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The EU could give further written guarantees to the U.K. in order to help ease the pressure leader Theresa May is experiencing ahead of a crucial vote next week, the Irish prime minister said.
The U.K. Parliament is due to vote next week on the Withdrawal Agreement — the 585-page document that the EU agreed with May's government and outlines how the U.K. should leave the European Union in March. However, the plans have proved controversial for many and will likely be rejected by lawmakers.
The vote had been originally scheduled for December 11, but May decided to postpone it given the opposition to the deal.
The biggest concern for many lawmakers is the Irish backstop — a last-resort insurance policy that aims to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland in the event that there's no future trade agreement agreed.
Brexiteers and other U.K. lawmakers believe this policy would force Northern Ireland to follow EU rules. However, both Westminster and Brussels have said this is not the aim and if it were to happen, it would only apply until they implement new trade arrangements.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said the EU could further explain what its intentions with this backstop are.
"The (European) Council conclusions at our last meeting in December provided written assurances but certainly what's happening at the moment is there is close contact between the U.K. and EU institutions on whether a further set of written guarantees, explanations and assurances could make a difference. And bear in mind a lot of the opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop might be based on suppositions and misunderstandings about our intent as a European Union," Varadkar said during a trip to Mali, according to the Irish Times.
May held conversations with Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, and French President Emmanuel Macron last week.
"We don't want to trap the U.K. into anything — we want to get on to the talks about the future relationship right away. I think it's those kind of assurances we are happy to give," Varadkar added.
The 27 European leaders made their latest written statement on Brexit in December. They said then that "the backstop is intended as an insurance policy " and that it "is the Union's firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered."
Varadkar's comments suggest that the EU could repeat and clarify its position that the backstop is not meant to be used.
The Withdrawal Agreement needs to be approved by the U.K. Parliament to ensure that the departure from the EU in 80 days will be smooth. Without any deal, the U.K. will leave the bloc on March 29 without any sort of guarantees about its relationship with the EU, bringing huge uncertainty to businesses and citizens.