Legally-binding changes agreed on Brexit backstop

The European Commission and the UK have agreed new measures on the Irish backstop following last-minute talks between President of the European Commission Jean-Claude Juncker and Prime Minister Theresa May.

The talks were held in Strasbourg last night in an effort to avoid a no-deal scenario and the UK crashing out of the EU with no agreement.

Announced at 11:00pm last night (Monday, March 11), the package of measures outlines three legally-binding changes.

These are:
  • A legal instrument interpreting the Irish protocol which has “legal force and a binding character”;
  • A joint statement reinforcing the political declaration on the future EU-UK relationship which underlines both sides’ efforts to negotiate a free trade agreement quickly, and to work towards alternative arrangements like technology to replace the backstop;
  • A “unilateral declaration” by the UK that, if the backstop comes into effect, negotiations break down and there is no hope of agreement, the UK can “instigate measures” that could ultimately “dis-apply” the backstop.

The changes will apply to the previously-agreed withdrawal agreement which was rejected by Westminster back in January.

The changes were announced in a joint statement between President Juncker and Prime Minister May, and will be analysed by UK Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and UK MPs ahead of a vote on the modified withdrawal agreement in the House of Commons tonight.

President Juncker made it clear that “there would be no third chance” adding that it is this deal, or no deal at all, for the UK.

In her statement last night, May said: “The deal that MPs voted on in January was not strong enough in making that clear – and legally-binding changes were needed to set that right. Today we have agreed them.

“First, a joint instrument with comparable legal weight to the withdrawal agreement will guarantee that the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely.

“If they do, it can be challenged through arbitration and if they are found to be in breach the UK can suspend the backstop.

The joint instrument also gives a legal commitment that whatever replaces the backstop does not need to replicate it.

“Second, the UK and the EU have made a joint statement in relation to the political declaration.

“It sets out a number of commitments to enhance and expedite the process of negotiating and bringing into force the future relationship.

“And it makes a legal commitment that the UK and the EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020.

“It will consider facilitations and technologies – both those currently ready and emerging.

Third, alongside the joint instrument on the withdrawal agreement, the United Kingdom Government will make a unilateral declaration that if the backstop comes into use and discussions on our future relationship break down so that there is no prospect of a subsequent agreement, it is the position of the United Kingdom that there would be nothing to prevent the UK instigating measures that would ultimately dis-apply the backstop.

“The attorney general will set out in legal analysis the meaning of the joint instrument and unilateral declaration to parliament.

“Tomorrow, the House of Commons will debate the improved deal that these legal changes have created,” May said.