As you know, Prime Minister May met with President Juncker in Strasbourg last night where they agreed an interpretative ‘Instrument’ on the Withdrawal Agreement and a ‘Joint Statement’ on the Political Declaration on the future relationship between the EU and the UK. Those documents were published last night.
The documents are complementary to the Withdrawal Agreement and Political Declaration and aim to provide an additional layer of interpretation, clarification and elaboration to the United Kingdom ahead of a further vote in Westminster.
We are aware that the UK Government has also published a unilateral declaration, alongside the two joint documents agreed.
In the context of tonight’s vote in Westminster, the outcome from yesterday’s meeting between Prime Minister May and President Juncker is positive, and I hope and trust that the Withdrawal Agreement will be now endorsed by the House of Commons.
In discussions with the UK, the Government has worked hand in hand with our EU partners and the EU institutions, including the Commission and Michel Barnier’s Task Force.
In that work, we have insisted that the Withdrawal Agreement could not be rewritten, and that the backstop arrangement, while intended to be temporary, must continue to apply unless and until it is replaced by future arrangements that can achieve the same objective, namely no hard border.
However, we have also said that we were prepared to offer guarantees and further reassurances and to the UK of our good faith and intentions – indeed we have offered such reassurances on many occasions.
The Instrument agreed yesterday puts those assurances on a legal footing and represents an unambiguous statement by both parties of what has been agreed.
It does not reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, or undermine the backstop or its application.
It says that we will work together, in good faith, in pursuit of a future relationship that ensures that the objectives of the Protocol, particularly the need to avoid a hard border, are met.
We are also committed to exploring alternatives in a timely way, in the event that the overall future relationship cannot be concluded in a satisfactory and timely manner.
But it does not call into question that the backstop will apply unless and until better arrangements are agreed, with all parties using good faith and best endeavours to that aim.
So the options to ensure avoidance of a hard border continue to correspond to those agreed as far back as the Joint Report of December 2017, which envisaged this being achieved by
1. a comprehensive future EU-UK relationship,
2. specific solutions or,
3. in the absence of agreed solutions, regulatory alignment, i.e the backstop
The documents agreed yesterday reiterate our wish to establish a future partnership with the UK that is as close as possible, and marks our commitment to ensure that negotiations on that future relationship can begin as soon as the UK leaves.
The instrument agreed sets out how we will go about this important work.
It also recalls the dispute resolution mechanisms in the Withdrawal Agreement that could be invoked were either party to demonstrate bad faith, including the possibility of seeking a ruling from a panel of arbitrators.
I hope that, together with the Joint Statement on the Political Declaration, it will provide a basis on which we can move forward again.
The Withdrawal Agreement represents a fair compromise by all sides. The Political Declaration provides a strong framework for the future work.
And the further texts agreed yesterday provide the additional clarity, reassurance and guarantees sought by some to eliminate doubt or fears, however unreal, that the goal of some was to trap the UK indefinitely in the backstop. It is not.
Those doubts and fears can now be put to bed.
The Withdrawal Agreement, as you know, provides for a transitional period running to the end of 2020 during which nothing will change. This is really important for exporters, businesses, employers, farmers and our fishermen.
And regardless of the vote tonight, we have already secured a continuation of the Common Travel Area, free movement of people North and South and between Britain and Ireland. The right to live, work, study, access healthcare, housing, education, pensions and welfare in each other’s countries as though we were citizens of both. And this is particularly important for citizens, students, cross border workers and expatriates of both countries.
Irish citizens in Northern Ireland will of course continue to be citizens of the European Union no matter what happens.
In many ways, Brexit has been a dark cloud over us for many months, and particularly the threat of no deal. A positive vote tonight can remove that cloud and restore confidence and optimism in Britain, Ireland and across the European Union.
We now need to see the Withdrawal Agreement ratified by Westminster and by the European Parliament without further delay, so that we can get on with the important work of building the closest possible relationship between the EU and the UK, and between the UK and Ireland, post Brexit.
I know feel that for the remains of the day, we need to give MPs in Westminster the time and space to consider what’s now on the table.
Thank you very much.