Johnson and Varadkar clash over Irish backstop in phone call

Taoiseach tells new PM in first chat that EU will not scrap it as part of reopening Brexit talks

Boris Johnson and Leo Varadkar have clashed over the Irish backstop in their first phone call, with the Irish taoiseach saying the EU is united in the view that it cannot be scrapped and the withdrawal agreement will not be reopened.

Johnson finally spoke to Varadkar almost a week after becoming prime minister, telling him the UK would never put physical checks or infrastructure at the border with Northern Ireland after Brexit but demanding the backstop be scrapped.

The British prime minister had been accused of snubbing Varadkar by leaving it so long to speak to him, even though the Irish leader will be central to whether he can agree a new withdrawal deal with the EU.

A spokesman for Varadkar said: The taoiseach emphasised to the prime minister that the backstop was necessary as a consequence of decisions taken in the UK and by the UK government.

Noting that the Brexit negotiations take place between the UK and the EU, the taoiseach explained that the EU was united in its view that the withdrawal agreement could not be reopened.

Alternative arrangements could replace the backstop in the future, as envisaged in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration on the future relationship, but thus far satisfactory options have yet to be identified and demonstrated.

Quick guide

What is the Brexit ‘backstop’?

What is the original ‘backstop’ in the Withdrawal Agreement?

Variously described as an insurance policy or safety net, the backstop is a device in the Withdrawal Agreement intended to ensure that there will not be a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, even if no formal deal can be reached on trade and security arrangements.

It would mean that if there were no workable agreement on such matters, Northern Ireland would stay in the customs union and much of the single market, guaranteeing a friction-free border with the Republic. This would keep the Good Friday agreement intact.

Both the UK and EU signed up to the basic idea in December 2017 as part of the initial Brexit deal, but there have been disagreements since on how it would work.

The DUP have objected to it, as it potentially treats Northern Ireland differently from the rest of the UK, creating a customs divide in the Irish sea, which is anathema to the unionist party.

Hardline Tory Eurosceptics also object to it, as they perceive it to be a trap that could potentially lock the UK into the EU’s customs union permanently if the UK & EU cannot seal a free trade agreement. That would prevent the country from doing its own free trade deals with nations outside the bloc.

What was added to May’s withdrawal agreement?

Joint interpretative instrument

A legal add-on to the withdrawal agreement was given to Theresa May in January 2019 to try and get her deal through the UK parliament. It gives legal force to a letter from Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk, the presidents of the commission and council. This stated the EUs intention to negotiate an alternative to the backstop so it would not be triggered, or, if it was triggered, to get out of it as quickly as possible.

Unilateral statement from the UK

This set out the British position that, if the backstop was to become permanent and talks on an alternative were going nowhere, the UK believes it would be able to exit the arrangement.

Additional language in political declaration

This emphasises the urgency felt on both sides to negotiate an alternative to the backstop, and flesh out what a technological fix would look like. However, it failed to persuade the attorney general, Geoffrey Cox, who said that while it ‘reduces the risk’ of the UK being trapped in a backstop indefinitely, it does not remove it.

What happens next?

During their campaigns to become prime minister, both Conservative party leadership contenders Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt appear to havedeclared the Northern Ireland backstop dead, and promised to throw it out of any deal they negotiate with the EU. The EU has repeatedly stated that it will not re-open the Withdrawal Agreement for re-negotiation.

Daniel Boffey, Martin BelamandPeter Walker

An Irish government spokesman added: The taoiseach restated the need for both governments to be fully committed to the Good Friday agreement, the protection of the peace process and the restoration of the Northern Ireland institutions.

He recalled that the agreement requires the sovereign government to exercise power with rigorous impartiality on behalf of all the people in full respect for their rights, equality, parity of esteem and just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos and aspirations of both communities.

Varadkar invited Johnson to Dublin for further talks on Brexit.

A No 10 spokesman said both leaders committed to a warm and deep relationship between Ireland and the UK.

But Johnson made clear his view the UK would be leaving the EU on 31 October regardless of whether a deal has been struck and that any new agreement must be one that abolishes the backstop.

Varadkar has ruled out a deal without the backstop, which Eurosceptic Tory MPs refused to vote for because they argued it could indefinitely trap the UK in a customs union after the end of the transitional period.

The Republic of Ireland regards the backstop as integral to preventing a return to a hard border with Northern Ireland if new customs arrangements have not been put in place by the time the UK leaves.

The No 10 spokesman said: On Brexit, the prime minister made clear that the UK will be leaving the EU on October 31, no matter what.

He said that in all scenarios, the government will be steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast agreement and will never put physical checks or physical infrastructure on the border.

Johnson has not yet put forward a clear proposal for replacing the backstop but some senior Tory MPs believe the solution lies in alternative arrangements, whereby hi-tech customs checks could be conducted away from the border.

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