Brexit: Theresa May to go back to Brussels on Wednesday

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Theresa May will return to Brussels on Wednesday to continue talks on her Brexit deal.

She will meet the President of the European Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker.

Earlier, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay updated Cabinet on talks with the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier.

The meeting, on the issue of the Irish backstop, was described as “productive” but Mr Barnier “expressed concerns”.

Jeremy Corbyn also announced he would be going to Brussels to meet Mr Barnier on Thursday.

The Labour leader said they would discuss his party’s Brexit proposals – including a permanent customs union and a strong relationship with the single market – and that it was a “necessity” to take no deal off the table.

The backstop is the insurance policy for stopping a hard border returning to the island of Ireland after the UK leaves the EU on 29 March.

The backstop policy is part of Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement and became one of the main reasons her deal was voted down in Parliament in January

Critics fear it would leave the UK tied to a customs union with the EU indefinitely and see Northern Ireland treated differently.

MPs gave their backing for Mrs May to renegotiate the policy in a vote earlier this month and said she was “working hard to secure the legally binding changes” that Parliament wants.

But the EU has consistently refused to make changes.

Mr Barclay and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox met Mr Barnier on Monday to discuss ongoing work in the UK with the Alternative Arrangements Working Group – a selection of Conservative MPs trying to find something to replace the backstop.

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The group was set up following signs of support for the “Malthouse Compromise” – proposed by Remainers and Leavers – which included proposals to use technology and checks away from the border to ensure the backstop was never activated.

After briefing ministers on Tuesday, Mr Barclay said the EU had agreed to work on such ideas in to reduce the need for the backstop, but said there was a distinction as to whether those alternative arrangements would replace the entirety of the backstop now.

While Westminster is looking the other way, scouring the ranks for more defectors, don’t forget the government is trying to press on with achieving what looks like the near impossible in Brussels.

That is, wrestling enough concessions from the EU to give them a chance of pushing their Brexit compromise through Parliament so we can actually leave the union on time.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is working on the “Cox codicil”, which the government hopes will be something tangible rather than just legal flannel, to tweak the backstop, the controversial clause aimed at preventing the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland.

And the prime minister herself is expected in Brussels this week, to get, ministers hope, a sense of what the EU’s “best and final” offer to help close the deal will be.

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Mrs May and Mr Cox – who will also head to Brussels on Wednesday – have also been looking at other options to replace the controversial backstop, including putting a time limit on it or ensuring the UK can leave the arrangement when it chooses.

But senior figures in the EU have consistently said they will not re-open the withdrawal agreement or scrap the backstop.

On Tuesday, a European Commission spokesman said: “The EU27 will not reopen the withdrawal agreement.

“We cannot accept a time limit to the backstop or a unilateral exit clause – and further talks will be held this week to see whether a way through can be found that would gain the broadest possible support in the UK parliament and respect the guidelines agreed by the European Council.”

The PM has promised to return to Parliament to update MPs again on 26 February and, if she had not got a new deal by then, to give them a say on the next steps in non-binding votes.

Brexit: Theresa May to go back to Brussels on Wednesday}