Last Gasp: Juncker Offers Minor Concessions, ‘It’s This Deal or Brexit Might Not Happen at All’

Brexit
VINCENT KESSLER/AFP/Getty Images
JACK MONTGOMERY

Theresa May has secured some last-minute concessions on her proposed Brexit deal with the European Union ahead of Parliament’s second vote on it.

Following crunch talks with Jean-Claude Juncker, who leads the unelected European Commission which acts as the EU’s executive and as the sole initiator of EU-level legislation, the British prime minister claimed a “joint interpretative statement” giving legal weight to the EU’s previous promise to use its “best endeavours” to prevent the Withdrawal Agreement’s controversial “backstop” provisions from becoming indefinite, according to The Times.

Previously, the deal envisioned Britain handing the EU an estimated £39 billion in exchange for a lengthy “transition” period after Brexit, during which it would essentially remain a full EU member, minus voting its rights, while negotiations on a future partnership continue.

If no future partnership is agreed by the end of that period, the deal allows the transition to be extended by mutual agreement, or else a so-called “backstop” relationship would come into force, in which the British province of Northern Ireland would be effectively annexed to the EU for customs and regulatory purposes, in order to maintain an open border with the Republic of Ireland, while mainland Great Britain would join a parallel “single customs territory” governed by EU rules.

The deal set no time limit for the backstop, and did not even allow Britain to end the arrangements and revert to a World Trade Organization (WTO) rules-based relationship without the EU’s agreement — a major sticking point for Leavers and Remainers alike in Parliament, who rejected the deal by a historic margin.

Now, however, the EU will agree a legally-binding statement on an earlier, rather vague promise to use its “best endeavours” to ensure the backstop does not become indefinite, with Britain allowed to ask an arbitration panel to suspend its backstop obligations “proportionately” if the EU is acting in bad faith.

“MPs were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes,” the Prime Minister boasted.

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

President Juncker’s statement on the concessions was more stick than carrot, however, as he warned: “In politics sometimes you get a second chance… there will be no third chance. It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all.”

The response from Tory Brexiteers and Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which Mrs May’s minority government counts on to achieve a parliamentary majority, has been fairly muted.

European Research Group (ERG) chief Jacob Rees-Mogg said the changes were “clearly a step in the right direction”, while former Brexit minister Steve Baker said it was “gloss on what falls short of what was expected”, and DUP leaders said they will have to analyse the detail of the new agreement “very carefully”.

The ERG and the DUP will reportedly make their decision on whether or not to back the deal based on the assessment of a so-called “star chamber” of legally-trained MPs — with a source indicating that its chances of surviving scrutiny are not good, given that the opportunity to end the backstop is based on proving that the EU is acting in “bad faith”.

“How on earth do you prove that?” the sources asked rhetorically. “It’s worthless.”

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