Legally, Irish Backstop Can Only Be Temporary, U.K. Tells EU

(Bloomberg) -- The U.K.’s latest tactic to get changes to the much-hated Irish backstop in the Brexit deal is to convince the European Union that under its own rules it can only be temporary.

Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay said that Article 50 of the EU’s Lisbon Treaty -- the rules that govern a country’s exit from the bloc -- can be used only for temporary steps needed for withdrawal. Members of the U.K. Parliament rejected the deal Prime Minister Theresa May struck with the EU because they are worried Britain could be trapped permanently in the arrangement for the Irish border.

“Article 50 under the European treaty says that it must be temporary and yet the advice from the U.K. attorney general sets out a concern that it could be indefinite,” Barclay told reporters in Strasbourg, France. This is “the key issue and that’s very much the message that we’ve taken to European leaders,” Barclay said, after meeting members of the European Parliament.

EU officials themselves acknowledge that the divorce deal can legally only be about “winding down” measures, which is why the EU has said the U.K. shouldn’t consider the backstop a trap. It’s also why the exit deal says the arrangement designed to prevent a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will last only “unless or until” future arrangements supersede it.

Barclay’s remarks indicate that the U.K. is trying a new approach to convince the EU why the language of the backstop can’t remain as it is.

The controversial insurance clause in the exit treaty would tie Northern Ireland to the EU’s single market rules and keep the entire U.K. in the bloc’s customs union until the two sides find a permanent arrangement to keep the Irish border open.

The U.K. wants legally binding changes to this backstop. May has pressed for a unilateral exit clause or an expiry date, both of which the EU has rejected.

“We’re being very clear with European leaders that what the Parliament needs to see is legally binding changes to the backstop,” Barclay said.

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