Speaking in Dublin Leo Varadkar reassured the Irish media that the accords – presented by the British government as significant legally binding changes – were simply “guarantees and further reassurances to the United Kingdom of our good faith and intentions”.
“It does not reopen the withdrawal agreement or undermine the backstop or its application,” Mr Varadkar told the press, adding that “we’ve insisted that withdrawal agreement cannot be rewritten, and that the backstop agreement, while intended to be temporary, must continue to apply unless and until it’s replaced by future arrangements that can achieve the same objective – namely no hard border”.
But he added: “We’ve also said that we’d be prepared to offer guarantees and further reassurances to the United Kingdom of our good faith and intentions. Indeed we’ve offered such reassurances on many occasions.
“The instrument agreed yesterday puts those reassurances on a legal footing and represents an unambiguous legal statement of what has been agreed. It does not reopen the withdrawal agreement or undermine the backstop or its application.”
Mr Varadkar’s comments, pitched to his domestic audience that is worried about the strength of the backstop, are likely to be unhelpful for Theresa May, who is trying to present last night’s agreement as a major victory for UK negotiators that assuages the concerns of Tory MPs, ahead of a crunch vote on the plan today.
The Taoiseach said he hoped the House of Commons backed the agreement, and that the additions would ”eliminate doubt or fears, however unreal, that the goal of some was to trap the UK indefinitely in the backstop”. He said Brexit was a “dark cloud over us” that a positive vote this evening could remove.
The reassurances obtained by Ms May do not touch the actual withdrawal agreement, but instead take the form of other assurances by the EU that it will not seek to “trap” Britain in the backstop against its will. The fundamental functioning of the agreement has not changed, however – with the only legal way to escape the backstop permanently being negotiating a trade agreement that resembles membership of the single market and customs union.
The maths in Westminster is not on the government’s side, with some Brexiteers having already rejected the plan, arguing it does not address their fundamental concerns. These MPs do not want a permanent customs union with the EU, which they fear the backstop will become, and are worried about the imposition of checks on the Irish sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker said in a joint press conference with Ms May on Monday evening in Strasbourg that there would be no “third chance” and that the EU would offer no further negotiations whatsoever.
The Irish backstop is a policy within the withdrawal agreement, aimed at making sure no hard border appears between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – in order to preserve the Good Friday Agreement. The backstop keeps the UK inside an EU customs territory and applies some single market rules to Northern Ireland in order to remove the need for border checks. The current version of the backstop was demanded by UK negotiators after the prime minister said she could not accept an early proposal, which applied only to Northern Ireland.
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