Sunday 22 September 2019

Boris Johnson: Abolish backstop or face disorderly exit

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons yesterday. Picture: PA
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson speaking in the House of Commons yesterday. Picture: PA

Kevin Doyle and Hugh O'Connell

Britain's new Prime Minister Boris Johnson has told EU chiefs the only option now left for avoiding a disorderly Brexit is to abolish the backstop.

The UK and EU are at total loggerheads as both refuse to budge on their entrenched positions.

During a phone call, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker told Mr Johnson that the existing Withdrawal Agreement was the "best and only agreement possible".

But the prime minister said there was no hope of the deal being passed by the UK parliament unless the Northern Ireland backstop was completely scrapped.

Mr Johnson's first 24 hours in office have severely heightened fears of a no-deal Brexit.

Addressing the House of Commons, Mr Johnson said his government was "turbocharging" preparations for a crash out on October 31.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said last night that a majority of people in Northern Ireland supported the backstop, which essentially aligns UK and EU regulations for goods and animals.

He said reverting to a Northern Ireland-only backstop was "always on the table".

"I know there are some people in Britain who feel that the backstop was some sort of mechanism to try to tie Britain into the customs union and the single market.

"That was never the case and if that is the concern that can be provided for in the agreement and also the declaration," Mr Varadkar said.

He reiterated that if there is a no deal, then "nobody can blame Ireland or the European Union".

However, the Irish Government is now likely to come under renewed pressure from EU capitals to outline how it plans to protect the single market.

To date, Mr Varadkar has admitted only that some checks will be needed on animals and food products travelling from the North into the Republic. He has refused to outline where the inspections will take place.

Talks on the issue are said to be ongoing with the European Commission.

Mr Johnson said the UK would help ensure there was no requirement for a Border on the island of Ireland.

He ruled out any tinkering with the backstop but again failed to provide an alternative.

"A time limit is not enough, if an agreement is to be reached it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop," he said.

In Brussels, the EU's chief negotiator Michel Barnier said Mr Johnson's demands were "unacceptable" and accused him of using "combative" language to put pressure on the remaining EU27.

A terse response to the prime minister's stance was issued to member states and widely circulated in Brussels media.

"PM Johnson has stated that if an agreement is to be reached it goes by way of eliminating the backstop. This is, of course, unacceptable and not within the mandate of the European Council," Mr Barnier wrote.

The negotiator said Brussels would analyse any solutions compatible with the existing Withdrawal Agreement and reaffirmed a commitment to rework the political declaration.

"But as suggested by his rather combative speech, we have to be ready for a situation where he gives priority to the planning for no deal, partly to heap pressure on the unity of the EU27," he wrote.

"I note also the many strong reactions to the speech in the House of Commons. In this context we must follow carefully the further political and economic reactions and developments in the UK following the speech."

The message came shortly before Mr Johnson was due to talk to Mr Juncker in a phone call.

A European Commission spokesman said Mr Juncker "listened" to the prime minister before reiterating the EU's long-standing position.

The two politicians exchanged mobile phone numbers and agreed to remain in touch "should the United Kingdom wish to hold talks and clarify its position in more detail".

Mr Varadkar is expected to hold a similar phone call with Mr Johnson in the coming days but no date has been set for a meeting.

The Taoiseach has met Mr Johnson on only one previous occasion and therefore it would be "totally wrong for me to try to pass judgment on somebody I haven't met properly yet".

Speaking after a Cabinet meeting in Donegal, he said there had been no discussions with the UK about what would happen in a no-deal scenario.

"Our prosperous economy, our jobs here in Ireland are dependent on us staying in the customs union and the single market, we will protect it," he said.

That would involve imposing tariffs on imports from the UK.

Irish Independent

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