Boris Johnson has urged the European Union to compromise in order to reach a Brexit deal as he set out his plan to scrap the backstop.
The Prime Minister wrote to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker to say that it would be a “failure of statecraft for which we would all be responsible” if the two sides could not strike a deal before the October 17 European Council.
He acknowledged there was “very little time” but said “both sides now need to consider whether there is sufficient willingness to compromise and move beyond existing positions” to reach an agreement.
In his letter, Mr Johnson said the backstop – the contingency plan agreed by the EU and Theresa May to prevent a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland – must be removed.
Unlike Mrs May’s plans for a UK-EU relationship with a closely integrated customs arrangement, Mr Johnson favoured a looser free trade deal and “in these circumstances the proposed ‘backstop’ is a bridge to nowhere”.
Mr Johnson said the plan had five elements:
– A commitment to a solution compatible with the Good Friday Agreement
– Confirmation of support for long-standing areas of UK-Ireland collaboration including the Common Travel Area and north-south co-operation
– The potential creation of an all-Ireland regulatory zone covering all goods including agri-food
– The consent of those affected by that all-Ireland zone with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly given the chance to endorse the plan before it comes into effect and then every four years
– Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory and outside the EU’s customs union.
Mr Johnson claimed the plan was “entirely compatible with maintaining an open border in Northern Ireland”.
He told Mr Juncker that because the goods trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland made up “a little over 1% of UK-EU total trade in goods” it was “entirely reasonable to manage this border in a different way.
Any risks arising from the proposals would be “manageable”, particularly as imports from third countries would be controlled by EU and UK customs authorities.
Under the plan there would be “decentralised” customs regimes, with paperwork conducted electronically as goods move between the two countries.
But Mr Johnson acknowledged there would need to be a “very small number of physical checks”, which he claimed could be conducted at traders’ premises or other points in the supply chain – rather than at the border.
He called for the two sides to work together to find “flexible and creative solutions”, coupled with a joint commitment “never to conduct checks at the border in future”.
Mr Johnson said the continued regulatory alignment across the island of Ireland could continue “for a potentially prolonged period” after the end of a transition period if Stormont agrees.
But the requirement for the consent of the Northern Irish Assembly meant that EU rules “cannot be maintained indefinitely if they are not wanted”.
The Prime Minister said: “I hope that these proposals can now provide the basis for rapid negotiations towards a solution, together with finalisation of the necessary changes to the Political Declaration reflecting the goal of a comprehensive Free Trade Agreement, so that an Article 50 agreement can be reached, and the UK can leave the EU in an orderly fashion on October 31.
“This will allow us to focus on the positive future relationship that I believe is in all of our interests.”
Mr Johnson’s letter also signalled extra investment for Northern Ireland.
The “New Deal for Northern Ireland” would have “appropriate commitments to help boost economic growth and Northern Ireland’s competitiveness, and to support infrastructure projects, particularly with a cross-border focus”.
Mr Johnson’s Democratic Unionist Party allies backed the proposals.
In a statement the party said the plans were 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” and they “ensure democratic consent to the specific alignment proposals”.
“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 mindset within a spirit of wanting to secure a negotiated withdrawal agreement that can allow everyone to focus on future relationships,” the DUP added.