John­son faces mount­ing EU re­sis­tance to his Brexit deal

A Tory trans­for­ma­tion into a party of retro British na­tion­al­ism could turn nasty, writes Joyce Mcmil­lan

The Scotsman - - FRONT PAGE - By PARIS GOURTSOYAN­NIS Westminste­r Cor­re­spon­dent

Boris John­son’s hopes of break­ing the Brexit dead­lock over the Ir­ish bor­der have been dealt a se­ri­ous blow af­ter they were re­jected by an in­flu­en­tial com­mit­tee of Euro­pean par­lia­men­tar­i­ans, who said the pro­posal to re­place the con­tro­ver­sial Ir­ish bor­der back­stop do not come “even re­motely” close to a com­pro­mise, and can­not get the sup­port of MEPS.

Boris John­son’s hopes of break­ing the Brexit dead­lock over the Ir­ish bor­der have been dealt a se­ri­ous blow af­ter they were re­jected by an in­flu­en­tial com­mit­tee of Euro­pean par­lia­men­tar­i­ans.

The Brexit Su­per­vi­sory Group (BSG) of the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment said the pro­posal to re­place the con­tro­ver­sial Ir­ish bor­der back­stop do not come “even re­motely” close to a com­pro­mise, and can­not get the sup­port of MEPS.

The Euro­pean Coun­cil Pres­i­dent Don­ald Tusk also added his voice to the cool re­cep­tion for the plan in Brus­sels yes­ter­day, say­ing af­ter a con­ver­sa­tion with Mr John­son that “we re­main open but still un­con­vinced”.

And the Ir­ish govern­ment hard­ened its lan­guage on the pro­pos­als, with Pre­mier Leo Varad­kar say­ing the Brexit plan “falls short in a num­ber of as­pects”.

Ad­dress­ing MPS for the first time since pre­sent­ing his plan to Brus­sels, Mr John­son struck a more con­cil­ia­tory tone than in re­cent weeks, say­ing he has made a “gen­uine at­tempt to bridge the chasm” with the EU.

He de­clined sev­eral times to re­peat a warn­ing in his Con­ser­va­tive Party con­fer­ence speech that the govern­ment had made its “fi­nal of­fer”.

But the Prime Min­is­ter ac­knowl­edged in his state­ment a day af­ter he shared his pro­pos­als with Brus­sels that they are “some way from a res­o­lu­tion”.

Mr John­son urged MPS to “come to­gether in the na­tional in­ter­est be­hind this new deal”, but first he must get it passed by the EU, with re­ac­tions from Euro­pean lead­ers so far be­ing cool.

“This Govern­ment’s ob­jec­tive has al­ways been to leave with a deal and these con­struc­tive and rea­son­able pro­pos­als show our se­ri­ous­ness of pur­pose,” the Prime Min­is­ter said.

“They do not de­liver ev­ery­thing that we would’ve wished, they do rep­re­sent a com­pro­mise, but to re­main a prisoner of ex­ist­ing po­si­tions is to be­come a cause of dead­lock rather than break­through.”

Jeremy Cor­byn re­sponded by say­ing no Labour MP could sup­port the “reck­less deal”, which he said would jeop­ar­dise the Good Fri­day Agree­ment.

They were also crit­i­cised by the only North­ern Ir­ish MP in the Com­mons to hear the state­ment, the in­de­pen­dent Union­ist Lady Her­mon, who claimed Mr John­son “doesn’t un­der­stand North­ern Ire­land”.

The SNP’S Westminste­r leader Ian Black­ford claimed Scot­land will “never con­sent” to Brexit, and called Mr John­son’s pro­pos­als “un­ac­cept­able, un­work­able, un­de­liv­er­able and de­signed to fail”.

In a blow to hopes of a deal, the pro­posal to re­place the back­stop was re­jected by a com­mit­tee made up of ex­perts and se­nior mem­bers of the party groups in the Euro­pean Par­lia­ment, which must ap­prove any Brexit deal.

The group chaired by the MEP and for­mer Bel­gian Prime Min­is­ter Guy Ver­hof­s­tadt said in a state­ment that the “last-minute pro­pos­als” can­not be backed by the EU Par­lia­ment “in their cur­rent form”.

“The UK pro­pos­als do not match even re­motely what was agreed as a suf­fi­cient com­pro­mise in the back­stop,” the group said.

They were par­tic­u­larly crit­i­cal of Mr John­son’s pro­pos­als to re­place the Ir­ish back­stop by keep­ing North­ern Ire­land tied to sin­gle mar­ket rules for trade in goods, while leav­ing the cus­toms union.

The MEPS said the pro­pos­als could jeop­ar­dise the Good Fri­day peace agree­ment and the in­tegrity of the sin­gle mar­ket. They con­cluded: “The BSG has grave con­cerns about the UK pro­posal, as tabled.”

