London: British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has issued an ultimatum to the European Union over what he has branded an “anti-democratic” Irish border backstop, which must be scrapped to negotiate a new deal before the October 31 Brexit deadline.
In a letter to European Council President Donald Tusk on Monday, Johnson reiterated his “highest priority” was to achieve an agreement to avert a chaotic no-deal exit from the 28-nation economic bloc, but not with any kind of backstop – designed to avert a post-Brexit hard border between EU member-country Ireland and British region Northern Ireland.
“The changes we seek relate primarily to the backstop. The problems with the backstop run much deeper than the simple political reality that it has three times been rejected by the House of Commons,” writes the prime minister in his letter.
“The truth is that it is simply unviable… it is anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state,” he notes.
Johnson, who has been a vehement critic of the clause in the withdrawal agreement negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May, told Tusk that it locked the UK, potentially indefinitely, into an international treaty which will bind Britain into a customs union.
“It is inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU. When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union,” Johnson said.
By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or of seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad ranges of areas.
Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British government, stresses Johnson’s four-page letter.
The communication was sent soon after another conversation between the British Prime Minister and his Irish counterpart Leo Varadkar.
The Indian-origin Irish Taoiseach, as the Prime Minsiter is referred to in Ireland, has been categorical in his stance in favour of a backstop to ensure the island of Ireland can function under the terms of the Belfast Agreement – dating back to the 1990s when the ‘Troubles’ in the disputed region culminated in a shaky peace process.
“The Taoiseach reiterated the EU27 position that the Withdrawal Agreement cannot be reopened, and emphasised the importance of the legally operable guarantee to ensure no hard border and continued free trade on the island of Ireland,” Downing Street said in reference to the telephone conversation between the two leaders on Monday evening.
“The Prime Minister, Johnson made clear that the Common Travel Area, which long predates the UK and Ireland joining the EU, would not be affected by the ending of freedom of movement after Brexit,” it said.
Johnson has called for “flexible and creative solutions” and “alternative arrangements” – based on technology – to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland and wants the backstop to be replaced with a commitment to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the Brexit transition period – currently the end of 2020 under Theresa May’s deal.
The EU, which did not immediately react to Johnson’s letter, has been firm in its position that the withdrawal agreement struck with his predecessor was not up for reopening and that any negotiations on the future relationship between the UK and the EU must be based on the premise of the legally binding text of that pact.
That text includes the controversial backstop, which had ultimately cost May her job as Prime Minister after facing a bruising three-time defeat in the UK Parliament.
This week, Johnson is on a Brexit blitz as he is set to travel to Germany on Wednesday for talks with Chancellor Angela Merkel and then to Paris on Thursday for discussions with President Emmanuel Macron – the two heavyweight politicians of the EU.
Meanwhile, the UK Opposition Labour Party is demanding that the government publish all documents related to the real impact of a no-deal Brexit, following stark warnings of medicine and food shortages in a leaked report over the weekend.
While the Johnson-led government has termed the warnings outdated as it has sped up its preparations for a no-deal exit from the EU by October 31, the Opposition has been demanding a recall of Parliament from its ongoing summer recess to address the Brexit issue.