Brexiter MPs unmoved by EU hint at legal assurance on backstop

A suggestion by one of the EU’s most powerful officials of possible further legal assurances on the Irish backstop has failed to win over Brexiter MPs, leading to heightened talk of the UK leaving the bloc with no deal.

After a meeting with Martin Selmayr on Monday, the cross-party Brexit select committee emerged clear that the European commission secretary general had floated the possibility of a legally binding adjunct to the withdrawal agreement.

However, Selmayr, a trusted aide of the commission president, Jean-Claude Juncker, tweeted that after the 90-minute discussions in Brussels that he was convinced “the EU did well to start its no-deal preparations in December 2017”.

The committee’s chairman, Hilary Benn, said he had left with “the impression that [the EU] might be prepared to consider some additional statement or legal protocol” to sweeten the 585-page draft treaty.

The Labour MP Stephen Kinnock said Brussels appeared open to converting into legal text a letter of assurance published by Juncker and his European council counterpart, Donald Tusk, before the last Commons vote. That letter had offered swift trade negotiations and a rapid search for technological solutions to the Irish border issue to ensure the backstop would be temporary if ever enforced.

“The Juncker and Tusk letter would in essence be copied and pasted into a protocol and shoved into the withdrawal agreement,” Kinnock said. “It is definitely [a case of ] reopening to quickly slip something in and close it very quickly. I would term it unzipping.”

Stephen Crabb, a Conservative former work and pensions secretary, said: “We talked around the idea of the Tusk letter being written into some sort of legal protocol but every time someone asked him if it is something he could do, he said: ‘First of all, it’s not me negotiating, and secondly, let me turn around the question: if we were to do that would you be guaranteed to vote for the deal?’ That’s where some of the more Brexiteer members of the committee wouldn’t say.”

Crabb added: “I’ve come away with the belief that they’re up for a discussion around some additional text or something that can bring comfort on this issue, but the idea that the backstop is going to go away is for the birds.”

The leading Tory Brexiter and former cabinet minister, John Whittingdale, said Selmayr had asked “whether or not a letter which was legally binding might be sufficient. But I think we would need to see what that contains and to have an absolute assurance that it does give us an exit.”

However, as MPs gave their account of the meeting, Selmayr tweeted a clarification and issued a warning to Westminster.

“On the EU side, nobody is considering this,” Selmayr said of a legal addition to the withdrawal agreement. “Asked whether any assurance would help to get the withdrawal agreement through the Commons, the answers of MPs were … inconclusive … The meeting confirmed that the EU did well to start its no-deal preparations in December 2017.”

On a visit to Japan, the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, expressed her hopes of finding a compromise despite the EU’s position of ruling out a renegotiation.

She said: “To solve this point you have to be creative and listen to each other, and such discussions can and must be conducted.

“We can still use the time to come to an agreement over the things that are standing in our way, if everyone shows goodwill.”

Theresa May is due in Belfast on Tuesday before returning to Brussels for talks about her demands for a renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement in an attempt to replace the backstop with “alternative arrangements”.

Ireland’s deputy leader, Simon Coveney, said he was pleased the prime minister was going to try to reassure the people of Northern Ireland. However, he said, London had failed to offer any new ideas that stood up to scrutiny and MPs should read the Brexit deal before lining up to attack it.

“What Ireland is being asked to do by some in Westminster is to essentially do away with an agreed solution between the UK government and EU negotiators and to replace it with wishful thinking. And I think that’s a very unreasonable request to ask the Irish government to be flexible on,” Coveney said.

During the meeting with Selmayr, Benn, a Labour former cabinet minister, had asked whether a long extension of the article 50 negotiating period could be used to discuss the future trade deal, in order to relegate the significance of the backstop.

The EU has repeatedly insisted it cannot legally negotiate over trade with a country that is a member state.

Benn told reporters outside the commission’s headquarters: “I put the point to him that in the political declaration … there is one very specific agreement which has been reached: there will be no tariffs … If you have so far been able to reach an agreement that both sides have said there will be no tariffs, then what in principle is to stop you doing the same with all the other issues to be negotiated?”

Whittingdale said he had found Selmayr open to helping MPs find a majority in support of the Brexit deal, and that he had given the EU official a copy of the Malthouse compromise.