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Boris Johnson’s ‘final offer’ on Brexit explained

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Boris Johnson today submitted his ‘final offer’ on Brexit to the European Union as the Prime Minister attempts to strike a new divorce deal with the bloc. 

The PM has handed over his backstop replacement proposals to Brussels with a clear message that the UK will not budge any further. 

He also used his set piece speech on the final day of Conservative Party conference in Manchester to spell out that if the EU rejects the offer the UK will leave on October 31 with No Deal.  

The EU has been urging the UK for weeks to hand over formal suggestions on how it proposes to scrap the Irish border insurance policy. 

Details of the PM’s so-called ‘two borders for four years’ plan were leaked overnight and were confirmed this afternoon, but how exactly does it work? And will the EU agree to it?

Here are all the answers to all the key questions relating to Mr Johnson’s new Brexit blueprint. 

So how is the UK proposing to replace the backstop?

Essentially, the plan is to create two Northern Irish borders at the end of the Brexit transition period, with the arrangements rolled out in January 2021. 

One of them will be a regulatory border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. 

Effectively this would amount to a border in the Irish Sea with Northern Ireland remaining aligned with the EU on single market rules for all goods while the rest of the UK could diverge from those rules. 

That regulatory border would come with a proposed four-yearly review – but it would only go ahead in 2021 if the Northern Irish Assembly agreed to it. 

Boris Johnson, pictured in Manchester today, is expected to ask the EU to agree to a plan to create 'two borders for four years' in Northern Ireland

Boris Johnson, pictured in Manchester today, is expected to ask the EU to agree to a plan to create ‘two borders for four years’ in Northern Ireland

The proposals contained within Mr Johnson's plan are designed to replace the Irish border backstop which he has repeatedly described as 'anti-democratic'

The proposals contained within Mr Johnson’s plan are designed to replace the Irish border backstop which he has repeatedly described as ‘anti-democratic’

The second border would be between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland and it would be purely relating to customs. 

However, the UK is asking the EU to grant wide-ranging exemptions on customs rules to make the border as frictionless as possible. 

In simple terms, the backstop would be completely scrapped, Northern Ireland would leave the customs union with the rest of the UK but it would remain in parts of the single market until 2025. 

The plan has been dubbed ‘two borders for four years’.  

What would happen in 2025?

The Northern Irish Assembly would be asked how it wants to proceed, with two options on the table. 

The first would be for Northern Ireland to continue to stay aligned with EU regulations. 

The second would be to split from EU rules and then realign with the rest of the UK which would be assumed to have diverged from the Brussels regulations book in a number of areas by that time.  

If Stormont opted for the second option it could risk the return of a hard border on the island of Ireland. 

But it would be hoped that by 2025 there would be technological solutions which could avoid that eventuality. 

What about the customs posts plan we heard about yesterday?

It was reported that the UK is proposing establishing ‘customs clearance centres’ on both sides of the border as part of its plan to replace the backstop. 

Those customs posts would be located between five and 10 miles away from the crossing and would see lorries carrying goods check in and check out as they head north or south.

What is the Irish backstop and why is it so divisive?

The so-called Irish border backstop is one of the most controversial parts of the existing Brexit deal. This is what it means: 

What is the backstop? 

The backstop was invented to meet promises to keep open the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland even if there is no comprehensive UK-EU trade deal.

The divorce deal says it will kick in automatically at the end of the Brexit transition period if that deal is not in place.

It effectively keeps the UK in a customs union with the EU and Northern Ireland in both the customs union and single market.

This means many EU laws will keep being imposed on the UK, restricting its ability to do its own trade deals. It also means regulatory checks on some goods crossing the Irish Sea. 

Why have Ireland and the EU demanded it? 

Because the UK is leaving the customs union and single market, the EU said it needed guarantees that people and goods circulating inside its border – in this case in Ireland – met its rules.

This is covered by the Brexit transition, which effectively maintains the status quo, and can in theory be done in the comprehensive EU-UK trade deal.

But the EU said there had to be a backstop to cover what happens in any gap between the transition and final deal.  

Why do critics hate it? 

Because Britain cannot decide when to leave the backstop. 

Getting out – even if there is a trade deal – can only happen if both sides agree and Brexiteers fear the EU will unreasonably demand the backstop continues so EU law continues to apply in Northern Ireland.  

Northern Ireland MPs also hate the regulatory border in the Irish Sea, insisting it unreasonably carves up the United Kingdom.   

