British Prime Minister Theresa May told her cabinet on Tuesday that she will seek to reopen the UK’s negotiations with the European Union over its pending withdrawal from the bloc in an effort to secure legally binding changes to a fall-back plan that would ensure that the border between EU-member Ireland and Northern Ireland remains open once Britain officially leaves the EU in March.
By Tuesday afternoon she made a long announcement in the House of Commons. Vowing “to fight for Britain” she endorsed the amendment to the Withdrawal Agreement of a senior Tory backbencher, Graham Brady, calling for an “alternative arrangements” to the Irish backstop.
Her new policy line, which directly contradicts her conviction that the EU will not reopen negotiations, resulted in a Commons victory. MPs voted by 317 to 301 to endorse the Brady amendment. May will now return to Brussels to renegotiate, while the clock is ticking to March 29.
The European Commission has repeatedly ruled out making any changes to the legal text, and now with fewer than 60 days before Brexit, there seems little room for the UK to negotiate with the remain 27 EU members.
The Vice President of the European Commission, Jyrki Kateinen, responded immediately to May’s statement about reopening the withdrawal talks by saying that there are “no reasons to give any new concessions” to the British government.
May has been under intense pressure from members of her government and parliamentary backbenchers who view the backstop agreement as a trap.
The backstop envisages that Northern Ireland will remain in the Single Market and the Customs Union should London and Brussels fail to come to an agreement that guarantees the freedom of movement between Ireland and the North.
Without an agreement in place, the two governments will be forced to reinstate a hard border on the island, which threatens to disrupt the economy and 20-year-old peace agreement that ended the decades-long bloody conflict between Northern Ireland’s Catholic Republican community, who want the island’s unification, and the region’s pro-UK Protestants.
The fear Brexiteers have is that the UK remains in a transitional limbo within the Single Market, but without decision-making powers, for an indeterminate period of time. The other fear is that Northern Ireland will effectively be decoupled from the UK.
Senior Brexiteers want legally binding changes to the backstop agreement, either in the form of a time-limit or its cancellation.
What is meant by “alternative arrangements” remains puzzling and, challenged with the question in parliament, May deflected the answer. The term points to technological solutions once advocated by the former Brexit Secretary David Davis.