The European Parliament has dramatically upped the stakes in Brexit talks by threatening to veto any deal unless Theresa May comes up with new plans for the Northern Ireland border.
The legislature’s Brexit steering group, made up of MEPs from across its parties, accused Theresa May of “backsliding” on the issue despite committing to prevent a hard border in December, and again in a letter in March.
But the body, chaired by Brexit coordinator Guy Verhofstadt, said the UK has failed to actually come up with a workable way to prevent a hard border and that by its actions it was making a deal “impossible”.
“As recognised by the Prime Minister in her letter to President Tusk of 19 March 2018, the ‘backstop’ must avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland, protect the Good Friday Agreement and safeguard the integrity of the single market, customs union and common commercial policy,” the group said in a statement on Friday after meeting.
“It is incumbent on the UK that it no longer postpone coming forward with its own, workable and legally operative proposal for a ‘backstop’. The [Brexit steering group] stresses that without a credible, genuine and operational ‘backstop’, it will be impossible for the European Parliament to give its consent to the withdrawal agreement.
It adds: “The Brexit steerting group reiterates that in relation to the withdrawal agreement it will accept no backsliding from past commitments, notably those entered into in the Joint Report of 8 December 2017”
Despite the focus in the UK on the future trade relationship after Brexit, the Northern Ireland issue most likely to torpedo Brexit talks into a no-deal.
The EU has said it will not agree to a withdrawal agreement without an “all-weather” backstop policy in place to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, but the UK says it will never accept a different policy being imposed in Northern Ireland to Great Britain and that any backstop must also be time-limited.
The UK has said it hopes to remove the need for a border by negotiating a future relationship that removes the need for checks on frontiers, but the Chequers white paper that it hoped would do this has was shot down by EU negotiators this week, who branded it unworkable.
The UK has also proposed a “temporary customs arrangement” for the Northern Ireland border but the EU says it would not prevent a hard border.
British diplomats have confirmed that they currently have no plans to come up with extra proposals to prevent a border and that they hoped the Chequers white paper and temporary customs arrangement would together be acceptable to the EU.
Theresa May has dug her feet in on the issue and said “no UK prime minister” could accept a backstop.
She is severely constrained by Westminster by the DUP, staunch unionists on whom she relies for a majority in the Commons, and eurosceptics in her own party, who believe the EU proposals amount to an attempt to “annex” Northern Ireland. But senior Cabinet sources also say that the Cabinet would be very unlikely to agree to the plan anyway.
Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, has said the issue of the back-stop should be “de-dramatised” and that customs checks on the Irish sea would not breach Britain’s sovereignty.
The European Parliament has a veto on the final Brexit deal and the vast majority of the body’s MEPs have so far followed the steering group’s recommendations without amendment.
The Independent has launched its #FinalSay campaign to demand that voters are given a voice on the final Brexit deal.