Theresa May heads to Brussels for crunch meetings with senior EU figures to break the Brexit impasse on Thursday, in a trip which even Downing Street admits “will not be easy”.
Her mission: find a way to legally guarantee that Britain cannot be trapped in the Irish border ‘backstop’, a prospect which has turned Tory Brexiteers and the DUP vehemently against her deal.
The prime minister chose her path by deciding she could not risk splitting the Conservative party in two by backing a softer Brexit, which could eliminate the need for the soft border insurance policy and win over Labour.
Downing Street has since told the EU that MPs sent an “unequivocal message” that the backstop must change by voting down the Brexit deal with a 230-vote majority.
May has so far proposed three options: time-limiting the backstop, giving the UK a unilateral exit mechanism, or replacing the backstop with “alternative arrangements”.
The scale of her task was underlined on Wednesday by a brutal day of EU press statements, which included European Council president Donald Tusk saying Brexiteers who campaigned to leave the EU with no plan to deliver it will have a “special place in hell”.
But is it quite as bad as it seems for the PM?
One proposal involves putting a “sunset clause”, or time limit, on the backstop so that it would end on a certain date.
This is one area in which EU unity was briefly tested, with Polish foreign minister Jacek Czaputowicz suggesting a potential five-year limit - to the delight of Brexiteers. Ex-Tory minister John Whittingdale even cited his comments in a TV news interview but admitted he could not pronounce the minister’s name.
In any case, Czaputowicz’s countryman Tusk signalled on Wednesday that Brussels was cold on the idea, saying there could not be a “sell-by date” on peace and reconciliation efforts in Ireland.
However, Tusk’s slapdown was veiled enough that there could be wriggle room, and he also offered an olive branch by suggesting a “common solution” was achievable.
Unilateral exit mechanism
Another plan being worked on by the government involves devising a way for the UK to trigger an exit from the backstop without the EU’s permission.
As the backstop is currently drafted both sides would have to agree to terminate it, an arrangement even Jeremy Corbyn has raised concerns about.
But on Wednesday, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker completely rejected giving the UK a way to pull out on its own.
“A safety net is not a safety net if it can be destroyed by the unilateral actions of one of the parties,” he said.
What got us into this mess, basically.
May was able to briefly unite the Tory Party around an amendment put forward by influential chairman of the backbench 1922 Committee, Sir Graham Brady, which said there should be a requirement for the backstop to be replaced by “alternative arrangements”.
The wording was chosen very carefully as the withdrawal agreement already refers to an “intention” of the UK and EU to eventually replace the backstop with alternative arrangements.
Since then, the PM has drafted in Remainer and Tory MPs who came together in the “Malthouse compromise” to work up proposals.
Juncker said on Wednesday alternative arrangements “can never replace the backstop”.
However, Irish premier Leo Varadkar gave a greater clue as to what may happen, saying “any work on finding alternative arrangements cannot be done in such a way that deletes the backstop” from the withdrawal deal.
But given that May has acknowledged there must be an insurance policy in the deal, could a beefed up and possibly time-targeted “requirement” for alternative arrangements be the change she is looking for?
CORRECTION: This article was amended in paragraph 6 to clarify European Council president Donald Tusk’s quote.