“You say we haven’t achieved anything,” the prime minister said in answer to a reporter’s question in Stoke. “We have achieved this exchange of letters…”
For her critics, it was an underwhelming moment. But what does the exchange – between Theresa May and the presidents of the European Council and the European Commission – actually say?
Well, the tone is certainly constructive and genuinely so – an effort on both sides to offer reassurance of good faith, for public consumption. The letters contain carefully worded arguments (hardly a surprise here) that both sides have had to compromise and that both sides are sensitive to the concerns of the other.
But when it comes to the core issue – getting the Brexit deal approved in the UK Parliament – the letters are unlikely to change anything.
Mrs May’s letter highlights two big problems identified by MPs:
- the fear that the EU will “leave the UK permanently in the backstop”
- the separation between the legally binding withdrawal agreement and the non-binding political declaration on future relations
The fact that the part of the deal focusing on the future relationship with the EU was not legally binding, the prime minister’s letter suggested, had left MPs “concerned” that no-one could guarantee where negotiations might finally end up.
For many Tory opponents of the prime minister’s deal, the key phrase appears early in the EU’s response.
“As you know,” the letter says, “we are not in a position to agree to anything that changes or is inconsistent with the withdrawal agreement.”
The legal underpinning of the backstop proposal, in other words, will not change.
There are plenty of words in the EU letter about how the backstop has only ever been designed as a temporary measure “which would represent a sub-optimal trading arrangement for both sides”.
The EU would “use its best endeavours” (a phrase we’ve heard before and which carries some legal weight) to ensure that “the backstop would only be in place (if at all) for as long as strictly necessary”.
This isn’t just telling the UK what it wants to hear. The EU really doesn’t like the backstop and it was a significant compromise for it to accept it.
New trade deal
But the letter doesn’t really go any further than the language that can already be found in the withdrawal agreement itself and in the conclusions of an EU summit last month.
What the EU letter does offer is extra reassurance that it will push on with plans to finalise a new trade deal, which would remove the need for any backstop, as quickly as possible.
And it emphasises that those summit conclusions do carry some legal weight.
There are other titbits in the text, designed to answer some of the concerns set out by the prime minister.
The EU letter confirms that the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration are “part of the same negotiation package” and can be published side by side in the EU’s Official Journal “in order to underline the close relationship between the two texts”.
It also highlights an important point that is set out in the withdrawal agreement – that any new laws that the EU proposes, under the terms of the backstop, for Northern Ireland require the agreement of the UK.
But the UK wouldn’t have the power of veto (it couldn’t block all changes automatically) and it couldn’t stop the EU from making amendments to existing laws.
In any case, many opponents of Mrs May’s deal are unimpressed.
“Despite a letter of supposed reassurance from the European Union, there are no ‘legally binding assurances’, as the prime minister talked about in December,” said the Democratic Unionist Party MP Nigel Dodds. “In fact, there is nothing new. Nothing has changed.”
And that leads to a key question – what else is the EU really prepared to offer if, or once, the deal gets rejected in a first vote in Parliament?
At the moment, with the stakes higher than ever, we’re stuck at a point that has bedevilled relations between the EU and the UK for decades – the maximum the EU is prepared to offer is less than the minimum that many Tory Eurosceptics are prepared to accept.