LONDON (Reuters) – Britain’s exit from the European Union hung in the balance on Tuesday after the government’s lawyer said last-minute “legally binding” assurances won by Prime Minister Theresa May to her divorce deal left the risk over the Irish backstop “unchanged”.
Scrambling to plot an orderly path out of the Brexit maze just days before the United Kingdom is due to leave, May rushed to Strasbourg on Monday to agree the assurances with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker.
But Attorney General Geoffrey Cox said in a written opinion the assurances were legally binding but the risk remained “unchanged” that the United Kingdom would have no lawful means of exiting the backstop, aimed at avoiding controls on the border between the British province of Northern Ireland and EU-member Ireland.
British lawmakers, who on Jan. 15 voted 432-202 against May’s deal, were studying the assurances and Cox’s legal advice before the vote later on Tuesday.
Cox’s opinion is unlikely to win over the Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which props up May’s minority government, or many Brexit supporters in her party.
Sterling fell sharply on Cox’s advice. It was trading at $1.3022 at 1135 GMT.
“The legal risk remains unchanged that… 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,” Cox said.
May announced three documents – a joint instrument, a joint statement and a unilateral declaration – which she said were aimed at addressing the Irish backstop, the most contentious part of the divorce deal she agreed with the EU in November.
She said the assurances created an arbitration channel for any disputes on the backstop, “entrenches in legally-binding form” existing commitments that it will be temporary and binds the UK and EU to starting work on replacing the backstop with other arrangements by December 2020.
In essence, the assurances give the United Kingdom a possible path out of the backstop through arbitration and underscore the EU’s repeated pledges that it does not want to trap the United Kingdom in the backstop.
After two-and-a-half years of haggling since the 2016 Brexit referendum, Juncker cautioned this was the last chance for Britain. “It is this deal or Brexit might not happen at all,” he said.
If members of parliament vote down May’s deal, she has promised a vote on Wednesday on whether to leave without a deal and, if they reject that, then a vote on whether to ask the EU for a limited delay to Brexit.
The United Kingdom’s labyrinthine crisis over EU membership is approaching its finale with an array of possible outcomes, including a delay, a last-minute deal, a no-deal Brexit, a snap election or even another referendum.
Brexit will pitch the world’s fifth largest economy into the unknown and many fear it will divide the West as it grapples with both the unconventional U.S. presidency of Donald Trump and growing assertiveness from Russia and China.
Supporters of Brexit say while the divorce might bring some short-term instability, in the longer term it will allow the United Kingdom to thrive and also enable deeper EU integration without such a powerful reluctant member.
Brexit-supporting MPs in May’s party had accused her of botching the negotiations with Brussels. Many Brexiteers fear the backstop could trap the UK in the EU’s orbit indefinitely.
One eurosceptic lawmaker told Reuters he had seen nothing to change his opposition to the deal.
DUP leader Arlene Foster told the BBC she was sympathetic to demands for a day’s delay to give time to study the assurances.
The motion put forward by the government said the joint instrument “reduces the risk” that the United Kingdom would be trapped in the backstop.
If the backstop comes into force and talks on the future relationship break down, May said the unilateral declaration would make clear there was nothing to stop London from moving to leave the backstop.
Additional reporting by Elisabeth O’Leary and Alistair Smout; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Janet Lawrence