This week will be crucial for the Brexit process. On Thursday and Friday, the European Council (which gathers the 28 heads of state/government of the European Union member states) will meet in Brussels. The hottest topic on the agenda will be whether the EU will be able to strike a deal with the UK, which is set to leave the bloc on October 31. This deadline has already been postponed twice since it was initially supposed to take place on March 29.
What has changed is the political personnel. Former British prime minister Theresa May had campaigned for Remain in the 2016 referendum, and it never seemed like she was quite invested in the idea of leaving the European Union. Her Withdrawal Agreement was rejected in the British Parliament three times, after which she resigned. The Conservative Party then chose Boris Johnson to replace her. The former mayor of London and former foreign secretary ran on his willingness to accept a no deal Brexit scenario. He is, of course, right—rejecting no deal outright is like buying a car and then announcing that no matter what happens, you will not walk away without the car. The likelihood that you’ll get screwed in such a negotiation is 100 percent.
Boris’s challenge: avoid the backstop. The backstop is an insurance policy that was negotiated between the EU and Theresa May in the agreement that was not accepted by British members of Parliament. It says that Northern Ireland, which borders the Republic of Ireland, should remain in the European Union’s customs union if the UK and EU do not strike a free trade deal. An initial version had suggested that the whole of the UK should be affected by the backstop. Both arrangements aren’t acceptable, because leaving the EU’s customs union and single market is what implementing Brexit ultimately means, and because splitting off Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK would betray unionists who have pledged their loyalty to their country. As a member of the EU’s customs union and single market, you’re subject to the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice, which exerts power over your regulations. Being controlled by a foreign court is far from gaining independence.
Brussels argues that a no deal scenario could re-erect physical border checks between the two Irelands, since the UK diverging from EU rules would warrant customs checks for differences in VAT and food safety standards. Mind you, me writing “two Irelands” could already get me in serious trouble on the island, since the mere implication that two Irelands exist upsets those who would rather have a united Republic. Such upset was once expressed in violence between paramilitaries on both sides, known as The Troubles, which lasted from the early 1960s until the end of the ’90s, and cost the lives of over 3,500 people. It is more than just a border.
Johnson therefore needs to satisfy Parliament to avoid a legal separation (on a trade basis) of the United Kingdom, while avoiding a physical border infrastructure in Northern Ireland, and while staying true to those who voted for Brexit and want to leave the EU. His updated withdrawal agreement does that by moving customs checks to different points across the supply chain. His proposal also devolves power from the UK central government, by allowing the Northern Irish parliament to have its say in the process every four years.
The former secretary general of the World Customs Organization (WCO), which brings together 180 of the globe’s customs administrations, Lars Karlsson, said that Johnson’s deal is workable. He wrote on Twitter:
I believe there could be a deal. I believe there should be a deal. That will bring better long-term solutions for the future for both the EU & UK. The UK proposals is from the customs perspective, with some changes, acceptable. So let's make that deal. It is time. 3/3.
— Lars Karlsson (@CapacityNow) October 8, 2019
Many of the details in Johnson’s plan haven’t been completely ironed out, but the crucial point for the European Union this week is: can it abandon the backstop? That insurance policy was, according to the Brexiteers, a way to keep the UK, or part of it, locked in the customs union of the EU indefinitely. If Johnson’s alternative arrangements are rejected by Brussels, then there is all the more proof to the idea that the backstop was a political tool to be used as a bargaining chip.
The UK has made it clear that it will not establish physical border checks in Northern Ireland, keeping its part of the promise that has kept the peace since the end of the ’90s.
The ball is now in the EU’s court: either it accepts Johnson’s deal or it goes for no deal, in which case it would be the only party responsible for erecting a physical border.
EU Council president Donald Tusk does not see it that way. He tweets:
.@BorisJohnson, what’s at stake is not winning some stupid blame game. At stake is the future of Europe and the UK as well as the security and interests of our people. You don’t want a deal, you don’t want an extension, you don’t want to revoke, quo vadis?
— Donald Tusk (@eucopresident) October 8, 2019
It’s quite an odd thing to declare following the UK’s proposal for alternative arrangements.
The bottom line is this: in the European Parliament, pro-EU voices fear that the UK could become a low-tax, pro-business haven that undermines long-established European regulations.
Meanwhile, Boris Johnson is not keen on having his dream job of prime minister destroyed by this pesky exit from the EU. Those who believe in Brexit should hope that he sticks by his proposed negotiating position, leaving the door open for no deal. If he were to give in, it would undermine his credibility and strengthen the more consistent voices in British politics.
Leaving open the door to no deal remains the only way to get concessions out of Brussels, which will be, on Thursday and Friday, wrangling with itself over whether it is willing to take the blame for an economic upset in Europe and a possible renewed paramilitary conflict in Ireland.
It really is deal or no deal.
Bill Wirtz comments on European politics and policy in English, French, and German. His work has appeared in Newsweek, the Washington Examiner, CityAM, Le Monde, Le Figaro, and Die Welt.