Can Mr Johnson invent an acceptable fudge?

Now that Ollie Robbins, the British civil servant and author of Mrs. May’s Brexit deal, has gone into self exile, the Boris Johnson show is well on the road. What will happen on Halloween is the biggest issue in European politics now. For sure the Brexit deal will be a fudge of some kind, but what shape this fudge will take is anyone’s guess.

One of the principal problems is the Good Friday agreement, which is guaranteed by both the British and Irish governments, that upholds there should be no return to a ‘hard’ border between the North of Ireland and the rest of the country. The term Backstop as used in the Brexit negotiations is like an insurance policy that the Irish border remains open no matter what happens.

The Good Friday agreement further stressed that Northern Ireland’s future will be decided by consent, not force or might; and acceptance of difference, the right to be British or Irish or both. Democracy and plurality in tandem, as one commentator put it. Mrs May’s, the former prime minister’s, Brexit deal included a Backstop which protected this principle by stressing there would be no checks at the border between the North and South of Ireland. Mr Johnson and his new government have rejected the Backstop and stressed that checks between the North and South can be managed in a different way, although they have provided no detailed proposals or mechanisms on how they would manage this. Everyone is waiting for Mr Johnson’s proposal.

Some members of the British cabinet have voiced the opinion that they would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment that the British government would not put any border infrastructure, checks or controls, and asked the EU to sign a similar declaration. They claim that this declaration could substitute the Backstop. However, in reality this could result in providing a backdoor for the free importation of British goods into Europe without any checks being applied. If this happened, other members of the EU would most certainly object, and Ireland would be forced to either erect a border for checks or leave the EU single market. So the Backstop is needed.

Indeed, both Dublin and Brussels have rejected the abandoning of the Backstop for this reason. But what will happen if Boris Johnson continues to insist that the Backstop must go as a precondition to any new Brexit agreement? The UK would be faced with leaving without an agreement, or Mr. Johnson could then ask for an extension of Article 50 and call a general election.

Of course, the British government could change its tack and abandon its coalition partners, the Democratic Ulster Unionists, by agreeing that the border will shift from a land border to the Irish Sea (and avoid a land border). This would mean that Northern Ireland (along with the rest of the island of Ireland) will stay in the Customs Union, while the rest of the UK leaves the Customs Union and the border will shift to the ports, Belfast included.

So what about the new trade deals with other countries that the Brexiteers enthusiastically say are going to replace their present ones? Donald Trump, for example, has told us that he fully supports the UK, but then what does this actually mean? All trade negotiations naturally involve both sides trying to reengineer things to their own advantage. The UK is a small country negotiating with a much larger economy. Trump won’t sell American industry or agriculture short. Neither will he disadvantage Wall Street at the expense of the City of London. The UK would, I fear, become nothing more than a dependent state of the US even to the extent of having to follow its foreign policy. So much for its newfound freedom of leaving the EU!

In any case, all trade deals in the US must go through Congress, and Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, has made it clear that any trade deal that abandons the Good Friday agreement will be refused by Congress.

There is little evidence that anything substantial will come from Australia, China, Russia or even Canada. If Johnson’s aim is to distance the UK from the EU to avoid EU regulation, it is hard to see in a post Brexit negotiation a favourable trade deal ever coming from Brussels.

Mr Johnson has told us several times that he will withhold the £39bn payment to the EU if they don’t play ball, but this is ridiculous, as the EU will simply refuse to negotiate a trade deal unless the money is paid. The legality of withholding the 39bn is also questionable. The fundamental problem for Mr Johnson is the question of trust. Now we must wait for the fudge or a disastrous divorce!