Skip to Content

Theresa May’s Brexit Deal Still Hobbled by Irish-Border Issue

Prime Minister Theresa May is making a last-ditch attempt to save her Brexit deal and prevent Parliament seizing control of the U.K.’s divorce from the European Union.

The British government sees May’s meeting on Wednesday with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels as a crucial chance to get legally binding changes to the so-called Irish border backstop, which has proved the biggest obstacle to getting a deal.

But EU officials are playing down the prospects of an imminent breakthrough, saying the meeting is just a staging post in the resumption of talks.

“There isn’t enough movement for me to be able to expect this to be a discussion with a concrete outcome,” Juncker said at a press conference in Stuttgart, Germany. In a later panel discussion, he expressed his frustration at the state of talks. “I’m losing my time with this Brexit,” he said.

If talks this week go according to plan, May’s team hopes to put a revised Brexit deal to a binding vote in Parliament early next week—and before Feb. 27, U.K. officials said. That’s the date when members of Parliament opposed to Britain leaving the bloc without an agreement would have the chance to take the process out of May’s hands.

Compromise Dropped

One plan May had been urged to push in Brussels is to use technology to avoid the need for a backstop policy for the Irish border. The so-called backstop effectively ties Britain into the EU’s customs regime indefinitely, in what pro-Brexit campaigners see as a betrayal of the 2016 referendum vote to leave the bloc.

But the government has now concluded that the plan for new technology, known as the “Malthouse Compromise,” is not a serious contender for resolving the current impasse. But it could be revived as part of future negotiations over the long-term trade deal with the EU, according to government officials who asked not to be named.

Pro-Brexit Conservatives met May to push their case for the Malthouse plan on Tuesday and insisted afterward that it remains “alive and kicking.”

The prime minister has spoken to 25 of the other 27 EU leaders in recent weeks as she seeks the concessions she needs to win a vote in Parliament. Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay are also in Brussels on Wednesday for technical talks on the contentious backstop.

Their aim is to secure legally binding wording that reassures British lawmakers the U.K. won’t get stuck in the backstop arrangement—and therefore tied to EU rules—indefinitely. May is still trying to convince the EU to reopen the withdrawal agreement in order to do that, her spokesman said.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who heads the pro-Brexit Conservative caucus in Parliament known as the European Research Group, issued a timely reminder on Tuesday of the bar they expect May to clear. “If it is not in the withdrawal agreement, it will not butter many parsnips,” he said.

The problem for May, though, is that the EU has repeatedly said it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement, a position it reiterated on Tuesday. Instead, it could offer an annex to the existing text, which could be legally binding.

Gloomier in Brussels

The EU hasn’t yet been presented with a possible compromise text by the U.K. and the mood on the European side is far gloomier than the one suggested by the British government, two officials said.

This week’s talks are to see “whether a way through can be found that could gain the broadest possible support in the U.K. Parliament,” European Commission spokesman Margaritis Schinas told reporters. One EU official said that meant coming up with new language which would enable Cox to change his legal advice about the temporary nature of the backstop.