May’s prospects for Brexit deal hinge on not appeasing Brexiteer MPs

London Letter: Prime minister could still secure changes that could satisfy MPs

Theresa May was allowed to savour her triumph in the House of Commons on Tuesday for only a few hours before European leaders lined up to pour cold water over it.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, chief negotiator Michel Barnier, French president Emmanuel Macron and Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz made public statements ruling out any renegotiation of the Brexit withdrawal agreement.

In separate phone calls with the prime minister on Wednesday evening, Leo Varadkar and Donald Tusk told her that the MPs' call to replace the backstop with alternative measures was unacceptable.

When May asked the Taoiseach to negotiate directly with London about alternatives to the Northern Ireland backstop, he told her that Ireland would negotiate only through Barnier's taskforce.


Despite the genuine outrage in European capitals at May's assault against her own agreement, she could still secure changes that could satisfy MPs

Dublin is always alert to cracks in the European alliance of support for the backstop but few have appeared since Tuesday’s vote.

Poland called for a more flexible approach towards Britain to avoid a hard Brexit but senior officials in London acknowledge privately that Warsaw's endorsement carries little weight.


Most EU governments are exasperated by May’s call for her MPs to vote against the agreement she signed off on last November.

A few weeks ago, the prime minister was telling parliament that the agreement was not only the best deal but the only deal that would allow Britain to leave the EU in an orderly fashion.

Now she was not only calling for the agreement to be reopened so that the backstop could be replaced with alternative measures but was indulging the wild fantasies of the so-called Malthouse compromise, a compendium of rejected and discredited proposals for how to keep the Border open.

When May outlines her proposals to the EU next week, she is likely to call for a time limit or a unilateral exit mechanism for the backstop as well as alternative measures for the Border based on Brexiteer proposals for technological and administrative methods to minimise friction.

The EU will almost certainly reject them and is unlikely to engage in any meaningful negotiations until after a series of votes in the House of Commons on February 14th.

Last Tuesday, the prime minister promised MPs tempted to vote for an amendment to block a no-deal Brexit that they would have another chance to do so in a fortnight. The amendment, which would oblige the government to seek an extension to the article 50 negotiating period if no deal is approved by parliament by the end of February, did not pass. That could change when the amendment is next put to the vote on February 14th.

After that, emboldened perhaps by a Commons vote shutting off the option of a no-deal Brexit, the EU could be more open to addressing Westminster’s difficulty with the backstop.

Unilateral exit mechanism

Some officials in Brussels have long argued that giving Britain a unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop is a low-risk option because no rational government in London would exercise the option.

Leaving the backstop unilaterally would mean abandoning any trade agreement with the EU, a move that would cause unconscionable damage to the British economy.

The backstop has become toxic for some at Westminster but the EU is unwilling to cut Ireland adrift by abandoning it. One idea floating around the Berlaymont in recent days would extend the article 50 deadline not just for a few months but for two years to allow Britain to negotiate a free-trade agreement with the EU.

The withdrawal agreement would not be abandoned but would be placed in a quiet corner while Britain and the EU negotiated their future economic relationship.

Advocates of the proposal acknowledge that it creates problems for both sides but argue that most can be resolved. Instead of having European Parliament elections in May, Britain would appoint its MEPs. And EU lawyers would find a way around the fact that no trade deal can be negotiated legally until Britain is no longer a member state.

Despite the genuine outrage in European capitals at May’s assault against her own agreement, she could still secure changes that could satisfy MPs.

To have any chance of doing so, however, she must resist the temptation to appease her wilder backbenchers by proposing solutions for the Border that nobody takes seriously but themselves.