Boris Johnson’s Brexit “compromise” faces rejection in Brussels after a key European Parliament group voiced “grave concerns”.
MEPs will not approve the the prime minister’s proposals “in their current form” as they “do not match even remotely” the safeguards of the Northern Irish backstop, the parliament’s Brexit Steering Group (BSG) said on Thursday.
European Council President Donald Tusk, meanwhile, said he was “unconvinced” and would “stand fully behind Ireland”, whose PM Leo Varadkar has warned the plans “do not fully meet agreed objectives”.
Johnson today urged MPs to get behind his new deal. It would see Northern Ireland stay in the European single market for goods but leave the customs union.
The response of the Irish government sparked a fresh row with the DUP, with the party’s leader Arlene Foster saying “the rejection of a reasonable offer was paving the way for no-deal”.
“There will be no return to the flawed backstop,” she said.
European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator Guy Verhofstadt told BBC Radio 4’s World At One that the EU was “very sceptical” and felt that Johnson was “repackaging old ideas”.
Verhofstadt went on to claim Johnson was preparing to blame the EU for a no-deal crash-out at Halloween.
He said: “We have serious doubts about the seriousness of these proposals because today a memo was leaked, a memo sent by Downing Street to Tory MPs to immediately blame the European Union.
“If such a document has really been sent to the Tory MPs you can have doubts about the seriousness of these proposals.”
The government said any new customs checks will be carried out at trade premises and there would be “no new infrastructure” at the border on the UK side.
But the UK needs the backing of European Council ministers and the European Parliament, and the BSG has poured cold water on hopes of a deal.
A statement said the plans “fall short”, adding: “The BSG does not find these last-minute proposals of the UK Government of October 2, in their current form, represent a basis for an agreement to which the European Parliament could give consent.
“The proposals do not address the real issues that need to be resolved if the backstop were to be removed, namely the all-island economy, the full respect of the Good Friday Agreement and the integrity of the single market.”
It added: “In summary, the BSG has grave concerns about the UK proposal, as tabled. Safeguarding peace and stability on the island of Ireland, protection of citizens and EU’s legal order has to be the main focus of any deal.
“The UK proposals do not match even remotely what was agreed as a sufficient compromise in the backstop.”
Checks must be sanctioned by the Northern Ireland assembly at Stormont, which is currently not sitting due to deadlock between the DUP and Sinn Fein, the UK plan says.
Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar has also been clear that his government does not view the plan as a basis for a deal, saying the operation of two different custom zones on the island would create a “real difficulty”.
He said there were five ways to avoid a hard border – the reunification of Ireland; the Irish Republic re-joining the UK; the UK remaining in the single market and customs union; the border backstop mechanism; or the UK reversing the Brexit decision.
On the prospect of the UK staying in the EU, the Taoiseach said: “All the polls since Prime Minister Johnson became prime minister suggest that’s what the British people actually want, but their political system isn’t able to give them that choice.”
He added: “Our objective is very clear – we don’t want to see any customs posts between north and south, nor do we want to see any tariffs or restrictions on trade between north and south.
“They were all abolished in the 1990s, and we don’t want to go back to that. The majority of the people in the north don’t and the majority of the people in the Republic of Ireland don’t.
“But if we are going to be in two different customs unions, I think that’s going to create a real difficulty that’s going to be very hard to reconcile.”
Swedish prime minister Stefan Lofven, who held talks with Varadkar in Stockholm, said his country stood with Ireland.
“Sweden stands in solidarity with Ireland. We all remember the violence during the Troubles very clearly, and the Good Friday Agreement must not be put at risk,” he said.
Varadkar added that Johnson’s pledge to install no new infrastructure contradicted the text of the UK plan, which indicated checks could be carried out at unspecified locations.
“We need to explore in much more detail the customs proposals that are being put forward, as it’s very much the view of the Irish government and the people of Ireland, north and south, that there shouldn’t be customs checkpoints or tariffs between north and south,” he said.
Northern Ireland’s chief constable, meanwhile, has told Johnson that it would not be possible to police the Irish border’s more than 300 crossing points with his current number of police officers.
Simon Byrne said his 30-minute conversation with the prime minister happened by video call on Friday.
“We were face to face on a video call for over half an hour,” he said.
“It was a very open conversation trying to tell him we saw that it was nigh on impossible to try and police over 300 crossings with the amount of police officers we had.
“It was a candid conversation, he was responsive to what we said and at the end of the day, how it landed and what he thought… you’re going to have to ask him.”