By Elizabeth Piper and Kylie MacLellan
MANCHESTER, England (Reuters) – British Prime Minister Boris Johnson pitched new proposals on Tuesday for an amended Brexit agreement that would remove the contested insurance policy for the Irish border, but EU officials sounded skeptical about the chances of a breakthrough.
After more than three years of political crisis since the 2016 EU referendum, the United Kingdom is heading towards an Oct. 31 Brexit date without a clear understanding of whether it will leave with a deal, without a deal or even leave at all.
But amid fatigue over Brexit in EU capitals, even among Britain’s traditional allies, one EU diplomat cast Johnson’s approach as a “kamikaze” Brexit strategy.
Another bluntly said that a new deal would be difficult to do swiftly if London demanded substantive changes.
“We do think there’s a good way forward,” said Johnson, who has promised to deliver Brexit — with or without a deal — on Oct. 31. The proposals are expected to be submitted to the EU on Wednesday or Thursday.
“We are working flat out to get a deal,” Johnson said. He denied speculation that he did not really want one, saying: “This is completely untrue — I really must stress it is the absolute inverse of reality.”
Johnson says that if possible he wants to secure an amended agreement at an EU summit on Oct. 17-18, and that both sides are keen on a deal to allow an orderly Brexit. Many EU diplomats doubt a breakthrough is possible by the summit.
“We are sitting here every day ready to negotiate, the kamikaze way in which it is being treated by the UK government is not something we have chosen,” one EU diplomat said.
Another said a move “half an inch” from the current proposal to keep open the sensitive border between Ireland and British-ruled Northern Ireland would make a deal difficult.
In a moment of truth that will define the future of Brexit, the EU and his premiership, Johnson is betting he can get enough concessions from Brussels to persuade Brexit supporters in the British parliament to ratify any deal.
If he succeeds, Johnson will go down in history as the British leader who delivered Brexit. If he fails, a law has been passed by parliament forcing him to delay departure — a step that could destroy his popularity among “Leave” voters.
The pound fell to a three-week low of $1.2256. There was no detail on the proposals though a British official said they would be published.
Ireland, whose 500 km (300 mile) land border with the UK will become the frontier of the EU’s single market and customs union, is crucial to any Brexit solution.
The problem is how to prevent Northern Ireland becoming a “back door” into the EU market without erecting border controls that could undermine the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that ended decades of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland in which more than 3,600 people were killed.
The Withdrawal Agreement that former Prime Minister Theresa May struck in November with the EU says the UK will remain in a customs union “unless and until” alternative arrangements are found to avoid a hard border.
Johnson wants to remove that backstop.
“What we want to do is to get rid of the backstop, that is the most important thing,” Johnson said, adding there was no point in leaving the EU only to stay locked in a customs union but that he wanted to protect the peace deal.
Britain has conceded that the island of Ireland can be treated as a single territory for agriculture, phytosanitary and for agri-foods but Johnson said there would have to be some checks somewhere on the island, although no new infrastructure.
“Those checks don’t need to take place at the border…they don’t need to involve new infrastructure,” Johnson said in an interview with ITV.
DEAL OR NO DEAL?
In comments welcomed by Dublin, Johnson denied a report by Irish broadcaster RTE that there would have to be border posts 5-10 miles (8-16 km) back from the border.
“Had he not, in my view, it would have been hard evidence of bad faith on behalf of the British government,” Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar said.
If Johnson can strike a deal he would still have to get it passed by the British parliament. The Northern Irish Democratic Unionist Party, which props up his government, would be key.
Many British lawmakers oppose the prospect of being bound to EU rules and customs duties that would prevent Britain doing its own trade deals and leave it overseen by EU judges.
“We would like to be able to vote for a deal and actually I’m highly confident if Boris brings back a deal it will be a deal which he expects we’ll want to support,” said Steve Baker, chairman of a group of pro-Brexit Conservative lawmakers.
“If it’s Brexit in name only, I will vote against it.”
(Writing by William James and Guy Faulconbridge; Additional reporting by Kate Holton and Andy Bruce in London, John Chalmers, Gabriela Baczynska and Jan Strupczewski in Brussels; Editing by Michael Holden and Catherine Evans)