DUP’s Nigel Dodds: ‘We now need to study closely these new documents on the Brexit backstop’
The government has secured “legally-binding” changes to the Brexit deal after Theresa May made a last-minute dash to Strasbourg for talks on the eve of a crucial vote in the House of Commons.
The prime minister’s de facto deputy David Lidington gave the update to MPs as Mrs May and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay were meeting with EU leaders.
Mr Lidington said: “Tonight we will be laying two new documents in the House; a joint legally-biding instrument on the Withdrawal Agreement and protocol on Northern Ireland and a joint statement to supplement the political declaration.”
Mrs May then confirmed the alleged breakthrough in Strasbourg.
The DUP’s Westminster leader Nigel Dodds said his party would need to see what comes out of the ongoing negotiations before taking a decision on the updated Brexit deal, calling Mr Lidington’s comments a “partial statement”.
He said: “He’s outlined two documents which he is going to publish, but there are still negotiations under way, as he told the House. So can he give an indication to when he thinks those negotiations, that element of the negotiations, which are extremely important, when they are likely to be concluded and when the House is likely to be updated?”
Mr Lidington said of the two new documents: “The first provides confirmation that the EU cannot try to trap the UK in the backstop indefinitely and that doing so would be an explicit breach of the legally-binding commitments that both sides have agreed.”
He said the “joint instrument” reflects the commitment to “replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by December 2020”.
Mr Lidington added the attorney general would be publishing advice ahead of today’s debate, but needed time to consider the new changes.
“The attorney general will publish his legal opinion,” he said. “That will be available in good time before the debate.”
The last-ditch bid to make progress in talks came amid predictions the prime minister was headed for a second humiliating defeat on her Withdrawal Agreement and it remains to be seen if the concessions will be enough to see it pass through Parliament.
Shadow Brexit secretary Sir Keir Starmer said the change “adds nothing” from the letter Mrs May returned from negotiations with on January 14.
Mrs May’s said in Strasbourg: “The deal honours the referendum result and is good for both the UK and the EU.
“But there was a clear concern in Parliament over one issue in particular: the Northern Ireland backstop.
“Having an insurance policy to guarantee that there will never be a hard border in Northern Ireland is absolutely right — it honours the UK’s solemn commitments in the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
“But if we ever have to use that insurance policy, it cannot become a permanent arrangement and it is not the template for our future relationship.
“The deal that MPs voted on in January was not strong enough in making that clear — and legally binding changes were needed to set that right.
“Today we have agreed them. First, a joint instrument with comparable legal weight to the Withdrawal Agreement will guarantee that the EU cannot act with the intent of applying the backstop indefinitely.
“If they do, it can be challenged through arbitration and if they are found to be in breach the UK can suspend the backstop. The joint instrument also gives a legal commitment that whatever replaces the backstop does not need to replicate it.
“And it entrenches in legally binding form the commitments made in the exchange of letters with Presidents Tusk and Juncker in January.”
She added: “Second, the UK and the EU have made a joint statement in relation to the Political Declaration.
“It sets out a number of commitments to enhance and expedite the process of negotiating and bringing into force the future relationship.
“And it makes a legal commitment that the UK and the EU will begin work immediately to replace the backstop with alternative arrangements by the end of December 2020.”
Mr Dodds said that “all of this will need to be taken together and analysed very carefully, because we’re speaking at the moment without having had sight of the precise text”.
In response, Mr Lidington said he “completely understands” the wish for detailed analysis.