Boris Johnson accused of having 'no negotiating strategy' after reiterating Brexit demand to scrap backstop

Just hours before letter to Donald Tusk, one EU leader insisted withdrawal agreement ‘cannot be reopened’

Ashley Cowburn
Political Correspondent
Tuesday 20 August 2019 08:40 BST
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Boris Johnson has been accused of having “no negotiating strategy” after repeating his Brexit demand for the Irish backstop to be scrapped in his first letter to Donald Tusk.

Just hours after one EU leader said the withdrawal agreement “cannot be reopened”, the prime minister described the deal negotiated by Theresa May’s government as “unviable”.

Mr Johnson said the problems with the backstop – the bloc’s insurance policy to prevent a hard border in Northern Ireland – “run much deeper than the simple political reality that it has three times been rejected” by the Commons.

In his four-page letter to the European Council president, he outlined his Brexit red lines, and said the backstop “cannot form part of an agreed withdrawal agreement”.

“This is a fact we must both acknowledge,” he wrote. “I believe the task before us is to strive to find other solutions, and I believe an agreement is possible.”

Ahead of talks with Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel in Paris and Berlin later this week, he described the backstop as “anti-democratic” and “inconsistent” with the UK’s plans for a future relationship with the EU.

But Sir Keir Starmer, the shadow Brexit secretary, said: “The letter confirms that [Mr] Johnson has no negotiating strategy. He suggests (unspecified) alternatives to the backstop. And if they don’t work: further (unspecified) alternatives to the backstop. Why didn’t anyone think of that before.”

Mr Johnson wrote: ”The backstop locks 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.

“The treaty provides no sovereign means of exiting unilaterally and affords the people of Northern Ireland no influence over the legislation which applies to them.”

He concluded his correspondence, adding: “Time is very short. But the UK is ready to move quickly, and, given the degree of common ground already, I hope that the EU will be ready to do likewise.

“I am equally confident that our parliament would be able to act rapidly if we were able to reach a satisfactory agreement which did not contain the ‘backstop’: indeed it has already demonstrated that there is a majority for an agreement on these lines.”

It comes after Mr Johnson insisted he was “confident” of securing fresh concessions from the EU27, who he claimed were “showing a little bit of reluctance at the moment to change their position”.

He continued: “That’s fine – I’m confident that they will – but in the meantime we have to get ready for a no-deal outcome. I want a deal. We’re ready to work with our friends and partners to get a deal, but if you want a good deal for the UK, you must simultaneously get ready to come out without one.”

Before sending the letter, Mr Johnson also held almost an hour-long phone call with his Irish counterpart, Leo Varadkar, with the two leaders agreeing to meet in Dublin early in September.

According to No 10, the prime minister indicated the Brexit withdrawal agreement in its current form will not get through the Commons, and that the “backstop would need to be removed”.

But they admitted the talks remained deadlocked with Brussels, as Mr Varadkar also reiterated the EU’s position that the agreement “cannot be reopened”.

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