Boris Johnson is firm on leaving by October 31, but a last-minute breakthrough looks remote
The recently enacted law to stop Britain from leaving the European Union (EU) without an agreement has brought little certainty that a cliff-edge exit will be avoided. Despite failing to block that legislation and twice losing his bid to hold a general election, Prime Minister Boris Johnson is defiant that the country must leave on October 31. His refusal to seek a further three-month extension from the EU has raised concerns that the government could be held in contempt of parliament. With other hardline eurosceptics, Mr. Johnson has long resisted calls to take no deal off the table, adamant that without such a threat, the government could not strike a bargain in its EU negotiations. Opposition parties and several rebel Tories have stressed the fact that the 2016 referendum merely asked Britons whether they would stay in, or leave the bloc. Moreover, as the agreement still on the table has been rejected repeatedly by Conservative MPs, it was the entire legislature’s responsibility to determine the precise terms of the historic exit. With the many controversial manoeuvres thwarted, the government has been forced to renew its efforts to find fresh terms to reach an agreement with Brussels. Ahead of a meeting with his Irish counterpart on Monday, Mr. Johnson proposed aligning Northern Ireland with the EU single market solely for agricultural products. Dublin has said that the idea could not go far since agribusiness forms a small proportion of its trade with Belfast. There is also a move to bring Northern Ireland under the regulatory framework of the EU single market, mooted in 2017 by the EU. This was rejected subsequently by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Theresa May as potentially detrimental to the U.K.’s sovereignty, unity and integrity. Such an arrangement would entail erecting border checkpoints between Northern Ireland and Britain.
The alternative is the now famous Irish backstop, which would keep the U.K. in an EU Customs union, but strip London of room to make trade deals with third countries. That has already been voted down thrice by Parliament under Ms. May and dismissed by Mr. Johnson and other eurosceptics. But the DUP’s support has little relevance to the Conservative government, which is already without a majority after Mr. Johnson sacked 21 MPs for backing the ‘stop no deal’ legislation. There is speculation that the government could revive the proposal on retaining only Northern Ireland’s status, notwithstanding Mr. Johnson’s assurances to the DUP leader. The latter option affords the only chance there is of an agreement at the October summit of EU leaders and Britain leaving with a deal at the end of the month. Should an accord with the bloc prove elusive, Mr. Johnson is under legal obligation to seek an extension. But he and his advisers are believed to be exploring options that will spare him from making another request.