Britain’s fatal error was not to challenge the EU’s position that the only way to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland is for Northern Ireland to have the same regulations for trade as Ireland and the EU, writes BORIS JOHNSON in an exclusive essay for the News Letter:
It is now completely obvious that the government made a dreadful mistake in December last year.
The agreement on Ireland it made then was based on false premises. The DUP, and some of us from within government, said at the time it would limit our choices and tie our negotiating hand. It is now clear we were right. Its implications for the unity of the United Kingdom are severe.
The only way to put things back on the right track is to ditch the backstop and then to chuck Chequers.
The fatal error was not to challenge the EU’s position that the only way of avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland — an objective we all share — is for Northern Ireland to have the same regulations for trade as Ireland and the rest of the EU. Instead, our government has accepted that argument, seemingly adding, wrongly, that to do otherwise would be a breach of the spirit of the Belfast Agreement.
So the government agreed in December to accept “full alignment” with the EU on certain aspects of the single market and customs union — the so-called “backstop” — unless alternative arrangements were agreed between us and the EU. At the time we were told that “full alignment” meant that UK regulations could diverge as long as they had similar aims.
That has turned out to be false, and the DUP’s concerns have been amply justified.
The details of this backstop are now being filled in and our government must by now realise it is engaged in a negotiation in which all the outcomes are unacceptable. Hence the frantic activity and the attempts to obfuscate the reality of what is happening.
On the one hand, the EU’s position has been that the backstop only applies to Northern Ireland — that is, that it must be ejected from the UK’s customs territory and annexed to the EU’s, and that there must be checks between Northern Ireland and the rest of our country. That is obviously a non-starter.
But the government’s counter-proposal is just as bad. It is that not only must Northern Ireland be in the single market, but that the whole of the UK must stay in the customs union, until the EU agrees that we are ready to leave — which they may never do.
Either outcome is bad for Northern Ireland and bad for the whole of the UK.
Bad for Northern Ireland, because either way there will be new barriers to free trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, and because Northern Ireland will be subject to single market laws over which it has no democratic say. This will put Northern Ireland into a fundamentally different position to the rest of the UK.
But it is bad for all of us too. Once we have agreed to stay in the customs union indefinitely if necessary, why would the EU agree to any other outcome in future? The government well understands how weak the backstop makes its future negotiating hand — which is why it has proposed Chequers, which involves reconciling ourselves to membership of the customs union, the single market for goods, and much more, for ever.
If we let this go it will be the greatest national humiliation since Suez. It is mortifying enough to see our country set on the way to dismemberment: it is worse still to actively acquiesce in it.
We will be heading for colony status, with many laws imposed on us, with no control over our trade, and with internal checks at the behest of a foreign power. This is an impossible position for the fifth biggest economy in the world.
The right answer of course is to reject the premise of the December 2017 agreement, ie that Ireland and UK cannot have different rules without a hard border. Indeed the current reality proves this to be simply wrong. There is a border between NI and Ireland already and plenty of rules and regulations are different on either side of it. The consequences are managed now and can be in the future too.
So there is no alternative, however difficult it may now be so late in the day, to junking this backstop and taking a much more robust approach to the negotiation so as to make a SuperCanada deal possible. The legal unity of our country, our right to determine democratically the laws which bind us: these things are not negotiable. We must start making this clear.
• Mr Johnson is Conservative MP for Uxbridge and South Ruislip