As time to get Brexit deal ticks down, blame game heats up

  • >> Stephen Castle, The New York Times
    Published: 2019-10-02 15:56:08 BdST

FILE PHOTO: An anti-Brexit sign near the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, Dec 19, 2018. With time running out for a deal on Brexit, the Irish government and European Union officials have rejected the latest British thinking on how to resolve an impasse over the Irish border as of Oct 1, 2019, a serious setback to prospects for a breakthrough. The New York Times

As Prime Minister Boris Johnson readied the release of his final Brexit plan, politicians and diplomats on Tuesday were puzzling over a basic question: Is he more interested in reaching an agreement with the European Union, or averting blame for failure to get one?

A new proposal from Johnson is expected Wednesday, Britain is scheduled to leave the European Union at the end of October, and a deal with the bloc is needed urgently to avoid the risk of a disorderly, possibly chaotic and damaging rupture.

On Tuesday, Johnson appeared to disown some details of leaked British plans to resolve the central problem, an impasse over the Irish border. But he confirmed enough to suggest that the two sides remain far apart.

Optimists hope that the prime minister will produce an improved offer and that, with the clock ticking toward Oct 31, an agreement can be clinched in the time-honoured tradition of eleventh-hour European negotiations.

But Johnson’s critics in Parliament and in Brussels say that he has no intention of offering a deal the bloc can accept. They say he is more interested in positioning himself for a looming general election as the uncompromising champion of Brexit than in solving the cumbersome details of customs procedures for Ireland.

“The blame game is underway,” said Anand Menon, professor of European politics and foreign affairs at King’s College London. “We are now in a territory where the political game is who is responsible for whatever outcome we have, rather than focusing on the outcome itself.”

Johnson said in statement released late Tuesday by his office that he would outline a “fair and reasonable compromise” in his final plan when he presents it on Wednesday to a conference of his Conservative Party, underway in Manchester. Johnson also will repeat his insistence that he will not negotiate another delay.

“Voters are desperate for us to focus on their other priorities — what people want, what leavers want, what remainers want, what the whole world wants — is to move on,” Johnson said in the statement. “That is why we are coming out of the EU on October 31. Let’s get Brexit done — we can, we must and we will.”

But with a general election expected soon, the question of responsibility for the Brexit mess could be crucial.

If talks collapse, Johnson could be forced by Parliament to break his word and seek another delay to Brexit. Or Johnson, who has said he would rather be “dead in a ditch” than seek such a delay, could try to defy or circumvent a law passed by Parliament prohibiting a no-deal Brexit.

In either outcome, Johnson would want to blame others — opposition parties and the European Union. In a sign of the growing tensions, the Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, suggested the leaked British plans were unacceptable.

The Conservatives have been meeting at a conference designed as a preelection showcase of Johnson’s policies, and hope to convince voters that once Britain leaves the European Union, the government would focus on domestic priorities like health care and crime.

But there is no getting away from Brexit as Johnson approaches a critical moment in discussions with the European Union.

Currently, Ireland and Britain are both members of the European Union, operating under the same tariff rules and product standards, so there is no need to check goods crossing the border with Northern Ireland, a part of the United Kingdom. But after Brexit, that would change.

Johnson’s predecessor, Theresa May, negotiated a withdrawal agreement that would have kept the whole of the United Kingdom under Europe’s trade rules until a technological solution could be found to check trucks without stopping them.

That arrangement, known as the Irish backstop, was reviled by hard-line Brexit supporters — one of the reasons Parliament rejected May’s plan three times — and Johnson has refused to accept it either.

The latest British ideas, based on informal proposals given to European negotiators, would create customs sites or zones to check goods on both sides of the border, and place tracking devices on trucks to monitor their movements. Parts of these proposals were leaked, and made public Monday by Irish broadcaster RTE.

The idea of a network of customs zones was described on Twitter as a “nonstarter” by Ireland’s deputy prime minister, Simon Coveney — a message that was reposted by Varadkar.

On Tuesday Johnson said that news accounts of the proposals were “not quite right,” but he did not dispute the overall strategy: Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland would be in separate trading and customs systems, requiring checks on many goods that cross the border.

“In the end, a sovereign, united country must have a single customs territory,” he said. “When the UK withdraws from the EU, that must be the state of affairs that we have,” he added, noting that Britain and the European Union were approaching “the critical moment of choice about how we proceed.”

The prime minister dismissed as unacceptable the alternative of having most of the United Kingdom operate under one system, while Northern Ireland remains tied to different rules.

That is a big problem for the Irish government, which wants to keep things as close as possible to the way they are at present, with free and uninterrupted flow of goods across the Irish border.

For Ireland, the imposition of any form of border checks is sensitive because removing the physical infrastructure separating the two countries was a central element of the peace process that unfolded in the 1990s. And without the support of Ireland’s government, the European Union is unlikely to agree to any new Brexit deal.

On Tuesday, Varadkar, speaking in the Irish Parliament, said he had welcomed Johnson’s words distancing himself from some ideas advanced in the leaked British papers, adding pointedly, “had he not, in my view, it would have been hard evidence of bad faith on behalf of the British government.”

“People in Northern Ireland don’t want a customs border between north and south,” he said.

British officials insist that the plans they are creating are workable and could produce a border that operates more securely than some of the European Union’s other external frontiers, for example the one with Russia.

Some progress has been made in discussions with the European Union. Johnson has already accepted that Northern Ireland could remain within the European Union’s trade umbrella for agricultural and some food products, even if he has refused to make the same concession for other goods.

British officials acknowledge, however, that their emerging proposals could violate some principles that European Union negotiators have set, and that both sides will have to compromise.

Speaking at the conference in Manchester, David Gauke, a former Cabinet minister who defied Johnson to support plans to prevent a no-deal Brexit — and was ejected from the Conservative Party for it — said that he was not optimistic about prospects for an agreement.

Though Johnson had been persuaded to pursue talks, Gauke said, “I fear that more recently the government has got to the position where it is all too difficult and there isn’t a solution.”

His worry, he added, was that “we are not really after a deal but we want to show that it is not our fault.”

© 2019 New York Times News Service