Boris Johnson’s stance on customs may doom Brexit talks before they begin
EU will see no purpose in entering week of negotiations without prospect of success
Boris Johnson has told the BBC that his formal Brexit proposals later this week will not feature customs clearance sites a few miles from either side of the Border, as outlined in a leaked “non-paper”.
But the prime minister did confirm on Tuesday that Britain envisages two separate customs regimes on the island of Ireland and that this will require checks and controls somewhere.
“That’s just the reality. Because what we’re coming up to now is, as it were, the critical moment of choice for us as friends and partners about how we proceed,” he said.
“Because in the end a sovereign, united country must have a single customs territory and when the UK withdraws from the EU that must be the state of affairs that we have. But there are plenty of ways that we can facilitate North-South trade, plenty of ways that we can address the problem.”
Johnson and his allies believe that Brexit makes some disruption of the all-Ireland economy inevitable and that any alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop should focus on reducing cross-border friction rather than eliminating it.
Trade expert Shanker Singham, who is close to the Johnson government, told a fringe meeting at the Conservative party conference in Manchester this week that the EU would have to give up its demand that Britain adheres to its December 2017 promise of “no related checks or controls” anywhere on the island of Ireland.
“This has to be moved from. The only way to have no checks and controls on the island of Ireland is for Northern Ireland to remain in the single market and the customs union, which is not acceptable here and is therefore a pathway to no deal, ever,” he said.
No way of knowing
The EU is not willing to move from its position that, without customs declarations and checks between Britain and Northern Ireland, it will have no way of knowing what is coming into the North and possibly across the Border into the single market.
Britain’s proposals so far for regulatory alignment on some agri-food products are viewed in Brussels as woefully inadequate. And the two sides have yet to agree on a mechanism to give the Stormont institutions a role in the governance of any mechanism that would replace the backstop.
Johnson’s uncompromising positions on customs could doom the negotiations before they begin. Although the EU will not wish to take the blame for failure to reach agreement, it will see no purpose in entering a week-long negotiating “tunnel” if there is no realistic prospect of success.
The prime minister’s official position is that Britain will leave the EU on October 31st, deal or no deal. But among the Conservatives in Manchester there is little expectation of a no-deal Brexit at the end of this month.
The architects of the Benn act, which obliges Johnson to seek a three-month delay to Brexit if he fails to secure a deal by October 19th, believe it is watertight. Johnson’s allies suggest he will initially seek a legal escape route from the obligation, which is likely to be thwarted by the courts.
After that, he would be faced with the choice of writing a letter to Donald Tusk seeking the extension, or resigning and allowing an alternative, caretaker government – led by Jeremy Corbyn or someone else – to request the delay.
Either way, Johnson would go into a general election as the leader who did his utmost to “get Brexit done”, as his party conference slogan puts it, but was blocked by an Establishment elite made up of MPs and judges.