Boris Johnson on Monday signalled a retreat from his hardline Brexit position on the Irish border, as he admitted that a no-deal departure by Britain from the EU would be a “failure of statecraft” that would damage both the UK and Ireland.
The British prime minister confirmed he would be willing to see agriculture and food treated as part of an “all-Ireland economy” based on EU rules after Brexit, in a move aimed at ensuring no health checks on produce passing over the border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
Mr Johnson also hinted at a partial climbdown on the Irish backstop, the contentious provision in his predecessor Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU that is meant to prevent the return to a hard Irish border by keeping the UK in a customs union with the bloc.
After insisting for weeks that the backstop must be scrapped as part of his efforts to forge a revised Brexit deal, Mr Johnson suggested before talks in Dublin with the Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar that he was looking for assurances that Britain would not be trapped in the arrangement.
“The landing zone is clear to everyone,” said Mr Johnson. “We need to find a way to ensure the UK is not kept locked in the backstop arrangement and there is a way out for the UK while giving Ireland the assurances it needs.”
Downing Street insisted that Mr Johnson did not mean what he appeared to be saying. “He’s not looking for a time limit [to the backstop] and the backstop has to be abolished,” said the prime minister’s spokesman.
Mr Johnson has made removing the backstop the centrepiece of his push to forge a revised withdrawal agreement with the EU, and previously said some kind “escape mechanism” is not good enough.
“A time limit is not enough,” he said in July. “If an agreement is to be reached it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop.”
Mr Johnson was holding his first face-to-face talks with Mr Varadkar since he became UK prime minister in July, and the two leaders said in a statement afterwards that they had a “constructive meeting” on Brexit.
“While they agreed that the discussions are at an early stage, common ground was established in some areas although significant gaps remain,” they added.
Mr Johnson has said repeatedly that the UK must leave the EU on October 31, with or without a deal.
Although London and Dublin have stressed the need to retain an open Irish border, a no-deal Brexit could force the return of checks to protect the EU customs union and single market, in a development that could in turn damage the peace process.
One of Mr Johnson’s allies said it was “significant” that he had conceded the case for treating “agrifoods” as an all-Ireland issue within the EU single market, provided the Stormont assembly is revived to give its democratic consent to the arrangement.
But Downing Street said Mr Johnson does not intend to extend the principle to other sectors, such as manufactured goods.
The EU and Dublin have made it clear that keeping animals, plants and food within the bloc’s single market rules across the island of Ireland does not come close to resolving the border issue.
British officials conceded that an arrangement on agrifoods would relate to “at best one-third” of the commercial traffic across the border.
Mr Johnson has insisted that other measures such as trusted trader schemes and technology could support an open Irish border by covering other sectors.
Standing alongside Mr Varadkar, Mr Johnson said a no-deal Brexit would be a “failure of statecraft, adding: “I have one message that I want to land with you today, Leo, that is I want to find a deal, I want to get a deal.”
Mr Varadkar replied he was ready to listen to “constructive ways” to settle the Irish border issue, but added Dublin needed legally binding and workable proposals, which his government had not yet received.
“What we cannot do, and will not do, is replace a legal guarantee [about the backstop in the proposed withdrawal treaty] with a promise,” he said. “In the absence of agreed alternative arrangements, no backstop is no-deal for us.”
The backstop is opposed by Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist party, which props up Mr Johnson’s minority Conservative government in Westminster.
The DUP objects to how the backstop, by keeping Northern Ireland within the EU’s single market rules as well as a customs union, treats the region differently from mainland Britain.
Eurosceptic Conservatives oppose the backstop because of concerns that it could lock the UK in a customs union with the EU in perpetuity.
Dublin is open to the idea of replacing the all-UK backstop rejected by Mr Johnson with one covering only Northern Ireland.
But this option is much wider than Mr Johnson’s agrifood proposal, and has been repeatedly rejected by the DUP.
Downing Street said Mr Johnson does not intend to to return to the EU’s past proposal for a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
Arlene Foster, leader of the DUP, said she could not support such an idea. “The prime minister has already ruled out a Northern Ireland-only backstop because it would be anti-democratic, unconstitutional and would mean our core industries would be subject to EU rules without any means of changing them,” she added.