Britain could accept Brexit backstop fix outside divorce deal

Britain’s Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union Stephen Barclay is seen outside Downing Street in London, Britain, Feb 13, 2019. (Reuters pic)

BRUSSELS: Britain could accept legally-binding assurances on the disputed Irish border backstop that would not require reopening of the EU-UK Brexit deal, diplomatic sources said, in a shift from Prime Minister Theresa May’s official line.

EU and British diplomatic sources told Reuters after talks earlier this week between UK’s Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and the bloc’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, however, that London was still seeking changes to the backstop that the EU has already ruled out.

“Potentially those things can be achieved without changing the Withdrawal Agreement,” a UK official said of the legal guarantees on the backstop that London was seeking.

“If they can get what they want through other means they’ll accept that the Withdrawal Agreement will not be reopened,” one EU diplomat said of what was discussed during the Barnier-Barclay meeting.

“But they still want a time limit on the backstop or a unilateral exit,” another one said. “Barnier said ‘no’.”

Both sides are seeking a way out of the stalemate that has prevailed since British lawmakers last month overwhelmingly rejected the Brexit deal May had agreed with the EU last year.

May has since said she would seek changes to that deal to replace the backstop, which some Brexit supporters fear could leave Britain stuck with EU rules indefinitely.

The EU has refused to make changes, saying the measure was needed as an insurance that no border controls could return to the island of Ireland after Brexit.

The bloc is offering to instead tweak the accompanying political declaration on future EU-UK ties and says controls on goods would largely not be needed on the sensitive Irish border should the UK decide to stay in the bloc’s customs union.

On Friday, Barclay was meeting ambassadors of EU states in London before coming back to Brussels on Monday for more talks with Barnier.