Barriers inch higher in UK’s bid to reach Brexit deal with EU
London Letter: Johnson says outrage over Commons episode could add to difficulty
British prime minister Boris Johnson: “We need, I need, to reach out across the House of Commons to get people.” Photograph: Chris J Ratcliffe/Getty Images
Boris Johnson is showing no remorse over the language and tone he used in the House of Commons on Wednesday night, when opposition MPs warned he could be fuelling hatred and violence. He said on Thursday that he would continue to use the words “surrender Bill” to describe a law that requires him to delay Brexit by three months if he has not secured a withdrawal deal by October 19th.
But he acknowledged that the outrage caused by his performance at the dispatch box could make it more difficult to persuade Labour MPs to break ranks by supporting any deal he brings back from Brussels.
“I think that is a reasonable anxiety, and we need, I need, to reach out across the House of Commons to get people,” he told the BBC.
Sources close to Johnson say he remains determined to leave the European Union with a deal on October 31st and European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker left their lunch in Luxembourg last week convinced that the British prime minister is serious about reaching an agreement.
Johnson’s two meetings with Leo Varadkar since becoming prime minister have been less awkward than Theresa May’s and both leaders share an interest in securing an agreement.
Britain and the EU have just over two weeks to secure a deal in time to present it to the European Council in Brussels on October 17th. And they are nowhere near an agreement.
Both sides agree that the key to a deal is replacing the all-UK backstop agreed by May with a Northern Ireland-only solution. The British side say they have moved on the issue of regulation by agreeing to an all-island zone for agri-food. They say the EU have moved on what the British call “consent” – a role for the Stormont institutions in the governance of the backstop. Both sides agree that the most difficult issue is around customs.
The EU side are more pessimistic than the British and they say there is no chance of finding a legally operative replacement for the backstop if the talks continue on their current path. Britain has presented four “non-papers” over the past two weeks in what negotiators describe as “conversations” rather than negotiations.
Two of the documents are about the proposed sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) zone, one is about manufactured goods and another is about customs. The British themselves acknowledge that their proposals are works in progress. And the Europeans point out that the British offer on regulation is strictly limited and that even in the area of agri-foods, London will not agree to alignment between Northern Ireland and the EU for all products.
The EU side are also cautious about the prospects for a breakthrough on a role for Stormont, insisting that there can be no question of a veto on EU regulations. But they acknowledge that there is scope for beefing up the consultative role offered in the current withdrawal agreement and for using the Belfast Agreement’s North-South institutional framework to give Northern Ireland a voice.
The two sides are deadlocked on customs because the British insist that Northern Ireland cannot be in the EU customs union while the Europeans argue that, without customs declarations and checks, they have no way of knowing what is coming into Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The Johnson government says the EU must accept that Brexit will cause some disruption to the all-island economy and that it is impossible to fully protect the single market while keeping the Border open.
British negotiators have been surprised by how much the EU side are focused on the backstop’s role in protecting the single market and Ireland’s place in it rather than simply keeping the Border open. The Europeans note that almost everyone in the British negotiating team is new and that Johnson’s government is making the same mistakes as May’s, notably by shuttling around EU capitals to badmouth Michel Barnier as well as the Irish.
Even if the two sides reach a deal on the backstop, the agreement could fall apart over Britain’s demand for changes to the political declaration. Johnson wants to tear up his predecessor’s promise to maintain a level playing field with the EU after Brexit by maintaining current environmental and social standards, following EU state-aid rules and offering transparency on taxation.
Some EU member states are unwilling to agree to any deal that would facilitate Britain’s emergence as a large regulatory rival on Europe’s doorstep. They have also been puzzled by Britain’s request to dilute its commitment to future defence and security co-operation, a shift that is almost certainly designed to reassure Conservative Eurosceptics.
To get any deal through Westminster, Johnson will need the support of the DUP, almost all the Conservatives he purged this month, all but a handful of his remaining MPs – and up to 20 of the Labour MPs he alienated this week.