January 14, 2019 / 11:30 AM / 7 days ago

EU offers UK 'legal' pledge Irish backstop seen as temporary

British Prime Minister Theresa May visits the Portmeirion factory in Stoke-on-Trent, Britain January 14, 2019. Ben Birchall/Pool via REUTERS

BRUSSELS (Reuters) - The European Union told Theresa May on Monday that it stood by commitments to find ways to avoid triggering the controversial “Irish backstop” in their Brexit deal and that this pledge had legal weight.

In a joint reply to questions from the prime minister who is struggling to get the British parliament to back her withdrawal agreement, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and European Council President Donald Tusk said the EU stood by its commitment to try and reach a post-Brexit trade deal by the end of next year in order to avoid using the unpopular “backstop”.

While stressing that nothing in their letter could be seen as changing or being inconsistent with the draft treaty agreed with May last month, they said a commitment to speedy trade deal made by EU leaders had “legal value” which committed the Union “in the most solemn manner”.

However, even if the target date were not met, they wrote, Britain would have the option to extend a status-quo transition period to avoid triggering the backstop, which is meant to avoid a hard customs border for Northern Ireland.

“If the backstop were nevertheless to be triggered, it would only apply temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement that ensures that a hard border is avoided,” they said.

Reporting by Alastair Macdonald

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