Richard North, 20/08/2019  
 


Yesterday, the man occupying the post of prime minister sent a letter to the president of the European Council, with copies to each of the 27 heads of states and governments, plus a further copy to the president of the European Commission.

The content was nothing new – simply Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson reiterating the points previously made. He condemns the backstop as "anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state" and then proposes that it should be replaced with a commitment to put in place alternative arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship.

He also deigns to "recognise" that there will need to be "a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period". And, out of the goodness of his heart, he tells Donald Tusk that "we" (presumably, the UK government) "are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitment might help", consistent with the principles set out in his letter.

So transparent is this ploy that, within hours, the Guardian was writing that the initiative "appears intended to portray Johnson as willing to negotiate with Brussels, even though he is making a demand for the abolition of the backstop that they have repeatedly rebuffed".

By last night "Brussels sources" were once again ruling out any renegotiation of the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop. "There was a two and a half year negotiating process in which the EU compromised, including on the question of the backstop", someone described as "a well-informed source" was telling the Guardian.
The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and the backstop is not open for change. A legally operable backstop to avoid a hard border remains central to the withdrawal agreement for the EU27.
And, as the momentum built up, others joined the fray, stating that the letter was a "clear attempt" to kill off any prospect of renegotiating the Brexit deal, which leaves no "room for compromise".

Another of those wondrously anonymous EU diplomats said Johnson had failed to put forward any "realistic alternatives", adding that "hope and imagination" would not prevent a hard border. By calling for the backstop to be abolished in its entirety, Johnson was effectively ruling out any prospect of the EU offering any concessions.

Earlier in the day, however, Johnson had been insisting that he was "confident" the EU would buckle and give into his Brexit demands, agreeing to renegotiate the terms of the Withdrawal Agreement.

Said Johnson, it was "fine" that Brussels was currently opposed to changing the Withdrawal Agreement as he outlined his belief that the EU will drop its "reluctance" to shift its stance when it comes to the crunch.

And with that, nothing has changed since the very start, when it has been an article of faith amongst the hard core leavers that the EU will give in at the 59th minute of the eleventh hour, as long as we threaten a no-deal and stand firm, intimating that we are fully prepared to deal with the consequences.

That, of course, is the other half of the crass stupidity emanating from Number 10 with Johnson burbling about preparations for a no-deal, saying: "I'm not pretending that there won't be bumps on the road […] but if everybody puts their minds to it, I have absolutely no doubt that we can get ready" – even though the leader of the CBI said it was impossible for companies to be fully prepared for the disruption that would happen if the UK crashed out of the EU without a deal.

The essence of his stupidity, though, is expressed in Johnson's letter, where he re-affirms that the UK is "unconditionally committed to the spirit and letter" of our obligations under the Good Friday Agreement, whether there is a deal with the EU or not.

One assumes that this necessarily means the maintenance of a "soft" border. Although we don't see Johnson make specific reference to this, he does say that his government "will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland", stating that "we would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect", hoping that "the EU would do likewise".

Unfortunately, what he then says has the effect of making this impossible, by declaring:
Although we will remain committed to world-class environment, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.
The point he then acknowledges is that the "backstop is inconsistent with this ambition", misinterpreting its requirement in asserting that it required "continued membership of the customs union" and the application of "many single market rules in Northern Ireland".

A careful reading of the protocol, however, will not reveal any specific requirement from Northern Ireland to stay in the EU's customs union. Rather, it requires "full alignment with those rules of the Union's … customs union", which is actually a different thing.

By shadowing the EU's schedules of tariffs agreed with the WTO – which we already intend to do – and by committing (by way of a political declaration) to conforming with the EU's common external tariff, we would be able to maintain "full alignment" with the rules of the customs union, without formal membership of the customs union.

Nevertheless, Johnson's letter declares that we cannot "continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to 'full alignment' with wide areas of the single market and the customs union. That, says Johnson, "cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland".

Yet again, reference to the offending paragraph of the Joint Report shows the commitment, in the absence of agreed solutions, "to maintain full alignment with those rules of the Internal Market and the Customs Union" – which is not the same as membership.

But at the heart of the problem here is Johnson wanting to reserve the right for UK standards to "diverge from those of the EU". It is that, in his view, which makes the Withdrawal Agreement, and the embedded Protocol untenable, notwithstanding that the ability to secure "frictionless" trade demands full regulatory alignment.

Undoubtedly, in making reference to "alternative arrangements", Johnson has in mind "Snake Oil" Singham's ideas on mutual recognition – the adoption of which is the only way that frictionless trade across the border could be maintained without regulatory alignment.

If that is what he has in mind, then his initiative is doomed, illustrated by an air of unreality as Johnson blathers, "Now of course our friends and partners on the other side of the Channel are showing a little bit of reluctance at the moment to change their position".

There is simply no prospect of the EU moving away from an absolute requirement for regulatory alignment, not least because any deviation from that principle would prejudice the integrity of the Single Market. Concessions would create precedents, and require similar treatment to be afforded to all the EU's other trading partners.

The net effect of Johnson's letter, therefore, is to set in stone a determination to force the EU into setting up a hard border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

There can be no other outcome and it is thoroughly disingenuous for him to "hope" that the EU will be able to avoid "infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border". There is absolutely no way the EU can allow an unguarded back door into the Single Market.

It is, therefore, completely unsurprising that Johnson should have spent almost an hour on a phone call to the Irish premier, Leo Varadkar, only for the conversation to end in stalemate. A joint statement was released, acknowledging no progress over the issue of the backstop.

The prime minister in office has agreed to go to Dublin for talks with Varadkar in early September but, before that – this week - he is to see Merkel (in Berlin for dinner on Wednesday), before moving to have lunch with Macron in Paris on Thursday, ending up at the close of the week with a meeting of world leaders at the G7 summit.

Predictably, Downing Street sources are saying that they are not expecting any end to the deadlock this week, and nor should they. There will be no end to it. Johnson has just written the suicide note for the UK, ensuring that no-deal is our only destination on 31 October.






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