#Brexit – Is a U-turn in sight?

| August 20, 2019

Informal Meeting of Foreign Affairs Council (Gymnich) 15/02/18, Sofia

Boris Johnson wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk on 19 August, setting out the UK government’s position on ‘key aspects’ of Brexit, particularly in relation to the ‘backstop’ provisions in the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. The letter comes before one-to-one meetings with German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, and the G7 summit of heads of government in Biarritz at the end of the week, writes Catherine Feore.

The letter confirms that the UK’s main concern remains the Irish border backstop provisions aimed at maintaining a soft border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Johnson asserts that the UK will not put in place “infrastructure, checks, or controls” on the border. However, the letter also makes clear that the UK wishes to “potentially diverge” from a broad swathe of EU rules, which inevitably lead to the need for the controls the UK wants to avoid. It also means that the Irish government will be forced to establish checks to protect the European single market.

Johnson writes that the UK cannot continue to endorse specific commitments of the EU-UK Joint Report that committed the UK to “full alignment” with many rules of the EU, including its many requirements to ensure a level-playing field. Johnson was foreign secretary and therefore a senior member of Prime Minister Theresa May’s cabinet when it agreed on the Joint Report in December 2017. He remained a member of the same government when it reaffirmed its commitment to this report in March 2018, only resigning in July 2018. While the members of the Conservative Party may find his elastic relationship with the truth and buffoonery charming, the EU is a much more sober rules-based organization that will regard this documented liar with a more sceptical eye.

The U-turn on these commitments confirms rumours that the UK’s objections go beyond the Irish backstop and are also about the UK’s freedom for more radical divergence from the EU’s rules. Under no circumstances is the European Union going to allow an economy of the UK’s  scale and proximity to become a European ‘Singapore-on-Thames’. And ultimately, if they are faced with the choice between amputating a gangrenous leg or a cardiac arrest they will – albeit, reluctantly – agree to the amputation.

Is a U-turn in sight?

There are only two ways to read this letter; as a clear declaration that the UK is intent on leaving the EU without a deal or as the ground work to reach a deal based on the future relationship – which is already provided for in the Withdrawal Agreement.

Johnson courageously proposes something that has already been agreed to by the EU:

“I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship.”

The Protocol already provides that the backstop only applies “unless and until” it is superseded, in whole or in part by any subsequent agreement, with the initial aim of reaching that agreement by 1 July 2020.

In the event that there isn’t an agreement within the transition period, Johnson states that the UK would be “ready to look constructively and flexibly” at what commitments might provide a degree of confidence if an agreement were not in place.

What commitments would be needed, and what the EU-27 could agree to, remains to be seen. A time limit would not be acceptable to Ireland or the EU-27; concessions on the UK’s flexibility to diverge from regulations and level-playing field provisions would not be acceptable to the EU-27 as a whole. There isn’t much that is new here, but there is a chink of light, the UK doesn’t need the Withdrawal Agreement to be reopened, commitments could be made through the unbinding political declaration. All that will be required is for Prime Minister Johnson to sell this to a British public that is becoming increasingly alarmed by the real prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit.

After all, it is Johnson who dismissed the prospect of a ‘no deal’ outcome as “a million to one”.


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