British MPs will resume their parliamentary debate on Brexit on Wednesday, with a vote on the deal expected on Monday or Tuesday next week.
The vote was due to take place before Christmas but was postponed, reportedly because Theresa May did not manage to drum up sufficient Commons support for the agreement.
Ahead of the debate, former liberal MEP and respected constitutional expert Andrew Duff has put forward new proposals for what he calls “a judicious tweaking” of the political declaration document.
The focus so far has been very much on the Withdrawal Agreement and in particular the Irish backstop, which is proving the big obstacle to the deal being pushed through the Commons.
Duff told this website that a “new version” of the political declaration, with “higher legal standing,” could assist the ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement.
“The political declaration has many merits and has been unfairly criticised by Remainers. We have suggested some modest amendments here to enhance its standing and to strengthen its purpose in securing a closer association between the EU and its former member state,” Duff said.
Duff, who is now President of the Spinelli Group and Visiting Fellow of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank, said that amending the political declaration may not be the only way to convince MPs to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement and avoid a no-deal Brexit.
“She [Theresa May] refuses to accept what the leaders of the European Union tell her - namely, that they will not allow the British to guillotine the Irish Protocol or to modify its terms unilaterally” Former MEP Andrew Duff
“But improving the document is a good thing to do in its own right. And if the British Parliament wishes to take back control of Brexit, proposing amendments to the declaration is a good way to start,” he added.
Duff’s comments come after UK Prime Minister, Theresa May, said on Monday that the UK Government is “continuing to work on further assurances” from the EU over the Brexit deal, “in relation to the concern that’s been expressed by parliamentarians.”
Speaking at a hospital where she was launching her ten-year plan for the NHS, May said that there had been “some further movement from the EU” at the December European Council and that she had been speaking to EU leaders in the intervening period.
However, according to a new survey by polling company OBR, published on Monday, only 18 percent of the 2,000 UK voters surveyed support the Government’s Brexit deal, while 59 percent are opposed.
The number indicates an all-time low in support for the deal.
Duff said, “She [Theresa May] is very stubborn. She refuses to accept what the leaders of the European Union tell her — namely, that they will not allow the British to guillotine the Irish Protocol or to modify its terms unilaterally.”
“The Irish backstop is a temporary device due to remain, unless and until something better comes along.”
“The EU is mightily puzzled by the British obsession with the backstop - which, after all, were it ever to be implemented, would put Northern Ireland into a uniquely privileged partnership with the EU.”
Duff added, “In her dogged pursuit of her deal, Theresa May continues to try to win over some Brexiteer MPs to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement. Nobody else believes she can do this. We all may be wrong: the Prime Minister is evidently a remarkable woman.”
“Neither party, to be frank, has been sufficiently well prepared for this exercise: the UK, as we see, has had no settled view about what it wants after Brexit, and the EU side has managed to evade a deep reflection on the future of Europe without the Brits.”
“The delusion has grown that all MPs have to do to prevent the UK from crashing out without a deal is to say so. That is not true. The only way MPs can block no deal is by doing a deal - otherwise, the EU will continue to fast-track its own contingency plans to pull out of the UK on 29 March,” Duff added.
Meanwhile, a European Commission spokesman played down talk of a possible renegotiation of the Brexit deal which has been agreed, saying, “Everything on the table has been approved and the priority now is to await events in the UK.”
Brexit-supporting MPs have urged May to push for the Brexit deal to be renegotiated, while UK Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has tabled an Urgent Question in the UK Parliament, asking Theresa May to make a statement on “progress made in achieving legal changes to the Withdrawal Agreement and the timetable in this House for the meaningful vote.”
The move by Corbyn - himself criticised for his failure to push for a second referendum - came after the First Minister of Scotland and leader of the Scottish National Party (SNP) Nicola Sturgeon said that she would announce her preferred timetable for a second referendum on Scottish independence “when we get to the end of this phase of the Brexit process.”
Also on Monday, the UK government trialled Operation Brock in Kent, a plan supposedly designed to reduce congestion and border disruption in the event of a no-deal Brexit.
Some 89 lorries were involved in two test runs of the 20-mile lorry park operation, but the Road Haulage Association’s chief executive, Richard Burnett, described the exercise as “too little too late,” adding, “This process should have started nine months ago. At this stage it looks like window dressing.”
Dover MP Charlie Elphicke also criticised the exercise, saying, “We’ve got to remember 10,000 lorries visit the Channel ports every single day so a test with less than 100 is not even a drop in the ocean.”
The UK Department for Transport said the test went well.