The government has delivered its new Brexit proposals to the EU, including plans to replace the Irish backstop.
The plan, outlined in a seven-page document, would see Northern Ireland stay in the European single market for goods, but leave the customs union – resulting in new customs checks.
The Northern Ireland Assembly would get to approve the arrangements first and vote every four years on keeping them.
The European Commission says it will “examine [the proposals] objectively”.
Speaking at the Conservative Party conference earlier on Wednesday, Boris Johnson said the only alternative to his plan was no-deal.
In a letter to European Commission’s president, Jean-Claude Juncker, the prime minister said the new proposals “respect the decision taken by the people of the UK to leave the EU, while dealing pragmatically with that decision’s consequences in Northern Ireland and in Ireland”.
Government sources said they believed they could enter an intense 10-day period of negotiations with the EU almost immediately, with the aim of coming to a final agreement at an EU summit on 17 October.
John Campbell, the BBC’s Northern Ireland business editor, said the UK’s acknowledgement there would be new customs checks for cross-border trade would make it very hard for the Irish government to accept the package.
The EU will analyse these proposals and probably keep the door open to further talks with UK so there’s no risk of being blamed for a no-deal Brexit.
They will likely welcome the massive increase in regulatory alignment proposed for Northern Ireland – which a few days ago was only going to cover food and agriculture and now covers virtually all goods.
The UK will also allow the European Court of Justice to administer EU law in Northern Ireland.
The customs arrangement is based on a lot of trust and a lot of checks, including at “dedicated premises” which sound a bit like the customs infrastructure the EU wants to avoid.
But there will be lots of information about goods travelling into Northern Ireland from the rest of the UK, which the government could share with the EU.
There’s also a big problem with the exit mechanism for the Northern Irish Assembly: is this handing the DUP a veto, and what happens if they decide to end the backstop arrangements?
Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party – long-term critics of the backstop and partners of the Conservative Party in Parliament – gave a cautious welcome to the proposals.
In a statement, the DUP said the plan “demonstrates commitment to working with our neighbours” in Ireland and respected “the integrity of Northern Ireland’s economic and constitutional position within the United Kingdom”.
But Sinn Fein said the plans were a “non-starter” and accused their former power-sharing partners of “working against the interests of the people” of Northern Ireland.
And Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said the deal was “not acceptable” and “worse” than Theresa May’s agreement, as it “undermined” the Good Friday Agreement that secured peace in Northern Ireland.
What is in the proposals?
The UK is set to leave the EU on 31 October and the government has insisted it will not negotiate a further delay beyond the Halloween deadline.
The PM’s plan to break the current deadlock centres around replacing the backstop – the policy negotiated between Theresa May and EU to try and prevent hard borders returning to the island of Ireland.
Mr Johnson has called the backstop “anti-democratic”, claiming it offers no means for the UK to unilaterally exit and no say for the people of Northern Ireland over the rules that would apply there.
His solution is for an “all-island regulatory zone”, which would mean Northern Ireland would have to follow EU rules for goods.
There would be additional checks on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, but the UK would not apply further checks on goods entering Northern Ireland from Ireland.
Checks relating to the single market are about product standards, to ensure goods comply with EU regulations.
However, Northern Ireland would leave the EU customs union with the rest of the UK, so there would have to be new customs checks between North and South.
Those checks would look at customs documents and the payment of tariffs, which allow goods to cross the border in the first place.
The government proposals suggest the vast majority of checks could be carried out electronically – but thinks a small number of physical checks would have to take place, either at business premises or at points on the supply chain.
The Stormont Assembly – Northern Ireland’s parliament – would have to agree these proposals through a vote and would be given a vote every four years on whether to preserve them. If they withheld their consent, Northern Ireland would default to “existing rules”.
The government is also promising a “New Deal for Northern Ireland”, with financial commitments to help manage the changes.
What’s the reaction been?
In his letter to the European President Mr Juncker, the PM said he hoped his offer could “provide the basis for rapid negotiations towards a solution”.
Later, Mr Johnson will speak to Mr Juncker on the phone and the two sides’ negotiating teams will also meet, while the UK PM will also speak to his Irish counterpart.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel said the EU would study the proposals carefully and she “trusted” the bloc’s Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier to maintain European unity.
But opponents of Brexit in Parliament indicated they would not support the proposals, unless they were accompanied by the promise of another referendum.
The Lib Dems said the proposals would deal a “hammer blow” to the Northern Irish economy while the SNP said it gave the DUP a veto over the proposed alternative to the backstop.
“This is not a way forward,” the SNP’s Ian Blackford told the BBC. “It is window dressing from the government.”