Boris Johnson has proposed creating two new borders around Northern Ireland in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock with Brussels
Johnson wrote to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, insisting the entire U.K. should leave the EU customs union on the current Brexit deadline of October 31.
That would mean a customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland which Johnson said could be managed through electronic checks away from the border and physical checks at the premises of traders, as well as at other sites that could be located anywhere in Northern Ireland or Ireland.
But he said Northern Ireland should remain aligned to EU single market rules on agricultural products, as well as all other goods. That would mean a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K. and checks for goods crossing the Irish Sea.
The plan, outlined in a seven-page document, would see Northern Ireland stay in the European single market for goods, but leave the customs union – resulting in new customs checks.
The Northern Ireland Assembly would get to approve the arrangements first and vote every four years on keeping them.
The European Commission said there had been progress but “problems” remained.
The UK is set to leave the EU on 31 October and the government has insisted it will not negotiate a further delay beyond the Halloween deadline.
Johnson’s proposals mark the culmination of weeks’ of talks with the EU during which the U.K. has deliberately kept its position on the backstop alternative under wraps. Time is running out to strike a deal by the European Council summit on October 17 and 18.
Following the publication of the plan, Johnson spoke to Juncker by phone. In a statement, the Commission president acknowledged “positive advances,” notably regarding the plan for Northern Ireland to abide by EU regulations. But he noted “some problematic points” and “concern” over the customs plan, and stressed that any solution must meet the EU’s objectives of preventing a hard border in Ireland, preserving cooperation between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and protecting the EU’s single market.Both sides are keen to stress their commitment to finding a deal and neither will want to be seen as to blame should negotiations fail.
If the plan is rejected out of hand, Downing Street has said it will work on the assumption of a no-deal exit on October 31.
The Democratic Unionist Party, which backs the Conservatives at Westminster via a confidence and supply deal, voiced support for the plan — despite long insisting it could not sign up to new regulatory checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
A statement from the party said: “This offer provides a basis for the EU to continue in a serious and sustained engagement with the U.K. government without risk to the internal market of the United Kingdom.”
Arlene Foster, leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, supported the plan, saying it would allow Northern Ireland to leave the customs union and single market at the same time as the rest of the UK.
Several Conservative MPs who opposed Theresa May’s agreement also signalled their likely support, with leading Brexiteer Steve Baker saying he was “cautiously optimistic”.
But Sinn Fein said the plans were a “non-starter” and accused the DUP, their former power-sharing partners of “working against the interests of the people” of Northern Ireland.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the deal was “not acceptable” and “worse” than Theresa May’s agreement, as it “undermined” the Good Friday Agreement that secured peace in Northern Ireland.
What is in the proposals?
The prime minister has set out details of his plan to replace the Irish border “backstop” in the current Brexit agreement.
The backstop is the controversial “insurance policy” that is meant to keep a free-flowing border on the island of Ireland but which critics – including the PM – fear could trap the UK in EU trading rules indefinitely.
Under Mr Johnson’s proposals, which he calls a “broad landing zone” for a new deal with the EU:
Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s customs union alongside the rest of the UK, at the start of 2021
But Northern Ireland would, with the consent of politicians in the Northern Ireland Assembly, continue to apply EU legislation relating to agricultural and other products – what he calls an “all-island regulatory zone”
This arrangement could, in theory, continue indefinitely, but the consent of Northern Ireland’s politicians would have to be sought every four years
Customs checks on goods traded between the UK and EU would be “decentralised”, with paperwork submitted electronically and only a “very small number” of physical checks
These checks should take place away from the border itself, at business premises or at “other points in the supply chain”
The government is also promising a “New Deal for Northern Ireland”, with financial commitments to help manage the changes.
Mr Johnson has written to the European Commission president about his proposals
In his letter, Johnson said failure to reach a deal would “represent a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible,” adding: “Our predecessors have tackled harder problems: we can surely solve this one.
“Both sides now need to consider whether there is sufficient willingness to compromise and move beyond existing positions to get us to an agreement in time,” he wrote. “We are ready to do that, and this letter sets out what I regard as a reasonable compromise: the broad landing zone in which I believe a deal can begin to take shape.”
Johnson admits that his overall plan for Brexit is different to Theresa May’s, and that he wants the UK to end up less aligned to the EU than she proposed.
He often implies that the only thing he disliked about her deal was the backstop. But in his letter to Juncker he says, more explicitly than he usually does, that the argument about the backstop is also an argument about Brexit’s final destination. He says:
The backstop acted as a bridge to a proposed future relationship with the EU in which the UK would be closely integrated with EU customs arrangements and would align with EU law in many areas. That proposed future relationship is not the goal of the current UK government. The government intends that the future relationship should be based on a free trade agreement in which the UK takes control of its own regulatory affairs and trade policy. In these circumstances the proposed “backstop” is a bridge to nowhere, and a new way forward must be found.
