Belfast Telegraph

EU reacts coolly to Johnson’s ‘problematic’ Brexit blueprint

European Commission president says they still need a ‘legally operable solution’ to the issue of the Northern Ireland border.

Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Stefan Rousseau/PA)
Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

By Gavin Cordon and David Hughes, PA Political Staff

EU leaders have reacted coolly to Boris Johnson’s blueprint to break the Brexit deadlock with a plan that would see Northern Ireland remain tied to EU single market rules but leave the customs union.

The Prime Minister said his plan represented a “reasonable compromise” as Downing Street signalled the start of 10 days of “intensive discussions” in a bid to find an agreement in time for this month’s EU summit.

While the EU acknowledged there was progress, there was concern in Brussels and Dublin that it fell significantly short of the “backstop” in Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement, guaranteeing an open border on the island of Ireland.

Nationalists in Northern Ireland also expressed anger over a proposal requiring the suspended Stormont Assembly to approve the new arrangements, with a vote every four years.

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Boris Johnson delivers his closing address to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester (Danny Lawson/PA)

Sinn Fein said that it would effectively give a veto to the DUP which has a majority in the assembly.

Under the plan, the arrangements would kick in at the end of the planned transition period in 2021 if there was no long-term trade agreement and would continue until one was in place.

In a letter to European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, Mr Johnson said the proposals were “entirely compatible” with the maintenance of an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Taking the UK – including Northern Ireland – out of the customs union is seen as essential by the Government as it will enable Britain to negotiate trade deals with other countries around the world.

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Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has reacted cautiously to Boris Johnson’s plan (Brian Lawless/PA)

An accompanying explanatory note said a system of declarations for goods traded between the North and the Republic meant only a “very small proportion” would be subject to physical customs checks.

When they were necessary, it said that they would take place well away from the border, at the traders’ premises or other designated locations.

At the same time the plan proposes a “zone of regulatory compliance” covering the entire island of Ireland, tying the North to EU rules for the trade in manufactured goods and agri-food products.

While it would mean such trades could continue across the border without regulatory controls, products moving between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK – including livestock – would be subject to checks.

After speaking to the Prime Minister by telephone, Mr Juncker said while there had been some “positive advances”, there remained “problematic points”.

He said the customs arrangements still did not represent a “legally operable solution” to maintain an open border, as guaranteed in the Good Friday agreement which ended the Northern Ireland Troubles.

“The president also noted that there are still some problematic points that will need further work in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop,” the commission said in a statement.

“The delicate balance struck by the Good Friday agreement must be preserved.”

Irish premier Leo Varadkar also reacted cautiously, saying the proposals “do not fully meet the agreed objectives” of the Northern Ireland backstop.

In a statement released following a phone call with Mr Johnson, a spokesman said Mr Varadkar would study the plan in further detail and the two men agreed to speak again next week.

Sinn Fein deputy leader Michelle O’Neill said the proposals would make it more difficult to restore the power-sharing administration at Stormont which has been suspended since January 2017.

“The bottom line here is there will never be a circumstance whenever the DUP will be afforded a veto over Brexit and over the future relationship on this island,” she said.

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Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the plan was even worse than Theresa May’s deal (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Downing Street acknowledged there was a need to get Stormont “up and running again” as quickly as possible.

A Government official said: “Discussions have been ongoing for a number of months now. I think it is vitally important that the people and institution of Northern Ireland are able to have their say over these arrangements.”

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn warned the deal would undermine the Good Friday agreement and said Mr Johnson appeared to be heading for a no-deal Brexit.

“It’s worse than Theresa May’s deal,” he said.”I’m sure he knows full well that what he’s put forward is unlikely to be approved.”

In contrast, Mr Johnson’s allies at Westminster, the DUP, broadly welcomed the plan as the basis for “serious and sustained engagement” between the UK and Brussels.

“These proposals would ensure that Northern Ireland would be out of the EU customs union and the single market as with the rest of the United Kingdom,” it said in a statement.

PA

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