It’s been widely reported in the press that Boris Johnston has been given 30 days to come back with a solution to the Irish backstop. This morning I was in a fascinating session, led by Mark Diffley and Steve Richards, which assumed that this was the case. I think Angela Merkel was saying something significantly different – but if the offer is not understood and acted on right away, the opportunity may be lost.
The Withdrawal Agreement is, and has always been, incomplete. It represents only the first stage of a negotiated settlement. The backstop is an insurance policy – a red line, if you will – to cover the eventuality that there is no agreement on the second stage. That raises the obvious the question – why not get on with the second stage?
And that, as far as I can make it out, is the position just put by Ms Merkel. She is well known for being careful with her words. What she said in the recent press conference was not that she is looking for an alternative to the backstop, but that she is open to a resolution on the future relationship that would mean that the backstop will never come into effect. This is the summary from the Guardian:
She said that the backstop had always been a “fallback position” and would only come into effect if no other solution could be agreed that would protect the “integrity of the single market”. She went on:
“If one is able to solve this conundrum, if one finds this solution, we said we would probably find it in the next two years to come but we can also maybe find it in the next 30 days to come. Then we are one step further in the right direction and we have to obviously put our all into this.”
She is not saying that Boris Johnson must offer an alternative to the backstop – if that was what she meant, she could have said so. She is saying that the backstop is there because no other resolution has been made about the future relationship. That is the solution which would have to be arrived at before Britain leaves.
There are three obvious problems here. First, this is not a line agreed with the rest of the EU; it is in particular somewhat different from the line being taken by President Macron, who if I read the runes rightly just wants it all to end. Second, there is a lot to do. But third, if the British government continues to play with alternatives to the backstop, this is not going to happen; what they need is a comprehensive agreement that will make the backstop redundant. That could be done at speed – but for as long as the attention of the government is elsewhere, the time is being frittered away.