Since entering No. 10, Boris Johnson has made clear that any route to a Brexit deal must involve ditching the backstop that currently sits in the withdrawal agreement. If that’s not possible, he intends to take the UK out of the EU without a deal. The backstop was the major stumbling block for Theresa May passing that deal – something she failed to do three times – and her government had sought to secure a time limit to make it more palatable to MPs. Brussels refused to play ball. With Johnson asking for more drastic changes, will he have any luck?
So far, the signs are not particularly positive. While EU Commission officials and EU leaders have engaged in dialogue with Johnson, Michel Barnier has suggested that Johnson’s approach as Prime Minister to Brexit is ‘combative’ while Jean Claude Juncker has told Johnson that the EU27 will not give in to his demand to renegotiate the withdrawal agreement – though changes to the political declaration are possible. But the most spiky intervention on the EU side has come this afternoon from Leo Varadkar.
The Taoiseach has insisted that the withdrawal agreement will not be renegotiated and claimed that a no deal Brexit would raise ‘very serious questions about the future of Northern Ireland’. Speaking to the MacGill Summer School, he said such a scenario would make citizens in Northern Ireland ‘come to question the union’. He then went on to say – with some self awareness – that it would be ‘provocative’ to discuss a potential united Ireland before Brexit but suggested that this could ‘obviously could change in the event of a hard Brexit’.
The Johnson strategy is to convince EU leaders that the UK is serious about leaving – even if that means without a deal. This is a challenge as right now the view in Brussels is that Parliament will overrule Johnson and stop such an exit. If Johnson can, however, show that his plan has support across the country, this could change. If Johnson can even suggest that through an early election he can deliver a majority and thereby a no deal Brexit, it could be enough to make Brussels think twice at refusing to entertain the idea of any changes to the withdrawal agreement.
However, crucial to all of this is Ireland as up until now EU leaders have been inclined to listen to what Ireland wants on the issue – thereby proving all member states are listened to. Varadkar’s dialling up of the rhetoric puts Brussels and the UK on the course for an almighty smash as the October 31st deadline nears – increasing the chances both of a no deal Brexit and an early election.