- Boris Johnson is preparing to make his final Brexit offer to the European Union.
- However, a leaked version of the offer suggests that it will be almost immediately rejected by Brussels.
- The key elements of the proposed deal appear to be impossible for the EU and Ireland to accept.
- This suggests Johnson is deliberately setting up his offer to be rejected.
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Boris Johnson will on Wednesday make his formal offer to the European Union for a new Brexit deal.
The offer, the key elements of which have been leaked to the Daily Telegraph’s Peter Foster, is quite remarkable in that it appears to actually be designed for the EU to reject it.
In summary Johnson’s offer is that:
- Northern Ireland temporarily remains aligned to EU trade rules for some agricultural and industrial goods.
- But Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK leaves the customs union.
- New checks will be imposed at two borders (between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and along the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.)
- Northern Ireland will be exempt from EU VAT rules and custom codes.
- After four years Northern Ireland will have the option of cutting off alignment with the EU.
Every element of the plan runs against the EU’s negotiating red lines.
From the very start of this process, Brussels and Dublin have insisted that there must be no new border checks with Northern Ireland. This is a commitment that the UK government signed up when led by Theresa May.
The EU has also been clear that the integrity of the European Single Market must be maintained and that there must be no get-out clauses for the UK a few years down the line.
All of those red lines are broken by this offer.
According to the Telegraph report, Johnson’s chief of staff Dominic Cummings told senior aides that “if they reject our offer, that’s it.”
Yet Cummings and Johnson must know that this will be rejected. Indeed it is hard to come to any conclusion other than that rejection is precisely what these proposals are designed to achieve.
An offer the EU will have to refuse
Johnson was asked earlier this year by the Daily Mail what his favourite movie scene was and he replied that it was “the multiple retribution killings at the end of ‘The Godfather’.”
However, there was another scene from the film which better explains the situation Johnson has engineered.
Early in the movie, Michael Corleone explains how his father Vito once persuaded a bandleader to hire his godson by telling him that “either his brains or his signature would be on the contract.”
Johnson’s offer today appears to have the complete opposite intent. Rather than being an “offer they can’t refuse,” this is an offer the EU will have no choice but to refuse.
So what is the UK playing at and where will this end up? There are two distinct possibilities.
1. Bouncing the EU into a no-deal Brexit
Johnson’s government has a majority of minus 43 in the UK parliament. Even if by some miracle, the EU was to agree to these proposals, he has zero chance of getting it passed by members of Parliament.
That would appear to suggest that the UK is inevitably heading for a no-deal scenario on October 31.
However, earlier this month MPs passed a new law which would compel Johnson to request a fresh Brexit delay if no deal has been secured by October 19.
This would be a nightmare scenario for the prime minister given his repeated insistence that there is “no circumstances” under which he would allow Brexit to be delayed.
But Downing Street understands that while the so-called Benn act will compel them to request a new extension to Article 50, it does not compel EU leaders to accept one.
By making such an unreasonable offer to the EU, Johnson could be hoping to bounce Brussels into rejecting any further delay. After all, what is the point for the EU of delaying Brexit for a third time when the UK government appears totally unwilling to agree to any of their demands for a deal after another delay?
So is this what Downing Street is attempting? It’s possible, but there is another more convincing explanation.
2. Setting up the EU to take the blame for a Brexit delay
Whatever the claims from Johnson that he is determined to leave the EU on October 31 “do or die,” his government has not made enough serious preparation for the UK to leave the EU without a deal at the end of October. Anyone who has travelled through Britain’s ports in recent weeks will have looked in vain for the massive new infrastructure required to cope with the new checks required for a no-deal scenario. And while many businesses are stockpiling for the possibility of their supplies being held up at ports, as Business Insider revealed earlier this year, there is nowhere near the sort of warehousing space required to seriously prepare for a no-deal exit and no time at all to create it.
That means that a no-deal Brexit would be a disastrous outcome, not just for the UK economy, but for the government which chose to put the country through it. For this reason it remains difficult to believe that this is seriously the outcome that either Johnson, or the EU, will ultimately go for.
Whatever the briefings to the contrary, another Brexit delay therefore remains the most likely outcome at the end of October, which means that the main priority for Downing Street now is to prepare the ground for who will get the blame for it.
In the past week, Johnson’s team has spent a lot of effort seeking to push most of that blame onto the UK parliament, with friendly newspapers briefed with the suggestion that British MPs are engaged in “foreign collusion” with the EU in order to frustrate Brexit.
Taken in that context, today’s offer appears to have a similar design. By offering something that will be impossible for the EU to accept, the UK can then blame the EU for rejecting it, while avoiding getting dragged into lengthy negotiations which in themselves would require an agreement to delay Brexit.
Of course none of this amounts to a real attempt to, in the words of the Conservative Party’s conference slogan this week, “get Brexit done.” At best it is yet another attempt to put off the difficult choices that Brexit requires and at worst it is a reckless strategy that risks a disastrous outcome for the UK economy.