Theresa May hopeful of more EU reassurances over backstop as MPs vote looms
Theresa May is hoping to get further reassurances from the EU over her Brexit deal as time ticks down to a crunch vote in Parliament.
The Prime Minister confirmed on Monday she is continuing to work with Brussels to secure a guarantee the so-called ‘backstop’ – which effectively keeps the UK in the EU’s customs union – will only ever be a temporary arrangement if it comes into force.
Many MPs are opposed to the backstop as there is no way for the UK to unilaterally leave it.
It would only come into force if a UK/EU trade deal was not ready to be implemented after the post-Brext transition period came to an end – which could be as late as December 2022.
May pulled a vote on the deal last month after more than 100 Conservative MPs indicated they would not support the government, and she vowed to get further assurances from the EU that the UK would not be locked into the backstop indefinitely.
The Prime Minister spoke to European leaders over the Christmas break – including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and European Council President Donald Tusk – in an attempt to secure a breakthrough.
She has also been “in contact” with Irish leader Leo Varadkar, Downing Street confirmed.
However, Brussels has repeatedly said the deal is not up for renegotiation, and there is debate over whether any assurances given outside of the agreement would be legally enforceable.
Speaking on Monday, May said there was “some further movement from the EU” after a summit in December, and added:
"In the coming days what we'll set out is not just about the EU but also about what we can do domestically, so we will be setting out measures which will be specific to Northern Ireland; we will be setting out proposals for a greater role for Parliament as we move into the next stage of negotiations.
"And we're continuing to work on further assurances, on further undertakings from the European Union in relation to the concern that's been expressed by Parliamentarians."
MPs will resume the debate on the Brexit deal on Wednesday, with a vote likely to take place on Tuesday January 15.
During an urgent question in the Commons on Monday, MPs repeatedly asked Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay when they would be told what new assurances the government had received on the temporary nature of the backstop.
Barclay said: “Securing the additional reassurance that Parliament needs remains our priority and leaders remain in contact. Leaving the EU with the deal that has been agreed is in the interests of both sides.
“When the debate begins on Wednesday the Government will be clear with the House what has been achieved since the vote was deferred last year.”
May is set to hold meetings with MPs this week in a bid to win support for her deal, and she will be hoping they are more productive than those held with DUP MPs over the Christmas break.
The Northern Ireland party, whose 10 MPs provide the Conservatives with a majority in parliament, are opposed to the agreement as they do not support the backstop in any form.
In a statement after a lunch in Downing Street last Thursday, DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said his party’s “principled objections” to the deal still remain.
If May loses the vote, the government will have 21 days to return to parliament to tell MPs what it plans to do next.
If no breakthrough is reached it is possible the UK will leave the EU without a trade deal on March 29.