Brexit: Boris Johnson outlines plans for alternative to backstop

British prime minister proposes creation of all-island regulatory zone for goods in Ireland

Rejection of latest Brexit plan will lead to ‘no-deal’ exit, Johnson warns PM says his proposal would allow the UK ‘whole and entire to withdraw from the EU’.


The UK government’s new Brexit plan is “entirely compatible with maintaining an open border in Northern Ireland, ” British prime minister Boris Johnson has claimed in a letter to the European Union.

Mr Johnson set out his long-awaited proposal to replace the contentious backstop guarantee to avoid a hard border after the UK leaves the EU in a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker.

In his four-page letter, he said the backstop was “a bridge to nowhere” now that his government had changed tack and chosen not to remain closely integrated with EU customs arrangements and laws.

His proposal lays out what he regarded as “a reasonable compromise” and a “broad landing zone in which I believe a deal can begin to take shape,” he told Mr Juncker.

If both sides could not agree a deal, it would represent “a failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible,” he said.

Setting out details of how he proposed Northern Ireland would be treated after Brexit, Mr Johnson said that the island of Ireland would become an all-island regulatory zone covering all goods, including agrifood, eliminating the need for regulatory checks on goods moving north and south of the Border.

Under the proposal, this zone would only come into force at the end of the standstill transition period in 2021 if agreed by the Northern Ireland executive and assembly and every four years thereafter.

Depend on consent

Mr Johnson told the EU that the zone “must depend on the consent of those affected by it” in a move that will appease Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party which had objected to the original backstop on the basis that it tied the North to EU rules without having any say in the formation of those rules.

The prime minister said that this would ensure that EU rules “cannot be maintained indefinitely if they are not wanted – correcting a key defect of the backstop arrangements,” he said.

“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,” said Mr Johnson.

The UK government’s proposals, marking a major shift from Theresa May’s backstop plan to avoid a hard Irish border, would result in Northern Ireland remaining fully part of the UK customs union.

“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. We must do so whole and entire,” he said.


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Boris Johnson's letter to Jean-Claude Juncker

The prime minister said that it was “entirely reasonable” to manage the new customs border in Ireland “in a different way”.

Checks could be done on a “decentralised basis” with paperwork conducted electronically as goods move between the two countries and a “very small number of physical checks” would be needed at the premises of traders or other points along the supply chain, he said.

Workable improvements

He suggested that the UK and EU should 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”.

“These arrangements can be underpinned by close co-operation between UK and Irish authorities. All this must be coupled with a firm commitment [by both parties] never to conduct checks at the Border in future,” he said.

Mr Johnson conceded that the proposals would “mean changes from the situation that prevails in Ireland and Northern Ireland now”.

He said he believes the changes “entail as little day-to-day disruption as possible to the current situation”.

The UK’s proposal respects the decision of the UK people to leave the EU “while dealing pragmatically with that decision’s consequences in Northern Ireland and Ireland,” he said.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke to Mr Johnson by telephone shortly before 6pm on Wednesday.

In a statement after the call, Government Buildings said the two leaders discussed the latest proposals from the UK.

“The Taoiseach said the proposals do not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop,” the statement said. “However, he indicated that he would study them in further detail, and would consult with the EU institutions, including the Task Force and our EU partners.”

“The Taoiseach said he wants to see a deal agreed and ratified, and will continue to work in unity with our EU partners to this end,” it said. “The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister agreed they would speak again next week.”

‘Positive advances’

The statement said Mr Varadkar expects to speak to European Council president Donald Tusk, European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, and to other EU heads of government over the coming days.

The European Commission released a statement saying Mr Juncker welcomed Mr Johnson’s “determination to advance the talks” in a phone call on Wednesday.

The statement said: “[Juncker] acknowledged the positive advances, notably with regards to the full regulatory alignment for all goods and the control of goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain.

“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. Another concern that needs to be addressed are the substantive customs rules.

“He also stressed that we must have a legally operational solution that meets all the objectives of the backstop: preventing a hard border, preserving North-South co-operation and the all-island economy, and protecting the EU’s single market and Ireland’s place in it.

“President Juncker confirmed to prime minister Johnson that the commission will now examine the legal text objectively, and in light of our well-known criteria.

“The EU wants a deal. We remain united and ready to work 24/7 to make this happen – as we have been for over three years now.”

The DUP welcomed the proposals as ensuring Northern Ireland leaves the EU customs union and upholding the Belfast Agreement.

A statement said: “These proposals, which are entirely consistent with the spirit and principles of the Belfast Agreement, demonstrate commitment to working with our neighbours 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. ” – Additional reporting: Agencies

Five main points: Boris Johnson’s plan to dump the backstop

  • UK proposes an all-island regulatory zone covering all goods, including agrifood
  • Zone would only come into effect if Northern Ireland executive and assembly agree to it
  • Northern Ireland would remain fully part of UK customs area
  • Neither side would agree to check goods at the border
  • Paperwork checks would be conducted electronically, small number of physical checks at traders’ premises

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