Britain's Boris Johnson Appeals To EU To Drop 'Irish Backstop' Demand

Aug 20, 2019
Originally published on August 20, 2019 7:24 am

Updated at 9:25 a.m. ET

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has appealed to the European Union to scrap a deal forged by his predecessor that's aimed at preventing the reestablishment of a hard border between Britain's Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, an EU member state, as a precondition for any Brexit deal.

In a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk, Johnson asks for the removal of a "backstop" agreement negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May, who stepped down last month.

Tusk quickly dismissed the idea, saying via Twitter, "The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found."

And in a pointed reference to Johnson himself, Tusk suggested that the new prime minister made his request about the backstop because he's in favor of cutting off the free flow of trade and goods across the border.

"Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support reestablishing a border," Tusk said. "Even if they do not admit it."

Tusks' response is "a reaction that we share," European Commission spokesperson Natasha Bertaud said at a midday news conference.

Shortly afterward, Johnson issued a tweet of his own, aiming at critics of his Brexit plans.

"The referendum result must be respected," Johnson said, reiterating a position he has long embraced. "We will leave the EU on 31st October."

The backstop is part of a draft divorce deal with the EU that has already been rejected three times by Parliament, but Brussels has insisted that the provision be part of any new deal.

Under the plan, Britain would enter a transition period once Brexit occurs, which is currently set for Oct. 31. After that date — and potentially until the end of 2022 — Britain would remain in the EU's single market and customs union if no deal for an open Irish border can be forged.

With the backstop, Northern Ireland would continue to operate under the EU's rules — meaning that goods arriving there from elsewhere in the U.K. would have to be checked to see if they meet European standards. Without the backstop, there would be a "hard border" between the two parts of Ireland, with Northern Ireland operating under the U.K.'s rules and the Republic of Ireland retaining separate EU customs and trading rules. That could seriously hamper a thriving trade between the two. It could also disrupt the island's ongoing peace process.

In Britain, the backstop is anathema to hard-line Brexiteers. And if it remains as a precondition for a deal with the EU, the likelihood of such a withdrawal agreement being approved by the deadline is slim, at best.

Johnson and his allies insist that the border issues can be sorted out without the backstop. In the letter, he calls for "flexible and creative solutions" and "alternative arrangements" that rely on technology to overcome the border obstacles.

Johnson called the backstop "anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the U.K. as a state" but also pledged to work in good faith toward a deal absent the backstop.

"You have my personal commitment that this government will work with energy and determination to achieve an agreement. That is our highest priority," Johnson wrote.

Discussing Johnson's request, Bertaud said, "the letter does not provide a legal operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland, it does not set out what any alternative arrangements could be. And in fact it recognizes that there is no guarantee that such arrangements will be in place by the end of the transitional period."

The prime minister's letter came a day after details of a U.K. government study were published by The Sunday Times that paints a disturbing picture of the consequences of a no-deal Brexit.

The study warns of fuel, food and medicine shortages, and a "three-month meltdown at [British] ports," the newspaper reports.

Code-named Operation Yellowhammer, the report was reportedly compiled by the Cabinet Office this month.

However, Michael Gove, the minister tasked with planning for a no-deal Brexit, insists that the information in the report is old. He also says that planning for a crash exit from the EU has been stepped up in the weeks since Johnson became prime minister.

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