Pro-EU protesters demonstrate outside the Houses of Parliament in London on March 14. File Photo by Hugo Philpott/UPI | License Photo
Aug. 20 (UPI) -- The European Union rejected a demand Tuesday from British leader Boris Johnson to abandon plans for an "Irish backstop," which has so far been a major hurdle in negotiating Britain's departure from the 28-member bloc.
European Council President Donald Tusk declined Johnson's request to let go of the backstop, which has been part of every negotiated agreement so far between London and the EU. A backstop is a safeguard to prevent any substantial political, economic or physical changes at the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland once Britain departs. For years, a "soft border" has existed between the two nations that is of great significance to both sides.
Ireland is a standalone nation but Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom. The concern is that if Britain leaves at the end of October without a EU-sanctioned agreement, effectively, all bets are off at the Irish border.
Johnson said he cannot commit to a deal that "locks the U.K., potentially indefinitely, into an international treaty which will bind us into a customs union and which applies large areas of single market legislation in Northern Ireland".
The backstop has been one of the main reasons British Parliament has rejected a proposed deal on three separate occasions.
Johnson said London is ready to commit to alternatives -- including an agreement not to implement any checks or controls at the Irish border, which is at the heart of the backstop.
"Time is very short. But [Britain] is ready to move quickly, and given the degree of common ground already, I hope that the EU will be ready to do likewise," Johnson said in a four-page letter to Tusk Monday.
"I am equally confident that our Parliament would be able to act rapidly if we were able to reach a satisfactory agreement which did not contain the 'backstop.'"
The EU, however, has said repeatedly the deal it brokered with former Prime Minister Theresa May -- which includes a backstop -- is not up for renegotiation.
Tuesday, Tusk said the British prime minister and other backstop opponents have not offered any "realistic alternatives" to alleviating concerns for the Irish border after Britain leaves the EU.
"The backstop is an insurance to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland unless and until an alternative is found," Tusk said. "Those against the backstop and not proposing realistic alternatives in fact support reestablishing a border. Even if they do not admit it."
Britain is set to leave the EU on Oct. 31, and Johnson has reiterated the departure will occur with or without an agreement with the union.