EU Com­mis­sion Pres­i­dent Jean-claude Juncker spoke with Mr Varad­kar by phone last night and ex­pressed “un­wa­ver­ing sup­port for Ire­land”. A Com­mis­sion state­ment added that “fur­ther dis­cus­sions with the United King­dom ne­go­tia­tors are needed”.

Speak­ing on a visit to Stock­holm along­side the Swedish Prime Min­is­ter, who also reaf­firmed the EU’S sol­i­dar­ity with Ire­land, Mr Varad­kar said he could not fully un­der­stand how the UK en­vis­ages North­ern Ire­land and Ire­land op­er­at­ing un­der dif­fer­ent cus­toms regimes with­out the need for cus­toms posts.

“It’s very much the view of the Ir­ish govern­ment and the peo­ple of Ire­land, north and south, that there shouldn’t be cus­toms check­points or tar­iffs be­tween north and south,” he said.

Mean­while, his deputy Si­mon Coveney told the Ir­ish par­lia­ment that “if that is the fi­nal pro­posal, there will be no deal”.

Mr Coveney raised con­cerns about the plan to give Stor­mont a veto on the plan be­cause its vot­ing struc­tures mean a bloc of MLAS from ei­ther the na­tion­al­ist or union­ist com­mu­nity - which in­cludes Mr John­son’s DUP al­lies - can block cer­tain de­ci­sions, even if a ma­jor­ity of mem­bers back them.

“We can­not sup­port any pro­posal that sug­gests that one party or in­deed a mi­nor­ity in North­ern Ire­land could make the de­ci­sion for the ma­jor­ity in terms of how these pro­pos­als would be im­ple­mented in the fu­ture,” he said.

DUP leader Ar­lene Fos­ter re­sponded by ac­cus­ing the Ir­ish govern­ment of an at­tack on Union­ism.

“Scot­land will never con­sent to Brexit. The pro­pos­als are un­work­able, un­ac­cept­able , un­de­liv­er­able and de­signed to fail”

IAN BLACK­FORD

Wed­nes­day morn­ing; and in Manch­ester, the Prime Min­is­ter is mak­ing his speech to the Con­ser­va­tive Party con­fer­ence. De­spite his in­flated rep­u­ta­tion as a wit, Boris John­son is not a great pub­lic speaker, and the re­sponse from the faith­ful seems more warmly sup­port­ive than ec­static. As the speech fin­ishes, though – with much em­pha­sis from most com­men­ta­tors on the new Brexit pro­pos­als – the eye is caught by a tweet from po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist Robert Pe­ston. He gives a brief sum­mary of John­son’s non-brexit pol­icy pro­pos­als, and then adds, “That was Boris John­son say­ing ‘I hate be­ing called an ex­treme rightwing ide­o­logue’”.

It was a sur­pris­ing phrase; for if there is one thing about which this Prime Min­is­ter can feel con­fi­dent, it is surely that no-one has ever mis­taken him for an ide­o­logue, of any stripe. On the con­trary, he has made it crys­tal clear – par­tic­u­larly with his the­atri­cal de­ci­sion about which col­umn to file, Re­main or Leave, on the eve of the EU ref­er­en­dum cam­paign – that he is the com­plete po­lit­i­cal op­por­tunist, ready to climb into bed with any­one at all, in or­der to keep his chubby fist crammed into the big sweetie jar of po­lit­i­cal fame and recog­ni­tion that seems so nec­es­sary to his emo­tional equi­lib­rium. And in that sense, his sta­tus as the cur­rent leader of the Con­ser­va­tive Party seems oddly ap­pro­pri­ate; for if every de­tail of the Labour Party’s post-2010 tran­si­tion from Blairism back to 1945-style so­cial democ­racy has been sub­jected to near-hys­ter­i­cal lev­els of me­dia scru­tiny, the Con­ser­va­tive Party has also been un­der­go­ing a re­mark­able tran­si­tion over the last three years, and one which, be­yond its ob­vi­ous im­pact on Brexit pol­icy, has been rather less well re­ported.

It has been widely ob­served, of course, that the party’s ef­fort to de­stroy Ukip, in the early 2010s, led to it be­com­ing much more like Ukip; by 2015, Tory MPS and party mem­bers were far more likely to be ex­treme Euroscep­tics than in 2010. What has tended to es­cape no­tice, though, is that so far as British Con­ser­vatism is con­cerned, the dis­course of anti-eu British na­tion­al­ism has, over the past three years, all but re­placed the dis­course of eco­nomic ne­olib­er­al­ism as the party’s main ral­ly­ing-cry and rai­son d’etre. It’s not that there are no rad­i­cal free-mar­ke­teers left in the party; on the con­trary, many of the most de­vout sup­port­ers of Brexit are also those who want to see EU pro­tec­tions for ev­ery­thing from work­ers’ rights to the en­vi­ron­ment swept away, and great British pub­lic goods like the NHS opened up to global providers.

