Prime Minister Boris Johnson last week unveiled his alternative to the Northern Ireland backstop; the crucial part of the agreement between his predecessor Theresa May and the EU, aimed at resolving the conundrum of creating a customs and regulatory border between the UK and the EU while having no border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, when both borders are the same. Much derided, the backstop was the main reason May’s deal was rejected three times by Parliament.
Johnson’s solution had two main elements. First, Northern Ireland would be part of an all-Ireland regulatory system for farming, food production and manufacturing, subject to approval every four years by the Northern Ireland Assembly, thus obviating the need for border checks. Second, while Northern Ireland would leave the European customs union, thus requiring customs checks on North-South trade, there would be no controls or infrastructure at or near the border.
The good news for Johnson was that those UK politicians who had voted down the May agreement, especially the 10 Northern Ireland MPs from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), welcomed his plan. The bad news was that hardly anyone else did.
With nerves shredded on all sides, the discourse needs to be brought back to a reasoned approach and dialogue. Our leaders should be role models, on whom we can rely to bring clarity to complex issues, and keep their promises.
Reaction, from Ireland in particular, was swift. The Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, offered a “drop-down menu” of the five remaining options he had identified. They were a united Ireland; the Republic re-joining the UK; the UK staying in the EU; the UK leaving the EU but remaining in the single market and the customs union; or Theresa May’s original backstop. Varadkar said he could live with all except the second, because Ireland would never re-join the UK. However, his reference to a united Ireland incensed Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, a party whose whole raison d’etre is maintaining the union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
So where does this leave us? By law, if Johnson has not reached agreement with the EU by Oct. 19, he is required to ask for an extension to the Brexit deadline. His official position is that he will obey the law; that he will not ask for an extension; and that the UK will leave the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal — all of which appear to be mutually exclusive. He could phrase the request for extension in a manner unpalatable to the EU, but that would undermine Britain’s moral and diplomatic reputation.
With nerves shredded on all sides, the discourse needs to be brought back to a reasoned approach and dialogue. Our leaders should be role models, on whom we can rely to bring clarity to complex issues, and keep their promises. There is more at stake than Brexit. In Britain, it is about the rule of law, the viability of democracy, and the country’s standing in the family of nations. In the EU, it is about proving the institution can deal with complex issues in a rational and efficient way, without inflaming matters. So far, the EU seems to be scoring higher.
Cornelia Meyer is a business consultant, macro-economist and energy expert. Twitter: @MeyerResources