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Explainer: What is May's new Brexit deal and what on earth will happen next?

The UK and EU last night announced a joint instrument providing guarantees on the backstop.

France Brexit British Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Strasbourg Source: Vincent Kessler via PA Images

LAST NIGHT, THE UK and the EU announced they had reached an agreement on a joint instrument providing guarantees on the backstop.

It followed what was being described as a last-ditch attempt by British Prime Minister May to secure Brexit concessions from the EU ahead of a planned House of Commons vote on the deal later today. 

For now, however, it remains to be seen whether the new guarantees will be enough to sway Brexiteers within her own party and the DUP to back her Brexit deal.

There’s less than three weeks to go until the UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March, so the stakes couldn’t be higher.

So, what does this all mean? Let’s break it down. 

What happened last night? 

First – a quick look back.

Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement was rejected by the House of Commons by 230 votes in January this year – the largest defeat for a modern British government. 

After this defeat, which MPs said was based on an opposition to the backstop, May pledged that she would return to the European Union and ask for the changes needed to get her deal passed. Among the suggestions requested by the British side was a time limit on the backstop, or the power to withdraw from the backstop without the EU’s approval.

The backstop locks the UK, including Northern Ireland, into a customs deal and other regulations in order to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. It’s basically been a bone of contention in the Brexit debate.

Last night, following last-ditch attempts to secure Brexit concessions from the EU, May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave a press conference in Strasbourg.

Both reading from prepared statements, the pair said they had agreed a joint instrument providing guarantees on the backstop – “legally binding changes” to the old agreement aimed at addressing Britain’s needs and getting the deal through parliament.

The joint instrument is essentially a three-part package of changes from the EU to the terms of the withdrawal agreement.

These new documents have been agreed to run alongside the withdrawal agreement, which governs Britain’s exit terms, and the political declaration on future trade terms.

First is a “joint legally binding instrument” on the withdrawal text, which addresses the deal’s controversial backstop plan to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

A second document would supplement the political declaration, and outline commitments from both sides on moving swiftly to this new relationship.

Britain has also put forward a “unilateral declaration” with legal status in international law emphasising the temporary nature of the backstop.

This would clarify that Britain believes there is nothing in the Brexit deal to stop it seeking to exit the backstop if the EU fails to live up to its commitments to find a replacement.

What does this mean for the backstop? 

The backstop is a sort of Plan B, insurance policy, or safety net that would kick in if a better deal isn’t agreed in the second stage of Brexit talks, which will focus on trade (a part of the Future Relationship).

It would kick in at the end of the transition period – which starts on 29 March and ends on 31 December 2020 - if a final deal is agreed. 

Put simply, the backstop ensures that Northern Ireland would stay “aligned” to the regulations of the single market and the customs union if there is still no other solution that would avoid infrastructure along the Irish border.

However, the new guarantees say that every effort will be made to ensure the Irish backstop never needs to be enacted and measures through which any attempt to make the backstop apply indefinitely can be legally challenged.

France EU Brexit European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Source: Jean-Francois Badias via PA Images

What did the EU say last night? 

Juncker last night explained that the backstop was an insurance policy and that if it was ever used it would not be used as a trap. 

The mechanism being announced last night complemented the withdrawal agreement agreed last November without reopening it, he said – noting that this was a “second chance” and that there would be no third chance.

“In politics sometimes you get a second chance, it is what we do with this second chance that counts because there will be no third chance,” Juncker said. 

There will be no further interpretation of the interpretation. No further assurances on the reassurances if the meaningful vote fails [today].

What did the UK say? 

May last night said the backstop could not be a template for a future relationship and that so far that hadn’t been clear enough to MPs.  

The EU, under the new proposals, will not be able to trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely, May said. If it makes any move to do so, that can be tackled through arbitration. 

France EU Brexit British Prime Minister Theresa May Source: Jean-Francois Badias via PA Images

MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes.

“Now is the time to come together, to back this improved Brexit deal, and to deliver on the instruction of the British people,” May said.

She said it was the UK’s position that it believed it could withdraw, unilaterally, from the backstop if negotiations on the future relationship broke down. 

What’s Ireland’s view on this? 

Well, during his speech last night, Juncker implied that Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had signed off on the strengthened guarantees offered to London. 

“I have spoken to the Taoiseach this evening who would be prepared to accept this solution in the interest of securing an overall deal,” Juncker told reporters.

Varadkar had been due to travel to Washington, but remains in Dublin this morning.

He is expected to hold a press conference later this morning to outline the Irish government’s position. 

What will the DUP have to say?

Up until now, May’s withdrawal agreement has proven unpalatable for Northern Ireland’s DUP, hardline Conservatives and the opposition parties.

The DUP, which campaigned in favour of Brexit and props up May’s minority government, believes the backstop threatens the United Kingdom and could lead to a trade border in the Irish Sea.

Brexit DUP leader Arlene Foster (centre) with Diana Dodds MEP and Nigel Dodds MP Source: Liam McBurney via PA Images

Since last night, the DUP has said it will scrutinise the documents that have been agreed.

May needs the DUP’s support for the deal to pass through the House of Commons. 

Finally, what on earth happens now?

Later today, the House of Commons will vote on May’s Brexit plan. 

The vote is expected to take place at 7pm. 

Another defeat would set the stage for additional votes in parliament this week that could postpone Brexit and possibly reverse it in the months to come.

If she loses the vote, May has promised to give MPs a vote tomorrow on whether Britain should simply leave without any deal at all.

If MPs would defeat the “no-deal” scenario, it would be followed on Thursday with a vote on requesting a delay from the EU.

With reporting by Sean Murray, Daragh Brophy and AFP

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