Theresa May has issued a last-ditch plea for MPs to back her Brexit deal, after Brussels chiefs issued a letter offering assurances that they do not want the controversial ‘backstop’ to be permanent.
Speaking in a factory in Leave-voting Stoke-on-Trent, the prime minister said the letter from European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker made clear that the backstop was ‘not a threat or a trap’.
In their letter, Tusk and Juncker stressed they were ‘not in a position’ to rewrite or amend the Withdrawal Agreement secured by May last year.
But they assured the PM that the EU ‘does not wish to see the backstop enter into force’, as it would represent a ‘sub-optimal trading arrangement for both sides’.
The EU wants to ensure it would ‘only be in place for as long as strictly necessary’.
The EU presidents stated: ‘Were the backstop to enter into force in whole or in part, it is intended to apply only temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement.’
The prime minister said that the presidents’ letter provided ‘valuable new clarifications and assurances’ to address the concerns of MPs who fear the backstop, which is designed to prevent a hard border in Ireland, could become a permanent arrangement which the UK could leave only with approval from the EU.
But her hopes that the letter would win over enough MPs to rescue her Withdrawal Agreement looked set to be dashed, as the Democratic Unionist Party – which props up her minority administration – dismissed it as ‘meaningless’.
‘Rather than reassure us, the Tusk and Juncker letter bolsters our concerns,’ said DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds, who called on the PM to demand changes to the Agreement itself.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said: ‘The prime minister has once again failed to deliver.
‘This is a long way from the significant and legally effective commitment the prime minister promised last month. It is a reiteration of the EU’s existing position. Once again, nothing has changed.’
Labour MP Pat McFadden, a leading supporter of the People’s Vote campaign, said: ‘We now know that the prime minister’s proposed deal will make us poorer and weaker than the deal we already have.
‘Poorer because even the Government’s own assessment admitted this. Weaker because far from giving us more control this deal sees us obeying EU rules and regulations for years to come but giving up our say over them – they very opposite of what Brexit was supposed to bring about.
‘The prime minister even admitted in her speech that in the past few weeks she has been unable to secure the changes to the agreement she was seeking from the EU.
‘Although it is tempting to say ‘just get it over with’, it is also an irresponsible illusion. It is irresponsible because the stakes are too high for our country just to approve a bad deal so we can change the subject.’