Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled a package of three new documents in Strasbourg last night.
The breakthrough came after the Prime Minister made a dramatic dash to France for last minute talks on changing the Irish border backstop.
A deal had to be done last night for MPs to vote on new documents today at the second meaningful vote to approve or reject the deal. The vote will be held at 7pm.
Theresa May and Jean-Claude Juncker unveiled a package of three new documents in Strasbourg tonight
What are the changes to the deal?
There are three new documents that are now part of the divorce package – on top of the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration on the Future Relationship.
None of the new documents change either of the two main ones agreed in November and which were defeated by 230 votes on January 15.
The new documents are:
- A joint legally binding ‘instrument’ that is based on promises from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk the backstop cannot be permanent and should be replaced by ‘alternative arrangements’ by 2020.
- A joint statement adding to the political statement about the future UK-EU relationship, committing both sides to ‘enhance and expedite’ the trade talks on the final status.
- A unilateral statement by Britain that if the backstop ever kicked in, the UK would introduce measures to ensure it is ‘disapplied’. This means measures to ensure an open border – but does not specify what they are.
What do the changes mean?
May’s deputy David Lidington said they ‘strengthen and improve’ the deal and amount to ‘legally binding changes’.
The Attorney General is due to produce new legal advice today. This will be published so MPs can see if there is any change.
Much will depend on whether he reverses his advice the backstop could last forever in the absence of a UK-EU trade deal that keeps open the Irish border.
Do the changes actually change the divorce deal?
They do not change either document agreed by Theresa May in November and voted on by MPs in January. Both the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration stand unamended.
May says the new documents have the same ‘legal weight’ as the original deal and effectively improve it from the outside.
Will they persuade Tory rebels?
It is too soon to tell. Tory hardliners will pass the documents to a group of their own lawyers and they will make a decision today.
The so-called ‘Cash Council’ includes eight lawyers, seven of whom are current MPs and leading Eurosceptic. The group includes DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds.
The DUP itself issued a measured response tonight, vowing to study the new documents closely.
The breakthrough came after the Prime Minister made a dramatic dash to France for last minute talks on changing the Irish border backstop
What is the vote tomorrow?
May is holding a new vote on whether or not to approve her deal today. Passing it is an essential part of making the deal law.
Technically the vote has to happen at some point because of the law in Section 13 of the EU Withdrawal Action 2018.
It is a repeat of the vote she held and lost by a record-breaking 230 votes on January 13.
What will MPs vote on?
The Government has tabled a motion that broadly says MPs ‘approve’ the deal.
The motion refer to five documents that now make up the deal – including the three new documents about the backstop.
Both the motion and the documents had to be tabled in Parliament yesterday, before the Commons finished for the night.
Can it be amended?
Yes. MPs can re-write the motion to say they ‘approve’ the deal subject to conditions, or to say they ‘decline to approve’ it for whatever reason.
Can May amend it?
Yes, potentially. May could table an amendment to her own motion or endorse an amendment tabled by a friendly backbench MP if the new agreements look set to fail.
Why would she do that?
An amendment could be used to send a political signal to Brussels on what is needed to pass the motion unamended.
It would probably mean a third vote was needed – but this is legally ambiguous and appears to have been ruled out as an option by Juncker anyway.
The three key pillars that might save Prime Minister Theresa May
THE EXIT MECHANISM
What it is: A legally binding text, added to the withdrawal agreement, which sets out the temporary nature of the Northern Ireland backstop.
Known as a ‘joint interpretative instrument’, it states that the EU ‘cannot act with the intention of applying the backstop indefinitely’. If it did so, the UK could challenge it through arbitration and – ultimately – get out.
What it means: Legal advice on the deal from the Attorney General Geoffrey Cox warned that the UK could in theory become trapped indefinitely in the controversial backstop.
This attempts to reassure MPs, especially in the Eurosceptic European Research Group, by showing a clear – and legally binding – escape route. It also gives more weight to moves to replace the backstop with technological solutions.
THE UNILATERAL DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE
What it is: A UK-only document that sets out in explicit terms the temporary nature of the backstop. It makes clear that the UK Government’s understanding is that there is nothing to stop Britain unilaterally leaving the backstop if it appears to be becoming permanent.
What it means: This document makes clear the UK’s view that we can’t be trapped in the backstop.
Although not legally binding over the EU, it would set out in unambiguous terms that a future government can decide to leave at any point if there was no prospect of escaping via a trade deal.
THE ASSURANCES LETTER
What it is: On January 14, Donald Tusk and Jean-Claude Juncker wrote to Theresa May in a bid to address UK concerns about the backstop and give reassurances that it would only be temporary.
It was dismissed at the time because it was not legally binding, but the new deal puts it in binding legal form.
What it means: The letter contains assurances about the temporary nature of the backstop, that the EU would use its ‘best endeavours’ to do a deal, and that it would only be in place as long as ‘strictly necessary’.
It also makes clear the EU will give priority to finding technological alternatives to the backstop, a critical element for hardline Eurosceptics. It makes clear the backstop cannot ‘supercede’ the Good Friday Agreement. Putting these assurances on a legal footing could be crucial.