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5 June 2019updated 07 Jun 2021 4:51pm

Boris Johnson’s letter to Donald Tusk: What he said, and what he meant

By Patrick Maguire

Dear Donald,

The date of the United Kingdom’s (UK) exit from the European Union (EU), 31 October, is fast approaching. I very much hope that we will be leaving with a deal. You have my personal commitment that this Government will work with energy and determination to achieve an agreement. That is our highest priority.

Here follow the terms on which I am willing to agree a negotiated exit with you. Look! We really want a deal! If not, then expect to be blamed as the bad faith actors responsible for the deleterious effects of a no-deal Brexit.

With that in mind, I wanted to set out our position on some key aspects of our approach, and in particular on the so-called “backstop” in the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland in the Withdrawal Agreement. Before I do so, let me make three wider points.

This really is the only issue that matters, as much as I have told Mark Francois and backbenchers of his ilk otherwise. Gut the Withdrawal Agreement of the backstop and we can do business. I’m now going to use this letter to send a message to Leo Varadkar.

First, Ireland is the UK’s closest neighbour, with whom we will continue to share uniquely deep ties, a land border, the Common Travel Area, and much else besides. We remain, as we have always been, committed to working with Ireland on the peace process, and to furthering Northern Ireland’s security and prosperity. We recognise the unique challenges the outcome of the referendum poses for Ireland, and want to find solutions to the border which work for all.

Are you really going to prioritise your relationship with Brussels over that you share with us, Taoiseach? We are, after all, unconditionally committed to upholding the peace process you suggest the backstop exists to protect – are you? Or are they? Hold fast to your current line or theirs and you risk a no-deal that will jeopardise all the things you profess to want to safeguard. Your call.

Second, and flowing from the first, I want to re-emphasise the commitment of this Government to peace in Northern Ireland. The Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, as well as being an agreement between the UK and Ireland, is a historic agreement between the two traditions in Northern Ireland, and we are unconditionally committed to the spirit and the letter of our obligations under it in all circumstances – whether there is a deal with the EU or not.

Unionist grievances are legitimate too. And again, we want to do a deal and protect the things you want to protect. But unlike us, you can’t claim unconditional commitment to these noble aims if you’re unwilling to junk a backstop that neither we nor the unionist movement won’t wear in pursuit of them. Nigel, Jeffrey, Arlene: we’re not going to sell you out.

Third, and for the avoidance of any doubt, the UK remains committed to maintaining the Common Travel Area, to upholding the rights of the people of Northern Ireland, to ongoing North-South cooperation, and to retaining the benefits of the Single Electricity Market.

There’s an alternative framework to the backstop already, Leo, if only you’d look! Oh, and by the way, Jeffrey, I read your letter to the Irish Times in which you suggested the DUP would be happy with just this.

The changes we seek relate primarily to the backstop. The problems with the backstop run much deeper than the simple political reality that it has three times been rejected by the House of Commons. The truth is that it is simply unviable, for these three reasons.

Remember when I said the entire Withdrawal Agreement was a dead letter? Ask me again once you’ve taken out the backstop. I’m asking for less than you might think. Avoiding a no-deal outcome doesn’t have to be this difficult. Don’t be surprised if you’re blamed if you persist in making it so. I know this letter is a statement of intransigence in itself, so I’m now going to spell out my objections in terms you can’t really argue with.

First, it is anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK as a state. The backstop locks the UK, potentially indefinitely, into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland. It places a substantial regulatory border, rooted in that treaty, between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. The treaty provides no sovereign means of exiting unilaterally and affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them. That is why the backstop is anti-democratic.

Once upon a time we could have sorted this out with a time limit or Stormont lock on new regulatory divergence. Those days are over. Get rid or get no-deal.

Second, it is inconsistent with the UK’s desired final destination for a sustainable long-term relationship with the EU. When the UK leaves the EU and after any transition period, we will leave the single market and the customs union. Although we remain committed to world-class environmental, product and labour standards, the laws and regulations to deliver them will potentially diverge from those of the EU. That is the point of our exit and our ability to enable this is central to our future democracy.

Dom! Priti! Steve! Mark! Iain! Look over here!

The backstop is inconsistent with this ambition. By requiring continued membership of the customs union and applying many single market rules in Northern Ireland, it presents the whole of the UK with the choice of remaining in a customs union and aligned with those rules, or seeing Northern Ireland gradually detached from the UK economy across a very broad range of areas. Both of those outcomes are unacceptable to the British Government.

