Tuesday 17 September 2019

Donald Tusk: 'Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives support re-establishing a border'

  • EU says Boris Johnson has failed to put forward a single alternative to backstop
  • Tusk doubles down on his support for the controversial mechanism aimed at keeping Irish border open after Brexit
  • Boris Johnson described the backstop as 'anti-democratic'
European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar
(AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
European Council President Donald Tusk, left, and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar (AP Photo/Olivier Matthys)
Kevin Doyle

Kevin Doyle

THE EU is fighting back against Boris Johnson’s attempts to denigrate the backstop, saying he has failed to put forward a single alternative.

EU Council President Donald Tusk has today doubled down on his support for the controversial mechanism aimed at keeping the Irish border open after Brexit.

In a blunt reply to the UK Prime Minister’s call for it to be scrapped, Mr Tusk said it must remain part of the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement.

"The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found," he said.

"Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support re-establishing a border. Even if they do not admit it."

The tough talking comes after Mr Johnson wrote a letter demanding that the backstop be removed from the Brexit deal and replaced with a pledge.

In his opening bid to the EU ahead of meetings with French President Emmanuel Macron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel this week, Mr Johnson wrote a four-page letter to European Council President Donald Tusk setting out his demands.

"I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place (alternative) arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship," he wrote. "Time is very short."

He described the backstop as "anti-democratic" and claimed it risks weakening the "delicate balance" of the Good Friday Agreement.

The letters were published after the Prime Minister spent almost an hour on the phone with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar debating the issue.

During a 30 minute phonecall with UK Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay today, Tánaiste Simon Coveney "conveyed disappointment" at the content of the letter.

While the conversation was described as "cordial", Mr Coveney "expressed concern at the lack of alternatives to the backstop".

A spokesperson said: "The Tánaiste reiterated Ireland’s desire to have an orderly Brexit and conveyed disappointment at the UK government’s letter to the European Council while stressing the importance of the commitments made by the UK in December 2017.

"The Tánaiste said that while Ireland was always open for dialogue, the negotiation was between the UK and EU."

Mr Coveney also "made it clear" the backstop was designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and the all island economy and mitigate against the damaging impact of brexit.

"Despite differences, the call was friendly and the Tanaiste and the Secretary of State committed to stay in touch," the spokesperson added.

This evening the Tánaiste will be in Northern Ireland to meet the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith.

EU leaders were rushing to Ireland’s defence today, insisting that they will not back down unless the UK finds another way of avoiding a hard broder.

European commission spokeswoman Natasha Bertaud said: "Our position on the backstop is well known. I mean, it's something that we repeated many times in this press room.

"It's Brexit that creates unique difficulties for the island of Ireland and both sides began these negotiations with a commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

"And the backstop is the only means identified so far by both parties to honour this commitment.""

Finland's Prime Minister Antti Rinne told Mr Johnson that the European Union would not renegotiate the Brexit deal. Finland holds the EU's rotating presidency.

"PM Rinne reiterated that the Withdrawal Agreement will be not reopened," his spokesman said.

A press officer for the EU Commission said the letter did not set out what any alternative arrangements could be.

"In fact, it recognises that there is no guarantee that such arrangements will be in place by the end of the transition period. As stated on many occasions, we stand ready to work constructively within our mandate," he said.

The representative added that Mr Johnson said the letter "doesn’t provide a legal, operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on island of Ireland".

Tánaiste Simon Coveney said the EU position has been "clear and consistent".

Meanwhile, Mr Johnson's political allies in the DUP today defended his letter to Mr Tusk. The DUP identified Mr Johnson's claim that the North would be "gradually detached from the UK economy" if it agrees to the backstop as the main problem with it.

"We recognise that there are those who are concerned about the impact on North-South relations and trade and who believe the backstop is the way to deal with these issues.

"However there can be no disguising the fact the backstop would place barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom," a spokesman said. 

The party claimed that unionism in the North does not support the backstop.

"None of the main unionist parties and groupings support the backstop. If Europe and the Republic of Ireland are serious about ensuring and recognising that progress in Northern Ireland is founded on support from both major traditions then it will have to face the reality that the backstop is not the way forward."

The party said the backstop "has at its very heart an anti-democratic foundation where neither political representatives in London nor Belfast could change, or influence, rules made in Brussels to which Northern Ireland would be subjected".

The DUP spokesman added: "Those on all sides who genuinely want to see a deal will recognise that the backstop previously devised does not provide the basis for agreement."

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