Explainer: What is Boris Johnson’s Brexit Border plan?

UK prime minister hopes to replace backstop with his ‘two borders, four years’ proposals

A disused Irish border vehicle registration and customs facilitation office outside Dundalk. File photograph: Paul  Faith/AFP/Getty Images

A disused Irish border vehicle registration and customs facilitation office outside Dundalk. File photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty Images


What is Boris Johnson’s new Brexit plan for the Irish Border?

The British prime minister is proposing a new plan that would allow the United Kingdom to leave the European Union on October 31st. He wants Northern Ireland to leave the EU customs union – the bloc’s tariff-free trading area – but to remain aligned with the EU’s single market rules – the bloc’s uniform set of standards – for all goods, including manufactured goods as well as agricultural and food products.

Why is it being dubbed “Two borders, four years”?

The proposal would essentially create two borders: a border for customs on the island of Ireland and a border to monitor EU single market rules on agricultural and food products between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. The latter border would be optional under the plan: the Northern Ireland executive and assembly would have to give their consent on an ongoing basis to be part of it or for Northern Ireland to remain aligned with UK rules for goods.

When would Johnson’s plan start to apply?

The plan would kick in at the end of the transition period, a stand-still period when everything remains as it is now until the start of 2021. Under the proposal, the Northern Ireland executive and assembly (which has not sat since January 2017) would be given the choice by 2021 either to remain in the EU single market and the new all-island regulatory zone for goods or under UK rules for goods. The North’s political parties would be asked for their consent every four years. If the North were to chose British rules, it would mean a hardening of the customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, adding checks on single market rules to customs checks coming into effect in 2021. The way the Stormont assembly operates (if it is restored) means that this could potentially give the North’s Democratic Unionist Party a veto blocking a decision to remain aligned with EU rules applying south of the border, though this is not yet fully clear.

What’s the difference between the “two borders”?

Being outside the EU customs unions means that any products moving from Northern Ireland to the Republic would have to have duties and taxes paid on them. Being outside the EU single market means that products moving from Britain to Northern Ireland would have to be checked to ensure that they meet EU regulations and safety standards. This is particularly important for strict EU animal health and food safety rules being applied.

This would avoid the most complex and intensive checks, which would likely have to be carried out at the Irish border. The creation of all-island regulatory zone would take account of the large amount of cross-border trade in agrifood, such as animal meal, milk and other dairy products and likely remove the inevitable need for significant border infrastructure.

How is this plan different to what was on the table before?

The original deal proposed by Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May – and agreed by EU negotiators – centred on the so-called backstop – the fall-back position avoiding a hard border. That would have effectively left Northern Ireland under EU trading rules.

Under the backstop, Northern Ireland would remain in the EU customs union and tied to the necessary single market rules that would avoid any kind of need for checks at the Irish Border.


A special investigation on Brexit & the Border Read More

Boris Johnson's letter to Jean-Claude Juncker

The DUP objected to this arguing that it would put a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. To find agreement, the backstop was later broadened by May to cover the whole of the UK, keeping the entire country tied to the EU customs union after Brexit. But that was also opposed by the DUP and pro-Brexit Conservative MPs.

Johnson’s plan means Northern Ireland will be leaving the EU customs union fully, while exiting the single market rules will depend on Northern Irish politicians.

How does Johnson’s plan appease the DUP?

Giving Northern Ireland’s parties the choice to opt in or out of the all-island regulatory zone has, according to the DUP, removed the “anti-democratic” aspect of the backstop where Northern Ireland would have been subject to EU rules without having a say on whether they wanted them or not.

Would Johnson’s plan result in customs checks?

Yes, but the dilemma is where these checks would take place. Under Johnson’s proposals, the UK says that a customs border between the Republic and the North does not mean that customs checks and controls need to take place at the Border.

To avoid this, London is proposing a series of technical solutions, including exemptions for small businesses, simplified customs procedures and a trusted-trader system for authorised operators that would do away with the need for customs checks.

The proposals also include “temporary admissions” for individuals and companies carrying goods across the Border temporarily. The plan relies, to a large degree, on hope and a leap into the unknown when it comes to avoiding border checks. Johnson suggested to the EU that both sides put in place “specific, workable improvements and simplifications to existing customs rules” between now and the end of the transition period at the end of next year in the “spirit of finding flexible and creative solutions to these particular circumstances”.

The UK says that its proposal ensures that no customs controls complying with EU and UK customs regimes will take place at or near the Border but fails to outline how exactly, or at least in any detail, beyond proposing “continuing close co-operation between UK and Irish authorities”.

Some checks at or near the Border would, however, have to apply to prevent a free-for-all and smuggling. If there are two different customs rules applying on the island of Ireland, checks would need to be carried out as close to the Border as possible to protect Ireland’s place in the EU trading bloc. Brussels would insist on this to protect the integrity of the single market.

Why is Johnson proposing this deal and not going with May’s?

The House of Commons has rejected May’s deal three times because of objections to the backstop and fears that it could keep the UK tied to EU trading rules indefinitely. Johnson wants the UK to diverge on rules so it can pursue an independent trade policy and agree trade deals with other countries. He described the backstop as a bridge to a proposed future relationship with the EU in which the UK would be closely aligned with EU customs arrangements and laws but his government wants to diverge, to take “control of its own regulatory affairs”.

On that basis, he described the backstop as “a bridge to nowhere” and said a “new way forward must be found”.

Does his deal achieve this?

Yes, and it would mean that the UK could leave the EU on October 31st, as Johnson wants.

Are Dublin and Brussels likely to approve?

It looks highly unlikely that they would, given that the EU wants to maintain the invisible Irish border, preserve North-South co-operation and protect the integrity of the EU single market. The EU is  unlikely to accept any proposal that would result in a customs border on the island of Ireland. Brussels must decide on whether these proposals are realistic enough to be put in the negotiating “tunnel” to trash out a compromise.

So what’s the alternative to this plan?

Johnson says it is either this deal or no deal, and that this essentially pivots on “a technical discussion on the exact nature of future customs checks when that technology is improving the whole time”. Dublin and Brussels see it very differently, believing that they cannot rely on technology not yet invented or unspecified improvements and simplifications to customs rules and practices in the future to avoid a hard border. Hence the need for a legal guarantee between the EU and UK now to make sure one does not materialise.

BREXIT: The Facts

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