Thu, Feb 21, 2019 - Page 7 News List

May returns to resolute Brussels

‘FRIENDLY TALK’:Juncker praised the British prime minister’s assertiveness, but signaled that the EU would be unlikely to budge on amending the ‘Irish backstop’

AFP and the Guardian, BRUSSELS

British Prime Minister Theresa May yesterday returned to Brussels to renew her quest to reopen the terms for Britain’s divorce with the EU, but appeared headed for disappointment.

With less than six weeks until Brexit, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker agreed to meet May once again, but EU leaders have insisted that they would not restart negotiations.

“I have great respect for Theresa May, for her courage and her assertiveness. We will have a friendly talk tomorrow, but I don’t expect a breakthrough,” Juncker said on Tuesday.

May and the other 27 EU leaders approved a Brexit withdrawal agreement at a summit on Nov. 25 last year, but the British leader’s own parliament rejected it on Jan. 15.

Since then, May and her ministers have repeatedly met EU leaders and their negotiator, Michel Barnier, to urge them to reopen the text to find a way to appease euroskeptic British lawmakers.

May was yesterday to try again, but on this trip she was not even to meet European Council President Donald Tusk who represents the leaders of EU member states.

She was instead to meet Juncker and Barnier, who have no mandate from Tusk’s council or EU capitals to renegotiate the deal, or to modify the “Irish backstop” clause, which provides for Britain to remain in the EU customs union until a way is found — such as a future free-trade deal — to ensure that Ireland’s border with Northern Ireland remains open.

Brexiteers in May’s Conservative Party see this as a “trap” to keep Britain in a form of union indefinitely, and have demanded a time limit or a unilateral exit clause, which would be seen in Brussels as a betrayal of EU member Ireland.

British Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond late on Tuesday confirmed that the government no longer intended to pursue alternative arrangements for the backstop in the withdrawal agreement, which had been championed by cross-factional lawmakers, including euroskeptic Steve Baker and soft Brexiter Nicky Morgan.

May was yesterday to meet Juncker with a plan to secure legal assurances that the backstop would not permanently bind the UK into the customs union.

She was on Tuesday night forced to admit to Conservative lawmakers who met her that the Irish backstop could not be replaced by the “Malthouse compromise” — proposals for a free-trade agreement with as-yet-unknown technology to avoid customs checks on the Irish border.

However, she said that this solution would still be examined in the future to help solve the issue of customs arrangements at the Irish border.

The Malthouse compromise was named after British Minister of State for Housing and Planning Kit Malthouse, who helped draft it as an attempt to find a Brexit deal the warring sides of the Conservative Party could back.

The most euroskeptics have said that they would only support May’s deal if the compromise is written into the EU withdrawal agreement to replace the backstop — the mechanism that would keep the UK in the customs union if there were no solution to the Irish border.

May’s government appears to be placing its hopes for breaking the deadlock with the EU on legal assurances that the Irish backstop potentially binding the UK into the customs union would not be permanent.

If May and Juncker were yesterday to agree on a possible way forward, officials wou;d then start work on the technical and legal practicalities.

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