Has Boris Found A Brexit Breakthrough With The Irish Backstop?
As the Conservative Party Conference came to an end, Prime Minister Boris Johnson set out the details of his ‘final’ negotiating offer to Brussels in pursuit of a ‘fair and reasonable’ Brexit compromise. If he can achieve this, he will be able to resolve the stumbling block that caused the Conservative Party’s European Research Group (ERG) and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to abandon Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement. He told a DUP fringe meeting at the conference that this will enable the UK to ‘move on’ after October 31st and ensure the public are ‘no longer taken for fools.’ He also said he hopes to agree a deal with the EU over the next few days.
The new plan will aim to avoid creating customs posts on either side of the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Boris stated that Britain wanted ‘clearance zones’ for goods as part of a package of alternative arrangements. Once the UK leaves the EU, customs checks will be inevitable, but new technology should enable them to be kept to an absolute minimum, as the Prime Minister suggests.
Despite this, Boris faces many hurdles in persuading the EU to accept this new deal. The BBC reports that the mood in Brussels is ‘not optimistic.’ But this has been the main issue throughout the entire Brexit process; Brussels has demonstrated its unwillingness to compromise. By abandoning the threat of no-deal, May had no trump card during the negotiations. This has meant she was forced to surrender on many of the red lines the EU issued from the beginning; protecting EU citizens’ rights, the divorce bill and the Irish border. This was a deliberate attempt by Brussels to force Westminster to accept any deal that they offer them. Though EU leaders have insisted from the beginning that they offered May a free trade deal, if they were serious about their argument, they would have discussed how trade would continue post-Brexit, and then aim to resolve those three issues once it was clear what the UK’s future trading relationship with the EU looked like.
Nonetheless, there is still the possibility the EU could agree a deal at the very last minute at the next European Council meeting on October 17th. Brussels is aware that a no-deal Brexit threatens them more than the UK. With Chancellor Sajid Javid and the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, assuring Tory delegates that Britain is prepared for leaving the EU without a deal, the Government can ease the damage it could cause by offering VAT and corporate tax cuts and by reaching settlements, like it has with France, that ensures the smooth flow of goods over the English Channel.
This is why it is in Ireland’s best interest to resolve the backstop. It is predicted that 2 to 2.5 per cent of their GDP could be wiped out in 2030. Their GDP could also be 1.5 per cent lower in 2021. With Italy €2 trillion in debt, and a slowdown in the German economy and US tariffs crippling their trade, the EU cannot afford anymore economic disruption. They have three choices on October 17th: accept Boris’s new deal, veto it or agree upon an extension. The Prime Minister has vowed to accept no delay to the Halloween deadline, and if he exploits the loopholes in the Benn Act that The Spectator discussed, he would have to leave with no deal.
The EU is renowned for being notoriously slow at concluding trade agreements. Even if the Council cannot agree on Boris’s deal, the Prime Minister could still persuade them that no-deal would be a short-term solution, and then they can agree upon a trade deal after October 31st. But will the 27 member states agree? The chances of avoiding an extension are slim, but if Brussels has any sense, they would accept the UK’s final offer.