Having been stymied in his attempt to take the UK into a no-deal Brexit, Boris Johnson must now seek a new deal with the EU that somehow avoids the need for the dreaded “backstop” — a temporary customs union between the UK and EU that would prevent the emergence of a hard border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. Undeterred by the fact that this is transparently impossible, at least in the short term, Johnson traveled to Dublin to meet Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar for their first face-to-face negotiations with this impossible goal in mind. No surprise, Varadkar expressed polite skepticism about the potential for something impossible to become possible — but that won’t stop Johnson, or the news cycle, from rolling on.
- Varadkar’s position is based, as always, on the paramount importance of maintaining the effective results of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, which relied on both the UK and Ireland being members of the EU to finesse the border out of existence. The UK leaving the EU raises the possibility of a hard border returning, which is why Ireland and the EU are insisting on a customs union “backstop” to avoid such a scenario, at least until some other solution can be found.
- Johnson’s proposals so far have consisted mostly of calls for vague alternative arrangements involving technology and coordinated bureaucracy, e.g. a designated class of “trusted traders,” to allow frictionless trade and travel at the border. The EU has already rejected these proposals as being insufficient, as the mooted technology does not yet exist, although it is open to them replacing the backstop later.
- Johnson has also recently proposed a unified inspection regime for agricultural goods, in effect carving out a mini-customs union for food on the island of Ireland, but the Irish point out that this only covers about 30% of their total trade.
- At their joint press conference ahead of the meeting today, Varadkar indicated that the EU’s negotiating position has not moved: “The backstop continues to be a critical component of the Withdrawal Agreement unless and until alternatives are found.” Proposals for alternatives, he added, “must be realistic, legally binding and workable, and we have not received such proposals to date.”
- In short, Varadkar stated: “In the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop is no deal for us.”
- And there you have it: nothing has changed, and it is unlikely to anytime soon. However, Johnson’s diplomatic flailing is said to be testing the patience of EU negotiators who are skeptical that the British PM can even deliver the necessary votes in Parliament to approve a new deal — a seemingly valid concern, given that he no longer commands a majority in Parliament as his own party descends into “civil war.”