Johnson’s plan essentially replaces a UK-wide backstop with a Northern Ireland (NI) only backstop (which is what was originally planned before May proposed the UK-wide one to satisfy the DUP). Under May’s plan the whole of the UK would have stayed in the customs union, and NI would also have stayed bound by some single market (regulatory) rules.
Johnson has reverted to a NI-only model, with two features: Northern Ireland staying in an all-island regulatory zone for goods, meaning a regulatory border down the Irish Sea; but Northern Ireland staying in UK customs territory, meaning a customs border in Ireland.
Northern Ireland would be in an all-island regulatory zone for goods including agrifoods. In his letter Johnson says:
For as long as it exists, this zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland by ensuring that goods regulations in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the EU.
The UK government has accepted that this would involve more checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain. The explanatory note says:
Building on the existing practice established to maintain the single epidemiological unit (SEU) on the island of Ireland, Northern Ireland would align with EU SPS rules, including those relating to the placing on the market of agri-food goods. Agrifood goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would do so via a border inspection post or designated point of entry as required by EU law, building on the provisions that already exist to support the SEU. They would be subject to identity and documentary checks and physical examination by UK authorities as required by the relevant EU rules.
The Northern Ireland assembly would have to vote for Northern Ireland to stay in the all-island regulatory zone – before it took effect from January 2021 (when the transition period is due to end) and every four years afterwards. Johnson says in his letter.
This regulatory zone must depend on the consent of those affected by it.
This is essential to the acceptability of arrangements under which part of the UK accepts the rules of a different political entity. It is fundamental to democracy. We are proposing that the Northern Ireland executive and assembly should have the opportunity to endorse those arrangements before they enter into force, that is, during the transition period, and every four years afterwards. If consent is not secured, the arrangements will lapse. The same should apply to the single electricity market, which raises the same principles.
This is an essential element of the proposal, but there are at least three potential drawbacks. First, there is no power-sharing executive at the moment, because it has been suspended for nearly three years. Second, this would give the DUP a veto; they would have the power to take NI out of the arrangements. (So would Sinn Fein, but they would not want to do that.) And, third, as the government briefing earlier revealed (see 4.16pm), it is not very clear what would happen if the NI assembly did vote to abandon the arrangement. After a year NI would default to “existing rules”, but that begs the question as to what new arrangements might be needed at the border.
Johnson accepts that goods going between Ireland and Northern Ireland would be subject to customs rules, but he claims there would be no need for checks at or near the border. In his letter he says:
We are proposing that all customs processes needed to ensure compliance with the UK and EU customs regimes should take place on a decentralised basis, with paperwork conducted electronically as goods move between the two countries, and with the very small number of physical checks needed conducted at traders’ premises or other points on the supply chain.
Johnson has admitted that the details of how these new customs rules would work have yet to be finalised. In his letter he goes on:
To enable this, we should both put in place specific, workable improvements and simplifications to existing customs rules between now and the end of the transition period, in the spirit of finding flexible and creative solutions to these particular circumstances.
The explanatory note goes even further, saying that although the arrangement would be based on existing customs legislation, the intention would be to amend that legislation. It says:
The intention is to make a series of simplifications and improvements to that legislation which will ensure that the commitment in the new protocol to ensure no checks or infrastructure at the border will be fulfilled by the end of the transition period.
This implies the EU would be expected to changes its customs rules to accommodate the UK’s wishes.
And he has also admitted that the customs arrangements for goods crossing the north/south Irish border would involve some physical checks. The explanatory note says goods would be imported or exported via a transit mechanism or a prior declaration mechanism. It does on:
Under either process the relevant customs authority will be notified that the consignment has entered their customs territory. Either mechanism would link the movement of the consignment over the border with the information provided to the customs authority, which could identify any goods requiring customs interventions. Physical checks – which would continue to be required only on a very small proportion of movements based on risk assessment – could then take place at traders’ premises or other designated locations which could be located anywhere in Ireland or Northern Ireland.
The note says there would be no need for checks to take place “at, or even near” the border. But the concern in Ireland is that customs officials and customs centres could become a target for terrorists, wherever they are.
Johnson proposes an investment package for Northern Ireland. In his letter he writes:
In order to support Northern Ireland through this transition, and in collaboration with others with an interest, this government proposes a New Deal for Northern Ireland, with appropriate commitments to help boost economic growth and Northern Ireland’s competitiveness, and to support infrastructure projects, particularly with a cross-border focus.
No 10 has not said how much money might be available to NI, but this plan reflects the idea floated by Sajid Javid, the chancellor, when he was a Tory leadership candidate, for a payout worth hundreds of millions to be used as a means of solving the border problem.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who has spoken to Mr Johnson, said the EU would study the proposals carefully.
She said she “trusted” the bloc’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to maintain European unity.
But opponents of Brexit in Parliament indicated they would not support the proposals, unless they were accompanied by the promise of another referendum.
The Liberal Democrats, who want to stop Brexit, said the proposals would deal a “hammer blow” to the Northern Irish economy.
The Scottish National Party dismissed the proposals as “window dressing”.