The EU has agreed to look at the plan, but taking Northern Ireland out of the customs union will be testing, Beth Rigby writes.
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“This is the moment of truth.”
That’s how Boris Johnson put it in our interview this week at Conservative Party conference just before formally putting forward his new Brexit offer to Brussels.
He added: “In the end, the country has to be able to govern its own customs. If you’re going to come out of the EU, you’ve got to run your own trade policy, got to run your own customs.
“So we have to find a way of doing that. I won’t deny that this is the tough bit.”
Tough or impossible?
As Conservative Party conference wound up, the prime minister dispatched his chief negotiator David Frost to Brussels with a letter confirming he was ripping up two years of hard negotiation on how to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland and wanted Brussels to agree to his new proposal in the next 10 days.
At the heart of his plan was scrapping the backstop agreed by Theresa May and replaced it with two borders instead.
Taking Northern Ireland out of the customs union is Mr Johnson’s red line.
He insists the UK must be able to set an independent trade policy after it leaves the EU – not possible if the UK remains in the EU customs union – and Northern Ireland will not be left behind.
What is the backstop – and how could Boris Johnson try to solve the conundrum?
That means a new customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.
But in a concession to the EU, he is also proposing that Northern Ireland should remain under EU single market regulations for manufactured goods, agriculture and food to reduce the need for checks at the Irish border.
Instead there will be checks on goods crossing the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.
On top of the two border proposals, Mr Johnson is also insisting that his plan requires no new physical infrastructure at the border in Ireland. It would be a world first. It is a huge ask.
So – a set of demands and a timeline that might make some think he doesn’t really want a deal at all.
But those close to him insist he does. His Vote Leave campaign team who have taken over Downing Street are not, insists one ally, of the Nigel Farage mindset of pursuing no-deal.
Mr Johnson knows his best bet at winning a general election is going to the polls having taken the UK out of the EU with a deal. He would enjoy a bounce in the polls and he could pivot back to talking about domestic policies.
And for all the hard talk going into the prime minister’s speech – that this would be the final offer “take it or leave it” – the tone in Mr Johnson’s address to conference and his letter to the EU were very different.
The UK government hopes that Brussels will at least take this proposal as the starting point of a negotiation.
And to that end, watch to see if Mr Johnson dashes over to Berlin or Paris in the coming 48 hours.
He wants Brussels to go into the “tunnel” – whereby legal teams start working out the detail of a deal.
“We may not get there,” admitted one figure on Wednesday.
What might the EU do if it does engage? The UK government expects Brussels to revive the idea of a “Northern Ireland-only backstop” in which the province remains in the EU’s customs and regulatory zone.
But in a pre-emptive strike, UK government sources say this is a non-starter and Northern Ireland will not be left behind. The whole of the UK will leave the customs territory.
Mr Johnson spelled it out clearly in his letter: “It has always been a fundamental point for this government that the UK will leave the EU customs union at the end of the transition period.
“We must do so whole and entire. Control of trade policy is fundamental to our vision.”
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Brussels – and Dublin – have at least agreed to engage. Michel Barnier, the EU’s chief negotiator, saying on Wednesday evening that the EU would try to “work with what we have on the table”.
But he also says a lot of work still needs to be done to reach the three objectives of the backstop – no border, all-Ireland economy and protecting the single market.
Both sides are clear that no-deal will never be their choice. With 29 days to go before the UK is due to leave the EU there is still a huge amount of work and distance to travel for both sides to avoid a no-deal.
But at least they’re still talking. The coming 10 days are now critical.