EU doubts grow over Boris Johnson’s Brexit offer

EU leaders have warned Boris Johnson they have deep concerns about his new Brexit proposals as the UK prime minister insisted he had made a “genuine attempt to bridge the chasm” between the two sides. 

Donald Tusk, European Council president, told Mr Johnson the EU was “open but still unconvinced” following the arrival of his plan to replace the Irish backstop on Wednesday.

In a blunt assessment, the European Parliament’s Brexit steering group separately said the UK’s plans did not “represent a basis for an agreement to which the European Parliament could give consent”.

Mr Johnson on Wednesday outlined a plan to Brussels he hopes can resolve the vexed issue of the Irish border and end the deadlock over the UK’s departure terms at Westminster. But during a House of Commons statement, Mr Johnson admitted “we are some way from a resolution”.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, said his government could not understand how the UK’s customs plans could avoid the return of border infrastructure on the island. “It’s very much the view of the Irish government and the people of Ireland, north and south, that there shouldn’t be customs checkpoints or tariffs between north and south,” he said.

Despite initial reticence in Brussels to criticise the plans, it was clear on Thursday that serious doubts were growing in EU capitals. “Opinions are really divided among member states as to whether the UK actually wants a deal,” said one senior EU diplomat.

The EU has identified major gaps in the UK’s proposals. Mr Johnson’s offer to the EU overhauls the withdrawal agreement finalised by his predecessor Theresa May and the 27 other member states by removing the so-called backstop that avoided a hard Irish border. Mr Johnson’s plan involves the creation of two new borders: a customs frontier between the Irish Republic and Northern Ireland, and a regulatory one between the region and mainland Britain.

EU officials warn the UK’s blueprint does not remotely match commitments enshrined in the backstop such as upholding the all-Ireland economy and single market. 

To reduce border frictions, the UK is proposing that both sides legally commit up front to not having checks or infrastructure at the frontier. Mr Johnson has proposed the use of new technology to track and check goods moving across the border.

Border experts have warned the British blueprint for a customs border has never been tried, leaving it far from clear how long it would take to get it up and running.

Detlef Seif, a senior MP and Brexit spokesperson for Germany’s CDU party, described the proposal as “all very half-baked”, adding: “You’re basically creating two different customs areas, so how will that be regulated to ensure the border is not porous and there is no smuggling? That will be a huge challenge.”

Mr Johnson’s demand that Northern Ireland’s Stormont assembly will have to vote every four years to remain aligned with EU single market goods rules, starting from 2021, has also become a sticking point for the Irish government.

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, backed Ireland’s rejection of the part of the British plan that would give the Northern Ireland regional assembly at Stormont, which has not sat since 2017, a veto over the deal. Mr Johnson’s proposal stated that Stormont would vote on whether the alignment with the EU single market would continue next July and then every four years thereafter.

Nigel Dodds, deputy leader of Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionist Party, accused Mr Varadkar and his deputy Simon Coveney of “incendiary and outrageous comments” intended to derail any realistic prospect of a deal. “The flippant Dublin reaction to the prime minister’s proposals has also exposed the reality that the Irish government would never have consented to the UK leaving the backstop if it had been implemented,” he said.

Despite the gaping holes in the plan, EU leaders and diplomats are wary of issuing too harsh an assessment on Mr Johnson’s blueprint, warning that it could make Brussels the victim of a blame-game in the UK. 

With David Frost, the UK’s chief negotiator back in Brussels on Friday to conduct talks with EU counterparts, diplomats said his approach to the discussions would be critical in shaping opinions of Britain’s attitude to the deal. 

Additional reporting by Laura Hughes in London and Arthur Beesley in Monaghan

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