Boris Johnson’s Working Compromise
Friday 4th October 2019: Closing his first Conservative Party Conference as prime minister, Boris Johnson revealed his new backstop plan. Here Ray Bassett,* formerly a senior Irish diplomat involved in the Good Friday negotiations, explains that if the UK is to have a real Brexit, then these proposals will in essence ‘have to be part of a final agreement’.
The proposals from the Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, for an orderly Brexit have presented Brussels with a serious dilemma. It is clear that the new UK plans go further in the area of a compromise on the Backstop than many in the EU had anticipated. The offer to include industrial goods, along with agri-food, in an all-Ireland regime for an initial 4 years, is clearly a conciliatory gesture on the Irish border question. Hence the initial cautious response from Brussels and the capitals.
The Prime Minister was able to act in this way because of his excellent relations with the DUP and because he has built up trust within Unionism in Northern Ireland. I am not sure that the DUP would have backed this current scheme, if it had been proposed by Theresa May. The maintenance of Northern Ireland within the UK customs union is a further confidence building measure for Unionists. The inclusion of the consent of the Stormont Parliament in any extension to this temporary arrangement is not as generous as it seems, since under current arrangements, just one third of NI Assembly members can exercise a veto against a majority. This is the main reason why negotiations to get a local administration up and running in Belfast, have been unsuccessful so far. It is changed times when Nationalists there are calling for majority rule.
The Johnson Brexit offer, however, is a serious attempt to bridge the gap between the various competing interests. If the UK is to have a real Brexit, and not just one in name only, then the ideas outlined in these proposals are essentially the ones which will have to be part of any final agreement.
For Dublin, the commitment by the UK, to have the bulk of cross border commercial activity cleared electronically, with only minimal physical customs inspections in a small number of areas, well away from the border, represents a real challenge. These proposals are, in fact, very close to some outlined in previous Politeia publications The EU, the UK and Global Trade – A New Roadmap, The Irish Border, Brexit and the EU – The Route to Frictionless Trade and by a number of senior MPs. It is doubtful whether the EU would permit the Irish authorities to have a similarly relaxed approach. The Irish authorities have put all their eggs in the basket of reversing Brexit or having a titular only exit by Britain. It has waged a serious propaganda war internally against any tendency to view Brexit in a benign manner. Hence the Johnson compromise deal, if accepted, would represent a serious loss of face.
The need for customs inspections on the island of Ireland is the inevitable consequence of the Republic of Ireland’s refusing to engage in bilateral discussions with London and to compromise in any way on cross border trade. Any workable scheme to avoid customs checks would have involved some local arrangements which would not be compatible with the rigid enforcement of the Single Market. Dublin has clung limpet-like to the red line that any arrangements on the island of Ireland must fully respect the EU’s legal order. It gambled heavily on the acceptance of Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement and that is now in tatters. It has failed to put forward any constructive proposal but left everything to Brussels. Its biggest nightmare would be that Juncker et al will opt for the thrust of these proposals.
Brussels and the other EU capitals will now be watching closely events in Westminster. Indications are that the Johnson proposals are likely to attract more support than the initial forecasts and actually have a chance of securing a majority in the House of Commons. The disunity in the Opposition, with Jo Swinson of the Lib Dems seemingly more intent on further damaging the Labour party than defeating the Government, will have only sown further doubts about the viability of waiting for rescue from Parliament. In addition, the Johnson package, together with a strong domestic agenda, would look like an ideal popular election platform. In the next few days, the EU power brokers must decide on whether to take this offer or opt for a mutually damaging No deal scenario. The next few weeks will reveal all.
*Dr Ray Bassett was a senior diplomat at Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin and has served as the country’s Ambassador to Canada, Jamaica and the Bahamas, 2010-2016. Other diplomatic postings include Copenhagen, Canberra, Belfast (twice), London and Ottawa. He was involved in the Good Friday Agreement negotiations as part of the Irish Government Talks Team. His publications include Brexit – Options for the Irish Border (2018) and The Irish Border, Brexit and the EU – The Route to Frictionless Trade (2019).