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What are the possible sticking points in Boris Johnson's backstop alternative?

Leo Varadkar, who spoke with Boris Johnson this evening, said the plans do not fully meet “the agreed objectives of the backstop”.

Image: PA Wire/PA Images

WHAT DO BORIS Johnson’s self-proclaimed “fair and reasonable” backstop alternatives mean for the island of Ireland, and will they be something the EU will consider?

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar spoke to the British Prime Minister by phone shortly before 6pm about his proposals, and said they do not fully meet “the agreed objectives of the backstop”.

But he also indicated that he would study them in further detail, and would consult with his EU colleagues, adding that he wants to see a deal agreed and ratified.

Meanwhile, the proposals are being softly dismissed by most commentators: former No 10 advisor and EU expert, Raoul Ruparel has already said that the plan has “little to no chance of success”.

[It means] the prospect of a hard border if DUP don’t agree in the Northern Ireland Assembly; significant exemption from UCC and VAT, questioning integrity of the Single Market and the Customs Union; and a big change to way of life on island of Ireland, burdensome for businesses.

Although the Prime Minister has said in his Tory Party conference speech that “this is a compromise by the UK”, and asked the EU to “compromise in their turn”, otherwise “the alternative is no-deal” – it’s possible that these proposals are the basis for further negotiation that could lead to a deal. 

European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has already welcomed the “positive advances” in the proposals, but added that there are “still some problematic points that will need further work”.

The EU’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier said that”progress” has been made, but admits that “a lot of work still needs to be done”.

Juncker also said he would speak to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and “will listen carefully to his views”; Varadkar and Johnson also agreed that they would speak again next week.

There will be checks

A quick reminder: the backstop is meant to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland by removing the need for checks between Northern Ireland and Ireland if a future trade deal would mean rules and standards between the EU and the UK diverge. 

The UK government has said repeatedly that it wants to “take back control” of the UK’s laws, rules and regulations, which suggests divergence from EU standards. 

Originally, the backstop included aligning Northern Ireland only to the EU’s custom rules, but this changed to a UK-wide backstop after the DUP raised concerns about the integrity of the United Kingdom. 

In Boris Johnson’s plans to replace the backstop, which is meant to avoid border checks, he suggests that there will have to be NI-ROI custom checks:

…The border between Ireland and Northern Ireland will be a customs border. That does not mean that customs checks and controls need to take place at, or even near, that border.

In practice, this will mean that all customs processes required by the UK and EU customs regimes will “take place electronically”, and with a “small number of physical checks needed conducted at traders’ premises or other points on the supply chain”.

The plans say that the system would operate based on “close cooperation” between the UK and Ireland, and that “a series of simplifications and improvements” will need to be made to legislation to ensure no checks or infrastructure at the border will be needed.

Northern Ireland will remain aligned with the EU’s rules on agrifood and industrial goods, which means regulatory checks with the rest of the UK. 

The time limit is back

The Irish government in particular has been very vocal on a time-limited backstop not being a backstop – but that government line was based on a time limit that would be approved by the UK government and the EU together, and not by the Northern Ireland Executive. 

The aims and objectives of the backstop is to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland, facilitate North-South cooperation, and protect the integrity of the Single Market. 

But if Stormont votes in favour of applying laws on agri-food and manufactured goods, and every four years after that, those aims may be covered through giving Northern Ireland political representatives a vote. It’s also worth noting that this vote also solves the “anti-democratic” moniker given by Johnson to the backstop.

If this type of time limit is accepted, it will be a climb-down of sorts for the Irish government, who has said “a time-limited backstop is not a backstop” an unlimited amount of times. 

The UK is asking the EU to trust them

The proposal would establish that import VAT and excise duty arising on goods moving between Ireland and Northern Ireland should not be paid or accounted for at the border and the administration of VAT and excise will not give rise to checks or controls at the border.

This paragraph of Johnson’s proposals is essentially asking that the EU trust the UK, and not carry out any checks on whether Vat has been paid on goods crossing the border. 

“The UK and the EU should cooperate to minimise evasion and ensure payment of the tax in the country where it is due,” the proposals state. 

Since the beginning of this row over the backstop, the EU has said that it wants “legally operable solutions” to the stalemate over the border. This request on VAT and excise is essentially a legal loophole in the tax part of the Single Market – something that won’t sit well with EU leaders.

The technology thing

Although the words “technology” or “tracking” aren’t in the explanatory note, the proposals state the following in relation to customs:

“Goods would be imported or exported between Northern Ireland and Ireland under either i) a transit mechanism or ii) a prior declaration mechanism.”

As has been pointed out, “transit mechanism could mean that goods crossing the border will need to be tracked to ensure that they are adhering to customs rules, and tracking mechanism could either be costly, in terms of the sheer volume of data that’s needed, or else require physical infrastructure somewhere, which is exactly what the EU and Irish government is trying to avoid.

And finally… it might not be enough

Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage has said repeatedly that the backstop reform wouldn’t be enough to make the Withdrawal Agreement palatable for Brexiteers.

If the EU does as Johnson asks, and makes compromises on the backstop in order to secure another Withdrawal Agreement – how strong a guarantee can Boris Johnson give that it will pass through the House of Commons?

If it was rejected, that would leave the EU in a worse political bind than if it rejected these latest suggestions, and granted an extension or faced into a no-deal.

- with reporting from Christina Finn

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