Letter offers assurance that Brexit backstop will only be temporary

European Union chiefs have sent Theresa May a letter confirming that Brussels does not want the so-called “backstop” to remain in place permanently following Brexit.

But European Council president Donald Tusk and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker stressed they were “not in a position” to rewrite or amend the Withdrawal Agreement secured by Mrs May last year.

The letter comes ahead of Tuesday’s vote on the agreement in the House of Commons as the Prime Minister makes an eleventh-hour bid to secure MPs’ support for her deal.

Many Conservative MPs are threatening to rebel on Tuesday because of their concerns that the UK could be permanently trapped in the backstop arrangements – designed to avoid a hard border in Ireland and requiring compliance with some EU rules – and be unable to pull out without approval from Brussels.

In letter to Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker requesting additional assurances, Mrs May wrote: “The clarifications and undertakings proposed in this letter are consistent with the letter and spirit of the deal we have reached, but would be further reassurance that the fears that some hold on both sides are misplaced.”

In their response, the EU presidents stated that they regard the Withdrawal Agreement as a “fair compromise” which would limit “the negative consequences of Brexit”.

The European Union “does not wish to see the backstop enter into force”, as it would represent a “sub-optimal trading arrangement for both sides”, they said. The EU wants to ensure it would “only be in place for as long as strictly necessary”.

The Withdrawal Agreement makes clear that that backstop comes into effect only if no broader deal on future relations has been reached by the end of the Brexit transition period in December 2020 – or after a potential extension of up to two years if that is triggered.

The EU presidents stated: “Were the backstop to enter into force in whole or in part, it is intended to apply only temporarily, unless and until it is superseded by a subsequent agreement.”

At a European Council summit on December 13, leaders of the remaining 27 member states agreed a “firm commitment” to work speedily to deliver an agreement which meant that the backstop would not be needed, said the letter.

They have agreed that, if needed, it should apply only “temporarily” and the EU would “use its best endeavours to negotiate and conclude expeditiously a subsequent agreement that would replace the backstop”.

The letter said that the commission was “committed to providing the necessary political impetus and resources” to ensure that a future relationship agreement is drawn up as quickly as possible”.

The letter confirmed that both Mr Tusk and Mr Juncker were ready to sign the Withdrawal Agreement as soon as the so-called “meaningful vote” is passed by the UK Parliament, allowing preparations for a future partnership to begin “immediately thereafter”.