Trade

EU gives cautious response to UKs problematic Brexit plan

Whatever Boris Johnson intended with his Brexit proposal, Brussels is sure of only one thing: the U.K. prime minister could not seriously expect them to agree to it.

Some are even seeing it as a declaration of war.

Johnsons push for sharp divergence from EU customs rules is interpreted by some in Brussels as not only closing off any chance of a deal on a Withdrawal Agreement but also as poisoning the negotiations of a future free trade agreement before they even start. Even before he had formally presented the plan to the European Commission, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar stated that it “does not appear to form the basis for an agreement.”

For many EU officials and diplomats, the most likely scenario is that the proposals are designed to elicit a swift rejection, so that Johnson can apportion blame to Brussels for the “failure of statecraft” that he referred to in his letter introducing the plans to Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. They are especially irked that the prime ministers first detailed offer, put forward at the eleventh hour, was also presented as his last.

“The letter doesnt seem to be addressed to Juncker but first and foremost at British voters,” said one EU27 diplomat. “These solutions require a big leap of faith.”

Another EU official said, “It looks like hes aiming at a no deal but its unclear why. It seems hes just going after new elections.”

Juncker and Johnson spoke by phone on Wednesday after the paperwork arrived from London, and in a statement the Commission reiterated its hope of reaching a deal, even as it said Juncker found some points in the British proposal “problematic.” If Johnson was hoping for a hasty rejection that he could portray as Brussels intransigence, he didnt get it.

In its statement, the Commission said the EU welcomed progress in Johnsons call for “full regulatory alignment” for all goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. That was one aspect of Johnsons proposal that somewhat echoed the backstop provision on the Ireland border already included in the Withdrawal Agreement, and that the EU has said is the only way to protect the integrity of its single market and protect peace on the island of Ireland.

But concerns remain about how it will work, not least because it relies on all trades playing by the rules. “The whole process increases the possibility of smuggling,” one EU official said.

Separating regulatory and customs checks is a particular source of anxiety. “This proposal comes from the people who gave us BSE in 1996 and foot-and-mouth disease in 2001,” said one EU diplomat referring to bovine spongiform encephalopathy, otherwise known as mad cow disease. “Our veterinarians still remember those risks very well.”

But where the backstop would maintain such alignment indefinitely, Johnsons plan envisions it lasting only until the end of a transition period, on December 31, 2020, after which there would be no certainty about how to manage the border — something the EU27 have said would not be acceptable.

“President Juncker welcomed Prime Minister Johnsons determination to advance the talks ahead of the October European Council and make progress towards a deal,” the Commission statement read. “He acknowledged the positive advances, notably with regards to the full regulatory alignment for all goods and the control of goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

“However, the President also noted that there are still some problematic points that will need further work in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop,” the statement said. “The delicate balance struck by the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved. Another concern that needs to be addressed are the substantive customs rules. He also stressed that we must have a legally operational solution that meets all the objectives of the backstop: preventing a hard border, preserving North-South cooperation and the all-island economy, and protecting the EUs Single Market and Irelands place in it.”

The unwillingness of the Commission to reject Johnsons plan outright though highlighted an underlying concern that what is really taking place is not a negotiation toward an eventual deal on the U.K.s departure, but a blame-game, in which each side is maneuvering to have the other held responsibility for a failure to bridge the huge gaps in their positions.

To that end, the EU insisted that it would give the U.K. proposal serious consideration. “The EU wants a deal,” the Commission statement said.

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