Too much for the DUP, too little for Dublin and the EU but enough to keep going? The direction of travel has seemed clear for some time. These reports bring it out into the open.
Johnson has been talking up a deal based on an expansion of the original agri foods proposal. An actual outline has been show to the EU negotiators, but not to take home with them .
(Why did they tamely agree to only a sneak preview?) The media have all been briefed. The Johnson style seems to be to test out all the elements of a plan in “concept” discussions before tabling an actual plan. This avoids a single comprehensive rejection in one go and allows for development on the way. Some people are calling it “slice and dice”. Or is it more like risotto? This is Peston’s take.
In place of the dreaded backstop – that insurance policy for keeping open the border on the island of Ireland hated by most Tory Brexiters and Northern Ireland’s DUP – Johnson is suggesting:
- A)A unified single market for agriculture between Northern Irelandand the Republic (a single set of what are known are sanitary and phytosanitary rules), so that cross border flows of livestock and food is not hindered;
- B)Customs and limited unintrusive goods standards checks on the island but away from the border itself;
- C)No customs union with the EU for either the whole UK or NI alone;
- D)Where rules for agriculture or even for other limited markets are set for the whole island by Brussels, the principle of a “Stormont lock” – or, in the words of a source, that “the people of Northern Ireland must be able to withdraw consent, with all that entails”.
But the biggest and most important question is whether Brussels and the EU27 will and can ever accept the principle that the citizens of Northern Ireland could unilaterally choose to end the arrangement.
This is an absolute must for Johnson I am told.
Equally, Brussels has always insisted that any arrangement to keep open the border should not be capable of being terminated by one side only.
Boris Johnson’s Brexit negotiators have so far only presented the EU with a draft of the withdrawal agreement with the backstop scrubbed out, UK government sources have confirmed.
In a move that has caused tensions with EU leaders, Johnson’s team are refusing to put forward a written proposal to Brussels at this stage for fear it will be rejected out of hand or publicly rubbished.
Instead, they want to wait until almost the last minute before the October summit before presenting a plan to the EU, with just two weeks before the UK is due to leave the bloc.
The UK government source said the two sides had debated alternatives to the backstop in written discussion documents – such as an all-Ireland regulatory zone and customs checks away from the border – but they would not be putting forward a legal text to the EU at this stage.
There have been reports that David Frost, the UK’s lead negotiator, is keeping a plan locked safe in his briefcase but the wording has not been shared with Brussels.
The FT goes further
UK officials are now letting it be known that Britain wants to extend discussions on how to create an “all-island” economic relationship by tackling trickier areas such as customs, value added tax, industrial goods and the remit of the European Court of Justice..
Under the UK plan, Northern Ireland would effectively become a special economic zone inside both the UK and the EU. A border would continue to exist and everything that is not covered by the all-island regime would be subject to checks. However, the UK’s intention is that these checks would be carried out away from the border to avoid reigniting tensions between Northern Ireland and the Republic.. But according to some UK officials the task ahead for both sides in securing an agreement is daunting. “There’s been a lot of activity but the difficulties are greater than people think,” said one official. “Although progress is being made on agriculture, we haven’t yet begun negotiations on what kind of customs border there should be. Is it a customs border between Northern Ireland and Ireland; or Northern Ireland and Great Britain? This is hugely important.”
An acknowledgement of more substance under discussion but still a cool reaction from Dublin
Government sources were tight-lipped on the “concepts” Mr Coveney discussed with British ministers, but it is thought in London they involve an all-Ireland zone for food and animal products and efforts to avoid checks with extensive measures such as pre-clearance and trusted trader schemes to avoid checks on goods or confine them at a business level.
A spokesman for Mr Coveney said the negotiations were between the EU and the UK, and that no proposals that could replace the backstop had yet been tabled.
However, it is understood British ministers have not made any suggestions that could come close to replacing the backstop for the Irish Government. “We haven’t seen anything that works,” said one source, while another person briefed on the issue said none of the British suggestions were sufficient.
One weak link is clearly the so-called Stormont lock ” in effect a local veto on any changes. This is unacceptable to the EU and Dublin, despite their support for the restoration of Stormont and the principle of EU subsidiary, the devolution of power to the lowest practical level. On this issue, the nation state must remain the accountable body. Could the Assembly handle it anyway? A substitute might be a joint UK/EU monitoring committee with NI input. But that’s in the backstop.
There’s a lot to cover in four weeks!
Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London