Boris Johnson reveals government’s Brexit backstop alternative

Written by Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Alain Tolhurst on 3 October 2019 in News
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Johnson calls for 'compromise' as he sets out proposed Brexit Irish border plan

Photo: PA

Boris Johnson has set out details of the government’s long-awaited plan to replace the Irish backstop as he said the Eu needed to avoid a "failure of statecraft" and strike a Brexit deal

In a letter to European Commission president Jean Claude-Juncker, the prime minister urged Brussels to show a “willingness to compromise” in a bid to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal at the end of the month.

Describing the current backstop – which European leaders have argued is the only viable way to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland and protect the integrity of the EU's single market and has been characterised as the basis of a bridge to new arrangements – as "a bridge to nowhere", Johnson urged Juncker to help Britain “leave the EU in an orderly fashion on 31 October”.

And, setting out what he called a “fair and reasonable compromise”, Johnson said there was now “very little time in which to negotiate” a new Brexit deal ahead of a crunch summit on 17 October.

Johnson – who also spoke to EU leaders on Wednesday – said: "This government wants to get a deal, as I am sure we all do. If we cannot reach one, it would represent a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible. 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. 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."

The UK's new plan involves setting up an “all-island regulatory zone” in Ireland which would see all goods traded between Ireland and Northern Ireland tied to EU regulations during the Brexit transition period, which is currently set to expire in December 2020.

But that new joint zone must, Johnson said, “depend on the consent of those affected by it” beyond the transition, so the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will be given the chance to endorse the plans before they come into force, and then every four years after that.

The prime minister said those arrangements would “lapse” if Northern Ireland’s politicians rejected them.

Pressed on how the new plan would be overseen given that Northern Ireland has been without a functioning assembly for two years following the collapse of power-sharing there, a UK government official said: "We absolutely believe that we can get Stormont up and running again. Discussions have been on going for a number of months now. I think it is vitally important that the people and institutions of Northern Ireland are able to have their say over these arrangements."

'FULLY PART'

Meanwhile, the UK is proposing that Northern Ireland itself will be “fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU customs union”, after the transition period ends in December 2020.

"It has always been a fundamental point for this government that the UK will leave the EU customs union at the end of the transition period,” he said.

Johnson added: “We must do so whole and entire. Control of trade policy is fundamental to our future vision."

The prime minister also vowed that any customs checks – likely to be the most contentious element of any Irish border plan – would take place away from the frontier “on a decentralised basis”, with only a “very small number of physical checks” carried out “at traders' premises or other points on the supply chain”.

And he urged the EU to work with the UK to “put in place specific, workable improvements and simplifications to existing customs rules” before the end of the transition period.

“All this must be coupled with a firm commitment (by both parties) never to conduct checks at the border in future,” he said.

A UK government official meanwhile stressed that Johnson would press ahead with a no-deal Brexit if EU leaders did not consider the new plan.

"If the EU don't show that they are prepared to engage with this proposal then the prime minister has been clear that we will move forward and that we will leave without a deal."

The EU has given a given a cautious welcome to Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan but warned there will still “some problematic points”.

European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker “acknowledged the positive advances” made by the prime minister towards getting a deal, however added “further work” was needed on the backstop.

He will now speak to Irish PM Leo Varadkar about the potential changes to the controversial mechanism, which aims to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland.

In a statement, the European Commission said its president Juncker spoke to Mr Johnson on the phone on Wednesday afternoon following the publication of the UK’s offer.

It said he welcomed the PM's “determination to advance the talks ahead of the October European Council and make progress towards a deal”.

And he labelled the move towards full regulatory alignment for goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain as “positive”.

The spokesman said: “However, the president also noted that there are still some problematic points that will need further work in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop.

“The delicate balance struck by the Good Friday Agreement must be preserved.”

The EU said Juncker confirmed to Johnson his officials will examine the UK’s legal text “objectively”, and that meetings between the two negotiation teams will take place in Brussels over the coming days.

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Matt Honeycombe-Foster and Alain Tolhurst
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Matt Honeycombe-Foster is the news editor and Alain Tolhurst is the chief reporter of PoliticsHome, where a version of this story first appeared.

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