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Explainer: Another day, another set of backstop proposals - but what do they mean?

Boris Johnson said the UK’s proposals were “good and creative”, “very constructive and far-reaching”.

Boris Johnson prepares his keynote Tory conference speech for later today.
Boris Johnson prepares his keynote Tory conference speech for later today.
Image: PA Wire/PA Images

LATE ON TUESDAY, new proposals emerged for how Boris Johnson plans to replace the backstop. 

The Daily Telegraph reported the new details just over 24 hours after RTÉ revealed plans that the UK had proposed to the EU, which were widely rejected by politicians yesterday, including Taoiseach Leo Varadkar. 

The new proposals, which the paper said had been dubbed ‘two borders, for four years’, would see Northern Ireland leave the EU customs union alongside the UK, but would see it remain aligned on the rules of the single market for agriculture and industrial goods for four years.

According to the paper, a regulatory border will be created in the Irish sea. The proposal means that Northern Ireland will leave the customs union at the end of the transition period in 2021 alongside the rest of the UK, but customs checks will be required between the North and Ireland “set back from the border”, the Daily Telegraph reports. 

Tánaiste Simon Coveney was quick to reject the proposal. He told the Tonight Show on Virgin Media One that “if the reports we are seeing are true, it doesn’t look like it’s the basis for an agreement”. 

Speaking on RTÉ yesterday evening, Minister of State for European Affairs Helen McEntee also said that this latest plan would not be acceptable to the government. 

“What we’re talking about is picking and choosing certain parts of the single market,” she said. 

“If this is what is being proposed, it certainly won’t be acceptable,” she added. “Time is running out.”

“You’d really have to question if there’s a sincere effort to get a deal done,” Fianna Fáil’s Lisa Chambers also said on RTÉ last night. 

The rejection will set up a difficult day for Boris Johnson, who will today give his keynote address to the Tory Party conference. 

If these new proposals receive a frosty reception in Brussels, fears of a no-deal Brexit will grow. The swift rejection from senior Irish politicians last night suggests that the new plan is set to receive a similar fate to the one reported on Monday evening by RTÉ. 

Before details of the plans were released, Johnson told the BBC on Tuesday that the UK’s proposals were “good and creative”, “very constructive and far-reaching”.

The suggestions had raised some hopes that the proposal reported by RTÉ on Monday evening would arrive back to Brussels considerably updated. 

Monday’s plans

The plans reported on Monday suggested in non-legal language that instead of the backstop ‘custom centres’ would be set up 5-10 miles back on either side of the border. 

Goods crossing the border would need to be declared and cleared in these customs clearance sites; as they’re moved from the north clearance centre to the south or vice versa, it’s been proposed that technology would monitor the whereabouts of the goods in real-time, possibly via mobile phone GPS data or tracking devices fitted to vehicles.

In keeping with Boris Johnson’s previous statements, the non-papers proposed an all-island agri-zone, where Northern Ireland would be expected to abide by the EU’s animal and plant health rules and regulations. 

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve said shortly after Johnson’s appointment as Prime Minister that he was concerned that he would talk about striking a deal but not put any proposals forward.

In the past two weeks, the EU has received four ‘non-paper’ proposals from the UK, with very little detail given on what is contained in these documents.

Concerns with the proposals

A number of concerns had been immediately raised about the UK-EU proposals.

The focus on avoiding physical infrastructure at the border has given way to suggestions of hosting checks at the ‘point of origin’, or at business premises.

The possibility of “pop-up” checkpoints had also been floated around previously in the Irish media and by UK civil servants, as a way of avoiding physical infrastructure at the border.

This would not replace the backstop however, which suggests that Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK abide by the EU’s custom rules and regulations in order to avoid physical checks of any kind on the island of Ireland.

Physical checks away from the border boundary line wouldn’t solve the threat from dissidents either: any infrastructure would be viewed as a symbol of division on the island of Ireland, and ramp up security threats in Ireland.

Speaking to a UK Home Affairs committee earlier this month, Dr Andrew McCormick, a Permanent Secretary at the Executive Office Northern Ireland, questioned how checks away from the border would work from a policing and enforcement perspective:

If there’s no evidence of having crossed the border, then what’s the basis for enforcement? That’s an unanswered question at the present time.

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The non-papers also suggested cherry-picking some elements of the EU’s sanitary and phytosanitary checks (which is rules on animal and plant health). 

The backstop is an insurance policy that covers custom rules, SPS checks, manufactured goods and the movement of goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland.

Through those measures, it aims to prevent a hard border, facilitate north-south cooperation, and protect the integrity of the EU’s Single Market. 

Speaking in the Dáil, Leo Varadkar dismissed the proposals as being the same as no-deal checks. 

I would ask anyone in the British government who thinks this is in any way a good idea to listen to the people of Northern Ireland… no British government should try to impose a solution upon Ireland which is opposed by the people of Ireland, north and south.

He added that “there will be checks at the ports, at the airports, perhaps at business level, perhaps near the border too and that’s just the reality of the situation but that is in the context of no deal”.

Tuesday’s plans

The plans released on Tuesday night will lead the headlines and drive debate throughout today. 

At a first glance, the proposals suggest that Boris Johnson has had considerable success in winning over the DUP, which had repeatedly rejected any suggestion of regulatory divergence between the North and the rest of the UK.

Appearing at the party’s event at the Conservative conference last night, he promised to deliver Brexit to a generally positive reception. 

No one from the DUP has yet commented publicly on the proposals, but securing DUP support could indicate that the wider Conservative Party might be persuaded to back the plan. 

While these are only leaked documents and the real proposal may differ, first reactions suggest that Johnson may have a more difficult job winning over EU leaders. 

With additional reporting by Dominic McGrath

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