STRASBOURG, France – European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and British Prime Minister Theresa May said on Monday that they agreed to “clarifications and guarantees” regarding the Brexit provision to prevent the return of a hard border between the Irish Republic and the UK province of Northern Ireland.
May traveled to Strasbourg in pursuit of some movement from the EU on the Irish backstop that would persuade euroskeptics in Parliament to vote for the Conservative prime minister’s Brexit deal, which went down to defeat in January by a record 230 votes.
“The prime minister and I have agreed on a joint legally binding instrument relating to the Withdrawal Agreement. This instrument provides meaningful clarifications and legal guarantees on the nature of the backstop,” Juncker said during a joint press conference with May.
“The backstop is an insurance policy, nothing more, nothing less. The intention is for it not to be used, like in every insurance policy,” he said.
UK lawmakers “were clear that legal changes were needed to the backstop. Today we have secured legal changes,” May said the day before Parliament was due to vote again on her Brexit proposal.
“Now is the time to come together to back this improved Brexit deal and deliver on the instruction of the British people,” she said.
EU leaders had shown no inclination to re-negotiate any aspect of the Brexit accord, insisting on the need to avoid a hard border in Ireland, something that many people fear would undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended decades of strife in Northern Ireland between pro-British unionists and Irish nationalists.
But British politicians expressed concerns that the agreement could permanently trap the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU.
Juncker was emphatic on Monday that the EU was done talking.
“There will be no third chance. There will be no further interpretations of the interpretations, no further assurances of the re-assurances if the meaningful vote tomorrow fails,” he said.
The late night news conference in Strasbourg followed an announcement in London by UK Cabinet Office minister David Lidington that the government would be presenting two new documents to the House of Commons.
He described the texts as a “legally binding instrument on the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol on Northern Ireland and a joint statement to supplement the political declaration.”
The legal binder affirms that the EU could not trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely, Lidington said.
“On top of this, the joint instrument also reflects the United Kingdom’s and the European Union’s commitment to work to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020,” he said.
If the vote on Tuesday fails, May has pledged to give the House of Commons an opportunity to vote on two additional resolutions: one on a no-deal Brexit; the other on delaying Brexit beyond the March 29 date enshrined in law.