EU warns that Irish backstop is a red line

The House of Commons is to vote on a way forward on Brexit

The EU firmly warned on Monday British PM Theresa May that a backup plan for the Irish border can be amended but will have to be included in any divorce deal. With less than nine weeks until the United Kingdom is due by law to leave the EU, there is no agreement yet in London on how and even whether to leave the world's biggest trading bloc.

Ahead of Tuesday's votes in the British parliament on a way forward, lawmakers in May's party are pushing for her to demand the EU drop the backstop and replace it with something else. Ireland said the backstop was staying and the European Commission repeated on Monday that the withdrawal agreement text, and its backstop component, is not open for renegotiation. “The European Parliament will not ratify a withdrawal agreement that doesn’t have a backstop in it, it’s as simple as that,” Ireland's Deputy PM Simon Coveney told the BBC.

As the Brexit crisis goes down to the line, however, EU officials indicated there might be wriggle room if May came back with a clear, and viable, request for changes that she - and the EU - believe will secure a final ratification. The backstop is a type of insurance policy aimed at preventing a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and the British province of Northern Ireland if no other solutions can be agreed. It is the most contentious part of May's deal.

The question for May is whether the EU can offer enough to get a variant of her defeated deal through the British parliament. Possible amendments floated by EU officials range from further public assurances that the backstop would probably never be used or only for a brief period to amending the text which accompanies the treaty and which lays out expectations for the trading relationship that will come in after the transition.

The EU has explicitly said if Britain were to stay in a customs union indefinitely, as the opposition Labour Party favors, that could leave the backstop redundant. One key element is maintaining a united front with the Irish government, which insists it needs the backstop without a time limit to ensure there is no physical frontier, which could become a target of the violence that has been reduced as a result of the two-decade-old Good Friday Agreement peace deal.

However, a looming no-deal Brexit, in which the EU insists Ireland cannot leave an open door to British goods, has highlighted the difficulty Ireland will face if the backstop issue scuppers an agreement. EU leaders are open to giving May more time beyond March 29 if she can convince them she will use the time to secure the elusive orderly outcome, whether leaving or staying.

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