Monday 16 September 2019

Johnson letter to EU leaders on backstop is dismissed as a 'unicorn'

Charm offensive: Boris Johnson talks to patient Scarlett Gibbons (5) during a visit to the Royal Cornwall Hospital ahead of his call with Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Charm offensive: Boris Johnson talks to patient Scarlett Gibbons (5) during a visit to the Royal Cornwall Hospital ahead of his call with Leo Varadkar. Photo: PA
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

Irish government sources have dismissed Boris Johnson's letter to the EU outlining an alternative to the backstop as a "carefully constructed unicorn".

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and the British Prime Minister spoke for almost an hour by phone last night, but failed to make any progress on Brexit.

Separately Mr Johnson wrote to European Council President Donald Tusk suggesting that the backstop could be replaced with an alternative customs arrangement within a two-year transitional period after Brexit.

In the letter, the UK prime minister told the EU that the Irish backstop risks weakening the "delicate balance" of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and reiterated calls for it to be scrapped.

Mr Johnson offered to give a legally binding commitment not to introduce infrastructure, checks or controls on the Border and said he hoped the EU would do likewise.

The Irish government last night rejected the assertion that the backstop risks weakened the agreement.

"The very purpose of the backstop is to maintain the status quo, by ensuring free movement and no hard Border on the island of Ireland; which is central to the GFA. The reality is Brexit itself is a threat to the GFA," a Government source said. "Unfortunately this letter does not set out what the so called 'alternative arrangements' could or would be. Unless and until there are viable alternatives, the need for the backstop insurance policy is clear."

A second Irish government source said Mr Johnson's letter to Mr Tusk was "totally disingenuous" and described it as a "carefully constructed unicorn, but still a unicorn".

On Monday night Brussels sources also ruled out any renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop.

"The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and the backstop is not open for change," a source told the Guardian.

Mr Johnson also told the Taoiseach during his lengthy conversation that the backstop will have to be removed from the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement which he insisted would not get through the House of Commons in its current form. He is due to meet Mr Varadkar in Dublin in early September.

Mr Varadkar reiterated the EU position that the Brexit deal cannot be reopened and re-emphasised the importance of a legally operable backstop.

Both leaders condemned yesterday morning's bomb explosion near the Border.

Mr Johnson also told the Taoiseach that the UK decision to end free movement from the EU after Brexit would not affect the common travel area, which pre-dates the EU and allows free movement for Irish and UK citizens between the two countries.

A Government source said the tone of the call was "business-like, but friendly".

The source said Mr Varadkar had raised the common travel area issue in the context of earlier comments by UK Home Secretary Priti Patel, who announced plans to end freedom of movement for EU citizens. While agreeing to meet in early September, there was little progress in breaking the Brexit impasse.

Mr Johnson also telephoned US President Donald Trump yesterday and they discussed economic and trading issues.

Irish Independent

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