Boris Johnson is to face down hardline Conservative Eurosceptics by rejecting their demands for a big Brexit renegotiation, telling EU leaders his only concern is to scrap the Irish border backstop.
Mr Johnson has reassured Angela Merkel, German chancellor, and Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission president, that if the EU agreed changes to the backstop it would not lead to British demands for a wider rewriting of the exit treaty.
“We have been clear the changes we seek relate to the backstop,” Downing Street said yesterday, ahead of a visit to Brussels on Wednesday by David Frost, Mr Johnson’s Brexit negotiator.
Mr Johnson is therefore ready to accept a range of proposals in the withdrawal treaty — including a £39bn exit payment and a transition period during which Britain applied EU rules — if he could scrap the backstop.
“We know the Spartans are going to accuse us of betrayal at some point,” said one ally of the prime minister, referring to the hardline group of Tory Eurosceptics including former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith.
Although the EU says it is wedded to the backstop — which avoids a hard border in Ireland by leaving Britain in a temporary customs union — Mr Johnson’s narrow focus in the talks has helped to create a more positive atmosphere in European capitals.
“What this is signalling to France and Berlin is that Johnson is not looking for a war with the EU on a swath of other issues,” said Mujtaba Rahman, managing director of the Eurasia consultancy group.
Mr Johnson, who on Tuesday spoke to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker and Dutch prime minister Mark Rutte, knows that changes to the backstop alone will not satisfy many Tory MPs.
Mr Duncan Smith yesterday wrote in the Daily Telegraph that “simply getting rid of the backstop isn’t enough”, echoing criticisms by other Tory MPs including David Davis, former Brexit secretary, and veteran Eurosceptic Bill Cash.
Mr Johnson’s round of diplomacy in Paris and Berlin last week, followed by a successful debut at the G7 summit in Biarritz, has raised hopes in Downing Street that it may yet salvage a Brexit deal before October 31.
A UK government source said there were increased reasons for optimism, arguing: “There has been a rhetorical shift from the EU compared to a month ago, when they were insisting that the backstop and the withdrawal agreement were sacrosanct.”
By talking up the possibility of a Brexit deal, Mr Johnson’s allies hope to dampen the possibility that pro-EU Tory MPs will next week work with the opposition to legislate against a no-deal exit when parliament returns from its summer break.
In Brussels, there is still extreme scepticism about whether Mr Johnson can deliver a viable alternative to the backstop that would ensure an open border in Ireland, but there is a willingness to engage.
The European Commission said Mr Juncker told Mr Johnson that the EU remained “steadfast” in its support for Ireland but that he would work constructively with the British prime minister “on any concrete proposals he might have”.
Downing Street has repeatedly referred to “trusted trader schemes” and the use of electronic customs declarations as examples of alternatives to hard border infrastructure. The EU argues such systems do not yet exist or could not replace border checks.
Alternative models include a radically scaled-back backstop where the UK continued to apply some EU rules — such as on animal health — to reduce the need for checks at the border until a new trade deal was agreed.
Jonathan Faull, a former senior European Commission official, is among a team of experts who have suggested a system of “EU trade centres” in the UK and Ireland to process cross-border trade away from the frontier.
The Commission said any solution must be “compatible with the withdrawal agreement” — code for avoiding customs and product checks on the Irish border, protecting the all-Ireland economy and safeguarding the peace process.
Ms Merkel gave Mr Johnson 30 days to come up with a plan and EU diplomats say there is no sign of one yet. “As far as I know, no one has seen a concrete plan that has come out of London,” said one. “I think the tone at the G7 was more positive — there is a slight hope that a solution might be found.”
While the Commission said it would engage in talks in “a spirit of constructiveness and engagement”, EU diplomats insisted that should not be seen as a signal that its commitment to the backstop was weakening.
EU leaders are aware of the risk that Mr Johnson will seek to shift the blame for a damaging no-deal Brexit in their direction if Britain ultimately crashes out of the union, leading Ms Merkel and others to emphasise their readiness to negotiate.
In their call on Tuesday, Mr Juncker told Mr Johnson the EU would do everything it could to avoid a no deal outcome. A Commission spokesman added: “A “no deal” scenario will only ever be the UK’s decision, not the EU’s.”