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Why Brexit talks have stalled over Boris Johnson’s plans for the Irish border

If you’re looking to make sense of why Brexit is blocked, it’s worth considering that it has two basic dimensions. The first is the negotiation between the European Union and the UK on the terms for the latter leaving the former. The second is the negotiation – or, more often, the power plays – between the British government and the rest of the UK’s political system. If Theresa May’s premiership was focused on the first dimension, then Boris Johnson’s has shifted very much to the second.

As a brief reflection might demonstrate, neither approach has been particularly successful. The reason is that both, in their own ways, have assumed that if you’re able to secure a deal on one dimension, then the other will automatically snap into place. That misunderstanding has been especially evident since Johnson announced his more formal proposals for a new legal text on the Irish dimension of the withdrawal agreement.

In essence, the proposals sought to replace the Irish backstop, which was designed to ensure a permanent fall-back system would be in place after Brexit to preserve the Good Friday Agreement but provoked an insurmountable backlash against May’s original deal. Johnson instead proposed that Northern Ireland should continue to be aligned with the EU on regulations on goods and committed to discussing customs arrangements.

Number 10 has also suggested that the Northern Ireland Assembly should give its consent to the introductions of the new arrangements, and renew that consent every four years thereafter.

In so doing, Johnson was seeking to address a number of fundamental problems with May’s deal on the backstop. First, there had been opposition from Tory ranks about the maintenance of a customs relationship in the backstop, which would have covered the entire UK. This would have meant that the scope for concluding free trade deals with other parts of the world would be limited, since the UK would be bound by the EU’s rules.

Second, and more critically, the backstop was specifically designed to be “all-weather” – that is, it would kick in at any point that there wasn’t an alternative arrangement (agreed by both the UK and EU) in place. In practice, that meant once it was activated, the UK would not be able to deactivate it without the EU’s approval. Such a potential lock on British action raised very many hackles.

So Johnson’s team floated this alternative, taking a considerable amount of care to craft a document that could get the buy-in of the harder end of the Conservative party, the DUP and even some of the non-aligned rebels in parliament.

And, indeed, various figures have announced that they could live with the deal –maybe not a robust majority of MPs, but certainly something that reached parts May’s deal never had.

At this point, the price of that buy-in became clear: the EU is not minded to go for it. From its perspective, there has been very little to commend Johnson’s text. Crucially, the proposal is largely a promise to talk, but with nothing said about what happens if talks are inconclusive. This runs entirely contrary to the purpose of the original backstop.

Michel Barnier, the European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, and Irish foreign minister Simon Coveney meet in Brussels for talks. EPA

This is only amplified by the intention to give Stormont a vote on the arrangements. Quite apart from the absence of a functioning Northern Irish executive that might manage the discussions, the mechanism would raise the prospect of recurring debates about the durability of any provisions that were to be agreed. These problems are self-evident to those involved in the negotiations, which is a key reason in explaining why they didn’t get taken through the draft text agreed by May at the end of last year.

So why advance them now? The generous interpretation would be that Johnson hoped that the log-rolling of a majority in parliament would be enough to move the EU: the process has been stuck for nearly a year now and approval of the current text by the Commons looks all but impossible (remember it has voted against it explicitly on three occasions already), so why not go with a new text that would win the backing of MPs? There’s something to this, especially if the rumours of an EU concession to allow some role for Stormont turn out to be accurate.

But the broad thrust from Brussels and other EU capitals has been much more negative, not at all aided by the very negative briefings coming from Number 10. This points to a less generous view of Johnson’s approach. The looming general election – held back only by the need for an extension to Article 50 – has created an incentive for him to show that he has tried to secure a deal, only for it to be rejected by others: if returned to power, then he will be able to finally escape the constraints put on him, by parliament and by the EU, and make Brexit happen.

To put that back into our dimensions, it’s a renewed focus on the domestic competition. If it comes off, Johnson will find that the European dimension is still there, for any future deal he might want to do. And at that point, his recent actions might very well come back to haunt him.

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