Is the Irish border problem being used to frustrate Brexit? That’s the claim made by the Foreign Secretary this morning. After Sky News published an excerpt of a letter Boris Johnson wrote to the Prime Minister in which he appeared to concede that physical infrastructure at the border post-Brexit was an option, Johnson gave a breakfast interview (straight from his run) to try and clarify his comments. Johnson insisted the letter he wrote was ‘very good’ (and said he looks forward to publishing it in full) but warned that the border issue was being exploited by those who wish to frustrate Brexit:
‘What is going on at the moment is that the issue of the Northern Irish border is being used quite a lot politically to try and keep the UK in the customs union – effectively the single market – so we cannot really leave the EU. That is what is going on.’
This is a growing concern among Brexiteers. And it’s certainly not helped by draft EU withdrawal treaty that proposes a ‘backstop’ which says that if no better solution is found, Northern Ireland would remain in ‘full alignment’ with the EU’s single market and customs union.
Now the agreement the UK government reached with Brussels on the Irish border in stage one was always regarded as something of a fudge. It was a series of words that could mean different things to different groups – Brussels, the Republic of Ireland, the UK government, Boris Johnson, Philip Hammond and, of course, the DUP. What’s makes things even harder, however, is that the text was very clear on what would constitutes a hard border – no physical infrastructure. That means the workarounds are limited.
Now Brexiteers worry that opponents of Brexit are using the issue to try and bounce the UK into a ‘soft Brexit’ of staying in ‘a’ customs union. There’s a clear co-ordinated effort in recent weeks to push for this – and added pressure on the Tories over this now that Labour has backed ‘a’ customs union. However, the other side say that if the UK government have an alternative solution to the Irish border then they are more than willing to hear it. The problem for Theresa May is that the Conservative approach to solving the problem is to work out the trade relationship first and then work out how that can be made compatible with the agreed Irish border text. This means their solution can’t make it into the legal agreement on phase one of the talks, which didn’t include any discussions on trade. Whether they can go about it in this order remains unknown.