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Arlene Foster endorses 'Malthouse' proposal for alternative to Irish backstop

EU leaders insist they will not change the legally binding Brexit withdrawal agreement.

Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray holds placards outside the Houses of Parliament, London.
Anti-Brexit campaigner Steve Bray holds placards outside the Houses of Parliament, London.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

Updated Jan 29th 2019, 11:46 AM

DUP LEADER ARLENE Foster has said her party is giving its endorsement to a proposal dubbed as a compromise in British political circles which would see the backstop replaced by “alternative arrangements” and the transition period extended to 2021. 

In a statement Foster said the DUP believes this proposal can “unify a number of strands in the Brexit debate” and provides a “feasible alternative” to the backstop. 

The first part of the so-called compromise is Conservative MP Graham Brady’s amendment, which deals with redrafting the backstop  is now expected to be backed by his party – if speaker John Bercow selects that amendment for debate and a vote later tonight. 

Brady said if the motion was approved by Parliament, it would give May “enormous firepower” to go back to Brussels and renegotiate the Brexit divorce deal.

Prime Minister Theresa May appeared to agree, urging Conservative lawmakers to back Brady’s amendment in order to send a clear message to the EU. She made the comments at a meeting with backbench Conservatives, according to several attendees.

Brexiteers led by Jacob Rees-Mogg’s ERG (European Research Group) were against it from the off, however. Since, they have said they are open to the ‘Malthouse’ agreement which is based on protocol drafted by ex-Brexit minister Steve Baker. It is so named because housing minister Kit Malthouse brought the remain and Brexiteer sides together for talks in the past few days. 

Arlene Foster said today that this Malthouse proposal would offer a route towards negotiating a future trade relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union.

“If the Prime Minister is seeking to find a united front, both between elements in her own party and the DUP, in the negotiations which she will enter with the European Union, then this is a proposition which she should not turn her back on.

There is no better time to advance this alternative given the confusion and disarray which is now manifesting itself in Brussels.

She said this confusion at been displayed both by “contradictory EU statements” and what she described as “the panic stricken behaviour of the Irish government”.

‘The negotiation is finished’

The stance of the European Union in relation to the backstop has not changed, however. 

Sabine Weyand, deputy to EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, said: “There’s no negotiation between the EU and the UK. That negotiation is finished.

“It does feel like Groundhog Day.”

She warned that Britain risked crashed out of the EU without a deal “by accident” because London cannot decide what it wants.

A source in French President Emmanuel Macron’s office said today: “The withdrawal agreement and the backstop are not renegotiable. The EU has been clear on this point many times: this route is an impasse. We must move on.”

Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee also called for “realism” from London.

“There can be no change to the backstop. It was negotiated over 18 months with the UK and by the UK,” she said. 

‘To take control’

Brady’s backstop proposal is one of more than a dozen amendments proposed by UK lawmakers that aim to alter the course of Britain’s departure. Some others seek to rule out a no-deal Brexit so Britain can’t tumble out of the bloc on 29 March without an agreement in place to cushion the shock.

Speaker of the House of Commons John Bercow will announce today which amendments have been selected for debate and vote.

Conservative lawmaker Nick Boles, who is backing an amendment designed to rule out a no-deal Brexit and seek a delay to Britain’s EU departure, said that today “is probably the only opportunity that Parliament is going to have to intervene in this process, to take control.”

“If we don’t seize the moment tomorrow afternoon, then we are at grave risk of just driving off the edge on March 29 without really wanting to and when there might be a compromise we could achieve, if we just had a few more months,” he told the BBC.

- With reporting from AFP and Michelle Hennessy. 

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