The U.K. presented a long-awaited plan to EU negotiators Wednesday on how to replace the controversial Northern Ireland backstop, but diplomats briefed on the Brexit talks say the proposals fall short of the reassurance that Dublin and Brussels need.
Under the proposal, presented in Brussels by Boris Johnson’s most senior EU adviser, David Frost, the backstop would be removed and replaced with “Ireland-specific” arrangements for checking goods away from the border, according to diplomats briefed on the talks.
In effect, London is offering a commitment to develop alternative custom procedures during the post-Brexit transition period, two EU officials said, although it is unclear if this will satisfy Brussels and Dublin. Leading figures on the EU side have repeated endlessly that they regard the Northern Ireland conundrum as something that must be settled before the U.K. leaves the bloc.
Even though it has been received with some skepticism, the offer marks a significant moment in the U.K. government’s evolving Brexit strategy. With other options such as an October snap general election and leaving with no-deal now seemingly closed off to Johnson, his EU negotiating team has come to Brussels with a more substantive position than before — albeit with what EU diplomats described as a vague verbal-only offer with little detail.
Alternative fixes to the Irish border — such as electronic pre-clearance, pre-border checks and trusted trader schemes — have been publicly discussed during past weeks, but Wednesday was the first time that Frost held a dedicated meeting with EU officials to discuss such customs plans, officials said.
Crucially, the new proposal would allow the U.K., including Northern Ireland, to leave the EU’s customs union. That would permit it to adopt different tariffs on goods if it wanted and to conclude its own trade deals — a key priority for Johnson.
The proposal comes in addition to the U.K.’s idea, shared last week, to create an all-Ireland zone for food regulations such as animal welfare, which would further reduce trade frictions for products from milk to beef that pass the Irish border on a daily basis.
EU spokesperson Mina Andreeva confirmed publicly on Thursday that the U.K. had made a new offer on Wednesday without giving any details. “The U.K. presented ideas in the area of customs and manufactured goods,” she said.
But Brussels reacted with skepticism to the British plans: “We still haven’t gotten any written proposals,” said an EU official, adding that what had been presented could not replace the legal guarantees provided by the backstop. They would also require the EU to trust that there would be enough time during a post-Brexit transition period to develop the ideas before the U.K. fully diverges from EU rules.
Another EU official cautioned the proposals were only “aspirational ideas” and stressed that the U.K. had been unable to explain how they should work in practice. The official that the U.K. negotiators conceded that the plan would inevitably lead to more “non-compliance” with customs rules.
A similar warning came from the EU’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier: “At this precise moment … we have no reason to be optimistic,” he told the European Parliament’s Conference of Presidents on Thursday.
“We will see in the coming weeks whether the British are able to make concrete written proposals to us that are legally operational,” Barnier added.
Away from the border
To avoid lengthy customs checks at the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, which could jeopardize the Good Friday peace agreement, the U.K. plan proposes that authorities conduct checks of customs declarations and exported goods away from the border, two EU officials said.
Those checks would be done directly at the premises of the traders. Moreover, those procedures could be “simplified” for “trusted traders,” the officials said.
A U.K. government spokesperson said: “As the prime minister set out on Monday, there are ideas that we’re bringing forward to address the range of complexities involved with the Northern Ireland border.
“He spoke about two broad areas: facilitations, such as trusted trader schemes, and measures relating to what might need to be done on an all-island basis, such as agri-foods and an SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary measures] area,” the spokesperson continued.
“Under no circumstances,” the spokesperson added, “will we be imposing infrastructure or checks of any kind at the Northern Ireland border.”
The plan resembles one that Jonathan Faull, a former senior British EU official, and legal academics put forward last month, which suggested creating a network of trade centers away from the border where goods would be checked and duties paid.
However, Sam Lowe, a trade expert with the Centre for European Reform think tank, warned that moving customs checks was not a magic solution. “You have to police businesses that don’t play by the rules. That’s still quite disruptive and risks to undermine the peace process and disrupt the all-Ireland economy,” he said.
In addition to the new customs plan and the previous proposal for an all-Ireland food zone, the U.K. side on Wednesday also proposed an “enhanced market surveillance regime” to the EU that should avoid regulatory divergences on industrial goods.
This regime would be based on an exchange of data; enhanced cooperation between surveillance authorities; and “severe penalties” for breaches, according to the two EU officials. However, they cautioned that there was skepticism on the EU side about whether it was possible to improve on current market surveillance mechanisms.
Despite the cool reception in Brussels, EU diplomats say they have noted a change in mood in recent days from U.K. interlocutors, something one diplomat put down to Johnson’s defeats in the House of Commons.
Downing Street’s strategy, which had apparently been predicated on an autumn general election, has been blown off-course by Johnson’s failure to win a two-thirds majority among MPs for an early national poll. With that option closed off, his government is putting more energy into negotiations to find a deal with the EU before October 31.
EU diplomats, though, are concerned that time is running out ahead of the European Council summit on October 17 and 18, by which time they say it will be too late for leaders to digest and decide on new proposals.
The EU will need time before the summit to formalize and coordinate its position among the 27 remaining member countries, the diplomat said: “He cannot just arrive [at the summit] with a card up his sleeve — this is not poker.”
Johnson will be hoping that EU leaders will be so keen to end the Brexit game by that point that they will look at any sensible hand he offers them.Read More