Dominic Raab: Northern Ireland problem needs flexible approach
UK’s Brexit minister says fresh referendum on outcome of negotiations not on cards
Dominic Raab: “We’ve made the compromises and we showed the ambition and we do need to see that matched on the EU side.” Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg
A former solicitor, Dominic Raab talks about the Brexit negotiations with lawyerly caution, approaching the issue of the Border backstop with particular delicacy. The Brexit secretary is careful to avoid offering hostages to fortune either by signalling possible concessions or by ruling out any movement from Britain’s current negotiating position.
“Our position remains that we wouldn’t see a customs border down the Irish Sea and that the economic and the constitutional integrity of the United Kingdom needs to be respected. I’m not confident. Put it this way, if you look at the EU’s first batch of proposals, they cut across all of those interests and they weren’t in our view workable,” he said.
“What I’m not going to do is to say that I would refuse to entertain any further proposals that the EU comes up with but they’ve got to be respecting the equities that we’ve set out.”
The backstop has moved to the centre of the negotiations in Brussels and of the debate about Brexit in Britain. Boris Johnson used his Daily Telegraph column on Monday to warn that the issue of the Border threatened either to carve up the UK or to bind Britain to the EU as a “vassal state” in perpetuity.
Theresa May claims her Chequers proposal, which would keep Britain in the European single market for goods and agricultural products and introduce a complex system to make customs clearance frictionless, would keep the Border open. The EU insists that the issue must be dealt with in a protocol to the withdrawal agreement, which also sets out the terms of a transition period up to the end of 2020.
“What we really need to do is think about this in the context of the future relationship. So the economic partnership and the facilitated customs arrangement is in our view the only so far credible, enduring, long-term way of resolving this,” Raab said.
EU and Irish officials are suspicious about Britain’s repeated attempts to push the Border issue out of the withdrawal agreement and into the political declaration about Britain’s future relationship with the EU. That declaration will form the basis of negotiations towards an agreement on the future economic and trade relationship, which will take place after Britain leaves the EU next March.
Irish officials fear that if the backstop is not part of the withdrawal agreement, Britain could fail to deliver on it after Brexit. Other EU member states are alert to the risk that leaving the Border issue unresolved would allow Britain to use it as leverage in future trade negotiations.
“I don’t think that the challenge in relation to Northern Ireland is intrinsically insurmountable but it will require flexibility,” Raab said.
British officials have played down expectations ahead of this week’s informal EU leaders’ meeting in Salzburg, when May will present the case for her Chequers proposal but will not negotiate directly with the other leaders. But Raab believes it is the moment when the EU must show flexibility in response to the painful compromises the prime minister made at Chequers.
“We’ve made the compromises and we showed the ambition and we do need to see that matched on the EU side. So Salzburg is an informal EU summit but it will be an important milestone, a stepping stone if you like, to show that we’ve actually got the contours of agreement on principles to continue the final weeks of these negotiations and hammer out the details,” he said.
No second referendum
Raab is dismissive of speculation about a second referendum on Brexit, ruling out putting the final deal to the people if it cannot win majority support in parliament. He says the only choice MPs will make if the prime minister returns with a deal is between her deal or no deal at all, with no prospect of triggering a referendum.
“Even if that’s what people want to do, it’s difficult to see how it could be done in time, and we wouldn’t facilitate it. And I think actually in reality if we got to the situation where we had a deal and it was voted down ... you would risk tripping up into the no-deal scenario because there would be such a tight time frame. So I hear it talked about in the media a little bit. I don’t really hear people seriously talking about a second referendum amongst the politicians on all sides and of all views that I talk to,” he said.