Yet search the party’s re­cent pub­lic rhetoric for any high-pro­file em­brace of these poli­cies, and you will largely search in vain. In­stead, as Pe­ston ob­served on Wed­nes­day, the pub­lic tone is in­creas­ingly strongly pa­tri­otic, im­plic­itly statist, and al­most Gaullist in its at­tach­ment to grand govern­ment-driven projects that sup­pos­edly ex­press the spirit of the na­tion, and of­fer the peo­ple the glory and se­cu­rity they de­serve. Hence John­son’s wish-list of do­mes­tic poli­cies for a UK where in­comes for the poor­est are lev­el­ling up, where ed­u­ca­tion, tech­nol­ogy and in­fra­struc­ture are boom­ing thanks to mas­sive govern­ment in­vest­ment, and where the coun­try leads the world in green tech­nol­ogy. It’s all pretty vague, of course; but when he gets go­ing, in this ‘one na­tion’ vein, Boris John­son sounds sur­pris­ingly like a slap­dash ver­sion of Labour’s John Mcdon­nell – who just has not both­ered fully to cost his poli­cies, or to an­a­lyse their real im­pli­ca­tions.

And be­yond this sud­den aban­don­ment of the small-state rhetoric that has sus­tained the party for 40 years, there is one other con­se­quence of the re­cent Tory trans­for­ma­tion of which every Scot should take note; that af­ter 20 years of bliss­ful Westminste­r in­dif­fer­ence to the en­tire rad­i­cal fact of de­vo­lu­tion, the Con­ser­va­tive and Union­ist Party has sud­denly, in its new British na­tion­al­ist mood, fully no­ticed the ex­is­tence of the Scot­tish Par­lia­ment and Govern­ment, and be­gun to take ex­cep­tion to it. Hence the new Tory ob­ses­sion not only with un­der­min­ing the Scot­land Act so as to be able to re­tain pow­ers in de­volved ar­eas at Westminste­r, but also with plas­ter­ing Union flags and ad­ver­tise­ments around Scot­land, keep­ing Ni­cola Stur­geon – as John­son charm­ingly put it – from get­ting “any­where near” next year’s global en­vi­ron­men­tal sum­mit in Glas­gow, and, in the words of one in­fant Tory, lament­ing the strate­gic er­ror of “giv­ing Ed­in­burgh Cas­tle to the Scot­tish Govern­ment” – although in fact the Cas­tle is mainly used by the army, and al­ways flies a large Union flag, day and night.

The signs, in other words, are that be­fore this Tory trans­for­ma­tion into a party of retro British na­tion­al­ism has run its course, things could turn quite nasty, for those of us who are in­ter­ested in the di­ver­sity of these is­lands, and in the need to cher­ish and re­spect those cul­tural and po­lit­i­cal dif­fer­ences. The cur­rent fash­ion, it seems – in Wash­ing­ton, Lon­don, Madrid and else­where – is for old-style big-state na­tion­al­ism based on old-style lies about na­tional unity and ho­mo­gene­ity, with all the at­ten­dant risk of in­creas­ingly bit­ter hard­line re­sponses from those ex­cluded and marginalis­ed by those lies. This is the process of de­te­ri­o­ra­tion so much feared by the ma­jor­ity in North­ern Ire­land, as this new wave of British na­tion­al­ism lays waste to the nec­es­sary com­plex­i­ties of the Good Fri­day Agree­ment; and it is a process which will also have con­se­quences for Scot­land, and for the qual­ity of our own po­lit­i­cal life.

Since Boris John­son is not a ide­o­logue, though, he will not be giv­ing deep con­sid­er­a­tion to any of this, this week­end. If he were, some of the pro­found con­tra­dic­tions in his sit­u­a­tion might bother him more – not least the fact that he is promis­ing state largesse while driv­ing the coun­try to­wards a huge and de­bil­i­tat­ing eco­nomic cri­sis, and be­ing backed by some of the most pow­er­ful anti-state ide­o­logues on the planet. And if the con­se­quences of his poli­cies for many of the rest of us hardly bear think­ing about... well, as we have seen, deep thought is not Boris John­son’s strong suit; a fact that is prob­a­bly as good for his own emo­tional health, at the mo­ment, as it is dan­ger­ous for the coun­try he now claims to lead.

0 Prime Min­is­ter Boris John­son in Down­ing Street yes­ter­day

0 Don­ald Tusk says the EU is ‘open but un­con­vinced’

Boris John­son urged MPS to ‘come to­gether in the na­tional in­ter­est be­hind this new deal’ with politi­cians in Brus­sels and Dublin say­ing his pro­posal ‘falls short in a num­ber of as­pects’

0 Boris John­son, with girl­friend Car­rie Sy­monds, is ap­plauded af­ter his speech to the Tory party con­fer­ence

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