Boris Johnson urges EU to avoid 'failure of statecraft’ as he sets out Brexit backstop alternative
Boris Johnson has called on the EU to avoid a "failure of statecraft" as he unveiled his long-awaited plan to replace the Irish backstop and strike a Brexit deal.
In a letter to European Commission President Jean Claude-Juncker, the Prime Minister urged Brussels to show a “willingness to compromise” in a bid to stop Britain leaving the EU without a deal at the end of the month.
Branding the current backstop - which European leaders have argued is the only viable way to avoid a hard border in the island of Ireland and protect the integrity of the EU's single market - "a bridge to nowhere", Mr Johnson urged Mr Juncker to help Britain “leave the EU in an orderly fashion on 31 October”.
And, setting out what he called a “fair and reasonable compromise”, Mr Johnson said there was now “very little time in which to negotiate” a new Brexit deal ahead of a crunch summit on 17 October.
Mr Johnson - who is due to speak to EU leaders later on Wednesday - said: "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."
The UK's new plan involves setting up an “all-island regulatory zone” which would see all goods traded between Ireland and Northern Ireland tied to EU regulat during the Brexit transition period, which is currently set to expire in December 2020.
But that new joint zone must, Mr Johnson said, “depend on the consent of those affected by it” - so the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will be given the chance to endorse the plans before they come into force, and then every four years after that.
The Prime Minister said those arrangements would “lapse” if Northern Ireland’s politicians rejected them.
Pressed on how the new plan would be overseen given that Northern Ireland has been without a functioning assembly for two years following the collapse of power-sharing there, a UK government official said: "We absolutely believe that we can get Stormont up and running again. Discussions have been on going for a number of months now. I think it is vitally important that the people and institutions of Northern Ireland are able to have their say over these arrangements."
Meanwhile, the UK is proposing that Northern Ireland itself will be “fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU customs union”, after the transition period ends in December 2020.
"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,” he said.
Mr Johnson added: “We must do so whole and entire. Control of trade policy is fundamental to our future vision."
The Prime Minister also vowed that any customs checks - likely to be the most contentious element of any Irish border plan - would take place away from the frontier “on a decentralised basis”, with only a “very small number of physical checks” carried out “at traders' premises or other points on the supply chain”.
And he urged the EU to work with the UK to “put in place specific, workable improvements and simplifications to existing customs rules” before the end of the transition period.
“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 - who has vowed to leave the EU with or without a deal by 31 October - received a boost on Wednesday as the DUP threw its weight behind the plan.
The move by the unionist party, which has long opposed the backstop in its current form, could convince a number of Tory Brexiteers to support any deal in the House of Commons.
DUP leader Arlene Foster said: “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.
“It will require changes to the draft withdrawal treaty and we welcome the fact that all sides now recognise that requirement in order to secure agreement.”
She added: “Further work remains to be completed between the UK and the European Union but we would encourage all concerned to approach these discussions in a positive mind-set within a spirit of wanting to secure a negotiated withdrawal agreement that can allow everyone to focus on future relationships.”
A UK government official meanwhile stressed that Mr Johnson would press ahead with a no-deal Brexit if EU leaders did not consider the new plan.
"If the EU don't show that they are prepared to engage with this proposal then the Prime Minister has been clear that we will move forward and that we will leave without a deal."
CORBYN: WORSE THAN MAY DEAL
But the SNP’s Ian Blackford rubbished the proposal, saying that moves to allow the Northern Ireland Assembly to “disentangle” the arrangement would not be “acceptable to Europe”.
“At the end of the day the whole point of backstop is it’s not time-limited,” he told the BBC.
“I don’t think this is a way forward. I think this is a just simply window-dressing from the government.”
And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the new offer was "worse than Theresa May's deal", as he claimed it would lead to "deregulation" and "undercutting" of standards.
“What’s worse is particularly the section on Northern Ireland which is very unspecific about how the Good Friday Agreement can be upheld within the terms of the letter that he sent," Mr Corbyn said.
“But also much worse is a specific intention to de-regulate alongside Europe…this PM seems to want to lead to deregulated Britain with a race to the bottom.”