European Union leaders are telling Boris Johnson that they won’t give his plan to replace the backstop serious consideration unless he drops two of its main components. They demand that there should not only be no hard border, but also no customs checks of any kind on the island of Ireland, implying that Northern Ireland must belong to the customs union and the single market. They also refuse to countenance giving a role to a revived Northern Irish assembly, which they interpret as granting the power of veto to the DUP.
Supposedly, the EU is refusing to negotiate and hence risking a no-deal at the behest of Leo Varadkar — the Prime Minister of a country that has twice before reversed the democratic result of its referendums, on the Treaties of Nice and Lisbon. When the chips are down, Brussels has been prepared to put pressure on Dublin. The conclusion must therefore be that Ireland is the pretext rather than the reason for the EU’s intransigence.
What, then, are the real grounds for this refusal to engage with the British? First, there has been a consistent tendency to underestimate Boris Johnson’s commitment to the idea of democratic consent. It’s not as if the EU was not warned that he meant business.
Nearly two months ago, on August 19, the Prime Minister set out his objections to the backstop in a long letter to the President of the Council of Ministers — a document that TheArticle dubbed the “Dear Donald Letter”. In it, Boris Johnson stated that “the backstop is anti-democratic”. It “will bind us into a customs union” from which there would be “no sovereign means of exiting unilaterally” and it “affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them”. He could hardly have been clearer. Yet now, seven weeks later, EU leaders profess to be surprised and dismayed that the Prime Minister insists on the principle of democratic consent, both for Northern Ireland and for the UK as a whole.
The second reason why the EU is playing hardball now has to do with the Opposition’s antics in Westminster in general and the Benn Act in particular. If Boris Johnson is forced to beg for another extension to Article 50, then Brussels has no incentive to give ground.
Here too, however, it would be a great mistake to underestimate Boris Johnson. He is pressing ahead with a Queen’s Speech next week, which means that he is ready to go to the country at any time with a full legislative programme. The latest Opinium survey gives the Tories a 15 point lead over Labour. It might be rogue poll, but it suggests that well over a third of the public is impressed by this Prime Minister’s handling of Brexit so far. His rivals, Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson, are out of sight. Even Sir John Curtice, the psephologist, concurs. And talk of a Government of National Unity led by John Bercow, the most divisive Speaker in history, indicates that the Opposition is clutching at straws. The omens are good for a Conservative election victory, possibly even a landslide.
This outlook does not mean that the path ahead for the Government is likely to be smooth. If September was a bumpy ride, October promises to be a rollercoaster. Downing Street is refusing to show its hand on how it proposes to circumvent the “surrender Bill”, but the Scottish Court of Sessions is due to rule imminently on the penalties the Prime Minister could face if he tries to avoid another extension. The legal consensus is that he will be left with no choice but to comply, and the Attorney General has promised to resign rather than break the law. But where there’s a will, there’s a way — and Boris has a will to survive that has seen him through numerous setbacks before.
Antti Rinne, the Prime Minister of Finland (which now holds the rotating EU presidency), says: “It seems Johnson only now understands what a big mess this is and he’s having a hard time making a suggestion that will get him out of it.” Rinne has it the wrong way round. Boris Johnson has made his offer and he has his Plan B: a no-deal Brexit, followed by an election. It’s the EU that’s in a mess. And the only way out of it is to start taking not only the British Prime Minister, but the British people, rather more seriously.