The UK government today (2 October) officially delivered its new Brexit proposals to the EU – with Northern Ireland central to how London sees the new relationship.

Under the new plans, laid before EU negotiators in Brussels this afternoon, Northern Ireland would stay in the European single market for goods in an “all-island regulatory zone” but leave the EU customs union, which would result in customs checks.

The proposals, drawn up by the UK government led by Boris Johnson, replaces the controversial Irish backstop, which formed part of his predecessor Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement with the EU – but which was voted down three times by the UK parliament.

The seven-page plan detailed how Northern Ireland would “align with EU SPS [sanitary and phytosanitary] rules, including those relating to the placing on the market of agri-food goods”.

The document read: “Agri-food goods entering Northern Ireland from Great Britain would do so via a Border Inspection Post or Designated Point of Entry as required by EU law, building on the provisions that already exist to support the SEU [Single Epidemiological Unit]. They would be subject to identity and documentary checks and physical examination by UK authorities as required by the relevant EU rules. In addition, Northern Ireland would also align with all relevant EU rules relating to the placing on the market of manufactured goods.”

Under the plans, the UK wants to introduce “a zone of regulatory compliance across Northern Ireland and the EU”, which London argues would “remove the need for regulatory checks and related infrastructure at the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, while enabling the UK and EU to maintain their own distinct customs regimes”. 

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The plans add: “To support this system of controls at the boundary of the zone, traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland would need to notify the relevant authorities before entering Northern Ireland, in order to provide the necessary information to undertake the appropriate checks, and, where appropriate, prevent the entry of products prohibited or restricted by EU rules.”

The EU and Ireland supported the backstop as the idea meant there would be no hard border re-introduced between Northern Ireland and the Republic.

London’s new plans mean Northern Ireland will be part of the UK customs territory, not the EU’s, but that the Irish border between north and south remain open, even if some checks are needed away from the boundary. 

Its plans state that customs processes “necessary to ensure compliance with the UK and EU customs regimes” will take place electronically, “with the small number of physical checks needed conducted at traders’ premises or other points on the supply chain”. The plans add: “This should be coupled with a firm commitment (by both parties) never to conduct checks at the border in future.”

If agreement is reached, the Northern Ireland Assembly would need to approve the arrangements first and vote every four years on keeping them.

Since Johnson became Prime Minister, the UK government has consistently stated it wants to strike a withdrawal agreement with the EU but has also underlined the country will leave the bloc on 31 October with our without a deal. Johnson reiterated that stance today in a speech at The Conservative Party conference in Manchester.

In a letter outlining the UK’s new proposals to European Commision president Jean-Claude Juncker, Johnson wrote: “Taken together, these proposals … provide for continued regulatory alignment for a potentially prolonged period across the whole island of Ireland after the end of the transition period, for as long as the people of Northern Ireland agree to that.

“They mean that EU rules cannot be maintained indefinitely if they are not wanted – correcting a key defect of the backstop arrangements. They provide for a meaningful Brexit in which UK trade policy is fully under UK control from the start. They ensure that the border between Northern Ireland and Ireland will remain open, enabling the huge gains of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement to be protected.”