Running Out the Brexit Negotiations Clock
September 20, 2019
It has been just over 30 days since Angela Merkel encouraged British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to put on paper his suggestions for a better withdrawal agreement for Brexit as an alternative to a ‘No Deal’ crash out of the European Union on October 31. Johnson accepted the challenge and promised to come up with something within the agreed thirty-day timeline. Where do the negotiations stand now that this 30-day period has run out?
First, some EU leaders have informally extended the “deadline” by two weeks—until the end of September—to give the UK government some leeway and soften the timeline ahead of the EU summit on October 17. However, EU Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier has reaffirmed that the EU sees no legitimate reason to reopen the withdrawal agreement because the UK government had offered no written proposal to avoid the backstop. The European Union has not yet received any formal documentation from the United Kingdom on a workable alternative to this backstop, although UK officials have announced they presented the European Union with technical “non-papers” containing ideas on backstop alternatives.
Second, British officials have increasingly spoken of a “landing zone” where agreement between the EU and UK sides can be reached on a new deal. This landing zone now seems to be focused on a Northern Ireland-only backstop that would first focus on agriculture and food products and potentially be expanded to trade in other goods. This option still needs refining, however, as a meeting of EU and UK leaders on September 16 reportedly showed UK prime minister Boris Johnson did not fully understand the complexities of the single market and cross-border trade in Ireland, and the EU team explained to him why custom checks and border posts would remain necessary.
The European Union had already proposed a Northern-Ireland only backstop in the early phases of Brexit negotiations but the United Kingdom dismissed it as a risk to the integrity of the Union. The plan would allow frictionless trade across the Irish border and prevent the return of border infrastructure (thus preserving stability and the Good Friday Agreement) by keeping Northern Ireland aligned with EU regulations even if the rest of the United Kingdom diverged from those. However, it faces some hurdles:
- According to Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar, agri-food only covers about 30 percent of trade across the border, so the Northern Ireland-only backstop would need to be expanded to most trade—something Unionists, especially the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP, holding 10 seats in parliament), might find unacceptable.
- The UK government’s current plan would give the Northern Ireland assembly a veto (the “Stormont lock”) over future EU regulations to determine which ones it would agree to apply to Northern Ireland. This is unacceptable for the European Union because it challenges the integrity of the European single market and would likely prompt complaints from other devolved parliaments that do not have such a say, particularly in Scotland. This option also requires a functioning executive in Northern Ireland, something that has lacked in Stormont for the past two years.
- The Northern Ireland backstop would create a de factor border in the Irish Sea, something Theresa May’s government had rejected—and the reason that an all-UK backstop was included in her draft withdrawal agreement. (A Northern Ireland backstop could put the integrity of the Union at risk if Great Britain diverges from EU standards.) There have already been statements by government officials that the United Kingdom would likely aim to diverge on labor and environmental standards.
In the coming days, the United Kingdom will intensify its interactions with the European Union to see if a Brexit “landing zone” can be identified. Curiously, the UK government does not seem to have heeded the words of Angela Merkel as there has been little emphasis on making any meaningful changes to the political declaration, the document that followed the withdrawal agreement and sets the frame for the future UK-EU relationship. This declaration could be the promising key to unlocking the conundrum of the backstop but it remains untouched. There is not much time left for both sides to negotiate a workable new deal. Attention will now turn to the United Nations, where Johnson and Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar will meet for continued discussions next week.