Thursday 24 October 2019

Johnson to reveal final plan 'based on an all-Ireland economic zone'

Insistent: DUP leader Arlene Foster at the Conservative Party conference yesterday at the Manchester Convention Centre. Photo: PA
Insistent: DUP leader Arlene Foster at the Conservative Party conference yesterday at the Manchester Convention Centre. Photo: PA

Peter Foster in London

Boris Johnson is expected finally to unveil his detailed plan for Brexit to EU leaders within the next 24 hours.

Downing Street will set out the prime minister's preferred alternative to the backstop in a series of calls to EU capitals ahead of a formal text being delivered to Brussels after his speech to the Conservative Party conference tomorrow.

The UK plan, which could be delivered as early as today, is expected to be based on the creation of an all-Ireland "economic zone", which would allow agricultural and food products to move without checks at the Border. A proposal to align regulations on industrial goods is expected to be included.

The proposal will also suggest ways for Northern Ireland's political parties to have a say in the application of any EU rules and regulations in order to build democratic legitimacy for the replacement to the backstop.

But on the critical question of customs - which the EU side says is a potential deal-breaker - the Johnson plan is still expected to rely on technology and so-called "alternative arrangements", such as trusted-trader schemes and exemptions for small businesses.

Downing Street is expected to propose that details of such an arrangement should be subject to further negotiation during the transition period.

During a visit to Manchester, he said: "I'm cautiously optimistic. We have made some pretty big moves, we are waiting to see whether our European friends will help us and whether we can find the right landing zone.

"But whatever happens, we'll come out on October 31."

DUP leader Arlene Foster said yesterday she would "look at any proposal" but that was "a world away from saying we are advocating it".

With less than two weeks of negotiating time remaining ahead of the October EU leaders' summit, officials on both sides of the Channel said the plans represented a "crunch point" after weeks of shadow boxing.

Sources close to Downing Street believe the chances of a deal are "about 50/50" but said they hoped the EU would approach the next phase of talks "constructively".

Senior EU sources said that unless Mr Johnson's proposals made massive strides in their direction, the sides would be "simply nowhere near" an agreement.

On taking office, Mr Johnson demanded Europe must "abolish" the backstop as a precondition to any Brexit deal, putting him on a collision course with the EU and Ireland.

But there has been growing speculation that he may return to the concept of a "time-limited" backstop.

Plans set to be advanced by the UK have previously been dismissed as "magical thinking" in Europe.

To date, EU diplomats have labelled them "half-baked" and "nowhere close to an acceptable landing zone".

Hopes appeared to be further complicated yesterday when Ms Foster ruled out Northern Ireland being left in a separate customs territory from the rest of the UK after Brexit.

"We have to leave on the same terms as the rest of the United Kingdom," she insisted, warning Mr Johnson not to repeat Theresa May's "mistake" in believing the DUP could ever accept an internal customs border.

Sources in Brussels added that there "was no time left" to create bespoke arrangements for the Border, with a final text needing to be nailed down by October 15 in order for it to be agreed in EU capitals and the European Parliament.

Irish Independent

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