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7 October 2019

Boris Johnson’s Brexit proposals are inadequate – for both the EU and the UK

Ultimately, it’s in the UK’s interests to maintain the status quo on the Irish border.

By Stephen Bush

Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Boris Johnson’s Brexit proposals have been rejected as inadequate. Both Commission diplomats and the heads of member states have reiterated that any deal must be acceptable to Ireland; and Johnson’s plan, which would effectively put not one but two borders on the island of Ireland, is a non-starter even before you get into the implications for the legal order.

The line from Downing Street is that the United Kingdom has made a big and serious compromise, and that it is time for the European Union to– which, uh, hang about….what compromise? I’ve read the proposals twice over and I cannot find it. A compromise between those parts of the Conservative Party (and indeed of Downing Street) that want to put forward credible proposals for a Brexit deal and those that want to put forward no proposals at all, maybe.

But the reality of the detail is that the “compromise” amounts to a commitment to things that are in the United Kingdom’s political interests and are the fruit of decades of work – some of which predates the UK and Ireland’s entry into the European Economic Community. This is being presented as though it is a grand concession on the British government’s part rather than essential part of maintaining those interests.

At risk of getting lost here is the fact that that, ultimately, it’s in the United Kingdom’s interests to maintain the status quo on the Irish border. It’s not in the UK’s interests for there to be (yet more) smuggling on our land border with the EU, because it will undermine our ability to strike those much-coveted trade deals, as well as providing funding to organised crime and putting unsafe products in our markets. It’s not in the UK’s interests to upend those arrangements and we aren’t doing the world a favour by maintaining them.

Maintaining those arrangements is difficult for the electoral survival and internal cohesion of the Conservative Party because doing so limits the available Brexits: to the backstop as negotiated by Theresa May, the backstop as proposed by the European Commission with a border in the Irish Sea, or an ultra-soft Brexit with the UK as a whole in a customs union and within the single market.

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But that difficulty doesn’t change the essential question, the UK’s interests or the negotiating imperatives on the other side of the talks. And whatever route we take out of the EU will eventually come up against those unchanging factors, whether we do so via a painful no-deal exit or not.

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