Ahead of the second vote on Prime Minister Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement next week, both the United Kingdom and the European Union are trying to solve the Brexit impasse.
In this context, the EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier suggested on 3 March the preparation of an “interpretive document” that would provide the UK with additional assurances that the Irish backstop would be temporary. The EU insists that the backstop arrangement is necessary for a deal, and EU leaders have consistently said that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened. So Barnier put forward an alternative to solving the problem.
This week, Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay were also in Brussels to secure legally-binding changes to the Irish backstop. Michel Barnier later briefed the European Commissioners about the progress of the talks, but the outcome was rather disappointing. “The discussions take place in a constructive atmosphere, but it is difficult”, said the spokesperson of the European Commission Margaritis Schinas on Wednesday afternoon. “At the moment, no solution has yet been found that is consistent with the withdrawal agreement including the Northern Ireland protocol”.
On the other side of the Channel, Prime Minister Theresa May tried to seek support for next week’s vote on her Withdrawal Agreement on both sides of the House. On the one hand, she proposed to give left-behind towns in England a £1.6bn funding boost, but Labour MPs reacted immediately that their votes are not for sale. In addition, Labour will order its MPs to vote for a backbench amendment that would trigger a fresh Brexit referendum. Labour’s shift to support a new Brexit referendum was seen, in part, as a bid to stop further MPs defecting to The Independent Group (TIG). On the other hand, Prime Minister Theresa May refused to say that the UK is still fighting for a “time limit” or “unilateral exit clause” – when asked about a report that efforts in Brussels are now focused on a much weaker “arbitration mechanism” to escape the backstop. It is clear that in this way May wants to win the support of Conservative MPs.
What is next?
Theresa May is expected to make another trip to Brussels on Sunday. She wants to finalize her renewed Withdrawal Agreement, but even a senior minister thinks that delaying Brexit is now “inevitable”, even if the Prime Minister’s deal passes. It is now time to look forward to Westminster’s vote on May’s Withdrawal Agreement for a second ‘meaningful vote’ on Tuesday, 12 March.