GP Insights # 132, 24 August 2019
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson is in Paris since 22 August for talks with French President Emmanuel Macron to renegotiate UK's withdrawal from the European Union especially on the nature of the backstop agreement. Macron, who has said previously that he is happy to be the "bad guy" on Brexit, roundly rejected Johnson's calls to scrap the agreement, a key plank of a deal negotiated between the EU and former British premier Theresa May. Renegotiation on the terms currently proposed by the British is not an option that exists is what Macron said in a public statement on 21 August.
Speaking of Johnson's meeting with Macron, German chancellor Angela Merkel attempted to strike a conciliatory tone and stated: "The moment we have a practical arrangement on how to preserve the Good Friday agreement and at the same time define the borders of the (European Union's) internal market, we would not need the backstop anymore."
What is the background?
At the heart of contention is the "backstop", an arrangement that has guaranteed that border checks will not return between Ireland - an EU member and Northern Ireland which is part of the UK. Boris Johnson has to keep UK's regulations aligned with the EU during the transition period. That would mean the market laws, the import-export laws and other conventions would remain in tune with the EU.
With both Macron and Merkel talking tough on the backstop deal, Boris Johnson has only 30 days to find a Brexit solution. Johnson believes that Brussels will blink first in the Brexit standoff and hope for a better negotiation as the leaders head towards the G7 summit in Biarritz on 24 August.
What does it mean?
The contention over the Good Friday agreement means that a no-deal Brexit is now the most likely scenario. Secondly, the EU was seen broadly united on the issue and is not ready to abandon the interest of Ireland by conceding to Johnson's demands to cut the backstop. This mechanism was designed to ensure a check-free border on the island of Ireland that will be UK's new land frontier with the EU.
Thirdly, much more could be expected over this weekend at the G7 summit talks. Merkel on her visit to Iceland had said the onus is on the UK to put forth alternatives to the backstop and that the EU needs to know how Britain sees future ties to the bloc.
Lastly, it is interesting to note how the UK Parliament itself has perceived backstop. Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Philip Hammond is among a group of ex-ministers in Parliament talking about blocking a no-deal Brexit. The main opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn has invited other senior lawmakers for a meeting on 27 August to discuss tactics to stop a no-deal departure. However, only when the Parliament returns to session on 3 September that the final call on the backstop agreement would be gauged.
The British Government wants three things: to leave the single market and customs union, to avoid a hard border with the Republic of Ireland and to prevent a customs border in the Irish Sea between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. A majority of trade experts agree that achieving all three is not possible. Hence any future deal would have to find a middle ground in reconciling the above three demands.