On the eve of the Brexit vote, this letter is hoped to offer enough reassurance to pass Theresa May’s deal.
THE PRESIDENT OF the European Council Donald Tusk and the President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker have published their “reassurance” letter to UK Prime Minister Theresa May.
On the eve of the vote on the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement, May is looking likely to lose the vote, with an audit by the Guardian predicting she will lose by 423 votes to 216.
This letter from Juncker and Barnier was hoped to offer enough reassurance in order to get the deal over the line, particularly by offering clarification on the backstop.
The letter is in response to a letter from Theresa May to the two leaders, which has also been published this morning.
On the backstop, Juncker and Barnier said that if the backstop were to come into force that it would be a “suboptimal trading agreement for both sides”.
The letter also says that the Withdrawal Agreement and backstop “do not affect or supersede the provisions of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement… in any way whatsoever”.
It also does not “extend regulatory alignment with European Union law in Northern Ireland beyond what is strictly necessary to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland”.
In an effort to soothe Brexiteers’ concerns about the timeframe of the backstop, the EU leaders confirm that the backstop would be temporary:
“The European Council also said that, if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered (sic), it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided.”
The British Attorney General Geoffrey Cox responded to the publication of the letters by saying that the letters were useful in making a “political judgement” on the backstop.
Cox surmises that “the balance of risks favours the conclusion that it is unlikely that the EU will wish to rely on the implementation of the backstop provisions”.
DUP Deputy leader Nigel Dodds responded to the letters also, by saying that rather than reassure the DUP, it “bolstered” their concerns because:
The letter adds that the EU cannot agree to anything that would “change” or would be “inconsistent” with the Withdrawal Agreement, but they could clarify their understanding of the existing agreement.
The letter goes on to ensure that if the Withdrawal Agreement is passed, that negotiations on trade and the future relationship will begin quickly:
“As regards the European Commission, we will set up the negotiating structure for these negotiations directly after signature to ensure that formal negotiations can start as soon as possible after the withdrawal agreement of the United Kingdom.”
“The European Commission also shares your intentions for the future relationship to be in place as quickly as possible. Given our joint commitment to using best endeavours to conclude before the end of 2020 a subsequent agreement, which supersedes the Protocol in whole or in part, the Commission is determined to give priority in our work programme to the discussion of proposals that might replace the backstop with alternative arrangements.”
Interestingly, the letter says that the backstop does not have to be the template for the future.
How likely is this to change MPs’ minds?
Speaking to reporters at a press conference at a factory in Stoke, Theresa May said that she had achieved assurances from some MPs that they would vote in favour of her deal despite having previous doubts about it.
“…Having heard MPs during the debate, we have achieved these letters which do give further confidence to members of Parliament and about both sides not wanting to use the backstop.”
She said that no one had come up with an alternative plan to her Brexit deal, reiterating previous comments that she made that her deal was “the only deal on the table”.
When asked whether Article 50 was extended until June, she said that “we are leaving on 29 March”. The letter from Juncker and Barnier offered assurances that the EU could ratify the deal in time for this date if it is approved tomorrow.
When asked whether her deal actually delivered the Brexit that people voted for on 29 March, she said that it did on the basis that it “took control” of immigration and their own money, delivered on an independent trade policy, and took them out of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy.
In her letter to Juncker and Barnier, May said that “discussions of the backstop has also exposed some misunderstandings about how it would work if it were ever to be used”.
“…Any checks needed for goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland would be minimised, mainly carried out away from ports and airports, and performed by UK officials.”