Boris Johnson just outlined his final, take it or leave it pitch for a Brexit deal to the European Union Wednesday, warning that if the bloc didn’t work with him, Britain was fully prepared to leave with no deal.
But the prime minister's plan, published on Twitter, is so far off the mark that it looks like a deliberate attempt to sabotage any deal.
Even before the British government submitted its proposal to EU headquarters in Brussels, Ireland’s foreign minister, Simon Coveney, said that a leaked version of the plans did not “look like the basis for an agreement,” and suggested it might not even be a serious attempt to reach an agreement.
Before tweeting out the five-point proposal, Johnson outlined his plan in a speech to members of his Conservative Party in Manchester, saying no deal wasn’t the outcome his government wanted, but “it is an outcome for which we are ready.” Britain is scheduled to leave the EU on Oct. 31, and Johnson has said the country will leave, deal or no deal.
In an effort to sidestep opposition from MPs, he took the extraordinary step last month of suspending Parliament for a five-week period ahead of the Brexit deadline. But Britain’s Supreme Court ruled that the suspension was politically motivated and therefore illegal, dealing a major blow to his strategy.
An alternative to the ‘backstop’
The most contentious sticking point in negotiations with the EU has been the status of the Irish border, dividing Northern Ireland, part of the UK, with the Republic of Ireland, an EU state.
Negotiations have stalled on questions surrounding customs and regulatory arrangements along the border — the only land border that the UK will share with the EU after Brexit.
Currently, goods and services flow freely between the two jurisdictions, and the UK and Europe agree there can’t be a return to any border infrastructure separating them. The guarantee of an open border was crucial to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which brought an end to the 30 years of sectarian conflict known as the Troubles.
Security officials believe that any new physical infrastructure in Northern Ireland would become targets for sectarian violence and fuel regional tensions. There are also concerns from business that customs checks would disrupt cross-border trade, worth about £5 billion ($6.2 billion).
A previous draft Brexit deal reached by Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, with the EU had proposed a so-called backstop as a solution, in which Britain would stay in the customs union until a new trade deal with the EU had been agreed. But this was rejected by members of May’s Conservative government, including Johnson, who said it was “inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK" and feared it could lead to Britain becoming trapped in the customs union indefinitely.
Johnson, who is determined to find an alternative to the backstop, said he would offer to keep Northern Ireland in the European single market for goods but leave the EU customs union, along with the rest of the UK, after a transition period.
That would require some customs checks to be introduced — a measure he argued could be alleviated through introducing new systems including electronic paperwork, and a “very small number” of physical checks.
Johnson said that customs checks were “just a reality,” but insisted that these would not be at the border. “We will under no circumstances have checks at or near the border in Northern Ireland. We will respect the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement,” he said.
Not even close, says Ireland
While Johnson framed his proposals as a compromise, and said he hoped his negotiating partners in Europe would “understand that and compromise in their turn,” initial indications weren’t promising. The imposition of customs checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland are a longstanding red line for the EU.
The European Commission said Wednesday it would examine the proposals objectively, but Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister and deputy prime minister, said the proposal didn’t look like a promising basis for negotiation.
He said his government’s position had consistently held there be “no physical border infrastructure on the island of Ireland, and no related checks or controls.”
“The idea that you would be putting a customs border effectively between Northern Ireland and the Republic is not something that is consistent with that, or even close.”
He suggested the proposals were so far off the mark that they may not be a genuine attempt to reach a deal.
“If there is a proposal that involves customs checks on the island of Ireland, that in itself is bad faith given the commitments the British government has given both to Ireland and the EU over the last three years," he said.
British opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn was also scathing of the proposal, saying the proposed alternative to the backstop was "worse than Theresa May's deal.”
He claimed that Johnson knew “full well that what he's put forward is unlikely to be agreed,” saying the prime minister appeared intent on a no-deal Brexit.
Johnson is due to speak with European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker to discuss the proposals later Wednesday, with the clock ticking before the UK is scheduled to leave the EU at the end of the month. Under the terms of a law passed by Parliament last month, Johnson is obliged to ask the EU for another extension unless MPs back the terms of withdrawal by Oct. 19. But he's insisted he will not do so.
Cover: Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson delivers his Leader's speech at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester, England, Wednesday, Oct. 2, 2019. Britain's ruling Conservative Party is holding their annual party conference. (AP Photo/Frank Augstein)