The UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, wrote yesterday to the European Commission President, Mr Juncker, to set out the UK’s plan for resolving the Irish backstop issue. The legal text of the plan shared with Brussel’s negotiators remains confidential at this stage, at the UK’s request, although the explanatory note has been shared.

The UK Government is proposing a new Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland based on 5 elements:

  • A commitment to find solutions which are compatible with the Good Friday Agreement.
  • A commitment to long-standing areas of UK/Ireland collaboration as set out in the previous Protocol (such as those provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, the Common Travel area, the rights of all those living in Northern Ireland, and North/South cooperation).
  • The potential creation of an all-island regulatory zone on the island of Ireland, covering all goods, which eliminates the need for all regulatory checks for trade in goods between Northern Ireland and Ireland.
  • The new all-island regulatory zone must depend on the consent of those affected by it, particularly the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly who should have the opportunity to review any proposed arrangements before entry into force and every 4 years afterwards.
  • Northern Ireland to be fully part of the UK customs territory, not the EU Customs Union, after the end of the transition period.

Additionally, the UK Government also proposes that:

  • All customs procedures required to maintain compliance with the UK and EU customs regimes should take place on a decentralised basis together with a small number of physical checks.
  • There be a New Deal for Northern Ireland to assist it through the transition resulting from the above proposals.

The UK Government is hopeful that the new proposals will lead to a revised deal with the EU at the EU summit scheduled for 17-18 October 2019. The European Commission President has commented that there are “problematic points that will need further works in the coming days, notably with regards to the governance of the backstop” and that he will also speak to Ireland’s Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, and “will listen carefully to his views”. The EU’s chief negotiator, Michel Barnier, has also adopted a similar stance: “There is progress but, to be frank, a lot of work still needs to be done.”

However, even if both the UK and EU agree on a revised deal, they will still need to secure the approval of any revised deal before their respective Parliaments before such a deal can come into force. The Brexit deadline (31 October 2019) is now 4 weeks away, although this may be subject to an extension under the Benn-Burt Act: this requires the UK Government to seek an Article 50 extension from the EU in the event that the House of Commons has not approved a withdrawal agreement or a no-deal Brexit by 19 October 2019.

In positive signs for support for the deal within the UK Parliament, the DUP have confirmed they would be supporting the deal as have certain members of the ERG group of Conservative MPs who had not yet supported the UK Government on any previous votes on the Withdrawal Agreement. Labour MP Stephen Kinnock spoke for around 25 of his colleagues who are ready to back the deal saying that “if Dublin and Brussels are happy then we’re happy”.

The UK Government’s proposals contained many of the ideas put forward by the independent cross-party Parliamentary Alternative Arrangements Commission that Herbert Smith Freehills provided technical advice to. See previous post here and their press release here.