World / Politics

U.K. dismisses EU offer on Brexit backstop as 'disappointing'

by Tim Ross

Bloomberg

U.K. Cabinet minister Andrea Leadsom rejected the European Union’s latest plan to break the Brexit deadlock, but said Parliament will be given more chances to vote on the deal if the bloc improves its “disappointing” offer before it’s too late.

Leadsom, leader of the House of Commons, said Saturday she was “absolutely astonished” that EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier was simply rehashing old ideas that Prime Minister Theresa May has already thrown out, dismissing his new proposal for the Irish border backstop as a joke.

“He seems to be on Twitter offering to go back to negotiations that were ruled out several months ago suggesting somehow that the United Kingdom should be split up and we should have a border down the Irish Sea,” Leadsom said in an interview. “That is disappointing. We are within a few days of the next meaningful vote.”

If the EU comes back with a plan to address British concerns — even after Parliament votes on the withdrawal agreement next week — the Commons will be given a say, Leadsom said.

“Certainly, in the event that we can get the changes that Parliament wants, then Parliament will be given opportunities to support the deal,” she said. “But we are focused on trying to win this vote on Tuesday.”

It’s now “vital” for the EU to “take very seriously” the clear proposals the U.K. has put forward for resolving the dispute over the so called backstop plan for the Irish border, she added.

The U.K. is on course to leave the EU on March 29 but there’s currently no deal in place to cushion the blow. The Commons will vote for a second time on whether to accept the divorce agreement on Tuesday, after rejecting it by an historic margin in January.

Since that defeat, May has been trying to get changes to the Irish border backstop but there’s no sign of a breakthrough in the increasingly acrimonious negotiations in Brussels. Barnier told ambassadors on Friday the blame game had started, according to a person familiar with the situation.

Barnier announced on Twitter a new package of concessions intended to resolve the contentious issue of the Irish border backstop, a policy intended to ensure there’s never a need for a “hard” land border between the U.K. and Ireland.

Barnier’s most striking idea was to allow the backstop to apply just to Northern Ireland, rather than the whole of the U.K. But May has long said this would be unacceptable, and negotiators had already rejected it on Tuesday, according to another person familiar with the talks.

The EU also offered to strengthen other provisions in the deal — on arbitration and good-faith clauses — but the U.K. side said it wasn’t enough. British politicians worry that the U.K. could be trapped against its will in the backstop and bound by EU trade rules potentially forever.

“If the EU doesn’t enable us to resolve this issue issue about the permanent nature of the backstop, then in effect what the EU is pushing us towards is leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement at all,” Leadsom said. A no-deal Brexit will be “a big problem” for Ireland, France, Poland and Germany, she added. “For particular nations amongst our EU friends and neighbors there would be very real issues.”

May has promised that if Parliament rejects her withdrawal treaty, it will then get a vote on whether to take the country out of the EU into legal limbo — an option previous ballots have shown it will reject. Then there will be a vote on postponing the March 29 exit day.

In the interview, Leadsom declined to speculate on whether Conservative members of Parliament should have a free vote on the issue leaving without a deal next week. Asked if she could ever imagine voting to leave without a deal, Leadsom indicated that it was possible: “I’m determined that we deliver on the decision of the people in 2016 so I am determined that we leave the EU.”

She said she felt a “great responsibility” to help the prime minister deliver Brexit, as a leading pro-leave campaigner in the 2016 referendum. “I certainly see myself as a guardian of Brexit and I’m absolutely determined to make sure that we deliver on the decision by the United Kingdom.”

The minister said she regretted the difficulties businesses are facing as the uncertainty over Brexit drags on.

“I completely understand uncertainty is really bad for businesses,” she said. “Having spent a long time in the financial markets, I’m very well aware that in advance of a big event very often people sit on their hands and don’t do anything because they want to see how it pans out.”

“So I totally understand that and deeply regret it,” she said.

Leadsom said the U.K. economy remains successful and still offers a strong investment opportunity. “I would urge businesses to continue to stick with us and to hold out hope that once we’ve left the European Union, we will have that good relationship with our European neighbors but also huge opportunities to be doing free trade deals with other old friends and new around the world.”