LONDON: Prime Minister Boris Johnson has fired the opening salvo in his bid to renegotiate Britain’s divorce from the European Union, demanding that an insurance policy for the Irish border be removed from the Brexit deal and replaced with a pledge.
After more than three years of Brexit crisis, the United Kingdom is heading towards a showdown with the EU as Johnson has vowed to leave the bloc on October 31 without a deal unless it agrees to renegotiate the divorce terms.
The bloc and its leaders have repeatedly refused to reopen the Withdrawal Agreement, which includes a protocol on the Irish border “backstop” that then-prime minister Theresa May agreed in November.
In his opening bid to the EU ahead of meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, Johnson wrote a four-page letter to European Council President Donald Tusk setting out his demands.
“I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place [alternative) ]rrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship,” Johnson wrote. “Time is very short.” A diplomat from one EU country said that Johnson’s letter was “pure PR” and not meant to spur constructive talks but rather set the stage for a “blame game” with the European Union. An Irish source said Johnson had provided no detail on alternative proposals.
In a call with Johnson, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar reiterated the EU’s position that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened.
The riddle of what to do about Ireland’s 500-km land border with the British province of Northern Ireland remains has repeatedly imperilled Brexit talks.
The EU wants to ensure that its only land border with the United Kingdom after Brexit does not become a back door for goods to enter the EU’s single market — which guarantees free movement of goods, capital, services and labour.
But Ireland says checks could undermine the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which brought peace after more than 3,600 died in a three-decade conflict between unionists who wanted Northern Ireland to remain British and Irish nationalists who want Northern Ireland to join a united Ireland ruled from Dublin.
And the United Kingdom does not want there to be any border — effective or virtual — between Britain and Northern Ireland.
Johnson’s government is propped up by Northern Irish unionists.
The "backstop" was a compromise aimed at squaring the circle: it would keep the United Kingdom in a customs union with the EU until a better solution was found, and keep Northern Ireland aligned to the rules of the EU’s single market.
The border is a matter of great political, security and diplomatic sensitivity in Ireland.
Therefore the UK and EU agreed that whatever happens as a result of Brexit there should be no new physical checks or infrastructure at the frontier.
This is where the controversial "backstop" comes in.
What is the backstop then? The backstop is a position of last resort, to maintain a seamless border on the island of Ireland.
Johnson wrote that the backstop was anti-democratic and threatened the United Kingdom’s sovereignty as the application of single-market rules in Northern Ireland could divide Northern Ireland from the rest of the United Kingdom.
At present, goods and services are traded between the two jurisdictions with few restrictions.
That is because the UK and Ireland are part of the EU's single market and customs union, so products do not need to be inspected for customs or standards. But, after Brexit, all that could change - the two parts of Ireland could be in different customs and regulatory regimes, which could mean products being checked at the border.
The preference of both sides is to prevent this happening through a deep and comprehensive trade deal.
However, the UK's current red lines, which include leaving the customs union and the single market, make that very difficult.
A technological solution for the border is favoured by many Brexit supporters but the EU are very sceptical about whether it can work without a degree of close regulatory alignment.
“It presents the whole of the United Kingdom with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad range of areas,” Johnson said.
“Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British government.” He also argued that the backstop risked weakening the delicate balance between nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland.
He said the best solution was a pledge to put in place arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, and that this could be agreed as part of a deal on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union.
Dublin does not accept the assertion that the backstop is a threat to peace, an Irish government source said, adding that, while the letter refers to alternative arrangements, it gives no detail of what these might be.
Under the current text of the Withdrawal Agreement, the backstop would be invoked at the end of the transition period in 2020, creating a single EU-UK customs territory, including “level playing field” rules ensuring fair competition in areas such as environment, state aid and labour standards.
The clause is designed as a default mechanism to remain in place “unless and until” it is superseded by alternative arrangements that ensure the same outcome.
Brexiteers fear that this would keep Britain dependent on rules set from Brussels over which they would have no say, and hinder their efforts to strike trade deals with third countries — one of the key benefits they see from leaving the EU in the first place. Some pro-Brexit politicians have said it would make Britain a “vassal state”.