London, United Kingdom – Britain and the European Union (EU) have agreed to hold more talks to try to avoid a no-deal Brexit, after a “robust” meeting between Prime Minister Theresa May and European Commission chief Jean-Claude Juncker.
May headed back to Brussels on Thursday for the first face-to-face meeting since the British parliament voted down her divorce deal from the EU last month after 18 painstaking months of negotiations.
Talks that began with a cold handshake between May and Juncker ended with the EU’s firm refusal to reopen negotiations on the backstop protocol of the withdrawal agreement.
Barely 50 days before the United Kingdom (UK) is due to leave the EU on March 29, May and Juncker said in a joint statement that they would hold further talks by the end of February, ruling out the prospect of any significant breakthrough on Brexit before then.
— Charles Michel (@eucopresident) February 7, 2019
While formally confirming the EU’s refusal to reopen the withdrawal agreement, the statement opened up to non-legally binding changes to the political declaration “in order to be more ambitious in terms of content and speed when it comes to the future relationship between the European Union and the UK”.
May headed to Brussels after British MPs gave her the mandate to reopen negotiations on the withdrawal agreement’s backstop protocol, a “temporary” customs unions designed as a safety net to avoid a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, which is a part of the UK.
It would be the only land border between the UK and the EU after Brexit.
What is the backstop?
The backstop is seen as the main stumbling block to getting the deal approved by the UK parliament as eurosceptic Conservative MPs see it as a way of tying the country to EU trade rules indefinitely.
A working group comprised of both Conservative MPs from the “leave” and ‘remain” camps was formed this week to come up with “alternative arrangements”. However, it remained unclear on Thursday what exact changes the prime minister was seeking.
The backstop would only be activated unless and when the UK and the EU failed to reach a comprehensive trade agreement.
The border in the island of Ireland has remained open since British security checkpoints were dismantled after the Good Friday agreement in 1998 largely ended 30 years of conflict in Northern Ireland.
“We are seeing continued support on the part of the EU 27 for the backstop arrangements as they currently are,” David Phinnemore, a professor of European politics at Queen’s University in Belfast told Al Jazeera. “I don’t see the EU really moving on those.”
“What we’ve seen today is the Labour party indicate that if the UK government moves towards a permanent customs union, with some other concessions, that the Labour party could well remove its opposition to the withdrawal agreement. So the issue is not just the backstop,” said Phinnemore.
In a letter to May published earlier on Thursday, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn set out his party’s five demands for Brexit.
Corbyn asked May to rethink her red lines on the negotiation and “seek significant changes to the political declaration to provide clarity on our future relationship and deliver a closer economic relationship with the EU,” which would also “ensure that any backstop would be far less likely to be invoked”.
The five demands by the Labour Party include a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union, close alignment with the single market, participation in EU agencies and funding programmes, and more guarantees on security arrangements.
Corbyn faced a backlash from some of his own MPs for failing to make any reference to a second referendum.
Phinnemore believes that given the EU’s firm refusal, the prime minister may seek to bring some members of the opposition on board.
“It’s very difficult to see the EU making any concessions that would allow her backbenchers, particularly the ERG [European Research Group of hardline members who want to leave the EU] and some elements of the DUP [Democratic Unionist Party] who support the British government, to support the deal as it is,” Phinnemore said.
He believes that running the clock down is still part of the strategy and that in a bid to avoid a no deal, MPs might support the government “provided there are concessions”.
If no agreement is approved by March 29, the UK could face a disorderly exit from the EU, which some business leaders have said could have dire consequences for the economy.
The National Institute for Economic and Social Research said this week that while an absolute catastrophe might be averted with contingency measures, a no-deal scenario was certain to drive the British economy down in the long term.
Meanwhile, the Bank of England downgraded its growth forecast for 2019 to 1.2 percent, which would be the weakest expansion since 2009.
“In so far as the Labour Party is indicating at least some potential willingness to vote for a very different deal, it increases the probability there might be a majority in the House of Commons for some kind of soft Brexit,” John Curtice, politics professor at Strathclyde University and Senior Research Fellow at National Centre for Social Research (NatCen), told Al Jazeera, adding that it wouldn’t be an easy majority because it would split “both parties along the way”.
The House of Commons is still expected to hold votes on amendments next week, including one that would force the prime minister to request an extension of Article 50 if a deal cannot be reached.
“In so far as the Labour can’t deliver the general election option, they therefore need to keep all the options on the table,” said Curtice, arguing that Labour’s “constructive ambiguity” was leading the party to lose both Brexiteers and Remainers, according to the recent polls.
“Labour is desperately trying to avoid losing its Leavers’ vote, but it does have to worry about its majority Remain vote,” Curtice said, “or it will end up losing both.”