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Johnson tries to cancel Irish backstop

The British government has proposed a new approach to the Irish border in a bid to resolve the deadlock over Brexit. This is a game-changer for UK customs policy.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has torn up the proposed Irish ‘backstop’ in the withdrawal agreement bill and called for a comprehensive free trade agreement in its place. He laid out five elements for a compromise in a letter to the outgoing president of the European Commission.

The first two elements reaffirm the UK’s commitment to the Good Friday Agreement, and guarantees to uphold the rights of all people living in Northern Ireland and the common travel area with Ireland. These two policies were never up for debate, but the next three elements will be controversial.

The third element provides for the creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland. This could be interpreted as a preference for a sea border with Ireland as a whole.

“This zone would eliminate all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland by ensuring that goods regulations in Northern Ireland are the same as those in the rest of the EU,” Johnson said in his letter.

“This regulatory zone must depend on the consent of those affected by it,” he stressed. “This is essential to the acceptability of arrangements under which part of the UK accepts the rules of a different political entity. It is fundamental to democracy.”

The fourth element proposes that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly have the chance to endorse the arrangements before they come into force. A slight problem being that the Assembly has been in a stalemate for over two years.

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) is likely to oppose any arrangement that implies Northern Ireland is separate from the UK. Yet the letter is an attempt to find a compromise with the DUP, even including the catch that the arrangement would be subject to approval every four years. “If consent is not secured, the arrangements will lapse,” Johnson said.

The fifth and final element is the most developed part of the proposal. It suggests that Northern Ireland remains part of the UK customs territory, and will not be inside the EU’s customs union, once the transition period ends.

“Control of trade policy is fundamental to our future vision,” Johnson said. “This is entirely compatible with maintaining an open border in Northern Ireland.”

“It is entirely reasonable to manage this border in a different way. Any risks arising will be manageable in both the EU single market and the UK market, particularly as all third country imports will continue to be controlled by the EU and UK customs authorities,” he said.

This means all customs processes will have to be decentralised to ensure compliance with UK and EU customs regimes. The letter suggested the paperwork could be “conducted electronically as goods move between the two countries”.

“We should both put in place specific, workable improvements and simplifications to existing customs rules between now and the end of the transition period,” Johnson said.

“All of this must be coupled with a firm commitment (by both parties) never to conduct checks at the border in future,” he added.

At the same time, the Conservative leader proposed a “New Deal for Northern Ireland” to help boost economic growth and support cross-border infrastructure. This is a vague pledge, but clearly intended to make the proposal more appealing to Northern Irish leaders.

The core of the proposal is to maintain regulatory alignment between the EU and the island of Ireland. This would only last for as long as Northern Ireland supports such an arrangement, while the Irish land border would remain open and the UK would gain complete control over trade policy.

“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,” Johnson said. “This will allow us to focus on the positive future relationship that I believe is in all of our interests.”

There are just 29 days for the UK and the EU to agree to sign off on Brexit. The ball is now in the EU’s court, but once it’s kicked back to the UK the Conservative leader will face the difficult task of convincing Parliament to support it.

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