Closer ties with Ireland and Further negotiations with the EU: Boris Johnson seems to be friends of a Brexit compromise. The big question is how serious he is.
Watch your step. It may all be a feint; it may all be part of the British Prime Minister’s political calculations. But after the meeting between Boris Johnson and the Irish Prime Minister on Thursday, Leo Varadkar said he now realised that Britain and Northern Ireland wanted an agreement. After “constructive” talks between British Brexit Minister Steve Barclay and EU negotiator Michel Barnier, serious negotiations are now to follow. This is more than Able to anticipated after the mutual accusations in recent weeks.
At next the EU summit in coming Thursday and Friday, If the Brexit treaty is to be sealed, then the negotiations must be conducted these days, and the legal text pre-formulated. On 19 October, the day after the summit, there will be a special session of the British Parliament at which the new treaty will have to be approved. Otherwise, Boris Johnson would be legally obliged to ask the EU for an extension of the deadline until the end of January 2020. Only 20 days remain until the Brexit deadline, 31 October.
There are many reasons why Johnson could give in now: He has realised that he cannot avoid extending the deadline. All the maneuvers the British government allegedly planned to avoid a deadline extension are not working. The Scottish Supreme Court in Edinburgh also announced that the government had assured the court that Johnson would comply with the Benn Act. If this is not the case, the plaintiffs could appeal again to the court on 21 October – and ask it to write the extension letter to Brussels instead of Johnson.
There is also no evidence that an EU member state would step out of line and block the UK’s request for an extension with a veto, as it was circulated in London. The government in Budapest has rejected such rumors.
No Deal doesn’t have enough friends.
Like his predecessor Theresa May, Johnson must, therefore, recognise that EU members cannot be divided. The hope that Chancellor Angela Merkel would ultimately give in in the interests of the German economy has once again not been fulfilled. And the expectation of the Brexit hardliners that the EU would give in at the last moment because the British market is so essential and the EU is so afraid of the no-deal – it was also wrong.
Johnson knows that among MEPs the rejection of his populism, the illegal suspension of Parliament, his handling of the Queen, and his hitherto aggressive Brexit strategy has become so great that there is a majority against him. He must reckon with the fact that the deputies would use 19 October to push through a second referendum, perhaps even to dismiss him utilizing a vote of no confidence.
Johnson’s plan to contest a new election under the condition that he can then enforce a no-deal is also not well received. Not even his party: a group of about 60 moderate Tories told the prime minister that they were not ready to stand for an election in which a disorderly EU resignation was the Conservative Party’s policy.
Last but not least: Nobody knows what role the royal house plays behind the scenes. There was no coincidence that at the end of September, following the illegal suspension of Parliament and Johnson’s inflammatory speech in Parliament, Buckingham Palace announced that legal advice had been sought on the circumstances under which the Queen could remove the Prime Minister. And yes – she can.
Meanwhile, the EU and Leo Varadkar want to avoid a no-deal. A disorderly withdrawal – and Johnson’s proposal to date – would have forced the EU to introduce customs controls at the Irish border. How this should have been achieved without the EU violating the peace treaty could not be clarified. So what could an agreement look like?
Varadkar stressed after his talks with Johnson that the problematic points of the customs border and the vote on the concept in Northern Ireland had to be clarified. The British and Irish media, The Times and Irish Times, described the critical points of a possible agreement. If Johnson, as has been said, has given in on the Customs Union, Northern Ireland could form a familiar customs territory with the EU Customs Union. With Britain, however, Northern Ireland would create its own customs union. The different terms mark the most crucial aspect of the solution: Britain could conclude new free trade agreements independently of the EU, a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would not be necessary.
A concrete example illustrates why this is not as simple as it sounds. An importer from Belfast, for example, buys a truck crane from Liverpool, but would first have to pay EU customs at around 17 percent. If the crane stays in Belfast, the dealer is refunded the customs duty, i.e., he does not pay any customs duty at the end. However, if the dealer exports the crane to Dublin, the importer there will have to pay the 17 percent higher price (including customs duty). As the crane has already been cleared at the time of purchase from Great Britain, the transport at the border from Northern Ireland into the Republic of Ireland does not have to be checked.
Customs clearance must then take place in the ports of the Irish Sea. But the Northern Ireland party DUP could accept this regulation, because Northern Ireland would not be constitutionally separated from Great Britain, but would form a customs union with Great Britain. That is what matters to the DUP. The British Brexit hardliners could swallow the compromise because they want Britain to be able to conclude free trade agreements independently of the EU. But they may as well revolt.
Boris Johnson can let the conversations fail at any time
The next sticking point so far has been Johnson’s proposal that Northern Ireland should be given a particular role, but could lose it every four years if the Northern Ireland government does not extend it. This would have given the Northern Ireland DUP a veto, as it were because the party could have voted against the unique arrangement. It may be that it is now agreed that no one party alone will have a veto, but that – as with the peace treaty – the Protestant parties and the Catholic parties will each have to agree, and the government as a whole will have a say. It would be a so-called double majority. It could also be that already the establishment of the unique role would be made dependent on this double majority. The EU could get involved in this – knowing that the majority of the population and parties in Northern Ireland are already on the side of the EU and prefer a close affiliation of the economy to the community.
But once again, be careful. Most observers who currently observe the Brexit negotiations on a daily and hourly basis are incredibly skeptical. The positive announcements can also be Johnson’s means of persuading the EU to engage in serious negotiations – on the assumption that neither the DUP and the Brexit hardliners, nor the opposition, which is now aiming for a new election or a second referendum and staying in the EU, would accept the compromise.
Johnson can, at any time let these talks burst and claim that Brussels has not responded to his extraordinary willingness to compromise. He could do all this to demonstrate to Parliament that it is unnecessary to extend the deadline. The calculation could be to let the court force you to write the letter for an extension. Johnson would then have an explanation to his Brexit followers as to why he could not deliver the Brexit on 31 October.