The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has dealt a blow to any hopes that there will be a time-limit to the Irish backstop, and issued a warning over attempts to extend Article 50.
Theresa May has pinned her hopes on gaining concessions from the EU surrounding the backstop as part of her Plan B for Brexit.
But Barnier has made clear in an interviews that a time-limited backstop is regarded by the EU as ‘useless’.
‘The question of limiting the backstop in time has already been discussed twice by the European leaders, in November and in December 2018,’ Mr Barnier told Le Monde, Rzeczpospolita and Luxemburger Wort.
‘This backstop is the only one possible because insurance is no longer operational if it is for a limited time.
‘Imagine if it were to be limited in time and the problem arose after expiry: it is useless.’
He suggested that the backstop, intended to keep the Irish border open after Brexit, would become a ‘relative’ issue if May enabled an ‘ambitious’ future trade deal by relaxing her negotiating red lines.
The Brexit negotiator also poured cold water on the prospect of the UK securing an extension to the two-year negotiation period under the EU’s Article 50 process.
Noting that any request for an extension would have to be approved by all 27 remaining states, he said: ‘If this question were to be asked, the heads of state and the governments would ask three questions.
‘For what reason? For how long?
‘They would also have a third concern: that this possible prolongation might interfere with the democratic working of the European elections (in May).’
Speaking later to a Brussels committee, Barnier said that a no-deal Brexit can only be stopped if MPs come together around ‘a positive majority for another solution’.
In the interviews, Barnier suggested the EU would take legal action to recoup the UK’s £39 billion financial settlement if London sought to withhold it.
He acknowledged it would be ‘more difficult’ to ensure payment of the money in a no-deal scenario, but added: ‘We will continue to insist: these commitments are of a legal nature in international law and I do not imagine that the British will not respect their international commitments.’
Back in the UK an amendment tabled by Tory backbencher Andrew Murrison, setting a hard deadline of December 31 2021 to end the arrangement, is thought to be viewed positively by Downing Street, though a spokesman declined to say whether the government will back it.
If the amendment succeeds in a House of Commons vote on January 29, it is thought likely that the prime minister would offer it to Brussels as proof that changes to the backstop might be enough to secure parliamentary ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement reached in November.