As Boris Johnson settles in at 10 Downing Street as Britain’s new prime minister on the promise to “get Brexit done”, EU leaders have reiterated their commitment to the deal and said so-called “mini deals” would not ensure an orderly UK exit from the European Union.
After a special meeting with chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier, the European Parliament’s Brexit Steering Group (BSG) said on Wednesday that “an orderly exit is only possible if citizens’ rights, the financial settlement and the backstop, that, in all circumstances, ensures no hardening of the border on the Island of Ireland, safeguards the Good Friday Agreement and protects the integrity of the Single Market, are guaranteed”.
All three issues are addressed in the withdrawal agreement, the legally binding part of the Brexit deal which the new UK prime minister has vowed to renegotiate with the EU, despite EU leaders repeatedly affirming their position that talks on the withdrawal agreement will not be re-opened.
“The BSG reaffirmed its commitment to the Withdrawal Agreement. It noted that the UK Government, pursuant to European Council Decision (EU) 2019/584, has agreed that the Agreement cannot be reopened,” the statement said.
“The BSG is open, however, to consider changes to the Political Declaration, in particular, if such changes provided for much greater detail and a more ambitious future EU-UK partnership such that deployment of the Irish backstop would not be necessary.”
Barnier added that “the no-deal Brexit will never be the choice of the EU”.
“But we are prepared for an orderly Brexit,” he told reporters in Brussels, adding that the EU would work with the UK in a constructive spirit to “facilitate the ratification of the withdrawal agreement”.
‘Do or die’
Johnson, a former foreign secretary and London mayor, was announced on Tuesday as the winner of the Conservative Party’s leadership contest and elected by the party’s 160,000 members.
He was sworn in as prime minister after Theresa May officially stepped down on Wednesday.
A hard Brexiteer, he has come to power on a promise to take the UK out of the EU by the new deadline of October 31, with or without a deal.
While May also used the threat of a no-deal Brexit to gain negotiating leverage with the bloc, Johnson’s “do or die” attitude and ramped-up rhetoric about a no-deal Brexit sent UK’s currency tumbling to two-year lows during the leadership race in recent weeks.
Both Johnson and his defeated rival Jeremy Hunt had vowed to scrap the backstop protocol within the withdrawal agreement.
The protocol was opposed by the hard Brexiters and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland over concerns about EU trade rules constraining the UK economy indefinitely, or the creation of a “sea border” dividing Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK in order to avoid border infrastructure in the island of Ireland.
The BSG also dismissed prominent Brexiters’ claims that “there is no such thing as no deal” and that there are “all sorts of side deals” as former chancellor Norman Lamont claimed on Tuesday.
“[The BSG] commends the preparedness and contingency measures taken by the EU Institutions and 27 Member States in preparation for a no-deal exit, but stresses that such an exit will not be mitigated by any form of arrangements or mini deals between the EU and the UK,” the statement added.
Johnson has threatened to withhold payments the UK owes to the EU for its membership to force EU leaders back to the negotiating table and reopen the deal May reached after 18 painstaking months of negotiations – which was then rejected three times by MPs, eventually leading to her demise.
‘There aren’t alternatives’
Simon Usherwood, deputy director of the academic think-tank UK in a Changing Europe and a professor of politics at the University of Surrey, told Al Jazeera that the issue of mini deals was merely “presentational”.
“Those agreements are just temporary,” said Usherwood, arguing that while they mitigate some of the effects of a no-deal Brexit, “on top of the EU’s agenda would be still addressing the content of the withdrawal agreement – the financial liabilities, citizen’s rights, the backstop”.
“Sometimes, you have the impression that British politicians think if they can just ditch or kill this deal, all these problems will go away because the EU won’t chase them any more,” he said.
Instead, they would simply remain unresolved without “an obvious, immediate mechanism for addressing them”.
“If there is a substantial plan that there is another way of meeting the EU’s and the UK’s concerns, I think the EU will consider it,” Usherwood argued. “But given how much time has been spent on this issue … the lack of alternatives suggests that there aren’t alternatives.”
“Maybe it’s possible to have something that is more cosmetic, symbolic,” said Usherwood, adding that this could include changing part of the backstop so that the custom area applies only to Northern Ireland rather than to the whole of the UK.
But by doing so, Johnson would lose the DUP, whose 10 MPs the Conservative Party relies on for its majority in the House of Commons. The party is firmly opposed to seeing Northern Ireland treated differently from the rest of the UK.
“He doesn’t have a majority in his own party and it’s not clear that any opposition party would be willing to help him get [the deal] over the line,” Usherwood said.