The emerging assurance on the Brexitwithdrawal deal will have three different elements, Ministers were told at a hastily arranged Cabinet meeting last night.
These will include a joint legal interpretation of the meaning of the backstop, the Brexit deal’s most controversial measure – understood to include details of potential arbitration between the EU and UK – and a unilateral declaration on the backstop by the UK. This is understood to be a British interpretation of the backstop.
Ministers, however, insisted there has been no change in the position that the UK can unilaterally exit the backstop.
The withdrawal agreement was initially struck last November and contains the backstop, the insurance policy to avoid a hard border. The withdrawal agreement is paired with a political declaration which sketches out the post-Brexit EU-UK relationship. It is not clear how this will be affected by the latest developments.
The special Cabinet meeting last night – which was held in addition to the weekly Cabinet meeting earlier in the day – was initially adjourned for Taoiseach Leo Varadkar to speak by phone to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Conclusion of talks
The Cabinet meeting began about 7pm, then resumed as Mr Juncker met British prime minister Theresa May, before Mr Varadkar called another adjournment about 8.30pm pending the conclusion of talks between the pair in Strasbourg.
Ministers were told the contents of the unilateral declaration on the backstop was still being finalised in the meeting between Mr Juncker and Mrs May. The Taoiseach was said to have relayed his position to Mr Juncker in the phone call.
Mr Varadkar and his senior staff were due to travel to the United States for the annual St Patrick’s Day series of events yesterday, but postponed their departure.
It had been intended that Mr Varadkar and his staff would be on ground in Washington DC on Tuesday, ahead of the beginning of the official programme beginning on Wednesday, to monitor Brexit votes in Westminster. The Taoiseach is due to meet US President Donald Trump tomorrow.
Mr Varadkar’s most senior aides – Martin Fraser, the secretary to the Government, Brian Murphy, the Taoiseach’s chief-of-staff and Attorney General Seamus Woulfe – were all at Dublin Airport and had to return to Government Buildings.
Outline of a deal
Sources said that at the first Cabinet meeting on Monday morning, Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the EU felt a broad outline of a deal with the UK had been in place around the time of an EU-League of Arab States summit in Sharm el Sheikh last month.
However, sources disclosed Mr Coveney said this had encountered difficulties when technical discussions drilled down into detail.
Overall, Ministers reported that the mood of the first meeting was very pessimistic, which led to some surprise when they were summoned to a second later in the evening.