UK officials visit Brussels in last-ditch legal effort to break Brexit impasse

  • The U.K. is trying to find a legal way around the thorny issue of the "Irish backstop" and, if it does, Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal could be much more attractive to British lawmakers.
  • Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox returned to Brussels Tuesday for talks with the EU's top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier.
  • The backstop has largely prevented a Brexit deal from being agreed by Parliament.
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (R) and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (L) leave following the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on March 5, 2019 in London, England. Government Ministers continue to seek legally-binding changes to Theresa May's Brexit deal in order to get backing from MPs when they vote on the deal in Parliament next week.
Jack Taylor | Getty Images News | Getty Images
Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay (R) and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox (L) leave following the weekly cabinet meeting at 10 Downing Street on March 5, 2019 in London, England. Government Ministers continue to seek legally-binding changes to Theresa May's Brexit deal in order to get backing from MPs when they vote on the deal in Parliament next week.

The U.K. is trying to find a legal way around the thorny issue of the "Irish backstop" and, if it does, Prime Minister Theresa May's Brexit deal could be much more attractive to British lawmakers.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox returned to Brussels Tuesday for talks with the EU's top Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier on this contentious issue that has largely prevented a Brexit deal from being agreed by Parliament.

The backstop, a measure of last resort designed to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland if the U.K. and EU can't strike a trade deal post-Brexit, has always been one of the main obstacles to British MPs approving the Brexit deal.

The backstop would mean that the U.K. would be aligned to EU custom rules until a future trade relationship is agreed, but many politicians don't like the fact that it has an indefinite nature and requires the EU's permission to end.

Less than a month until the U.K. is due to leave the EU, on March 29, Barclay and Cox are in Brussels hoping that that EU might agree legal changes to the backstop in the current Brexit deal, known formally as the Withdrawal Agreement.

If Cox is able to secure a route for the U.K. to leave the backstop without the EU's approval, it could prompt euroskeptics in May's Conservative Party — that belong to the pro-Brexit European Research Group (ERG) — to support her deal when lawmakers vote on March 12 on whether to approve or reject it. A previous vote in January led to a resounding rejection of May's withdrawal agreement.

The ERG has reportedly set up a panel of lawyers ready to scrutinize any agreement that Cox can get from Brussels. For Cox's part, he denies a report in the Daily Telegraph newspaper Tuesday that he had given up hope of trying to get the EU to agree a time limit to the backstop.

But analysts are not convinced Cox will get much out of the EU, which has consistently refused to budge over the Brexit deal.

"Cox has been focused on winning a mechanism for the U.K. to exit the backstop. But it may stop short of a unilateral escape clause, by relying on an arbitration mechanism overseen by an independent panel. That would not play well with euroskeptics, as the EU would likely insist on a role for the European Court of Justice," Mujtaba Rahman, director of Europe at Eurasia Group, said in a note Monday.

"However, leaders of the European Research Group (ERG) who previously demanded the backstop's removal now say that 'ends matter more than means' — although many MPs still demand an end date, either 2021 or the next scheduled general election in 2022," he added.

Concerns over the backstop were largely to blame for May's Brexit deal being thrown out in the first "meaningful vote" by Parliament in January. As such, efforts have been made to get changes to the wording surrounding it.

MPs are due to vote on the Brexit deal again next Tuesday. If they reject it again, they will then have to chance to vote on whether they want to leave the EU without a deal. If they reject that option, as expected, MPs will then vote on whether to delay the U.K.'s departure.

If Cox and Barclay cannot get legal assurances on the backstop, it's likely that a majority of U.K. MPs will reject the deal as it stands, and will then vote for a delay to Brexit to see if further changes can be made to the deal before a final departure date. Some analysts believe that euroskeptics could be encouraged to vote for May's deal next week for fear of Brexit being delayed or halted altogether, however. Sterling is expected to get a big boost if May's deal is approved.