Accordingly, as I said in Parliament on 25 July, we cannot continue to endorse the specific commitment, in paragraph 49 of the December 2017 Joint Report, to “full alignment” with wide areas of the single market of the customs union. That cannot be the basis for the future relationship and it is not a basis for the sound governance of Northern Ireland.

Whatever replaces the backstop cannot look anything like it: no single market alignment, no customs union membership, no Irish Sea border. So don’t worry, Arlene: there’s no going back to an insurance policy that applies to Northern Ireland alone.

Third, it has become increasingly clear that the backstop risks weakening the delicate balance embodied in the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement. The historic compromise in Northern Ireland is based upon a carefully negotiated balance between both traditions in Northern Ireland, grounded in agreement, consent, and respect for minority rights.

While I appreciate the laudable intentions with which the backstop was designed, by removing control of such large areas of the commercial and economic life of Northern Ireland to an external body over which the people of Northern Ireland have no democratic control, this balance risks being undermined. The Belfast (Good Friday Agreement) neither depends upon nor requires a particular customs or regulatory regime. The broader commitments in the Agreement, including parity of esteem, partnership, democracy, and to peaceful means of resolving differences, can best be met if we explore solutions other than the backstop.

Who’s endangering the Agreement now? If we leave without a deal, it is on you: I act not out of reckless abandon for it but out of a desire to uphold it. That said, I know you don’t accept that the backstop violates the consent principle.

For these three reasons the backstop cannot form part of an agreed Withdrawal Agreement. That is a fact we must both acknowledge. I believe the task before us is to strive to find other solutions, and I believe an agreement is possible.

Note the indefinite article, Steve. I’m not proposing to do what I promised not to, which is claim the Withdrawal Agreement you hate as a victory once the backstop goes. We must, first, ensure there is no return to a hard border.

One of the many dividends of peace in Northern Ireland and the vast reduction of the security threat is the disappearance of a visible border. This is something to be celebrated and preserved. This Government will not put in place infrastructure, checks, or controls at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We would be happy to accept a legally binding commitment to this effect and hope that the EU would do likewise.

Is the root of this disagreement a debate over how best to preserve about peace and the Good Friday Agreement, as we both agree it is? Here’s a chance to affirm your commitment. Or is this really about the integrity of the single market?

We must also respect the aim to find “flexible and creative” solutions to the unique circumstances on the island of Ireland. That means that alternative ways of managing the customs and regulatory differences contingent on Brexit must be explored. The reality is that there are already two separate legal, political, economic and monetary jurisdictions on the island of Ireland. This system is already administered without contention and with an open border.

There are lots of contradictions in your position. It would be a shame if somebody exposed them and then blamed you for a no-deal that will harm you almost as much as it harms us.

The UK and the EU have already agreed that “alternative arrangements can be part of the solution. Accordingly:

I’m really not asking for anything we haven’t already agreed as part of the existing deal.

I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship.

I accept that the technology won’t be ready for 31 October, and, indeed, it doesn’t need to be.

I also recognise that there will need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help, consistent of course with the principles set out in this letter.

Don’t worry: there’d still be a backstop to whatever we want to replace the backstop. As long as you don’t call it that. Oh, and as long as it doesn’t do what the backstop does which I know you have hitherto insisted is the only way to maintain an open border on the island of Ireland, and no regulatory barriers between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That said, let’s talk. That’s twice I’ve professed a willingness to be flexible now. How’s that for good faith?

Time is very short. But the UK is ready to move quickly, and, given the degree of common ground already, I hope that the EU will be ready to do likewise. I am equally confident that our Parliament would not be able to act rapidly if we were able to reach a satisfactory agreement which did not contain the “backstop”: indeed it has already demonstrated that there is a majority for an agreement on these lines.

Here’s the indefinite article again. While I’m trying to stress to the ERG that any deal gutted of the backstop would be entirely new, the proposition I’m really making is that we bank that “common ground”, make some cosmetic tweaks, and pass something that looks a lot like Theresa May’s deal. And if you do move, it’ll be worth it. It will pass. Remember the Brady Amendment? You might also want to google Stephen Kinnock.

I believe that a solution on the lines we are proposing will be more stable, more long lasting, and more consistent with the overarching framework of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement which has been decisive for peace in Northern Ireland. I hope that the EU can work energetically in this direction and for my part I am determined to do so.

There are my terms. If you don’t like them, I don’t have others. The substance is much more palatable than the style. You will get the blame for any damage incurred to the peace process if you can’t recognise that.

I am copying this letter to the President of the European Commission and members of the European Council.

Forget Barnier’s negotiating mandate. Did somebody say wedge issue?

Yours ever,


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