Theresa May ditched a radical Brexiter plan to save her EU exit deal on Tuesday as she narrowed her sights on legal assurances about the temporary nature of the backstop to prevent a hard Irish border.
With the British prime minister travelling to Brussels on Wednesday, the decision to drop the so-called “Malthouse compromise” indicates Britain is gradually honing its requests in a negotiation that EU officials fear will stretch well into March.
Promoted by Conservative MPs as a way to unite the Tory party around a technological solution for the Irish border question that has bedevilled Brexit talks, the Malthouse compromise was seen by EU negotiators as epitomising the “madhouse” atmosphere of Westminster as Brexit day nears.
But the move to shelve it is unlikely to allay fears in Brussels that Mrs May is running down the clock towards the scheduled Brexit day of March 29 with unreasonable expectations of eventual concessions.
One senior EU diplomat said there had been an “evaporation of trust” with London and warned that Mrs May was “not even close” to a realistic negotiating proposition.
On a trip to Madrid on Tuesday, Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, said he was “very concerned about the political impasse”, adding that he was still waiting for “a concrete proposal” from London. Mr Barnier met his UK counterpart Stephen Barclay on Monday.
The proposal, drawn up by the UK housing minister Kit Malthouse and backed by leading Tory Brexiters and some pro-Remain MPs, would have relied on technological solutions to monitor trade across the Northern Ireland border. Proponents say this would avoid the need for the backstop in Britain’s withdrawal treaty, which Eurosceptics say could trap the UK in a customs union with Brussels.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, has said the relevant technology does not exist and has stressed such “alternative arrangements” could only be explored in trade talks after Brexit day.
Steve Barclay, Brexit secretary, told a cabinet meeting on Tuesday that it was too late for the Malthouse plan to be taken further at present although it would form part of discussions on a future relationship with the EU. But other cabinet ministers warn privately that Mrs May will face big problems with her party if she abandons the plan publicly.
EU diplomats expect Mrs May will focus on two other options that aim to underline the temporary nature of the backstop — a time limit or an exit clause — when she meets Jean-Claude Juncker, the European Commission president, in Brussels on Wednesday.
But as it announced Mrs May’s visit, the commission stressed it would refuse to reopen the withdrawal agreement to such demands.
“We cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause,” said Margaritis Schinas, the commission spokesperson. “Further talks will be held this week to see whether a way through can be found.”
Mr Juncker played down expectations, saying that he did not “expect a breakthrough” from his “friendly talks” with Mrs May.
British officials hope the meeting can give the green light for technical work to try and resolve the backstop dispute.
The two sides are looking at supplementary legal texts or protocols that could be added to the withdrawal treaty without contradicting or changing its terms.
British ministers have told the EU side the assurances would need to be strong enough for Geoffrey Cox, the UK attorney-general, to revise his legal advice to the cabinet on the potentially “indefinite” nature of the backstop.
Downing Street has not completely ruled out holding a “meaningful vote” on a revised deal in the House of Commons on February 27, when MPs will again try and take control of the Brexit timetable. But officials conceded that it was highly unlikely a deal could be put to the Commons by then.
Even if Mrs May does secure a parliamentary majority for a deal, senior EU officials expect a “technical” extension of around three months to give the UK time to ratify the agreement and pass the associated legislation.
Mr Juncker stressed on Tuesday that, while the EU would be open to potential extension requests, there would be conditions, including the need for Britain to hold European elections in May. “The [EU] Treaty is the Treaty and this is what it says,” he said.