Several things remain unclear about Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan, finally unveiled on Wednesday afternoon in a letter to the President of the European Commission, Jean Claude Juncker.
But the most important question without an answer is this: Who he was trying to impress – European leaders or British voters?
If Johnson’s letter was supposed to convince the 27 EU member states that he has a workable Brexit plan which satisfies the needs of both Europe and the UK, then unfortunately, it didn’t.
While the tone of the letter was friendly enough, it was light on detail. He claimed that his plan removed the need for the controversial Irish border backstop, while not breaching the Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement.
He claimed that Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s customs union at the end of the Brexit transition period and possibly end regulatory alignment with Ireland (therefore, the EU). Without a backstop or any alternatives, this means that there would have to be infrastructure on (or near) the Irish border and that the EU’s single market would be compromised. In short, it’s not going to fly.
European diplomats are approaching the plan with caution. While they are delighted that the British government has finally put something forward, there is serious concern that the distance between Johnson’s letter and the EU’s red lines is too wide, given that Brexit is now just 28 days away.
There is also skepticism at Johnson’s claim that he could get a deal based on this plan through his own Parliament, especially if he is forced to make concessions to placate the EU between now and any kind of parliamentary vote.
“We need to have more information to understand the workings of this arrangement. We need to be absolutely sure this doesn’t violate the principles and that Johnson has the parliamentary support. By our calculations, he’s still 35 short,” one EU diplomat told CNN.
That’s what’s being said in private. In public, Ireland’s Leo Varadkar poured a bucket of cold water over Johnson’s proposal. “The objectives do not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop,” he said in a statement after a phone call to Johnson on Wednesday evening.
However, in line with the public positions of many other European leaders, Varadkar added that he would study the proposals in further detail.
The European Parliament, which ultimately has a veto on any Brexit deal as it needs to ratify the treaty, is also very unimpressed. On Thursday, the Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group issued a statement saying that it “does not find these last minute proposals of the UK … represent a basis for an agreement to which the European Parliament could give consent,” and that “the UK proposals do not match even remotely what was agreed as a sufficient compromise.”
Privately, most diplomats think Johnson’s claim that his plan doesn’t breach the Good Friday Agreement is nonsense. And if the alternative solutions to the Irish question existed, we’d have probably seen them in the past three years.
There’s a growing sense that Johnson’s plan might be less a serious proposal to break the deadlock and more a political trap for the EU.
The trap works like this: Johnson puts forward what appears to be a serious attempt at a workable alternative to Theresa May’s thrice-rejected deal. As part of the process, the British Prime Minister demonstrates that he can assemble a majority for the deal in Parliament. (To that end, hardline Brexiteers in his own party have given his plan a cautious welcome, as have a couple of opposition Labour MPs who represent leave-voting constituencies.) That puts huge pressure on the European Union – it cannot reject the plan outright, even though it is plainly unpalatable, lest it be blamed for setting the course for a messy no-deal Brexit on October 31.
For months, the EU has been winning the blame game, thanks in no small part to the fact Johnson had not, until Wednesday, come up with any credible alternative Brexit plan. Now, the EU has no choice but to engage with Johnson’s process. In doing so, it must walk a tightrope: Play nicely while making publicly clear that what Johnson has proposed is unreasonable and unworkable.
Downing Street was briefing on Wednesday that the Johnson plan was a take-it-or-leave-it final offer. But in a keynote speech to his party conference on Wednesday, Johnson was less confrontational. Perhaps, this plan is intended instead as a starting point for talks, and the UK is ready to compromise further. The Prime Minister said on Wednesday that a deal is his preferred outcome, and are good reasons to believe him, Johnson wants to be seen as the savior of Brexit – and achieving the apparently impossible would be the ultimate victory.
However, time is running out and both sides have very little wiggle room. Any concessions by Johnson risks collapsing the fragile majority that Downing Street claims to have assembled behind this plan. Any concessions by EU negotiators would be unacceptable to Ireland.
All of which means that the blame game is about to kick off once more and that people working tirelessly to get Brexit done – as Johnson is so fond of putting it – are about to get much less sleep.