It’s looking more and more like extension or bust

It’s looking more and more like extension or bust
British prime minister Boris Johnson gives a thumbs-up as he leaves the stage after delivering his speech during the Conservative Party conference in Manchester yesterday. Picture: Stefan Rousseau

It’s looking like extension or bust.

Boris Johnson’s plan to scrap the backstop and replace it with a double border now leaves Ireland and the EU in a Brexit predicament where none of the viable options include an orderly exit.

While the proposals tabled by the UK prime minister have not been dismissed as fully out of hand by the EU Commission, it is clear that customs checks between Ireland and Northern Ireland will not be accepted in any format and Boris Johnson is certainly not going to go along with the original backstop.

In his letter to EU Commission President Jean-Claude Junker, Mr Johnson described the backstop as a “bridge to nowhere” but then went on to offer the EU a dead-end route.

The first of Mr Johnson’s borders would establish regulatory checks in the Irish sea, a welcome move, but his second border would see customs inspections on the island of Ireland, a politically toxic proposition.

Negotiators will now enter last-ditch talks in Brussels, but if significant concessions are not made on what the British Government see as their red-line issues, then we are heading for a crash out.

Mr Johnson’s letter put forward the idea of an all-island regulatory zone covering goods including agrifood. However, he said the Northern Ireland Assembly should have the opportunity to endorse these arrangements.

“If consent is not secured, the arrangements will lapse” the letter stated with no detail on how approval would be granted or denied by an institution which has not sat for three years.

But the real elephant in the room is the customs border.

Mr Johnson suggested that all customs processes between North and South could happen on a “decentralised basis” and paperwork would be done electronically. A “very small number of physical checks” would be needed but these would take place at traders premises or other points on the supply chain.

He went onto essentially suggest that the finer details of this most complex of issues could be worked out on the fly during the two-year transition period - a frightening prospect given the gravity of what is at stake.

The proposals contained in a four-page letter, were quickly dismissed by both Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and other parties as lacking credibility and sparked claims that the UK Government are not actually serious in what they have put forward.

After a rip-roaring speech at the Conservative party conference yesterday, Mr Johnson’s latest proposals have been viewed as a tactical maneuver to set the Tory party for a General Election.

The address was a clear prelude to an election campaign in which Mr Johnson sparked laughter with jibes about his political rivals and roused the party with fighting talk.

He even causally compared the EU and the escalating Brexit crisis to an annoying “pebble in our shoe”.

After a phone call with the British PM, President Junker released a statement welcoming Mr Johnson’s “determination” to advance the talks and acknowledged the “positive advances” around full regulatory alignment for all goods and the control of goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

But that is where the plámásing ended and “problematic points” were raised around customs checks.

In what may have been the understatement of the day, the Taoiseach said the proposals “do not fully meet the agreed objectives” of the backstop.

In reality the EU Commission and the Irish Government could not have immediately slapped down the proposals regardless of how unrealistic they are. Dismissing the suggestions would have in effect been the announcement a crash out Brexit and at this tense and critical point no one, not even Mr Johnson, wants to be the one who is remembered as pushing the no-deal button.

One final hope may be another Brexit extension, this could give both sides breathing space from what has been a chaotic and unpredictable two years of talks in tunnels, tense exchanges and political drama.

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