The vote on the Withdrawal Agreement will take place this afternoon after it was as cancelled last December.
The main issue will be the Irish backstop solution for avoiding a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Unless an alternative solution can be found, the whole of the UK will continue to stay temporarily in a customs union with the EU.
Both UK and EU agree on the need of a smooth and orderly withdrawal but the backstop arrangements may jeopardize the agreement. In a personal letter yesterday (14 January) from UK Prime Minister Theresa May to European Council President Donald Tusk and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, she expressed her concerns:
“The deal is at risk … because of concerns in the UK parliament about how we are delivering on our commitments in relation to Northern Ireland’s border with Ireland,” she wrote. “My priority was to protect the integrity of the UK.”
While she is convinced that the deal is “the best possible outcome” and a “fair compromise” given the principles of both sides, she mentions the fears about the backstop solution.
“Some on the EU side worry that a future UK government could use the threat of a return to a hard border as leverage in future negotiations…Some in the UK fear that EU would leave the UK permanently in the backstop arrangements.” Both fears are unwarranted, she writes, and hopes that a solution will be found in negotiations so that the backstop will never be used.
In their reply on the same day, the EU leaders write that they are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the Withdrawal Agreement. That said, EU’s intention is that the backstop will not need to be triggered since it “would represent a suboptimal trading arrangement for both sides”.
If it will be triggered “it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided”. In such a case, the EU would “use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop.”
The EU clarification about the backstop and other issues raised by Theresa May in her letter will hardly affect the outcome of the vote in the British Parliament this evening where over 100 MPs from May’s own party have voiced opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement. The Labour party is not prepared to come to her rescue.
Theresa May is determined, as she writes in her letter, to deliver on the results of the 2016 referendum but a rejection of the Withdrawal Agreement in today’s vote may leave her with only two options that she until now has tried to avoid: a second referendum or a hard Brexit without any deal.