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HomeBrexit WatchBreakthrough or bluff? Two views on Boris’s backstop

Breakthrough or bluff? Two views on Boris’s backstop


LAST Thursday’s summit between Messrs Johnson and Varadkar took place away from the eyes of the press and was followed by a joint statement saying they could ‘see a pathway to a possible deal,’ writes Paul Wood.

This was surprising and promising. Did they mean it, or is each trying to look as if a breakdown in talks is not his fault? Few people were there and so we know little about what was said.

A piece in The Times said they looked at proposals ‘that would have had Northern Ireland staying in both the UK’s customs union and the EU customs union’.

The Irish Times said it would amount to a scaled-down version of the customs partnership’ proposed by Theresa May (which sounded like the customs union under a different name), but applied only to Northern Ireland.

It would mean the UK levying customs rules on goods going from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but people in Northern Ireland who received those goods getting the money they had paid back, since they are in the UK. That would mean the entire UK leaving the customs union, as promised by Boris, but with an administrative customs border in the Irish Sea.

The DUP, which represents most of the Ulster Protestant Unionists, would be very stupid indeed not to agree, as it will help the Northern Irish economy in general and Protestant farmers in particular. Boris is keeping very close to the DUP.

If they don’t agree, Boris no longer needs them as much as Theresa May did, as he no longer has a majority in the House of Commons even with them. If they oppose the deal, some in the European Reform Group, the hardcore Brexiteer Tory MPs, may find it hard to support it, but I think they will. For them there will not be a better chance.

Michel Barnier has now agreed, after meeting Stephen Barclay on Friday morning, that the negotiations can move to the ‘tunnel’ (intensive secret negotiations). That means this might work but time is very short indeed.

If it fails, what next? Boris will remain in office but not in power until eventually an election or referendum is called. If it is an election, he must campaign with a proposal and, as an alternative, leaving with no deal.

The Tory Party obviously cannot win an election saying, ‘We want to leave the EU but will not countenance no-deal’. Clearly a deal is impossible unless leaving with no deal is on the cards. If the Tories win, leaving with no deal will be likely, but that is only a stop on the path to a deal.

Remaining in a customs union with the EU as Philip Hammond suggests, with the right for the UK to leave this customs union by giving one year’s notice, in some ways makes sense at least temporarily. It would take us out of the EU and let an election decide whether we should stay in the customs union. But Nigel Farage would unfairly call it Brexit In Name Only and this might well sink the Tories, leading to a Corbyn (Trotskyite, hard Left) government backed by the Scottish Nationalists in return for a promise of another referendum on Scottish independence.

But my feeling is that the new proposal may work. I hope so and so do most people, apart from those, like Tony Blair and Sir John Major, who are determined that the UK remains in the EU.


BUT bluff by whom, and targeted at whom? Those, maybe, are the real questions, because this drama has multiple actors, all of whom have interests and agendas that may be colouring their reactions, writes Michael St George.

Though Boris has, since last Thursday remained fairly tight-lipped about the details, some kind of, in effect, double customs union, involving keeping Northern Ireland in a de facto, if not de jure, customs union with the Republic, appears to be the basis for this tentative rapprochement.

But when 85 per cent of Northern Ireland’s exports are to the UK, with only 5 per cent and 3 per cent to the Republic and the EU respectively, it’s hard to see why Northern Ireland would burden itself with onerous EU costs and regulations for such a small proportion of its trade, and risk disruption to the flow of the major part of it.

Which might explain why, as early as last Friday, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds had already rejected the double customs union as ‘unrealistic’, asserting that the province staying in a full customs union with the UK was non-negotiable, and that for the ongoing ‘tunnel’ talks in Brussels to disregard this precondition would be counter-productive.

Presumably, Dodds had already perceived what other commentators have since come round to concluding – that, far from negotiating in good faith, the EU is actually trying to squeeze Northern Ireland into a NI-only backstop, a view which Barnier’s rejection of Johnson’s proposals and demand for more UK concessions does little to dispel.

The technical assessments of Johnson’s proposals are not especially favourable. Anand Menon, of The UK in a Changing Europe initiative, reckons the long-term economic impacts are negative, and potentially more damaging than the deal negotiated by Theresa May, but the chart below appears to acknowledge that they do give the UK more independence and flexibility. TCW readers are recommended to visit the UKinCE website for themselves and make their own judgment of its pro or anti Brexit stance.

Theresa May’s former Europe Adviser, Raoul Ruparel of Open Europe, however, is more sanguine. There are some concerns, he says, but they can be managed. TCW readers should visit OE’s website and make their own judgment about its pro or anti Brexit stance, too.

As former Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson points out, a double customs union would also potentially be a breach of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, and a violation of the Principle of Consent which was enshrined within it.

We also know, because former Secretary-General to the EU Commission Martin Selmayr was indiscreetly frank about it, that it has long been the EU’s position that relinquishing its sovereignty of Northern Ireland is the price the UK must be made to pay for leaving the EU. It would be unwise to assume that the reactions of both Brussels and Irish Taoiseach Varadkar, who has shown himself regrettably ready to pander to nationalist Republican revanchism, scrupulously disregard this.

Bluffing about seeing a way forward would certainly be in Boris’s interest, and that of the Conservative Party. The almost exclusive focus of politicians, media and public on the Northern Ireland backstop serves to obscure the suspicion that, ultimately, he will try to get what otherwise is essentially Theresa May’s (non)-‘Withdrawal’ Agreement through the Commons. The flaws in it remain as serious as ever they were.

But Boris knows that, if he fails to achieve Brexit by 31st October, the chances of both his own survival and that of his government, are damaged. The votes which, because of May’s defenestration and Boris’s ascendancy to Number Ten on a Brexit do-or-die ticket, have come back to the Tories from the Brexit Party after its resounding victory in the European elections, could once again vanish.

So he has every incentive to play up the chances of a deal after all, and exaggerate its significance, if it can be presented as something which warrants getting a soft Brexit over the line. The recriminations can come afterwards.

Brussels and Dublin equally have an incentive, to understate the significance. The EU will be calculating that, by playing hardball, it increases the chances of a Remainer Parliament, which has already passed the Benn Surrender Act, forcing Boris, failing a 31st October Brexit, to seek an Article 50 extension on humiliating terms, probably involving conceding a second referendum.

In short, almost none of the actors in this drama has an incentive to be 100 per cent genuine. Safer, perhaps, to assume that none of them are?

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Edited by Kathy Gyngell

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