EU looks to Northern Ireland-only backstop to break Brexit deadlock
The EU is pinning hopes on British negotiators reverting to the Northern Ireland-only backstop previously rejected by Theresa May as a threat to the constitutional integrity of the UK.
With Boris Johnson faced with the choice of breaking his word and extending the UK’s EU membership beyond 31 October or bringing back a tweaked deal for a last-gasp vote in parliament, officials and diplomats have expressed hope that the prime minister will stage a government U-turn.
EU sources insisted there was no other approach that could work with the negotiations otherwise doomed to hit a “zombie stage” given the likelihood of an imminent general election.
“We don’t know what mandate has the prime minister to propose something and obviously there is a strong division between the parliament and the government”, said Nathalie Loiseau, a former French minister of EU affairs.
It is hoped in Brussels that Johnson’s EU envoy, David Frost, will further pursue an a Northern Ireland-only backstop during meetings with the commission’s Brexit taskforce on Wednesday and Friday.
The UK government has sought to pour cold water on the suggestion. “We are not seeking a Northern Ireland-only backstop”, a No 10 spokesman said.
The newly nominated EU commissioner for trade, Phil Hogan, a former Irish minister, told the Irish Times he believed the “penny is finally dropping” in Johnson’s government over the lack of alternatives.
Johnson has said he wants to remove the Irish backstop from the withdrawal agreement as it would tie Northern Ireland into the single market and the whole of the UK into a shared customs territory with the EU.
The prime minister has described the arrangement as “undemocratic” and railed against signing a treaty that would be “inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK” by tying it into a customs union.
But the prime minister’s proposal in recent days of a single all-Ireland agrifood zone has offered some hope that the government may return to the initial EU suggestion of an arrangement that solely keeps Northern Ireland within the EU’s structures.
May, whose government was reliant on the support of the Democratic Unionist party for her working majority, had rejected Northern Ireland alone staying in the single market and customs union on the grounds that “no British prime minister” could accept such a regulatory border being drawn in the Irish Sea.
But Hogan said that Johnson, who visited the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, in Dublin on Monday, had offered some grounds for optimism in his recent talks.
He said: “Mr Johnson has made a proposal in the last few days talking about an all-Ireland food zone. That is certainly a clear indication of divergence between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland/the EU and the rest of the UK. This is the first time that this has been spoken about by a British prime minister where they are prepared to accept some level of divergence between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
“If we can build on that we certainly might get closer to one another in terms of a possible outcome”.
Hogan warned, however, that the single agrifood zone was some distance from a solution to the Brexit impasse. He said: “It would have to include all goods … in terms of any agreement.
“I remain hopeful that the penny is finally dropping with the UK that there are pragmatic and practical solutions that can actually be introduced into the debate at this stage, albeit at the eleventh hour, that may find some common ground between the EU and the UK.”
“The taoiseach has indicated in the last 24 hours that the Northern Ireland-only backstop is quite an interesting idea to revisit.”
Fabian Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Centre thinktank in Brussels, said the only point of the talks in Brussels would be to discuss an extension of article 50 beyond 31 October, or the detail of a Northern Ireland-only arrangement.
“But in reality I don’t believe that the UK government wants to go down this route”, he said. “So at the moment I don’t see anything of substance that is being discussed because nothing else can be opened.”
Following his nomination on Tuesday by the European commission-designate, Ursula von der Leyen, Hogan is set to take over any trade talks with the UK once the country leaves the bloc, with the former deputy chief EU negotiator, Sabine Weyand, as his director general.
Hogan said the establishment of a new negotiating team “will take probably six to eight months once we know what the outcome of the present negotiations are … Then I expect it will take a number of years before we conclude the negotiations.”
“The divorce proceedings have to be completed first before the future relationship, which would include a free trade agreement,” Hogan said. “But we will not be starting from scratch in the case of the UK because they have been part of the EU for the last 45 years … I expect that we will be able to move more quickly than we would in any other trade negotiation."