PM Theresa May Says ‘Time of Essence’ for Backstop Deal

The Prime Minister Theresa May met the EU’s Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels to discuss legally-binding guarantees over the Irish border. Earlier, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt said “small but important” changes to the backstop would allay MPs’ concerns it could be trapped in a customs union.

But Home Secretary Sajid Javid said the chances of a no-deal exit had risen. Speaking on ITV’s Peston show, Mr Javid said it was “fair to say that in the past few weeks the probability of a no-deal Brexit has gone up”.

The prime minister is trying to renegotiate the backstop – the insurance policy to prevent the return of physical checks on the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

It is the most contentious part of the withdrawal agreement Mrs May agreed with the EU in November, which was rejected by Parliament by a large margin last month.

Critics fear the backstop – which could be activated if the two sides do not settle their future partnership by the end of 2020 and choose not to extend the transition period – would leave the UK tied to a customs union indefinitely and see Northern Ireland treated differently.

The EU has consistently said it will not reopen discussions over the withdrawal agreement agreed in November. Mrs May said the two sides had made progress and that she had made it clear MPs would only accept guarantees that had similar legal force to the agreement.

“We have agreed that work to find a solution will continue at pace, time is of the essence and it is in both our interests that when the UK leaves the EU it does so in an orderly way,” she said.

The EU said the discussions, which are also focusing on the use of technology, were constructive but the timing was “tight”. On a visit to Germany earlier, Mr Hunt warned the greatest threat to Brexit was “defeatism” over getting a deal through Parliament.

Speaking after talks with his German counterpart in Berlin, Mr Hunt said it would be a “disaster” for both sides if the UK left the EU without a negotiated agreement on 29 March.