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Such an approach would ensure there is no physical infrastructure built at the border itself but it would mean physical infrastructure being built somewhere and that would likely be enough for the the EU and Dublin to reject the plan. 

However, the plan submitted by Mr Johnson to the EU makes no reference to ‘customs clearance centres’ or customs posts. 

It makes clear that it wants to monitor customs in a ‘decentralised’ way away from the border and with only a ‘very small number’ of physical checks. 

Most of those checks would be carried out at the point of origin of goods with electronic paperwork doing most of the heavy lifting when it comes to keeping track of what is on the move.

Mr Johnson said in a letter to Jean-Claude Juncker today: ‘All this must be coupled with a firm commitment by both parties never to conduct checks at the border in future.’  

Is the EU likely to agree to the UK’s new plan? 

Brussels will keep its powder dry until it has carefully considered what is set out in the UK’s plan – but the early noises are not good. 

Ireland’s reaction to the plan was dismissive: deputy prime minister Simon Coveney said the reported blueprint was ‘no basis for an agreement’ and ‘concerning to say the least’.

The details of the plan were first published in the Telegraph and Downing Street has blamed Dublin for the briefing – a potentially poisonous accusation given the potential negotiations to come. 

On the face of it, much of the plan will be difficult for the EU to agree to because it is seemingly built on so-called ‘cherry picking’ – something the bloc has said it will not allow.  

Essentially, Brussels is insistent that you cannot pick and choose which parts of the EU you want to accept: You either accept them all or not at all. 

The government’s ideas on suspending customs rules appear to fall foul of that rule.  

Is a No Deal Brexit now more or less likely? 

Until the EU formally responds it is hard to say for certain but it is immediately clear that the plan is unlikely to be well received in European capitals. 

However, the EU does not want a No Deal Brexit and certainly does not want to be blamed for a chaotic split. 

The question now is whether the bloc believes Mr Johnson’s offer can work as a starting point for further negotiations. 

If the answer is no, then the two sides will be heading for a bad break on October 31 – or another Brexit delay.    

Are there any other obvious problems with the plan? 

The Northern Irish Assembly would play a key part under Mr Johnson’s plan but Stormont has been suspended since January 2017 due to a range of problems and disagreements between the different political parties. 

Questions will inevitably be asked about whether such an unstable institution could be relied upon to be given such a crucial role in the Brexit process – firstly next year when it is asked whether or not to go ahead with the two borders plan and then again in 2025 when it is asked if it wants to continue with the arrangements. 

Some of this sounds familiar. Didn’t Theresa May suggest something like this? 

One plan Mrs May had looked at when she was in office was called ‘Max Fac’ – or ‘Maximum Facilitation’. 

That essentially suggested that technology could be used to reduce the need for customs checks and to ensure trade could remain as frictionless as possible. 

‘Max Fac’ was eventually put on the back burner but the concepts it is based on were enshrined in the old Withdrawal Agreement in the sense that it committed the two sides to examining potential technological ‘alternative arrangements’ to the backstop in the future. 

Mr Johnson’s new plan also appears to be heavily reliant on technology. 

Remind me: What’s the problem with the backstop? 

The main obstacle to a Brexit deal remains the Irish border insurance policy. 

The protocol is effectively a safety net intended to guarantee there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland.

Under the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by Theresa May, if there is no long-term trade agreement in place that ensures an open border, the UK would remain closely tied to EU rules and its customs union.

Mr Johnson has insisted the measure has to be scrapped as being in a customs union would prevent the UK striking trade deals. 

Meanwhile, getting out of the backstop would require the agreement of both the EU and UK, something Number 10 views as unacceptable because it means it could last indefinitely. 

How likely is it that the UK will leave the EU on Halloween? 

The answer to this question depends entirely on who you ask. 

Mr Johnson is adamant that he will deliver on his ‘do or die’ pledge to take the UK out of the EU on October 31 with or without a deal. 

He is also adamant that the proposals he is handing over to the EU represent the UK’s ‘final offer’.

But the so-called Benn Act – the legislation rushed through Parliament after backbenchers took control of the Commons agenda – requires the Prime Minister to seek a delay to Brexit if MPs have not approved a deal, or agreed to leave the EU without one, by October 19.

Mr Johnson has repeatedly said he will both obey the law and meet the Halloween deadline with or without a deal – but he has not been clear about how he intends to do both things.

It could all result in yet another constitutional crisis being played out in the courts.

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