EU happy to give UK new assurances over Brexit backstop, says Varadkar
By David Wilcock, Harriet Line and Tom Pilgrim, Press Association
The European Union is "happy to give" the UK fresh assurances over the Northern Irish backstop, Irish leader Leo Varadkar has reportedly said.
Ahead of a vote on Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement in Parliament next week, the Taoiseach told the Irish Times: "We don't want to trap the UK into anything."
His comments during a trip to Mali could give fresh hope to the Prime Minister, whose Brexit plan faces almost certain defeat without input from Brussels that would make it more palatable to rebellious MPs in her own party.
It came as Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay denied a report that the Government was talking to Brussels about extending Article 50 to delay Britain's departure from the EU past March.
Speaking to the Irish Times, Mr Varadkar said there was currently "close contact between the UK and EU institutions on whether a further set of written guarantees, explanations and assurances could make a difference".
He added: "Bear in mind, a lot of the opposition to the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop might be based on suppositions and misunderstandings about our intent as a European Union.
"We don't want to trap the UK into anything - we want to get on to the talks about the future relationship right away. I think it's those kind of assurances we are happy to give."
The concept of the backstop - an agreement governing the customs status of the Ireland/Northern Ireland border in the event that Britain and the EU cannot agree a long-term relationship by the end of 2021 - has been the main sticking point preventing Mrs May's Withdrawal Agreement from being passed by Parliament.
It is opposed by a hardline group of MPs from her own Tory Party, as well as their Democratic Unionist Party allies.
On Monday, Brussels said the agreed Brexit deal was "the best and the only deal possible" and the European Commission was focused on watching what happened in the vote.
Without some activity from Brussels, Mrs May is expected to lose the so-called meaningful vote on January 15, which was postponed in December when it became clear that the Government would be defeated.
French Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau said that the Withdrawal Agreement would not be renegotiated.
Asked if there was a new way the EU could prove to British MPs that it does not want to use the backstop, Ms Loiseau said: "We have said it repeatedly. The president said it at the end of the previous European council.
"Indeed, we all want to have a fruitful, profitable relationship with the United Kingdom in the future. So the backstop is just a last resort solution."
Pressed on whether there would be new assurances, Ms Loiseau said: "These are political assurances. But there is nothing more that we can do.
"The Withdrawal Agreement is indeed a good agreement, both for the UK and for the European Union. We should stick to it."
Brexiteer former Brexit secretary David Davis dismissed the Taoiseach's comments, saying that the EU would come back to the table to renegotiate the Brexit deal if the UK "holds fast" as the deadline for leaving approaches.
He told BBC Radio 4's Today programme that the EU was "testing the mettle of the British Government".
He continued: "The simple truth is that they will hold fast to their line - this is the traditional approach of the European Commission, the European Union - they will hold fast to their line to the last possible minute and then, if we hold fast to our line, then they will actually come back and renegotiate."
He added that if that occurred we should demand legal assurances and "some sort of undertaking on a free trade deal", saying: "This will get very, very sticky, very close to the end, that is what will happen.
"And we need to work out what is negotiable and what isn't."
But Mr Barclay, who took on the Brexit role after the resignation of Mr Davis's successor, Dominic Raab, said the comment "reflects what PM has been saying for some time - that the deal she has negotiated is in the interests of both the EU and the UK".
He went on to deny reports that Article 50 could be extended, saying it would "generate some very practical issues", Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay has said.
He told Today that he had not had any talks with the EU "in terms of an extension", the day after Digital Minister Margot James suggested that Brexit could be delayed in order to avoid a no-deal scenario.
Mr Barclay said: "It's not a unilateral decision for the UK. That is not a decision the UK Government could take, it would require the consent of all 27 member states.
"It would also generate some very practical issues, for example EU parliamentary elections at the end of May."
There was no sign of a breakthrough among MPs who have vowed to vote against the Prime Minister's deal as they left Downing Street following a drinks reception for Tory MPs on Monday evening.
Conservative former Cabinet minister and Brexiteer Theresa Villiers said the evening "hasn't changed my view" and that she would still not be supporting the agreement.
Another reception will be held on Wednesday as part of Mrs May's charm offensive.
And more than 200 MPs who signed a letter to the PM urging her to rule out a no-deal Brexit have been invited to meet her at Downing Street on Tuesday.