European Council

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:31 pm on 17th December 2018.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:31 pm, 17th December 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council. But before turning to Brexit, let me touch on two significant conclusions from the other business of the Council.

First, we expressed our utmost concern over the escalation we have seen at the Kerch strait and the sea of Azov, and over Russia’s continued violations of international law. We agreed to roll over economic sanctions against Russia, and we stand ready further to strengthen our support, in particular for the affected areas of Ukraine. Secondly, we also agreed to work together on tackling the spread of deliberate, large-scale and systematic disinformation, including as part of hybrid warfare. On this I outlined some of the world-leading work that the UK is doing in this field. And I was clear that, after we have left the European Union, the UK will continue to work closely with our European partners to uphold the international rules-based system and to keep all our people safe. That is why it is right that our Brexit deal includes the deepest security partnership that has ever been agreed with the EU.

At this Council, I faithfully and firmly reflected the concerns of this House over the Northern Ireland backstop. I explained that the assurances we have already agreed with the EU were insufficient for this House, and that we have to go further in showing that we never want to use this backstop, and if it is used, it must be a temporary arrangement. Some of the resulting exchanges at this Council were robust, but I make no apology for standing up for the interests of this House and the interests of our whole United Kingdom.

In response, the EU27 published a series of conclusions making it clear that it is their

“firm determination to work speedily on a subsequent agreement that establishes by 31 December 2020 alternative arrangements, so that the backstop will not need to be triggered.”

The House will forgive me, but I think this bears repeating: the backstop will not need to be triggered. The conclusions underline that

“if the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would apply temporarily”.

And that in this event, the EU

“would use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop”.

And the EU27 gave a new assurance, in relation to the future partnership with the UK, to make it even less likely that the backstop would ever be needed by stating that the EU

“stands ready to embark on preparations immediately after signature of the Withdrawal Agreement to ensure that negotiations can start as soon as possible after the UK’s withdrawal.”

In these conclusions, in their statements at the Council and in their private meetings with me, my fellow EU leaders could not have been clearer: they do not want to use this backstop. They want to agree the best possible future relationship with us. There is no plot to keep us in the backstop. Indeed, President Macron said on Friday:

“we can clarify and reassure...the backstop is not our objective, it is not a durable solution and nobody is trying to lock the UK into the backstop.'”

As formal conclusions from a European Council, these commitments have legal status and should be welcomed. They go further than the EU has ever done previously in trying to address the concerns of this House. And of course they sit on top of the commitments that we have already negotiated in relation to the backstop, including ensuring that the customs element is UK-wide; that both sides are legally committed to using best endeavours to have our new relationship in place before the end of the implementation period; that if the new relationship is not ready, we can choose to extend the implementation period instead of the backstop coming into force; that if the backstop does come in, we can use alternative arrangements, not just the future relationship, to get out of it; that the treaty is clear the backstop can only ever be temporary; and that there is an explicit termination clause.

However, I know this House is still deeply uncomfortable about the backstop—I understand that, and I want us to go further still in the reassurances we secure. Discussions with my EU partners, including Presidents Tusk and Juncker, and others, have shown that further clarification following the Council’s conclusions is, in fact, possible. So discussions are continuing to explore further political and legal assurances. We are also looking closely at new ways of empowering the House of Commons to ensure that any provision for a backstop has democratic legitimacy—[Interruption.]