LONDON — The British government has set out how it would like to replace the controversial Irish backstop mechanism in a Brexit deal with the European Union, after Boris Johnson warned the EU they should compromise or face a no-deal exit.
In a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker published today, Prime Minister Boris Johnson proposed an “all-Ireland regulatory zone,” covering all goods including agri-food. Northern Ireland “will be fully part of the U.K. customs territory, not the EU Customs Union,” he wrote.
For months, EU leaders have complained Britain has not provided detailed alternatives to the backstop, a key part of the deal negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May that was designed to avoid a hard border on the island of Ireland if one is not agreed as part of future trade talks between the U.K. and the bloc. Johnson has promised to pull the U.K. out of the EU by October 31, with or without a deal, and is now running out of time to deliver.
Earlier in the day, Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar told Sky News he was not impressed with the new proposals, which were leaked to the Telegraph overnight. “We have seen that what has been proposed is not promising, it does not appear to form the basis for an agreement,” he said.
He added he will consult with the Commission and European colleagues by phone this evening to discuss their joint response. “We will always keep talking and we will always stay open to proposals from the British government,” he said.
A spokesman for the EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, said earlier on Twitter that the European Commission would examine the U.K.’s proposal “objectively.” But he also made clear it is all but certain Johnson’s plan would be rejected, by reiterating the EU27’s long-standing demands, which include the prevention of a hard border on the island of Ireland and safeguarding the integrity of the EU’s single market.
However, Johnson did appear to have secured some backing at home for his proposals. The Conservatives’ parliamentary allies the Democratic Unionist Party, which rejected May’s deal three times in the House of Commons, indicated support for the new proposals.
“[The plan] 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,” the party said in a statement.
Although Downing Street’s proposals would mean Northern Ireland remaining under the EU’s regulatory regime, meaning checks on goods traded between Northern Ireland and the rest of the U.K., the party indicated that as long as these had the support of elected Northern Irish politicians, they could accept this.
“[The proposals] ensure democratic consent to the specific alignment proposals both before they enter into force and thereafter on an ongoing basis and they respect the democratic decision of the U.K., of which Northern Ireland is a part,” the party said in a statement.
The U.K.’s offer is “entirely consistent with the spirit and principles of the Belfast Agreement [which secured peace in Northern Ireland in 1998], demonstrate commitment to working with our neighbors in the Republic of Ireland in a spirit of mutual co-operation whilst respecting the integrity of Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional position within the United Kingdom,” the DUP added.
The party, led by Arlene Foster, recognized the proposals “will require changes to the draft withdrawal treaty” — which was previously agreed by Theresa May but rejected by the U.K. parliament — and called on the U.K. and the EU to “approach these discussions in a positive mindset.”
Labour’s leader Jeremy Corbyn told Sky News the proposals are “worse” than what former Prime Minister Theresa May had proposed, because it could lead to the U.K. regulations diverting from those of the EU.
“Quite clearly, if Northern Ireland is not in the [EU] customs union and it is supposed to be having open trade with the Republic of Ireland, you can’t do both things. There is a fundamental contradiction in what he is offering there,” he said.
More to follow.