Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt’s Brexit plan to axe the Irish border backstop from the withdrawal agreement will be rejected outright by the European Union, EU sources have said.
Informed sources say that it is doomed to failure and if the next prime minister goes to Brussels with such a plan, he will be told in “no uncertain terms” that it amounts to a declaration of no deal.
Brussels had already rebuffed such a plan when the Brexit secretary, Steve Barclay, who is now part of Johnson’s campaign, met the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, last week.
In what was seen as “spinning for a Boris plan”, Barclay told Barnier that the backstop was dead five times during the meeting. Sources say he told Barnier that they wanted a series of mini deals and alternative arrangements for the Irish border.
He was told that was Brexit fantasy and a non-starter, and that the “mini deals” outlined in EU contingency plans were temporary and only covered the “bare bones” such as aviation, mobile phone roaming and haulier driver licences. They did not include the major issues such as trade or the Irish border.
The EU is watching developments in the UK very closely and has already prepared responses on a range of possibilities including a call for the EU to endorse the so-called “Brady amendment” which was passed in the House of Commons in January. It called for the backstop, or the mechanism by which a hard border will be avoided on the island of Ireland in case there is no post-Brexit free trade agreement, to be scrapped.
This will also be rejected.
Johnson and Hunt have declared the Northern Ireland backstop “dead” and promised to throw it out of any deal they negotiate with the EU, in comments that significantly harden their Brexit positions.
What is the original 'backstop' in the Withdrawal Agreement?
Variously described as an insurance policy or safety net, the backstop is a device in the Withdrawal Agreement intended to ensure that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if no formal deal can be reached on trade and security arrangements.
It would mean that if there were no workable agreement on such matters, Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union and much of the single market, guaranteeing a friction-free border with the Republic. This would keep the Good Friday agreement intact.
Both the UK and EU signed up to the basic idea in December 2017 as part of the initial Brexit deal, but there have been disagreements since on how it would work.
The DUP have objected to it, as it potentially treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, creating a customs divide in the Irish sea, which is anathema to the unionist party.
Hardline Tory Eurosceptics also object to it, as they perceive it to be a trap that could potentially lock the UK into the EU's customs union permanently if the UK & EU cannot seal a free trade agreement. That would prevent the country from doing its own free trade deals with nations outside the bloc.
What was added to May's withdrawal agreement?
Joint interpretative instrument
A legal add-on to the withdrawal agreement was given to Theresa May in January 2019 to try and get her deal through the UK parliament. It gives legal force to a letter from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the presidents of the commission and council. This stated the EU’s intention to negotiate an alternative to the backstop so it would not be triggered, or, if it was triggered, to get out of it as quickly as possible.
Unilateral statement from the UK
Sets out the British position that, if the backstop was to become permanent and talks on an alternative were going nowhere, the UK believes it would be able to exit the arrangement.
Additional language in political declaration
Emphasises the urgency felt on both sides to negotiate an alternative to the backstop, and flesh out what a technological fix would look like. However, this has failed to persuade the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who said that while it 'reduces the risk' of the UK being trapped in a backstop indefinitely, it does not remove it.
Daniel Boffey, Martin Belam and Peter Walker
While their words may be the source of alarm, the Irish fully expected this and see it as campaign spin.
Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, said in a radio interview over the weekend that he would give whoever became prime minister “a fair hearing” but warned that the victor would be in for a “reality check” when he got the keys to Downing Street.
“Politicians when they are in campaign mode, and both of those men are in campaign mode, tend to campaign in poetry, in simple terms and high-level messages.
“When you get into office you have to govern in prose, and I imagine whoever is the new prime minister is going to face a very serious reality check when they sit down with their officials,” he told Pat Kenny on Newstalk.
Irish senator and Brexit spokesman Neale Richmond said on Tuesday the remarks did not mean Ireland would be budging on the backstop. “The backstop is a vital aspect of the withdrawal agreement, an aspect that was developed in light of the UK government’s own red lines.
“While it is no one’s preferred destination, it gives all sides the vital insurance policy to allow a new relationship between the EU and the UK to be formulated. The withdrawal agreement is the only vehicle towards a managed Brexit, it won’t be reopened.”
On Monday night, the Tory leadership rivals both ruled out trying to tweak the backstop, which critics say could trap the UK indefinitely in a customs union with the EU.
The EU is watching carefully and is expecting that if Johnson, the frontrunner, is selected, he will make immediate plans to fly to Brussels and to Dublin for talks.
If he decides to make his first visit the US, this will “embolden” EU member states because it will send a clear signal that he deems the US more important than the EU, the UK’s biggest trading partner.
There is an expectation that Johnson and his negotiators will come to Brussels in September with an early outline of his new Brexit plan. But EU sources warn that it will have to be tested in parliament first because they will not waste time negotiating anything that does not have a mandate in the House of Commons.
The new UK prime minister might seek a string of protocols on alternative arrangements that would guarantee the backstop would never be used.
“That would mean an insurance policy that would never be used. There would be no point to that,” said an EU source.
Varadkar said in a lengthy interview with Kenny that Ireland was prepared for no deal but he hoped it would not happen.
“It will be incredibly severe on Northern Ireland because it will face tariffs … and will face huge difficulties, because a huge amount of trade from Northern Ireland goes through Dublin.
“The impact on Northern Ireland will be more severe than anywhere in Europe. The impact on the UK and Ireland would be pretty severe too. I hope a new British prime minister wouldn’t willingly do that,” he said.