Johnson Aims to Break the Brexit Deadlock With an Irish Border Offer

6 MINS READOct 3, 2019 | 18:52 GMT
Signs point to an old customs and excise area in Newry, Northern Ireland, on Oct. 1, 2019 on the border between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic.

Signs point to an old customs and excise area on the border between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic. After weeks of speculation, leaks and rumors, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson unveiled his plans to replace the so-called Irish backstop on Oct. 2.

(PAUL FAITH/AFP/Getty Images)
The Big Picture

The United Kingdom has proposed a new, more Brexiteer-friendly plan to replace the controversial agreement to keep the Irish border open. But while the proposal includes some concessions that the European Union will welcome, both sides are still far from an agreement.

After weeks of speculation, leaks and rumors, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Oct. 2 finally unveiled his plan to replace the so-called Irish backstop, a major roadblock to the approval of a Brexit deal. Thus far, no proposal to keep the Irish border open after the United Kingdom departs the European Union has won sufficient support. Johnson's document marks his administration's first official stab at breaking the stalemate and securing an orderly exit by Oct. 31.

While Johnson's proposal slightly increases the chances of reaching a deal before that deadline, the European Union will likely reject many of the prime minister's ideas because it does not believe they will suffice to maintain an open border. British and EU negotiators still face complex talks, most likely requiring the United Kingdom to seek a further Brexit extension, followed by a general election. But a no-deal departure cannot be ruled out if Brussels is unwilling to accept the elements of the new proposal and Johnson finds a way to circumvent a law requiring him to seek a delay if a deal has not been made. Johnson's proposal is part of his longer-term strategy to maintain an influential political position in the near-inevitable event of a general election. He hopes his plan will produce a deal, but if it doesn't, it allows him to assert that he was making a good-faith effort to reach one and that either Brussels or Parliament were the ultimate barriers.

What is in the United Kingdom's new Brexit plan for Northern Ireland?

The Johnson government's new proposal includes the following provisions:

  • The British government affirms a promise to avoid a hard border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. The European Union will welcome this commitment, as keeping the Irish border open and preserving the Good Friday peace agreement has been one of Brussels and Dublin's goals from the start.

  • The United Kingdom promises to keep Northern Ireland aligned with the European Union's single-market norms and standards for food, agriculture and manufacturing. This is a notable concession from Johnson's government, which only a few weeks ago insisted that it would not keep Northern Ireland within any of the aspects of the EU single market. However, the provision comes with a catch: Northern Ireland's legislative assembly must approve this alignment with EU rules at the end of 2020. After that, the assembly would have to vote every four years on whether to preserve the arrangement. The European Union will probably reject this idea because it links the future of EU-UK regulatory alignment to political developments in Northern Ireland and the ideological composition of its assembly.

  • The whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, will leave the EU customs union in 2021 so that London can sign free trade agreements around the world. For Brussels, this is the most problematic component of Johnson's proposals because it would necessitate the use of some controls to monitor the products moving across the Irish border. The United Kingdom believes these controls could be positioned far from the border and be made softer with technology and a network of "trusted traders" committed to respecting the agreement. But Dublin and Brussels are not fond of this proposal because it introduces border controls (no matter how slight), opens the door for smuggling and relies on untested technology.

How have EU and British lawmakers reacted?

The European Union has reacted coldly to Johnson's proposal, but the bloc has kept the door open for further negotiations. The Irish government called the current version of Johnson's proposal unacceptable but also welcomed the fact that London has at least come up with a plan. In Oct. 3 statements in Parliament, Johnson admitted that his proposal does not reflect London's final position and that his government is open to negotiating.

British politicians responded more warmly to Johnson's plan; several hard-line Conservative legislators (many of whom voted against former Prime Minister Theresa May's Withdrawal Agreement) said they would support it. Northern Ireland's conservative Democratic Unionist Party also welcomed the proposal. And some Labour Party lawmakers who represent constituencies that voted "leave" in the Brexit referendum also said that they would consider supporting the plan (though Labour officially opposes it). However, support from Brexit hard-liners would likely decrease if the government agrees to modifications that further align Northern Ireland with the European Union. 

How will the Brexit process continue from here?

The European Union approves of some elements of Johnson's plan but disapproves of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the customs union and the proposed periodic reappraisal by the Northern Irish legislative assembly. So, unless London amends the proposal to address the bloc's concerns, the United Kingdom and the European Union are unlikely to reach a deal during the EU summit on Oct. 17.

A Brexit delay is still highly likely — either because Johnson enforces the law requiring him to ask for an extension if no deal is reached by Oct. 19, because he resigns, or because the opposition triggers a successful no-confidence motion against him and appoints a new prime minister who asks for the extension. All of these scenarios would be followed by early general elections.

Will there be early elections?

No matter what happens in the negotiations, the chances of early British general elections in late 2019 or early 2020 are high. (Johnson's Oct. 2 announcement that he will suspend Parliament between Oct. 8 and 14 is one indication that he is preparing for these elections; the Queen will reconvene Parliament with a speech outlining the government's legislative agenda, which will simultaneously serve as a preview of what Johnson's government would look like if he won.) 

If Johnson does manage to make a Brexit deal by Oct. 31, he will want to hold elections so his party can recapture a majority in the House of Commons. And if Johnson fails to reach a deal and the opposition replaces him with a caretaker prime minister, the new leader will ask for a Brexit extension and then immediately call for elections, having fulfilled his or her purpose. Naturally, Brexit would be the central topic of this election, as the conservatives are likely to campaign for a hard Brexit while Labour would be open to organizing another referendum.

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