Does the UK need to find a solution to the backstop now?
By Joe Harker
With just days to go before the meaningful vote on Brexit prime minister Theresa May and her ministers have been back and forth between Brussels and London trying to find a solution for the backstop.
However, they keep presenting the same undefined ideas and the EU has reached a point where it wants a substantial proposal by the end of Friday to break the deadlock in negotiations.
Talks in Brussels have reached a "stalemate", reports The Times, as British suggestions remained unchanged from proposals that had previously been dismissed as unworkable. The circus of politicians crossing the Channel, announcing they had participated in productive talks with the EU and nothing coming of it has long since worn thin.
The Independent reports that EU officials are frustrated at Britain's Brexit negotiators and have demanded they make acceptable proposals by the end of Friday.
Tired of British negotiators turning up and trying to get different variations of the same thing, the EU has told the UK it will work through the weekend to get the details in place ahead of the meaningful vote if only the UK would offer up an idea that they could work with.
French Europe minister Natalie Loiseau said the UK hadn't offered any "precise proposals" on what would be changed about the backstop or how it would work. She said: "I'm not working on ifs and when's, I'm working on the positions or the proposals of the British government.
"We have heard what you don't want, we are willing to know what you want. Let me tell you, there we no precise proposals, no. There were ideas."
The Counter Claim:
Whether or not a solution is found before the weekend Downing Street still intends to hold the meaningful vote on the Brexit deal next week. Without a solution it is essentially the same deal dealt the largest parliamentary defeat in history but the lack of time between now and March 29 may scare some MPs into changing their minds.
The vote is expected to take place on March 12 and most assume that nothing will actually change about the deal between now and then. If the vote is lost then MPs will vote on a no deal Brexit on March 13 and extending Article 50 on March 14.
Any changes the prime minister made to the backstop would have to gain the approval of the hardline Brexiters in the Tory party and their confidence and supply partners the DUP, who have refused to support May's deal without a guarantee that the backstop has a time limit or unilateral exit clause.
The Daily Mirror reports that Geoffrey Cox's demands for changes to the withdrawal agreement have been called "insane" by EU officials. The attorney general also alluded to the contents of his trousers to parliament but we're going to gloss over that and pretend it never happened.
Talks between Cox and EU officials were described as "robust", which in political speak means there was an argument. His proposals were also described as unclear, though the attorney general disagreed with this evaluation and insisted his ideas were "very reasonable".
What the attorney general might think of himself doesn't alter the fact that the EU's position has been consistent and clear. They won't reopen the withdrawal agreement and make changes to the backstop unless the UK signs up to a permanent customs union. The UK wants them to agree to changes and introduce either a time limit or a unilateral exit clause allowing Britain to quit at any time.
The government has repeatedly tried to negotiate this without success, labouring under the delusion that they are engaged in a grand game of brinksmanship and the EU's urging to come back with an acceptable idea is just a negotiating tactic designed to make them blink first.
British politicians think it's a contest to see who blinks first, who can be most persuasive. Inevitably they think it's a contest they will ultimately win. Nobody who has convinced themselves political and legal negotiations are really all about holding your nerve and outwitting the person across the table from you ever thinks they'll come off second best.
If you wish to understand why the UK's preferred changes to the backstop aren't going to work then permit me to explain. The backstop is the fallback option, it is the last resort that is still an acceptable and workable relationship between the UK and EU in the event that a Brexit deal is passed but an agreement on the future relationship cannot be reached.
The UK and EU are going to have some sort of relationship, their existence makes it inevitable. The withdrawal agreement is the first stage of negotiations, it sets the terms for discussions on the future relationship would be. If those negotiations fail to produce anything the backstop then comes into effect.
It is a last resort, an insurance policy to be defaulted to in the event that a relationship is not agreed in time. A time limit or clause that would allow the UK to quit whenever it likes would no longer render it thus, if you can leave it or let it expire without negotiating a future relationship then it isn't a backstop. It's meant to be temporary to allow the UK and EU more time to find a solution should they need it, entered into with the expectation that a future relationship would be secured.