Welcome signs of a possible retreat on the backstop

News Letter editorial
News Letter editorial
Share this article

There are encouraging signs that the government is now considering changes to the backstop.

Theresa May told Nigel Dodds, the DUP deputy leader, in the House of Commons yesterday that she accepted the need for legal changes to the Withdrawal Agreement. This is welcome, but there is good reason to be sceptical that much will change.

The first reason is the false dawns that have emerged from previous comments by the prime minister. One reason that reaction to the backstop was muted among unionist and Tory MPs in the aftermath of the December 2017 EU-UK agreement is that Mrs May’s rhetoric was so robust.

When, in early 2018, the EU tried to tie down its uncompromising interpretation of the backstop Mrs May rejected it. As recently as last summer she was saying that no British prime minister could agree to what the EU was demanding, yet she ended up largely agreeing to it, such was her determination to avoid ‘no deal’.

The second reason to be sceptical is the hitherto inflexible position of the EU.

It is interesting therefore that Poland, one of the 27 nations that is generally sympathetic to the UK, is now talking in terms of a time-limited backstop.

Ireland has since Leo Varadkar became Taoiseach lined up with the most unbending elements in Brussels, who want to make things as difficult as possible for Britain. Frequently, however, Mr Varadkar and Simon Coveney will then talk in an emollient way, about their determination to have good relations with the UK, as if this somehow disguises their tactics.

They have played an uncompromising game, as was their right, but will get little sympathy in London if the tactic backfires. That will only happen if Britain makes clear that the backstop must change. Mrs May meanwhile has done exactly the right thing in refusing to succumb to Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that no deal be taken off the table.

The unacceptable nature of the backstop means it can’t be.