Boris Johnson has submitted his Brexit offer to the EU and said it should form the basis of “rapid negotiations” towards a new exit deal that scraps the Irish backstop.
The prime minister outlined what he believes is the “broad landing zone” for a deal in a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, appearing to back down from his plans to insist on a take-it-or-leave-it offer.
But the proposals to introduce new customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland are likely to be looked on sceptically, at the very least, by the EU and Dublin.
The plan is designed to replace the backstop, an insurance policy to maintain an invisible border between Northern Ireland and Ireland negotiated by Theresa May, which would have kept either the whole UK or the province in a customs union with the EU, restricting the ability to sign free-trade deals around the world.
Johnson’s plan instead envisages the entire UK leaving the customs union, but with Northern Ireland staying aligned to EU rules on goods as long as the Stormont assembly and executive agree every four years.
This would create the need for customs checks on goods travelling between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and a need for regulatory checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The PM insisted that customs checks could take place away from the Irish border.
Crucially for Johnson, the proposals have the backing of the Northern Irish DUP, which will help convince the Brussels that any deal can pass through parliament if agreed at the UK-EU level.
But the acid test will come in phone calls between Johnson and Juncker, German chancellor Angela Merkel and Irish PM Leo Varadkar this afternoon. Johnson will also brief colleagues this evening and the cabinet at 8:30am on Thursday.
There is likely to be some disquiet at Johnson’s suggestion of introducing customs checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and how they would work effectively without any border infrastructure.
Neither the UK nor the EU want a return to the hard border of the past, which was routinely attacked by dissident republicans.
In his letter to Juncker, Johnson insisted his scheme would require only a “very small number of physical checks” to be conducted at traders’ premises or other points in the supply chain of goods.
Other customs paperwork could be done electronically as goods travel between the two countries, he said.
Authorised traders will be covered without checks under a trusted trader scheme, special provisions would be made for small traders and customs procedures could be simplified and streamlined, Johnson argued.
“There is now very little time in which to negotiate a new agreement between the UK and the EU under Article 50,” Johnson wrote.
“We need to get this done before the October European Council.
“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.”
Reacting to the Brexit proposal, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said: “It’s worse than Theresa May’s deal. I can’t see it getting the support that he thinks it will get.”
He added: “I hope that these proposals can now provide the basis for rapid negotiations towards a solution.”
The DUP said in a statement: “The DUP has always indicated that the United Kingdom must leave the EU as one nation and in so doing that no barriers to trade are erected within the UK.
“This offer provides a basis for the EU to continue in a serious and sustained engagement with the UK government without risk to the internal market of the United Kingdom.”
But Tom Brake, Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesperson, tweeted: “Boris Johnson’s leaked offer is nothing short of derisory.
“Based on principles long deemed unworkable by NI and ROI businesses, and delivering nothing more than confusion at vast cost, either he has learned nothing, or he wants them to be rejected. No deal is on his hands.”
Leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage criticised Johnson’s Brexit proposals on Twitter.
He tweeted: “Boris only wants to change one part of the Withdrawal Agreement. Despite his words there is no guarantee that we will leave the customs union, and any future trade deal needs good faith from the EU side.
“It’s like putting your head in a crocodile’s mouth and hoping for the best.”