Almost a month after becoming British prime minister, Boris Johnson got around this week to writing a letter outlining his demand for changes to the EU-UK withdrawal agreement. The new administration in London may have a negotiating strategy and some fresh ideas on how to avoid a hard border in Ireland but, if so, the open letter does a good job of concealing them.
The four-page document restates Johnson’s opposition to the backstop and sets out three specific reasons for that opposition. First, Johnson argues, the backstop is “anti-democratic” because it could keep the North in alignment with EU regulations without having a say over them. Second, he claims, it subverts a key aim of the Leave campaign – regulatory divergence from the EU. And third, it undermines the Belfast Agreement. None of these claims stand up to serious scrutiny.
A clear majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. It is an insult to them to claim any attempt to soften the blow of a hard Brexit is somehow anti-democratic. Total regulatory divergence from the EU – a hard Brexit – may have been the aim of the ultras behind the Leave campaign, but there is no empirical basis for claiming this is what British voters chose when they ticked the box marked 'Leave' – not least given that many high-profile Leave campaigners actually advocated staying in the customs union. The claim that the backstop somehow thwarts the Belfast Agreement is the sort of argument that even a desperate student debater would struggle to deliver with a straight face; after all, the backstop is expressly designed to prevent something – a hard border – that would self-evidently undermine the spirit if not also the letter of that accord.
Most worryingly, Johnson puts forward not a single idea for replacing the backstop. Instead he falls back on empty slogans first heard three years ago, putting his faith in unspecified “alternative arrangements”. The truth is that, if Johnson had any confidence that there was a viable new way of avoiding a hard border while the entire UK left the customs union, he would not oppose the backstop because it would be irrelevant.
The EU is facing a negotiating partner who is threatening to set himself on fire unless he gets what he wants. Unfortunately, Ireland is locked in an enclosed space with this irrational actor. That means the next two months could be extremely tense. A negotiated deal is in everyone’s interest. The Government must therefore maintain a constructive tone and do everything it can to find an accommodation that Johnson could sell to his party while retaining the core elements of the backstop – which is (and it needs repeating) a reasonable, practical attempt to solve a problem London created with its mutually incompatible red lines. But the space for accommodation is narrow, and the timeline is excruciatingly tight.