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Boris Johnson publishes his alternative to the backstop

In a letter to European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Johnson said the backstop was “a bridge to nowhere”.

UK PRIME MINISTER Boris Johnson has published his alternative to the backstop, which would mean custom checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland, and regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

Calling the backstop “a bridge to nowhere”, Johnson states that Northern Ireland will leave the EU’s Custom Union with the rest of the UK, but that customs checks do not need to take place “at, or even near, that border”. 

In a letter to the European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker, Johnson said that the Withdrawal Agreement has been rejected by the UK parliament three times, and that this current proposal would “remove” the backstop from that Brexit deal.

In short, the proposals suggest regulatory checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and custom checks on goods going between Ireland and Northern Ireland:

…The creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering not just sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) and agri-food rules but all goods, thus eliminating regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland;
make this regulatory zone dependent on the consent of those who live under it, through the Northern Ireland institutions;
ensure that Northern Ireland will be fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU customs territory, after the end of the transition period, with all customs processes necessary to ensure compliance with the UK and EU customs regimes taking place electronically, and with the small number of physical checks needed conducted at traders’ premises or other points on the supply chain. This should be coupled with a firm commitment (by both parties) never to conduct checks at the border in future.

In his letter to Juncker, Johnson says that the Northern Ireland Executive should vote on the proposals during the transition period, before the new rules come into play; and that a vote on the arrangements should be held every four years afterwards.

If the Northern Ireland Executive vote against these proposals, the document says that “the arrangements will not enter into force or will lapse (as the case may be) after one year, and arrangements will default to existing rules”.

As has been pointed out by British journalists, it’s not clear what existing rules these are, and the UK government hasn’t yet clarified. 

Emphasising the UK’s intention to leave the Customs Union, Johnson says that this is “entirely compatible” with maintaining an open border, but also acknowledged that the proposals would mean changes from the current border situation.

Goods trade between Northern Ireland and Ireland makes up a little over 1% of UK-EU trade in goods. It is entirely reasonable to manage this border in a different way.

The explanatory note in which these details are contained say that the UK government is “absolutely committed to upholding the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement… [and] will not, under any circumstances, impose a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland.”

For agri-foods, the proposals say that Northern Ireland would “align with EU SPS rules, including those relating to the placing on the market of agri-food goods”. Agrifoods sent from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would go through a Border Inspection Post or Designated Point of Entry as required by EU law, and be subjected to identity and documentary checks and physical examination by UK authorities.

For manufactured goods, Northern Ireland would also follow the relevant EU rules, with those rules reinforced by “ensuring that regulatory checks can be implemented at the boundary of the zone”.

To support this system of controls at the boundary of the zone, traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would need to notify the relevant authorities before entering Northern Ireland, in order to provide the necessary information to undertake the appropriate checks, and, where appropriate, prevent the entry of products prohibited or restricted by EU rules.

The documents state that as a result: “the regulatory checks and controls taking place on goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would not apply when goods enter Ireland from Northern Ireland. The UK would not apply corresponding checks or controls on goods entering Northern Ireland from Ireland”.

Johnson also proposed changes to the Political Declaration on the Future Relationship, which allows for a “level-playing field” between the two nations. 

Reaction

EC President Jean-Claude Juncker gave a statement following a phone call with Boris Johnson this evening, in which he acknowledged “the positive advances, notably with regards to the full regulatory alignment for all goods and the control of goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain”.

However, 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… Another concern that needs to be addressed are the substantive customs rules. 

The statement reiterated the point that the EU wants a deal, and meetings between the EU and the UK will take place in Brussels over the next few days. 

Reacting to the proposals, the DUP said that they were “entirely consistent with the spirit and principles of the Belfast Agreement, demonstrate commitment to working with our neighbours in the Republic of Ireland in a spirit of mutual co-operation whilst respecting the integrity of Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional position within the United Kingdom”.

They ensure democratic consent to the specific alignment proposals both before they enter into force and thereafter on an ongoing basis and they respect the democratic decision of the UK, of which Northern Ireland is a part.

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