Boris Johnson plays down chance of Brexit breakthrough at UN
Despite a series of planned meetings with European leaders, the PM says there are ‘still difficulties’ over an agreement
The prime minister, who is scheduled to meet the European Council president, Donald Tusk, and a string of leaders of EU nations over the next two days at the UN general assembly (UNGA), insisted that his overall “cautiously optimistic” stance of securing a deal remained unchanged.
But speaking to reporters on the plane to New York after suggestions of a possible compromise over the vexed issue of the Irish border seemed doused by EU scepticism, Johnson conceded there were “still gaps, still difficulties” over how to solve this.
“I would caution you all not to think this is going to be the moment,” he said. “I don’t wish to elevate excessively the belief that there will be a New York breakthrough. I’m not getting pessimistic – we will be pushing ahead, but there is still work to be done.”
The sticking point remains the seemingly irreconcilable demands of the two sides over the Irish border.The EU insists it cannot not allow a deal which could eventually see checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, potentially breaching the Good Friday peace deal, while Downing Street has vowed to remove the backstop, which provides an insurance policy over a frictionless border if no permanent solution can be found.
The UK has floated the idea of some access for food and agricultural produce, with yet-to-be-finalised arrangements for non-frontier checks on other goods when a post-deal transition period would finish at the end of 2020, something the EU believes is far too woolly to be credible.
Johnson appeared to rule out the idea of extending to manufactured goods the same flexibility given so-called sanitary and phytosanitary products, or agrifoods, as summed up by a much-quoted unionist maxim that while Northern Ireland’s people were British, its cows were Irish.
Asked if Northern Irish “widgets” could be similarly Irish, Johnson said: “What you wouldn’t want to do is peer into the soul of a widget and enquire too deeply as to its nationality under any circumstances. But what you might want to do is ensure that the UK, whole and entire, was able in future to diverge from EU law if it had to. That’s the crucial thing.”
Johnson argued he had made considerable progress as prime minister, with EU leaders saying “they no longer necessarily have an attachment to the backstop”.He said: “That’s very encouraging. We’ve seen interest in the idea of treating the island of Ireland as a single zone for sanitary and phytosanitary purposes, and that’s also encouraging.
“However, there are clearly still gaps, still difficulties. What we are working for – and we can see the way to do it – is a solution that enables the UK and the EU respect the principles of the single market, to allow an open border in Northern Ireland, to respect the achievements of the Northern Irish peace process, but also to allow the whole of the UK to come out of the EU.
“And there is a way to do that. I think colleagues around the table in Brussels can see how we might do that. What it will take is the political will to get there, and I think it’s fair to say I’m still in the same position I was – I think cautiously optimistic is about right,”
As well as Tusk, on Monday and Tuesday at the UNGA summit Johnson is due to have a joint meeting with Emmanuel Macron of France and Germany’s Angela Merkel, as well as the Irish leader, Leo Varadkar, and the prime ministers of the Netherlands and Belgium, Mark Rutte and Charles Michel.
He dismissed the idea that individual EU states might take a more conciliatory line than Tusk, saying: “We in the UK government respect the primacy of the European Commission when it comes to doing these negotiations.”Overall, Johnson argued, the EU did not seem particularly dogmatic over what kind of deal emerged, so long as one could be reached.
“What I’m finding is so interesting is I think that our friends and partners, provided we get the right deal, are not actually interested in that outcome,” he said. “I think that they will be happy for us to have a relationship of equals, working together to build a new partnership.”
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