Irish border issue looms large as Brussels sets out Brexit terms
Leaked Boris Johnson letter emerged as Brussels prepared to publish legal text on Brexit divorce terms including Northern Ireland’s border.
Boris Johnson has suggested that the Government should focus on preventing the Irish border becoming “significantly” harder, reigniting a row over the issue.
Downing Street insisted that the Government is focused on “no hard border” – and Brussels will set out in legal terms how the European Union intends to make sure Theresa May keeps that promise.
The Foreign Secretary said that “even if a hard border is reintroduced” on the island of Ireland, the vast majority of goods would not be checked.
Brussels’ chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said there would be “no surprises” in the 120-page draft document, which will cover the political agreements reached between Mrs May and Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker in December.
This will include procedures for putting into operation the “alignment” of Northern Irish regulations with the EU rulebook, which will be needed if no technological solution is found to keep the border with the Republic open after Brexit.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he is satisfied the legal text will ensure there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland after Brexit.
But in a suggestion that the phrasing of the document may cause problems in Westminster – where the Democratic Unionist Party props up Mrs May’s government – he said: “We cannot automatically assume it will be acceptable to the United Kingdom or acceptable to all the parties in Northern Ireland so we could have an interesting few weeks ahead of us.”
The UK Government has set out three ways to avoid a hard border – resolving the issue as part of the new relationship with the EU sought by Mrs May, specific technological solutions to the issue or – as a fallback option – regulatory alignment with EU rules to protect economic co-operation and the Good Friday Agreement.
But a memo sent by Mr Johnson to the Prime Minister and other members of the Brexit war cabinet appeared to suggest that a hard border remained a possibility – and would not be as damaging as feared.
The document, obtained by Sky News, said “it is wrong to see the task as maintaining ‘no border'” on the island of Ireland and the Government’s aim will be to “stop this border becoming significantly harder”.
There was an “exaggerated impression” of “how important checks are” at EU external borders, Mr Johnson said.
The document added: “Even if a hard border is reintroduced, we would expect to see 95% + of goods pass the border (without) checks.”
Downing Street was swift to play down Mr Johnson’s comments.
A source said: “We agree the task isn’t about no border, it’s about no hard border.”
The 18-page document was circulated to members of the Brexit Cabinet sub-committee before the Chequers meeting where senior ministers agreed on the approach to the next phase of talks – which Mrs May will set out on Friday.
A spokesman for Mr Johnson said: “As the Prime Minister has rightly said the Irish border needs to be as frictionless as possible and this paper was designed to outline how a highly facilitated border would work and help to make a successful Brexit.
“The letter points out there is a border now and the task the committee face is stopping this becoming significantly harder.
“It shows how we could manage a border without infrastructure or related checks and controls while protecting UK, Northern Irish, Irish, and EU interests.
“As the PM has previously stated, we will not accept any physical infrastructure at the border and will instead seek alternatives that allow us to leave the customs union and take back control of our money, borders, laws and trading policy.”
Meanwhile, former prime minister Sir John Major – who played a prominent role in highlighting the problems around the Irish border during the referendum campaign – will return to the political fray with a major speech in London.
Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith condemned Mr Johnson’s “reckless and irresponsible” comments and suggested Mrs May should sack her Foreign Secretary.
Mr Smith said: “Solemn commitments were made at the end of the last year that there would be no hard border on the island of Ireland. No ifs, no buts.
“For Boris to have been caught out trying to row back on these commitments demonstrates the dangerous attitude he takes to maintaining peace in Northern Ireland.”