October 3, 2019 / 10:12 AM / 8 months ago

Breakingviews - Boris Johnson’s Brexit long shot is short of time

Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he gives a closing speech at the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain, October 2, 2019.

LONDON (Reuters Breakingviews) - Boris Johnson has launched a long-shot Brexit plan with a very short timetable. The British prime minister’s much-anticipated alternative blueprint for leaving the European Union has several major flaws. But even if Brussels is willing to negotiate a deal in time for a summit due to be held in two weeks, it’s far from clear that the UK parliament would pass it.

The best thing about the former London mayor’s proposal is that he has finally produced one. As expected, it ditches the so-called Northern Ireland backstop negotiated by his predecessor Theresa May. Her proposal sought to avoid the reintroduction of a hard border with Ireland, but parliament rejected it three times. Johnson’s plan would see Northern Ireland effectively submit to EU rules on agricultural and manufactured goods, removing the need for regulatory controls on items that enter the EU single market by crossing the Irish border.

Johnson’s plan also has some less appealing features. Northern Ireland would still exit the EU customs union, so goods passing across the border would be subject to customs controls - and potentially tariffs if the UK’s approach to trade diverges from the EU’s. The British government says many of these checks could be automated or, where necessary, take place away from the frontier. Even if this were feasible, it would be a big shift from the government’s previous promise not to introduce a hard border.

Johnson also wants to subject the arrangements to “democratic consent” in Northern Ireland every four years. This may have been necessary to win the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, whose opposition helped scupper May’s Brexit plan. But the Irish government seems unlikely to accept a vague provision that would give politicians across the border the power to unilaterally scupper the deal.

The EU will probably try to keep negotiations going, if only to minimise Johnson’s ability to blame Brussels if he fails to deliver Brexit by Oct. 31, as promised, or finds a way to crash out of the EU without a deal. But as long as the prime minister lacks a parliamentary majority, concessions are likely to be small. Any definitive showdown may have to until after Britain has again extended the Brexit deadline and Johnson’s defiant stance has been tested by voters in a general election.


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