Boris Johnson and the Irish Backstop: Obduracy will only Work against the British and Irish Peoples` Interests
Gautam Sen

Britain is in a political crisis situation. Conservative Party premier, Boris Johnson has threatened to leave the European Union (EU) without a re-negotiated deal on Britain`s withdrawal arrangements with that multilateral body. The withdrawal arrangements negotiated by former premier Teresa May with EU were not ratified by Britain`s House of Commons (Lower House of Parliament), despite repeated attempts by her government. The EU has also made it clear that further re-negotiation on the deal is not possible. As of now the date for Britain`s withdrawal from the EU is 31st October, 2019. The main sticking point is the `Irish Backstop` - an interim arrangement to retain an open or soft border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, as well as whole of United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as a single customs territory aligned with the EU till 1st July, 2020. There also other transitional arrangements entailing the maintaining of the status quo on social security provided to British citizens and their EU counterparts on a reciprocal basis, fulfilling of monetary and investment obligations etc. till 2020. Through many of his pronouncements, Boris Johnson has made it clear that he is against the `Irish Backstop` and would even favour a no-deal exit from the EU.

The interesting point is that Boris Johnson`s approach is indicative of Britain`s stubbornness to virtually keep Northern Ireland as a part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland after Britain`s withdrawal from the EU, and impose a separation in socio-economic terms between the two parts of Ireland, i.e. the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland or Ulster. This policy, in all probability involving a hard border with multifarious controls, will undoubtedly affect adversely the interests of the Irish people at-large. After the Good Friday Agreement or the Belfast Agreement of 10th April 1998, which led to the end of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland and a cessation of the insurgency of the militant Irish Republican Army against the British government, there has been peace and tranquility in Ulster; normalcy has prevailed in Great Britain as a whole and Britain-Ireland bilateral relations been stable. Trade and intercourse as well as large scale daily movement of people and material with minimal security checks have been the normal phenomenon along the Northern Ireland-Ireland land border. This open regime will come to an end and a hard land border may perforce have to be put in place, if the `Irish Backstop` is not instituted as part of Britain`s withdrawal deal with the EU.

The point to ponder is what does Britain gain by not accepting the `Irish Backstop` arrangement except to affect the welfare of the Irish people on both sides of the 499 km land border between the territories inhabited by them. Another pertinent point of the withdrawal deal tentatively agreed to by the European Commission and EU parliament with former premier Teresa May, was to keep Britain in the EU customs union for a defined period. Such a union would not have affected the market for British goods and services in the EU countries as no new or additional tariffs would have been imposed and vice versa in respect of exports of commodities and services from the EU countries to Britain.

Ireland`s deputy premier and foreign minister, Simon Covenay has been highly critical of the stand taken by British premier Boris Johnson on leaving the EU even without a withdrawal deal if the latter cannot be re-negotiated. Such a no-deal contingency will surely lead to uncertainties on the Northern Ireland-Ireland land border regime, induce anxiety among the Irish people in general and may even instigate intra-community animosity, or revive Protestant-Catholic differences among the Irish people in the vicinity of their common border and within Northern Ireland.

A short-term political fallout has been the offering of political support to the Boris Johnson government by the Democratic Unionist Party with its Protestant support base in Ulster. Boris Johnson seems to have resorted to a political gamble to retain power in Westminster by indulging in brinkmanship. This seems to involve the holding on to power tenuously by pandering to the notion of upholding British sovereignty, not sacrificing British interests over its entire territory including Northern Ireland, maintaining Britain`s distinctiveness vis-a-vis other EU constituent countries and not surrendering his country`s interests before any supra-national entity like the EU. Boris Johnson has even resorted to a unique undemocratic act of proposing the proroguing of House of Commons by the British monarch, to avoid sudden convening of parliament by the Speaker on all-party demand to re-negotiate a deal with EU based on a political consensus. The acts and unilateral posturing of the British premier may not lead to a favourable outcome either for Britain or him.

It is unlikely that the EU would be willing to concede more to Boris Johnson beyond the deal offered to his predecessor Teresa May in November 2018. The EU is not unaware of the declining political clout Boris Johnson and his government enjoys in Britain`s House of Commons. The fact is that, Boris Johnson has not be able to muster parliamentary support to get a `no-deal` Brexit; in the event a more favourable deal with EU is not attainable, which is agreed to by the House of Commons - with a large component of Labour Party under its leader, Jeremy Corbyn, dissidents within his own Conservative Party and some Liberal Democrats arraigned against the proposal. Apprehension of lack of political support may have also prompted his attempt to have the Parliament prorogued.

The ultimate result may be that the Boris Johnson government will fall with the House of Commons expressing lack of confidence in it. Britain may then, have no option but to leave the EU without a proper and comprehensive bilateral (between Britain and EU) exit agreement. It is also unlikely that a new decisive government will emerge in Westminster if the Boris Johnson government collapses and fresh elections are held in early October this year. It is also possible that, the EU may decide, albeit unilaterally, to go by the terms of the agreement offered to Teresa May and observe its obligations only within its scope, and wait for some time for reciprocity from Westminster. If such a development does not take place, the EU may have no option but to treat Britain as a normal non-EU country attracting all the tariffs and duties on bilateral trade and regulate investment decisions as it does for non-EU European countries. However, these will be messy arrangements and leave Britain in a weak position with the EU enforcing its rights and obligations unilaterally.

The first pre-requisite for resolving the complications in Britain`s exit from the EU, is to arrive at an all encompassing bilateral framework to regulate people-to-people relations between the British and Irish people and their respective institutions. Such an arrangement need not necessarily initiate the process of political integration of Ulster with Ireland, but should enable an institution of socio-economic free exchanges as per the peoples` needs. For example, the Irish people should be able to go for their medical treatment, education and vocational needs freely across the land border, and carry out purchase and sale of goods locally generated without duty at border crossings and also transship goods to Northern Ireland through Ireland`s ports and vice versa. In other words, an arrangement more than an `Irish Backstop` is the need of the hour. Political pragmatism should prevail in London primarily, and broadly in Brussels and Dublin, to facilitate such an outcome.

Actually, there is a need not for an interim arrangement as the `Irish Backstop` but, a wider and long-duration political understanding among the interested parties encompassing within its fold transactions as above. The events concerning Britain, Ireland and the EU cannot but impact Scotland. The Brexit referendum of June 2016 overwhelmingly indicated Scottish majority support for remaining within the EU. If Britain`s present dilemma with the EU and consequent withdrawal arrangements are not resolved amicably or without taking a long view of the future, ominous portends may loom over Britain as a political entity.
(The author is a senior retired IDAS officer)

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


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