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UK’s Johnson promises no physical checks on Irish border, says backstop must go

Rui Vieira, AFP | Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson gestures as he gives a speech on domestic priorities at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester, northwest England on July 27, 2019.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson meets Northern Ireland political leaders on Wednesday in an effort to find a solution to the thorny issue of a post-Brexit Irish border, a day after promising no physical checks on the Irish border.

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Northern Ireland's 1.8 million people have been without a functioning administration for two and a half years, since the Catholic-Protestant power-sharing government collapsed.

Johnson promised Ireland's Leo Varadkar on Tuesday there would be no physical checks on the border between their two countries after Brexit, but he didn’t say how he planned to replace the so-called Irish “backstop”.

In their first phone call since he took office, Johnson repeated that the current "backstop" plan to keep the frontier open, which is included in the EU's draft divorce deal, was unacceptable.

The backstop would require the United Kingdom to remain aligned to EU customs rules if a future trading relationship falls short of ensuring an open border.

"On Brexit, the prime minister made clear that the UK will be leaving the EU on October 31, no matter what," a Downing Street spokeswoman said.

"He said that in all scenarios, the government will be steadfast in its commitment to the Belfast Agreement and will never put physical checks or physical infrastructure on the border," the spokeswoman added.

Paul Faith, AFP | Protesters rally at the Carrickcarnan border between Newry in Northern Ireland and Dundalk in the Irish Republic on March 30, 2019.

The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement brought peace to Northern Ireland after years of violence over British control which left 3,500 people dead.

Removing checks on the border with Ireland was considered a key factor in reducing tensions. But after Brexit, that border will become part of the EU's external frontier and should therefore be policed accordingly.

Backstop ‘necessary’

Johnson approached Brexit talks "in a spirit of friendship, and that his clear preference is to leave the EU with a deal, but it must be one that abolishes the backstop", his spokeswoman said.

"We're not aiming for a no-deal Brexit," Johnson reiterated on Tuesday, seeking to paint the EU as the bad guy if there is no Brexit deal. "It's up to the EU. It's their call," he added.

EU leaders have said they will not renegotiate the deal they struck with Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May -- even though it has been rejected by the British parliament three times.

In his phonecall with the UK leader, Varadkar repeated that the backstop was "necessary" to Ireland and the EU as a whole.

"Noting that the Brexit negotiations take place between the UK and the EU, the Taoiseach [as the Irish prime minister is known] explained that the EU was united in its view that the withdrawal agreement could not be reopened," a statement from Dublin said.

It said that so-called alternative arrangements, such as electronic border checks, could replace the backstop in the future but "thus far satisfactory options have yet to be identified and demonstrated".

Varadkar invited Johnson to Dublin, saying he wanted a "long and close working relationship" and the two men agreed to stay in touch, both offices said.

Cool reception in Scotland, Wales

Britain’s new leader visited Wales on Tuesday as part of a national tour intended to reassure Britons that his hard-Brexit push won't hurt the economy and rip apart the UK – even as it sent the pound tumbling to a 28-month low.

Johnson faced a tough reception from farmers – a group central to the Welsh economy – who fear economic havoc if Britain leaves the European Union without a divorce deal. They say millions of sheep might have to be slaughtered if tariffs are slapped on lamb exports to the EU.

"The bottom line is we're exporting 40% of our sheep production, we are the second-largest producer of sheep meat in the world, so if we are priced ... we're tariffed out of the EU market, where does that 40% go?" said Minette Batters, president of the National Farmers Union.

The trip follows a visit Monday to Scotland, where Johnson was booed by protesters and warned by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon that his vow to take Britain out of the EU on Oct. 31, with or without a deal, was "dangerous".

Britain's 2016 vote to leave the EU divided the country and also strained the bonds among the four nations that make up the UK: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

A majority of voters in England and Wales backed leaving in the referendum, while Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain. That has emboldened Scotland's nationalist government to demand a vote on independence, arguing that Scotland should not be forced out of the EU against its will.

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP)

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