Britain softens Brexit stance in latest EU talks

February 22, 2019 | 10:01
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The British government said on Thursday (Feb 21) that Brexit talks with the EU will focus on winning new guarantees to reassure eurosceptic MPs, rather than on demanding the divorce deal be re-opened.
britain softens brexit stance in latest eu talks
British Prime Minister Theresa May (left) meets EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels. (AFP/JOHN THYS)

One day after Prime Minister Theresa May met EU Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, her Brexit minister and attorney general were back in Brussels for talks with EU negotiators.

Afterwards, London said the "simplest way" to get a legally binding guarantee that "Irish backstop" clause in the deal is temporary would be to re-negotiate the accord.

"That remains the government's position," a spokesman for Brexit minister Stephen Barclay said.

But EU leaders insist the withdrawal agreement, which they struck with May at a summit last year, can not now be re-opened, even to appease British lawmakers.

And London now appears to accept that this is a dead end and that the talks must move on to other avenues.

"The Prime Minister and President Juncker agreed that work would now focus on guarantees relating to the backstop that underline once again its temporary nature and give appropriate legal assurance to both sides, as well as alternative arrangements and the political declaration, to reach a mutually acceptable agreement," the statement said.

Brussels is open to adopting a more ambitious political declaration setting a road-map for negotiating close EU-UK trade ties during a transition period after Brexit on Mar 29.


May hopes that if she can demonstrate that the backstop - which would bind Britain into the EU customs union until a deal is reached to keep the Irish border open - is temporary, then anti-European MPs will ratify the deal.

But European leaders remain sceptical that a fragmenting House of Commons will ever deliver a majority in favour of the deal, and the EU expects London to ask for a Brexit delay.

One way May could build a majority is by convincing opposition Labour members to back a deal rejected by many Conservative eurosceptics. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn was also in Brussels on Thursday.

Corbyn said he had "useful, informative and very frank" conversations with EU negotiator Michel Barnier and other EU officials, and warned that May's dependence on backbench hardliners was driving Brexit to the brink.

He outlined his proposal that Britain should enter a customs union with the bloc when it leaves - an idea unacceptable to many Brexit supporters who say it would tie London's hands on trade deals.

"The danger of no deal exit from the EU for Britain is a very serous and present one," Corbyn told reporters afterwards, urging May to soften her stance, which he said was being driven by her Conservative Party's pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) of MPs.

"She is allowing herself to be held to ransom by a small group in her party called the ERG and that is some of the problem. She has got to change her ways, otherwise the danger of a no deal exit, with all the chaos that would cause, is a very real possibility," he warned.

While Corbyn was in Brussels, British finance minister Philip Hammond raised hopes of a breakthrough in the coming days, telling the BBC there had been "some movement" by the European Union.


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