EU warns Theresa May there can be no legally binding assurance on backstop

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EU leaders have warned Theresa May she cannot expect a “legally binding” commitment that the UK will not be tied to the bloc indefinitely through the Northern Ireland backstop.

The Prime Minister came to Brussels to appeal to the leaders of the 27 to give her the assurances that would enable her to get her Brexit deal through Parliament.

But while they promised to do their utmost to ensure the backstop – intended to ensure there is no return to a hard border between the North and the Republic – was never needed, they insisted they could not re-open the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said: “We don’t want the UK to think there can be any form of renegotiation, that is crystal clear.

“We can add clarifications but no real changes. There will be no legally binding obligations imposed on the withdrawal treaty.”

He also criticised the UK’s lack of clarity over the future relationship it is seeking with the EU once it has left.

“Our UK friends need to say what they want, instead of asking us to say what we want,” he said.

“So we would like within a few weeks our UK friends to set out their expectations for us because this debate is sometimes nebulous and imprecise and I would like clarifications.”

Belgium EU Brexit
German chancellor Angela Merkel speaks with Theresa May in Brussels (Alastair Grant/AP)

However, in a meeting with the leaders of the remaining 27, she said she had to be able to convince MPs the UK would not find itself tied to the EU indefinitely through the “backstop”.

“There is a majority in my Parliament who want to leave with a deal so with the right assurances this deal can be passed,” she said in prepared remarks released by No 10.

“Indeed it is the only deal capable of getting through my Parliament.”

She made clear a failure by EU leaders to offer concessions risked the collapse of the whole agreement with the UK leaving in March in a disorderly, no-deal Brexit.

“We have to change the perception that the backstop could be a trap from which the UK could not escape. Until we do, the deal – our deal – is at risk,” she said.

“It is in none of our interests to run the risk of accidental no-deal with all the disruption that would bring, or to allow this to drag on any further.”

After listening to her appeal, European Council president Donald Tusk said EU leaders had reaffirmed that the backstop was intended as an “insurance policy” to prevent the return of the hard border.

He said that they had expressed a “firm determination” to work “speedily” to ensure there was an agreement on the future relationship in place by the end of the transition period in December 2020 so the backstop was not needed.

He said that if the backstop was ever activated it would apply temporarily “unless and until it is superseded by an agreement” that ensures a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is avoided.

However such assurances are likely to cut little ice with critics of the agreement who have been demanding a “break clause” to ensure the UK cannot be held in the backstop indefinitely.

Irish premier Leo Varadkar, who held a lengthy one-to-one meeting with Mrs May ahead of the main summit, said that while the EU was keen to be “helpful”, some of the suggestions she had put forward were “difficult”.

In particular he warned there could be no “unilateral exit clause” on the backstop, as some MPs are demanding.

“If the backstop has an expiry date, if there is a unilateral exit clause, then it is not a backstop. That would be to render it inoperable,” he said.

“That would mean reopening the substance of the Withdrawal Agreement and the European Union is unequivocal that is not an option.”

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