Brexit Brief: Carry On Negotiating the Backstop

Posted on 30th January 2019

After yet another hectic week in Westminster, the Brexit conundrum remains as unresolved as ever. Following a set of amendment votes last night, a slim majority of MPs gave Theresa May a mandate to go back to Brussels and demand “alternative arrangements” to the Northern Irish backstop.  But what arrangements will satisfy London Conservatives and the EU-27?

EU says no 

While (Conservative) MPs have found tentative unity in changing the backstop, the EU-27 has yet to lose its own on not changing it. Within six minutes of the result, the EU poured cold water on the prospect of reopening the withdrawal agreement. If the bloc stands firm, parliament is likely to find itself in the same position two weeks from now when it votes on a (possibly) revised deal. It is yet to be seen whether any member state will break ranks when faced with the prospect of mutually-assured chaos with a no-deal scenario. At any rate, MPs have given them cover not to blink, having provided some reassurance they will not allow this to happen.

MPs reject no deal but took no steps to extend negotiations

Parliament made it clear that a no-deal Brexit was off the table, at least in principle.  The question is whether MPs will vote to save the deal, or to support an alternative, before time runs out. They did not try to make their task easier last night when they opposed a motion forcing the PM to extend the Article 50 deadline if an agreement isn’t in place by 26 February. Even an extension could be a risky tactic, with the EU-27 minded to refuse a request if it is not in aid of implementing a deal or providing an opportunity for the UK to change its red lines (through a referendum or general election, perhaps).

Alternative Irish border arrangements

Downing Street has set out three possible ways to change the backstop: impose a time limit, a unilateral exit clause, or swap it for unspecified technical cooperation allowing an invisible border, combined with a ‘free trade area lite’. (Brexit Brief readers may recognise this as the ‘max fac’ proposals rejected in 2018.)  Alternatively, a new plan uniting the Remainer and Leaver wings of the governing party would have May offer a three-year stand-still transition to a no-deal exit, in return for the UK paying the £39 billion previously agreed.

Last throw of the dice?

Even the most recent Brexit Brief readers will realise there has been a recurring pattern in British government policy over the last two months and the result has been the same: failure to change the backstop to satisfy Theresa May’s divided MPs. But, with ministers now threatening to vote with parliamentary rebels to take Brexit questions out of their hands, the strategy is showing diminishing returns.

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