.
On Tuesday, Mrs May will make a high-profile speech in Northern Ireland, where she will insist that she can secure a Commons majority for a Brexit deal that “commands broad support” in the province.
She will say that it is a “concerning time” but “we will find a way to deliver Brexit” that honours commitments to keep the border open.
On Wednesday Mrs May will hold talks with Northern Ireland’s political leaders including the DUP’s Arlene Foster, who has promised to tell the Prime Minister the proposed border backstop “drives a coach and horses through the Belfast Agreement’s principle of consent” and would effectively create a new border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Meanwhile, former first minister Lord Trimble confirmed he is considering a legal challenge to the backstop over concerns it breaches the Good Friday Agreement.
Lord Trimble told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “We are exploring this possibility and we are concerned at the way in which the Withdrawal Agreement that our Prime Minister agreed actually turns the Belfast Agreement on its head and does serious damage to it.”
Announcing Mrs May’s planned visit to Brussels, European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas said: “As you know, what we have is a procedure involving a number of votes which have taken place in the UK Parliament
“On that basis, the Prime Minister will come along to spell out to us her ideas for what happens next.
“President Juncker has been in constant contact with her and will look forward to seeing her… to pursue these discussions.
“But we have to repeat what you are aware of, that is that the EU’s position, the Commission’s position, is clear that we are awaiting once again to see what the Prime Minister has to tell us.”
Downing Street said Mrs May had warned the weekly meeting of the Cabinet that the talks with Brussels would not be easy.
However ministers agreed it was a “positive” development that last week’s Commons vote had made clear for the first time that Parliament would back a deal if there were changes to the backstop.
“The Prime Minister said that our objective now was to secure a legally binding way of guaranteeing we cannot be trapped indefinitely in the backstop,” the Prime Minister’s official spokesman said.
“The PM said that the discussions with the EU will not be easy but Parliament has sent a clear message that a change to the backstop is the only way to get the deal approved.”
Mr Juncker is to meet Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the Commission’s Berlaymont HQ on Wednesday.
In Westminster, the working group bringing together Tories from both sides of the party was continuing efforts to agree an alternative to the backstop.
A meeting on Monday involving Brexiteers Iain Duncan Smith, Theresa Villiers, Steve Baker and Owen Paterson, along with former Remainers Nicky Morgan and Damian Green, was described as “detailed and constructive” by the Brexit Department.
But Brussels has restated its opposition to any attempt to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, insisting the backstop was the “only operational solution” to the border question.
Mr Schinas dismissed reports that Commission secretary general Martin Selmayr had made an offer of legally-binding assurances that the backstop would not lock the UK permanently in a customs union after Brexit.
The Times reported that Leave-backing MPs from the Commons Brexit Committee rejected the concession during a meeting with Mr Selmayr in Brussels on Monday.
But in a tweet immediately after the meeting, Mr Selmayr himself insisted that “on the EU side, nobody is considering this”, adding that the MPs had been “inconclusive” when asked whether any such assurance would help get the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons.
On the EU side, nobody is considering this. Asked whether any assurance would help to get the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons, the answers of MPs were ... inconclusive .... The meeting confirmed that the EU did well to start its no deal preparations in December 2017.— Martin Selmayr (@MartinSelmayr) February 4, 2019
Mr Schinas said: “What you have read in the secretary general’s tweet is exactly what happened.”
Conservative MP Stephen Crabb, who was part of the committee delegation, suggested that Mr Selmayr did not make a direct offer during the meeting, but sounded his visitors out over what impact a legally-binding assurance might have on the debate in the UK.
“We talked around the idea of the letter being written into some sort of legal protocol,” Mr Crabb told The Times.
“Every time someone asked him if it was something he could do, he said, ‘Let me turn around the question, if we were to do that would you be guaranteed to vote for the deal?’
“That’s where some of the more Brexiteer members of the committee wouldn’t say.”
The backstop is effectively an insurance arrangement required by the EU to ensure the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic remains open if no wider deal is agreed on future UK/EU trade.
Mrs Foster told the Today programme that Parliament had given Mrs May “a clear mandate to go back to Brussels” and get rid of it.
“Parliament’s mandate is to replace the backstop,” said the DUP leader.
“The current backstop, as I have said all along, is toxic to those of us living in Northern Ireland, and indeed for unionists right across the United Kingdom, because it would cause the break-up of the United Kingdom into the medium and longer term.”
In her speech, Mrs May will promise a solution “that commands broad support across the community in Northern Ireland” and “secures a majority in the Westminster Parliament”.
But Irish deputy premier Simon Coveney said alternatives to the backstop were “wishful thinking”.
He said: “The Irish protocol in the Withdrawal Agreement already allows for alternative arrangements or alternative solutions to the backstop and if they’re there they can replace the backstop.
“The problem is that none of those ideas around alternative arrangements stand up to scrutiny, we have certainly not seen any that have.”