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EU skeptical of British PM Johnson's Brexit plan for Irish backstop

By Earle Gale in London | China Daily | Updated: 2019-10-05 08:56

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European Union leaders have given a lukewarm response to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson's latest proposals for a Brexit withdrawal deal that would detail their relationship after the United Kingdom leaves the bloc.

Both the United Kingdom and the EU have said they would prefer to have a deal in place when the nation leaves the bloc on Oct 31 but have disagreed on details.

Johnson unveiled his contribution on Wednesday and explained the fine points in a statement to the House of Commons on Thursday.

European Union Council President Donald Tusk said he is "still unconvinced" about the new proposals to unblock the stalled Brexit negotiations even after having a phone call with Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar to discuss them.

Johnson's plan attempts to deal with the most contentious divorce issue: how commerce between Northern Ireland and the independent Irish Republic will be managed in the post-Brexit era.

Johnson's proposal calls for Northern Ireland to remain in the European single market for goods but to leave the EU's customs union. That would mean the introduction of new customs checks between the North and the Republic.

But Johnson says a hard border on the Irish island can be avoided by using technology so checks can be conducted far from the physical border.

All sides are anxious to avoid a hard border because of fears that it might reignite sectarian violence between those who want Northern Ireland to join the Republic and those who want to remain in the UK.

After telephone talks with Varadkar, EU's Tusk expressed similar skepticism about Johnson's proposals.

Tusk said that the EU stands "fully behind Ireland". In sharp contrast, he coined his message to Johnson as "we remain open, but still unconvinced".

The BBC reported that Varadkar had said the proposal "did not fully meet the agreed objectives of the backstop", which is the EU's suggested mechanism to avoid a hard border by essentially committing the whole of the UK to follow EU rules until the two parties can agree on a free-trade deal.

The UK's opposition Labour Party and several other smaller opposition parties have already said it is unworkable.

Despite Johnson's firm commitment to leave the EU by Oct 31, British lawmakers have passed cross-party legislation calling for him to gain their approval of any Brexit deal before Oct 19 or ask the EU to delay the exit date.

Johnson told members of Parliament on Thursday that his proposals are a "broad landing zone" on which the UK and the EU can base future talks. Despite the two sides being "still some way from a resolution", he said hopes to see "rapid negotiations", so an agreement can be approved by the bloc at the EU-UK summit on Oct 17.

Jeremy Corbyn, leader of the Labour Party, said Johnson's proposal is a "rehashed version" of the one put forward by Theresa May.

"These proposals would lead to an even worse deal than the one put forward by the previous government," he told MPs. " ...These plans are simply unworkable."

The Guardian newspaper reported that John McDonnell, the Labour Party's shadow chancellor, had said: "Any responsible prime minister would have spent the past three months trying to build a consensus in Parliament and across the European Union in order to break the deadlock. However, Boris Johnson has neither the intention nor ability to negotiate a deal or protect jobs and communities across the United Kingdom."

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