By John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister and Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2009
Boris Johnson said yesterday, June 25th, that there is an “abundance” of technical alternatives to the Irish Backstop.
He seems to believe that, between now and the end of October, he can persuade the EU to have such confidence in these unspecified alternatives that they will not insist on keeping the backstop. This is unrealistic, to put it mildly.
All sides are agreed that the backstop is only a fall back provision to be used only if an alternative agreed solution cannot be found.
If Boris Johnson was as confident as appears to be that alternatives exist, he would accept the backstop as an interim step, until his replacement alternatives have been worked upon and agreed.
The fact that he is not prepared to do that makes one suspect that there are no ready or acceptable alternatives that would maintain open borders, and close North/ South cooperation based on compatible regulations.
Yesterday a 216 page document was published by Prosperity UK setting out a possible alternative structure.
Its authors admitted that more work was needed. It is hardly likely to be ready, and agreed by the EU 27, before 31 October. So it does not solve the immediate problem.
It proposes to have border related controls, but not to have them at the border itself…. but to have them on farms and in factories and warehouses instead.
But avoiding physical infrastructure on the border is only part of the Brexit problem.
The other problem is the extra costs, delays, bureaucracy that will be imposed by Brexit on all exchanges across the border within Ireland. These will actually be worse under Prosperity UK proposals, and smuggling will be much greater.
To avoid checks on the border of the compliance with EU standards of food crossing from NI, that I for food standards purposes, Ireland would leave the EU and join a Britain and Northern Ireland food standards union instead! This idea has zero possibility of being accepted. It is naive. Irish agricultural policy would then be dictated by British interests, something we escaped from when we joined the EU in 1973.
That said, the Prosperity UK report does acknowledge the “supremacy” of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. This is a good rhetorical starting point.
But no new thinking is offered as to how this supremacy would be reflected in future British policy in a post Brexit world. One would have thought that those who do not like the backstop would come forward with new and interesting proposals to deepen North/ South cooperation, and East / West cooperation, to compensate for the disruption that will inevitably flow from Brexit. That is where British negotiators should be putting the emphasis now. The idea that the whole Belfast Agreement structures can be frozen by the refusal of the DUP and Sinn Fein to work together is not acceptable.
But at a deeper level, it seems that there is still no consensus in Britain as to the sort of relationship it wants with the EU, and what trade offs it is prepared to make to get it. It seems that public opinion in the UK has not yet absorbed what leaving the European Union means.
It wants the freedom but not to accept the costs.
Compliments of John Bruton, former Irish Prime Minister and Ambassador of the European Union to the United States from 2004 to 2009