Ireland hits back at Boris Johnson’s Brexit plan as PM is squeezed by the DUP

Ireland has talked down Boris Johnson’s proposed Brexit fix as the Prime Minister faced further opposition from his DUP allies.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar warned Mr Johnson he may follow Theresa May in failing to push a Brexit deal through Parliament. And his deputy Simon Coveney said Northern Ireland cannot have a veto over the “backstop” as demanded by the DUP.

The Prime Minister is drawing up a plan to rewrite the backstop so that Northern Ireland keeps a host of EU regulations – preventing a hard border with the Republic of Ireland – while Great Britain diverges.

But the DUP responded furiously to claims that the party, whose 10 votes could be crucial if a Brexit deal comes back to the Commons, is willing to soften its red lines and accept a de-facto border in the Irish Sea.

Veto warning

Leader Arlene Foster said the reports were nonsense, adding: “UK must leave as one nation. We are keen to see a sensible deal but not one that divides the internal market of the UK. We will not support any arrangements that create a barrier to east-west trade.”

Party bosses have told allies they are willing to accept a solution where Northern Ireland accepts EU rules in some sectors such as agriculture but does not copy Brussels regulations wholesale, i understands. But the DUP would probably require a veto on new regulations to ensure it is not forced to change its laws without any control over the process.

Arlene Foster insists the DUP won’t backslide (Photo: Getty)

Mr Coveney suggested this would be impossible, saying: “There is certainly a concern at an EU level that a devolved institution could have a veto on how the single market operates. So it’s not as straightforward as some people are suggesting.

He added: “We don’t have detail of proposals that have come forward from the British Government. I mean, there essentially aren’t detailed proposals in writing, which has been a source of real frustration.”

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Mr Varadkar, who met Mr Johnson for the first time this week, also piled on the pressure – saying the Prime Minister could struggle to get a deal through Parliament even if he does pull off a last-minute victory in talks with the EU.

He told Virgin Media News: “I certainly believe he would prefer to leave with a deal than without a deal, but the difficulty is: I’m not sure that he will be able to make the compromises that are necessary to secure a deal.

“We saw how difficult that was for Prime Minister May, the compromises she had to make – we had to make compromises too – and ultimately she was unable to get that deal through the House of Commons. The numbers for Boris Johnson are even tougher.”

He added that “the gap is very wide” on reaching a deal despite Mr Johnson’s recent concessions to the idea of checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Prime Minister is adamant the backstop must be stripped from the Withdrawal Agreement or he will never agree to it. But replacing it with a rebranded border arrangement which keeps the UK out of the EU’s customs union may be enough for Mr Johnson.

Backstop options

EXISTING BACKSTOP

The backstop contained in the Withdrawal Agreement thrashed out by Theresa May states that in the absence of any other solution to keep the Irish border open, the whole UK should stay in the EU’s customs union indefinitely with Northern Ireland adopting many of the single market’s rules.

The idea is unacceptable to Boris Johnson and other Brexiteers because it would stop the UK from striking trade deals outside Europe. How likely? 1/5

ALL-IRELAND BACKSTOP

The Prime Minister’s favoured replacement for the existing backstop has been characterised as an “all-Ireland” solution.

It would involve Northern Ireland keeping EU regulations on goods and agriculture while Great Britain goes its own way, leading to some checks on trade across the Irish Sea. But the whole UK would leave the customs union.

Despite EU scepticism, it is the only idea being seriously discussed for the moment. How likely? 3/5

ALTERNATIVE ARRANGEMENTS

Tory MPs insist that “alternative arrangements” can solve the border issue by making checks unnecessary even if the UK and the Republic of Ireland are operating completely different customs and regulatory regimes.

Goods would be monitored electronically using new technology. Brussels and Dublin are adamant the required tech does not yet exist. How likely? 2/5

FUDGE

While both the UK and EU are currently talking tough, any solution that both sides agree is better than no-deal will probably end up being acceptable.

One possibility would see Northern Ireland agree informally to follow European regulations and tariff regimes so that while the border was controlled in theory, in practice the checks would never take place. How likely? 4/5

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Boris Johnson considering bridge from Northern Ireland to Scotland to help to solve Brexit backstop issue, plans show

Government officials have drawn up plans for Boris Johnson to build a bridge spanning from Scotland to Northern Ireland as a potential means of solving problems with the Irish backstop, it has emerged.

Details leaked to Channel 4 News revealed the outline of plans for two options to create a bridge across the stretch of Irish Sea between west Scotland and Antrim, Northern Ireland.

