EU rebuffs Boris Johnson’s effort to ditch Brexit backstop
Boris Johnson has been rebuffed in his latest effort to jettison the Irish border backstop from the Brexit withdrawal agreement, following his letter to the EU setting out why he sees it as “inconsistent” with his vision for the UK’s relationship with the bloc.
In a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, on Monday, the prime minister said it was his “highest priority” to leave with a deal, pledging “energy and determination” to strike a new agreement. But he also outlined why the backstop insurance policy, a temporary customs union to ensure there is never a hard border with Ireland, was anathema to his vision for the UK’s post-Brexit future.
“When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union,” Mr Johnson wrote. “Although we will remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.”
The potential to diverge from EU rules is a marked change from the policy of Theresa May’s government, which pledged to maintain a “level playing field” and “alignment of rules” after the UK’s exit. This represented a central plank of her Chequers plan for the UK’s long-term relationship with the bloc.
But Mr Johnson’s letter has received a broadly negative response. One senior EU official said they were “amazed” at its content, citing that it contained no legal solutions for managing the “unique circumstances” of the border in Ireland.
The official added that Mr Johnson was essentially asking the EU to relax its external border in order to allow the UK to deviate from the bloc’s rules and trade policy. “How can that ever work?” the person said.
In response to Mr Johnson’s letter, one EU diplomat told Politico: “It’s clear from the letter that renegotiation is the last thing the British government wants. Brexit started and ends with preservation of the Tory party.”
One senior Conservative MP described the letter as “complete crap” and said it was part of a political game being played by Downing Street.
“It’s designed to say ‘look, I tried’ and then we leave without a deal. It takes a certainty [of the backstop insurance policy] and turns it into an uncertainty,” the MP said. “It’s trying to create a blame game, which won’t even last long. It will quickly rebound and the Conservative party won’t be rewarded for leaving as Churchill wasn’t rewarded in 1945. We’ll be blamed for any frictions and other parties will clean up. This isn’t even good party politics.”
The prime minister claimed in his letter that the backstop “risks weakening the delicate balance” of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland, potentially upsetting the relationship between the traditions, consent and respect for the rights of different communities.
“By removing control of such large areas of the commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body over which the people of Northern Ireland have no democratic control, this balance risks being undermined,” he wrote.
Mr Johnson spoke on the phone to Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar for an hour on Monday, with both sides agreeing to meet in early September. But Mr Varadkar insisted that the withdrawal agreement was not up for negotiation and the backstop would not be removed.
The letter to the EU received a frosty response from Dublin. “We reject the assertion that the backstop risks weakening the Good Friday Agreement,” said a senior Irish government figure.
“The very purpose of the backstop is to maintain the status quo, by ensuring free movement and no hard border on the island of Ireland; which is central to the Good Friday Agreement.”
The reality was that Brexit itself was a threat to the Good Friday pact, the Dublin figure added. “Unfortunately this letter does not set out what the so-called ‘alternative arrangements’ could or would be. Unless and until there are viable alternatives, the need for the backstop insurance policy is clear.”
Mr Johnson said he regarded the backstop as “anti-democratic” because it “locks the UK, potentially indefinitely, into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland”.
The prime minister has requested that the backstop be replaced with a “commitment” to ensure that “alternative arrangements” for the Irish border were in place before the end of any transition period after the UK’s departure.
“Alternative arrangements” is a phrase often used to describe potential technical solutions to mitigate the need for a hard border on the island of Ireland. Earlier this year, Mrs May pledged “to seek to conclude alternative arrangements” to ensure that the backstop was not necessary. But Mr Johnson has not set out details of what these arrangements would be.
Mr Johnson admitted that a “degree of confidence” would be required by both sides if these arrangements were not in place by the end of any standstill transition. “We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help, consistent of course with the principles set out in this letter.”
Mr Johnson is set to travel to Berlin and Paris this week for his first bilateral meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, where he will further discuss his position on Brexit. Downing Street insiders said they were not expecting any significant breakthrough in the coming days.
Sebastian Payne y Arthur Beesley