Boris Johnson renewed his push for a Brexit deal with Brussels on Wednesday as Downing Street confronts the biggest single barrier to an agreement: how will the UK leave the EU single market and customs union while at the same time preventing the return to a hard Irish border?
The UK prime minister is adamant that the answer his predecessor Theresa May found with the EU, a so-called backstop plan to ensure seamless trade between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, has to go.
But some EU diplomats expect David Frost, Mr Johnson’s Brexit envoy, to ultimately be forced to concede a softer line as he attempts to seal a new withdrawal agreement ahead of the scheduled Brexit date of October 31.
What is Mr Johnson proposing?
The UK strategy is to hold talks with the EU on “all-Ireland” issues that affect the island’s economy.
On Monday, Mr Johnson told the Irish taoiseach Leo Varadkar that he was willing to see agriculture and food treated as part of an “all-Ireland economy” based on EU rules after Brexit, in a move aimed at ensuring no health checks on produce passing over the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic.
Mr Johnson’s proposal is a signal that London is prepared to treat Northern Ireland differently to mainland Britain in a post-Brexit world, leading some observers to detect signs of movement towards a compromise by the UK.
Mr Johnson, who has stressed his commitment to the Good Friday peace agreement, wants to address other issues relating to the Irish border such as tariffs through technological solutions that the EU has said are inadequate. He has also suggested putting some matters to one side for post-Brexit negotiations on the UK’s future relationship with Europe.
How does London’s proposal differ from the Brexit deal rejected by the UK parliament?
The types of checks that need to take place on products coming into the EU are legion: tariffs and value added tax must be paid, bans on dangerous goods must be enforced and food safety must be ensured.
Mrs May’s withdrawal agreement provided a comprehensive solution to all of this: the backstop. By keeping Northern Ireland closely aligned to EU rules, and empowering the European Court of Justice to enforce them, the need disappears for checks on the Irish border.
But Mr Johnson’s proposal is piecemeal: he hopes that offering to keep Northern Ireland aligned with the EU on animal and plant checks will convince Brussels to show leeway on other aspects of the border question.
What has been Brussels’ response to the UK prime minister’s idea?
That it does not go far enough. For the European Commission, the beauty of the backstop was that it provided certainty: an “all weather” guarantee that a hard Irish border would be averted.
By contrast, EU officials warn that Mr Johnson’s proposal for an all-Irish agrifood zone offers no solution for customs checks. The proposal also does not apply to other goods, such as manufactured products.
Britain is also yet to explain what would happen to animals and food moving between mainland Britain and Northern Ireland. Unless the whole of the UK aligns with EU standards, increased checks would be needed for shipments of products across the Irish Sea.
How does Britain’s latest plan relate to the idea of a Northern Ireland-only backstop?
The Northern Ireland-only backstop is to some observers a tempting “off the shelf” solution to Mr Johnson’s problems.
It was Brussels’ initial plan with Mrs May for avoiding a hard Irish border, and places a customs and regulatory border down the Irish Sea, a concept that provoked strong opposition from Mrs May’s allies in the Democratic Unionist Party.
At her behest, Brussels agreed to add a UK-EU customs union into the plan, so reducing the need for checks, but sacrificing Britain’s push for an independent trade policy.
Going back to a Northern Ireland-only approach would remove the principal objection of Eurosceptic Conservative MPs to the UK-wide backstop: that Britain could be “trapped” in the customs union with the EU indefinitely, unable to strike its own trade deals.
Sam Lowe of the Centre for European Reform said: “If I was Boris Johnson, I’d ditch the DUP for a Northern Ireland-only backstop. I think his party could live with it.”
But as far as the UK is concerned, what is under discussion now has nothing to do with reviving a Northern Ireland-only backstop.
It underlines how the two sides are far apart, and the EU has doubts about Mr Johnson’s ability to get any Brexit deal through parliament.
Is there a compromise to be found?
The EU hope is that Mr Johnson’s proposal for an all-Irish agrifood zone could be the first step to a broader discussion on the Irish border.
But there is also an elephant in the room: how would any agreement be enforced? Mrs May’s backstop handed powers to the European Court of Justice, and even in some cases to the European Commission, to uphold Northern Ireland’s respect of EU rules. Mr Johnson has vowed to do away with such “vassalage”.
Mr Johnson wants the Northern Ireland assembly, which has been suspended since early 2017, to have a say over the introduction of new EU rules in the region, but has not explained how he wants to achieve it.
Michael Lux, a trade lawyer who worked in the European Commission’s customs policy department for 25 years, said that Mr Johnson’s proposal should, nonetheless, be considered “a positive sign”, as it showed Britain’s willingness to consider Northern Ireland-specific solutions.
“Mrs May refused a specific solution for Northern Ireland,” he added. “But people are increasingly aware that it is one solution, and probably the only one, if the UK wants to leave the EU on the one hand, and wants to avoid a border on the island of Ireland on the other.”
The issue, he added, is time: “What is probably underestimated is the impossibility that all these complicated issues can be solved by the end of October.”