The Brexit withdrawal agreement signed in 2017 by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and then UK prime minister Theresa May is in jeopardy now that May has been succeeded by Boris Johnson, writes
TO BACKSTOP or not to backstop, that is the question.
On the signing of the Brexit withdrawal agreement in late 2017, the whooping and cheering in Dublin could be heard throughout every European capital city.
Ireland, with the backing of the EU 27, had gotten all it wanted from the British on avoiding a hard border.
Central to that was the so-called backstop. In its simplest terms, the backstop is an insurance policy to avoid a hard border, and it is not time limited.
Under the terms of that deal, the backstop would remain in place until a more suitable solution could be found.
In contrast to the Irish celebrations, it was unlikely to get sufficient support in Westminster.
Ireland and the EU, being so wedded to a non-time-limited backstop, have helped to make a no-deal crash out scenario (the very thing the backstop sought to avoid) far more likely.
At that time, I described the Irish victory as pyrrhic, given what it was likely to cause in London.
Fast forward to last November: Following months of tortuous negotiations, Commons defeats and brinkmanship, a battered and bruised UK prime minister, Theresa May, signed off on the legal text of the withdrawal agreement, which confirmed every demand Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had made.
“ ‘Victory in Dublin, Chaos in London’,” ran the frontpage splash headline in this newspaper on the morning of November 15 last.
Varadkar, grinning from ear to ear, described the occasion as “one of the better days in politics”.
Speaking then at Government Buildings, Varadkar said the 585-page EU-UK deal represents a “decisive” step forward and puts Ireland in a stronger position than last December’s “bulletproof” agreement.
“This deal has turned those commitments into a legal text, a binding treaty,” he said.
“We do now have the insurance policy of the backstop, if all else fails ... unwinding the backstop cannot be a unilateral decision, it can only be taken by both the EU and the UK.”
Before the ink was dry on the deal, it was being denounced by many in May’s own Conservative Party, by the Labour Party, and others.
The backstop had become the main issue of dispute for the Brexiteers, hardline and moderate, who raged at its “undemocratic” nature and branded it as an attack on the sanctity of the glorious union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
Ultimately, the withdrawal agreement failed three times to be passed by the House of Commons, with the toxicity around the backstop growing each time.
Despite this, having negotiated the deal not once, but twice, both Dublin and Brussels dug in on their refusal to reopen the withdrawal agreement, saying it was for London, not them, to deliver a solution to avoid a crash-out Brexit, whenever it happens.
As May’s tenure crumbled, she won a final concession to extend the Brexit deadline to October 31.
And that is where we found ourselves on Wednesday morning, when May prepared for her final act as prime minister and Boris Johnson prepared to take over. On the steps of Downing Street, on his appointment by Queen Elizabeth, Johnson made no bones about his views of the backstop.
“Never mind the backstop, the buck stops here,” he declared to the world’s media, while talking up the desire to throw out the withdrawal agreement and go after a “new deal”.
Such talk was immediately trashed by Varadkar and by Michel Barnier, the EU’s top Brexit negotiator.
Varadkar, speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News, said comments made by the new British prime minister about the Irish backstop are “not in the real world”, adding the two administrations are “at odds. Confidence and enthusiasm are not a substitute for a European policy or a foreign policy. So we will need to hear in detail what he has in mind. I think what I would like to do is hear from him, to put some flesh on the bones of what he said today,” Varadkar said.
Undeterred, Johnson then set about purging May’s Cabinet, with 18 ministerial changes.
He installed many of the leading lights of the 2016 Vote Leave campaign, including many failed and disgraced characters.
On Thursday, despite record temperatures across Europe, there was a noticeable chill in the diplomatic air, as Johnson rose to deliver his first Commons speech as prime minister.
His bombastic refuting of the deal struck by his battered predecessor was so explicit that it bordered on the ridiculous.
He started by paying a hollow tribute to May, who was not present.
“Before I begin, I am sure that the whole House will join me in paying tribute to my right hon. friend, the member for Maidenhead (Ms May), for all that she has given to the service of our nation,” he said.
But then he went on to trash her efforts in office.
“The withdrawal agreement negotiated by my predecessor has been three times rejected by this House. Its terms are unacceptable to this parliament and to this country.
“No country that values its independence, and indeed its self-respect, could agree to a treaty that signed away our economic independence and self-government, as this backstop does. A time limit is not enough. If an agreement is to be reached, it must be clearly understood that the way to the deal goes by way of the abolition of the backstop,” he said.
“For our part, we are ready to negotiate, in good faith, an alternative, with provisions to ensure that the Irish border issues are dealt with where they should always have been: in the negotiations on the future agreement between the UK and the EU.”
Once again, the reaction from Dublin and Brussels was emphatic. There can be no renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement.
Barnier rejected the demand as unacceptable and incompatible with the Brexit negotiating mandate agreed by European leaders.
Varadkar said he did not accept the charge that the backstop was “anti-democratic in some way”, a charge made by Johnson.
“I don’t accept that analysis. This is something that the majority of people in Northern Ireland want, the majority of members of the Assembly want, two out of three MEPs want, the majority of political parties support; and bear in mind the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union; and as one of the co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, I have to respect that, and I’ve a solemn duty in that regard,” Varadkar said.
With EU leaders not due to meet again until October 12, there is no realistic possibility of a new deal, as demanded by Johnson.
One can only hope that the summer recess will bring some common sense to proceedings, but if it doesn’t, many can legitimately question the decision of the Irish Government to force the backstop issue so vehemently.
With 97 days to go to deadline, an extension is likely, but this week’s rhetoric shows clearly how precarious the situation is.