Brussels cautious over Britain's new Brexit proposal

European Commission chief warns of 'problematic points' in new plan but says some 'positive advances' made.

    Northern Ireland voted by 56 to 44 percent to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum [Lorraine O'Sullivan/Reuters]
    Northern Ireland voted by 56 to 44 percent to remain in the European Union in the 2016 Brexit referendum [Lorraine O'Sullivan/Reuters]

    The United Kingdom has proposed creating an all-island regulatory zone for Ireland to cover all goods in a bid to break the Brexit deadlock in advance of the October 31 deadline, but the plan received a cool reception in Brussels.

    In a plan published on Wednesday outlining how to deal with the Irish border after Britain leaves the European Union, the British government said a revised Brexit agreement should commit to "avoiding customs checks, regulatory checks or related physical infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland".

    Before the end of a transition period after Brexit in December 2020, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the executive would be required to give their consent to this arrangement and every four years afterwards, the document said. The assembly, which sits at Stormont in east Belfast, has been suspended since January 2017.

    Northern Ireland would stay part of the UK's customs territory but to avoid customs checks, a declaration system would be introduced with a simplified process for small traders, along with a trusted-traders scheme, according to the plan. Paperwork would be completed online, but "a very small number of physical checks" would still be needed.

    The EU has previously said that such schemes do not prevent smuggling.

    The plan is the UK's attempt to dispose of the so-called "backstop", a clause that was part of Johnson's predecessor's Brexit deal negotiated with Brussels but rejected three times by the British parliament.

    The backstop would have prevented a hard border being erected in Ireland in the event that Britain and the EU fail to agree a trade deal before the end of an agreed Brexit transition period.

    The UK said its new proposal would ensure the integrity of the EU single market and would be in keeping with the 1998 Good Friday peace deal which largely ended three decades of sectarian strife in the province.

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    "It is, as such, a proposal for an agreement which should be acceptable to both sides," the document concluded.

    The European Commission chief, Jean-Claude Juncker, later welcomed the proposal, saying it included "positive advances" and that negotiations would take place "over coming days".

    In a phone call with British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on Wednesday, Juncker warned that there were "problematic points" in the new proposed agreement and that EU negotiators would "examine the legal text objectively", the commission said in a statement.

    Storming Stormont

    The proposal has the backing of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), a conservative party in Northern Ireland which propped up the administration of Johnson's predecessor, Theresa May, after securing a 1 billion pounds ($1.2bn) spending package for Northern Ireland.

    And it appears a cash injection could again guarantee their support - Johnson is offering the DUP a "New Deal for Northern Ireland" which could run to billions of pounds.

    "Further work remains to be completed between the UK and the European Union but we would encourage all concerned to approach these discussions in a positive mindset within a spirit of wanting to secure a negotiated withdrawal agreement that can allow everyone to focus on future relationships," the DUP said in a statement.

    According to a four-page letter addressed to Juncker, Johnson said he was not proposing a definite plan, but set out "a broad landing zone in which I believe a deal can take shape".

    Will Boris Johnson bring customs checkpoints back to the island of Ireland?

    The plan involves creating not one hard border, but two "soft" borders - a regulatory border between Britain and Northern Ireland in the Irish Sea for four years and customs checks between the North and the Irish Republic.

    For decades before the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, customs posts had been targeted by republican hardliners. Their presence provides a tangible representation of armed British forces on the island of Ireland. The worry is that attacks on customs checkpoints would lead to the British military being deployed to defend them, and the spiral of violence beginning again.

    Northern Ireland voted in the 2016 Brexit referendum to remain part of the EU by 56 to 44 percent.

    Dublin not encouraged

    Even if the EU were to agree to the UK's proposal without negotiating further, it remains to be seen if the complex infrastructure required to carry out customs checks could be ready to enter operation by the end of the month - Johnson has repeatedly promised, "do or die", to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.

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    Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar told Johnson later on Wednesday that "the proposals do not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop", the Irish government said.

    The EU's lead Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier gave a guarded welcome to the plan as he arrived at the European Parliament to brief its Brexit steering group.

    "There is progress, but to be frank a lot of work still needs to be done," Barnier said.

    Guy Verhofstadt, the head of the parliament's steering group, said the initial assessment of "nearly every member" of the committee "was not positive at all" because the proposal does not offer enough safeguards to Ireland.

    He suggested the UK offer was not a serious attempt at reaching a deal but an effort to shift blame for failure to Brussels - a concern harboured by many in Brussels since Johnson took office vowing to take Britain out of the EU on October 31.

    Britain is seeking intensified, secret talks with the EU, but behind the officially constructive tone, doubts remain in Brussels that a deal can be made with London - and ratified by the factious British Parliament - before the deadline.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies