Wednesday 21 August 2019

John Downing: 'Backing down on the backstop is no easy fix - but appeasing bully-boy Boris won't work'

New line-up: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London. Photo: Aaron Chown via REUTERS
New line-up: Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson holds his first cabinet meeting at Downing Street in London. Photo: Aaron Chown via REUTERS
John Downing

John Downing

So we are back to the backstop. Now, only supposing, if Ireland was to encourage the EU to do what Boris Johnson is determinedly demanding, and drop that backstop, would we all live happier ever after?

Things changed on Wednesday lunchtime when the incoming UK prime minister announced he was hiring Dominic Cummings as a key Brexit adviser.

He is the man who delivered a 'Leave' win in June 2016 with a series of mendacious campaign ideas and he is known to view Theresa May's draft EU-UK divorce deal as particularly weak.

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The idea of Boris Johnson doing a road to Damascus about-turn, and selling Mrs May's benighted deal, and emulating so many other leaders who did the same over the years, receded dramatically. The boy Boris is heading dangerously towards a no-deal exit. So, should Ireland and the EU avoid a nose-for-face job here? Should we not recognise that the backstop will not operate if there is a no-deal Brexit and take a more practical view?

Alas, the answer is a great big 'No'. The reality is that Brexit divisions in England - and we mean England as opposed to Britain - are so deep and emotional that there is no certainty that abandoning the backstop would secure a good outcome.

That Withdrawal Agreement incorporating the protocol we call the backstop is long and complex. It includes a 21-month post-Brexit transition period; a €42bn financial discharging of the UK's part of the cost of EU decisions it joined in taking; and arrangements to preserve the rights of EU citizens in the UK, and those of UK citizens in the EU.

The €42bn exit bill still rankles with some ardent Brexiteers. Chief among their other difficulties are the inability to do other non-EU trade deals for the duration of the 21-month transition period.

Other Brexiteer sticking points are that during this transition period the UK will be treated as if it was still a member state but will no longer have a seat at the decision-making table in Brussels.

The UK will be within the customs union and the single market with its four freedoms - the free movement of people, goods, capital and services. Britain will still be subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice. And the common fisheries policy will still apply. That is all really big stuff for Boris Johnson and his supporters.

So, what about putting a fixed time-limit to the backstop, say something like five years? Ireland has always said we do not actually want this arrangement to operate and we really want a better arrangement.

It is by definition a "backstop" and something which will operate in the absence of anything better.

The problem here is that - even if we could make a leap of faith towards assuming a better longer-term EU-UK trade arrangement - Boris Johnson has flatly ruled out a time-limit. Worse, the Democratic Unionist Party, propping up his shaky government, insists the whole idea is a threat to the unity of the United Kingdom.

A five-year backstop term is unlikely to undo that.

But more importantly, a key argument against undoing of the backstop is the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. This deal addressed the nationalists' demand to look south, towards Dublin, and the unionists' insistence on looking east, towards London.

The 1998 Belfast Agreement is open-ended allowing both sides to do what they wish. The current open Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic is key to that approach and is no mere technicality. That deal was voted by a sound majority on both sides of the Border in the first island-wide vote since 1918. We can never hold that cheaply.

For many decision makers in Dublin, the appointment of Mr Cummings as a Downing Street adviser was a very potent signal. It told us that Mr Johnson was not for turning - and that he would not shrink from the ruinous path of a no-deal exit.

That appointment was underpinned by putting in arch-Brexiteers, like Dominic Raab as foreign minister, and Priti Patel as justice minister. You might remember Ms Patel's helpful suggestion about "starving" Ireland of supplies in a difficult Brexit outcome.

Well, we shall see soon now. But the idea that Ireland or the European Union can help things by appeasing a bullying approach by Boris Johnson and his new team appears spurious at best. There is only one answer to bullies.

Irish Independent

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