European Council President Donald Tusk has rejected Boris Johnson’s pleas to scrap the Irish backstop and instead offered veiled criticism of the UK prime minister for not presenting “realistic alternatives”.
In a letter to Tusk on Monday (19 August), Johnson insisted that the backstop, which aims to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, was “simply unviable” and “cannot form part of an agreed Withdrawal Agreement”.
Johnson, who became prime minister on 24 July after winning the Conservative party leadership contest to succeed Theresa May, has promised that the UK will leave the EU with or without a deal on October 31, and his government has ramped up its planning for a ‘no deal’ scenario.
In his letter, the UK prime minister also called on EU leaders to acknowledge that the Irish backstop must be scrapped if the UK is to agree a Brexit divorce deal with the bloc.
In response, however, Tusk tweeted that the backstop was “an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found. Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support reestablishing a border. Even if they do not admit it.”
Speaking to reporters on Tuesday (20 August), a European Commission spokesperson said that while the EU executive “welcomed the UK government’s engagement and commitment to an orderly withdrawal”, the letter contained no new proposals.
Johnson’s letter “does not provide a legal operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland,” she said.
“It does not set out what any alternative arrangements could be and in fact, it recognises that there is no guarantee that such arrangements will be in place by the end of the transitional period.”
The letter marked the start of Johnson’s engagement with EU leaders; he will visit Paris and Berlin for talks with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel, respectively, on Wednesday and Thursday.
In the text, Johnson described the backstop as “anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state”, claiming that it would also be incompatible with the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That claim has been rejected by the European Commission, which described it as “misleading” in its own letter to national governments.
Instead, Johnson said the backstop should be replaced with “alternative arrangements” to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.
He also suggested the UK was ready to make “commitments” to give confidence that there would be no hard border if the new system was not ready before the end of the two-year transition period that would follow the UK’s formal exit from the EU. He did not offer any specific proposals.
Johnson’s allies believe this new willingness to compromise will allow them to portray the EU as being intransigent.
The EU has repeatedly stated that it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement finalised with Theresa May and that the status of the backstop is not up for negotiation. If the UK leaves without a deal, there will be no transition period.
The Irish backstop, under which Northern Ireland would remain in the EU’s customs union if a new EU-UK trade deal is not struck by December 2020, is one of the main reasons why the Withdrawal Agreement was convincingly rejected three times in the UK parliament, and is particularly unpopular among Conservative lawmakers.
In January, UK lawmakers backed an amendment by Conservative MP Graham Brady, supported by Theresa May’s government, which called for ‘alternative arrangements’ based on technological solutions to replace physical border checks and avoid a hard border.
However, the EU quickly rejected the proposal and considers the backstop, which was agreed by Johnson and the rest of May’s government, to be a compromise.
The UK government has set up two advisory groups to explore technological alternatives to the Irish backstop.
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, whose ten MPs give Johnson his one seat working majority in the House of Commons, issued a statement commenting that Ireland and the EU would have to “face the reality that the backstop is not the way forward”.
However, Sinn Fein’s leader in Northern Ireland, Michelle O’Neill, accused Johnson of “rank hypocrisy”, adding that it was his “reckless pursuit of a no-deal Brexit that is threatening to undermine the peace process.”