If the British alternatives to backstop are all that good, why can they not live with the backstop until the alternatives are agreed?
Boris Johnson recently said 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 31 October.
He seems to believe that he can, between now and the end of October, persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.
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 only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.
If Boris Johnson was as confident, as 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 cooperation based on compatible regulations. The European Commission recently published a document outlining all the areas of life, from health care to transport, where acceptance of common EU standards enables the private and public sectors to cooperate on a cross border basis. Brexit, without a backstop, would tear all this up.
A 216 page document was published recently by Prosperity UK, setting out a possible alternative structure that might replace the backstop. They envisage that their 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 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem and, in a sense, Boris Johnson’s recent commitment to leave, come what may, on 31 October means that Prosperity UK’s proposal could only be pursued if Jeremy Hunt becomes Prime Minister.
Prosperity UK proposes to have border related controls — not at the border itself, but on farms and in factories and warehouses instead.
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 Northern Ireland, 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 Ireland escaped from when it 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 cooperation, and East/West cooperation, 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 Democratic Unionist Party and/or Sinn Fein 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 EU means.
It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.
John Bruton is the former Prime Minister of the Republic of Ireland (1994-97) and the former European Union Ambassador to the United States (2004-09). He has held several important offices in Irish government, including Minister for Finance, Minister for Industry & Energy, and Minister for Trade, Commerce & Tourism.