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May's legal changes do not rule out indefinite backstop: UK Attorney General

File photo of Geoffrey Cox. Photograph:( AFP )

Agencia EFE London, UK Mar 12, 2019, 07.23 PM (IST)

The United Kingdom's attorney general has said the government's last-ditch legal changes to the Brexit agreement reduced but did not rule out the risk that the country could be indefinitely bound to the Irish backstop clause, jeopardizing the prime minister's ambitions to assuage rebellious party members as she puts the agreement to a parliamentary vote on Tuesday. 

Geoffrey Cox, whose job it is to present the House of Commons with independent legal advice on the UK's withdrawal from the European Union before the so-called meaningful vote on Theresa May's deal, said in a statement, his opinion had not changed since he first brought it to the lower chamber of lawmaking last year. 

"In my letter of 13 November 2018, I advised that the protocol [ie, the backstop] would endure indefinitely in international law and could not be brought to an end in the absence of a subsequent agreement," he said.

"This would remain the case even if parties were still negotiating many years later, and even if the parties believed that talks have clearly broken down and there was no prospect of a future relationship agreement." 

The backstop, which looks to safeguard the soft border on the island of Ireland should Brexit talks collapse, proved hugely unpopular with pro-Brexit MPs in May's Conservative Party, who thought its potentially indefinite nature and the UK's inability to withdraw from it unilaterally, as per Cox's previous legal statement, eroded the UK's sovereignty and did not deliver a true withdrawal from the EU. 

The Democratic Unionist Party, a right-wing outfit from Northern Ireland, also protested the backstop, saying it could keep the UK territory in Ireland bound to EU customs regulations to preserve the free-flowing border with the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state. 

In a previous meaningful vote on Jan. 15, hardline Tories including Jacob Rees-Mogg, leader of the hardline pro-Brexit European Research Group, spearheaded a rebellion against May's deal and helped shoot it down by a House majority of 230; this historic defeat for a sitting UK PM was bellowed by a large number of MPs voting against Brexit altogether. 

Soon after the defeat, the Commons passed an amendment requiring May to return to Brussels in search of legally-binding changes to the withdrawal agreement. 

Speaking in Strasbourg following a meeting with EU leaders, May assured reporters she had secured the necessary legally-binding tweaks to ensure the UK would not be indefinitely tied to the backstop protocol, adding the government would also set out a mechanism which would "ultimately" allow the UK to unliterary "dis-apply" the measure should it see fit. 

May was unable to reopen the withdrawal agreement itself, but revealed the changes as part of a "joint instrument with comparable legal weight." 

In his statement, Cox said the legal add-ons could reduce the possibility the UK was indefinitely bound to the backstop.

The European Research Group, an affiliation of Tories who campaign for a harder Brexit, demanded the PM secure an ability to unilaterally abandon the backstop as part of her haul of legal alterations to the text. 

But Cox contradicted that, too. 

He said that, while in his political judgment that the EU and the UK would draw up a comprehensive plan to replace the backstop, the UK would nonetheless be unable to abandon the accord unilaterally. 

"However, the legal risk remains unchanged that if through no such demonstrable failure of either party, but simply because of intractable differences, that situation does arise, the United Kingdom would have, at least while the fundamental circumstances remained the same, no internationally lawful means of exiting the Protocol’s arrangements, save by agreement," he said. 

Cox delivered his legal advice to a full house at the Commons. 

He earlier dismissed rumours that he had refused to change his legal advice following May's meetings with EU heads. 

Responding to a suggestion to that end from prominent UK journalist Jon Snow, Cox replied on Twitter with a simple and quintessentially British message: "Bollocks."

His legal advice will likely dictate how the ERG decides to vote following Tuesday's debate. 

If May loses once again, the Commons is scheduled to vote on two further motions: one on whether to embrace a no-deal Brexit and another on whether to extend the negotiations period, which had been set at two years, ending on Mar. 31. 

Some 52 per cent of voters chose to leave the bloc in a referendum in June 2016.

Story highlights

Geoffrey Cox said in a statement, his opinion had not changed since he first brought it to the lower chamber of lawmaking last year.