Number 10 has insisted it has not commissioned any work on the project, and that the work was done by the civil service during the Tory leadership election as possible schemes for a new prime minister to pursue.

But the fact the project has been developed shows the lengths the Government is prepared to try to unpick the problems it faces with a potential border between Northern Ireland and the UK post-Brexit.

World War II munitions

According to Channel 4 News, one bridge scheme would run from the Mull of Kintyre to Torr Head in Antrim at a cost of around £15bn, while another possibility would be to link Larne in Antrim to Portpatrick in Dumfries and Galloway, which would cost £20bn.

Mr Johnson has said he wants to know the risks of the project, which appear sizeable. Engineers have raised concerns about the challenges thrown up by the nature of the Irish Sea, as well as the presence of World War II munitions in that stretch of water.

arlene foster
Arlene Foster’s DUP has previously suggested such a bridge would help to break the Brexit deadlock (Photo: Michael Cooper/PA Wire)

The Democratic Unionist Party has previously suggested a bridge linking Scotland and Northern Ireland would go a long way to breaking the Brexit deadlock, as it would negate the need for a border in the Irish Sea.

In an implicit signal of support to the plan, Lee Reynolds, the DUP’s director of policy, tweeted a link to a news article about China opening the world’s longest sea bridge, which spans 42.4km (26.3 miles) to connect the eastern coastal city of Qingdao to the suburb of Huangdao, in Jiaozhou Bay.

‘Amazing ambitions’

The Scottish National Party is also understood to be warm to the idea.

When asked about the potential plans, Business Secretary Andrea Leadsom also did not reject the idea out of hand.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “There are amazing ambitions for the future.

“I’m not aware that that is one, but there are certainly a range of solutions to the Northern Ireland border and what’s quite clear is we do not want the UK to be trapped in a customs union with no say on the rules. So we’re working flat out to get a deal.”

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Brexit talks: Boris Johnson’s Irish backstop plan explained, options and what could happen next

Boris Johnson’s failure to force an early general election and push through Brexit on his terms leaves him with precious few options to deliver his promise of leaving the EU on 31 October.

The backbench Bill to delay the UK’s withdrawal from the block in the event of no deal being reached, means his best chance of upholding his pledge is to thrash out a deal. After a meeting with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, and with talks ongoing with the Democratic Unionists, the Prime Minister spoke of a potential “landing zone”. But is it all just smoke and mirrors?

What might a Brexit deal look like?

The Prime Minister is still insisting that the Irish backstop be abolished from the Withdrawal Agreement. Instead, Mr Johnson has suggested both the Republic and Northern Ireland remain aligned when it comes to agriculture and food standards and regulations, as part of an “all-Ireland economy”. For everything else he is suggesting “alternative arrangements”, including using “abundant” technical solutions, such as trusted trader schemes, exemptions for small traders and special economic zones.

Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson met for the first time on Monday
Leo Varadkar and Boris Johnson met for the first time on Monday (Photo: Getty)

Will that work?

Not likely, but it is a step in the right direction. Dublin has said keeping all of Ireland tied to EU rules on agriculture and food solves only around 30 per cent of the problem. There are still huge issues such as customs VAT checks and regulatory checks to protect the integrity of the single market. The Taoiseach ruled out anything other than full regulatory alignment, warning he will not “replace a legal guarantee with a promise”.

Why won’t Dublin accept it?

Just the mention of checks, even those away from the border, by Dublin last week prompted fierce warnings from Sinn Féin about breaking the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. Over the weekend a bomb was discovered in the border town of Strabane, offering a stark reminder of what is at stake. If Ireland is to remain part of the single market, it will be placed under considerable pressure by the EU to enforce border checks.

The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit
The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit (Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

What options ARE left?

It may be that his only option is to bring back the original backstop proposal, that would see Northern Ireland only tied to EU customs arrangements, effectively creating a border down the Irish Sea.

Is this likely to succeed?

Mr Johnson could sever all ties with the DUP and try to scrape a deal through the Commons with a Northern Ireland-only backstop. There are signs that resistance may be softening. Arch-Brexiteer and member of the European Research Group Andrew Bridgen suggested a Northern Irish backstop could be a “runner” if the people of Northern Ireland voted for it in a referendum.

What happens next?

No 10 is refusing to reveal its plan and has said discussions are ongoing.

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Brexit talks: Boris Johnson ‘may be prepared to back down on Irish border’

Speculation was mounting that Boris Johnson could be ready to make a compromise on Brexit. The summit came as a senior EU figure claimed that the “penny is finally dropping with the UK” over a potential solution to the Northern Ireland border that could break the deadlock in Westminster, Dublin and Brussels.

