Only a fortnight remains before the EU summit meeting of heads of government on October 17 and 18. The meeting will crucially consider the matter. EU and UK negotiators will resume their talks on Friday in a frantic effort to bridge the gap between Johnson’s blueprint and the expectations of the 27 nations on the other side.
Johnson’s immediate predecessor Theresa May’s had agreed to a “backstop” with the EU to resolve the issue of Northern Ireland having a land border, as well as a 1998 peace treaty known as the Good Friday Agreement with the Republic; or literally customs checks on the Irish Sea that separates the island of Ireland from mainland Britain. This was rejected by the House of Commons.
Johnson has now replaced May’s idea with one that creates a customs frontier between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland but allows free movement of goods from south to north (not the other way around), and a regulatory framework between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This enjoys the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, the main Northern Irish loyalist political formation, provided the Northern Irish Assembly is granted the right to renew the deal or otherwise every four years. This is a potential deal-breaker as far as the EU is concerned.
Brussels was guarded in its response while not dismissing Johnson’s letter. European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, though, noted some “problematic points”. Privately, the EU viewed the proposal as disrupting the Irish island economy, unsettling relations between the two territories, destabilising to Ireland, and difficult to put into practice in less than two years.
The leader of the main opposition Labour party in the Commons, Jeremy Corbyn, criticised the plan as “unrealistic and damaging”. But the PM’s gambit appears to have a slightly better chance of it being approved by MPs than May’s.
Ireland being a critical player, its half-Indian-origin Prime Minster Leo Eric Varadkar caustically reacted: “I am reassured by what Prime Minister Johnson said today: That he is not proposing that there should be any new physical infrastructure on the island of Ireland linked to customs or customs checks. But that is actually in contradiction to the papers presented by the UK government yesterday.”
Moreover, any British deal with the European Commission or the EU council of leaders would need to be approved by the European Parliament. Guy Verhofstadt, the former Belgian PM and now a member of the European Parliament, who coordinates the House’s Brexit
steering group, asserted it was “nearly impossible” to visualise an agreement on the basis of Johnson’s proposal.