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UK’s Brexit proposal replacing ‘bridge to nowhere’ Irish backstop sparks guarded EU response

Lorraine O'Sullivan, Reuters | A bus heading for Dundalk in the Republic of Ireland drives through Newry, Northern Ireland, Britain, October 1, 2019.

Britain on Wednesday proposed a Brexit plan to replace the Irish backstop in a compromise cautiously welcomed by the EU though the two sides remain far apart.

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In a seven-page document, the British government proposed the creation of an “all island regulatory zone” in Ireland to cover all goods and a commitment to avoid border checks or physical infrastructure in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock.

Britain suggested a zone of regulatory compliance across Northern Ireland and the EU to eliminate checks for trade in goods. The plan sees the British territory of Northern Ireland essentially stay in the European single market for trade.

Before the end of a transition period, which ends December 2020, the Northern Ireland assembly and executive would be required to give their consent to this arrangement and every four years afterwards, the document said.

Northern Ireland would stay part of the UK's customs territory but to avoid customs checks, a declaration system would be introduced with a simplified process for small traders, along with a trusted-traders scheme.

The document said the proposals would ensure the integrity of the EU single market and would be in keeping with the 1998 Good Friday peace deal which largely ended three decades of sectarian strife in the province.

"It is, as such, a proposal for an agreement which should be acceptable to both sides," it concluded.

What does Johnson's plan propose?

Backstop ‘a bridge to nowhere’

In his letter to Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said, “Our proposed compromise removes the so-called ‘backstop’ in the previous Withdrawal Agreement. I have explained the difficulties with this elsewhere, including the fact that it has been rejected three times by the UK Parliament. Equally important in this context, the backstop acted as a bridge to a proposed future relationship with the EU in which the UK would be closely integrated with EU customs arrangements and would align with EU law in many areas. That proposed future relationship is not the goal of the current UK Government.”

Johnson further noted that his government “intends that the future relationship should be based on a Free Trade Agreement in which the UK takes control of its own regulatory affairs and trade policy. In these circumstances the proposed 'backstop' is a bridge to nowhere, and a new way forward must be found”.

Some problematic points’

Responding to the proposal, Juncker welcomed "positive advances" in Johnson's proposals, such as the full regulatory alignment for all goods, but noted some problems.

"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 EU wants a deal. We remain united and ready to work 24/7 to make this happen - as we have been for over three years now," it said.

The EU's chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier gave a similarly guarded welcome to the plan as he arrived at the European Parliament to brief its Brexit steering group.

"There is progress, but to be frank a lot of work still needs to be done," Barnier said.

Juncker reiterated the EU stance that any replacement for the backstop must achieve the same ends.

"He also stressed that we must have a legally operational solution that meets all the objectives of the backstop: preventing a hard border, preserving North-South cooperation and the all-island economy, and protecting the EU's single market and Ireland's place in it," the statement said.

EU and British negotiators will meet for further talks in the coming days, the Commission said, adding that the European Parliament and European Council -- which groups member states -- would be informed "every step of the way".

'Two types of border' for N. Ireland in Johnson's plan

The Commission also stressed that Juncker would consult Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar "and listen carefully to his views".

The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the Northern Irish political party, which supports Johnson’s government in Britain's parliament, gave its backing to Johnson's proposals for a renegotiated Brexit deal.

The DUP reiterated Johnson’s contention that the proposals did not endanger the UK’s internal market and protected the 1998 Northern Irish peace deal.

'We are ready' says Johnson

With Britain's delayed departure from the bloc due to take place on October 31, Johnson told members of his party earlier Wednesday that the government was sending "constructive and reasonable proposals" to the EU.

Johnson has vowed to leave on October 31 with or without a Brexit deal.

In Wednesday's speech he repeated his contention that the UK can handle any bumps that come from tumbling out of the bloc without a deal, which would mean the instant imposition of customs checks and other barriers between Britain and the EU, its biggest trading partner.

A no-deal Brexit is "not an outcome we want ... (but) it is an outcome for which we are ready", he said in his speech.

But the UK government and businesses both say the disruptions would be substantial, with the flow of goods coming into Britain through the major Channel port of Dover cut in half.

Johnson, who has had a tumultuous 70 days in office, delivered a speech that was almost Boris-by numbers, peppered with puns, grand claims about Britain's greatness and jokes at the expense of his opponents - chiefly left-wing Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn, whom he dubbed a "communist cosmonaut."

(FRANCE 24 with AFP, AP and REUTERS)

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