Analysis: Johnson brings bumptious optimism but few specifics

British PM cites technology and trusted trader schemes, which have been rejected

 

The British prime minister Boris Johnson arrived in Dublin this morning for his first meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar bearing his trademark bumptious optimism but little by way of specifics about what could be in a new deal on Brexit or how he would get it through parliament.

Johnson declared himself “absolutely undaunted” by the attempts of parliament to stop him leaving without a deal and said the border issue could be overcome with “sufficient energy and a spirit of compromise”. But he declined to give any detail – in public anyway – about measures that could reconcile the EU and UK positions, instead citing technology, trusted trader schemes and an all-Ireland zone for animals – all suggested previously by the UK and rejected as insufficient by the EU. The joint statement issued afterwards noted “common ground” in some areas – but “significant gaps” in others.

Government sources said later that the meeting created a generally positive impression – with Dublin cautiously of the view that Johnson does want a deal, as he says. But if the prime minister is serious about trying to get a deal, sources say, he is also serious about a no-deal if it comes to that.

If a deal is to be achieved, Johnson will have to come up with compromise proposals that do effectively the same job (or nearly the same) as the backstop, and he will have to convince EU leaders he can get a new deal through the House of Commons. If Dublin is now more inclined to the view that this is Johnson’s intention, it is withholding judgment on whether he has the ability to do either.

“I think we can achieve these things while allowing the UK to withdraw whole and entire from the EU,” he said. “Strip away the politics and at the core of each problem you find practical issues that can be resolved with sufficient energy and a spirit of compromise,” Mr Johnson said.

But beyond the enthusiastic exhortations and familiar can-do attitude, Mr Johnson gave no indication of how exactly the impasse can be overcome. The nearest he got to specifics was a reiteration of previous ideas about technology and trusted trader schemes – all, as he knows, rejected by Brussels and Dublin as insufficient to keep the current standards of openness at the border.

All-Ireland zone

Of the most interesting idea floated by Johnson in recent days – of extending an all-Ireland zone for animals and agrifood to other sectors – there was no mention, at least in public.

Welcoming his guest, the Taoiseach struck a polite but obviously firm tone, warning him that even if there was a no-deal, the UK would be back to square one with the EU’s negotiating priorities remaining unchanged.

“There’s no such thing as a clean break, or just getting it done,” Mr Varadkar told his guest. “Rather we’ll just move on to a new phase.”

That phase, he said, would begin by addressing the first items on the agenda for any new deal – “citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the Irish border”.

“All issues which we had resolved in the Withdrawal Agreement made with your predecessor – an agreement made in good faith with 28 governments,” Mr Varadkar added pointedly.

It’s been a source of continuous bemusement in Dublin that there seems to be little or no appreciation in the UK of what comes after a no-deal. As Irish officials point out, unless the British wish to keep trading on unfavourable terms with half of their export markets, there will be a trade deal. But before that happens, the British must conclude a withdrawal agreement.

Varadkar warned that agreeing a new trade deal with the EU and the US would be a “Herculean” task but assured Mr Johnson that Ireland wanted to be “your friend and your ally – your Athena, in doing so”.

Helpful but not moving on the critical issue of the backstop – he was, he said, “ready to listen to any constructive ways in which we can achieve our agreed goals and resolve the current impasse”.

“But what we will not do is agree to the replacement of a legal guarantee with a promise.”

He said the Irish government was committed to the backstop, but willing to accept alternatives to it – “but we haven’t received such proposals to date”. And time, as everyone knows, is getting short.

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