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A breakthrough? May and Juncker announce 'joint instrument' providing guarantees on backstop

Juncker said the Taoiseach would be prepared to back the mechanism.

British Prime Minister Theresa May (file photo)
British Prime Minister Theresa May (file photo)
Image: Ben Birchall/PA Images

BRITISH PRIME MINISTER Theresa May and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker gave a late press conference in Strasbourg tonight.

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

Reading from prepared statements, the pair said they had agreed a joint instrument providing guarantees on the backstop. 

The announcement came as ministers here prepared to reconvene a Cabinet meeting – their second of the day, called in response to the Brexit developments in Strasbourg. 

Earlier, British Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington told MPs in the House of Commons tonight that the government had secured “legally binding changes that strengthen and improve the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration”. 

He said the government had signed-off on a new document providing confirmation that the EU could not try and trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely, and that doing so would be in breach of legally-binding commitments. 

“If – contrary to all expectations – the EU were to act with that intention, the UK could use this acceptance of what could constitute an explicit breach as the basis for a formal dispute, through independent arbitration, that such a breach had occurred – ultimately suspending the protocol if the EU continued to breach its obligations,” Lidington said. 

Juncker began his comments tonight by highlighting that any deal agreed must preserve peace on the island of Ireland. 

He said 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 tonight 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.

Juncker implied that 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.

Reading her prepared statement, May 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. 

“MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes.” May said. 

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

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. 

The Taoiseach delayed his planned US St Patrick’s trip as ministers met here to stay on top of developments. 

The Cabinet meeting broke up earlier this evening but recommenced at around 11pm. One minister described the mood as “sombre”. 

In London, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn called for MPs to reject the deal tomorrow.

A spokesperson for the DUP said the party would take time to analyse tonight’s announcements. 

- With reporting from Christina Finn 

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