A Analysis

Will the 'nebulous' in Number 10 secure changes to the backstop?

Since Theresa May survived her no-confidence vote in the week, she returned to Brussels hoping to secure some of the major concessions that she believes are needed to pass the withdrawal agreement through parliament.

But after several days of interactions with EU leaders, she seems to be making little or no progress.

The most noteworthy event for the media this week was Mrs May challenging EU Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker over allegedly calling her nebulous – meaning clouded or vague.

This was great for the cameras but is ever more worrying for the British public and business leaders as the UK edge ever closer to a no deal Brexit.

This no deal outcome is serving as a worry for British politicians – with almost no politicians publicly prepared for such an outcome – but across the channel, the concern is not the same, with Luxembourg Prime Minister Xavier Bettel stating ‘Brexit is your choice, not mine’ when asked about the risk of no deal.

This is worrying for Theresa May, as the EU seems firm in its stance that the current withdrawal agreement is non-negotiable, making the chance of removing the backstop – which is a major sticking point for parliament approving the deal – almost zero.

This is despite the Prime Minister’s plea to EU leaders that without more major concessions, she will be unable to pass the current agreement through the commons.

The Conservatives currently do not hold a majority in parliament, with the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party providing the votes to give the government a workable majority since the 2017 election. However, the current deal has seen the DUP – along with many Tory MP’s – desert the government, making it almost impossible to pass given that the other parties will all likely vote against the deal.

Despite making this case in Brussels throughout the end of the week, EU leaders seem determined that the current deal will stand as is, with the only changed being tying up legal loose ends around the agreement; not enough to see the agreement pass through parliament.

In recent days the UK have floated an alternative arrangement, a Norway style deal, however, this is undesirable amongst swathes of the British public and business community.

The Norway model has been floated by many Labour backbenchers as a viable alternative, either as a temporary arrangement – acting as a substitute for the current backstop sticking point – or as a permanent agreement.

The model would leave the UK inside the European Economic Area (EEA) and the European Free Trade Area (EFTA), whilst allowing some external trade deals.

Currently, Switzerland, Iceland, Norway and Lichtenstein have this kind of arrangement, being members of the EFTA, without being members of the EU, preventing any legislative power from existing within the bloc.

However, although viable, this deal is not popular, with even the Norwegian President questioning why the UK would favour such an arrangement.

Another alternative, as floated in recent days, is a second referendum – a people’s vote – with former Prime Minister Tony Blair, many cross-party MP’s and major celebrities backing this approach.

Such a vote could take many forms but essentially pitches the question whether we, the British public, like the withdrawal agreement and accept the future relationship as laid out, or if we do not.

Such a question could be posed in many ways, with a simple, accept the deal or no deal vote; accept the deal or remain vote; or an accept the deal or renegotiate vote.

The latter of these would likely require the extension of Article 50, with just over 100 days until the 29th of March, the day when the UK will officially Brexit.

However, as the time ticks on and the EU refuse to give concessions over the backstop, an extension is becoming more and more likely regardless.

A UCL report predicts that a second referendum could not be held, based on existing timelines, until around May 2019, taking us far beyond the March 29th deadline.

Therefore, if the government choose to go down the route of putting it back to the people, we would need to extend, suspend, or as European legal experts have permitted, unilaterally revoke Article 50.

Given the public attitude towards Brexit at this stage, it is certainly a move that the UK government will not want to go down, making it all the more pertinent that Theresa May gets concessions on this backstop issue.

It is certainly not unprecedented for the EU to change their mind over non-negotiables, with the two parties overcoming a number of deadlocks throughout the process with concessions made by both sides.

This time their stance does seem more defiant, publically expressing to the British media that the agreement cannot change, however, EU leaders have offered changes to the interpretation of the backstop, perhaps suggesting that some concessions are still possible, even if the overall faith of the current agreement cannot be altered.

Although the last week has provided little hope, with the words of the Xavier Bettel and Theresa May’s spat with Jean-Claude Juncker, it is still possible and indeed the most likely outcome that the UK government will achieve concessions that make the withdrawal agreement palatable for enough DUP and Conservative members to pass it through the commons.

Despite the noises coming from Brussels, it is unlikely that the EU, any more than the UK, wishes for this process to end in no deal and a non-relationship defined, at least in the short term, on World Trade Organisation rules.

Both sides remain economically intertwined to such an extent that this outcome will cause an economic hit to both economies, which no politician will ever want to be considered responsible for, especially if caused by stubbornness at the negotiating table.

Theresa May has promised a vote on the withdrawal agreement by mid-January, allowing ample time for an alternative arrangement such as an extension or a second referendum to be enacted, allowing us to avoid a no deal outcome.

Although this week has provided little hope, a withdrawal agreement palatable to parliament remains the most likely outcome, even if negotiations over such an agreement go right down to the wire.