European Council

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:32 pm on 25th March 2019.

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Photo of Theresa May Theresa May The Prime Minister, Leader of the Conservative Party 3:32 pm, 25th March 2019

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on last week’s European Council. Before the Council, I wrote to President Tusk to seek formal approval for the legally binding assurances on the Northern Ireland backstop and alternative arrangements agreed in Strasbourg on 11 March. I reported your statement, Mr Speaker, which made it clear that for a further meaningful vote to take place, the deal would have to be

“fundamentally different—not different in terms of wording, but different in terms of substance”.—[Official Report, 18 March 2019;
Vol. 656, c. 782.]

I explained that, as a result, some right hon. and hon. Members were seeking further changes to the withdrawal agreement, and I requested a short extension to the article 50 process, to 30 June. I regret having to do so—I wanted to deliver Brexit on 29 March—but I am conscious of my duties as Prime Minister to all parts of our United Kingdom and of the damage to that Union that leaving without a deal could do when one part of it is without devolved government and unable, therefore, to prepare properly.

The Council formally endorsed the legal instrument relating to the withdrawal agreement and the joint statement supplementing the political declaration. This should increase the confidence of the House that the backstop is unlikely ever to be used, and would only be temporary if it is. But the Council also reiterated, once again, its long-standing position that there could be no reopening of the withdrawal agreement. So however the House decides to proceed this week, everyone should be absolutely clear that changing the withdrawal agreement is simply not an option.

Turning to extending article 50, this has always required the unanimous agreement of the other 27 member states. As I have made clear before, it was never guaranteed that the EU would agree to an extension—or the terms on which we requested it—and it did not. Instead, the Council agreed that if the House approves the withdrawal agreement this week, our departure will be extended to 11 pm on 22 May. This will allow time for Parliament to pass the withdrawal agreement Bill, which is legally necessary for the deal to be ratified. But if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week, our departure will instead be extended only to 11 pm on 12 April. At this point, we would either leave with no deal, or we would

“indicate a way forward before this date for consideration by the European Council”.

If that involved a further extension, it would certainly mean participation in the European parliamentary elections.

The Council’s conclusions were subsequently turned into a legal decision, with which the UK agreed and which came into force last Friday. So although the Government have today laid a statutory instrument, which will be debated later this week, to reflect that decision in our own domestic legislation, the date for our departure from the EU has now changed in international law. Were the House not to pass the statutory instrument, it would cause legal confusion and damaging uncertainty, but it would not have any effect on the date of our exit.

I continue to believe that the right path forward is for the United Kingdom to leave the EU with a deal as soon as possible, which is now on 22 May, but it is with great regret that I have had to conclude that, as things stand, there is still not sufficient support in the House to bring back the deal for a third meaningful vote. I continue to have discussions with colleagues across the House to build support, so that we can bring the vote forward this week and guarantee Brexit. If we cannot, the Government have made a commitment that we would work across the House to find a majority on a way forward.

The amendment in the name of my right hon. Friend Sir Oliver Letwin seeks to provide for that process by taking control of the Order Paper. I continue to believe that doing so would set an unwelcome precedent, which would overturn the balance between our democratic institutions, so the Government will oppose the amendment this evening. But in order to fulfil our commitments to the House, we would seek to provide Government time in order for the process to proceed. It would be for the House to put forward options for consideration and to determine the procedure by which it wished to do so.

I must confess that I am sceptical about such a process of indicative votes. When we have tried this kind of thing in the past, it has produced contradictory outcomes or no outcome at all. There is a further risk when it comes to Brexit, as the UK is only one half of the equation and the votes could lead to an outcome that is unnegotiable with the EU. No Government could give a blank cheque to commit to an outcome without knowing what it is, so I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by the House, but I do commit to engaging constructively with the process.

There are many different views on the way forward, but I want to explain the options as I understand them. The default outcome continues to be to leave with no deal, but the House has previously expressed its opposition to that path, and may very well do so again this week. The alternative is to pursue a different form of Brexit or a second referendum, but the bottom line remains that if the House does not approve the withdrawal agreement this week and is not prepared to countenance leaving without a deal, we will have to seek a longer extension. This would entail the UK having to hold European elections, and it would mean that we will not have been able to guarantee Brexit. These are now choices that the House will have the opportunity to express its view on.

This is the first chance I have had to address the House since my remarks last Wednesday evening—[Interruption.]