19 Mar 2018

Theresa May ‘committed’ to ‘backstop’ treaty clause

It is now clear that the Brexit Transition deal will be agreed at the European Council on Friday morning. The EU27 judge that sufficient parts of their draft legal text, their attempt to codify what was shaken on in December, are now agreed on.

On Ireland, the UK commits to turn the “Joint Report” agreement shaken on in December into a legal text, including the “backstop” option, Northern Ireland aligning with the EU rules in a common regulatory area after the UK has left the EU.

In a piece of choreography agreed with the EU27, Mrs May published an open letter to European Council President Donald Tusk tonight in which she commits to turning the December agreement backstop into legal treaty terms. There are differences between the Joint Report backstop and the EU27 Draft Legal Treaty version of the backstop but neither of them make life for Theresa May very comfortable.

Veteran diplomats think that Ireland has got the UK pretty much over a barrel at this point. If the UK’s other options for dealing with the Northern Ireland border don’t measure up for Dublin (and their response so far has been exasperation and disbelief), they know that there could be another, much more drastic option, which they could press for.

Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s long-serving Chief of Staff and an architect of the Good Friday Agreement, writes in tomorrow’s Independent that Theresa May has boxed herself in with promises on Northern Ireland that will prove impossible to keep and which could bring the whole attempt at a Brexit deal “crashing down.”

I’ve heard a number of Tory ministers and backbenchers in recent days say that the EU27 will not press this point when talks come to their conclusion and will sign up to a technological solution that turns a blind eye to limited smuggling through the Northern Ireland border. Much now hangs on that assumption and on a joint working group in government that is currently looking into two alternative approaches: the UK picking up EU tariffs at its own borders and then operating refunds where appropriate or coming up with a frictionless border through technical wizadry and tracking.

Tomorrow, the General Affairs Council of the EU could shed more light on where the EU27 see the new relationship agreement going. Some observers expect it to dismiss Theresa May’s call, in her Mansion House speech, for financial services to be included in a post-Brexit Trade Agreement with the EU27.

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