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Leo and Theresa are heading back to Brussels - but is there any hope for talks or is it Groundhog Day (again)?

Can the so-called Malthouse Compromise provide a basis for a breakthrough, or is the latest effort over before it begins?

THERESA MAY HEADS back to Brussels tomorrow for yet more Brexit talks. 

That’s after Leo Varadkar holds another round of meetings with EU leaders today. 

As those Brussels meetings with the Taoiseach take place, the British prime minister will spend a second day in the North meeting representatives of the five main Stormont parties. 

This latest round of meetings comes after May was given a mandate by the House of Commons last week to pursue an eleventh hour deal with the EU on the basis of the so-called ‘Malthouse Compromise’. 

Attempting to build support for the strategy, May told business leaders in Belfast yesterday that she intended to secure a deal that “commands broad support” as well as backing from a majority of MPs. 

So what is the Malthouse Compromise? Can it provide the basis of a Brexit breakthrough? And is anyone in Europe sounding optimistic about the latest incarnation of Britain’s Brexit plan? 

Brexit Source: Stefan Rousseau

How did we get here? 

It became apparent earlier this month that the current incarnation of the border backstop had no chance of commanding a majority in the House of Commons, as the prime minister’s attempt to get her Withdrawal Agreement through was defeated by 230 votes. 

Last November her cabinet had backed a revised version of the backstop that would see Northern Ireland aligned to some rules of the single market if alternative solutions could not be found by the end of the Brexit transition period in 2020. 

That revised backstop plan, which would also effectively keep the whole of the UK in a customs union with the EU until both parties no longer deemed it necessary, was roundly rejected by Brexiteer MPs and the DUP. 

Critics of the plan feared it could leave the UK trapped in the arrangement for a prolonged period, leaving London unable to agree new trade deals with the rest of the world. 

Protest against Brexit outside Houses of Parliament in London, UK - 29 Jan 2019 Protesters outside the House of Commons last week. Source: David Cliff

So what’s the new plan? 

Last week those Brexiteer MPs lent their support to a new amendment proposing replacing the Irish backstop with unspecified “alternative arrangements”, as the proposal gained the support of a majority of the House of Commons. 

May said she would take this mandate back to Brussels and use it as a crowbar to try to reopen the sealed Withdrawal Agreement, which the EU has repeatedly said it would not do.

The prime minister has said she is now “engaging positively” with a series of proposals known as the Malthouse Compromise (we’ll get to the name later).

In simple terms, it would see the UK offer either the Plan A variation of a deal or a Plan B version. 

  • Plan A would extend the Brexit transition period for a year until the end of 2021. The backstop would also be changed to become a “basic free trade agreement” with a commitment from all sides that there would be no hard border in Ireland. “Advanced customs and trade facilitation measures” would be employed at the border.
  • Plan B would also extend the transition period to 2021 in order to allow the UK and EU prepare properly for a change to a no-deal relationship.

The rights of EU citizens resident in the UK would be guaranteed in all circumstances, according to the plan. 

Theresa May has said she wants to pursue a number of issues with the EU with a view to attaining progress on what to do about the border, including a “trusted trader” scheme to avoid physical checks on goods and “technological” solutions.

This all sounds a little familiar? 

That’s because it is. Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and David Davis were touting a version of this labelled ‘max-fac’ last year. 

As the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuennberg writes

The so-called “Malthouse compromise” is described as “basically max fac” – a reheat of one of the options the government considered for many months as one of the ways to handle the Irish border after Brexit. And “max fac” was always the option that was favoured by Brexiteers, in cabinet as well as on the backbenches.
What seems like a political lifetime ago, the Brexit department was pushing a solution much like Malthouse, but Number 10 kept coming back with a different proposal – the future customs arrangement. The Brexit department kept trying to kill that idea off, believing that “max fac” was a better, more Brexit-friendly solution.

So why the grand name? 

The Malthouse Compromise is named after UK housing minister Kit Malthouse, the man responsible for getting high profile remainers and Brexiteers together in recent weeks to come up with the latest strategy. 

An Alternative Arrangements Working Group of Tory MPs was formed after significant support emerged for the compromise deal.

A government spokesperson described the first meeting with that group, held earlier this week, as “detailed and constructive”. 

What’s the EU reaction to ‘Malthouse’ been like? 

The EU’s deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand said last week it seemed like ‘Groundhog Day’. 

“We looked at every border on this earth, every border EU has with a third country – there’s simply no way you can do away with checks and controls.

The negotiators have not been able to explain them to us and that’s not their fault; it’s because they don’t exist.

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said at the weekend that alternatives to the backstop remain “wishful thinking”. 

“What Ireland is being asked to do by some in Westminster is to essentially do away with an agreed solution between the UK government and EU negotiators and to replace it with wishful thinking and I think that’s a very unreasonable request to ask the Irish Government to be flexible on.

So if there are alternative arrangements that can work the current protocol, if people take the time to read it, takes account of that and it says very clearly that the backstop can be replaced by alternative arrangements as long as they work.

On Monday one of the European Union’s most senior officials warned that a no deal Brexit looked ever more likely after a meeting with members of the House of Commons Brexit steering committee. 

“The meeting confirmed that the EU did well to start its no deal preparations in December 2017,” Martin Selmayr, EU president Jean-Claude Juncker’s right-hand man, tweeted afterwards. 

Selmayr cast doubt on whether a revised deal would pass the Commons even if May asks for and receives concessions.

“Asked whether any assurance would help to get the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons, the answers of MPs were … inconclusive,” he tweeted.

Earlier, the chairman of the Brexit committee, Labour’s Hilary Benn, had described the meeting as “useful”, but said there was no breakthrough.

Is anyone on the European side sounding hopeful? 

German Chancellor Angela Merkel voiced some optimism this week. Speaking in Japan she said: “From a political point of view, there is still time. Two months is not a long time but there is still time, and this should be used by all sides.”

The issue with the backstop, she said, was a “problem that is precisely defined and therefore one should be able to find a precisely defined solution”.

“But this solution depends on the question of what the future relationship between Britain and the EU will be like and what type of trade deal we sign with each other.”

Throwing the ball into London’s court, she stressed: “It will be very important for us to know what exactly the British side sees as its future relationship with the EU.”

Chancellor Merkel in Japan "Two months is not a long time but there is still time," Merkel said in Tokyo this week. Source: DPA/PA Images

And what’s happening today? 

Theresa May is set to meet with Stormont’s five main parties today as part of the latest bid to break the two year old impasse there.

Leo Varadkar will be in Brussels for meetings with Juncker, President of the European Council Donald Tusk, and other high-ranking officials. 

“The Withdrawal Agreement is the best way to ensure an orderly withdrawal by the UK. We want the future relationship between the EU and the UK to be as close, comprehensive and ambitious as possible, so that the backstop will never be needed,” Varadkar said in a statement ahead of the talks. 

“However, given the ongoing uncertainty in London, we are intensifying our planning for all scenarios, including a no-deal exit.

My visit is an opportunity to exchange views on the detailed contingency planning underway at both domestic and EU level, and to explore what supports might be needed.

Includes reporting from - © AFP 2019

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