The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit, fuelling speculation that the UK will propose an alternative backstop arrangement this week. Mr Johnson’s EU negotiator, David Frost, will hold talks in Brussels on Wednesday and Friday.

Suggestions that a compromise could be made around a Northern Ireland-only backstop were, however, dismissed by Mrs Foster and Downing Street.

But there could be movement over a special agri-food area covering Ireland and Northern Ireland, with alternative arrangements for other trade. Before the No 10 talks, Phil Hogan, who was nominated as the EU’s new trade commissioner and is Irish, fuelled speculation that there could be movement on the backstop – which has been the major obstacle to the Brexit withdrawal agreement being passed by Parliament.

The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit
The Prime Minister and DUP leader Arlene Foster held talks for over an hour in Downing Street on a way forward on Brexit (Photo: REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne)

Cross community support

Mrs Foster said: “History teaches us that any deal relating to Northern Ireland which cannot command cross community support is doomed to failure. That is why the Northern Ireland backstop is flawed.”

Mr Hogan told the Irish Times: “I remain hopeful that the penny is finally dropping with the UK that there are pragmatic and practical solutions can actually be introduced into the debate at this stage that may find some common ground between the EU and the UK.”

Mr Johnson has expressed interest in an all-Ireland agri-food area, as agriculture accounts for 30 per cent of trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

Deal stopper — Agreement key to unlocking progress

The Irish backstop has become the key sticking point in getting a Brexit deal passed by Parliament.

It was written into the Withdrawal Agreement as an insurance policy to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, meaning that during the transition period between the UK’s departure from the EU and a trade deal being agreed, the UK and Ireland would stay inside an EU customs territory. A Northern Ireland-only backstop would keep that nation in a common customs arrangement with Ireland but separate to the rest of the UK, creating a border down the Irish Sea.

While the DUP is opposed to this, it has indicated it would be open to some divergence on trade rules between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

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EU wary of Boris Johnson’s ‘sinister’ scheme to ‘suppress’ Parliament over Brexit deal

Boris Johnson’s bid to suspend parliament for five weeks was lambasted as a “sinister” scheme by Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit negotiator, while other leading European politicians said the Prime Minister risked undermining British democracy.

Mr Verhofstadt warned that proroguing parliament would raise the chances of a no-deal Brexit and threaten plans for a future, post-Brexit trade deal. “‘Taking back control’ has never looked so sinister. As a fellow parliamentarian, my solidarity with those fighting for their voices to be heard,” the former Belgian Prime Minister said. “Suppressing debate on profound choices is unlikely to help deliver a stable future EU-UK relationship.”

Officially, the European Commission is wary of wading into domestic British politics, and a spokeswoman was only prepared to speak on the current Brexit timetable agreed between London and the other 27 EU member states. “Our working assumption is Brexit should occur on October 31 and that should happen with a deal. For that to happen the earlier we see workable proposals the better,” she said.

She was speaking as Mr Johnson’s Brexit envoy David Frost was in Brussels meeting senior EU officials, including European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker’s chief of staff, Clara Martínez Alberola. Mr Juncker and Mr Johnson had already agreed to “continue the dialogue” during a phone call on Tuesday evening, in which the Commission President said the EU’s support for Ireland was “steadfast” and that it would “continue to be very attentive to Ireland’s interests”.

Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron pose at the G7 summit amid Brexit talks
Boris Johnson, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron pose at the G7 summit amid Brexit talks (Photo: Andrew Parsons/Getty)

Britain’s wobbly democracy?

However, other top EU figures have raised concerns about the state of British politics in the wake of Mr Johnson’s drastic move.

French MEP and former Europe minister Nathalie Loiseau described it as a sign that there was a “disease” in British democracy. “We could see a Brexit without an agreement,” tweeted Mrs Loiseau, who is a close ally of President, Emmanuel Macron. “It is, moreover, a Brexit without debate that is looming. From what disease is British democracy suffering from that there is a fear of debate before taking one of the most important decisions in its history?”

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Norbert Rӧttgen, the influential chairman of the German Bundestag’s Foreign Affairs Committee, also wondered if the move would undermine democracy. “Johnson argues that respect for democracy dictates implementing #Brexit ‘do or die’ on October 31,” he tweeted. “As a fellow parliamentarian and democrat I wonder: how does respect for democracy go together with suspending #parliament?!”

