Maybe the EU should welcome Johnson’s exit plan

  • Johnson gets his deal: former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams speaks during a meeting in Dundalk, at the border between Britainís Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that is inside Europe

    Johnson gets his deal: former Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams speaks during a meeting in Dundalk, at the border between Britainís Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland that is inside Europe

  • Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist

    Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist

Boris Johnsonís new Brexit proposal has gotten such a chilly reception in Europe that some people think it must have been designed to be rejected: Johnson is less interested in getting a deal, on this theory, than in deflecting blame for the inevitable breakdown.

No doubt Britainís prime minister is capable of that kind of calculation. But itís also possible heís acting in good faith, and itís worth noting that the two sides are still talking.

Johnsonís proposal is, as he says, a ďfair and reasonableĒ compromise, and a real improvement over the withdrawal agreement that his predecessor Theresa May reached with the European Union (and that the House of Commons rejected three times).

From the start, the main sticking point in the talks has been what Brexit means for the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Johnsonís plan would leave the North, which is part of the UK, inside the EUís single market for goods, while taking the province (along with the rest of the UK) outside the EUís customs union.

The result would be ďtwo bordersĒ, a regulatory border between all of Ireland and the UK, and a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.

Alignment with the EU single market would avoid the need for regulatory checks on goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland; checks would instead be needed on goods moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.

Exiting the EUís customs union would require checks for goods moving between Northern Ireland and Ireland, but these could be done away from the border, according to Johnson, using trusted-trader and other schemes to smooth the process.

In practical terms, the border would be, as now, invisible.

Granted, this is all very complicated ó but any viable solution to the border conundrum is going to be complicated.

The UK could simply remain a member of the EU, of course, allowing the Irish border to dictate its constitutional and economic choices.

Or, as Theresa Mayís withdrawal agreement proposed, it could leave the union in the sense of no longer having any say in its policies, while being forced to follow most of them for as long as the EU saw fit.

But if the UK intends to leave the EU to pursue an independent trade policy and recover its national sovereignty, right or wrong, not an unreasonable ambition ó then complicated arrangements to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland are going to be necessary.

The leader of the European Parliamentís Brexit steering group said Johnsonís plan was ďrepackaging old, bad ideasĒ.

Irelandís Prime Minister, Leo Varadkar, said it offered no basis for agreement.

If the EU keeps insisting on no checks whatsoever on goods moving between North and South, not even customs checks away from the border, the plain implication is that Brexit requires the economic annexation of Northern Ireland to the EU.

Itís possible, of course, that this would be in Northern Irelandís longer-term interests. But imposing it abruptly surely cannot be defended, as Ireland and the EU wish to defend it, as upholding the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which depends on the consent of Northern Irish unionists and nationalists alike.

Johnson says that Northern Ireland should periodically affirm its consent to this proposed regulatory alignment with the EU.

Europeís leaders find that troubling, the notion of consent often gives them pause, and the idea raises other problems, not least that the Belfast Assembly is currently suspended.

The issue underlines that if any party to these talks should be worried by Johnsonís plan, itís the Northern Irish unionists, a group previously accused of dictating UK policy.

Avoiding a border in the Irish Sea has up to now been the unionistsí main red line.

Moreover, Northern Irish businesses reacted to Johnsonís plan with dismay.

If itís implemented, there might be no visible border on the island of Ireland, but the new procedures required for the North to trade with the UK, Ireland and the rest of the world will be even more burdensome than its companies had feared.

So you might have expected the government in Dublin to sense an opportunity in the ideas theyíve just denounced.

Agree to what Johnson proposes; avoid the no-deal outcome that would do grave damage to Ireland; co-operate in maintaining an invisible border with the North and peace on the island; and sit back as the North gets used to that border in the Irish Sea, enjoying the benefits of regulatory alignment with Ireland and the EU, while the rest of the UK goes its own way.

Uphold the principle of consent that many EU leaders find so alarming, and see majority opinion in the North come around to the view that the time for Irish unification has arrived. In the short term, Johnson gets his win. For Europe and Ireland, it might be a good long-term investment.

Clive Crook is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist

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Published Oct 5, 2019 at 8:00 am (Updated Oct 5, 2019 at 1:36 am)

Maybe the EU should welcome Johnson’s exit plan

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