The UK government has now published its Brexit offer to the EU. It has put out a letter from Boris Johnson to Jean-Claude Juncker making the case for its backstop replacement and a briefing note setting out how it would work. In essence, it puts a regulatory border between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and a customs border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. But the briefing notes sets out the British belief that a combination of technology and checks at traders’ premises would mean that there’d be no need for checks at—or near to—the border.
Northern Ireland’s continuing alignment with the EU on goods rules would require Stormont’s affirmative consent. This means that, because of the way power sharing works, if Unionists objected, Northern Ireland would simply become just like the rest of the UK when it came to alignment with EU rules. Dublin and the EU will object to this. They will say, with some justification, that it hands Unionists a veto over the arrangements.
In an attempt to reassure the EU that the UK is not going to try and use any special arrangements for Northern Ireland as a template for cross-Channel trade, something which Boris Johnson suggested during the Tory leadership contest, the UK briefing note explicitly states that HMG ‘would not see the measures agreed here as a precedent for wider arrangements governing the movement of goods between the UK and the EU, in relation to specific entry points such as Calais or Dover.’
The DUP have put out a statement supporting the proposals despite them going considerably further than the position set out by Arlene Foster at Policy Exchange on Sunday. The continued alignment with EU rules on agrifoods and goods is not small beer. But Unionists do now have a way of bringing these arrangements to an end, which they did not under the backstop.
As I said this morning, I suspect that the UK and the EU are too far apart on customs to come to a deal by October 19th. Talking before the full proposals were made public, Leo Varadkar sounded unenthusiastic about what the UK is suggesting.
But the tone of this proposal and the fact the DUP have moved quite a way makes it harder for the EU to reject this plan out of hand. After all, the idea that the UK should be allowed to leave the EU with its customs territory intact is not unreasonable. I still think, though, that there will not be a deal and so we are heading towards another extension and a general election.