Oh dear. It’s only Monday and already Theresa May’s week appears to have taken a turn for the worse. The Prime Minister’s plan to renegotiate the terms of the backstop has received a strongly-worded rebuke from the European Commission. MPs from the Commons Brexit committee were in Brussels this morning meeting with Martin Selmayr, the commission’s secretary general. Some of those present reported that they left the meeting believing the UK would be able to secure legally-binding concessions on the issue of the backstop.
However, on seeing this account reported, Selmayr has taken to social media to put forward a different account of what took place. Jean-Claude Juncker’s close ally tweeted the BBC’s Adam Fleming to say that ‘nobody’ on the EU side was considering legally-binding assurances on the withdrawal agreement. Selmayr claims that the conversations with UK MPs failed to suggest an assurance on the backstop would be enough to get a deal over the line:
On the EU side, nobody is considering this. Asked whether any assurance would help to get the Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons, the answers of MPs were … inconclusive …. The meeting confirmed that the EU did well to start its no deal preparations in December 2017.
— Martin Selmayr (@MartinSelmayr) February 4, 2019
What does Selmayr mean by that? Unsurprisingly, the comments have been quickly seized upon by those campaigning for a second referendum and used as evidence that May’s renegotiation has no chance of succeeding. Meanwhile, Brexiteer MPs who sat on the meeting report that Selmayr said May hadn’t even asked to formally reopen the negotiations – or replace the backstop.
However, it’s likely that there is more to the comments than meets the eye. Firstly the very fact Selmayr was having a conversation with MPs about what assurances would satisfy them on the backstop suggests it is something that is being considered on some level. Tellingly, Selmayr attempted to use his riposte to move the story away from legally binding concessions to a different focus: the likelihood of a no deal scenario; ‘The meeting confirmed that the EU did well to start its no deal preparations in December 2017’. By doing this, the headline is more likely to be ‘Selmayr’s no deal warning’ than his denial. Given that the EU is currently divided on the issue of backstop concessions, this is more comfortable territory for Selmayr. While the European Commission official is at pains to play down the idea of moving on the backstop, the position is not one of perfect unity. Selmayr’s comments come just as Angela Merkel hinted that a solution to the backstop issue could be found if ‘everybody is willing’. While any such concession may well fall short of Brexiteer demands, the UK government is confident the EU will move so long as they can defeat any more amendments attempting to stop no deal when MPs vote again next week.