British Prime Minister Theresa May has put herself on a collision course with the European Union after announcing plans to reopen a key part of the Brexit withdrawal agreement even though the EU has insisted it won’t consider any changes.
The looming standoff adds more turmoil to Brexit with less than two months to go before the country formally leaves the EU on March 29 and raises the likelihood of Britain crashing out of Europe. Business leaders have warned about the dire consequences of a disorderly departure and this week chief executives from several supermarket chains said the country could face food shortages.
Ms. May has been scrambling to salvage the Brexit agreement ever since it was soundly rejected by members of Parliament two weeks ago. On Tuesday, she bowed to pressure from a group of Conservative Party colleagues who oppose the deal and said she will seek changes to the “backstop.” That’s a provision that guarantees an open Irish border by tying Northern Ireland closely to the EU potentially for years. The backstop has been a sore point for many Tory MPs who argue it defeats the purpose of Brexit, which was to leave the bloc as soon as possible.
The House of Commons passed a motion 317-301 calling for changes to replace backstop with “alternative arrangements,” giving Ms. May parliamentary backing for her move to renegotiate.
“It is now clear that there is a route that can secure a substantial and sustainable majority in [the House of Commons] for leaving the EU with a deal,” Ms. May said after the vote. “We will now take this mandate forward and seek to obtain legally binding changes to the withdrawal agreement that deal with concerns on the backstop while guaranteeing no return to a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”
However, she acknowledged the huge task ahead. “There is limited appetite for such a change in the EU and negotiating it will not be easy,” she said. “But in contrast to a fortnight ago, this House has made it clear what it needs to approve a withdrawal agreement.”
Indeed, EU officials were quick to reject any renegotiation. “The withdrawal agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union,” said Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, which represents EU leaders. “The backstop is part of the withdrawal agreement, and the withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation.” He added that the EU will move forward with ratification of the agreement by the European Parliament and continue preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
French President Emmanuel Macon was equally decisive, saying the withdrawal agreement was “the best accord possible. It is not renegotiable." Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar echoed that and added: “The best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal is to ratify this agreement.”
Ms. May has little room to manoeuvre. She agreed to the backstop during months of negotiations with the EU last year and, up until Tuesday, she had been saying that it could not be changed. She has also warned MPs that if Britain succeeded in reopening discussions about the backstop, the EU could press for changes to parts of the agreement that benefit Britain.
But faced with an overwhelming rejection of the deal this month, Ms. May made it clear she had little choice but to try to get the backstop changed if she hoped to win parliamentary approval. “Some say there’s no point even trying to achieve any change and that the EU simply won’t budge under any circumstances,” she said on Tuesday. “But in the two years since this House voted to trigger [the EU exit clause], the EU has made concessions in many areas of the negotiations where people said no ground would ever be given. And today, neither side of this negotiation wants to see the U.K. leave without a deal.”
The backstop is a critical part of the agreement for the EU and the Irish government. They view it as the only way of ensuring there is never a hard border on the island, an essential part of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of sectarian violence. They have also insisted that it is temporary. Under the withdrawal agreement, Britain and EU are supposed to start negotiating a broader trade deal during a transition period that begins on March 30 and could last for up to three years. At that point if there was still no trade deal, the backstop would kick in. It would tie Northern Ireland with the EU and keep the rest of Britain in a customs arrangement to provide for the free movement of goods. The backstop would remain in place until a trade deal was struck, which could take several years. However, Britain could not leave the backstop without the EU’s consent.
Just what changes Ms. May will seek to the backstop remain uncertain. She vowed to work with MPs from all parties to find a solution. Some MPs have suggested putting a time limit on the backstop or removing it altogether. Ms. May is expected to return to Parliament in a couple of weeks with an update on the negotiations.