Despite previously appearing resolute in his commitment to the abolition of the Irish backstop, the outcome of Boris Johnson’s trip to Dublin on Monday has sparked fresh hope that some form of agreement can be found. In an unexpected turn of events, the Prime Minister has stated that leaving the EU without any form of deal would be a ‘failure of statecraft’, that would harm both the UK and Ireland.
It is perhaps sensible to treat these comments with a degree of caution. The Irish border question- much like the wider Brexit debate- is a rapidly-changing political issue, and the Prime Minister is under pressure to find a solution that brings together groups with hugely conflicting interests. Context is also important- the comments came shortly before a meeting with Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. In this meeting, the two leaders conducted an hour of Brexit discussions, described by both as ‘constructive’. With this in mind, it is possible that being on Irish soil was in some way responsible for Johnson’s surprising departure from his previous stance. This idea is supported by comments from Downing Street, which insisted that the Prime Minister did not mean what he appeared to be saying. According to the PM’s official spokesperson, Johnson ‘is not looking for a time limit (to the backstop) and the backstop has to be abolished’. Nevertheless, the events in the Irish capital are indicative that a positive solution to the Irish border question can be found.
What did the Prime Minister actually say?
Speaking before his meeting with the Irish Taoiseach, Johnson stated that leaving without a deal would be a ‘failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible’. Not only this, but the previous proposals for a border in the Irish Sea have been revived, albeit in a reduced form. Johnson has retreated from his previously uncompromising stance regarding Northern Ireland, and is now entertaining the idea of the agri-food sector remaining in a customs union with the Irish Republic. This would be beneficial to the all-Ireland economy due to the importance of this particular sector, with both sides of the border importing and exporting agri-food products to each other.
Given that London and Dublin both recognise the importance of maintaining an invisible, frictionless border, keeping this sector aligned with the current EU regulations would be beneficial. However, Johnson has stated that it will not be extended to other sectors, such as manufactured goods. In a UK context, the agri-food sector in Northern Ireland is the largest in terms of percentage of workforce. Despite this, agri-food products only comprise 34% of total exports. Keeping this sector alone in regulatory alignment with the EU trading block will not be enough to resolve the border issue; British officials have conceded that that such an arrangement would only account for one third of goods crossing the border. Johnson has suggested using trusted trader schemes and technology to avoid introducing border checks for goods from other sectors. However, there is little clarity as to how such measures will be implemented.
What does this mean for negotiations going forward?
One of the most notable aspects of Johnson’s approach to Brexit was his complete rejection of the backstop plan. The backstop formed part of Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement, and was designed to keep the UK inside the EU customs union in the event of a no-deal. This was so that the Irish border remained invisible and frictionless whilst a permanent arrangement was being sought. Rather than resuscitating Mrs May’s plan, Johnson’s comments suggest that an alternative backstop may be on the cards. This is because they indicate that only Northern Ireland will remain in line with EU regulations, rather than the UK as a whole.
Although there is much work to be done before a solution is found, events in the Irish capital evidence some signs of progress.