Saturday 21 September 2019

John Bruton: 'Why there is no longer any realistic prospect of the EU taking Britain on trust over Brexit'

Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters

John Bruton

Boris Johnson said yesterday that there is an "abundance" of technical alternatives to the Irish backstop. He added that "do or die" he would take the UK out of the EU by October 31.

He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that it will not insist on keeping the backstop.

This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.

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First, he has not put forward any detailed alternative to the backstop.

Secondly, there is no way anything meaningful can be negotiated between the time Mr Johnson would become prime minister and the end of October. After its experience with the failure of the UK side to ratify proposals it had previously agreed, there is no disposition on the EU side to take things "on trust" from the UK. There is nothing necessarily personal about this. It is just common prudence.

All sides are agreed that the backstop is a fall-back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.

If Boris Johnson was as confident as he appears to be that abundant alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed.

The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/south co-operation based on compatible regulations.

The European Commission recently published a document outlining all the areas of life, from healthcare to transport, where acceptance of common EU standards enables the private and public sectors to co-operate on a cross-border basis. Brexit, without a backstop, would tear all this up.

Yesterday a 216-page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure that might replace the backstop. It envisages that its proposal would be added as a protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement. This would require EU consent.

Its authors also admitted that more work was needed on their proposal. It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before October 31. So it does not solve the immediate problem and, in a sense, Boris Johnson's recent commitment to leave, come what may, on October 31 means that Prosperity UK's proposal could only be pursued if Jeremy Hunt becomes prime minister.

Prosperity UK proposes to have border-related controls, though not at the Border itself.... but to have them instead on farms and in factories and warehouses.

But avoiding physical infrastructure on the Border is only part of the Brexit problem.

The other problem is the extra costs, delays and bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the Border within Ireland. These would actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be even more likely than if the controls were on the Border itself. And smuggling can be used to finance subversive activities, as we know.

To avoid checks on the Border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI, Prosperity UK proposes that, for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead.

This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.

That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the "supremacy" of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point. But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post-Brexit world.

One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/south co-operation, and east/west co-operation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen, by a refusal by the DUP and/or Sinn Féin to work together, is not acceptable.

But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade-offs it is prepared to make to negotiate such a relationship.

It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means.

It wants the freedom, but not to accept the costs.

Irish Independent

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