Donald Tusk rejects Boris Johnson demand to scrap Irish backstop
The EU has firmly rejected Boris Johnson’s demand to remove the Irish backstop from a Brexit divorce deal, claiming the UK had offered no “realistic alternatives” to prevent the creation of a hard border in Ireland.
The UK prime minister sent a letter to Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, on Monday night laying out why he wanted to remove the “undemocratic” backstop from the withdrawal agreement ahead of meetings between Mr Johnson and the leaders of France and Germany in the coming days.
In a terse response, Mr Tusk rebuffed Mr Johnson’s suggestion that the UK and EU could come up with “unilateral” measures to maintain the 1998 Good Friday Agreement that ended decades of violence in Northern Ireland, and accused the government of pursuing a strategy that would result in a new hard border.
“The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found,” Mr Tusk tweeted. “Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support re-establishing a border. Even if they do not admit it.”
In a note sent to EU27 diplomats on Tuesday, the European Commission and council “regretted” the UK’s stance and said claims in Mr Johnson’s letter were “incorrect” and “misleading”.
It set out three areas of dispute with the UK government: that the backstop did not contravene the Good Friday Agreement, that Northern Irish citizens would have a say over laws under the backstop and said an open border could not be maintained if Northern Ireland diverged from EU laws.
“EU law provides the common framework needed to enable frictionless trade between member states today”, the note said. “Without this common framework, checks and controls become necessary to protect consumers’ health, the integrity of the single market and Ireland’s place in it.”
The EU response suggests there will be no breakthrough in negotiations either when Mr Johnson visits German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin on Wednesday and French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris the following day, or later at a weekend summit of G7 leaders that includes Mr Tusk. The meetings will be the first formal talks between the UK and EU leaders since Mr Johnson became prime minister last month.
The EU27 has insisted it will not remove the backstop arrangements, which were agreed with Theresa May’s government and would keep both the UK and Northern Ireland within in the EU’s customs area in the absence of a free trade deal after Brexit.
Mr Tusk’s response was supported by the European Commission, which said Mr Johnson’s letter “does not provide a legal, operational solution to prevent the return of a hard border on island of Ireland”.
“It does not set out what any alternative arrangements could be. And in fact, it recognises that there is no guarantee that such arrangements will be in place by the end of the transition period,” said Natasha Bertrand, spokeswoman for commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.
Responding to Mr Tusk’s comments, Simon Coveney, Ireland’s foreign minister, said: “This has been the clear and consistent EU position, it remains so.”
The pound fell following Mr Tusk’s comments; it was 0.4 per cent lower against the dollar on the day and trading back below $1.21.
EU officials have said the UK’s failure to give workable solutions to the Irish border problem means the two sides are lurching towards a no-deal Brexit on October 31. David Frost, the UK government’s Europe adviser, told negotiators in Brussels this month that the backstop would have to be removed but, EU officials said, he failed to lay out how a hard border could be avoided.
Ms Bertrand added that Brussels would not “enter into blame games” with the UK about who would be responsible for a chaotic Brexit. “An orderly withdrawal is in the best interests of the UK and the EU and this is what we continue to push for,” said Ms Bertrand.
“Both sides began this negotiation with a commitment to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland,” she said. “The backstop is the only means identified by both parties to honour this commitment.”
Mr Juncker will not attend the G7 summit and has had no requests for meetings with Mr Johnson, Ms Bertrand said, adding: “We are ready to analyse any proposals that are compatible with the withdrawal agreement.”
Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s Brexit chief, said there was no majority support from MEPs to remove the backstop. The parliament has to ratify any final Brexit divorce deal.
“The time for bluster & political blame games is fast running out” Mr Verhofstadt tweeted.