In the countdown to the G7 Summit in Biarritz, France, the British prime minister was holding consultations with Germany, France, and Ireland in his effort to rid the UK from the so-called “Irish backstop” clause. Boris Johnson got two categorical “neighs” and one diplomatic “maybe.”
The common message Johnson brought to Berlin and Paris this week was the UK is preparing for the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, although it is in everyone’s interest to avoid it, first and foremost, by giving up on the so-called “Irish backstop” clause.
The backstop negotiated by Theresa May provides for Britain to remain in a temporary customs union with the EU after Brexit, avoiding the need for any ‘hard’ border infrastructure, until a better solution is found. This is thought as necessary to safeguard the 1998 Good Friday agreement, which brought peace to Northern Ireland after more than 3,600 died in a three-decade conflict between unionists and Irish nationalists.
If implemented, the backstop would see Northern Ireland staying aligned to some rules of the EU single market and the UK in a single customs territory with the EU, for as long as it takes to work out an alternative.
The EU 27 and the European Commission have made clear that the deal negotiated with his predecessor, Theresa May, cannot be renegotiated. Therefore, the UK is moving towards the October 31st deadline without an obvious way to avoiding crushing out of the EU.
On Wednesday, Chancellor Angela Merkel told Boris Johnson that he had approximately a month to work out an alternative solution to the backstop. “It was said we will probably find a solution in two years; but we could also find one in the next 30 days, why not?” said Merkel.
Any such solution would have to ensure the EU’s Common Market and Customs Union remain safeguarded, while there is freedom of movement for goods and people in across Northern Ireland and the Republic.
On Thursday, President Emmanuel Macron made clear that he does not believe that in the month ahead it is possible to find “a new withdrawal agreement that deviates from the original,” although he remains open to proposals. However, he did refer to the “Irish backstop” as an “indispensable” clause.
What appears to be the essence of Johnson’s European tour is the beginning of a blame game between London and Brussels. On Thursday, Johnson reiterated in Paris the long-held position that the UK will “under no circumstances” create a land border to check goods on the border with the Republic of Ireland. What that means is that the onus will be on the Republic and, by extension, the EU to safeguard the Single Market and the Customs Union and erect a border infrastructure on the island.
For more than two years, Leave campaigners have argued that it is possible to envisage that a physical border in Northern Ireland is replaced by technical measures, such as trusted trader provisions and electronic pre-clearance. The issue at hand is that such measures have not been tested, the infrastructure is not in place, and such measures could provide scope for smuggling and illegal migration.
Speaking to the public broadcaster RTE on Thursday, Ireland’s Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee said that Ireland is “willing and ready to listen” to any proposals to the backstop proposed by the UK, but noted that British suggestions thus far are unconvincing. These include previously-mooted trusted trader schemes, technological solutions or a proposal that Ireland align itself with the UK instead of the single market.
A new report released on Thursday by the Human Rights and Equality Commission in Northern Ireland suggests that “no-deal” would also be detrimental to security cooperation in Ireland. North-South police could no longer rely on the European Arrest Warrant, as well as data sharing and prosecution arrangements.
US President Donald Trump and his National Security Adviser John Bolton have come out in support of a no-deal Brexit scenario, promising a speedy follow-up trade deal. However, because any such deal would have to pass both the House of Representatives and the Senate, such a trade deal is unlikely, as Democrats have made clear they would do nothing to undermine the Good Friday Agreement.