Sunday 20 October 2019

Explainer: What is Boris Johnson's Brexit plan to replace the dreaded backstop?


British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Photo: Reuters
Anti-Brexit protesters at the Palace of Westminster. Picture: PA
Hugh O'Connell

Hugh O'Connell

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's latest bid to break the Brexit deadlock will be rejected unless he makes another big leap.

The UK's alternatives to the backstop have been described as a sign of progress - but Irish Government sources said "a huge gap" remains.

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We take a look at what this means:

What is Boris Johnson's plan to solve Brexit?

The UK prime minister wants to replace the dreaded backstop - the provision of the withdrawal deal that guarantees no hard Border on the island of Ireland in all circumstances - with what's being dubbed "two borders, for four years".

His plan envisages an all-island regulatory zone covering all goods, including agri-food.

This zone would eliminate all checks for trade in goods and animals between the North and the Republic because regulations would be the same as the rest of the EU. The North would also remain in the single electricity market (SEM).

But the North would leave the EU customs union, including its VAT and excise regimes, and be part of the UK customs territory.

The North's politicians would have to consent to membership of this all-island regulatory zone and the SEM before the UK leaves the EU in 2021 and every four years after that.

There is also a vague promise for a 'new deal for Northern Ireland', ie more money.

What does that mean in practical terms?

It means a regulatory border in the Irish Sea between Britain and the North and a customs border between the North and the Republic. Mr Johnson argues the proposal is "entirely compatible" with maintaining an open Border.

But Irish and EU figures argue it necessitates customs checks and controls on both sides of the Border. Mr Johnson himself says: "We recognise that our proposals will mean changes from the situation that prevails in Ireland and Northern Ireland now."

Weren't we trying to avoid that?

Yes, but Mr Johnson has pivoted from his predecessor Theresa May in an effort to appease the DUP and Brexiteers who believed the backstop would closely align the UK with the EU in perpetuity.

How has the plan gone down?

From the moment details of it leaked on Tuesday night, there were signals from Brussels and Dublin that it would not fly. The Taoiseach said the leaked reports were "not promising". The EU welcomed aspects of the plan but said it had some "problematic points". It plans to study the text and hold more meetings with UK negotiators. But the mood music isn't great.

So what happens now?

We are back to the prospect of the UK crashing out on October 31 or else applying for an extension. Mr Johnson is loath to do the latter, but UK law says he must if there's no deal by October 19. This could mean a court battle and an effort by MPs to replace him with another PM who would ask for an extension before calling a general election. In short, Brexit is far from over.

Irish Independent

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