Why the Taoiseach will refuse to discuss Johnson’s border ‘fix’
Irish position is that any negotiations must be conducted with the EU
The Old Belfast Road in Carrickcarnon on the North side of the Border, between Newry and Dundalk. Photograph:Niall Carson/PA Wire
Boris Johnson’s comment in the House of Commons that he wanted to discuss agrifood issues with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar on Monday shows that his government continues to cast around for solutions on the Irish Border issue.
If the meeting does go ahead – and who knows with all the uncertainties in Westminster – the Taoiseach will not take the bait and start to negotiate on the issue with Johnson. The Irish position remains that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened and any negotiations in any case are conducted with the EU.
A lot of work has been under way in London on alternative options to the backstop – other ways to guarantee an open border after Brexit, no matter what future trade deal is done between the two sides. The problem remains, however, that if the UK leaves the EU customs union and single market, controls and checks will be needed, even if the where and how may possibly be tweaked.
Ireland wants – via the backstop – to have a guarantee that the Border will remain pretty much as it is now and argues that this is in line with the terms of the Belfast Agreement. Since Johnson has taken office, it is clear that the UK will push an alternative view – that its commitment is only to ensure that there are no checks or infrastructure at the Border itself. Whether this is in line with the commitments made at the end of 2017 by the UK in the joint report agreed with the EU at that time is open to question.
It certainly is less than Ireland wants. Varadkar on Tuesday said that while Ireland wanted an open border as it is now, the UK proposals were looking at something different, a “managed” solution with tariffs and controls in place, albeit with attempts made to move them away from the Border itself.
Variety of solutions
Johnson’s mention of raising the agrifood issue is a further signal of this UK approach, which is to try to find a variety of “ solutions” for the different border checks which will be needed – on customs, VAT and production regulations. Agricultural products is one of the trickiest areas as EU rules specify that animals and animal products must be checked on entry to the EU single market.
A variety of ways around this have been floated, including the island remaining as one zone for food and animal safety. This is not straightforward, even from a UK viewpoint, as it would likely require a stepping up of existing checks on animals and food products crossing from Britain to Northern Ireland.
It would also – probably – mean the North having to abide by regulations set in Brussels, a point objected to by the DUP. By mentioning that taking forward this approach would require the consent of interested parties, Johnson presumably had the DUP in mind. Agreement with the EU, including some deal on how the rest of the UK might in time diverge from EU standards and what would then happen in the North, would also be complicated and difficult.
Some other proposals have surfaced to address the other necessary checks – on customs, for example – but none offer a complete solution, as conceded by the Alternative Arrangements Commission, a group which has examined the issue in the UK. And the European Commission and Ireland have been clear that no viable alternative options to the backstop have been put on the table by London. Nor, with no barrier-free border between two trade areas evidenced anywhere in the world, is any magic solution going to emerge.
So Taoiseach Leo Varadkar is not likely on Monday to be seen to discuss any bilateral solutions with Johnson.
Will any possible compromises surface in the weeks ahead? There is no evident basis now on which a deal could be done. Johnson has even ruled out the idea of a time-limit on the backstop provisions – which Ireland would not like anyway – saying the whole thing has to be binned. The only obvious way forward would be a return to the original Northern Ireland only backstop, which Johnson may have hinted at in part with his comments. But the DUP would, presumably, shoot this down – and it seems at odds with Johnson’s earlier comments that the backstop must be binned in its entirety.
For now, Dublin sees no basis for discussions and nor does Brussels. If there is a no-deal Brexit, the Government here may, reluctantly, be dragged into discussing how to minimise the damage. As Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said on Monday, these fixes are “ better than nothing” , though not what Ireland wants. But for now, there is no incentive for Dublin to discuss these issues with the UK prime minister, as it would only help him in making the case for a no-deal exit.