The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier has dealt a significant blow to Theresa May’s hopes of agreement on her Plan B Brexit deal by ruling out a time-limit on the backstop.
In a statement to the Commons on Monday, Mrs May made clear that concessions on the backstop are central to her hopes of overturning last week’s emphatic 230-vote rejection of her Withdrawal Agreement.
An amendment tabled by Tory backbencher Andrew Murrison, setting a hard deadline of December 31, 2021, to end the arrangement, is thought to be viewed positively by Downing Street, though a spokesman declined to say whether the British Government will back it.
If the amendment succeeds in a House of Commons vote on January 29, it is thought likely that the British Prime Minister would offer it to Brussels as proof that changes to the backstop might be enough to secure parliamentary ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement reached in November.
But Mr Barnier made clear, in an interview with three European newspapers, that a time-limited backstop is regarded by the EU as “useless”.
“The question of limiting the backstop in time has already been discussed twice by the European leaders, in November and in December 2018,” Mr Barnier told Le Monde, Rzeczpospolita and Luxemburger Wort.
“This backstop is the only one possible because insurance is no longer operational if it is for a limited time.
“Imagine if it were to be limited in time and the problem arose after expiry: it is useless.”
He suggested that the backstop, intended to keep the Irish border open after Brexit, would become a “relative” issue if Mrs May enabled an “ambitious” future trade deal by relaxing her negotiating red lines.
The Brexit negotiator also poured cold water on the prospect of the UK securing an extension to the two-year negotiation period under the EU’s Article 50 process.
Noting that any request for an extension would have to be approved by all 27 remaining states, he said: “If this question were to be asked, the heads of state and the governments would ask three questions.
“For what reason? For how long?
“They would also have a third concern: that this possible prolongation might interfere with the democratic working of the European elections (in May).”
Speaking later to a Brussels committee, Mr Barnier said that a no-deal Brexit can only be stopped if MPs come together around “a positive majority for another solution”.
The prospect of Britain seeking to remain in the EU beyond the planned date of March 29 was heightened after shadow chancellor John McDonnell signalled Labour could back plans for an Article 50 extension to stop no-deal.
But leading Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg suggested that the Government could prevent an extension by shutting down Parliament before MPs have a chance to vote on the plan, under a procedure known as prorogation.
Mr Rees-Mogg also played down suggestions that members of the European Research Group of Eurosceptic Tory backbenchers, which he chairs, might be giving up their rebellion against Mrs May’s deal.
Restating his opposition to proposals which would keep the whole of the UK in a temporary customs union, he said: “As long as the backstop is there I will not vote for this deal.
“Of course any deal would be better than not leaving at all, but this deal … is not good enough. It needs fundamental change.”
Mr McDonnell has said it is “highly likely” that Labour will back a “sensible” cross-party amendment paving the way for suspension of the withdrawal process if no deal is found by the end of February.
The move, tabled by Labour’s Yvette Cooper and Conservative Nick Boles, is one of a number of amendments due for debate next Tuesday.
International Development Secretary Liam Fox warned that some of the proposals put forward by backbenchers presented a “real danger” constitutionally.
Accusing some MPs of plotting to stay in the EU, he said such an act would be politically “calamitous” and worse for the country than a no-deal Brexit.
The developments came as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn clashed over Brexit in the House of Commons, with the Labour leader repeating his call for the British Prime Minister to rule out a no-deal outcome.
Mrs May denounced Mr Corbyn for refusing to meet her to discuss the way ahead, when he had previously been “willing to sit down with Hamas, Hezbollah and the IRA without preconditions”.
Questioning whether Mr Corbyn understood the details of the customs union arrangement Labour is seeking, she told MPs that the opposition leader “hasn’t got a clue”.
But Mr Corbyn retorted: “The door of her office might be open but the minds are closed and the British Prime Minister is clearly not listening.”
Speaking to the EU’s European Economic and Social Committee in Brussels, Mr Barnier said that there appeared to be a majority in the Commons opposed to crashing out without a deal.
But he warned: “Opposing no deal will not stop no deal from happening at the end of March.
“To stop no deal, a positive majority for another solution will need to emerge.
“This is the objective of the political consultations that Theresa May has started and we hope, sincerely, that this process will be successful.”
In his newspaper interview, Mr Barnier suggested the EU would take legal action to recoup the UK’s £39bn financial settlement if London sought to withhold it.
He acknowledged it would be “more difficult” to ensure payment of the money in a no-deal scenario, but added: “We will continue to insist: these commitments are of a legal nature in international law and I do not imagine that the British will not respect their international commitments.”
Speaking to the Eurosceptic Bruges Group in London, Mr Rees-Mogg suggested that the Government could use prorogation to block any backbench bills designed to thwart a no-deal Brexit.
Denouncing efforts to put Parliament in charge of the Brexit process as a “constitutional outrage”, the chair of the backbench Tory European Research Group said: “Prorogation normally lasts for three days but any law that is in the process before prorogation falls.
“And I think that would be the Government’s answer, that is the Government’s backstop.”
- Press Association