Brexit – Seeking amendments to the backstop

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On 15 January 2019, the House of Commons voted overwhelmingly to reject the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration in the so-called meaningful vote (discussed in a previous blog).

On 29 January, the House of Commons considered a series of amendments to the motion accompanying the Prime Minister’s statement on the Government’s approach to Brexit.

This blog discusses the outcome of these votes and what might happen next as we approach Brexit day on 29 March 2019.

What has the House of Commons agreed?

The House of Commons agreed to two of the amendments – the “Brady” amendment and the “Spelman” amendment.  The Spelman amendment is discussed in the section on a no-deal Brexit below.

Most attention has been paid to the “Brady” amendment.  Conservative MPs in particular objected to there being no mechanism in the Withdrawal Agreement to allow the UK to unilaterally withdraw from the Northern Irish backstop.  As a result, the Prime Minister appears to have concluded that the best way to achieve a majority in the House is to accept that the terms of the Northern Irish backstop need to change.

So, the UK Government supported an amendment to the Prime Minister’s motion (tabled by Graham Brady MP), which stated:

“…requires the Northern Ireland backstop to be replaced with alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border; supports leaving the European Union with a deal and would therefore support the Withdrawal Agreement subject to this change”.

This in effect means that the Prime Minister has changed her approach to the deal the UK Government negotiated with the EU27.

This amendment was supported by 317 votes to 301 and in effect instructed the Prime Minister to return to Brussels and seek to re-open the negotiations.

The details of this approach to seeking changes to the backstop are not entirely clear, though Dr Katy Hayward from Queen’s University Belfast has written a useful bog on the subject.   MPs wish to see the permanence of the backstop removed, along with an exploration of alternative arrangements which could be used to ensure there is no hard border on the island of Ireland.

However, without permanence, the backstop would appear redundant as an insurance policy for the EU.  This is because, from an EU perspective, its purpose is to guarantee that a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland is permanently avoided and the terms of the Good Friday Agreement are respected.

The Prime Minister committed to bringing back a revised deal or tabling a new amendable motion for debate on the 13 February, with the debate and vote to be held on 14 February.

Prospects for renegotiation?

The Prime Minister will now head to Brussels to seek changes to the backstop.  This appears to be a repeat of events in December, when the Prime Minister delayed the meaningful vote while seeking changes in Brussels.  During that time, she received written assurances but no concrete changes to the Withdrawal Agreement.

The initial signs from the EU are not promising for the Prime Minister.  Within minutes of the House of Commons vote, the spokesperson for the President of the European Council, Donald Tusk issued a statement in which he said:

“The Withdrawal agreement is and remains the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union.

The backstop is part of the Withdrawal Agreement, and the Withdrawal Agreement is not open for re-negotiation.

The December European Council Conclusions are very clear on this point.”

The EU’s position had already been articulated by its Deputy Chief Negotiator for Brexit, Sabine Weyand in an interview on Channel 4 News the night before the vote, when she said that there would be no negotiation between the EU and UK, as that negotiation had finished.  This message was also reportedly conveyed to the Prime Minister by the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker in a phone call ahead of the House of Commons vote.

Given these messages, it’s probable that at this stage the EU27 will continue to stand firm and refuse to re-open the Withdrawal Agreement. However, as has been the case, there is probably room for discussion around the Political Declaration on the future relationship.  Any changes to the terms of the backstop would require the reopening of the Withdrawal Agreement, either to amend the text or add new text.

One reason the EU27 may find it difficult to make concessions at this stage is that any move to weaken the backstop would in effect see the EU prioritise the wishes of a third country (the UK) over those of a Member State (Ireland).  Fabian Zuleeg has suggested if this were to happen it would be the “beginning of the end” for the EU.

The Irish border question

However, if the chances of no-deal continue to increase (see below), the status of the Irish border in the event of a disorderly Brexit will still need to be addressed.  The Irish Government has previously suggested that it wouldn’t wish to see a hard border imposed in a no-deal scenario, but it’s difficult to see how this could be avoided if the EU wished to protect the integrity of the Single Market.

Another related issue is that the Irish border question in the event of no-deal would still be a factor in the future relationship negotiations on which Ireland (like all 27 Member States) will have a veto.  Therefore, the Irish border as an issue does not go away in the event of a no-deal Brexit, and if anything it just becomes more difficult to address.

Are the chances of a No-deal Brexit increasing?

Other amendments that the House of Commons voted on last night included proposals which focused on “ruling out” a no-deal Brexit.  The “Cooper” amendment, which set out a process to provide Parliament with the power to require the UK Government to request an extension of the Article 50 process, was not agreed to.

However, another amendment from Dame Caroline Spelman was agreed to.  This amendment rejected the proposal that the UK could leave the EU without a Withdrawal Agreement and a Framework for the Future Relationship and was passed by 318 votes to 310.

Despite the Commons showing that it was against no-deal in principle, the amendment is not binding on the UK Government and Parliament.  As discussed in the previous blog following the meaningful vote, no-deal continues to be the default option.  As such, to avoid a no-deal, either a Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration need to be agreed and ratified, the Article 50 period would need to be extended, or Article 50 needs to be unilaterally revoked.

When the Prime Minister comes back from Brussels (with or without changes to the backstop), it’s likely the Commons will face the choice of her deal or no-deal.  At that stage, it will be less than fifty days until exit day and therefore the Prime Minister will hope that her deal (however it is constructed at that point) will be seen as preferable to no-deal.  Whether the House of Commons agrees, or still sees other viable options such as extension of Article 50 or pushing for a second referendum remains to be seen.

Iain McIver, SPICe Research