Something needs to change if a no-deal Brexit is to be avoided
Saga will reach a few decisive points in coming weeks with Ireland at the epicentre
Dublin and Brussels will wait and see what the outcome is of the inevitable parliamentary showdown between Boris Johnson’s government and the opponents of no-deal Brexit at Westminster in September. File photograph: Bryan O’Brien/The Irish Times.
The response to the letter from Boris Johnson to Donald Tusk was the same in Brussels on Tuesday morning as it was in Dublin last night — a semi-polite rebuff to the idea that the backstop can be jettisoned from the withdrawal agreement and replaced by vague commitments from London that there would be no new Border in Ireland.
Dublin and Brussels both view the proposals as unrealistic and directed more at Johnson’s domestic audience — and the desire to avoid blame for any no-deal outcome — than a serious attempt to engage with the EU.
As such, it confirms their view that they should wait and see what the outcome is of the inevitable parliamentary showdown between Johnson’s government and the opponents of no-deal in September.
The stout British defence of the Belfast Agreement in Johnson’s letter is taken as a sign that London has woken up to the importance of the views of US politicians who have vowed to block a post-Brexit trade deal if the UK causes the re-imposition of border checks.
If Johnson really wants to engage with the EU, then he will come up with detailed proposals for the mechanisms and guarantees his letter acknowledges will be needed to avoid a border.
The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found. Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support reestablishing a border. Even if they do not admit it.— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) August 20, 2019
I have written to @eucopresident about key aspects of the UK’s approach to Brexit, problems with the “backstop” & the Government’s commitment to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement whether there is a deal with the EU or not.https://t.co/7JYdIsZdjB pic.twitter.com/Sc6WjDPdkw— Boris Johnson (@BorisJohnson) August 19, 2019
As Dublin and Brussels have both pointed out since Monday’s letter from the prime minister, there is no sign of that yet. It might come, the EU reckons, and it might not. Johnson might call an election and lose, or he might win. Or he could delay it to allow a no-deal to happen in October.
Any one of several outcomes is possible in Westminster. But a reasonable proposal that the EU could consider certainly hasn’t come yet. So they will wait and see.
What is apparent from Johnson’s words, though, is that the British government’s approach to the border issue has shifted profoundly. Theresa May accepted that the way to avoid a hard border was to remove the need for checks; Johnson believes — or says he believes — the way to avoid a hard border is to manage the checks in a way that does not obstruct trade or free movement.
The rather large hole in his argument — as the EU keeps pointing out — is that he has not shown how that can be done. Johnson’s push and the Irish and EU pushback of the last 24 hours starkly illustrates that unless something changes, then we are on course for a no-deal in October.
As August moves into September and the unpredictable drama at Westminster resumes, that is likely to mean increased pressure on the Irish Government to say how it will manage a no-deal in practice. Extensive planning has been done, as the Government’s Brexit publications attest. But there is as yet no real detail about how the border will be managed in the event of no-deal. That is likely to be the focus for considerable attention, public and private, in the weeks ahead.
Both Dublin and Brussels say that no-deal planning is a “unilateral” exercise — they will not talk to the UK about how to manage a no-deal outcome. But Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has also said that one way to avoid border checks would be to have checks on food and animals arriving from Britain at Northern Ireland’s ports. That would obviously require British agreement, which will not be forthcoming without talks, and may not be forthcoming at all.
As another summer ends, it seems to have been going on forever. But the Brexit saga will reach a few decisive points in the coming weeks; and Ireland is at the epicentre of it.