Contenders' backstop comments 'increase no-deal risk'

The leadership candidates both rejected the 'backstop'

Declarations last night by the UK’s two Conservative leadership contenders that the Northern Irish backstop is ‘dead’ and cannot be in the Brexit deal have angered campaigners for the rights of Britons in France who say it could increase the risk of a no-deal crash-out.

However campaigners said uncertainty continues and a reversal of the situation is possible, for example if there is an extension for a general election to be held.

Both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson said last night that the proposed solution to keeping the Irish/Northern Irish border open must not be in the final deal – despite the EU having said that the deal is no longer open to renegotiation.

They both rejected even ‘tweaking’ the proposed arrangement by time-limiting it but rather said that it “needs to come out”.

Mr Johnson said the ‘backstop’ had “been devised by this country as an instrument of our own incarceration in the single market and customs union”, while Mr Hunt said: “If we are going to get a deal we must have an absolute cast-iron commitment to the Republic of Ireland that we will not have border infrastructure. What they liked in the backstop was the fact it guaranteed that. If we are going to solve that we need to find another way of guaranteeing that same thing.”

Under the negotiated deal the UK is to leave the EU and then have a transition period until the end of 2020, during which time on a practical level everything would stay the same.

The aim would be, during 2020, to find a way to keep the border open afterwards for example through an agreement on a soft Brexit relationship or finding new ‘technological solutions’ to avoid checks. However the deal says if this has not been possible by the end of 2020 then the whole of the UK should remain in a customs union and a single market for goods with the EU until such solutions have been found.

The aim is to avoid a ‘hard’ border, with physical checks, which is a promise in the Good Friday Agreement which has maintained peace in Northern Ireland since 1998.

The vice chairman of the British Community Committee of France, Christopher Chantrey, said: “This makes it more likely that we risk crashing out with no deal, which would be terrible for British people in the EU, but also for those in the UK. I don’t think they realise how bad it would be yet.”

He added: “The problem with the British politicians is they only consider things from the British point of view, not the EU’s. It’s vital the border remains open, also for the good of the people of Northern Ireland. And there’s no technology in the world at present that offers another way of doing it.”

He said however the fact that a new European Commission president is being voted for by the MEPs today may hold out the possibility that the EU’s own position could evolve.

German defence minister Ursula von der Leyen, who has been put forward as the likely future Commission president, today told MEPs: “I stand ready for further extension of the withdrawal date should more time be required for a good reason.” However she is not set formally to take office until November 1.

The EU originally proposed that the whole of the UK should remain in a customs union and regulatory alignment with the EU during the backstop period, however Theresa May and her backers Northern Ireland’s DUP Party refused to allow Northern Ireland to be treated differently from the EU. Mrs May told the EU she would be able to get the current form of the backstop through the British Parliament, but that turned out not to be the case.

The backstop involves flexibility on the EU’s side in allowing the UK to remain indefinitely in a customs union after leaving and in only retaining parts of the single market, without free movement of people.

Dave Spokes of Ecreu, one of the British in Europe campaign groups, said: “The statements by Johnson and Hunt make no-deal more likely, given that one of them will become prime minister. I can’t see the logic of them saying that since all along the EU has said it will not change. What is the point of hammering away at it? It’s all very well saying ‘we don’twant this, we won’t allow it,’ but what are you going to put in its place?”

He added: “The only positive side is there is such a strong movement now among MPs of all parties to not allow a no-deal Brexit, and that Ms von der Leyen says she’s open to an extension and John Major has said he would take legal action to stop Johnson proroguing Parliament – so there’s a lot going on in the background that could stop all this ridiculous nonsense from happening.

“We’re all in a difficult situation with a lot of panic, a lot of rhetoric and a lot of political point scoring going on. I think the message is to be prepared, it could happen, but it may not.” He advised people should write to their British MPs about the importance of avoiding no-deal.

Founder of another of the BiE groups Debbie Williams said the Conservative leadership candidates’ statements made her angry.

“They are living in cloud cuckoo land. The threat of no deal to all of us and the UK itself is completely negligent. How dare they risk the Good Friday Agreement and the safety of all of us? Negligent is too weak a word, reckless is better.

“They need to stop playing games and heed all the advice that business and others including the civil service have given them. This is ridiculous political posturing to suit their own personal agendas.” 

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