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Brexit: EU unconvinced by Johnson's fresh bid to remove backstop

Rowena Mason, Rajeev Syal and Jennifer Rankin
Photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters

Boris Johnson has written to the EU suggesting the backstop could be replaced by some form of commitment to prevent a hard Irish border in his first major move to explain the UK government’s new position to Brussels.

Ahead of talks with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron, Johnson released a four-page letter setting out his position that the backstop is “anti-democratic and inconsistent with the sovereignty of the UK”, because it could keep the UK indefinitely in a customs union with no means of exit.

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He proposed that alternative customs arrangements could be put in place at the Irish border within the two-year transitional period after Brexit, but suggested some unspecified commitments could give confidence that there will be no hard border on the island if this system is not ready by that point.

The release of the letter, addressed to Donald Tusk, the European council president, appears intended to portray Johnson as willing to negotiate with Brussels, even though he is making a demand for the abolition of the backstop that they have repeatedly rebuffed.

On Monday night Brussels sources once again ruled out any renegotiation of the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop. “There was a two and a half year negotiating process in which the EU compromised, including on the question of the backstop,” a well-informed source told the Guardian.

“The withdrawal agreement is not open for renegotiation and the backstop is not open for change. A legally operable backstop to avoid a hard border remains central to the withdrawal agreement for the EU27.”

Earlier in the day, the prime minister claimed to be confident that EU leaders would be receptive to his arguments, but said he was still willing to pursue a no-deal Brexit on 31 October, despite the leak of a confidential Operation Yellowhammer paper predicting it would cause food, medicine and petrol shortages as well as public unrest.

The letter emerged after Johnson spent almost an hour on a phone call to the Irish taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, which ended in stalemate. At the end of the call, they released a joint statement acknowledging no progress over the issue of the backstop but Johnson has agreed to go to Dublin for talks with Varadkar in early September.

The EU did not immediately respond to the letter but the bloc has been clear from the start it will not reopen the withdrawal agreement and the backstop is not up for negotiation.

Johnson’s proposal of alternative arrangements is a longstanding demand of Brexit-supporting Conservative MPs who claim solutions can be found to get around the need for checks and infrastructure at the border, despite critics saying the technology does not exist.

However, the idea of commitments to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland appears to be a new proposal and may fuel speculation that Johnson would be open to a device similar to the backstop that he can rebadge as a concession.

Johnson said: “I propose that the backstop should be replaced with a commitment to put in place such arrangements as far as possible before the end of the transition period, as part of the future relationship. I also recognise that there will need to be a degree of confidence about what would happen if these arrangements were not all fully in place at the end of that period. We are ready to look constructively and flexibly at what commitments might help, consistent of course with the principles set out in this letter.”

Johnson begins the letter with a three-point explanation of why he regards the backstop as unacceptable. His first claim is that it is anti-democratic because it could lock “the UK potentially indefinitely into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland”.

It then states the backstop is incompatible with the UK’s aims of ultimately diverging from EU regulations – a key plank of the Vote Leave campaign in the referendum. It also makes a new charge that the backstop undermines the Good Friday agreement, which is directly contrary to the EU’s claims that it protects that peace settlement.

EU sources had hoped Johnson might “play the game” by talking tough on the backstop, while renegotiating the political declaration on the future relationship – a non-binding document the EU remains open to changing. But on Monday night hopes of a classic Brussels compromise looked doomed.

The letter “is a total moving of the goal posts on an issue of great importance and sensitivity that affects the lives of people on the island of Ireland”, the senior EU source said.

Tony Lloyd, the shadow Northern Ireland secretary, said: “Boris Johnson seems to have forgotten that he voted for Theresa May’s deal including the backstop. Whichever Brexit outcome he pursues, whether it’s a disastrous no deal or this fantasyland wishlist, Boris Johnson clearly has no qualms about putting jobs, rights, prosperity or peace in Northern Ireland at risk.”

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Alberto Costa, a Tory MP campaigning to ensure EU citizens’ rights, told BBC Newsnight that he thought the letter was paving the way for Johnson to ultimately bring back a “rehashed version of Theresa May’s deal” that the new prime minister could be able to get through the House of Commons with the help of some Labour votes.

Johnson will travel to Germany on Wednesday for talks with Merkel and to Paris on Thursday for discussions with Macron, but Downing Street sources said they are not expecting any end to the deadlock this week. Instead, they believe EU leaders will be watching the first two weeks of September as some Tory MPs join opposition parties in an attempt to block a no-deal Brexit on 31 October.

The rebels dismiss this view, saying the EU is not planning to budge in any circumstances. A letter from 20 Conservative MPs, coordinated by the former chancellor Philip Hammond, accuses Johnson of setting the bar too high in negotiations by demanding the complete abolition of the backstop, setting the UK on a course towards no deal.

“We will be ready to come out on October 31, deal or no deal,” Johnson said during a visit to Truro in Cornwall on Monday. “Now of course our friends and partners on the other side of the Channel are showing a little bit of reluctance at the moment to change their position.”

A scheduled first meeting with Jean-Claude Juncker, the outgoing European commission president, has been abandoned because Juncker is recovering from surgery to remove his gallbladder. However, Johnson did speak to Donald Trump, the US president, on Monday, ahead of the G7 summit in Biarritz.

Trump later tweeted:

A Downing Street spokesman said: “They discussed economic issues and our trading relationship, and the prime minister updated the president on Brexit. The leaders looked forward to seeing each other at the summit this weekend.”

No 10 said the prime minister has been clear “there cannot be any actual negotiations unless the backstop goes; that’s the message he has delivered to leaders in his phone conversations and he will do that face to face.

“We have been clear that what the EU needs to understand is unless the withdrawal agreement can be reopened and the backstop abolished, there isn’t any prospect of a deal.”

Asked why the meetings with Merkel and Macron were taking place, Downing Street said: “The PM believes it’s important to speak to the leaders of France and Germany to deliver the message that he’s been setting out through the phone calls face to face.”