The UK appears to be moving quickly and firmly towards a “no-deal” Brexit, as the EU appears determined to rebuff Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s main demand in reopened negotiations on the draft withdrawal agreement — scrapping the so-called “Irish backstop,” which would keep the UK in a customs union with Europe for at least a few years to prevent the emergence of a hard border separating Ireland and Northern Ireland (a central element of the Good Friday peace agreement that ended IRA terrorism). Michael Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator for Brexit, spelled out the EU’s commitment to the backstop in no uncertain terms in a commentary for The Telegraph, also summarized by Politico.
- Barnier warned that the current deal, including the backstop, was already the “maximum amount of flexibility” the EU can afford in these negotiations.
- The backstop isn’t meant to be permanent, but according to Barnier the EU argues that the UK must pass the current withdrawal agreement, with the backstop, before work can begin on “alternative arrangements” to ensure there is no hard border in Ireland: “We are ready to start this work immediately upon ratification of the Withdrawal Agreement, in parallel to finally creating clarity on our future relationship.”
- Given this clear conflict, and in light of Johnson’s repeated threats to take the UK out of the EU without a deal if the backstop remains in the withdrawal agreement, Barnier also wrote that he is “not optimistic” about avoiding a “no deal” Brexit.
- A likely response from Johnson and his supporters among hardline Brexiters is that Barnier’s piece is yet more “bluff” from the EU side, which the Europeans will hopefully abandon when the timing comes down to the wire and Brexit is imminent. To this of course the Europeans will respond that they are not bluffing (which is exactly what someone who’s bluffing would say — but also someone who’s not bluffing).
- But the fact that the UK has managed to extract exactly no major concessions from the EU over three years of tortuous negotiations would seem to suggest that the bloc’s refusal to budge on the backstop is not a front but the considered outcome of a difficult consensus-building process among the group’s 27 remaining members. The Europeans have also made clear their intention to stand by Ireland, even at the risk of an economically disastrous no-deal Brexit.