Theresa May went to Brussels to get concessions for the Brexit deal – hoping that the controversial "Irish backstop" could be canceled. But she was returned empty-handed.
The Prime Minister met the heads of all EU institutions and was told the same: we will not renegotiate the withdrawal agreement.
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However, they said they would like to change the political declaration for the future relationship.
What is the difference?
The withdrawal agreement is a binding legal contract – it concerns matters such as what happens to EU citizens in the UK, the divorce law and, most controversially, the Irish backstop policy.
But there is another part of the agreement between the UK and the EU. The full name is "the political statement about the future relationship". It is not legally binding, but it indicates what kind of relationship the EU and the UK government intend to have after Brexit – regardless of whether the United Kingdom is part of the internal market, the customs union, etc.
What is currently in the political statement?
It is very vague. Maybe you remember "Checkers" – that was Theresa May's plan that she agreed with her cabinet after negotiating with her own party. That does not happen – the EU has rejected it.
The statement is currently more or less meaningless and describes both the red lines of the EU and those of the United Kingdom. It makes actual decisions about the future relationship for the future. But unless the red lines in the UK shift, this essentially indicates a strong Brexit border controls on goods, no free movement and the like.
Why would the EU propose to change the political declaration if the backstop is the problem and it is in the withdrawal agreement?
There are two reasons. The first is technical: the future relationship, as it now looks, would not prevent a hard border in Ireland. The EU sees the backstop as an insurance policy against a hard border in Ireland – no matter what future relationship is being negotiated, there will not be one as long as the backstop can enter.
But a more ambitious future relationship that kept the UK in line with the internal market and the customs union would only prevent a hard limit – and that the backstop would never have to happen. That way it is related to the backstop.
The second reason is politics: changing the statement is the key for those who support a soft Brexit. Labor says it will support the deal in parliament if the future relationship is changed with adaptation to the internal market and a customs union, as well as protection of workers' rights.
So why will Theresa not renegotiate the future relationship to get the deal?
The softening of the Brexit set forth in the future relationship would have the opposite effect on the Tories, as with Labor: most of Theresa May's MPs would be even more hostile to it, and to her.
Maybe she can pass on the Brexit deal with Labor support – if she got that far. But her party would be in turmoil. They do not like the backstop – or even Checkers – because they see it as too many in the EU. Labor's plan for a permanent customs union and the adjustment of the internal market would probably be more alienating because it is even more closely linked to Brussels.
There are some Tory MPs who would welcome a softer Brexit, but they are thought to be in the minority.
So Theresa may be dropped off if she supports the demands of Labor?
It is not easy to predict what would happen. In a sense, she is safe: she can not be formally ousted as a leader of the Tory party for another 10 months. This is because according to the rules of the party, a leader can not be challenged for a year after they have survived a first attempt to fall from the inside, such as late last year.
However, she is not immune to the completely separate parliamentary confidence votes that take place in the Commons. These are the standard votes of all members of parliament about trust in the government. She would remain the leader of the conservative party if she would lose – but no longer prime minister
Whether angry Tory MPs – or the DUP on whom she supports support – will continue to support her in these votes is an open question. There is no limit to the number that can be called or when.
Alternatively, even if it can not be formally excluded, the party can simply become unmanageable. May may struggle to fill her front seats and be in a state of open warfare with the rest of her party. This situation has effectively forced other party leaders to resign, even if they can not technically be forced to leave.
Or it may all work out well. We can not predict the future, but it certainly has good reasons to worry about.
People say that the political statement is not legally binding – is that right?
Yes, it is just a declaration of intent from both parties. But political statements are still important – you can not be brought to justice, but if the political pressure is still there to enforce them, they will have an effect.
The part of the Good Friday agreement that says that there should not be a hard line is, for example, a political statement. The situation in which the UK is at present has real strength – as long as there is political will to enforce it.
It is likely that Labor would hold the government to its political declaration of the future relationship with the EU – if the statement were later rejected, the government would not have a majority for the Brexit it was looking for.
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