No change in EU stance

There is little expectation in Brussels and other capitals that the suspension will raise the pressure on the rest of the EU to change their negotiating position on the Withdrawal Agreement and the so-called Irish backstop, the insurance plan to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland. Officials put the onus on the UK government to propose an alternative to the backstop, in the wake of Mr Johnson’s meetings last week in Paris with Mr Macron, and in Berlin with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.

Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney, speaking in Paris pointed out that the Agreement could not be renegotiated. “Even if we wanted to do that, which we don’t, we can’t do it in six or ten weeks,” he said. Mr Coveney, who is also Ireland’s Foreign Minister, added that the EU was still waiting for Britain to propose workable alternatives to the backstop. “Nobody has yet come up with credible arrangements or technical solutions for that matter which could replace those temporary arrangements in the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop,” he said.

Boris Johnson (right) meets European Union Council President Donald Tusk at the G7 (Photo: Neil Hall - Pool/Getty Images)
Boris Johnson (right) meets European Union Council President Donald Tusk at the G7 (Photo: Neil Hall – Pool/Getty)

Brussels wary of blame game

Behind the scenes, officials see Mr Johnson’s manoeuvres as an attempt to frame no-deal Brexit as the fault of the rest of the EU. They say the Prime Minister was never serious about renegotiating and was only concerned about the optics of Britain crashing out of the block.

Danuta Huebner, a Polish MEP and former European Commissioner said the suspension was about clearing away domestic opposition. “It means #Brexit no more about relation EU-UK. Now this is purely a domestic power game,” she said.

Fabien Zuleeg, the chief executive of the European Policy Centre, a Brussels-based think tank said the move confirmed suspicions that Mr Johnson was aiming for a no-deal Brexit. “Conclusion: no deal probability 90%+,” he said. Mr Zuleeg also raised questions about Britain’s political stability. “I find it astonishing and frightening that in a mature democracy like the UK, the whole parliamentary process and the powers of government and parliament seem entirely uncertain and that nobody seems to know who will prevail in case of conflict,” he said.

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Backstop explained: what is the Irish border Brexit deal and how will the EU react to Boris Johnson’s plans?

What is the Irish backstop?

It is the plan developed by Brussels and Theresa May to maintain a “soft border” on the island of Ireland.

It involves the United Kingdom remaining in a customs union until a post-Brexit trade deal is struck with the European Union. In addition, Northern Ireland would remain aligned to parts of the European single market.

Why did they think it was needed?

All sides agree that the imposition of a “hard border” is unthinkable when the economies of Northern Ireland and the Republic are so interlinked. In addition, there are fears that it would undermine the 20-year-old Good Friday Agreement and play into the hands of violent Republican dissident groups.

However, it would also become an external border of the EU, threatening the integrity of the European single market.

Why?

Emmanuel Macron dashed Boris Johnson’s hopes that European Union leaders would make major concessions to resolve the Brexit stand-off
Emmanuel Macron dashed Boris Johnson’s hopes that European Union leaders would make major concessions to resolve the Brexit stand-off (Photo: AP/Daniel Cole)

The government wants Britain to gain the ability to set its own tariffs on imports from outside the EU and to diverge from regulations set by Brussels.

The EU says it would be impossible to have two different customs regimes operating either side of the 310-mile border without jeopardising the operation of the single market, which is fundamental to the bloc.

Theresa May largely accepted this argument and following fraught and protracted negotiations consented to including the backstop plan in the withdrawal agreement.

It was the key reason why the agreement was heavily defeated three times in the Commons, paving the way to Mrs May’s political downfall.

What does Boris Johnson say?

He has been adamant that the withdrawal agreement has to be reopened and the “anti-democratic” backstop scrapped as a precondition for his government signing a Brexit deal with Brussels.

The Prime Minister maintains there are “abundant solutions” to the Irish border issue and said he is prepared to abide by Angela Merkel’s “very blistering” 30-day timetable for finding them.

What alternatives could he produce?

He has not yet detailed his thinking, but has pointed to a lengthy report last month by two Tory MPs who recommended a combination of administrative and technological measures for resolving the conundrum.

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They suggested the development of electronic customs clearance checks and the use of “trusted trader schemes” enabling businesses to avoid customs checks and cut down on paperwork.

They also floated the idea of creating “enhanced economic zones” to straddle the border between Londonderry and Donegal, and possibly also Newry and Dundalk, with tax breaks and a free trade zone.

For food and plant products, mobile units could be used to carry out checks away from the border.

How could the EU react?

Brussels has promised to work with the UK to develop alternative arrangements to the backstop.

However, Brussels would have to be convinced that any other option was workable, efficient and not open to abuse.

There are also doubts over how soon technological solutions could be ready.

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