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BREAKING NEWS

Boris Johnson to give EU 'final' Brexit plan in bid to take back control

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Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain, September 30, 2019.
Britain's Prime Minister Boris Johnson attends the Conservative Party annual conference in Manchester, Britain, September 30, 2019. -
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Boris Johnson will send the European Commission his revised EU exit plan on Wednesday, as he tries to take back control of Brexit from Brussels and the British parliament.

Reports say the plan contains major changes from the withdrawal deal agreed by his predecessor, which failed to make it through the House of Commons and led to Theresa May's downfall. Above all, it details alternatives to the Irish border backstop which Johnson has insisted must be replaced.

The UK prime minister is due to address the Conservative Party conference in Manchester, which for the past few days has echoed to the slogan of "Get Brexit done".

The message Johnson is sending to his domestic audience is that his Brexit plan is the UK's final offer – with a message to the EU to "take it or leave it".

The Conservative Party chairman said the European Union should recognise that now was the time to make some concessions ahead of the October 31 deadline.

"This is the moment of truth," James Cleverly told Sky News. "This is the point at which the EU need to recognise that if there's any movement that they can make, any concessions they can put in place, this is the time to do it because we are not going to seek a delay."

If a deal with the other EU27 countries is not agreed, the UK government intends to pull the country out of the bloc at Halloween without an agreement. Critics say a no-deal Brexit will resolve nothing and create chaos.

A forthcoming European Council summit on October 17-18 has been seen as a decisive moment. The British parliament has passed a law designed to force another Brexit delay if the government has not agreed a deal by then. But Johnson's stance indicates he wants to seize the initiative now.

Read more: Brexit timeline: Boris Johnson's month of turmoil in September

What is in the Johnson plan?

On Tuesday the prime minister acknowleged that customs checks would be inevitable between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic, but that these would take place away from the border and technology could keep them to a minimum.

He said that proposals leaked to the media, talking of "customs clearance centres" on both sides of the border, were "not what we are proposing at all".

A report in the Daily Telegraph on Wednesday contains details of the plan it says the UK government is to send to Brussels.

Named "Two borders, for four years", it sets out a proposal for Northern Ireland to leave the EU's customs union along with the rest of the UK, but to remain aligned to single market rules for agriculture and industrial goods. These arrangements would begin in 2021 at the end of a transition period and run until 2025, the report says.

Northern Ireland would leave the EU's VAT regime and no longer be subject to EU "level-playing field" competition rules. After four years the Northern Ireland Assembly would decide whether the territory should stay aligned with the EU's single market.

Replacing the backstop

Crucially, there would be no backstop kicking in at the end of a transition period, if no alternative plan had been agreed.

The backstop contained in the withdrawal agreement – negotiated by the EU with Theresa May’s government but repeatedly rejected by the UK parliament – is an insurance policy to guarantee an open border.

If Brexit produces no free trade deal or agreement on alternative arrangements, the UK would remain in a temporary customs union with the EU, with Northern Ireland more closely aligned to some EU rules. Brexit supporters say it risks keeping the UK trapped within the EU’s sphere.

Instead, the Telegraph says, Johnson's plan is for customs checks to be included as part of the revised deal – and for the EU to agree to grant Northern Ireland blanket exemptions from the EU's Customs Code.

The Telegraph report cannot be confirmed. But it is highly detailed, and the fact that Boris Johnson writes a regular column in the paper gives it added credibility.

The proposals as reported appear to be similar to those put forward previously by Boris Johnson’s allies, who have long favoured using technology as part of alternative arrangements to the backstop.

Johnson and members of his cabinet have repeatedly said that they want to reach a deal with EU leaders before the end of October deadline, but a major sticking point remains the Irish border when Northern Ireland leaves the EU.

Read more:

What is the Irish backstop and why does Boris Johnson want it ditched?

Brexit Guide: Where are we now?

'Not acceptable'

Reports suggest that Northern Ireland's Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – which is close to Johnson and propped up Theresa May's government in parliament – is sympathetic to his plan. The prime minister and the DUP leader Arlene Foster said they were working closely together to get a deal.

Ireland's European Affairs Minister Helen McEntee told RTE that the proposal as detailed in the Daily Telegraph would not be accepted.

The UK would be "picking and choosing" from the single market, and imposing "a time limit which is not acceptable".

Ireland's Foreign Minister Simon Coveney said the reported plans for customs checks did not seem to provide "the basis for an agreement", while reserving full judgement until the plan is published.

The Daily Telegraph's Europe Editor Peter Foster, author of the report about the UK plan, is highly sceptical. Writing on Twitter, he questioned whether it was compatible with EU red lines. "I cannot for the life of me see how this flies; or could ever be intended to fly," he said. "But (it will be) interesting to see public EU reaction."

UK and EU officials have held regular meetings in Brussels in recent weeks. But so far all British proposals have fallen short of EU and Irish demands for any alternative to the backstop to be a legally credible guarantee.

'Let's get Brexit done'

Johnson has split parliament, his party and the electorate by promising to deliver Brexit on October 31, with or without a transition agreement - at the risk of triggering shortages of food, medicine and fuel, according to the government's own assessment of a worst-case scenario after a no-deal exit.

Speaking at the Conservative party conference in Manchester, Britain's Chancellor (finance minister) Sajid Javid said on Monday that the UK was ready to “draw on the full armoury of economic policy” if Britain had to leave the EU without a deal.

“I’ve tasked the Treasury with preparing a comprehensive economic response to support the economy, working closely with the Bank of England,” Javid said. “Deal or no deal, we will be ready.”

Treasury officials said that response would need to be set out in a budget but declined to say when that budget would happen or what it might contain.

If no deal is agreed, it is uncertain what the Johnson government would do about the so-called Benn Act, recently passed by parliament. In such circumstances, it would oblige the prime minister to request another Brexit delay from the EU, unless parliament approved a no-deal exit.

Read more:

Conservative party conference venue received €4.2m in EU funding

No-deal Brexit: everything you need to know

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